Viva Voce: When two is a crowd

Viva Voce are that great rarity, a happily married performing couple. How do they avoid the curse of the pop duo?
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"The first thing I gave Anita was a mixtape," admits Kevin. "Such a coward's way of letting someone know how you feel about them! It's letting them know what you're into, so you can see if you're on the same page, artistically. I spent so much time choosing the tracks, paying attention to the lyrical content and everything, so it sent the right signals. It had some Mazzy Star tracks, some Sunny Day Real Estate - mostly hard-to-find indie."

He must have made a good job of it. While he was, on his own admission, a "sad-bastard indie kid" steeped in The Cure and Depeche Mode, and Anita's tastes leaned towards classic guitar rock, they were married the following year. They've been making music together for almost a decade now - a woozy, home-grown form of psychedelic pop that recalls the dreamy acid-pop of Mazzy Star and Galaxie 500, alongside such strange bedfellows as Pink Floyd, Les Baxter, Grandaddy and the Velvet Underground.

Kevin and Anita are the newest additions to a wave of partners seeking to buck the trend and succeed as pop duos. There's the Danish retro-futurists The Raveonettes, whose second album is out next week; the American outfit Joy Zipper, whose lush psych-pop most closely resembles Viva Voce's; and, of course, The White Stripes - if Jack and Meg were indeed once partners rather than siblings.They're certainly past that now, their marriage just one of the more recent to fall victim to what, on the evidence, appears to be the curse of the pop duo.

All pop duos hate each other. It's the law. The Everly Brothers, Sam & Dave, Simon & Garfunkel - sooner or later, the enforced proximity to one's partner, combined with the prospect of an eternity together, inevitably breeds rancour. Before long, they're on separate tour buses with separate gangs of cronies, never swapping even the most basic of pleasantries and forcing their faces into rictus smiles for the hour or two they have to spend onstage.

Add wedlock, and the pressures increase a hundredfold. There's no escape. Not only do the couple have to rehearse and play together; they will be spending virtually every waking hour in the other's company. The only solitude comes with sleep. Even when the couple is part of a larger line-up, rock's road is littered with wrecked marriages - think of Abba, Fleetwood Mac and The Mamas and The Papas.

The couple that opts to work alone as a duo, though, is placing their relationship in serious jeopardy. Other than John and Yoko and Paul and Linda, it's hard to think of a single relationship that survived the ordeal. For some, it's simply a matter of the younger (usually female) partner growing apart from the older, as with Sonny and Cher - who, troupers that they were, reached an amicable rapprochement that allowed them to continue making their lucrative, top-rated TV show for years after their break-up.

For Richard and Linda Thompson, the added pressure of their conversion to Islam and the years living in a Sufi commune in Maida Vale helped to snap the ties that bind. Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart's four-year relationship didn't quite make it from The Tourists to Eurythmics. The soul duo Delaney and Bonnie's marriage was even less resilient, torpedoed just three years into their recording career, which sank with it. George Jones and Tammy Wynette's rocky relationship echoed the range of marriage-based material in Tammy's repertoire, from "Stand By Your Man" to "D-I-V-O-R-C-E", while Ike and Tina Turner - well, let's not go there.

Casting around for a relationship that has endured, one's not exactly spoilt for choice. Are Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt still together? Could Everything But the Girl be considered to have endured, anyway? Ultimately, other than a few newcomers, the only duo I can think of whose relationship has survived intact are Gillian Welch and David Rawlings - and they only perform and record under Welch's name.

So Kevin and Anita had best watch their step, and maybe bite their lip, when dissent rears its head on stage or in the studio. Not that they visit studios that often; they record at home.

"Everything we record with is right here in the next bedroom," says Kevin. "When we start recording, the whole house is destroyed, basically, and we have to clean up afterwards. We're trying to step it up for the next record - we might take some things out of the house to record, just to bring it up a notch."

Part of the appeal of The Heat Can Melt Your Brain is the way the couple have, through engineering skills, managed to create the most enchanting music from the most mundane of objects. An electric kazoo, of all things, figures heavily, hooked up via a tiny piezo-electric pick-up to various effects pedals. And Kevin has taught himself to play that "hillbilly theremin", the bowed saw, whose eerie whine permeates certain parts of the album.

"Each calendar year, I try to learn a different instrument," he says. "The year before I learnt mandolin, then I tried cello, but it was just an impossible instrument. So somehow I wound up with the saw. I like it; it's got an element of theremin, and it's really creepy at the same time."

The most intriguing part of the duo's recording equipment, however, is the kitchen stove they reportedly used for certain effects. "It's nothing really scientific," says Kevin. "We wanted a specific reverb sound, something that is mostly done with plate reverbs, but we couldn't afford one, so we just stuck the mic in the stove, and it worked. Led Zeppelin were the first to use really big reverb to get the distance on their recordings, and I really get into all that when it comes time to record - using mic placement, as opposed to trying to fix it after, through plug-ins or knob-twisting, or whatever."

A while back, the Robinsons arrived in Portland from Alabama via a brief, unproductive period in Nashville. "We're both Southern people, and we love the South," Kevin says. "But Nashville is such a strange city: it has all the negative aspects of a small town, but they're trying hard to have that LA industry vibe, and it just doesn't work that well. We knew we didn't want to raise a child in Alabama, and when we were touring as a band, we were able to sample every city in the country, basically; and Portland is just fantastic. But we had no idea when we moved here that the music scene is as good as it is. There are some fantastic bands here. It's got to the point where it's an honour to live and play shows in Portland. But at the same time, you know that you've really got to come to the table with the goods, because all the bands here are really spectacular."

So is the geology, as they discovered when a nearby volcano erupted while they were filming a video for the single "The Center of the Universe". "There's this lyric in it about molten lava and that sort of thing," Kevin says, "and as soon as we started shooting that, someone outside started screaming, so everybody ran out to find that Mount St Helens had sent an eruption two-and-a-half-miles into the sky. It was epic."

Most of their time in Portland has been spent less spectacularly, working in menial jobs until September, when they were able to live off their music. "Music has sustained us for almost a year now, just selling records and playing shows," Kevin says. "If we can keep that up, I'd die happy."

But how does their music affect their marriage, and vice versa? If they argue about music, does it spill over into their relationship?

"We haven't ever run into that, so I don't think so," he says confidently. "We have our own little areas of infatuation: she's completely enamoured of the guitars, and I'm completely enamoured of the drums. It works out really well. When we have non-musical disagreements, it's just like any couple: you need to settle that before you move on. And the rare occasions that we have a musical disagreement, we'll always come to a really good compromise.

"Maybe that's why we work so well together: we compromise on things. I respect Anita's opinion, so if she feels really strongly about something, I'll consider what she's saying, because she's probably right." He pauses. "I hope she feels the same way."

'The Heat Can Melt Your Brain' is out now on Full Time Hobby Records, distributed through Vital

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