How a Figma slide deck helped indie duo Tanlines launch a comeback

Rebecca Ackermann

In the 8 years since their last album, Jesse Cohen and his Tanlines bandmate, Eric Emm, have gone through milestone life shifts—moving homes, starting families, changing careers. Their new album, The Big Mess, looks to capture the tenor of this period and the emotional alchemy required to parent, work, and try to be creative all at the same time. The music video for their first single, “Outer Banks,” telegraphs these themes through a language familiar to anyone working remotely today: the slide deck, both a claustrophobic corporate cliché and an expansive tool for communication. Presenting Figma slides in Google Meet and pulling in collaborators from past efforts, the band created a new take on a lyrics video that embraces both sides of the form’s potential—a video that resonates with fans while also tapping in to the shared experience of remote collaboration. We talked to Jesse about what inspired the album and the video, and how the tongue-in-cheek play on the corporate strategy slide deck actually helped them get into the collaborative spirit of the work.

Rebecca Ackermann: How did the new album come about after all this time?

Jesse Cohen: Eric and I have been doing Tanlines together since 2008 and across that time, it’s taken a lot of different forms. We started out making experimental electronic music and remixes. And then Eric started singing, and we released a kind of pop music. After our second album, I had my first child and took time off to be a stay-at-home dad, which turned into a few years. Life continued. We made a children’s record during that time, also as a reflection of the place we were at in our lives.

Then about a year ago, Eric was like, “I think I’ve got a collection of songs that could be the bones of the next Tanlines album.” I went up [to rural Connecticut, where Eric now lives] and helped him finish it. So we put this record together in the context of where our lives have fallen in the last five years. I'm starting to think of Tanlines as a project like that documentary series [Michael Apted’s] 7 Up: we just keep checking in wherever we are in life.

Rebecca: What inspired the concept for the Outer Banks video, which is a funny and poignant send up of a corporate deck presentation?

Jesse: In the time since our last album, I've sort of entered my corporate era. I was at YouTube Music on the social team for two years, and then I was at Nike for about a year on the kids’ brand side. One thing I’ve learned during this phase is how to communicate through meetings and decks, which is a huge part of how people work now. The deck is this lingua franca of the young professional, and remote working is how it’s been delivered in the last few years, which has coincided with a lot of my corporate experience. So I was thinking, “How can we tell the story of this song in that language?”

A slide from Tanlines' single "Outer Banks"A slide from Tanlines' single "Outer Banks"
A slide from Tanlines’ single, “Outer Banks”

I reached out to my old coworker, Hunter Ellenbarger, who’s now started his own social-first agency and has done countless decks. He started to get to work in Figma building this one. The initial idea was to do a deck for each song on the album and then release a Google Drive or Figma folder of decks. But when Hunter’s came back, I thought it was so good, so perfectly spot on that we had to present it, which is also a little bit of a play on the music video. In typical [work] presentations—I’m sure you’ve been to many of them—it’s pretty common to have someone read the words that are printed on each slide everyone's looking at. It’s the norm. And I was like, “Oh, Eric singing the song will be our version of us reading the deck.”

Rebecca: What about the visual language of the deck, which is eerily realistic for a marketing or product meeting. How did that come about?

Jesse: I took a first pass at the deck myself. I had been used to working at Nike at the time and the decks at Nike are incredible—they’re like editorial in quality. But Hunter was like, “This is too good. It needs to be more generic.” So he leaned more into the graphs and arrows and flow charts and those kinds of things, and less on the editorial feeling of typography, which is what I had leaned into. Hunter nailed a lot of the corporate language like insights, inspirational quotes, year over year, results. And then he drew from the inspiration of the song, “Outer Banks,” specifically.

Rebecca: Yeah, can you talk a little about what that song is speaking to? It’s upbeat but has a more melancholy undercurrent to it.

