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The Lemon Twigs on Their Origins, Working With Sean Lennon, and Their Eternal Musical Trifecta: the Beatles, the Beach Boys and Todd Rundgren

'We don't really like going out and stuff like that. All we really want to do is make recordings and play shows.'

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Source: Stephanie Pia

The Lemon Twigs - Brian on the left, Michael on the right - happily worship at the musical altar of the Beatles, the Beach Boys and Todd Rundgren.

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When you hear an artist being described as "critical darlings," there's often a tendency to reel back somewhat, as it's a phrase which can often translate to "something that you'd never, ever hear on mainstream radio." In the case of the Lemon Twigs, the band powered by siblings Brian and Michael D'Addario, you can hit "play" on any of the albums they've released to date and walk away wondering, "Why aren't these guys massive?" And it's a perfectly reasonable question, since they've proven themselves capable of delivering a non-stop flurry of memorable pop hooks and brotherly harmonies to die for.

That tendency continues with their new album, A Dream Is All We Know, which hits record store shelves on May 3 and features a dozen songs which maintain their incredibly catchy status quo, including "In the Eyes of the Girl," a song that the D'Addarios co-produced with Sean Lennon. In a chat with Q done earlier this year, Brian and Michael discuss working with Lennon, meeting the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and how they're much more prone to explore older music that they've never heard before than try to check out what's new.

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wills q template
Source: Stephanie Pia

Brian and Michael D'Addario of the Lemon Twigs, standing in alphabetical order.

First of all, let me say that I'm thrilled that you guys are apparently embracing the use of the descriptor "power pop" rather than treating it as a bad word.

Brian: [Laughs.] Power pop: you don't have to hide anymore!

I interviewed Jon Cryer recently and he said that all artists begin as theater kids, that it's just the natural state of things. I guess you'd both agree with that, having each done your share of theater early on.

Michael: Yeah, we did. We did a lot of theater. I think it was odd with us, because for us, the music actually was the first thing that we were doing, since we were really, really little. I was playing drums, Brian was playing guitar. But the theater... We just started everything so young that the theater always seemed like a secondary thing to us. We never took it too seriously, which is probably why we found some success in it. Because there were so many kids who would really try hard, whereas I - in particular - would always go in kind of feeling like I didn't care if I got it or not, because I'd rather just do the band. Because we always had a band going.

Brian: Michael got two or three "Slacker Kid" parts.

Michael: [Laughs.] Yeah, I was always cast as the slacker kid. But I know that there's probably some element of that in being comfortable on camera, being comfortable on a stage. But I'll tell you, for me personally, I had to relearn all of that stuff in an authentic way. I knew it when I was a kid because, essentially, when I was a kid, it was always that you got things because you were natural. But then when we got into the music, I started to think, "Well, maybe it was a 'feeling like an imposter' thing, where I started to feel like it had to be a put-on. You had to act. So the acting involved less acting, and the music became more acting. And now I've gotten more into being natural, being more comfortable with it. So...I don't know if it helped, actually. It might've f--ked everything up. It confused the s--t out of me!

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Did you guys always know that you wanted to work together in a band?

Michael: It was just the way of things. Right, Brian?

Brian: Yeah, I resisted it when I was a teenager or a pre-teenager or something, because I wasn't used to communicating any ideas to someone other than if we played in our high school band or whatever. But once we got over that hump... Michael started getting results that I couldn't get myself with his own material. As soon as he started writing... He played guitar later than I did. I started on guitar and drums, and he just played drums for a long time.

Michael: Since I was about 12 or something.

Brian: So he developed really quickly. And he was able to get sounds on the computer that were, like, good. He always had a talent with that, especially.

Michael: Yeah, it started in the recording area, when we started to work together in a more collaborative way. Because it was kind of always... In the band that we were in, Brian was always the singer, and he would arrange the harmonies. He still does all that. And I'd get a song every once in awhile or whatever. And when we started recording, I kind of took over the role as engineer, I guess probably because Brian was such a good multi-instrumentalist. And then it got into tape when I was about 14 - Brian, you would've been about 16 - and we started getting into pulling out my dad's old 8-track and working off of that. And then I got really into analog recording. We depend on each other. There's not really any other way to do it, because we depend on each other for all the things... Like, if I need somebody to play a part, but I can't play it, then I know I've got Brian to do it. He can just pick up the slack like that. If needs strings, I've got Brian to do it. If Brian needs somebody to record his thing, he's got me to do it. Or just somebody to listen to what he's doing.

Brian: Or to sing harmonies with, y'know?

Michael: Right, right. So he can arrange the vocals and hear them in front of him while he's doing it. I can just be another voice. So it's things like that. Clearly, I think one of us needs the other one more than... [Starts to laugh.]

Brian: No, no, that's not true. But as soon as we started, we knew that we wanted to split songwriting half and half, pretty much. Because our songs complement each other's songs.

