|The Lemon Twigs|
Brian and Michael D'Addario
Image by Stephanie Pia
Elton John raves about them. Todd Rundgren raves, writes, and records with them. The list of musical luminaries who sing their praises seems to grow by the day.
The Lemon Twigs, fronted by Hicksville’s own Brian and Michael D’Addario, are preparing for their long-awaited return to Long Island at The Space at Westbury on October 13th.Their journey has been a long and winding one since the time of their humble live debut at the Hicksville Street Fair in 2014. The Lemon Twigs have become one of the torchbearers of writing, recording, and performing song-based pop/rock music in the tradition of their iconic influences (think Beatles, Beach Boys, The Byrds, Big Star) with a quirky, refreshing originality, and have gained a devoted international following in the process. The band’s fourth album, Everything Harmony, was released in May and has since charted internationally, garnering fans exponentially and earning wide critical acclaim.
The upcoming Long Island show is sure to be a celebratory event. Fans and critics alike say that the band has never sounded better onstage. To this regard, longtime followers of The Lemon Twigs will welcome the return of Danny Ayala to the four-piece touring band lineup. A Hicksville native and close friend of the brothers, Danny’s formidable abilities as a multi-instrumentalist and vocalist are a perfect addition to the mix. His voice blends seamlessly with the other two, creating pitch-perfect three-part harmonies that can send chills up the spine. L.A.-based multi-instrumentalist Reza Matin rounds out the quartet with his unique musical signature.
Having last crossed paths with the D’Addario brothers in 2019, a recent phone call with Brian and Michael offered the opportunity to catch up on all things Lemon Twigs. Read and enjoy!.
Roy Abrams: I learned that the upcoming show at The Space at Westbury on October 13th is your first official Long Island show. I’m trying to wrap my head around that. Why was there such a time lapse between your initial breakout in 2016 and your first Long Island performance?
Brian: Most of our fan base, when we started out, was in Brooklyn. Those were our first shows where anybody really came, it wasn’t just (those who were) invited. So It always seemed a little bit scary to play on Long Island because we thought most of our fan base in this area was from the city. We also played our first show as The Lemon Twigs at the Hicksville Street Fair, but that was our only show ever (on Long Island).
RA: Moving directly to talking about Everything Harmony, as a harmony singer, I’d like to tell you both that it’s a rare occurrence when a collection of voices can blend in a way that moves me to tears. During my first deep-listening session to the album, that happened on several occasions even before I got to the halfway point
BD: Thank you so much!
RA: Let’s talk about the genesis of Everything Harmony.
BD: Well, for us, with all of our records, the writing really spans years. From our last album on, we really try and center the songs around creating a good, whole listening experience that is, like, not so varied that you feel like you’re listening to two different bands, or something like that. We held back some of the songs for a while, like “Corner Of My Eye” and “Any Time of Day”, which were written around the time of the last album; pre-pandemic, around 2019. We always have a good starting point, and “Corner Of My Eye” was really that song that we felt like we could build an album around, sonically. I played that song live, in 2018 or something, so it was kind of building for a while.
RA: What led to the decision to self-produce?
Michael: We’ve been producing ourselves for the past couple of records and I think we’re getting better at it and we kind of decided that we had a vision for the album and we knew how to carry it out. We just wanted to make the kind of recordings that were crafted as well as we could possibly get them to be crafted.
RA: You guys did a beautiful job. Having followed your career since 2016, this new record takes it up several notches. Among your musical influences, do you have engineering and production influences as well? I heard traces of Roy Halee in there, who worked with Sinon and Garfunkel.
MD: Yeah, he was one of them. For the song “What Happens to a Heart?”, we were thinking about Beach Boys recordings, Simon and Garfunkel recordings, that kind of have an uncompressed feel, even if some of them are compressed, they kind of have a pure kind of quality, aside from the echo, which is so epic. So the big thing was to go to a studio that had an echo chamber. All of the echo on the record is real echo from an echo chamber, except there’s a little bit of plate reverb for things that needed longer time, because it was kind of a small chamber. (We had the idea) to mix everything into the chamber to give it an organic sound. I think that helps overdubbing sound more organic; there’s something about mixing the actual sounds together ….
BD: Yeah, and also, it kind of alters sounds a lot too, you know, when you mix them together and they swirl around in the echo chamber. The snare sound in “When Winter Comes Around” was us clapping, like overdubs for five or six times.
MD: And the bass drum sound is the couch.
BD: Yeah, close-miked.
BD: We limited ourselves. In certain respects, like we just thought, the last record had a lot of synths that provided a lot of the arrangement for the album, because I didn’t feel like arranging string parts for the last album. With this record, we just thought to use no synthesizers. If there was an arrangement, I would generally have to write it out. We did things like rent a harpsichord, tracked it for a few days, (and also) used a lot of vibraphone.
