At Home With The Lemon Twigs
There are streets like this all over America. Broad boulevards lined with roadside diners, fast-food outposts that haven’t been updated since the ‘80s, small stores with signs from the decade before, auto-parts shops, blocks where everyone knows everyone else who lives there. In pop culture, it often gets figured as “nowhere,” but it’s more accurate to write it off as “somewhere.” It’s strange to be in one of those somewheres—Hicksville, Long Island—this close to New York City, and still feel it: that suburban boredom, the memories of dreaming up fantastical identities and plans to pass the rote day-in, day-out rhythms of driving aimlessly. It’s the kind of town where two teenagers could concoct something like the Lemon Twigs, a band that feels out of time and place even for an era where bands feeling out of time and place is part of the story.
The Lemon Twigs seemed to appear out of nowhere, so I visited the brothers behind the project, Michael and Brian D’Addario, in Hicksville, the somewhere that actually birthed them. With both of them dressed in their customary uniforms—‘70s vintage vibes, Michael leaning in a glammier direction—we walk down a shaded suburban street past a truck with a sticker proclaiming “Trump: Finally Someone With Balls,” which compels Michael to leap in the air in mock righteous anger and scream, “Yeah! Finally someone with some fucking balls!” They drive around in their car blasting Rush’s “Spirit Of The Radio.” Because they mostly hang out at their parents’ house, where they both still live, they’ve begun to run out of places to take journalists who have made this same pilgrimage, so they opt for a sushi place they like so we can talk. So we can answer the question: What’s the deal with those two Long Island kids who sound like reincarnations of British musicians from two or three decades before they were born?
Now 18 and 20, respectively, Michael and Brian were both in their teens upon the world’s real introduction to the Lemon Twigs but have been playing music together since they were small children. The origin story of The Lemon Twigs has a twist—not only were they basically still kids, but they were kids who happened to make music that was, on the surface, a slavishly thorough exercise in retro-revivalism. Yet while the duo dress and sound like an amalgamation of various ‘60s and ‘70s styles and trends, they don’t sound like any one logical antecedent; rather, thanks to the amalgamation part of it, they come across like a concept, a group that could have existed from ’68 to ’77 but never did. They released their debut, Do Hollywood, on the storied indie label 4AD last October and, amidst all the touring and buzz that’s surrounded the two since, they’re about to follow it up with a new EP, Brothers Of Destruction, later this month. And they have a lot of plans beyond that.
While the Lemon Twigs’ presence on plenty of festival lineups and music sites might seem sudden on the outside, the way the D’Addarios speak of it is almost like the delayed realization of something they’d been planning on for most of their young lives. They grew up in an artistic household, with an actress mother and a musician father, who had played in a power-pop band in the late ‘70s. (While Michael comes across like the kind of guy who wouldn’t have much patience for contemporaries of the Lemon Twigs’ that he doesn’t think have the goods, he praises their father’s band pretty effusively.) “We wanted to be musicians. We had it in the back of our minds because we knew our dad was good and he didn’t get the opportunity that he could have,” Brian says. “We were always pursuing it in a career type way.”
The Lemon Twigs have become a thing out of nowhere, sure, but you can find remnants of the younger D’Addarios all over the internet, the little puzzle pieces and experiments that paved the way for real success at a young age. Unlike any of the artists they draw inspiration from, there are already years of documentation of the young Twigs, whether rapping or covering the Beach Boys’ “Wild Honey” as children or playing with an earlier, more emo-inclined iteration of their band called Members Of The Press. They’ve basically been involved in show business their whole lives: Encouraged by their mother, they tried out some community theatre, which led to gigs on Broadway. (Brian had a role as Flounder in The Little Mermaid.) You can find IMDB pages for both of them; you can find videos of Michael on the red carpet for a Chris Pine movie he was in called People Like Us, clearly uncomfortable with the mechanisms of Hollywood and already telling the interviewer that his real dream is to be a musician.
That real dream started to pick up steam in 2014. That’s when Brian—in a kind of impatient, flu-induced stupor—tweeted at Foxygen’s Jonathan Rado and said “Be Richard Swift for us,” a reference to Foxygen’s own breakthrough-via-helping-hand. “I was like, delirious, and I was kind of at my wit’s end,” Brian recalls, which is half-amusing for the scene it paints and somewhat indicative of how long the D’Addarios had been hoping for all this, since he was still in his mid-teens and already fed up with waiting for his musical life to take off. “I wish I would’ve made my initial contact in a slightly different way, but it’s fine,” Brian now says, shrugging.
