YEARS AGO, BEFORE the Internet exposed the obscure and introduced everybody with an "enter" key to the entire universe, Rob Millis and Jeffery Taylor found an old tarnished tin from tobacco makers Climax Golden Twins in a thrift store while searching through record bins. They didn't think anyone would trace the name to a tobacco company, so they took it for their band. If I didn't know this and couldn't Google it, I'm sure I would ascribe the name to abstract collage. I would figure the local experimenters picked three words at random—frequent collaborations mean they're not even a duo, much less a matching pair—and juggled them around until the combination sounded right. That is, after all, what Climax Golden Twins do with fragments of found music, field recordings, original compositions, and on-the-fly art-skronk junk.
"Abstraction would be a natural path when one has consumed a great variety of music and then sets about making his or her own music," says Taylor, who owns Capitol Hill's Wall of Sound record store. Sure, but there's abstraction—the distilling of ideas, sounds, and structures into like-minded ideas, sounds, and structures—and then there's abstraction. In the Climax Golden Twins' reading of the word, ideas, sounds, and structures—often taken from rare 78s or borrowed from Chinese opera or Japanese folk—are often fully disengaged from their original form and placed in entirely new contexts. (See also the Millis-compiled Leaf Music Drunks Distant Drums—Recordings From Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar, recently issued on Anomalous.) You do sense that a vast array of pop and rock records was depleted somewhere in the Twins' back story—these are musicians who can and do play, not just knob tweakers with scissors and glue sticks—but until pretty recently, any hint of a song was just that, a hint.
With the new Highly Bred and Sweetly Tempered (North East Indie), Climax Golden Twins have reimagined themselves as acoustic neo-folk songwriters. Where many of their 20 or so previous releases, some issued on cassette or 7-inch only, consist of manipulated noise, droning loops cut into semidigestible pieces, brief and boisterous riff flirtations, and skewed electronics, Highly Bred has songs on it—gentle, soothing songs. Yes, these songs are abutted by and conjoined with clips taken from the home-recorded 78s that Millis and Taylor obsessively collect, but they're songs—at least most of them are. A track called "Little Noreen" has a man telling a little girl how to record a poem on her phonograph player as CGT layer an eerie, cautionary buzz over the already creepy instructions. Immediately before, "Billy McGee McGaw" is three and a half minutes of lulling, quietly shuffled drumbeats, picked guitar notes, and yes, the sampled voice of someone apparently named Billy. They're toying with the past, soundtracking an amalgamated set of family histories with their own aural fiction. Which makes sense, because Climax Golden Twins began by scoring a Butoh dance performance and, over the years, many of their live appearances have been commissioned to accompany art shows and staged performances.
Not that they haven't played a fair share of rock-venue sets. In fact, Climax Golden Twins are one of two Seattle acts that Sonic Youth have invited to share a bill, and in the spring of 1998, CGT joined the seminal guitar band at the Moore Theater. Taylor brought a suitcase filled with some effects and tape machines, Millis brought his in a cardboard box. I suspect that night was similar to one at the Crocodile about a year and a half ago, when they opened for Mudhoney. Behind the kind of table you ate lunch on in grade school, Taylor and Millis twisted howling shards of metallic noise into creepy, cinematic phrases while draping sheets over their bodies and moving slowly around the stage like zombies. Not "Touch Me I'm Sick," exactly, and not everyone there knew what to make of them. But then at this year's SW Music Showcase, CGT played an old Western swing cover and mixed samples—and just one errant bed sheet—with acoustic folk. It seems Taylor, Millis, and their collaborators are inching toward the accessible.
Millis says he's one of those people who can't stand it when bands put out album after album of the same song, so Highly Bred might be heard as simply a natural progression. Joking that they never seem to keep their momentum, however, Millis says a "symphony of garbage-can lids" might follow.
"Flipping between styles or moods is a result of growing up in this era of too much everything. We are getting older, and I think it's getting worse," says Taylor. "Next, we're making a disco record."
Madame Butterfly with electronic trash-can dance-floor beats, anyone?