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It's amazing how, when I go back and listen to that first Lemon Twigs album, it literally sounds like it was dropped into the present from the '70s.

Michael: Well, it was made on vintage equipment. It was all analog. I think every record we've made has been analog.

Brian: Mostly.

Michael: Mostly, yeah. I think the first and third and fourth album were all recorded analog, mixed digitally mostly, give or take a few songs that were mixed analog. And then the second album and the most recent album were entirely analog, including the mix. But everything at some point or other has passed through tape, on all the records.

Brian: But, yeah, we were really into pretty modern sounding stuff, but it was never our favorite sounding recordings. And then we heard Foxygen when we were, like, 14 and 16, and that kind of opened us up to the idea that, "Wow, it's not like you can't record like that. It's not like you can't have an album where the recording quality is kind of similar to, like A Wizard, A True Star or The White Album or Surf's Up. Those were the albums that we really, really loved the fidelity of. Because Foxygen, they were really committed to the sound as well. It's not like other people aren't committed to sound. It's just that they have modern tastes as far as, like, how much bass they want to put on something. Like, thunderous bass, y'know? Which is cool, but at the same time, it makes it harder to hear a lot of the other instruments that are in the mix. And it's kind of forcing a certain sound, rather than having someone try to lean in and hear something. It's more like hitting someone over the head with sound, which is never really what we've wanted to do.

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Where did you guys get your musical education? Was it through your parents, on your own, or a little of both?

Michael: Yeah, a little bit of both. Definitely both my parents were born in the '50s and came up loving the '60s music. My dad saw the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, and from the get-go we were a musical family, always watching music documentaries, all the Beatles movies, the Monkees' TV show, all the Dave Clark Five appearances, the Animals... Particularly British Invasion bands, but...

Brian: Our dad also plays all the instruments. He plays piano, drums, guitar...

Michael: He's a multi-instrumentalist, yeah.

Brian: So he showed us how to do the basics on every instrument. And helped us record in the beginning.

Michael: Yeah, it was the natural development of coming out of having a musical education from your parents. Having so much information about all that stuff as a baseline, we were able to explore and develop a much larger record collection. Well, not only records, of course. Also on the computer.

I was also just curious from my perspective as a parent, because I've managed to influence her even as she's developed her own distinct tastes in music.

Michael: Yeah, well, we did have a period of taking in newer bands and trying to say to our dad, "These bands are great!" and all this. The truth of it is, though, that the stuff that we found on our own that we still like is just old stuff, really. All the stuff that was new and modern has kind of fallen by the wayside as things that didn't hold up for us. Except for our friends, like Foxygen or people that we know that we recognize as good songwriters.

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It definitely seems like the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and Todd Rundgren are kind of the eternal trifecta for you two.

Michael: Yeah, I think the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and Todd probably have everything, whereas there are a lot of people who we love, but they don't have everything. The Beatles and the Beach Boys and Todd... I mean, I think the Beach Boys can rock. [Laughs.] But they can all rock, and they all have beautiful melodies, and they all have great lyrics, and they do certain things with harmonies. They've got everything. But so many people that we like, they can only give you a certain thing. Or they didn't do it as consistently.

Brian: Over the years, yeah.

Michael: Yeah, I mean, so many of our favorite songs are from bands like that. Tages is a band that we love.

Brian: A Swedish band.

Michael: They're pretty consistent, I'd say.

Brian: But they have one album, really, that's like a perfect album. They have a couple of other good ones. I don't think they were a band for all that long. So things come and go. The Raspberries, they can do a whole hell of a lot.

Michael: Yeah, they can do everything. I mean, every album is great.

Brian: But they did it in three or four albums, whereas the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and Todd, there's so much.

Michael: Yeah, that would probably why those artists are people that are looked to as kind of a guiding-light type artist. As opposed to just people that we love.

Brian: You know, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, those are people where it's, like, they're amazing, and you wouldn't change anything that they did, but they're not as versatile as those other three.

Michael: We also don't have the same strengths as Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan. We identify with the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and Todd Rundgren because of our strengths - or what we perceive to be our strengths - in harmony and melody and stuff like that. Those are kind of the things that spearhead our thing, as opposed to lyrical content or whatever, which is kind of the Cohen or Dylan thing. Although hopefully we have good lyrics, too. [Laughs.]

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You guys worked with Sean Lennon on this. How did you first cross paths with him?

Brian: We met him...

Michael: ...quite awhile ago, actually.

Brian: Yeah, soon after our first album, we played a couple of events together. I think there was some fashion thing that we did where he came up on stage. But, yeah, we always kind of thought it would be cool to work together in some capacity, and he invited us up to his studio last year. We had actually reached out to him about working on something of our dad's music, which he was really nice and sent us a vocal that he did that was super good. We're still finishing that project.

