With a stealthy release on the 4AD label late last year, ‘Do Hollywood’ is the wildest ride of a record we’d heard in a while. We join Long Island teen siblings The Lemon Twigs on a flying UK visit to see what we’re making all the fuss about…
Quick Twigs fax #1: They’re from Hicksville, Long Island. For real. There’s actually a place in America called Hicksville. It’s where Brian D’Addario and his little brother Michael grew up with unfettered access to their parents’ record collection and stash of music making gear from the age of zero. The home studio was their romper room, where electric guitars and Casio keyboards were their Fisher Price toys.
Quick Twigs fax #2: They’re young. Brian is 19, Michael is 17. And if you think that’s pretty young to be producing an album as sophisticated and dazzling as their debut, ‘Do Hollywood’, bear in mind it was in the bag two years ago. This is a level of outrageous precociousness that knocks Alex Chilton fronting the Box Tops with a Number One USA hit when he was just 16 into a cocked hat.
Brian and Michael love Alex Chilton. Especially Michael. They both break into impersonations of Chilton and his Big Star cohort Chris Bell at the mention of his name, in their live set they perform a cover ‘All Of The Time’, from Chilton’s 1981 solo album ‘Bach’s Bottom’.
Quick Twigs fax #3: Michael appeared in a couple of Hollywood films when he was 12. Brian was in Broadway productions of ‘Les Misérables’ and ‘The Little Mermaid’ about 10 years ago. He’s on the original cast recording of the latter.
The Lemon Twigs are pretty much everybody’s favourite new band. Anyone who listens to their album’s opening track, ‘I Wanna Prove To You’ (a Brian song) will be helicoptered between the doo-wop rock ‘n’ roll schlock Elvis (parts sound a bit like Mud’s ‘Lonely This Christmas’, which I understand doesn’t necessarily sound that enticing, but bear with me), and an upbeat Broadway crowd-pleaser, via key and chord changes that wouldn’t be out of place on a Todd Rundgren classic. The album then tumbles headlong into ‘Those Days Is Comin’ Soon’, a vaudeville romp which is clearly inspired by The Kinks. Somehow, The Lemon Twigs recall all of McCartney’s 1970s solo output, and Lennon’s, without seeming arch and mannered.
As the album proceeds, its electronic interjections and the fascinating production, which vacillates between glitchy lo-fi and shiny high-end, thrill the listener. Apart from, that is, a legion of tin-eared Trump supporters who went on Twitter to express their dislike for the band following their appearance on the popular American TV show ‘CBS This Morning’. Michael looked at each of their profiles and discovered the scientific correlation between hating The Lemon Twigs and loving Trump. And then tweeted his findings. Nascent pop stars in the social media age can do that sort of thing.
“Yeah!” enthuses Michael, resplendent in a pink Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles T-shirt, a charity shop find that fits into his aesthetic a treat. “I looked at all of their accounts, they were all Trump supporters, every single one of them! There was one guy who tweeted that The Lemon Twigs were worse than Corey Feldman, and that was his only tweet. I was like, ‘Did he make this account just to say that?’. It’s cool though, them all being Trump supporters, I don’t want ’em to like our stuff anyway.”
We’re talking to the brothers pre-soundcheck at the first of two London shows at the Moth Club in Hackney.
They finish each other’s sentences, their conversation a self-conscious spiralling of in-jokes, and there’s repeated mentions of how lucky they are, which only camouflages a sense that the attention they’re getting is in the natural order of things.
They clearly know they’re good at what they do. With band-mates, keyboard player Danny Ayala and bass player Megan Zeankowski, they can play pretty much any other band off any stage, and swap between drums and guitar and singing, they can both write songs, which filch from the Great American Songbook and its British appendices with ease. And they really love each other, and don’t mind who knows it, which is refreshing and touching. So, how did this extraordinary band come about?
“Basically we made the decision to do a duo sort of thing,” explains Brian, “A lot of the groups we were listening to were doing that, so we romanticised it. We always did that sort of thing anyway, like if I was working on stuff, and Michael wanted to be part of it, he would do something, and that’s kind of how The Lemon Twigs works. But the name came when us and Danny and Megan would play together. We didn’t really have any goal for it other than just having fun.”
Which doesn’t really explain it, but you can witness this devotion to hanging out and making music for the sake of it on YouTube. Before The Lemon Twigs, they were a covers band called Members Of The Press. There are multiple online videos of them playing at barbecues and parties. There’s a video of them aged around 12 and 10, doing a rap called ‘Live Large’, and there’s an entire Lemon Twigs album, ‘What We Know’, a cassette-only release in 2014.
