People don’t fuck to sculptures. People don’t dance to paintings either. Of course, there are exceptions— there’s a lid for every pot— but over every other art form, music is the one that provokes carnal motion like no other. Maybe that’s why, when musicians themselves get together, the sands of culture shift and the collective consciousness is drawn like a moth to a flame. Fleetwood Mac, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Sonny and Cher, John Coltrane and Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda, Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown, Sonic Youth. What do you hear when you hear these names? Not only the indelible riffs, swelling choruses, and mind-altering palettes, but the mythologies, too, the high drama of jealousy and deception, sweet nothings whispered in bed, the pit of addiction, the ache of loss, virtuous service to a significant other, the complexly mediated image of celebrity and fame in all its glory and darkness. Musicians provide the soundtrack to our emotional lives, so I wanted to find out about musicians who choose to make music together.
As Boy Harsher, Jae Matthews and Gus Muller have been carving a nightmarish and sultry cinematic darkwave since 2013. They met in Savannah, Georgia, where Gus, a scorer of films, was booking shows. “It was this amazing shift in 2010, ’12 or whatever, when all these noise bros started making really nasty techno,” Jae says. She wanted to be a part of it and started hanging out. One night, at a show Gus had organized, Jae saw him dancing to “Bizarre Love Triangle.” “I thought it was the cutest thing in the world,” she says.
But before they got together, they lived together. “[Gus] was such a positive dude and such a hard worker but always in these completely bizarro living situations, and at one point he said, ‘I don’t really have anywhere to live,’ and I was like, ‘Just live in my attic.’” Jae, a writer and filmmaker, found herself thinking about Gus in the attic above her. But it took some time for the two of them to acknowledge their feelings for each other. It happened one night after a party, as it does, while wandering through Savannah’s ghostly oak-lined streets with a mutual friend. The three were holding hands as they walked—“psycho Savannah-style,” as Jae recalls—when Gus looked up and said, cryptically, “One hand is heavier.”
“I was like, ‘Oh shit, we got trouble,’” Jae says.
Their 2014 EP Lesser Man, a dark, quick classic on underground dance floors, resulted from a temporary breakup, a tempest in their relationship that would push their songwriting and chemically stain their sound. A cast of characters haunt that record, and all of them, they say, appear on subsequent releases, the most recent being The Runner (2022), a film by the band about a woman/monster in a rural town who rips out people’s hearts. “They’re like these manifestations of the bad parts of us,” Jae says, “or the worst parts, parts that, during the breakup, became very apparent.”
Several world tours into their career, Jae and Gus are still figuring out how to balance everything. I ask if they have any advice for couples who play music together, and Jae gives this: “Get ready to be so stressed out and so confused by the peaks and valleys—because you can have really high experiences that are accompanied by incredibly low experiences. Just try really hard not to take it out on your partner, and be patient.”
The dark club sound of Boy Harsher might not be possible if it weren’t for Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti. As two of the four founding members of Throbbing Gristle, Chris and Cosey helped pioneer industrial music. After Throbbing Gristle disbanded in 1981, the two started per- forming as Chris & Cosey, Carter Tutti, and other monikers. Their work radically altered club culture, and the chemistry between them would spark new vistas in electronic music. The couple—who estimate they have been together for about 50 years—speak from Cosey’s office, a room that sits right above their home studio, in Norfolk, England. There’s a view of their garden, surrounded by the many farms in the area. Cats, foxes, and hedgehogs roam there at night. “It’s quite countrified,” Cosey says.
Their romantic connection also grew by dint of a unique domestic arrangement. “We had two double beds put together in the room at Beck Road,” Cosey says of TG’s flat in 1970s London, “and whenever we were work- ing late, we used to all just sleep in the two double beds together: me, Chris, Genesis [P-Orridge], and Sleazy [Peter Christopherson].”
Chris was more introverted back then than he is now. “It was a very mutual attraction,” he says. “I was pretty bowled over by Cosey on the first meeting. Quite intimidated, actually, because she’s very striking, and she’s quite forceful in her demeanor. It was a bit scary, if I’m honest.” One day, Cosey cornered Chris in the darkroom at Beck Road. “He was wearing tight pants,” Cosey says. “There was a lot on view.”
