It started with a sound that was almost impossibly small—a drip of late spring rain falling off the tip of a leaf onto the surface of another leaf below. Puh. Puh. Puh. Recorded on a smartphone by a young man in Port Townsend, this sound was uploaded to Pro Tools, where it was ratcheted up into a queasily powerful amplified beat—PUH! PUH! PUH!—then e-mailed to another young man, this one in Seattle, who fit the tiny-huge drip beat with a melody plucked on a one-of-a-kind stringed instrument featuring five gauges of wire strung across a hollowed-out television console. The young man in Port Townsend was Owen Astley, credited in liner notes as Owen A. The young man in Seattle was Owen Olmstead, credited as Owen O. (This is the first time Astley's and Olmstead's last names have appeared in print.) The music they made together—nature amplified by technology, overlaid with handmade melody—was something never quite heard before, and it served as the genesis for what would become the burgeoning musical genre known as fogtwang.
But before there was the identifying name—and the ongoing battle over what the identifying name does and does not "mean"—there was the music. Created by the two Owens under the moniker Bristleburr, the duo's initial compositions were deeply idiosyncratic collaborations executed almost entirely via e-mail, with Owen A sending his found-in-nature beats (from wind-whipped branches brushing a window to the syncopated lowing of Northwest alpacas) to Owen O for innovative string treatments created on everything from rubber-banded buckets to a classical guitar strung with yarn. These "orchestrated" tracks were then sent back to Owen A, who laid down his whispery vocals, with lyrics drawn from his poems and random notes.
To some ears (mine included), the music of Bristleburr was the sound of several lightly modified subgenres colliding—Bon Iver meets ambient glitch meets that steampunky aesthetic that considers plucking twine wrapped around a rusty candelabra to be artistically superior to playing an actual guitar. But to other, younger ears, Bristleburr was the sound of purity and something new. Passed digitally among friends, Bristleburr's tracks sparked a growing fan base of teens and young adults who responded intensely to the Owens' poetic distillations of nature in the computer age. By early 2012, Bristleburr had enough tracks to make an album—Digital Loom, the title track of which features the lyric that would give this misty stringed music its name: "Up at dawn, listening to the fog twang."
Then the troubles began.
According to some, things started going awry almost as soon as Bristleburr took steps to become "a real band"—when Owen O left his parents' North Ballard home to join Owen A on the Olympic Peninsula, where the pair set up camp among the remains of an abandoned apple orchard in two no-longer-mobile mobile homes (one for each Owen plus musical and recording equipment). But when the band moved toward physical realization—playing out, promoting their "product"—things failed to coalesce.
But according to others—specifically, Owen O, the only member of Bristleburr willing to speak to me on the record—the seeds of discord were present in the bands' earliest dealings, when they hammered out the specifics of their musical ideology and hit upon what Owen O now calls, with unconcealed contempt, "that fucking equation."
For the great many with no reason to have previously obtained this information, some facts about the nature and purpose of the music of Bristleburr, and, by extension, the fogtwang genre as a whole. The central concept is the proper balance of humanity and technology, and it's not an even split. According to Bristleburr's "fucking equation," creative output should contain 98 percent humanity and 2 percent technology, with "humanity" calculated as the sum total of lived life, and "technology" (basically, anything involving a computer) restricted to 2 percent of that sum total. For example: When making Digital Loom, Owen A was 22 years old and Owen O was 21—a combined 43 years (or 376,930 hours) of humanity. According to the equation, this meant any and all technological concerns (recording, producing, mixing) must be executed within 2 percent of that time, leaving the Owens with almost a year's worth of available tech hours. (They used a fraction of a fraction of that.)
It's a cute idea, and one that allowed for the Bristleburr/fogtwang ideology to be easily exported, inspiring fogtwang-adherent recording artists around the country, from San Diego's Choarwheel to Denver's Tendreyarn to Brooklyn's Oak, all of whom responded to Bristleburr's explicit striking out against our screen-filled, social-media-besieged world. (To quote Oak's "Heart Crash": "Computers are our servants, not the other way 'round.")
But for at least one of the men who conceived it, the 98 percent humanity/2 percent technology equation soon grew stultifying. "Let me state right off the bat and for the record that I love and remain committed to the ideal of art that keeps technology in its place," says Owen O on the phone from Ballard. His defensiveness is understandable. With no new music to counteract the noise, the gossip about Bristleburr's strife and potential demise has reached peak levels, with the most popular narrative painting Owen A as the pure idealistic hero and Owen O as the poseur sellout.
The crux of the strife: the implementation of Bristleburr's instigating equation—specifically, what qualifies as technology? "That's what started it," says Owen O. "We were having these long discussions about what counted as technology." For Owen O, it meant strictly music-related computer usage: overdubs, enhancements, etc. But for Owen A, it was something much more expansive. "He thought we should count everything—the time we spent using our phones, the time we spent microwaving food, he thought all of it should come out of [our] tech-time allotment." This small rift exposed a bigger, more problematic one, as it became clear that for Owen O, the Bristleburr equation was "a cool idea, not a mandate," while for Owen A, it was something worth sacrificing for. "[Owen A] is totally willing to follow the equation to the end, just to see what happens," says Owen O. "But I didn't start making music to count minutes and fight over microwaves. I started making music to make music."
As for the future of Bristleburr, the band is finally moving out of an acrimonious holding pattern, with Owen O relinquishing the Bristleburr name and its stultifying equation to Owen A, who remains in his Port Townsend trailer and continues to fight for the fogtwang ideals. (His most recent triumph: scrubbing the web of all substantive mentions of both Bristleburr and fogtwang, via a preposterous fan-driven campaign to move all such dialogue behind an invite-only firewall. As of this writing, the scrub still holds.)
Meanwhile, Owen O is carrying on with his own ever-evolving music, which we might as well call post-fogtwang. "I'm still plucking my strings, wherever I can put 'em," says Owen O, describing his latest creation: cat-gut strings stretched across the hollowed-out husk of a jewel-toned 2006 iMac. "That says it all, doesn't it?"