A nostalgic sweetness drifts through "Shaker," the highlight from Tulsa's new EP for Park the Van Records, I Was Submerged. It's a lost-love song with bitterness beneath the surface, frontman Carter Tanton playing it cool while he curses the future he knows his ex will have. Tanton spoke about the song through a bad cell phone connection as he toward Athens, Ga., for a weekday show with Tulsa.
INDEPENDENT: The refrain of the song—"There's nothing in life that will burn your eyes/ So you sit on the rug and fantasize"—seems like a sarcastic quip, even though it's sung pretty evenly. Is it sarcastic?
CARTER TANTON: I think your observation is pretty crazy on-target. I never even tried to sing it sarcastically, but I always meant with those words that there was no hope, actually. It was an empty sentiment.
Is this directed at someone you knew?
Yeah, definitely. It was someone I'd been living with for a few years. It was just like any other break-up, I guess. But I was telling my friend who sent me some questions about the song, too, that I used the words from a Townes Van Zandt song because this person hates Townes Van Zandt so much. I thought it would be funny and ultimately piss her off that I would use Townes, since she hates him so much.
I mean, her disdain for Townes had to be a bad sign, right?
[Laughs] Maybe. [Keeps laughing] Yeah.
I hear glimpses of a grass-is-always-greener-but-not-really sentiment here, too.
I don't know. I don't think I agree with that, really. There's not a story to it, or a linear story that progresses over the two verses, and it's mostly abstract feelings about that person and her relationship to me. Actually, I think it's mostly about the distance that was between me and that person at the time and wanting to overcome it—but like you were saying at the start—believing that things weren't going to change. You may be missing this person but also knowing that the relationship ended for real reasons. I don't know. I think the song is vague, but I don't think that.
I hear it partially as saying she's not going to be happier now that you're apart. People still have their problems, you know?
Maybe there is a touch of that: You will carry the same problems or sadness with you. Maybe it was a cancer between us, but also everyone carries their own cancers that they have to figure out.
In the beginning of the track, you whisper. Do you say, "Shaker"?
I forget what I was whispering. I don't say shaker, though.
How does this song work live with a three-piece?
It's one of the few that doesn't translate live right now, actually. We haven't been playing it really because, even though it has a propelling beat and good bassline and I sing over the top of it, without the Rhodes in the verses, it's hard to play live and feel comfortable. I never thought that the Rhodes was the key to the song, and I guess it's not the key. But it's definitely the glue that's holding the song together.
How does that feel for you to have this song that people obviously like and to be forced to leave it at home?
It is frustrating because I looked forward to it in the set a whole lot, but we have a lot of new songs that have stepped up and that I look forward to now. We tried in various ways to make it work, like I made a sample one time that was on an iPod that we would play. That didn't work well.
You used to play that with a Rhodes, right?
We did all last year.
Does who you're playing with or who you know you'll be playing with affect the way you write?
Oh God, yeah. I've been playing with these guys for two years, and I really like adjusting the way I write based on how I know that they play sometimes. Whereas I used to write more fleshed-out songs, I like bringing sketches more than songs in now. I think that's one of the most exciting things about being in a band: If you write music in your head, you may have a sense of where they may take it, but there are always some surprises in it.
Tulsa plays Nightlight with Max Indian and Embarrassing Fruits Friday, Oct. 12, at 10 p.m. Tickets are $6.