In Conversation: The Lemon Twigs

The D’Addario brothers on touring life and studio inspiration...

Before playing a high-octane set at the New Century Hall in Manchester, The Lemon Twigs kindly agreed to speak to Clash about their new record ‘Everything Harmony’ as well as their ever shifting influences, live performances, and relationship with growing up – as brothers, in stardom. I began by talking to Michael D’Addario, the younger of the two brothers, whilst Brian D’Addario was attending to a Wurlitzer Keyboard malfunction. 

As we sat down I handed Michael a 7” from Manchester band Blanketman as a welcome gift. He smiled and made plenty of assurances to listen to it when he got home. We began discussing his touring lifestyle, as one half of The Lemon Twigs. 

Have you found that touring is a time for work, or a time for debauchery? 

M: “I have a lot of trouble with my voice, and so a lot of stuff centres around that for me. Everything centres around the show. If something gets in the way of the show, then I don’t want to do it.”

After years of touring, have you developed any particular pre-show rituals?

M: “Not really, I am always scrambling. There always seems to be something to do. I am always scrambling. Brian uses his steamer, to steam his voice. I do it sometimes, but it is really his thing. Maybe I’ll do some warm ups. It is all about the voice – the songs are hard to sing. I just try to do anything to keep me distracted, and I have to eat something, otherwise my voice has an empty sound.”

At this point, Brian enters. The middle C note on the Wurlitzer was not working.

B: “Hey! The Wurlitzer is broken. I just screwed something in, and the wire was connected to it, and I screwed it in, and I broke the wire. So.”

M: “I don’t think that is the way that you should twist it. I think you should twist it in a way that is like…”

Michael gesticulates how he thinks that it should have been twisted.

B: “I broke it. I broke it. I broke the whole thing. It’s not gonna be good for the show.”

The brothers exchange some looks, though there is a notable lack of panic in the room. In a warming way, they don’t let this technical issue stop them from being brothers, if anything it is a scenario in which they thrive as siblings.

M: “See, the way that he said it, what he meant was that I should have helped – that is what he said. But he broke it.” 

B: “Yeah, I broke it, I broke it. But Michael usually helps with that kind of thing. It’s his fingers, they’re tactile.”

M: “No no, I’ll tell you what it is. It is busy work, it is work that I am made to do. It is hard and not fun to do, so, you know…” 

B: “I am very angry at myself for destroying the Wurlitzer. But I am also upset at Michael, because he said “if you open it up, I’ll help you” – and he was on stage, but then he left.”

M: “What?! No – I didn’t leave. I was getting my suitcase, because I have to shave – because I have a million things to do before a show [see Scrambling]. And I was here to help you, whenever you wanted me to take out the time. I just didn’t want to take it apart there and then.”

Here lies the key to the Lemon Twigs. They are brothers, and no “professional” issue has prevented this. In times of tension, they are perfectly happy to tell each other how they feel. Therefore when they write, and share music, they are close. They can openly express and develop songs with themes ranging from loneliness and isolation, to glee and excitement. This intimacy is one that they are happy to share with the listener. ‘Everything Harmony’ is complete with human emotion. Titles such as ‘What You Were Doing’ provide a lover’s nostalgia-ridden reflection, and ‘Ghost Run Free’ takes this to the next level, with complete power-pop-perfection. Slower songs such ‘I Don’t Belong to Me’ and ‘Every Day Is The Worst Day of My Life’ illustrate the brother’s amidst existential reflection. It is an album that is as rich in emotional dynamics, as it is in musical dynamics.

When you are creating, do you have to leave being brothers at the door? Or does it play into it?

M: “I think it plays into it, I don’t think we ever leave that at the door. Like I am sending subliminal messages to him [Brian] now.”

B: “Well, I am not getting any of them. Maybe they’re on their way, or maybe they are being intercepted by… something else.” 

[They both giggle.]

I absolutely love Everything Harmony. Was there a specific creative process behind it? Was there a moment in which it felt like it really came into itself? 

B: “Yeah, well we went to San Francisco. Before we went to San Francisco, we knew that we had an album with the amount of songs that we had. We had too many so we had to narrow them down. We had a lot of power-pop songs that were along the lines of ‘In My Head’. So it was just about finding the right balance between the ballads, and the fast songs. On the album, we have pretty much an equal amount of both. Only towards the end, did this come around.”

