- 17 Sep 20
With album number t(h)ree, Songs For The General Public, The Lemon Twigs prove they’ve got the juice. We’ll stop now. “We were going for a pop celebration sound,” Brian D’Addario tells Pat Carty.
Though they are still enviably young, Brian and Micheal D’Addario of Long Island pop saviours The Lemon Twigs are already on album three with the quite brilliant Songs For The General Public. They started early, mind, with video evidence available of the very young brothers essaying everything from The Beatles to backward-hatted hip-hop, so one must presume that Brian’s musical parents handed him a guitar when he came home from the maternity ward.
“I think we had a pretty abnormal attachment to it,” Brian, the slightly older D’Addario brother understates down the phone. “But if we had the attachment to sports or something like that, our parents would have encouraged it just as much, although they always wanted us to have a backup plan. My mom got us involved in acting, and the fact that it went better than we anticipated made it feel like maybe we'd have a shot at doing music.”
Indeed it did, with the brothers boasting a string of Broadway and movie credits, but we’re not here for that interview. Their father Ronnie D’Addario, as well as being a power-pop musician of no small regard, was also Tommy Makem’s guitar player for years. Well, come into the parlour! Sure that makes the lads Irish, really.
“Well, yeah!” Brian agrees with a snort. “We always heard Irish music and Dad worked at Tommy Makem's Irish Pavilion in New York, so we heard the Clancy Brothers. I only really started to understand how incredible that was over the last maybe five years after getting into Dylan and then listening to some of those Clancy Brothers albums, so that's a pretty major thing.”
I allude to Taylor Swift’s recent controversial cultural appropriation of the Aran jumper but Brian is well-aware we don’t usually, unless there’s a few bob in it, walk the streets in that sort of rig-out. Sticking with D’Addario senior, The Lemon Twigs have often played his ‘Love Stepped Out’ live.
“We did, yeah, on our first tour,” he remembers. “We really took it upon ourselves, as soon as we started getting press, to point people to his music. When we did our first record Do Hollywood, we decided it was really important to present pop songs in a melodically and harmonically interesting way, and we discovered our father’s early work again. We felt that other people should hear it, and not just because he's our Dad.”
Do Hollywood, released in 2016, quickly racked up the kudos, with the likes of Elton John and Questlove queuing up to praise the brothers’ efforts. This must have been unexpected.
“It continues to surprise me, or stupefy me,” says Brian. “I think It had something to do with our age, something that could pop out in a huge sea of media. I have to just attribute it to circumstance and luck.”
He’s selling himself a bit short here. Talent and good songs must count for something.
“Yeah, I think so,” he agrees. “But, you know, a lot of the times that really isn't enough.”
Only one year later, The Twigs play Coachella, and get power-pop wizard and true star Todd Rundgren out on stage, for a run at his immortal ‘Couldn’t I Just Tell You’. You can still hear the excited disbelief in Brian’s voice.
“We just asked our manager to reach out to his manager. We haven't really done that very often. But it felt like something that he might be into, and he just happened to be in LA rehearsing, though he lives in Hawaii. It was amazing just walking around, getting catering and sitting down with him. I didn't know what to do, but he's such a personable guy, it was very easy to be around him.”
The brothers knew enough to ask Rundgren to appear on their next album while they had him.
“Yes. We didn't know what he was gonna do at first but we wanted him to do something. We knew how we wanted to do the next record, all to tape, so he would have to physically be there, rather than just work on stuff and send it to us. It happened to line up because he played a show in Long Island ten minutes from our house. We went to the show and we drove him from the hotel the next day, and recorded it that night. It was just very personal, not like someone sending something in and going through managers and staff.”
The album – or musical as it’s billed – in question is 2018’s Go To School. I shall attempt to summarise the concept: Shane is an adopted chimpanzee, who is bullied and unloved, so he burns the school down, kills a load of people, and runs off to the woods.
“We couldn't quite decide at the time, because we didn't want it to be controversial. whether or not he kills people,” Brian tries to explain. “Although that was the original idea. But it is left a bit vague, to avoid bad press.”
It’s amusing to imagine the look on a record company executive’s face who’s just been presented with such a caper.
“It was probably even before the release of the first album, that we had the idea and we talked to the record company about it, casually, but with a lot of excitement,” is Brian’s recollection. “It was the only time – we were 18 and 16 or whatever – that we could have come up with this idea and followed it through, but when it came to doing press about it, it was almost like ‘What have we done?’ To me, it's just like it's a perfect document of that time growing up because that's really what the whole album’s about, the loss of innocence, but there's definitely some stuff where the record company were concerned going into the release.”
Writing without an over-arching concept to adhere to this time around was surely an easier job.