“You can download that, and keep it. We don’t care,” they say. It’s a psyche rock album, which they now say was forced and not really them, an example of just trying to fit the accepted idea of what being a cool band was. It was when they abandoned that path and allowed their true musical identities to dictate their songwriting that The Lemon Twigs suddenly materialised, and ‘Do Hollywood’ popped out in record time.
“We’d all be playing together, doing our songs, and then we got a show at Webster Hall with Foxygen,” says Brian, “and they were like, ‘Do the D’Addario Brothers want to do that?’ and we were like, ‘We do but we don’t want to be the D’Addario Brothers, it sounds like a pizza shop’, so we just said we’d be The Lemon Twigs.”
Ah yes, Foxygen. The American duo featuring Jonathan Rado who produced ‘Do Hollywood’. Not that well-known here (although that may well change with the imminent release of their new album ‘Hang’), Foxygen have carved out a following in America with their outsider extravagance that channels Bowie, musical theatre and power pop, not unlike The Lemon Twigs. Brian and Michael play on ‘Hang’. Previous Foxygen albums have been idiosyncratic affairs, full of verve and clever ideas that sounded half-realised, or perhaps slightly madly realised. ‘Hang’ takes Foxygen into a different league entirely.
So Foxygen provided The Lemon Twigs with their first leg-up, via that New York support slot, and the production job. Had they already started working with Rado when they played that first gig with them?
“He had offered to produce the album,” says Brian, “but it didn’t happen for another couple of months. We recorded it in February 2015.”
“What do you think about me getting some yellow shoes?” Michael asks, suddenly, apropos of nothing.
“I think that would be cool…’ says Brian.
Yellow shoes? I ask.
“Like these, but yellow,” he says, showing me his tatty trainers with holes in.
Are they Converse?
“These are Vans.”
Oh, OK. Maybe you should get a whole load and brand them up and sell them on your merch stall. Lemon Twigs sneakers in yellow. Makes sense.
“Oh God…” says Brian.
I’m not sure if he means this is a good idea, or the very opposite. Or whether it’s because the interview is threatening to unravel with all this talk of footwear. There’s an interview with Michael on YouTube back when he was acting in films, a film premiere red carpet chat about his 2012 role in the film ‘People Like Us’. It also derails amusingly as the interviewer starts probing Michael about his music career, which at that stage was mostly goofing around in the garage. Michael is clearly nonplussed as he finds himself revealing that he’s far more interested in music than being in films… while trying to promote the film he’s in.
Back on message, ‘Do Hollywood’ is a startling mission statement. I suppose you’d call it rock music, the line-up is guitar, bass, drums and keyboards. But it’s a constantly unfurling kind of rock music, baroque, steeped in the history of rock music, artfully punctuated by synthesisers from Jonathan Rado’s stash of vintage gear, and all recorded to tape. It’s so elegantly executed, played with a casual virtuosity that you might assume it was put together with studio trickery.
“It was a bit of performance this record,” says Brian. “We were excited to be working with Rado, and the chance of people hearing our group so there is a bit of showmanship to it.”
“Flashiness, it’s supposed to turn your head,” says Michael.
“‘Look what we can do’, you know?” agrees Brian.
It does turn your head, but close listening reveals that part of its charm is that it’s actually quite rough and ready, recorded to tape on a 16-track machine. You can hear drop-ins, overdubs, cross-talk and bounce downs, like pre-‘Hang’ Foxygen or ‘White Album’ Beatles.
And live these boys and their two bandmates deliver it all from the stage in an exhilarating explosion of banter and emotional commitment. The night we see them, Tony Visconti is near the front, arms held aloft in stunned worshipfulness. The guy who helped birth ‘Heroes’ and ‘Blackstar’, not to mention T Rex’s ‘Electric Warrior’, thinks The Lemon Twigs are pretty special.
And so he should, because they have preternaturally explored the minutiae of every groove of every record by every half decent band of the 1960s and the 1970s. Listening to their debut album is to experience a hallucinatory series of musical flashbacks: There goes David Bowie, wait, is that Supertramp? Paul McCartney! Early Floyd, 10cc… The Who… The Kinks… Queen… ‘Phantom Of The Opera’… and so on until your mind collapses in on itself and you’re left admiring the sheer breadth of musicianship and confidence on display. More impressive is how they’ve been able to mine the past, which we thought had been exhausted by generations of copyists and no-marks, and still bring sparkling new gems to the surface.