Michael: That kind of sparked it, I think. We were talking to him, and he invited us up. Or maybe he invited us up a long time ago and we said, "Hey, can we do that now?" Because COVID had happened, right?

Brian: Yeah, that messed a lot of that up. But it was super cool, because he's a really musical guy, actually. Obviously. [Laughs.] But he knows about harmony, and he knows about theory in a way that really makes it easy to work with him.

Michael: Yeah, it helps in the studio.

Brian: Yeah, to arrange a song... There's not a lot of people that we'd trust to build a song, a basic track with in the studio. So it was really fun.

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With the album cover, it feels very Sparks-influenced. Was that intentional?

Michael: It's kind of a happy accident. I think it looks really... Like, there's something about it, whatever the kind of film and the lighting, that I thought that immediately when I saw the photograph, that it looked like Sparks. The concept of holding Brian upside down or whatever and just the face and everything, it wasn't particularly Sparks-derived or anything.

Brian: Yeah, that was just a spur-of-the-moment thing.

Michael: A goofy thing. Like, a Monkees thing or whatever.

Brian: It was just one of a hundred photos that we took that day.

Michael: The back cover photo was another possible choice for the cover. But, yeah, everybody's saying it looks like Sparks, and that's what I immediately thought, too: "It looks like Sparks!" It's just a funny thing.

The second single released from the new album, "They Don't Know How to Fall Into Place," sounded to me like it could've been a lost Rubinoos track.

Brian: [Grinning.] That's cool. The Rubinoos are awesome.

Michael: I love the Rubinoos. I think we were just going for a typical bubblegum pop production that's really, really slick. And some of the Rubinoos' recordings are really slick, so...maybe there's something in there. And they're definitely indebted to the Archies and stuff like that. I know they're big into that kind of bubblegum stuff.

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Would you say that there's a bubblegum feel throughout the new album?

Michael: I'd probably say sunshine pop would be more what it's like, because that spans the bubblegum thing and the Sagittarius thing and... [Hesitates.] It's not like the Archies. As much as I love that stuff, that's what I associate with bubblegum.

Brian: We were getting really into the Joe Meek productions, too.

Michael: That's true, but...as much as we love that stuff, I don't know that that really came into the album.

Brian: The Move was a big influence.

Michael: Yeah, the early Move singles. It kind of sounds like the early Move singles.

Brian: It's so funny. All of this stuff, it has energy, y'know? Like, the Fifth Dimension was another thing that was swirling around.

Michael: The Magic Garden album, which is their psychedelic album with all the songs written by Jimmy Webb.

Brian: Sagittarius, the Millennium... The real through line is that it's highly arranged material. But it has a breeziness about it. It's not, like, this big wavy thing.

Michael: Right, it's not like Sgt. Pepper's or Pet Sounds or something. It's more like those things that Brian mentioned. I think the through line is a lightness, a levity.

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You guys have gotten so much acclaim from so many artists who you've revered. Is there ever a temptation to not evolve quite so quickly, since you already know that they enjoy what you're doing? Or do you just have an innate desire to move forward?

Michael: Well, I think there's a temptation to go off on every tangent, and we really can't help ourselves from doing it. It's, like, we could, if we wanted to, make a whole album like "Any Time of Day," which has kind of a soul vibe, or a whole album like "My Golden Years," which I'd say is a pretty straight power pop kind of thing. But the reality of it is that when we're working... I mean, there's so many things. I could have 10 songs that are like "My Golden Years," but maybe not all of them have finished lyrics, so I just record what's done, we look at what we've got, and we put it together in a way that doesn't sound weird. We try not to think about it as a "theme album" until we're putting it together. We do try to slow it down a little bit and not try to move into a totally other arena just because we happen to like that sound at the minute. But it's difficult to even know that you're doing that, y'know?

I generally ask artists to name the first person that they had to fight to keep from going full fanboy around, but that might be hard to pin down, given how many people you've met.

Michael: Mine was Jody Stephens, I think. And that was just surreal because I was at the height of my Big Star obsession when I got to meet him, and I was freaked out by that. [Laughs.] But I think honestly, we met the Red Hot Chili Peppers at a festival.

Brian: A festival in Japan.

Michael: And we were such fans of theirs when we were just coming into doing music, when we were in middle school. A really influential time. And they're also just so extremely famous that there's something incredibly striking about that in and of itself. And we were walking... They had their own floor at this festival. And we were on the third floor, but we kept walking up the stairs instead of using the elevator to maybe run into them...and we did. And we kind of looked at each other, and they said, "The Lemon Twigs!" They said something to us! They're from Los Angeles, so... [Stops abruptly.] Obviously. I don't know if you know that. They're from Los Angeles!

I may have heard something about that.

Brian: [Laughs.] Anyway, word kind of gets around in Los Angeles.

