Gary Louris can't remember precisely where he first met Django Haskins.
He knows that it was at one of the large-band re-creations of Big Star's Third that his friend, the Triangle songwriter and record producer Chris Stamey, has staged many times around the world since 2010. But Louris isn't sure if the show was in Nashville or Chicago.
"It's a lot of people involved in these Big Star things," Louris explains. "Everything's kind of crazy because everybody's trying to get their moment in to rehearse songs they barely know. And then there's kind of the regulars, the guys who hold it all together, and a lot of them are from North Carolina. One of them is Django, and Django was just particularly open and friendly. We just seemed to hit it off while we'd be sitting down waiting."
Haskins confirms that it was, indeed, Chicago in the summer of 2013. Just more than two years later, Louris and Haskins issued One Armed Candy Bear, their full-length debut as the duo Au Pair. A rush of minimalist pop-rock enthusiasm that turns a wry eye to the flawed characters of its songs, One Armed Candy Bear moves with an energy that suggests their partnership, no matter where it began, was kismet.
Louris and Haskins might seem an unlikely musical pair. For three decades, Louris has anchored the Minneapolis-based Jayhawks, a band whose twinkling tunes helped etch out and stretch the boundaries of Americana and alt-country. With Durham's The Old Ceremony, Haskins explores various tints of pop and rock, with violin and glockenspiel helping to guide the band through clattering breakdowns and tender ballads with equal aplomb. But both musicians insist they don't get to explore all their ideas, inclinations and interests in their main projects.
"For me, The Old Ceremony is still definitely a very alive, ongoing experiment," Haskins offers. "With Gary, it is a completely different set of DNA. It comes up with different results, and it satisfies the kind of itches that work best for us."
"Are you saying that we're like a rash?" Louris asks
"Well," Haskins responds, "we're like a lotion."
Such repartee abounds in conversation between Louris and Haskins. Despite a two-decade age difference, the pair's shared sense of humor actually sparked the collaboration.
"It started as a joke," Louris says. "I mentioned my pet peeves of certain clichés—'My bad,' 'It's all good,' 'Everything happens for a reason.' We started bantering back and forth and decided we'd write a song that included every bad cliché we could think of. That got the wheels turning toward doing something more serious."
"And we wrote a country song," Haskins adds. "It was called 'It Ain't All Good.' That actually happened after we had written a serious song called 'King of the Valley,' but at that point we figured we might as well follow through and do this silly thing."
A few months after their Chicago exchange, Louris made the first of several trips to Durham. He would stay with Haskins and his wife, Lauren, until the birth of their now one-year-old son, Silas. The pair would sit across from each other in Haskins' living room, singing into Louris' iPad to sketch out songs and fragments. The chemistry was immediate.
"The first time Django and I really got together, and I came to North Carolina, I knew we had something because we wrote a song, and it probably had like 18 chords," Louris remembers. "We both could follow it, and Django seemed to have this ability to remember things and follow a creative process that I've had a hard time finding in anybody else. It just worked."
Once they had enough material, they spent four weekends working with the producer Brian Haran at his Pinebox Recording studio in Durham. Eager to engage in a more immediate and intimate process than the complex, full-band sessions of their primary acts, where members might sit for days waiting to add parts, Haskins and Louris told Haran to put them in front of one microphone. Sending their vocals and guitars through that single line provided a tight and energetic core for their songs. The two sing most of their lines together, and they revel in the tension between Louris' smooth warble and Haskins' comfortably rough croon.
From that foundation, they built outward, accessorizing the songs with tricky synthesizers and oddball percussion. Thus, an album that has two basic modes—bright, propulsive pop-rock and thoughtful balladry—sounds remarkably diverse. Both "In Every Window" and the title track move at a jittery gait. But the former's colorfully crunchy synthesizers and jangly acoustic guitar yield to acoustic strumming and fuzzy electric riffs for the latter. For Haskins and Louris, the contours Haran added proved essential; even now, they call him "that third brain."
"A lot of times one of us would be playing, and we would just describe what we were going for, and [Brian] would find the electronic equivalent of it in terms of pedals and everything and set that up for us," Haskins explains. "And then he would help find the sounds, or even actively play them while we did something on guitar."
That range stems, too, from the diverse set of ne'er-do-well protagonists built for these tunes. The title track rails against a violent über-capitalist who insists that possession is "nineteen-tenths of the law." The graceful "One-Eyed Crier" cleverly mocks a former lover who was only ever half sincere.
Such character studies allowed Louris and Haskins to explore potent themes together early on while slowly building a mutual comfort. That should allow them to navigate deeper, more personal topics in the future. In November, while playing a show together in California, they worked on a few new ideas for a second album. They discovered they'd already started developing new intimacy in writing together.
"When you're writing a song, you want to get at something that's very personal in some way," Haskins reasons, "but when you're writing with someone else who hasn't shared your exact experience, that's pretty scary."
At least, that is, until he moves in for a little while.
Jordan Lawrence writes about music in Columbia, South Carolina, and on Twitter: @jordanlawrence.