Saturday, September 29, 2018

Papa Twig Revealed: A Conversation with Ronnie D'Addario

Ronnie D'Addario
image courtesy of Ronnie D'Addario

Great new music is discovered in a myriad of ways, as experience has taught me throughout my life. Perhaps the most unusual introduction took form in the shape of two sons’ praise for their father. Given that the sons in this case were none other than Brian and Michael D’Addario, better known as the Lemon Twigs, my curiosity was instantly piqued. Ronnie D’Addario has been quietly recording and releasing music for the past four decades, and may well have escaped my radar altogether if not for his sons’ recognition of their father as a primary influence upon their prodigious songwriting talent. With the discovery process now underway, I soon realized two things: First, that I needed to thank Brian and Michael for the recommendation; second, that their father is a songwriting wizard whose sense of melody, harmony, and arrangement calls to mind both Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson. That’s no hyperbole; that’s fact.

The first track I listened to, “The Walking Wounded,” sounded as if Macca himself had magically teleported into the session to contribute vocals to the song’s outro.  The song embedded itself into my consciousness, and for days on end, no matter where I was or what I was doing, there it was. Then, embarking on a quest to digest Ronnie D’Addario’s vast musical output, I soon realized that a major songwriting talent has been quietly lurking in our midst. In reaching out to arrange an interview, I asked Ronnie if his sons wouldn’t mind contributing a list of their individual Top Ten favorite “Dad” songs as a guide to discovery. Happily, they agreed, and while listening to the tracks they listed, it was readily apparent that Dad has played a major role in shaping the unique songwriting talents of each of his sons.

And so it was that on a beautiful July afternoon, I found myself sitting across from Ronnie D’Addario in the living room of his Long Island home, where we ended up chatting for more than two hours about—well, about a whole lot of things. In the process, I got to meet and make friends with the two family dogs (shout out to Mona and Bruce!), chat a bit with Brian and Michael, and soak in the aura of an extraordinarily close musical family.

Here is our conversation, slightly edited for clarity. Read and enjoy!

Roy Abrams: This is an interesting situation. I discovered your music through your sons. To have that introduction come from such an unlikely source is a unique occurrence. I thank your sons! Now, we’re both die-hard Beatles fans--
Ronnie D’Addario: Yeah.

RA: --and I’m sitting and listening to your music and … well, on the outro of “The Walking Wounded” I said to my wife, “It sounds like Paul McCartney is doing a cameo here.”  Your ear for harmonies and the arrangements bring to mind not only The Beatles, but also Brian Wilson, The Zombies, Burt Bacharach, and Gilbert O’Sullivan. The earlier albums have a Paul/Wings from the early ‘70s vibe and your later albums have more of the feel of Paul’s recent “Golden Age”, from Flaming Pie to Memory Almost Full.
RD: I think I got more into layered harmonies later on, and that was mainly because I had more tracks. Also, because I got into The Beach Boys late; I got into them with the Surf’s Up album in ’71. I never paid attention to them when I was a kid, which is weird. I was so involved with the British Invasion and everything, and, you know, like everybody, after Sgt. Pepper, you’re into The Doors and Cream, and all that stuff.  I love the later Beatles stuff, but in terms of bands like the Doors and Cream, Led Zeppelin and all those bands, my heart is more into the earlier pop music where it was more song-oriented. I mean, I liked that (other) stuff because you’re at the age where when your friends like it, then you like It … Hendrix and all that … but I was always geared more towards songs.

RA: You saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show at age 10 and started playing the guitar as a result. Having listened to your music virtually incessantly for the past several days, I can hear that the Beatle roots run deep.
RD: Yeah.

RA: Can you place yourself back in front of the TV while that was going on? What were you feeling?
RD: Yeah. Amazement, like everybody else who was my age—or younger or older—the music just went through me … you know how when you were a kid, that music goes through you and you get that feeling and you seldom get that again when you’re older. I mean, once in a while you do, maybe because you’re more educated musically, or things aren’t as good, but when I saw them, the way they looked, the way they played that type of music … it knocked me out. I did nothing but think about it!

