Pop is a canvas upon which anything can be painted – the rules are as simple, or as complex, as you decide them to be. So why is so much pop music so trite, predictable, and beige? It’s almost as though a whole generation have been marketed away from colour, from wit, verve, and imagination.
However, it seems as though pop’s grey shore is beginning to rescind. The Lemon Twigs are two remarkable teenage prodigies, whose coquettish charm recalls glam’s evocation of the alien while continually thirsting for something new. Two shooting stars blazing across music’s empty firmament, they’re quietly outrageous, softly daring, and rebellious in the most understated fashion – the most simple, yet most complex, of dichotomies.
First, the details: The Lemon Twigs are brothers, uniting the Long Island-based talents of Brian and Michael D’Addario. Brian, the elder – at a mere 19-years-old – is a little quieter, more subdued in his passionately creative dedication; Michael – a fresh-faced 17-year-old – is a little more unpredictable, tempestuous, but still respectful. Not quite opposites, the pair are radically different, yet wholly complementary in their own charming manner.
The pair were born into a musical family, which made it slightly easier for their innate creativity to find its level. “It’s something that we were both drawn to, and kind of drawn into,” Brian explains. “It was very easily accessible to us because our parents are both very musical. And we had instruments around the house.”
“There wasn’t a memory, or a moment, where we realised we wanted to be musicians – it was just something that we always loved, and loved to the extent of wanting to do it exactly like we saw The Beatles do it when we were little kids.”
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Performing and writing music from a young age, the brothers were astonishingly precocious, writing their first songs before hitting puberty. “Michael had a song called ‘Cold Side Of The Pillow’ that was something he wrote when he was about 9… and it was kind of like him thinking about what it would be like when his grandparents passed away. That was a really good song. He was pretty young to be writing about that sort of stuff.”
Grasping pop’s essentials from an early age, the brotherly duo looked to what first inspired their imagination: ripe cuts from the ’60s and ’70s, when heart-twisting melodies seem to unfurl from Dansette radios every three minutes. But this ain’t some retro exercise: debut album ‘Do Hollywood’ is a skewed take on these influences; a baroque, psychedelic fantasy, as creative as those early Sparks records but firmly implanted in a 2016 landscape.
The record’s path was partly guided by the impact of producer Jonathan Rado, the hugely experienced lynchpin of US spaced outlaws Foxygen. “The way we used to discover music,” Brian explains, “was we would get obsessed completely with artists. It might be Bob Dylan for a year or something, but when we kind of started working with Rado, the way he does it is different. He gets into a whole lot of music at once.”
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The way we used to discover music… was we would get obsessed completely with artists.
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“We kind of started doing that way about it. When we were working on this album we were like getting into a lot of different stuff to cover all the ground that we missed when we were growing up because we were so focused on a few bands. There’s been a lot of music that we’re just sort of getting into now.”
This process of filling-in-the-blanks took The Lemon Twigs down some new, startling avenues – and it exploded their notion of what songwriting could be, and could achieve. “It’s not that we’ve necessarily listened to all the same stuff – there’s a lot of stuff that I’m into that he’s not into, and vice versa – but it’s the things we like about the artists that we love in their ability to craft songs, and express them in a coherent way. And that was a big part of making the record. Presenting the ideas in the most effective way possible without relying too much on the bells and whistles.”
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Focusing on the song as an object in itself, it seems, is what drives The Lemon Twigs forward – melodies and chord progressions haunt their imaginations, and are in turn afforded the space to evolve, to progress in strange directions. However, it wasn’t all as laissez-faire as this; the brothers’ carefully constructed universe was distilled onto vinyl during the course of a mere 10 days. “When we went to record ‘Do Hollywood’ we knew we only had 12 days because it was in between a school break. And we were both in high school at the time. When we got there we had the songs all kind of rehearsed to a tee, so that we wouldn’t just not finish the record. So the performances felt like they weren’t rushed or anything – they were very confident, and we were really excited to be there working on it.”
‘Do Hollywood’ certainly excites. The songwriting is unafraid to double-back on itself, the sound of bubblegum pop being chewed up, blown out, and twisted into startlingly inventive shapes. It’s the aural equivalent of a boiled sweet from Willy Wonka’s confectionery – both ludicrously original, and deviously logical. The tight timescale – a little over a week to deliver the album you’ve dreamed about making – seems to have caused the brothers’ imaginations to ripple and flood.
