In this first edition of Label Archaeology, we turn to an early 00s CDR label from Ann Arbor, Michigan, who put out a remarkable number of releases between 2000 and 2006, most of which is very poorly documented online. Their old website can be accessed via archive.org, and many of their records are catalogued on RateYourMusic, though only a few have made it to Discogs.
I reached out to We’re Twins’ former label-runners a few years ago, and since then, Jason Voss, one of the people involved with the label, put four of the label’s compilations up on Bandcamp. These sprawling comps feature an exciting cast of unknown lo-fi pop names, bands with inscrutable monikres like Chicken/Mechanic, Strikeforce:Euler, and, my personal favourite, Website. One of those compilations, We’re Twins Sampler 2003, was available for free at the time — all you had to do was email the label and they’d drop a copy in the mail.
The folks behind We’re Twins were Jason Voss, Benjamin Tausig, Katie Linden, and Kelly Szott. They were all involved in the University of Michigan’s radio station, WCBN, and played in various bands with friends.
“I’m going to say that it happened sometime around fall or winter of 2000,” Szott recalls. “I think Katie and I came up with the name. I remember thinking that ‘We’re Twins’ was kind of a funny name to use because Katie actually is a twin. A group of us at WCBN were all interested in making low-fi, off-the cuff music. The creation of We’re Twins was a result of this and inspired us to make more of this type of music.”
Tausig elaborates on the origins. “We were college students, and had no obligations whatsoever in our lives, for the most part. We hung out at the campus radio station and all had various musical projects, which congealed under the scotch-tape-bound administrative banner of ‘We’re Twins Records.'”
Voss came late to the party, after their first release came out. “I got recruited by Katie and Kelly right after the Most Dangerous Game of Cat and Mouse Band EP came out. They expressed a desire to put out as many CDR releases as possible so I got on it.” That EP, billed as WRT001, was described on the We’re Twins website like so:
What is there to say about the Cat and Mouse Band that hasn’t been said hundreds of times before in broken Esperanto? Succinct pop songs with guy-girl vocals, mandolin, violin, and yes, even handclaps! Think a cuter version of The Shaggs crossed with a tape recorder.
A remaining mp3 of the song “Me Envelope” kicks in with thick tape hiss, then introduces a joyfully dyscoordinated mandolin/ukelele, bass guitar, hand claps, and goofy vocals that repeat the lyric “What have you find/In me envelope?” over and over in a range of goofy voices.
Tausig’s recollection of that EP’s recording is hazy. “[It] was recorded in one evening, when I was supposed to be scoring a soundtrack for this guy’s student movie. It was a plodding melodrama directed by a 20-year-old, so it was pretty dull and awkward even as it aspired to be polished. Suffice it to say I did not treat my $50 commission all that seriously. Instead of a soundtrack, we got high on probably chips and salsa and recorded a bunch of goofy improvised tracks that kind of mocked the scenes of the film. That was fun. I think a lot of We’re Twins releases were similarly conceptualized.”
According to an archived feature for Dusted Magazine, at least one copy came housed in a Warner Bros. promo jewel case, which the author suspected had been cannibalized from an unwanted WCBN copy. Perhaps this was right on the mark. As Voss explains, “We were music directors at WCBN in the late stages of the music industry taking over college radio as a promotions wing in the wake of the big ‘alternative’ boom in the nineties. Tons of CDs came in the mail every week and most of it seemed really boring, uncreative, over-produced, and safe to us. We became aesthetic radicals in response and probably over-corrected in the other direction.”
Szott elaborates: “To me it felt very liberating to make music and have a record label even though I could barely play an instrument or construct a song. It was my feminist response to what I perceived was a very masculine type of virtuosity in the music world.”
Tausig concurs. “I would say that it was strongly inflected by a DIY feminist aesthetic, coupled with a kind of indie rock indifference or irony as well as what was either snobby connoisseurship or boundless curiosity about new and unusual musics. Probably both, depending on the moment or the context.”