RA: And you started playing guitar right around then?
RD: Yeah, my Mom bought me a guitar that summer. I figured everything out with three chords, got everything wrong, learned some licks.

RA:  When did your first band come along?
RD: My first band wasn’t for a while. I wasn’t in bands when I was a kid. In fact, I was usually the only guitar player in my school, because it wasn’t as prevalent then. I remember in fifth grade, we did a performance of Charlie Brown [sings: He’s a clown!]I was playing guitar, and my part was “why is everybody always pickin’ on me?” …and the nuns laughed. I went to both Catholic and private schools, which is the worst thing to do, because you get used to freedom and then you’re in a regimented thing … but that’s a whole other story! Just out of high school, I was in a band with my two cousins, Randy and Johnny, and we just did a lot of Beatles songs. Not much has changed. Then, I worked in a studio in Manhattan a block away from my house. I was on 54th between 7th and Broadway, and place was on the corner of 54th and 8th, called Dimensional Sound, and that’s where I met a lot of the friends that I still have. We worked for no money--$15 a week lunch money—and made friends with a guy named Paul Rutner, and then he introduced me to Nick Lohri and Buddy Zech, and all these Long Island people, so I would get picked up at the Wantagh train station; every weekend, I would stay at his house for two days, and we’d rehearse all weekend. We did The Who, The Beatles, The Hollies, all those bands. We also did Bowie and that kind of stuff. We never played out much. We were just a “basement band.”

RA: As most bands are at that time!
RD: Yeah! I remember we might have done two gigs at a place called The Iron Horse. Do you remember that place?

RA: The name rings a bell. Was it in Babylon?
RD: It was probably in the area. At that time there was My Father’s Place which—I think they’re open again?

RA: Yeah, it’s in the Roslyn Hotel. Eppy’s back and involved with it.
RD: Well, we weren’t big enough to play there. In that band, I remember we started rehearsing “Take In a Show.” That was the first time we started doing an original, but then we all got so frustrated that we just broke up. We didn’t know anything. I remember when we lost our guitarist we did the typical thing (of) putting in the ads in the Village Voice. You know how they always have “We’ve got Pete Townsend and Roger Daltrey, we need John and Keith.” So, we all had these lists that said instrument, tastes, how he looked, and then age: “26—too old!” [chuckles]

RA: I remember those ads …
RD: So, that was the first band I was in. I think we were called The Quick, then I was in another band with a lot of the same guys called The Noise, and then maybe two changes of members and there was The Firemen, then there was The Press …. (the bands) always had some of the same people in it. That’s where the kids (got it), before they were doing the Lemon Twigs, they were Members of The Press. They got that from our band. Now, I’m still in a classic rock band. I was in an original band; we tried it, but nothing happened. I’ve been in this band for 30 years and we used to play every weekend, doing the same songs. We didn’t want to get heavy; we didn’t want to be this major cover band that had this great equipment (and) had to rehearse and learn every latest song. We just did the same songs we’ve been doing since fifth grade … mostly ‘60s and ‘70s, some ‘50s stuff like the Everly Brothers and Chuck Berry; not the doo-wop stuff. So, Paul Rutner was the drummer, and I went to his house, and he had a drum set, and that’s where I did all the drums for Take In a Show. We had one crappy microphone that actually sounds okay, but I had a click track and a rhythm guitar, and I knew the songs inside and out. I hardly ever played drums—it was always on my knees, because I didn’t have a drum set! So, I ran through it once, and he recorded me with one mic onto one track. I think I did all those drum tracks in one day, and then took my 4-track home and overdubbed the rest. That was in 1976.

RA: When did The Muse first hit you, as a songwriter?
RD: When I was eleven. I’ve got the whole list. I used to write (them) down; I don’t do it much anymore, but I have a list of every song that I’ve ever written, what year it was, how old I was. My first songs were just kind of ridiculous. I don’t know how this is gonna sound in an interview if I sing it, but [sings} I love you and I wanna be true … I love you, please don’t make me blu-u-u-u-ue. Now, that’s right out of Beatles (song), probably “Ask Me Why” or something. [chuckles] Then I had this ridiculous song called “I Nearly Died.” The lyric was “I nearly died”, from “No Reply” and the music was from “There’s a Place.” I used to have recordings of all those. When I was in high school, I was listening to it one day, and I got so embarrassed that I erased it, which was the dumbest thing, because now I wish I had it. My Mom almost went nuts when I told her. I had a little Revere tape recorder when I was a kid, so I always had stuff like that around. I had that when I was nine, playing with this little tape recorder.