Every band is a relationship, but there’s a good argument that certain areas are unlocked if the people playing together are also lovers. “When we’re in the studio, there’s definitely something telepathic going on,” Chris says. “Looks, body language—it’s, like, fifty years of knowing what a certain movement really means. We do a lot of collaborations and some people get confused, I think, because we’re having a conversation with each other just through gestures and eye movements, and people can’t really keep up.”
Telepathy isn’t the only thing going on in the studio. “We both get a bit hands-on still in the studio, don’t we?” Cosey asks Chris rhetorically. “That’s always been a thing, right from the beginning—because the studio was one of the most available spaces for us to get together sexually.”
When I ask if they have any sage guidance for musicians who are in a relationship, Cosey is loath to give any. “I hate giving out advice, because everybody’s so different and their relationship is unique to them,” she says. But she does provide an axiom that would come in handy for any long-term collaboration: “We give each other space to be ourselves. Right from the beginning, I never wanted him to be anything other than who he was when I met him.”
When I spoke to Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang, Naomi was quarantining in a separate room from her husband, speaking from their Cambridge home’s landline as she convalesced from a mild case of COVID. Galaxie 500, icons of dream pop who released three landmark albums from 1987 to 1991, consisted of the couple as well as lead vocalist and guitarist Dean Wareham. During that time in the band, Naomi had a fear of singing and being in the spotlight. “I was like, ‘All right, I’m just gonna play bass and be back here,’” she says, which is funny, since her bass was so front and center in the band’s mix. “The bass was a way of singing without it being obvious,” Naomi adds, “like it was a secret.”
After Galaxie 500’s breakup in ’91, the couple started playing as Damon & Naomi, moving in a more atmospheric folk direction and collaborating with new people. I was curious about the realities of touring with one’s partner. “There’s lots of songs about being on the road and the romance of that,” Damon waxes. “It’s a good topic for a song, right? But coming home, and realizing the bills aren’t paid, and there’s all these responsibilities that hit you in the face, that’s not great material for a rock anthem. There’s no Jon Bon Jovi song about when he gets off the private plane and gets back home.”
Over the course of our phone call, the longtime couple and bandmates are very generous and sweet with each other, playfully bickering at times. When Damon delivers a cogent critique of the ways in which the music industry has changed—how bands are being steadily replaced by producers and single, packageable pop stars—Naomi sounds the alarm: “Rant! Rant! Rant!”
Every relationship, like every band, comes with a division of labor. For example, Naomi deals with all the merch, Damon says, partly because she does much of the art, but also because T-shirts, specifically, drive Damon insane. A constant worry, boxes of them towering over him in the van, one day Damon needed to draw a boundary: “It happened when I was like, No more fuckin’ T-shirts!”
Naomi points out another fact. “Relationships are not static,” she says. “They change over time, and the person you started with is not the same person, and neither are you, and that’s just natural.”
Naomi, whose fear of singing gradually fell away, no longer feels the need to be in the background. “This is why I’ve always been against any kind of Galaxie 500 reunion,” she says. “It seems like a nightmare to me to have to reinhabit who I was so long ago.” Damon adds to his wife’s thought: “Of course, we would be paid more if we did. And that is built into the structure of the industry in a lot of ways. You don’t have a lot of people encouraging you to keep changing, and to honor that change all the time.”
While the origin stories of many a legendary music couple begin sordidly, fueled in part by the chaos of drugs and booze, the story of Mike Hadreas and Alan Wyffels starts in a 12-step program. The two were introduced by a mutual friend, and Alan started bringing Mike to AA meetings. The three friends started hanging out all the time, “almost like teenagers,” Mike says. Mike had been writing and recording songs in the cocoon of his room and uploading tracks to MySpace as Perfume Genius. To his dismay, he got a record deal—without ever having played a show. He knew Alan was a musician, so he asked for help. “Not only had I never played a show,” Mike clarifies, “I’d never sang in front of anyone else before, friends or family or anything. Alan was the first person I ever really sang in front of, I think.”