Rado told Brian to get in touch, they exchanged music, and Rado soon became a big brother figure for the Lemon Twigs. Having that connection opened new doors for them, but he also turned them on to artists they didn’t yet know, like Todd Rundgren, and told them what to expect from the touring life, and produced their first album. Brian sent that tweet in early 2014. They recorded that first album, Do Hollywood, in early 2015, then paused to find management and a label. Ever since, it’s been something of a runaway train: As we have lunch in Hicksville, the Twigs explain that they just had to turn down an offer to go play Japan for the third time due to their desire to stay home and make time to record new material.
Do Hollywood wound up being a synthesis of ‘60s and ’70s touchstones that have already been ascribed to the band, Beatles and Kinks mingling with ‘70s soft-rock or power-pop tendencies. The material on Brothers Of Destruction dates from the same time period and follows suit, with added hints of Eno-esque avant-pop crammed together with the Beach Boys on tracks like “Night Song.” The brothers have described the EP as “the last chapter of the Do Hollywood era of our group.”
And that’s about all they have to say about it. The description is sensible enough, given that EPs often function as addendums or previews to one era or another, but once you talk to the Twigs, it’s also easy to hear a subtext there. So far, it’d seem they’ve done everything right: Working hard on performance all through their youths, but taking the time from recording to release to properly set up an operation, to avoid the pitfalls of too rapid an acceleration. Yet whether you want to chalk it up just how young they were in 2014 and 2015, or the fact that there was about a year and a half between the recording of Do Hollywood and its eventual release, the D’Addarios seem to be impatient once more, ready to move forward and lose a few things from the past.
“I try not to think about it,” Michael says of their existing work so far. “The people who know who I am, them thinking that’s who I am when it’s not, is really frustrating, and anytime I think about it, it upsets me.”
“I can still stand by the songs I wrote. I was older,” Brian says, appearing to want to temper or counterbalance what his slightly more animated younger brother just expressed. (This is a semi-recurring dynamic in their relationship.) He adds: “I like the songs that he did, and I recognize what he thinks is better about his newer stuff.”
Perhaps it’s just the burnout that comes with touring a debut album for way too long. Michael feels he didn’t go as far as he could have on Do Hollywood, and that he’s gotten a lot better over the years. “I like an extrovert on tape. I like to hear a personality, and when I hear [Do Hollywood] there isn’t a personality, or not that much,” he says. But even in the moments where they get frustrated with themselves, the D’Addarios’ roots show. Those years spent on Broadway gave them more than their theatrical flair or their baroque song arrangements: It also imbued them with a care for performance and stagecraft that’s often lacking in young rock bands on indie labels. There’s an element of “The show must go on,” a notion that the recorded Lemon Twigs and the onstage Lemon Twigs are discrete pieces of work. “We’re aware that the sort of show we are playing isn’t 100-percent true to ourselves or where we are artistically,” Michael begins. “But we still really try and we know what that piece of art is.”
“We know what it means to people who like the album,” Brian adds.
Still, there’s a sense that both of them have some regrets about the things already permanently attached to their names, yet derived from their younger selves. It’s fair enough: Even if you have the preternatural and once-precocious self-awareness Michael and Brian picked up from early encounters with a spotlight, you change a lot more from year to year in your teens than you do when you’re older. To the point that they’re not even sold on the name of their band anymore.
“Where did the name the Lemon Twigs come from?” I ask.
“My stupid head,” Brian says. “I kind of regret it.”
“We’re going to maybe drop it,” Michael adds. “No band name. Brian & Michael D’Addario, whatever solo record it is.”
“You’re not about the name anymore?”
“I was like 15. It’s just not fair,” Michael says with a wry, exasperated laugh. “The record’s like three years old. It’s not fair really. Whatever.”