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The performances felt like they weren’t rushed or anything – they were very confident…
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“I think the idea was to do 10 of the best pop songs we could write,” states Brian. “And we had other songs, but I think we wanted to keep it concise. Also, the time restraint of only having 10 days in the studio, that also kept us wanting to keep it simple. But the songs that we had left over, we ended up recording at our own house, for an EP that we’ll release after the record at some point. So that’ll be fun to get that out, because it’s sort of a different feeling but it’s written around the same time.”
A record that relies on such nebulous yet entirely vital qualities as ‘feeling’ and ‘atmosphere’ is an inherently difficult thing to translate into another form. But one of the most enthralling aspects of The Lemon Twigs’ unpredictable rise is their grasp of imagery – those stunning press shots, for example, sluicing together mid-’70s cool with gender-slippage, a retro-futurist take that unpicks standard tropes and makes way for the unpredictable.
The Lemon Twigs are that rare thing: a three-dimensional pop package, occupying their own, deeply defiant universe. “We have to have a visual element,” Michael interjects. “It wasn’t important, but you’re forced to have a visual element. You can’t not have it, you know? You can’t not have it because it’s part of the whole thing. So we just dressed the way that we thought was coolest, and we tried to look cool.”
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The Brooke Linder-directed video for ‘These Words’ was certainly cool. For many people it became their introduction to The Lemon Twigs, casting the brothers as 21st century dandies in a coy, playful clip that subverted masculinity and injected some imagination and colour onto pop’s canvas. For the band, though, it was less a creation, and more a simple expansion of their own identities.
“He was a gentleman, we liked him a lot,” says Michael of Linder. “We had fun working with him. It was more just fun. And that video is about visuals; it hasn’t got much of a story.”
“We told him, “No slow motion.” Which is not necessarily something that’s bad, but it’s just that we didn’t want it to be dependant on that sort of thing. We wanted it to be fast moving. And for that video we didn’t have much time to do it, and we didn’t want it to be super narrative-based, necessarily. We just didn’t want it to be too serious.”
Much like the music itself, it could be argued. “We didn’t want to play characters,” adds Michael. “We just wanted to play characters that were basically ourselves. It’s just basically us, dressed up.”
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It’s just basically us, dressed up.
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It’s here that we get to the heart of The Lemon Twigs – that push-and-pull relationship behind their own lives, and the work they have created. “We didn’t want it to be completely straight-up biographical,” Michael adds. “We got some treatments that were kind of like that. And we wanted to stray away from that, as we didn’t want to be too revealing, or whatnot. We didn’t want to play off on any brother thing, or play off any Long Island thing. We just wanted to do something that looked cool. That’s all.”
The Lemon Twigs are entirely invented yet totally natural – a pair of one-off, brotherly pop figures who simply view the world from a different angle. Nowhere is this more obvious than the pair’s live show, their most direct portal for fans to inhabit. Augmented by two live members – Megan Zeankowski (bass) and Danny Ayala (keyboards) – it’s a brash pop showcase, as alternative as it is immediate. “We mostly play to people that don’t really know the music,” Brian explains. And we’ve been getting pretty good reactions so far, so that’s really fun.”
“Basically, me and Michael take turns playing guitar and drums,” he adds. “So I’ll start the set off on guitar, and then I’ll give it to Michael and I’ll play drums. It’s sort of two sets, but the feeling is pretty similar because we did make the music together. So I feel like it’s a balanced show. I would say that my half of the set is a little bit more laid back, and Michael’s is a little more rowdy, or something. But I like having that balance.”
It’s this balance that seems to define the brothers – the austere and the colourful, the outrageous and the humble, the classic and the inquisitive. It’s there you’ll find the myth that is Hollywood, and it’s there you’ll find The Lemon Twigs.
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'Do Hollywood' is out now.
Catch The Lemon Twigs at the following shows:
23 Bristol Thekla
24 Nottingham Bodega
26 Dublin The Workmans Club
28 Manchester Gorilla
29 London KOKO
Words: Robin Murray
Photography: Ash Kingston