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Non-Idiomatic Process Music and We're Twins Records

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Charlie Wilmoth praises the Michigan CDR label We're Twins Records and what he calls "non-idiomatic process music" – music that doesn't try to sound like anything else, and that's recorded just for the hell of it.

Non-Idiomatic Process Music and We're Twins Records

In the early- to mid-‘90s, I played in a band with my little brother. We had a couple guitars, a cheap bass, a violin, a tiny Casio and a tape recorder. We were really young and didn’t have much money of our own, and we had trouble convincing our parents to buy us a drum set. So we made one ourselves, using pots and pans, cardboard boxes and toys. We even made a bass drum pedal out of a couple planks, a cardboard box and some yarn. And we taught ourselves how to play by recording a new song almost every day – we taped over 1000 songs in about three years. We switched instruments and improvised a lot, and sometimes a seven year-old kid from across the street would come over and throw shit across the room and scream while we were recording. Eventually, we got a drum set and a Tascam, and we recorded less and less frequently as we began to worry about, first, how to make our music sound more professional, and second, whether or not it needed to exist.

This article is about the Ann Arbor CD-R label We’re Twins, but it’s also about music of the sort my brother and I made – music that sounds as unfettered as possible. It’s about music conceived and recorded by musicians without external pressure from a label AND without self-imposed worries about whether the music fits preconceived ideas about how it should sound or whether its target audience will enjoy it. Record company influence is the easiest of these three pressures to discuss, so I’ll address that first.

Many fans of independent music – including, say, obscure electronic music, free jazz, and especially indie rock – imagine that the music they enjoy is created without much input from producers and label heads. Indie rock is more real than chart pop, or so the line goes, because it’s not manufactured by A&R honchos pulling strings from the back of the studio. Is this argument correct? Maybe partially. But, as Kevin Whitehead points out in a recent essay (available here), owners of indie labels often imagine themselves as key artistic ingredients in the albums they release. We see manifestations of this sort of thinking when certain labels, like Young God, AUM Fidelity and late-‘80s Sub Pop, design all their releases with similar cover art. Other evidence of small label owners controlling the content of their records is usually more difficult to detect. But the label-head-as-creative-force mentality is displayed openly in the liner notes to Charles Gayle’s 1989 album Always Born, in which Silkheart Records co-owner Keith Knox credits himself with arranging for Gayle to collaborate with John Tchicai, then intimates that Tchicai asked him, not Gayle, to include the words “Featuring John Tchicai” on the album cover. I’m not arguing that it’s always bad for producers and label heads to act as artistic forces in the records they’re releasing; if Steven Joerg of AUM Fidelity is even partially responsible for how wonderful AUM’s albums sound and look, I don’t ever want him to stop. But indies don’t necessarily give their artists the artistic control some fans might think they do.

Now, on to pressures the artist places on herself. By “pressures,” I don’t only mean anxiety about album sales, but also pressures – conscious or unconscious – to make music fit a given template. Studio recordings are nearly always primarily motivated by this sort of pressure: after all, whoever’s dropping the money to pay for a studio has a vital interest in what the final product will sound like.

It’s impossible to tell the exact relation of product to process in the creation of any piece of music because we lack the ability to measure them. But it’s probably safe to say that most of the music we listen to is governed more by product than by process. Most – no, all – music is created with templates in mind; all music is guided by sets of things that can happen and things that almost can’t. When Barbara Streisand enters a studio, hardcore guitar riffs are almost an impossibility, but polished vocal histrionics are very likely; for Sick Of It All, the opposite is true. Even free improv records that are created spontaneously begin with sets of possibilities and near-impossibilities: Evan Parker’s next record will probably include winding, dissonant, slurred saxophone lines, but it’s extremely unlikely to include a polka.