Michael: Word gets around about everything. And they know a lot of people who more might know about us. I'm sure they know the Redd Kross guys. So they knew about us, and we were kind of blown away by that. It was really odd. But it was really cool.

Brian: Yeah, they were really cool. Michael was almost frozen.

Michael: I was frozen!

Brian: And Chad Smith must've been so used to dealing with that that he's, like, "Ah, you guys..." You know, they were nice.

Michael: Yeah, they were cool, man!

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Brian: But for me... We were at some screening of the Fanny documentary - I don't know if it came out, but it was cool - and John Sebastian was there, who was in Woodstock. And someone was taking a picture, and no one who were we in line with knew who we were...

Michael: Todd [Rundgren] was there.

Brian: You're right, Todd was there.

Michael: Yeah, so he knew who we were.

Brian: But John Sebastian... I've never done this before, I was just going, "Oh, my God, I just love your music so much, you're such a great songwriter..." And I saw his eyes glaze over. And I just stopped in the middle of my sentence and walked away. That was the first time I did that. I've done it again since. [Laughs.] Somebody introduced me to Beck, and I felt like he didn't want to talk, so I just walked away mid-sentence. That's like my move.

Michael: Well, that was confusing, because some guy was being really annoying - he was really drunk - and he was trying to bring Brian up and say, "This guy's the future of music!" And Brian really just didn't want to be introduced in that way by this random dude who doesn't know Beck, either. Or it didn't seem like it, anyway. It just seemed like a bad way to meet somebody, and Brian got nervous.

Brian: I have a lot of problems in social situations, as you can tell.

Michael: That's really what the main point is.

Brian: That's the point.

Michael: That we have issues in social situations.

Brian: We're inept.

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Looking at your back catalog, what would you say is the best gateway drug for someone who's never heard the Lemon Twigs before?

Michael: The new record is really... [Hesitates.] Fortunately for us, it seems like the latest stuff, people like the most, and the last record, people liked more than the other records. So we're going through a period right now that's pretty good for us, because we can just say that the newest stuff is the stuff that people like anyway! So I'd say the new stuff, and then work backwards, probably, because it just gets worse and worse. [Laughs.]

Nice sales pitch. Is there one that you'd consider to be an underrated record?

Michael: Um... Not a whole record. I just think there are songs like... Well, particularly ballads from the earlier records that Brian wrote that are really nice songs, like "If You Give Enough," the last song on the second record, and a song called "The Lesson" on that record. And the album after that... Brian, there's some pretty cool songs on there. "Somebody Loving You," I like that song a lot.

Brian: The verse is overcomplicated, that one. But, yeah, I liked "Ashamed," too. And Michael's "Fight." And "Hog." I think they're good songs. Those are sort of fan favorites, though. People kind of like those.

Have you ever contemplated doing anything independently of each other, or are you just going to keep doing this for as long as it lasts?

Michael: Yeah, every time I hear words come out of his mouth, I think of that. [Laughs.] I think, "I'd like to never hear this again."

Brian: Similarly, I wish I could make a solo record for myself. [Laughs.] I wish I could make a record without this guy!

Michael: Anyway, we're happy to do things on our own. It's literally that there just don't seem to be enough hours in the day to do everything we want to do. And I'll tell ya, it's very difficult in New York... It's freezing, and I don't even want to go to the studio, to be honest. We go almost every day, but it's freezing there, too!

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Are you looking forward to taking the new record on the road?

Michael: Oh, yeah, we love it. We like it all. It's more just about being organized. We don't really like going out and stuff like that. All we really want to do is make recordings and play shows, anyway. It's just more having the energy and the equipment to do stuff. It becomes such a headache when you're doing all the engineering and the mixing yourself.

Is there anyone that you want to work with that you haven't worked with yet?

Brian: McCartney. [Laughs.] Right to the top!

Hey, why not?

Michael: Yeah, it would be interesting to work with singers and people who don't write songs, because it'd be nice to write songs and have people do them. The thing about it is, today everybody collaborates, so a singer doesn't want to have a songwriter anymore. They want to write the song with the songwriter, because...that's how they get money, I guess? [Laughs.] It kind of sucks, because when you work with people, your stuff kind of gets watered down, unless the person is really contributing. So what would be cool, though, is to write songs for people who just want to sing 'em, and then produce them. Just to have different textures. But everybody's got something to say now!

Brian: We could always do that with our own stuff, if we wanted to.

Michael: Yeah, we could have singers sing on our stuff and still call it the Lemon Twigs. The idea, really, would be to get more music out that way. But it's not really getting more music out if you're creating something from the ground up.

Well, now you've got me imagining you writing an album for Micky Dolenz.

Michael: Oh, yeah, that would be great! And, hey, I'd like to write for Ringo, too! [Laughs.] Like you said, why not?

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