Hanging out at the mall with The Lemon Twigs – the Technicolor teenage heartthrobs crafting a musical multiverse straight out of suburban Long Island
It’s a Thursday afternoon in Garden City, Long Island, and I’m beginning to think I’ve been stood up at the mall. Tucked between a Victoria’s Secret and an Apple Store, I’m waiting for Brian and Michael D’Addario of The Lemon Twigs to arrive outside what I’ve been told is their favourite comic book store. In the last few minutes, some glass has smashed in the walkway just outside, and several security guards have descended to assess the situation. Old women with dramatically coiffed hair step around the debris. A man exits the store, muttering to himself that now he’s “gonna go get my cheese thing”.
But even in the tenth biggest mall in North America, the D’Addario brothers are easy to spot. Two teenage heartthrobs flung out of a 1960s Technicolor popscape, they are the band being hailed as capital R-Rock’n’Roll’s prodigal sons – and they have the looks to match. Today, Michael, 17, wears stonewashed flares with his signature octagonal spectacles and smudged remnants of last night’s make-up; 19-year-old Brian, the taller and more understated of the two, wears a corduroy blazer, faded t-shirt and hair that hangs over his eyes. After we establish that neither of them read comics nor have been to this particular store before, we settle on an alternative location of the food court: Taco Bell for Brian, and sushi rolls for Michael. Awesome.
Well before their debut, Do Hollywood, landed in October, the 4AD-signed Lemon Twigs were already being namechecked as the adolescent saviours of sincere, unabashedly theatrical pop-rock – something that, in the perma-cynical mode of 2016, many thought we’d left behind. Like Donnie and Joe Emerson, these multi-instrumentalist brothers from Hicksville, NY, felt like a discovery – only this time, we get to see their youthful melodies live and in-person. Born into a musical family, the story goes that they have been harmonising into their dad’s 8-track since they were toddlers. Now, they each play just about every instrument going. “We get a lot of comparisons to The Beatles and The Beach Boys or whatever”, says Brian. “But other than that, I hear a lot of people calling us different (kinds of ) bands. It’s not like you can just boil it down to, like, ‘They sound like The Rolling Stones.’ So I think that’s a sign we’re switching it up enough.”
“We’re two separate songwriters, (and) we want people to know that. We’ll just write shit, and at some point in the process of writing a song, show it to the other person” – Brian D’Addario
If the free show that The Lemon Twigs headlined at Irving Plaza the night before we meet is anything to go by, switching it up is second nature for the duo. The first half, all unrequited crushes and grandly orchestrated ballads, has Brian lead yearning harmonies that fill the room, while bassist Megan Zeankowski provides the mellow yin to Michael’s stick-twirling yang on the drums (“I do apologise if I’m overzealous on the toms,” he murmurs into the mic). Halfway through, they swap places, with Michael taking the lead on zig-zagging guitar breakdowns and layers of sound that one would usually ascribe to seasoned prog-rockers. The night finishes with a psyched-out version of “Happy Birthday” for keyboardist Danny Ayala, complete with birthday cake (duly brought along by someone’s mum, they tell me later). A rollercoaster ride from start to lights-up, this is music that sounds like having your heart broken at the fairground; by the maxed-out, high-kicking finish, you’re starry-eyed and ready for your comeback.
The switch-around halfway through the set is a deliberate indicator, the band say, of who has written which song on the album. “We’re two separate songwriters, (and) we want people to know that,” says Brian of their approach. “We’ll just write shit, and at some point in the process of writing a song, show it to the other person. Usually we’ll just give the other person a pretty understated sign of approval, like, ‘Hey, that’s pretty good.’ But we’re less possessive of the songs now, so when we record again, it’ll probably be less clear whose song is whose. Because on this record, it’s like my song, Michael’s song, my song, Michael’s song...”
It’s a musical back-and-forth that reflects their real-life rhythm, as the brothers admit. “His (musical style) is to-the-point and mine is kind of dancing around the point, (which) is reflective of our personalities, a little bit,” says Brian. “If I’m describing something negative, I’ll describe it with all this positive stuff around it. I wouldn’t want to face it as head on, for my own sake. But I get there eventually, I would say. Michael can be more direct, I guess, for better or for worse.”
