What happens when visual artists decide to make pop music? In the case of 18+, you get sweetly intimate bedroom jams that double as abstract cultural commentaries.
The members of the L.A. electronic duo — Justin Swinburne, 29, and Samia Mirza, 28 — don’t necessarily consider themselves musicians. But in a multimedia style they honed while studying at an art school in Chicago, they use music to explore ideas of identity and sexuality. Coy deconstructionists at heart, they flirt with hyper-sexual pop conventions from a thoughtful (and somewhat frustrating) critical remove.
"You have to have a sexy girl, and she’s going to sing about sex in a sort of provocative way. You have a video, you have a song that goes on the radio. It’s this package, and it’s all very mechanical," Swinburne says, by way of summing up his idea of how mainstream pop music works. He’s looking casual in a maroon Nike tee and baseball cap, perched on a futon in Mirza’s spacious Koreatown apartment on a rainy Saturday afternoon.
“We do the same thing, but we point to being aware of it,” he continues. “We make a mechanical girl dancing, a song that’s about sex, overtly about sex — but then it doesn’t feel at all like these things. It’s a little scary, it’s a little unnerving. It’s too much information — ‘I don’t want to know that about sex!’”
If their music is theoretical, it’s also soothing and atmospheric. Their debut album, Trust, which came out last November on London label Houndstooth, has the same spacious vibes of the xx, only with 808 drum-machine beats and murmured half-raps offering a more detached hip-hop feel.
One of their most compelling tracks is “Drawl,” a head-nodding slow burner 18+ released in 2011, along with a video of a Second Life avatar dancing in a bikini. “Drawl” was the first of what would end up being about 60 tracks they put out for free online, 14 of which are featured on Trust. With each new track, they dropped an accompanying video featuring crude virtual representations — imaginary mansions, jelly-filled pastries, big-breasted CGI clones doing coordinated dance routines.
At first known only by the aliases “Boy” and “Sis,” the two liked the idea of dishing out their spare beats and lurid lyrics from the safety of their bedrooms, leaving their growing audience to devise its own interpretations about the identity and agenda of this mysterious duo.
“I don’t understand why an artist always has to be in their music video,” Mirza says. She’s lounging on a couch, sipping juice from a plastic coconut while her dog Poi snores quietly next to her. “In an art context, that’d be so, to me, I think kind of a faux pas. ‘Oh, you’re throwing your own show?’ It’s almost like self-advertising, all the time.”
The duo's work raises complex questions about the boundaries between image and reality, intimacy and spectacle. But you could also call their distanced approach a cop-out — a way to dabble in pop forms without having to be as sincere or as talented as the artists from whom they’re drawing inspiration and critical ammo.
Still, as they’ve gained fans and critical praise, they’ve also started playing shows, and that’s forced them to think of their music not just as an art piece but as an actual, live performance.
“We’re taking full responsibility for it at that point — ‘OK, this is exactly what I said in the comforts of my room,’” Mirza says. "I always think of it as being like the moment in The Wizard of Oz when you see the wizard, and it’s just two human beings."
On Saturday, Mirza’s living room was cleaned out to make room for the duo’s live setup: a PA, plus matching microphones and voice effects processors. They’re about to embark on a European tour, and tonight, they’ll play at Club Los Globos in Silver Lake — their first local show to be held at a club, not an art institution. Having made the leap from art project to more conventional band, all they need now is to dominate the Google SEO game. Thus they will have achieved pop ubiquity.
“Maybe in a couple years, if you search ‘18+,’ we’ll be the first thing that comes up,” Swinburne says. “And then it’ll be like, ‘Hey, we’ve done something here.’”
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18+ perform tonight at Los Globos. Tickets and more info available here.