They started practicing together and both started harboring feelings. Mike recalls the anxiety of getting with someone at that moment. “I was freshly sober so I was trying to be very good, you know? Not that us being together is bad, but it can be spicy, I guess, to get into a new relationship.” However, a key tell that people are into each other is when they start taking naps together, as Mike and Alan began doing during long practice sessions. Alan points out, “I don’t know if people do that, really—take naps together platonically?”
With Alan’s help, Mike’s torch compositions as Perfume Genius evolved from private home recordings into a broader spirit of collaboration and pop experimentation. The bitter- sweet, at times despairing minimalism of pianos and voice on earlier records grew into the larger sounds that would become Set My Heart on Fire Immediately (2020) and the ambient crooning and dubby dirge of Ugly Season (2022), two albums written in a flurry at the same time. Mike and Alan wrote them together, and more collaboratively than any of the previous records.
“I’m still very attached to the old way of doing it,” Mike says. “At least initially, I always feel like I need to be alone, and I need to write these seeds of these songs. But that time period is becoming a little more flexible.... I don’t know, I’m a lot more open.”
It seems that this sort of creative freedom is buoyed by a total bond with Alan. “Whatever mechanism would make us feel precious about space—or, I don’t know, where we’re not being completely enmeshed—I don’t have it,” Alan says. “We started out not really afraid of specific intimacies. We’re both pretty intense, we were really intense about each other. We wanna just spend every second together.”
Don’t get it twisted, though. The couple do not have what they’ve dubbed “turducken energy.” This is, according to Mike, “when one [partner] is such a beast and the other one is a little more mild-mannered, so we can imagine them being eaten by the other.”
It makes a lot of sense that Julia Holter met her partner Tashi Wada in a harmonium ensemble. It was 2006ish, and Julia had just moved back to Los Angeles. Julia’s music is a wildly beautiful tapestry of musical traditions and influences, ranging from soft emotive pop to medieval polyphony. Tashi, the son of the late Fluxus artist and musician Yoshi Wada— with whom he collaborated often since childhood—is further afield, using bagpipes, synths, and self-made instruments to meditate on expansive atonal structures. On first listen, Julia and Tashi’s music might not seem to have much in common. But they share a scholarly and almost spiritual interest in the theories of how and why music works.
They also often play on each other’s recordings, and in live settings. The two were friends for a decade before they started dating in 2015. “There’s all these risks you take if you jump into something romantic with a longtime friend who’s very important to you in various ways,” Julia says. “So it was a little scary, which is funny to think about now.” (They had their child, Simone, two years ago.) Tashi and Julia often play together, but they usually do their own things, as Tashi explains: “We play different roles in each other’s projects. We aren’t coauthors of projects, primarily. The pressure isn’t as much as it would be if we were in a band together and that’s all we did.”
The vibrational connection between Tashi and Julia is clear, even over a Zoom call. “I feel like we have a harmonic understanding,” Julia says, something that extends to their time on tour together. “Even though you’re a little haggard during a tour—it’s not the most flattering and romantic version of yourself—it’s still like, once you have a moment, it can be nice.” Tashi believes there’s also a practical use for having your partner on tour: No one else knows your needs and patterns better, and if they’re good at it, they can help when the going gets tough. “I become a translator. I become the whisperer,” he says.
Music is all about the groove between people. Like any relationship, those between musicians can come with explosive euphoria and somber depths. But ultimately, it’s the quiet moments, the mundane ones between these extremes, that bring the highs and lows into relief. At one point in our convo, Julia is reminded of an album of Tashi’s called Duets, which explores the idea of the unison—essentially, two or more sounds that are played at the same pitch. “It explores how the unison functions,” she explains, “and how it is not always a perfect unison. Not just the sonic but also the psychological consonance and dissonance of pitch relationships—trying to be together but almost never crossing paths perfectly.” As apt a musical metaphor for relationships as any.
“I feel like when I’m playing Tashi’s music I’m constantly thinking about this, I’m always conscious of the attempt at a unison,” Julia adds. “The beauty of the imperfect unison.”