All that might scan more negatively than it does in person. Far from a defeatist or bummed-out tone, you get the sense the two have already learned a lot more, and gone through some growing pains, and are just realizing new, percolating ambitions. This was, after all, something that went from childhood YouTube explorations—both posting their own material and using YouTube as a library to discover old greats and contemporary influences, like Foxygen—to a full-on, touring and recording band operation within the span of a few years. In 2014, Rado had to recommend Todd Rundgren to Brian and Michael, then Rundgren became an influence, then he talked to them for Interview and shared the stage with them (Michael recalls Rundgren’s smile at the moment where they wound up doing a synchronized kick as one of his favorite moments in his life so far), and now he’s set to be on their new album. That’s an experience with, one would imagine, a fair amount of whiplash.
And it’s in conversations about that new stuff where the two really get engaged. Aside from growing as musicians, singers, and performers during the touring gauntlet, they’ve also changed the way they work. Michael and Brian used to write separately, bring their songs to each other, then sing their own songs. Onstage, the set is pretty much divided into a Brian half and a Michael half, with whoever’s not singing filling in on drums. (They’re currently looking for a drummer so they can both serve as guitarist and frontman throughout the set.) The result is perhaps a more productive process, one necessary to pull off their proposed, ambitious second act.
If all goes to plan, the next Lemon Twigs album, the one Rundgren would be on, will be a concept record, a rock opera in the old-school sense. It has a few narratives jostling together so far. Inspired by the time he spent going to school day and night in order to graduate high school ahead of when the Lemon Twigs would begin touring, Michael wrote a lot of songs about, well, school. That will, in some way, mesh with Brian’s songs about “people getting worse as a whole” and a song Michael wrote about “the jungle or something.” It all suggests that the next Lemon Twigs record may go off into even more unforeseen directions than their songwriting already did in the past, and that’s before you get to Brian citing musicals like Oklahoma! and South Pacific as current influences.
“I think that even though it’s a strange thing, it works because some of the songs were written before, about ourselves, and then tweaked a little bit,” Michael says of the music they’re working on. “They’re genuine-feeling, which I think is necessary. Then some songs you’re just helping the story along, and those are also necessary.”
Currently, they’re self-producing that album in a home studio. But the thing is they also talk about two other records they want to make: a power-pop one that Michael asserts will be the next Lemon Twigs record, while his brother differs and describes the planned third album as the “medieval-y, classical-sounding” one, the one that would be influenced by opera. Michael claims they’ll finish tracking the concept record by December, and then they want to complete the third album before they tour again. Like many elements of the Lemon Twigs, it’s an unconventional concept for a young band in 2017. Yet it speaks not only to the ambition the brothers have always had, but also to their attempts to right the chronology, to bring the Lemon Twigs closer up to where the two of them are now.
“I’d like to be caught up,” Brian says, characterizing their plan as one that’s simply designed to release the building amount of music they already have sitting around. As Michael points out, the songs Brian’s talking about were written at the same time as the concept record. So, then, after Brothers Of Destruction this September, and another two records, then it’ll finally be time for some actually new Lemon Twigs music.
Look, it’s easy to ask, “Are these guys for real?” The sudden beginning of a career, the outfits, the theatricality, the grand masterplans, a musical-inspired concept record, something medieval sounding. It is not the kind of conversation most rock bands offer up these days. But that’s not where the Lemon Twigs are coming from. They’re coming from a youth spent dissecting and covering classic songs by the greats, a youth spent honing skills under a drilling, grueling acting schedule, a youth spent scouring YouTube for documentaries and interviews and live footage as they pieced together their own archive of music history. It’s a distinctly modern, 21st century way to cultivate yourself as an artist: A digital rabbithole deep dive that, inevitably, results in the kind of act that seems totally on its own wavelength, pulling from whatever combination of internet and pop history corners that comes together into something that’s just them.
It also results in two young songwriters who have grown up instilled with a respect for craft and songwriting above all else, with little understanding or perspective on why someone might think they’re, say, fucking around when they tell you their next album is inspired by Oklahoma!.
“The songs sound very sincere,” Brian says of the new material. “I think people are open to that now, that sincerity, even if it’s from a place they normally wouldn’t listen to. People are into good songs.”
That’s the main takeaway after talking to Michael and Brian D’Addario. That the main concern, for them, is to keep working, to capitalize on a moment and chase the big, convoluted dreams they concocted back there in Hicksville. It has been a strange enough trip so far. Who knows what weird twists and turns the Lemon Twigs have in store next. But contrary to whatever you might think, they definitely aren’t fucking around.
Brothers Of Destruction is out 9/22 via 4AD. Pre-order it here.