A grumble you’ll hear about the Brooklyn rock coterie (Dirty Projectors, Grizzly Bear, Vampire Weekend) is that they have no sense of humor. And a grumble you’ll hear from certain members of those bands is that everyone takes them too seriously. On the surface, Teddy Blanks comes across as a welcome new addition to this world and one who might break the stalemate. The first single off his debut album, Therapy, out this week, is called “Famous Friends.” Right now, Google best knows Blanks as a member of the Lena Dunham extended family (he composed the score to Dunham’s first feature film, Tiny Furniture) so it’s a deliciously cheeky title.Then there’s the music — bright, Robert Palmer-esque beats under operatic pop vocals. And the video, which opens with Blanks (who looks like the cute nice guy in a John Hughes film) on a beach reading tabloids and lamenting: “Like a spoiled little boy I get so upset/ All these pop songs I put up on the internet/ They never turn out right/ They never make much news/ You’re in L.A. in a hotel giving interviews.” This guy certainly has a sense of humor about himself.
But when I meet Blanks in the East Village for drinks one late spring evening he explains that the last thing he’s trying to be is funny. “Everything that comes out of me is vaguely goofy,” he acknowledges, shaking his head and smiling. “No one thinks I’m being serious. Except I’m being very serious.” Then he tells me about the original first track of the album, “I Was Abandoned.” In the first verse Blanks handles the death of his father, the second is about his first long-term girlfriend breaking up with him, and the third describes his feelings about losing a former bandmate and close friend. “’The chorus was like, do you really want to leave me? Don’t you see that I was abandoned? Don’t do it again!’ There was kind of a joke to it,” he recalls. “But a lot of people would listen to it and just be very freaked out.” Then we go to the bar for more gin and tonics.
There’s something about the way Blanks expresses himself that is just (inadvertently) hilarious – he’s like a hypercolor, preppy Woody Allen. Musically he reminds me of agitated sincerity merchants like Jonathan Richman or Joe Jackson, artists who tell the horrible truth in such an extreme and direct way it’s made somehow less horrible and then, funny. At the mere mention of Jackson, we have to have a dramatic toast; Blanks worships him. “That song on the album ‘Isn’t It Weird,” the piano solo is the riff from ‘Steppin’ Out’ backwards,” he says giddily.
My evening boozing with Blanks begins as a careful exploration of his generalized “heartbreak and loss” but quickly descends (evolves) into a genre jumping conversation about everything from Sofia Coppola (I love her, he’s skeptical) to musical theater (he’s a fan, me, not so much). As the co-founder of a Brooklyn graphic design firm, Blanks regularly contributes design elements to friends’ films in in addition to music. When I ask him about his fascination with text in film he gives an exaggerated-for-effect sigh about having to explain the wide world of title design to a neophyte. Then we talk about his first solo release ever, an EP he did a few years back called Complications made up of songs inspired by the writings of surgeon, New Yorker writer and medical superhero Atul Gawande. “Two songs are directly based on his essays, two are about weird medical problems. We became email buddies,” Blanks says, eyes wide and serious. I immediately start laughing.