RA: Were there any particular challenges you faced during the recording process? As a corollary to that, did you experience any breakthroughs?
MD: When the album started, we moved out of our parents’ house to the city, and we got space in Manhattan right at the height of Covid; it was getting a lot cheaper. We were in a space in midtown called The Music Building and it was so raucous and loud (with) all of the sirens and metal bands that were practicing. (We were working on) a very delicate-sounding album, and we were hitting our heads against the wall trying to figure out how to do this record. Brian’s trying to do good guitar takes and there’s sirens ruining takes. We finally reached a point where we said we have to take the album somewhere else. We took it to a studio in San Francisco that was a pretty decent rate and some really legendary albums and recordings were made there; they did “Spirit in the Sky” and American Beauty. There wasn’t really a place in New York that had a real echo chamber, so we went and mixed the album and kind of finished it up there.
RA: Fans and critics alike are saying that the band has never sounded better onstage. Having absorbed several hours of these shows that have been posted online, I wholeheartedly agree. Are there any plans to release a live album?
MD: Yeah! We’ve recorded live performances before. We put out a live performance of the song called “Ghosts Run Free” from the last record just recently. We’re very particular about recording, and it all has to be analog tape; when we got the opportunity to do that, we recorded that show the way we wanted to. There’s some great things about that performance (and) there’s things I don’t love about the performance. It would be nice to record a lot of different performances; it’s just too difficult because our standards are high for the way that things are recorded. We like performing live; the dream would be to be able to record a bunch of shows and combine them and make a live album. A lot of things come off way better live. And we also get to rehearse the songs a million times and (learn) how they might be better arranged.
RA: The last few years have seen a marked period of growth for both of you as songwriters. I know that some songs have been around for a little while, but others, not so much. What has the writing journey been like for you, both individually and collectively?
BD: I was really able to work with my strengths on this album. I’ve always found it easier to write a ballad than a faster song. (With) “Ghosts Run Free”, it came about very spontaneously and I was very influenced by songs that Michael was writing at the time like “In My Head”, which was written before “Ghosts Run Free”. It was cool, because I knew that I could write ballads well for years, but I was never able to put a lot on a record, and then, I didn’t know that I could write a fun, sort of flippant thing! It’s nice to know that you’re not just bound by whatever your influences are. You can choose to write any kind of song you want to write.
RA: You’ve been on the receiving end of heaps of praise emanating from some of rock music’s most iconic figures. What do these accolades mean to you?
BD: It’s very affirming and it really comes from a sense of (having) a musician that you think is really talented and good making you feel like you’re also a good musician.
MD: More than “You’re doing well, career-wise.”
RA: How cool and how exciting it must have been for both of you to have not only met Todd Rundgren, but also worked with him both onstage and in the studio! Talk to me about the mind of Todd Rundgren … What did you see while you were there?
MD: Todd is logical! (laughs) What I think is so cool about him is that recording and everything between and making music is all a means to an end; fidelity and all that stuff is kind of arbitrary. He’s so musical, and that’s really what it’s all about. My dad’s kind of similar, I think, although Todd is more extreme.
BD: Todd’s practical when it comes to recording and producing; his line of “If somebody comes to me and they know what they know what they want and they think they can play it, then I’ll let them do that. If they don’t know what they want, I’m gonna figure out what they want and I’m gonna play it.
MD: I really like that philosophy!
BD: Where his off-the-wall ideas come from, I don’t know! It’s pretty amazing. The song that we did with him, we left an open space for maybe a guitar solo or something. The song had this prominent vibraphone on it and when it came to the solo section, he just took a sampled xylophone or something (maybe he sampled our vibraphone) and did a xylophone solo. It had this crazy arrangement, you know? He just comes up with completely unexpected ideas, but I’m sure he comes up with them very quickly.
MD: I admire his confidence and his decisiveness; I think that if you’re gonna get as much work done as he has in his lifetime, you need to have a philosophy—and his seems to be—to just get it done, I know it’s good. I don’t do enough to completely pull it off. I find when I’m recording, (I go through) a lot of “I’m unsure, I could take it in this direction or that direction,” spending my time deliberating, I don’t really know if it does anything because you’re gonna be who you are no matter what and make the decisions you make.
RA: I interviewed him years ago, in 1993, for the No World Order album. He claimed that he was able to get his “patented” Todd Rundgren drum sound in about 15 minutes, no matter the drum kit or the recording environment.
MD: We had our impression of it and we tried to do it in his fashion, to record and send him the stuff, compressing and distorting to the tape. Then, when it came back from him, it was like that times ten!
RA: As a lifelong fan of the instrument, I love how the 12-string electric guitar is prominent in the mix on many of the tracks.
BD: That’s Michael’s influence because he was the one who was getting all obsessed with The Byrds.
