In an age of electronic excess, the White Stripes and several other up-and-coming duos have made streamlining your lineup and rocking out in stark minimalism a bold new trend in indie rock.
While they remain anomalies, underground pairs have an impressive history. They were among the most forward-thinking acts of the proto-punk and punk eras. The Silver Apples created a new instrument, a series of oscillators dubbed the Simeon after their frontman. Suicide dreamt up synth-pop augmented with performance art. Both were coveted by the burgeoning new-wave crowd.
In the '80s and '90s, twosomes prompted renewed interest in guitar-driven rock and its earliest influences. One-time Athens duo Flat Duo Jets successfully spawned a unique mix of blues, rockabilly and swing. Chicago's Royal Trux countered with a visceral fog of guitar noise and snarled vocals. And while it should be noted that both acts eventually expanded their lineups during brief major-label flirtations, their influence on the duos of today is immeasurable.
With the Duo Jets as his inspiration, the White Stripes' Jack White formed his first two-piece with upholstery-business mentor Brian Muldoon. When the friends parted ways, Meg White stumbled into the spot as drummer. They inadvertently birthed the Stripes during an impromptu jam session in the attic of the house she shared with Jack.
While many of the current crop of duos were conceived as twosomes, others are simply paired-down versions of larger groups. Before their bassist quit, veteran indie-poppers Quasi were a three-piece called Motorgoat. Athens duo Jucifer also started out as a trio; when their drummer departed, Ed Livengood switched from bass to drums, and the vacancy was never filled. "It is a lot easier to find a bass player than it is to find a [good] drummer," says Jucifer's Amber Valentine.
Bad news for bass players
The current crop of duos eschews bass guitar altogether, which makes for interesting modes of compensation. The White Stripes regain balance with the occasional keyboard part and octave pedals, while fellow buzz duo the Kills use low-end guitar tones and a drum machine. Jucifer runs Valentine's guitar through a bass amp to give it a muddied, deep pitch, and Akron, Ohio's Black Keys inject soulful, semi-deep vocals to add extra oomph. "In our case," says Quasi's Sam Coomes, "we found that with a keyboard, the left hand can play bass notes and the right hand can do guitar parts. So it's like a power trio with only two people."
Live and loud
Almost by necessity, duos typically provide primitive performances on stage. Like the Duo Jets' Dexter Romweber before him, Jack White has a mic facing the band's drum kit along with one facing the crowd; alternating between the two, he adds frantic physical motion to the music. The Kills' Alison Mossheart and Jamie Hince thrive on taut interaction on stage; their staring contests helping them move as a single, icy entity. Jucifer's wall of sound is achieved with a rack of amps that takes them several hours to assemble and disassemble.
Married to the music
The off-stage intimacy pervading the modern two-piece contributes to the energy on stage. Jucifer's Livengood and Valentine are married. Quasi's Coomes and Janet Weiss are divorced, as are the White Stripes' Jack and Meg White -- who, contrary to rumor, are not brother and sister. As off-stage chemistry leak on stage, the result carries an emotional wallop. Or as Coomes explains, "I think the difficult emotional dynamic [surrounding his and drummer Weiss' divorce] added some sort of charge to what we were doing at that time."
But these personal relationships are also a means by which these acts remain duos over the long haul. Says Valentine, "Ed and I can play together, and the relationship that we have and what we've evolved into being -- this band -- is something that is exclusive. If other people were brought into it, it would be a different band."
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