“(Michael’s) musical style is to-the-point and mine is kind of dancing around the point, (which) is reflective of our personalities” – Brian D’Addario
This much is true: barely ten minutes into the interview, the younger D’Addario asks me which of the sets I preferred, with a blunt “Be honest.” “I just don’t like to do it for that long,” he asserts of his own writing process. “I’d rather just write a pop song.” By ‘it’, Michael means songwriting, but he could equally be talking about interviews. In fact, the brothers disagree on how long one should spend answering questions at all. (Brian: “He doesn’t like it because I extrapolate.” Michael: “Yeah, because it doesn’t even make any sense.” Brian: “I think it makes sense.” Michael: “But why? It’s just a bunch of bullshit. You don’t have to do it.” Brian: “Dude, I’m not going to argue with you.”) From The Everly Brothers to The Kinks’ Ray and Dave Davies, rock’n’roll history is peppered with family fall-outs; somehow, today’s disagreement strikes me as nothing to be concerned about.
One thing the brothers can agree on is what makes good music. On this point, Michael is effusive. “I feel like there’s so many bands where the production is good, the songwriting is good, and I like the voice, (so) I shouldn’t be listening to something where there’s one of those aspects that sucks to me. Then I’m wasting my time, and I should be learning about something else.” In old-school terms, that could mean Jean-Jacques Perrey, John Frusciante or even Dee Dee Ramone’s failed rap album; nowadays, they namecheck Ariel Pink, Sunflower Bean (who they toured with this October) and Foxygen as fast favourites. In fact, Jonathan Rado of the latter band produced Do Hollywood in California, to the D’Addarios’ fanboy delight. As Michael synopsises: “Is there any band I like that’s not fucking great?”
Looking at the Twigs, you’d be forgiven for presuming a distinct sense of style is an equally important ingredient for musical greatness. According to a Pinterest board shared with me before their shoot, Brian is currently channelling Keith Moon, John Lennon and Brian Wilson, whereas Michael is more androgynous, citing the hard-edged, awkward glamour of Joan Jett and the Runaways and early Lou Reed. But, like most teenagers, they’re just going through phases. “Once I was into Nirvana and grunge stuff, (and) I was washing my hair with a bar of soap once a week,” laughs Michael. (“It was gross,” confirms Brian.) “What we do is very much a show,” says Brian. “It wouldn’t make sense for us to wear something very basic. So right now I’m wearing the same stuff I’d wear on stage.” Besides, adds Michael with a grin, “I threw out all his other clothes!”
Through the course of our conversation, it becomes apparent that Michael deeply regrets his choice of food-court foodstuffs; the sushi, we can all agree, is not good. “It’s interesting, those three people together,” he says, pointing at a mom, dad and small child eating next to us. “One of them got Japanese foods from the same place I did. But the other person got Japanese from –” “The other Japanese place?” “Yeah. And they got their kid Wendy’s, God.”
“Once I was into Nirvana, (and) I was washing my hair with a bar of soap once a week” – Michael
“It was gross” – Brian
California roll regrets aside, for The Lemon Twigs, to simply do what everyone else does would be the greatest risk of all. If the D’Addario brothers seem to stick out, it’s because being any other way would be the scarier prospect. “Rolling up your jeans, for me, is taking a risk, because then you’re falling into a crowd,” says Michael. “That’s funny,” Brian interjects. “Taking a risk for you is looking like everybody else.”
“But it’s not that bad,” Michael continues, as he piles abandoned sushi on to Brian’s leftover burrito, considering his freakish creation. “I mean, it doesn’t really matter. It’s not because other people are doing it, it’s just because you don’t want to look like everybody else. But with music, you can’t give up on stuff just because other people start to like it.” For a band whose peculiar magic is poised to have the mainstream under their spell like Prince or Bowie before them, this seems like solid advice.
The Lemon Twigs will tour the UK from 28 November, with a second run of dates to follow in spring 2017
Hair Tomi Kono at Julian Watson Agency using Bumble & bumble., make-up Chisa Takahashi using M.A.C, photography assistant Kohei Kawashima, styling assistant Kuschan Hojjatian, hair assistant Sora Kuwata