How does a Lemon Twigs song come into existence? 

B: “I would say that nine times out of 10, when Michael starts sharing his songs with me, they don’t have lyrics – or they have some lyrics. There is usually a verse and a chorus, and then a bridge that is developing. Whereas, for me, I usually don’t show him something until I at least have most of the lyrics finished.”

M: “Well, we’re always in the studio, and we’re always playing, and so we hear a lot of each other’s songs.” 

As you have grown up, do you think that this process has changed? Do you feel like you have gained more freedom with songwriting? Or, at least feeling more comfortable in doing things that you want to do? 

M: “I feel more comfortable. I don’t know if I feel more freedom to do whatever we want to do. I feel more pressure – not pressure from anybody – but from myself. Though it is more like, I can’t just say that “I was 15 when I did this” – I have to really have something I can stand by. So in that sense, I think it is less freedom. But I do know what I like more.”

People often discuss the 60s and 70s sound that you have. However, your music is clearly unique and modern in its own right – do you have any particularly modern influences?

M: “There is not really any modern influence, but melodically on this album, there are parts which sound more modern, because there are influences from about twenty or thirty years ago. There is just not much more for any later than that. We were really into the Pastels when we made this album, and Teenage Fanclub. Those people are influenced by older stuff, but they used certain melodies that I just don’t think people before that were using. We kind of follow that on this album, which we had never really done before. All of our melodies were always either rootsy, american song-book sounding, or Beatles sounding. We hadn’t really gone past that before this album. Although, that is about as far as I would want to get. Now that we’ve done that, I don’t even know if I want to do that again. People seem to still cite 60s and 70s stuff as the influence for this album, such as Simon and Garfunkle. But there are definitely some other things going on, and I wonder if that is partially why people seem to like it more than they like other stuff, because we’re kind of giving people a bone a little bit [Michael chuckles to himself]. Like a modern way to get into the older influences; and then maybe we will switch it up.”

B: “It is weird though, because the song which seems to have resonated the most is ‘Corner of My Eye’ and that is more influenced by Spanish guitar sounds and The Beach Boys. So it is kind of about the song itself, and the strength of the song itself.”

M: “Yeah, and something that we have focused on with this album too is the delicate tones. Making sure that the playing was super, super tight. There are no “mistakes” on this album, which is pretty much a first with our records, as we are usually more fast and loose with our recording process.”

Do you find that your relationship with your past albums changes, when you release something new?

B: “Yeah, there become less songs that you want to do from your old albums, and more songs that you want to do from the new albums. Except that the amount of songs that I have wanted to do from the last album, hasn’t changed. I pretty much liked every song that we put out on the last album. And, I pretty much liked every song that we put out from this album. So I am wondering if at this point, we have (or at least, I have) found what I really like. More-so than with the first two records, which felt more experimental, and that makes sense as they were earlier on.” 

‘Everything Harmony’ is incredibly dynamic, as you mentioned it has a mix of quick, power-pop songs, and down-tempo ballads. Has it been a difficult process to bring this dynamic depth into a live context?

M: “Well, we haven’t really done that. Probably around 50% of the set is from the new record. We have a few records, so we are able to pull from other records. We tend to pick more upbeat stuff for the show, and this album has got some more downer stuff on it, so we also take some of them and make them a little more ‘up’. Brian sings a few acoustic songs at the end. But yeah, the three singles from the album are in the set. I don’t know. We are only a four piece, so there is a lot of stuff which doesn’t make it. But there are four singers, so we do a lot of vocal arrangements.”

Has it been an active decision to keep it as a four piece live?

M: “Well, we have had five people before – and we kept it centred on having these five people, until COVID happened, and then it just changed organically. We got Danny, who was in the band at the very beginning, who has a nice vocal which helps to fill out the sound. Everybody in the band is a multi-instrumentalist. For me personally, unless every person in the band, or every instrument is robotically tight – like a Beach Boys thing – it can become overwhelming, even with just five instruments. The last band was like that, and was very tight, but it was also very jammy, and everybody was soloing at the same time. There was a certain vibe. So either, you can do it that way, or you can have people that are doing specific parts that they never change from, so everything works as one instrument. That way you can have 8 or 9 people playing. But I think a four piece is as many as you can have, whilst maintaining a sense of space. People are going to be laying out a lot. Or they have to be playing the same thing. I am very easily thrown off, or confused.”