Jesse: Outer Banks is a beach area in North Carolina where I’ve vacationed my whole life. As a band called Tanlines, we’ve had a lot of beach comparisons in the press. But we’re indoor cats, and that’s what the name “Tanlines” has really been about: what it’s like when you work inside of a studio all the time and you go outside and end up with tan lines. We’d always resisted [the beach idea.] But, “Outer Banks” is our version of a beach song: It’s not about partying. It’s about the emotional quality of memory and family. The emotional mixture of our music has always been happy and sad, light and dark. Our early logo was the winking sad emoji—something that's sad that you can still laugh about.

The whole time we were making this I was like, “Oh my God, my coworkers are gonna find this. I know that this will resonate with them.” And I was hoping that they would feel seen by this, by taking this format that is so common in the professional context and putting it into a frame that’s for music or art or humor. I was hoping it would feel good.

A slide from Tanlines' single, "Outer Banks"A slide from Tanlines' single, "Outer Banks"
As a social media strategist by day, Jesse is no stranger to the concept of “activating” organic engagement

Rebecca: You and Eric worked with Hunter on the deck for Outer Banks, but you also brought graphic designer Teddy Blanks into the mix for the album.

Jesse: Teddy is an old friend of ours and he worked on the packaging for almost all our albums. [For The Big Mess] We brought Teddy a bunch of photos Eric’s wife’s grandfather took in Greece in the 1950s—he was a professor, and he was recording folk tales and folk songs in Greece. Teddy helped us put together the whole look and feel of the album packaging, and did our promo poster and merch with us. He’s been part of the story. He has a very, very good way of making choices that are pretty simple-seeming and delivering them very clearly. We were looking for ways for this album to feel like a different era for the band. It’s not a picture of our faces on the album anymore.

A picture of Tanlines's 90's beach-inspired merchA picture of Tanlines's 90's beach-inspired merch
No multi-channel campaign is complete without swag—or in the language of the music industry, “merch”

Rebecca: So what’s this new era of Tanlines all about then?

Jesse: Aging gracefully is kind of my goal in life. And to me that means leaning into the ways that you have to express yourself as your circumstances change and you have different obligations. Trying to fold that into Tanlines has been rewarding, and tapping back into this part of my identity—being someone who makes music—has been really fun. I honestly didn't expect to have another go around.

There’s a little bit more uncertainty about Tanlines going forward, too. In the past, we were just like, “Do a record, do an album, do the second album, go on tour,” but now there are more variables. The album is an acknowledgement of the uncertainty of being an artist and a working musician in what I unfortunately have to refer to as middle age.

Rebecca: The album itself and all of the work around it sound highly collaborative. How did you approach the nuts and bolts of working together on this album?

Jesse: It was very different than in the past, where we sat down next to each other in front of a computer—there was always an “in the same room” quality to it. With the way that our lives have changed, that’s just not how we worked on this. It was more sending each other stuff, sending notes—a lot more like how you collaborate in a remote work environment. We also used Figma throughout this whole process. We used it to mood board our merch and storyboard our video for The Big Mess. I think for creative ways of working, Figma was the place where we could both share ideas and create. Working in separate locations, getting in there together, making changes—it felt like it was made for creative people to make things.

I’m describing this [album] as Tanlines in our remote work era, you know? That’s where we would have ended up with or without the incredible changes in the way people work in the last three or four years. It’s where we would have ended up through life and drifting apart and what it means to hire a babysitter so that you can go away for eight hours and maybe write a song. This was a natural way of reintroducing where we are as a creative partnership.

Ironically, I did film the “Outer Banks” video sitting right next to Eric. We had the music playing in the room together, which helped with the sync a lot. Then we just hit “screen record,” did it 10 times, and picked the tape we were happiest with. Other than that, though, it was filmed totally live. I was “driving,” as they say.

Rebecca: Were those facial expressions scripted or—?

Jesse: They were real. A lot of feedback I’ve gotten at work has been about how my facial expressions in remote meetings are quite telling. I’m an open book, I wear my emotions on the outside of my body. So they weren’t scripted, but there was obviously some self-consciousness. I was really trying to focus on making sure the presentation lined up with the lyrics.

Rebecca: You were working.

Jesse: Yeah, I was working. Exactly.