RA: When did you first start to pursue a record deal?
RD:  Probably after I did that Take In a Show album, so ’76. I was 21. What I did was, those (tracks) to me were demos, really, and I remember going into Media Sound, a recording studio, and trying to get a spec deal. Now, I wanted to record them over, and they liked it, but they just didn’t … maybe (because) it wasn’t disco or something; I guess I wasn’t doing stuff that was “happening” … there was a lot of disco around at that time. In fact, I was in a studio band at Dimensional Sound where we would cover all the records of the time; it was “not the original artists,” it was us. I’d hear myself singing “Laughter In the Rain” on TV. [mimics announcer’s voice]“Not the original artists!” And you’d get maybe 20 hits for five bucks, or whatever it was, and the grooves (on the record) were really small.  And they were horrible. We would take eight songs home on a Friday, come in on Monday, and knock eight things off. They would have the original record on track 24. We played along, listening, and we sounded dead because we were listening to it. Once in a while the drummer would take an extra roll because it was a tricky 9-bar verse instead of 8. It was good for my bass chops, because there were a lot of cool bass lines going on.

RA: There are a lot of cool bass lines in your music.
RD: Oh, yeah. Especially earlier; I don’t do that much now.

RA: That’s interesting, because it’s the same trajectory that McCartney took. He still does some really cool bass lines here and there.
RD: I don’t know why that happens. Maybe when you’re younger, you’re really driven, you want everything to happen, and then when you’re older, you want the song to be the thing.

RA: I know what you mean; the focus is elsewhere.
RD: Yeah! But I still love when I hear McCartney doing great bass lines on his records, and I do enjoy nice bass lines. I got a little bit more into that on that last album (The Many Moods of Papa Twig) because the kids were pushing me on that.

RA: The production displays a great deal of thoughtfulness.
RD:  You know, that first album, I kind of just forgot about it; they’re the ones that really liked it. They said, “We love that one because it’s all real instruments.” Later on, I got into a little bit of MIDI stuff, which I tried to make sound real. I think they’re good piano sounds, decent string sounds, but if you listen to their new album, their strings sound great. They had string players; in fact, some teachers from their high school.

RA: One of the things I hear, as a songwriter, is your attention to arrangements. There’s nothing cluttered about them; there’s a lot of air.
RD: I try …

RA: When you’re writing a song, are arrangement ideas starting to gel in your head while it’s happening?
RD: Yeah. I’m definitely hearing arrangements while I’m writing, which is why sometimes in a band situation—because I’ve been in some bands where we were doing originals—a band called The Rock Club, and again, you can probably compare it to McCartney, but because these arrangements come to you when you’re writing a song, when it comes time to rehearse (it) with a band, you want to give them some parts … which is, in one sense, unfair to them because (for example) the bass player would say, “Well I really wish you’d give me a chance to come up with my own parts.” And I would say, “This is part of the song.” It’s like if you wrote “Day Tripper” and you had this lick, and you said, “This is the lick,” (and the response was) “Let me come up with my own, since I’m the bass player.”  “But that’s the lick!” And so, I had a tendency to do that, but having known what happened with The Beatles … we use them as all our yardsticks, for every pitfall every band goes through, they’re the ones that went through it first (at least to us, they were). I knew the resentment that could happen, so I would always try to be diplomatic, whereas I don’t think McCartney was diplomatic. Maybe he tried, but you could hear the resentment from the other people, except Ringo, who I’m sure welcomed his drum parts. But you’re right—these arrangements come out of nowhere, thank God! I don’t usually have to work that hard on a production because when I’m writing a song, because by the time I finish the song, I’ve already got all these parts! I didn’t have to work. I mean, you have to do some work! I just hear it; I’m not forced to work really hard to do it.