The scarcity of these releases on the internet isn’t surprising when you consider their scant pressings. Exact figures vary. As Szott recalls, “I think we would make five or so copies and give them to friends, put them in the WCBN library, maybe send them to other radio stations (like WFMU or Rice University’s radio station), and give them to the local record store to sell. Then, from there I think we would make them to order.”
Ben remembers the pace of CDR-burning varying by expected sales numbers. “Sometimes we would make a pile of 20 or 50, especially for ‘popular’ releases such as our compilations. Other times they would be made to order, or produced in a limited release of, say, ten copies. Or one copy.”
Voss also recalls made-to-order releases and a few bigger runs. “They were generally made to order with a batch to start off with, mostly college radio promo copies. Patrick Elkins and I decided to market our 2004 albums as “limited editions of 750” and counted down starting at 750. I think there were a few hundred of the New Folk Sounds, probably less than 100 of my album Arts & Crafts.”
Many of the We’re Twins discs were distributed locally, and Szott recalls being “kind of part of the Ann Arbor music scene to some extent.” Meanwhile, Voss recalls that the website was another source of distribution. “Our use of the Internet involved a website that instructed people to ask us for a free CDR sampler, which we sent in the mail. Easily dozens of random people from all over opted in and we also had the mp3s up on the website. We sent out quite a few promos to college radio stations and a couple publications. We were more geared toward making product that college radio geeks would be interested in rather than enjoyable music that someone would want to purchase, so it’s not surprising that our biggest successes were in that market.”
Tausig expands. “They were all extremely successful in that we loved them, and extremely unsuccessful in that they were not profitable or generative of social cachet or artistic influence beyond a very localized sphere. In my opinion. It was a big, big deal to get one spin of our music on WFMU, or frankly even on WCBN.”
And Voss remembers some releases getting into more hands than others. “The samplers got the most attention and since they were free it was easy to sell them. The New Folk Sounds of Patrick Elkins and There Is a Rat in Separate by Melting Moments have a small but devoted following to this day. The 7-inches sold relatively large numbers, but were a failure in term of percentage of the total that were sold.”
Patrick Elkins’ disc has been uploaded to Bandcamp by Elkins himself, and shares We’re Twins’ lo-fi, ramshackle, maybe-recorded-drunk-in-a-dorm-room appeal. The Melting Moments CDR, with its great name, is also up on Bandcamp — it was the project of Voss himself, along with Anna Vitale. It’s, in some ways, among the more coherent We’re Twins releases; a drum machine backdrops dinky Casio melodies and electric guitar, with Voss and Vitale’s unpolished vocals overtop, all in an indie pop mould.
Szott recalls the details of another release, an EP credited to Elizabeth –really just Szott’s one-off solo project. Its description on the old We’re Twins website read:
Who is this “Elizabeth”? We cannot say for sure. Many theories have been bandied about at The Royal Academy, but let us assure you that they are indeed all wrong. What we can say is that album of delicate pop songs will keep your teeth two shades brighter for up to three weeks with just one listen.
Szott was willing to shed light on the mystery. “I remember making my album, Elizabeth, using a karaoke machine and the backing music of a Madonna song. I was so dreadfully embarrassed about that recording.”
What started off as a forum to release music composed by the group ended up expanding into a growing roster. “The first batch of releases was pretty much all combinations of the 5 of us, then there was a larger group of people at WCBN who were involved to some degree,” Voss tells. “Justin Shay sent us an unsolicited demo, we enthusiastically signed him and he pretty much became a core member (later becoming a WCBN DJ appropriately enough). After most of those people moved away, I recruited a few local Ann Arbor bands around 2003-2004 for one-off We’re Twins releases: Jib Kidder, Umberto, Kelly Caldwell. They all had the deal where it says We’re Twins on the CDR, but the band makes them and gets all the money from selling them.”
As Szott details, “Nearing the end of We’re Twins I remember sending out a couple emails to people who had sent us good demos. We asked them if they wanted to join We’re Twins and then, in true We’re Twins style, we did absolutely nothing and never contacted them again.”