MD: Originally, I was playing the 12-string with the last group that we had for a while, two guys who were playing with us, and then once the album came out, we were with Danny and Reza. Once they joined, I switched back to 6 and Brian started playing 12 because he can get a hell of a lot more out of it.
RA: Do either of you listen to XTC at all?
MD: We’re not aficionados, but I think we’re coming from a similar place as Andy Partridge. We’re casual fans.
RA: How about Elliott Smith?
MD: Elliott Smith was kind of a big influence for this record because we were interested in people like him who liked a lot of old music and were coming from that place and were able to translate that to people of his time. That was interesting to us because we had been kind of used to doing things in a pastiche kind of way.
RA: What were some of the standout moments from the band’s recent European tour?
MD: Well, the Manchester show was really good, I thought.
MD: The Paris show was really good
BD: There are certain venues that we get to play in Europe that we don’t get to play necessarily in the States that not only are just “big deal” great because they’re bigger shows, but the places are so old …
MD: Whatever room that we played in Manchester and the theater that we played in Paris? They were both beautiful places.
BD: And places that, like, Hendrix had played─
MD: We were all dressed right, and maybe there was a day off right before both of those shows, and they just both really went well.
|Image by Stephanie Pia|
RA: From the vantage point of the stage, who are you seeing in your audiences these days?
BD: A huge range. When we were just in England, it was a lot younger than we expected; people who were a couple of years younger than us.
MD: It really is a huge range. We used to get, in the lesser populated shows in the Midwest, or wherever we were starting out, it was a lot of older people. It seems like now, it’s more rounded out. There’s a lot of teenagers and 40-year-olds and 70-year-olds, especially through the U.K. and Europe.
RA: As multi-instrumentalists, I’m wondering if there are any other instruments that are on your individual wish lists?
MD: Hmmm. I think I could try and do violin, I guess sitar would be cool.
BD: Sitar would be pretty sick. My friend Rado has one.
MD: Typically, if we’re in a studio that has access to different instruments, Brian will pick them up and be able to play them. Brian’s really just that kind of musician. But in terms of instruments we might want to have, we’d love to have a Mellotron. I think it would be invaluable for us to have a Mellotron, we’d be able to get away with a lot of, uh, half-real string arrangements. Synthesizers and synthesized sounds just don’t have the same feeling.
RA: What led to original touring band member Danny Ayala rejoining the fold?
MD: We felt like we had a lot of different members who were so talented in different areas but we never had anybody who was able to do a third harmony quite so well as Danny had when we first started out. Not that we wanted to go with acoustic performances that would reflect what we have on the record, but we did things that it was necessary to have a harmony to pull off. I was interested in the band being more kind of musical and Beatles and Beach Boys influenced as opposed to kind of a hard-edged rock thing, a live and theatrical thing. It was getting more common to find people doing really outlandish things on stage rather than to find people just playing well. So then, we thought, what was the combination of people we could get that would just play our songs really well; they don’t have to improvise, they just have to play the parts better than anybody really could play them. These guys are really good and Danny, especially, vocally.
RA: So, you have U.S. dates coming up, and you previously mentioned that there is a lot of new music in the works. What does the rest of the year look like for you?
BD: Well, I’m really hoping to finish a record in the next few months. We have a lot of material but the problem with that is that there are songs you want to put the effort towards making videos for. These are the songs that we wish we can just have out in the world, you know, without having to talk about them necessarily, because they’re just songs and they’re not some sort of statement. We have 12 songs together that we are mixing and we feel happy to make videos for and do everything that you should do when you really want to put it across to people and get people to listen to it.
RA: Sounds like you will be the proverbial busy bees for the foreseeable future! From an older musician to two young guys who I have the utmost respect for: You look at the bulk of what’s offered by the major labels these days and observe a glut of lyrically mindless songs with melodies that maybe span five notes which seem to repeat themselves from song to song … and then, you have The Lemon Twigs, who are rooted in melody, exquisite harmonies, inventive instrumentation, really clever time signature changes, key shifts, all the great stuff that hooks you right in, You have the songs, you have the sound, and it sounds like you have an incredible future ahead of you. Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me today. Can’t wait for the Westbury show!
BD: Thanks so much. It means a lot, everything you said! We’re really happy about this band, too. We’re really excited to get back on the road and play!
Extra Feature: A Select Sampling of Brian and Michael’s Top Five Lists
Top Five of each other’s songs
Hell On Wheels
In My Head
I Don’t Belong To Me
What You Were Doing
What Happens To A Heart
When Winter Comes Around
Live In Favor Of Tomorrow
Born To Be Lonely
Any Time Of Day
Top Five collaborations with each other
When Winter Comes Around
What You Were Doing
I Don’t Belong To Me
Somebody Loving You
When Winter Comes Around
Top Five “wish list” collaborations with other artists
Van Dyke Parks
© 2023 by Roy Abrams