RA: Does the same thing apply to your harmony stacks?
RD: Yeah! Well, if it’s a song that really depends on harmony, then  … when I was younger, I would just work hours and hours and hours. I couldn’t believe Brian yesterday—he wrote a new song, and he worked on it for frickin’ twelve hours. I remember I used to do that—I can’t do that now! I go three hours, I’m shot. Just trying to get the energy to even start is not easy. Back to your question, sometimes my goal is to do as little as possible. I want to fill up wherever the song needs without exactly having to add too much. And so I put in everything that the song needs, as little as possible, so I don’t have to do the work. This sounds weird! But then I’ll listen and go, “You know what? It sounds good; I could leave it.” But I, as a listener, am missing those oohs, those aaahs, little answering things. I got all the basic things; the one harmony line topping the lead here and there, and I’m trying to get away with not doing all these pads, these chords … maybe I can get it with just holding some strings down. But you know what? When I listen to The Beach Boys, I like to hear those harmonies, and I think when people listen to my stuff, they’d probably like to hear that, so I go, “Ah, hell!” [chuckles] and I’ll spend another thirty hours. You know?

RA: Yeah!
RD: It’s almost like playing games with yourself to try and get through it. Now, sometimes I’ll be incredibly inspired, and I’ll work longer. But it’s hard to … I don’t know how you feel when you’re writing, whether you’re totally enthused … it’s hard to get up that energy to start. I’d just as soon get out of bed, watch TV, eat, take a nap, get out of bed again, have another meal, watch TV … but I know those days when I get up and I hop in the shower and (think) ”Okay, I gotta do something now because I’m not greasy, I don’t gotta hide away!” I’ll tell you something that inspired the last two albums. I had a lot of songs from the ‘80s that always hung over my head, because I couldn’t get up the energy to record them. I record all day at work, by the way. We do an album a year, and every other year we do two albums; one’s a Christmas album, one’s a regular album. So, I must have done 200 songs for that school.

RA: When you say “regular album” you mean ….?
RD: They’re Christian albums, but it’s pop/rock stuff but with Christian themes. I’ve even written some things for them. So, I’m recording every day … so to come home try and work on my stuff … I’m kinda shot. But you know, I said, I wanna get rid of (these songs). I wanna get ‘em on—I was gonna say on tape!—I wanna get them recorded before I croak, and before I lose my voice … because I’m seeing all these people that are having a hell of a time singing now. Some of them can still do it; some of them can’t. The other day, somebody posted a performance that John Sebastian was doing. He does that storyteller type of thing, and he’s completely shot. He lowered the key (which McCartney doesn’t do) but he still couldn’t … [whispers} “Do you believe in magic?” So I was thinking, boy, I better get all these songs recorded. The last two albums—A Very Short Dream and The Many Moods of Papa Twi­g—about half of the songs on each album were already written years ago. The newest song on Papa Twig was “Love Unconditional” which I wrote for my boys, but “The Beginning of the Day” or “Get It Right” were written in the ‘80s. In one way, I’m kind of glad, because if I would have done them back then I wouldn’t have as good equipment, but for years, that always bothered me. What also helped was the kids getting with 4AD, and You Are The Cosmos Records getting in touch with me, wanting to release my stuff, that kind of gave me a little bit of incentive, too.