The idea that the creation of most music is driven by concerns about final product should surprise no one. In fact, it’s hard to imagine recorded music created without the final product in mind at all, since even the act of turning on a tape machine involves awareness that an artifact (the tape) is being created. Also, even if an artist creates without specific templates in mind, the number and types of possibilities available to her are restricted by her musical abilities and the sort of music she’s heard in the past. The music I’m interested in here, then, is not music in which the performers ignore the final product entirely, or in which they completely disregard creative templates, but rather music in which these phenomena are pushed as far to the side as possible.

Music that’s made this way – process over product – isn’t necessarily better than other music; after all, I’m certainly not saying that the racket my brother and I created was good. But this approach to music – the creation of non-idiomatic music purely for the joy of creating it, hereafter called non-idiomatic process music – is valuable because it’s about the most direct form of communication possible in recorded music. After all, there’s no overt copying (since the music I’m talking about is doesn’t come from any one particular place), and there isn’t much interference between the musical ideas sloshing around in the artists’ heads and what’s actually recorded.

This non-idiomatic process music is, for reasons listed above, likely to be created in an environment where perfection isn’t much of a concern, and where there are few obstacles to getting the music on tape: away from large labels, and away from big recording studios. In the past, the upshot was that this sort of music was often extremely difficult to track down (as was the case with Kevin Whitehead’s old band Starship Beer, whose Nut Music LP was impossible to find until its recent reissue) or smothered in tape hiss (like Eric Gaffney’s bizarre contributions to the first few Sebadoh records). Now, though, the existence of the Internet, CD-Rs, and cheap, digital recording technology mean non-idiomatic process music can be easy to find and great-sounding.

On that account, the We’re Twins label is two for two. (Full disclosure: sometime Dusted contributor Ben Tausig plays in some of the groups on the label, though I’m not sure which ones. Also, I’ve never met Tausig, and my editors didn’t assign this article, so I’m not under any pressure to be nice.) And a lot of the label’s catalog is non-idiomatic process music to a tee. For example, The Most Dangerous Game Of Cat And Mouse Band’s “E.P.” (which, absurdly, comes to me packaged in a Warner Brothers jewel box – probably from an unwanted Chili Peppers promo lying around the University of Michigan radio station) gleefully destroys pop song structures with distorted Casio solos and simple, one-line lyrics that couldn’t have taken more than a few minutes to write. The group’s songs often either last only a minute or two, or they collapse into ridiculous free-for-alls – “The Guy Song” even ends with three singers laughing at each other as they flub their lines.

The We’re Twins compilation Our Sampler 2001 offers more of the same. (It also features Strikeforce:Euler’s glorious post- Boards of Canada glitch, the Rants’ bubblegum-meets-the-Make-Up party rock, and Tim Berne-ish free improv from the Avant Gardeners, which, while pretty great, aren’t my concern here.) Paraguay Today’s “My Body, My Body, My Body” pairs a seasick loop with free-associative poetry, while a frustrated-sounding bass player thumps away with an admirable lack of discipline. Dawgz’ “Sugarsugar” cuts up the Archies' hit with processed vocals and loops that spiral further out of control as the song progresses. Production Bee’s untitled track, meanwhile, rumbles like a busted Harley, with Vocoded singing struggling to break out from the muck. Katie & Kelly’s “A Tired Little Turtle” buries a nursery rhyme-like vocal under not-quite-right patterns played on homemade percussion instruments.

If it all sounds like a bit too much, well, that’s part of the point: this music disregards, or at least mocks, the conventions many of us need to for music to feel easy to listen to, like planned-out song structures and polished, confident performances. In place of these conventions, these artists allow their personalities to splatter all over the place, and they don’t care if it makes a mess. And unfortunately, a lot of listeners will dismiss a lot of what We’re Twins does as a mess and nothing more. But a lot of it sounds beautiful to me in a way that it wouldn’t if it were created differently. As good non-idiomatic process music, its who-cares approach to musical cleanliness offers us a nearly unobstructed view of the splatter.

By Charlie Wilmoth

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