“When I hear the record,” says Brian, “I feel like every decision we made had some sort of purpose to it, you know? And I think that most instruments are complemented with another instrument.”
“We only had 16 tracks,” says Michael. “Brian added orchestrations on the computer, but the original thing was 16 tracks and it was done in a week and a half. But with 16 tracks, every track really mattered.”
Did you record to tape because you wanted to channel the spirit of the 1970s?
“That’s just how Rado records,” shrugs Michael. “We didn’t know about tape as a viable option for recording until we started talking to Rado. We met with him and he said, ‘You guys should start using your dad’s old eight-track’, so we demoed a lot of the album on it. Brian still does stuff on the computer, he never learned how to use the tape machine, but that’s good because now he needs me for that, in the same way I need him for the orchestrations.”
“We were very conscious not to make it sound lo-fi though,” says Brian.
“It doesn’t sound too grimy,” nods Michael. “The mastering job helped in brightening it up. We had Greg Calbi do it, who mastered The Ramones and ‘Marquee Moon’, and a lot of records that had a real unique sound.”
Indeed, he also did the original mastering on Bowie’s ‘Young Americans’, most of Lennon’s solo output, Supertramp, Talking Heads and the 2014 remasters of the Beatles’ US albums. By the way, Michael’s favourite Beatles album, if you’re wondering, is ‘Meet The Beatles!’.
They’re already talking enthusiastically about their next album. If all has gone to plan, it will already be in the can by the time you read this, recorded in December.
“‘Do Hollywood’ was about putting all of our potential into one record,” says Brian. “I think that’s cool for a debut album, because it’s kind of like, ‘You can expect a little bit of this and a little bit of this later on’…”
“Now we’re really focussing in and I’m making sure I’m really happy with every part of every song,” says Michael. “I remember finishing the demo of ‘As Long As We’re Together’, and being super happy with it, and really liking the lyric and the song, but then with a lot of the songs on the album I remember thinking, ‘I like this part’… So I’m trying to make every part on the next album something I’m really happy with it. That way, in a year I’ll still really hyped on it, the way I’m still hyped on ‘As Long As We’re Together’. A lot of the album is alright, but I could do better…”
So there’s better to come?
“Yeah! I mean, I don’t want to criticise the album too much, but I think we can do much better,” he says. “We were only 15 and 17, right?”
The next album is, they say, going to be a concept album. They play one song from it at the gig, called ‘Queen Of My School’, which features the lyric, “I was there, man, I saw them kill those innocent people”, which suggests it might well be fairly dark affair, an updating of ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll High School’, perhaps. With a gatefold sleeve?
“Oh, sure!” enthuses Michael. “The reason we have so many songs for the album after the next one, is because when we feel like writing something we’re not going to say, ‘But we have to write about this concept’. So we have all these songs, that then get pushed to album three and album three is just straight.”
“We want the new album to be a musical. And a film,” says Brian. “We don’t want it to be flimsy. We have no idea, really…”
“We have no idea what’s going to happen,” adds Michael. “We want to have the lyrics all tie in, but not be too stupid.”
“Which is kind of a challenge,” says Brian. “because you know in ‘Tommy’ he’s like ‘and then Tommy said, ‘I hate being deaf dumb and blind!’.”
“I feel like ‘Berlin’, the Lou Reed record, that’s a really good job of a concept album,” says Michael. “The songs stand on their own and the lyrics are really beautiful, heartbreaking, even out of context.”
We finish up talking about Brian’s side-project, Digiboy, an all-electronic robot-based concept, designed to show that the same songwriting smarts of The Lemon Twigs can be applied in the world of electronic instrumentation (not for public consumption yet), which leads us to discussing Paul McCartney’s visit to the EMS studio in 1966 where Delia Derbyshire showed him the electronic studio when he was considering making an electronic version of ‘Yesterday’ (they’re very wowed by these lesser-known Beatle fax). We talk about Jean-Jacques Perrey (they’re big fans), about pronouncing Moog (like us, they prefer the incorrect pronunciation). Quite what their second album is going to sound like we can’t be too sure, but we won’t have too long to wait, they’re trying to will it into being released in the autumn. Those days is comin’ soon…
‘Do Hollywood’ is out on 4AD