RA: The first time I heard “Get It Right,” I was driving, and I pulled over so I could completely focus on the music … and here’s a strange question for you: Have you ever attempted to make any inroads into the Macca camp?
RD: I wish! I mean, I’ve never met Paul, and I’ve never attempted to try and get something to him, because I don’t know how to do that, and now that the kids have some connections (because everybody’s connected a little bit), I don’t want to impose on them. It’s funny … you say (to yourself), the minute I get an “in”, I’ll do it.” Well, now I have an “in” but they’re my kids, and I don’t want to bug ‘em when they’re trying to do their career. I’ll tell you a funny story, talking about the McCartney thing: Brian was sitting on the couch, texting for a long time. (Finally), I asked him, “What are you doing?” “Ah, I’m texting Mary McCartney.” “Mary McCartney. Paul’s daughter?” I ask. He goes, “Yeah, she likes us.” And they’re there for a half hour, texting. She wants to meet them, or if they’re in England. She took a picture of them coming out of Abbey Road Studios, and they didn’t even know it! She recognized them and took a picture, which is on my website. So then, you think, wow! That’s one step from meeting the big guy! But then you think, what am I gonna do? Ask the kids, “Hey, can you get my stuff to ... ?” Sometimes I think of a song that might be good for an artist, which I think is more realistic than try to say to somebody, “Hey, Paul! Could you get me a record deal? I’m 63! All the kids love that!” You know, I got a gimmick! We’ll work backwards!” [laughs] But, I’ll have a song like “A Drunk Man Speaks a Sober Man’s Mind” … a lot of people tell me I should get that to Vince Gill. (I had written it mainly for George Jones, but he’s not around.) So, I’m thinking, that’s a pretty good suggestion. I looked up one address, an agent or something, but then I thought, “Hmmm. I wonder if I should ask the kids’ manager if he’s made any “ins” but it’s almost like … I don’t wanna … you know, they’re busy with their own careers.

When I was younger, I thought, instead of these record company slimes, if only I could get to an artist, but then I thought, even if you do that, they’re busy with their own careers. It’s very rare that you get somebody like Foxygen, who the kids liked, and sent Rado their tape, and he actually said, “I like this!”  Brian said (to him), “Will you be our Richard Swift?” Because that’s what Foxygen did. They gave their (tape) to him, and he liked them, and he helped them. And Jonathan Rado helped them out. That’s part of the whole media … they did it through Twitter or something. And that was great. Now, if that hadn’t happened, who knows what would have happened with the kids? Although, they’ve been successful their whole career; even on Broadway, they’ve had a lot of good fortune—as well as talent, they’ve had some good fortune, too. Back to the question, sure, I’d love to! I was on Al Jardine’s bus because I got to be friends with Darian Sahanaja. What happened with that was, one day on Facebook, I said, “I got a song on New Girl, “Take In a Show”, they’re going to place it on the show.” All of a sudden, out of nowhere, Darian says, “’Take In a Show’! I love that song!” I went, “WHOA!” That’s the guy who put Smile together, and he’s the musical director for The Beach Boys, he’s played with The Zombies … and we became friends. He got us tickets to a Brian Wilson show and got us backstage; the same with The Zombies … and I was on Al Jardine’s bus, but I’ve got the kids there. Now, in the old days, I would have had a CD with me, always! But what am I going to do? I’ve got Al Jardine, Darian, my two kids … “Hey, Al! Here’s my CD. I think you’ll really dig it.” I don’t have the nerve to do it now. And, what would happen if I did do it, I ask you? I mean, it would be great if he liked it; that would be nice.

Ronnie D'Addario, Darian Sahanaja, and Chris White of The Zombies
image courtesy of Ronnie D'Addario

RA: The presence of your influence upon your sons’ music is palpable.
RD: Yeah, they’ve been telling me that. Michael said (that) when he was writing that song, “Lonely,” he was saying, “Dad, I’m trying to write a song like you!”

RA: Their biggest musical influence happens to be one of their parents. That’s a mind-blower to me.
RD: Well, they had everything around them which I didn’t have; they had the instruments, the recording equipment, they had me to show them the basics. The first thing I showed Michael and Brian was just simple (drums beats). Once they learned the basics, they took off on their own very quickly. Michael was great at the drums and he wouldn’t touch the guitar for a couple of years, even though we wanted him (to) … I’d always (say) “Try guitar!” One day, he was always carrying it; (it was) like something hit him. Then they learned the recording process. They started with Garageband and then they went into Logic. Now, they’re all analog. The big deck is downstairs, 24-track.

