The Tinklers are the duo of Charles Brohawn and Chris Mason, two Baltimore-based multimedia artists whose musical pursuits place them squarely in the Half Japanese tradition of deliberate artlessness, though with an often more accessible, rather childlike playfulness.
Although the first Tinklers album did not come out until 1990, the roots of the band are in the mid-'70s performance art scene in their native Baltimore. Charles Brohawn was a painting and sculpture student at the Maryland Institute College of Art when he met Chris Mason, a Minnesota native who had moved to Maryland to study poetry in the creative writing program at Johns Hopkins University. At that time, the leading light of the Baltimore avant-garde music scene was Jad Fair's Half Japanese, a duo that Brohawn in particular found immensely influential. (Mason was more interested in the theories of John Cage at the time.) Brohawn and Mason formed the Tinklers in 1977 as a four-piece noise rock band with a rhythm section, but by 1979, they were, like Half Japanese, a two-guitar duo.
Unlike Half Japanese, however, the Tinklers maintained their interest in both visual and performance art while pursuing their musical activities; early Tinklers gigs usually took place at local art galleries at which Brohawn's paintings and drawings were on display. An early project was called "The Tinklers' History of the World": Brohawn and Mason constructed a 50-foot-long time line (reproduced on the cover of their debut album, Casserole) and performed while walking along it, stopping at various points and performing songs related to that moment in history. This multimedia project and two others, Home by the River and Our Childrens' Childrens' Worlds, were self-published as books in the '80s. During this time, Mason also started a cassette-only label, Widemouth Tapes, as a spoken-word and performance medium for local poets and artists. Oddly, it wasn't until 1986 that Widemouth released a self-titled tape of the Tinklers' early recordings, some of which date back to the band's earliest days.
In 1989, the Tinklers came to the attention of Kramer of Shimmy-Disc Records, who signed the duo and produced their first album, Casserole. A more disturbing record than the Tinklers' sunnier early works, with unsettling undercurrents and topics taken from rather depressing news stories like the shooting of an elderly woman by SWAT cops during an eviction gone awry, Casserole was an atypical debut. The 1992 follow-up, Saplings, was closer in content to the Tinklers' early performances, as was the celebratory EP James Brown, released on Washington, D.C.'s Simple Machines label the same year. The 1993 LP Crash and the science fiction-themed 1995 EP UFOs found Brohawn and Mason moving into a slightly more mainstream arena, dropping the 30-second song fragments and allowing a slightly more mature world view into their music. After a four-year layoff, the Tinklers returned in 1999 with the aptly-titled Slowpoke, an album that had been self-recorded on Brohawn's four-track over the preceding four years, released on their friend and artistic cohort Diana Froley's Serious Records label.