Photo by Debra DiPaolo

Maktwain work and play in a Zone 9 — LAPD parlance for the level of danger and violent crime in a particular neighborhood (e.g., Beverly Hills is a Zone 1). They practice in a spacious loft on Spring Street that overlooks gnarled effigies shooting up in doorways and homeless denizens drag racing their shopping carts.

The men of “the Twain” — Ramirez Brian, Tor Saharopulos, Max Patlan, Mark Morales — know downtown L.A. and its environs: Saharopulos has a (purely artistic) fascination with the Latina taxi dancers at the Club Galaxy and knows which downtown dives give you a paper bag to take your liquor to go; Brian's mother and father met at Ninth and Broadway, when the Ritmo Latino store was a pharmacy; Patlan remembers wandering the hallways of his father's spooky 1920s-era apartment building near Evergreen Cemetery in East L.A.; Morales' grandparents used to walk from Olvera Street to eat at Cole's Buffet in the Pacific Electric Terminal.

One wonders what Morales' forebears would say about Cole's now: the youthful downtown art crowd stuffed into the tiny backroom sweatbox where mobster Mickey Cohen once held court, to see four young Latinos work up eerie, wordless cascades of blips, grating slaps of feedback, and soothing, dreamy emulsions of sound. Just before the show, Saharopulos climbs atop a chair and unscrews the light so Maktwain are just silhouettes among the blinking lights and osmium glow of their equipment. During the set their personalities emerge: Saharopulos plays bass like a restless cobra emerging from a wicker basket; Patlan bends like a mad scientist over his keyboards, samplers and virtual synthesizers; guitarist Morales stands as still as a gunfighter; drummer Brian is all type-A sinew, precision and control. They play music that oozes like bees out of a tree stump. The songs, narrative broadcasts with channel-surfing shifts of mood and tempo, conjure up a kind of David Lynch darkness — with an eventual sunlit destination in mind.

Maktwain are childhood friends who have been playing together in varying configurations since the late '80s, when they attended elementary school in Pico Rivera (“a weird mix of Orange County and East L.A.,” Brian calls it). This bond has translated into a symmetrical artistic development; they've morphed together as one, but on completely different planes.

“It becomes four colors battling each other to remain balanced,” says Brian. “If our band were an artist, it would be someone with multiple personalities.”

Maktwain (a Native American phrase loosely translated as “the second little abandoned boy” — and also a Harry Belafonte song) are musically omnivorous, taking inspiration from what the city throws at them. “One time we started rehearsing, and outside we heard this obnoxious car alarm,” says Saharopulos. “It sounded like 'Whoop whoop! Whoooop! EH-EH! EH-EH! EH-EH!'” (All of them start doing it.) “We started vibing off that, and that became the song 'S in Spring.'” Patlan nearly ejects himself out of his chair with excitement: “That is such an environmental song! It was like a jam going on, and the city was taking part in it!”

“When we first started, I was pretty much the one in control,” says Morales. “Ever since I was small, I've constantly battled with panic attacks and depression. My vision [for the band] was to express these feelings, just to get it out of me.” He says he went from “the throne to the sidelines” after an incident in 1993: Driving home from work, he was hit by a panic attack so lethal that he stopped at the first house he saw and asked the surprised residents to call 911. (Both Morales and Saharopulos have siblings who suffer from paranoid schizophrenia.) Morales admits he has no concept of time — it's gotten him fired from every job he's ever had but has won him the role of Maktwain's secret weapon. Brian, who now acts as the band's de facto “benevolent control freak,” describes Morales' spectral, off-kilter, effects-laden guitar playing as “a beautiful mess. There's this nonsensical quality to what he does: He weaves in and out, and it ends up blending perfectly. He's worked with his effects processor for so long that it's become an extension of him.”

The one thing all four seem to agree upon: Without the Smiths, the Cure, Echo and the Bunnymen, Dead Can Dance, and Joy Division, these Anglophiles never would have come out of their self-imposed shells. The common ground for Maktwain, above all others, is the Cocteau Twins, the dreamy Scottish avant-pop group whose lead singer made up her own absurdist lyrics. “Initially they were such a mystery to me,” says Saharopulos. “They were faceless, you didn't know what they were saying. If you were lucky, you picked up some of their names, and the rest was up to you.”

How can these denizens of sun-baked, seasonless Los Angeles connect with music from the cold, dark, rainy British Isles? “Sunny SoCal is only sunny to maybe half the population,” says Brian. “A sunny day in Cali for one person could mean a day of hard work for someone else. I hate the sun, personally. I can't wear a pea coat in the sun. To me, the sun blinds my eyes, it vaporizes everything.”

Like their models, Maktwain had lyrics once. An early version of the group appears on a 1999 Café Bleu compilation, from the late L.A. Britpop club of the same name. Their singer was Brian's sister Cynthia, who left to pursue a career in design. Interestingly, the songs that emerged after her departure were not some amorphous sonic Milky Way à la Sigur Ros or Red House Painters, but music that had structure and even a little funk in the trunk, that started as improvisational jams yet wound up as meticulously woven as a Bukhara rug. Indeed, they sounded as if they were composed with a singer in mind who — Godot-like — never showed up for rehearsal.

Without a singer, Maktwain have evolved a rather novel approach to getting a foot in the music-industry turnstile. “We've always been interested in doing music for films,” says Brian. “Doing instrumental pieces feeds into that. I'm even starting to think of each individual song as a movie.” Their songs seem tailor-made for the purpose: “The Allure of Abandoned Houses” rotates with pops and hisses over an Angelo Badalamenti­like score; “Number Conspiracy” is a hurtling blast of kozmik space-highway rock; “The Girl's Gone Wild” has spaghetti-Western guitar stippled with electronic oohs and aahs; “Stockholm Syndrome” is a woozy trance of nursery sounds over a creeping guitar line straight out of Country Joe & the Fish's “Sector 43.”

The band point to Patlan — the last to join the group — as the “cinematic additive.” (His filmmaker friend Robert Oregel designs the surreal video assemblages that accompany Maktwain's live shows.) Patlan's sampled effects favor synthesized feminine voices on “Junior Science” or “Ladies of Flamingo” (dedicated to the dancers of Club Galaxy) that wouldn't be out of place in a John Hughes film. His arsenal of textures — heavily influenced by Kraftwerk, Einstürzende Neubauten and Tangerine Dream — adds a hopeful, dark-comedy edge that many of those Teutons lacked.

This vision seems to be paying off: When Maktwain were added to last summer's Sunset Junction Street Fair at the last minute, producer Daniel Lanois stopped by their stage and mumbled his props. Last year, before they had even played their first show sans vocalist, KCRW spun their self-released CD almost in its entirety on Morning Becomes Eclectic.

Still, there's been criticism. “People tell us we don't keep things moving visually,” says Brian. “Once someone said, 'You guys are playing pussy music! You need lyrics or a female voice in there to justify it!'” In response to (or in spite of) comments like these, Maktwain plan to augment their live performances with a female mannequin — speaker hidden in its throat — that would add prerecorded vocals. They even have a “girl” in mind: the lonely, chanteuselike entity they call “Lady Maktwain” that sits at their official downtown hangout, Hank's Bar. “I've been attempting to attain her for the last three months,” says Brian. “I asked bartenders if I could rent her, take her out for photos, take her out to dinner . . . you have no idea the intricacies involved in acquiring a mannequin.”

Maktwain play at the Silverlake Lounge on Tuesday, March 18, and at Cole's P.E. Saloon, 118 E. Sixth St., downtown, (213) 622-4090, on Saturday, March 22.

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