B: “Yeah, it is the same for me. I usually end up making the videos for everyone to learn the songs. So, it ends up being a lot when it is for three other people. And I like having these alternate versions of these songs too. The records have so much on them. It is great to simplify it, and a lot of people have told us that in a live context, they really can get the songs more.”

M: “Brian also is really proficient at the guitar, and having four people leaves enough space for him to explore that a little bit more. If we had more people involved, it would hold him to a certain thing. He also plays a 12 string for half the show, and that is a really good full sound, and he can really do a lot with that.” 

Indeed, when the group took to the stage later that night, it was clear that this was exactly what they had done. Without anything more than four people, and the added ingredient of energy, the band had a rich sound. They managed to circumvent the issue that bands have of perfectly replicating an album live, or just deciding to let a live performance rest entirely on the energy of the band. They had rearranged their songs to ensure that their value was communicated live, with an energy expressed through jumping, guitar-windmilling and drum-stick-flipping.

B: “Playing live also gives us a lot of perspective with what we want to do in the studio too, because the songs that you end up enjoying the most, playing in front of people, tend to be the kind of song that you want to write more of. That is something that in the process of making the last album was so different – as we weren’t playing live at all [because of COVID]. It was a lot of inner reflection.”

M: “Yeah, a lot of inner reflection. It is fortunate that people seem to like it, because we were our only audience and that can be dangerous, when you are in an echo chamber. You can end up doing something self-indulgent, or just outrageously bad.” 

If you could sneak something into the rucksack of your younger self –  an object, a record, a cassette, anything – what would it be?

B: “It would have been cool to get into certain movies at a younger age. I came to appreciate certain types of movies a lot later than I could have, the Cassavetes movies I probably would have immediately latched onto at any age, so I think all of his would have been cool to have known. I think A Woman Under the Influence was the one that I thought “wow – man there is so much that you can do with a movie” and how this applies to writing songs; all of his movies are just about cool things.”

Your lyrics are so vivid. Do you have an idea of what you want to write about before writing your lyrics, or does a narrative develop from an initial lyric?

B: “Yeah, ‘Born To Be Lonely’ was really the only one that was like that. Not necessarily a story song, but a song that was from the perspective of someone who wasn’t me. I had just seen ‘Opening Night’ by Cassavetes and that focused on an older woman and her being made to feel weird about ageing. So then I was thinking about my Mum and other people that I know who have gotten older and the vulnerability in that; which spurred me on. Mostly, though, our songs come from a first person perspective.” 

M: “Yeah, everything is just what works and what sings well. For me, I just try not to overcomplicate things lyrically.”

Have you ever had your lyrics misinterpreted? 

M: “Only in the sense that people think that we are really depressed… and I don’t think I am any more depressed than the next guy. I’m Joe Schmo.”

B:‘How Lucky Am I’ from the first album. A lot of people use that in weddings, and they interpret it to be “how lucky am I to have met this person” whereas the whole song is questioning “I know you are lucky for meeting someone, but how lucky am I?!”

[They laugh.]

Is there any particular literature that inspires the way that you write? 

M: “Around the time of the last record, I was reading a lot of Hubert Selby Junior books, and a lot of what influences my lyrics in particular are Noir Films. I write down the puns and the different little jokes. There are constant jokes in them. Sometimes, you find the perfect place for these things.”

B: “Really the only thing that I will pick up consistently is Leonard Cohen’s poetry. I also read Tarkovsky interviews – I am now reading Sculpting and Time – which is great. He seems to only have one aim with his movies, which is exploring the spiritual self. The heroes that he writes about are forced to reconcile their spiritual life with the real world. They are always beaten down, and they think that they are spiritual and that they believe, and then they are beaten down and they really do believe. They are untested and then they are tested, and they rise out of that. He always says that  if the director knows what he is talking about, and he knows what emotions he is expressing, then people will understand this intuitively, without you having to cater to them or explain everything, they can unconsciously understand. That is something which is just great for any artist.”

At this point, their tour manager knocks at the door. It is time for them to prepare for a blow-out of a show.

‘Everything Harmony’ is out now. For full details of the Lemon Twigs live shows hit their website.

Words: Arthur Arnold
Photo Credit: Eva Chambers

Follow Clash

Buy Clash Magazine