There she is, Dina Bankole, a petite, black woman vocalist with her seemingly oversized Gibson Flying V ("Sweet Louise" if you must know the guitar's name), with her "twin" brother, Tim Thomas, on the drums, creating music steeped in everything from '90s alternative radio to the subtle, sullen plucks of Nick Drake or Leonard Cohen. They are a striking sight.
Meet Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti-based Secret Twins. Their sound pretty much blows away everyone who's had the chance to see them, including local entrepreneur, Quack! Media head and forward-thinking dude Al McWilliams.
Recently merging with another local label, Suburban Sprawl, Quack! has been helping a host of Detroit-area bands out of their musty garages and into the spotlight. It only took McWilliams one gig to be convinced of Secret Twins' potential.
"Al comes up to us after a show at Mittenfest talking about wanting to sign us," Bankole says. "And he's just pitching the whole thing and he's quite robust." Apparently, Mcwilliams was a bit spirited that night. "He's wasted," Thomas says, laughing. "He's got a bottle of Champagne in his hand that he's managed to decimate by himself," Bankole adds, also laughing. "And it was this really funny situation. But we got signed."
The Jackson-born Bankole (whose father is from Nigeria, and whose mother is of Cape Verdean descent) and the Newaygo County-born Thomas came across each other while Bankole was playing a few shows during 2009's Totally Awesome Fest, Ypsilanti's annual spring celebration of local art and music.
They had a few things in common: Both grew up in relatively small towns and both grew up with music-loving siblings.
As a kid, Bankole's household always had Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and the like spinning on the turntable. But then: "I started listening to '90s alternative radio when I was in middle school, maybe even late elementary school. ... So, I was getting into that, you know, Nirvana and college radio."
It was a similar situation for Thomas: "'Nineties alternative rock, for sure. Especially being in a small, sheltered town, it was cool finding the more interesting things when you dig a little deeper, rather than just by what you hear on the radio."
Thomas remembers a particular facet of the '90s Seattle explosion.
"There was this big thing; the movie Hype!," he says. "It was all about the Seattle explosion. I saw it when I was in the sixth grade or something and I just remember the scenes of small club rock shows where people were just losing it. That, to me, was just the ultimate, the most fun ever."
They formed Secret Twins soon after meeting, and now, little more than a year later, they have an album set to drop.
With Secret Twins' jangle-pop by way of nu-folk sound, it's easy to see why McWilliams was so fond of the group's sound on first listen. They sound friggin' new. Looking beyond the novelty of the black woman guitarist with white dude on drums and you'll find that the two craft pop-symphonic ear candy with ease. And despite being a mere duo, they manage to avoid the pitfalls of their skeletal lineup by utilizing every pedal and looping gadget they can find to flesh out their ideas. Songs like "Dead Heart" are dense with Bankole's lithe vocal harmonies cascading around the tracks, sometimes coated with a bit of soggy reverb. Where other alt-rock bands might coat their cuts in thick layers of white noise, Bankole tends to lay back; the plucks from her Flying V are more concise, succinct. Thomas, an extremely capable drummer, tends to lay back as well, offering a solid beat accented briefly by a few fancy fills.
Ill Fit, Secret Twins' debut, is officially slated to land Sept. 19, and was recorded at Keyclub Recording Company (headed by the producer-engineer team of William Skibbe and Jessica Ruffins), located in western Michigan, about a mile and a half from Lake Michigan. The studio has been hired by Michigan bands Adult., Javelins, and national indie darlings Fiery Furnaces.
"It was definitely super-stressful because we signed with Quack! in February and we just recorded this in the beginning of July," said Thomas. And that was after scheduling and rescheduling at other studios "so it was really feeling like it wasn't going to happen."
Outside of music, Bankole works in an automotive office translating Japanese (she's big into Japan) and pushing paperwork, while Thomas is a waiter. But you can easily tell they want to turn music into their new jobs. "The day job just kind of pays the bills," Bankole says. "Music is what I'd rather be doing all the time."
"Yeah, this is absolutely the favorite aspect of my life," Thomas says. "I remember saying to Dina a long time ago that we were happy we got any attention at all. I just want to go and do it while it's fun."
And with the upcoming Quack! release, a bit of indie stardom is within the realms of possibility.
As to the racial and sexual dynamics of the group and its (almost uniformly white) audience, Bankole offers insightfully:
"People do comment on the whole female-with-guitar thing," she begins. "Mainly on my choice of guitar [white Flying V] and how I sometimes play it [finger-picking] and this being a combination that isn't really seen very much. I definitely think my ethnicity is a part of this seemingly incongruous pairing, though I suspect that people are less likely to comment on my race due to the perils of bringing up such a delicate topic. I tend to forget about all of it until someone brings it up. I'm just being me.
"I have a lot of musical ladies I look to for inspiration — the Deal sisters, Kim Gordon, Feist, Joanna Newsom, Ella, Billie, Nina, Etta. It would be nice to have more melanin-filled ax-wielding ladies to look up to, but in the end it's only skin. Or chromosomes. Things part of, but not the whole of one's being. It's about the individual, the greater creativity that comes from the sum. Where would I be without Leonard Cohen or Lou Barlow? Will Oldham or GBV? Equal opportunity listening.
"The music world is definitely evolving. The slow death of the record industry has allowed people to take things into their own hands and bypass the barriers — 'unmarketabilities' — that would have held them up only a few years ago."
Ill Fit record release show is Sept. 11, at the Blind Pig, 208 S. First St. Ann Arbor; 734-996-8555.Kent Alexander is a Metro Times intern. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org