Voss sees We’re Twins as one node of a bustling network of DIY record labels, often connected to the noise scene. Unsurprisingly, John Olson’s American Tapes label, long run out of Michigan, casts a long shadow. “The Wolf Eyes guys were definitely a major influence in terms of aesthetics and quality control, especially American Tapes putting out a maximal stream of super limited releases. Everybody in the noise scene had a CDR label and we were pretty much just a really twee version of that. A little later, there were a lot of sister CDR labels in Ann Arbor in 2002 through 2006. I moved into a house with 6 other WCBN DJs and they were mostly all involved with at least one We’re Twins release or comp contribution.
“Randall Davis and Dustin Krcatovich lived there and had a zine/comic/record label called Horrendous Failure Studios that they had started in high school in the Kalamazoo area. Around 2003 Randall started a noise CD-R label called Stop/Eject Records that I was somewhat involved with. We had a duo that just layered skipping CDs live and he also released an unlistenable conceptual square wave composition I made. Dustin was doing a label called Casanova Temptations Edutainment Consortium and currently has a mostly tape label called FM Dust, based in Portland. Patrick Elkins had a label called Chew Your Own Records before, during and after being a We’re Twins artist. Dustin, Pat and I lived in the Totally Awesome House in Ann Arbor from 2004 to 2005, where we had weekly plus shows and were running all three labels from the house. Asaurus Records put out quite a few CDR releases in a more organized fashion with more quality control. The representative from Asaurus said that picking up some We’re Twins discs at Stormy Records was a big influence on getting that going.
“We were a little ahead of the times I think. After Ben, Katie and Kelly moved away there was more of a local CDR label scene and bands that we would have fit in. And Spiders got some pretty good shows, but audiences and sound guys were very confused by us. A little later, there was some interest in We’re Twins that mostly resulted in great bookings for the New Sound of My Bossa Nova who got flown to Houston for a festival sponsored by now-defunct radio station KTRU and a Steve Keene art opening in Big Rapids, MI. The slightly younger generation at WCBN was vaguely inspired by We’re Twins and there were several other CDR/internet labels a little later. There have been some notable musicians from that batch of WCBNers like Julia Holter, Laurel Halo and Jib Kidder.”
Szott recalls We’re Twins petering out when she, Tausig, and Linden left Ann Arbor and moved to Brooklyn, and Voss is lukewarm on the period when he was the main one in charge. “There was a period when the others lost interest and I was pretty much (badly) running the label. We tried to do an actual CD for Patrick Elkins’ Fruits of the Spirit but I think there was a tour booked and it didn’t come together in time for it so there was a CDR tour version and the ‘real’ one never really got properly released. Similar story with WRT SAMP 2005, which never really got finished in physical form, just the mp3s on the website. I got overly ambitious putting the 2005 Halloween set together. It was a 2CDR + 3-inch CDR wrapped up with a bunch of stickers and a scary plastic spider in a taped and mod-podged together halloween napkin where the package had to be destroyed to open it. I think I finished them in January or February 2006 and failed to sell any copies. I was having a rough time that year. Wikipedia deleted my entry citing my being a ‘completely unnotable local musician’ and I gave up my ‘singer-songwriter’ career and folded the label.”
Today, Szott is an assistant professor of sociology at Southern Oregon University. “Sadly, I’m not very involved in musical activities these days. I often bemoan this fact, but don’t know what to do about it … My husband makes music and sometimes gets me to record with him.”
Tausig is also in academia, as a professor of ethnomusicology at Stony Brook University. “I talk at 200 students each semester about the history of rock music, framing that history (via a very We’re Twins worldview) as a fundamentally queer, colored, and female-steered musical tradition. This is probably a little iconoclastic, given how people tend to imagine rock, but it’s also backed up by plenty of evidence. And being part of We’re Twins, resolutely informal as it was, was certainly part of what led to that conception.” Having recently published a book, Bangkok is Ringing: Sound, Protest, and Constraint, and guested on WFMU, where he played a variety of Thai pop records.
