Brothers TJ and Chris Whitmore spent most of their childhood moving around all over the world. Their dad was in the military, so they lived in lots of places: Japan, the Philippines, a number of southern states, before finally landing in Maine — South Portland, to be exact. Along the way, they absorbed countless musical styles, many different ways of life, lots of perspectives and trends and ideas.
All those things manifest themselves in the music they make as Caro Khan, a duo that’s steeped in hip hop but that brings in elements of multiple genres, from industrial music to indie rock. The brothers’ debut full-length album, “Pyronauts,” came out a few weeks ago, and it defies classification. It would be easy to call it hip hop, but there’s an element of the harsh beauty of Nine Inch Nails on a number of songs, the relentless experimentation of Radiohead in other spots, the dreamy soundscapes of Grizzly Bear in a few places. In short: it sounds nothing like anything else coming out of Portland right now.
“The music doesn’t fit into one category. Electronic, industrial, hiphop, alt-rock. We’ve been described as all of that,” said Chris Whitmore, who splits rapping and production credits with his brother. “We just like to make whatever music we feel like making.”
TJ, the younger of the brothers, moved back down south with his parents after Chris, the older brother, graduated from South Portland High School in 2003. TJ lived in Minneapolis for while, too, where he formed a band, Transit Gal, with his other brother, Jayson, and where the city’s longstanding underground hip hop scene — which birthed rappers like Atmosphere, Brother Ali, Eyedea & Abilities and many others — undoubtedly rubbed off on him.
Nevertheless, TJ, 23, and Chris, now 29, reunited in Portland in 2012, starting Caro Khan shortly thereafter. Jayson moved back too; he started a recording studio called Penumbra, which operates out of South Portland.
“We decided to stay in Maine because of the music scene here,” said Chris. “It’s not pretentious and still very accessible and supportive for new artists.”
“Pyronauts” swings from one style to the next, though it somehow manages to not feel overwrought or too ambitious or disjointed. It retains a certain mood; dark and clever, suited to be the soundtrack to a night in a dimly lit club or a long drive through a city. The title track for “Pyronauts” blends rap swagger with angrily whispered Trent Reznor-esque vocals and heavy swaths of industrial keyboards. “V838″ starts off sounding like a lost demo for electronic musicians like Four Tet or Boards of Canada, while “Old Dream” is more indie pop than hip hop. That all changes with the slinky groove of “Superheroes,” a six-minute long epic just begging for a remix.
Some of the album’s consistency in mood and tone throughout its stylistic twists and turns can surely be chalked up to the brothers in Caro Khan’s many years spent trading musical ideas.
“Because we are brothers and our music is our highest priority, we are openly critical with each other,” said Chris. “If one of us feels strongly about a decision, usually the other doesn’t feel as strongly in the opposing view, so the latter tends to yield to avoid the poisoning conflict of egos… We don’t jam and see what comes of it. It starts out private and if it’s good enough we’ll share it with each other and discuss where the song is supposed to go. Then the collaborative efforts kick in and our songs take form.”