“Yeah, absolutely. I know at least 'The One' was written around the time of Go To School. We always have this other pile of songs that we’re ready to work on as soon as the last one is done. It was way easier, I think we were just influenced by the energy that the record was taking on.”
Brian offers an explanation on the brothers’ approach to songwriting, and suggests how we might tell their contributions apart.
“We write separately,“ he explains. “I will suggest something to Michael, and vice versa. I think you'd have to watch you know, clips of us performing, and start to identify our voices. We each sing our own songs.”
The records themselves are a team effort.
“We're usually together. In the case of Michael's Song 'Hell On Wheels' which starts the record, he did bass, drums, guitar, vocal, and piano in a night when I wasn't there, and he engineered himself. He basically had the song. I did the cello parts and then we brought in a violinist. Usually, I'll just get like one idea in if it needs something. With my songs, I'll try to get it together with Michael on drums and kind of work out the energy, and if he's not on drums then he's usually engineering because he's way better at the whole production side of things than I am.”
Like so many 2020 releases, Songs For The General Public had its original release date put back by a few months. The D’Addarios used this as an opportunity for further tinkering.
“We had a version of the album that was pretty close to done, but once we decided to change the release date, we completely re-recorded the track 'Fight' because it didn’t quite hit us the way it should have. That was something that was difficult for the for the label because they had pressed some records but they went with it, and what you hear is the newer version.”
This year also saw the Bandcamp release of The Lemon Twigs LIVE to benefit Coalition for the Homeless, a rawer affair than the studio recordings.
“We recorded those shows because I really felt that we were kind of onto something unique for us, and the musicians we were working with really brought the songs to another place. And I like the way that it was recorded, on this Tascam cassette recorder, like a bootleg. It just seemed like we had to do something for this charity because no one's really doing anything in our government to help, but this will continue to make some money for that organisation going forward.”
One might expect the album’s delay to be a source of frustration, but Brian sees it in another light.
“This whole thing is making us evaluate how we spend our time creatively. And it's really beautiful to just be making albums. This album in these sort of times, to me, it's not the most essential message, because we were going for a pop celebration sound. I don't know if it really presents as much love and hopeful feelings as what we would record in the next year. I just want to make something that's more in line with what it is that we're all feeling, and how fragile this thing is we’re all dealing with.”
So you're working on something new already?
“We're working on tons of stuff.”
In the meantime, Songs For The General Public has a glorious hum off it. ‘Hell On Wheels’ could be Bowie and the New York Dolls driving around town in a car fuelled by a Mick Ronson arrangement, the ghost of Lou Reed haunts ‘Ashamed’, I can hear Phil Spector girl groups in 'Hog’ and even Bruce Springsteen on ‘Moon’ and ‘The One’. I hurl all this older rock n’ roll fan, fantasy football malarkey at young Brian and he replies succinctly.
‘Yeah, you actually can't argue with that.”
Okay, could he then name a couple of records that would point towards where this album is coming from?
“Yeah, if I had a gun to my head…”
You have a gun to your head.
“Catch Bull At Four by Cat Stevens, and Street Legal by Bob Dylan, although I can really only point to ‘The One’ as being something that I know was influenced by that record. I can't speak for Michael, but I know Lou Reed is a big lyrical hero to him.”
HERMIT OF MINK HOLLOW
Nobody knows anything about anything right now, but does D’Addario know what he’s doing next?
“We're recording my girlfriend's group, and there was an album of my dad songs that we've been working on for a while. I hope that we can finish those because we were going to have a bunch of guests on it. I just have so many songs. This is the last record of our contract with 4AD, so I don't know what we'll do as far as re-signing. I might have the opportunity to release some things in between deals, so I just want to get a bunch of records in the can. I really want to do something very tender and beautiful and quiet, this one was really loud.”
The live album came out on Bandcamp, he could go that route?
“I do like working with a label, it’s very helpful in a lot of ways, but I don't want to be forced into that standard flow of an album every two years, and having that be the sole thing you release. I just want to be able to have more things going on at once, so people have more to listen to.”
Could Brian D’Addario be one of the few musicians for whom the pandemic prompted pause is a good thing?
“It’s hard to say,” he laughs. “If I can get a good work ethic going as primarily a studio musician, then there’s a lot of potential for growth. We've always been a little bit wary of the road-studio lifestyle, because it really does cut off your creative flow.”
Like the aforementioned Mr Rundgren, or pop’s high priest, his holiness Brian Wilson, it’s the studio life then, for Ronnie’s eldest son?
“Yeah, I mean, as long as I can, and when my creative juices are completely dried up, I can do the other thing.”
We’ll get the Vegas Greatest Hits shows.
- Songs For The General Public is out now.