Voss remains involved in contemporary music. “I’m kind of doing the same stuff – still at WCBN, still playing guitar and writing music, mostly in secret now. I continued working with Patrick Elkins on music and puppetry projects through 2012, playing bass in the Rainbow Vomit Family Band for the last few years of that period. Melting Moments is still an active project. We try to practice once a year and continue to be able to create songs very quickly in short bursts spread over long periods of time.”
The official We’re Twins discography:
WRT001 Most Dangerous Game of Cat and Mouse Band “EP”
WRT002 Strikeforce:Euler “S/T”
WRT003 Paraguay Today “Montevideo”
WRT004 Production Bee “#1”
WRT005 I Am a No’kazu Tak’mura Cover Band “The Gravity 500”
WRT005a Buckman-Kelley Overdrive
WRT006 Cannibal Kitten “15832”
WRT007 Lieutentant Disaster “Adrenaline Test Suit”
WRT008 Strikeforce:Euler “Mis s Goodthighs”
WRT009 Elizabeth “EP”
WRT00A Most Dangerous Game of Cat and Mouse Band “Album” (never completed)
WRT00B Savacald “’89”
WRT00C Various Artists “Our Sampler 2001”
WRT00D I Am a No’kazu Tak’mura Cover Band “2:58”
WRT00E Various Artists “A We’re Twins Live EP”
WRT00F State & William
WRT010 Ryan and Justin “sing, play chords, hit drums, make noise”
WRT011 Justin Shay “City Lights and Other Songs”
WRT012 Cockroach Huxtable “Maidmoiselle Disco Technique”
WRT013 Strikeforce:Euler “Everything to Do in Living is Smoking”
WRT014 I Am a No’kazu Tak’mura Cover Band “The Jean Tinguely Appreciation Society”
WRT015 X-Lemur “j.go”
WRT017 Production Bee “#2”
WRT019 Bennett/Ilgenfritz “made for tv movies will extend yr career by 5ive years”
WRT020 And Spiders “In the Woods”
WRT025 Website “Circa ’88”
WRT026 Justin Shay “she said it looks like spring”
WRT027 Ice Cream Social “The Ice Cream Social Album”
WRT028 Ice Cream Socialist UK “The Ice Cream Socialists Come Alive!”
WRT029 The New Sound of My Bossa Nova “S/T”
WRT02A Ever Will You Get There “Maybe We Can Help You Find a Place”
WRT02B The New Sound of My Bossa Nova “For the Kids”
WRT02C Various Artists “We’re Twins All Hallow’s Eve EP for 2003″WRT02D Justin Shay and Patrick Elkins “Justin & Patrick”
WRT02E Ever Will You Get There “Open Mic Ypsilanti”
WRT02F “Hobo-A-Go-Go: The Official Tour CD”
WRT030 Jacob Danziger “August First”
WRT031 Capt’n Jus + the Fuck a robot band “remy didn’t give a damn”
WRT032 The Vix Krater “Panorama”
*WRT033 The New Sound of My Bossa Nova “Sing Songs of Love”
WRT034 Jib Kidder “Thirteen”
WRT035 Jason Voss “‘Arts & Crafts’ and other compositions for singer-songwriter”
WRT036 Patrick Elkins “The New Folk Sounds of Patrick Elkins”
WRT037 Melting Moments “There Is A Rat In Separate”
WRT038 Umberto “There, A Somewhere Lies”
*WRT039 Kelly Jean Caldwell “LOBO”
Halloween 2005 releases:
Patrick Elkins “Fruits of the Spirit”
WRT03D Justin Shay “Vocalizations 1”
WRT040 Various Artists “WRT 2005 Samp”
WRT701 The Rants “Look Passive [7″]”
WRT702 Saturday Looks Good To Me “I Don’t Want to Go / Disaster” 7”