RA: How long does it take you to mic a drum set these days? I asked Todd Rundgren that question back in ’93 and he said something like, “Um, about five minutes.”
RD: They’re pretty quick. They started off by just recording drums with one mic, then they did it with two: overhead mic and bass drum. Now, they (use more) but they don’t use like nine mics; one for every part of the drum set. I think they do two overhead, kick drum, snare (with a Shure SM57) … I don’t think they mic the hi-hat, because that leaks under the snare track. They mic the three toms (if they use three toms; sometimes they only use two). I think that’s basically it. They’ve done it so much now that it probably doesn’t take them that long. And, if they get a nice drum sound, I always encourage them, (saying) “Now that you have it, do three tracks, so you don’t have to get sounds again,“ which they do; they know that, anyway. They used a real piano, which is in there (points towards a rear section of the home), so we’ve got wires hooked up to the basement (studio). They will not use anything MIDI … everything is played, nothing is quantized.

RA: You know what’s interesting? I’m looking at the lists that Brian and Michael compiled of their Top Ten “Dad” tracks … Michael gave me twelve, Brian gave me ten; there are four songs overlapping, and as I listened to the others, I’m thinking, “Oh, okay, I can understand the differences,” because the boys have different approaches to songwriting.
RD: Yeah.

Brian's List:

Michael’s List:
Amanda Lynne
Chinese Mind
A Very Short Dream
In Time
Give It Time
Just Passing Through
Yesterday’s News
Nice Meeting You Again

RA: “I See the Patterns” took my breath away … it’s Paul, but it’s original.
RD: You know, it’s more than Paul on that one, it’s more like Bacharach. I love Bacharach; it’s more of the timing … (hums the syncopated melody). Yeah, I’d say (my influences are) Beatles, Beach Boys, Procol Harum, of course, Bacharach … I love Motown and Richard Rodgers—we just saw Carousel the other night. I was really into that album. Everybody was into Hendrix and I was listening to Carousel. You were asking what my favorite songs were and that’s one of them, because it’s so different than my other stuff. The kids really like the song “A Very Short Dream”, in fact, they want to produce an album. They said, “Could you dig up some songs for us?” I said, well, I’m at the point now where I finally recorded everything. I’ve got some old songs that occasionally hit me that I never recorded, but I never recorded them because I didn’t think they were great. I don’t want to give you inferior stuff. And they’d said, no, we always liked this song “If I Were You” that I never recorded, but there’s a performance of me doing it with The Rock Club. It’s like a Chuck Berry-type thing. So they started saying, we want to re-record “I See the Patterns” –we love that song. And I said, Jesus Christ, I hate re-recording stuff. If you can sort of do it to my song and I don’t have to re-do the vocals. Everything is real, what they do. They even have this theremin where they could easily have had a synth, but no, they brought a guy in … I don’t know if it was a theremin or a saw; I know the pitch was very hard to get, although Mike Love does that one live, on “Good Vibrations.” (The album) is coming out good, but it’s slow because they’re so busy.

RA: Who handles the production now on the boys’ songs?
RD: They do their own producing.

RA: As much as I enjoyed Do Hollywood, I loved them even more live. When I saw them at the Bowery Ballroom back in February 2017, I was struck by how powerful, how tight the band was.
RD: Well, those were more rehearsed band versions. You know, the two of them do everything themselves (on the recordings). They’ll maybe do the drums first, overdub more from there.

RA: You produced “How Lucky Am I?” (from Do Hollywood)
RD: I didn’t produce it, I mixed it. They had a lot of trouble with that album in terms of audio. They had recorded it with Rado in California, and then they had to get it transferred from Rado’s analog tape to digital, and the first transfer was horrible. They had a second transfer that was better, but on “How Lucky Am I?” the vocals sounded better on one transfer and the instruments sounded better on another. Brian was having a hard time, so he asked me if I could mix it, and so I kind of synced things up, digitally cleaned it up, and then balance it out. Then (Brian) came up and he fine-tuned it with me, so that was the mix. He brought that tape home, and you should see the (digital) tracks. There’s like 50 tracks. He did all the cellos, every violin; he did horns and he doesn’t even play them! He just kept recording it until he got it right. The tracks were incredible (and were) a bitch to mix. He did a lot of work on that, and so I think they really saved it at the end. I was worried about it, because this high-priced mixer who they ended up leaving after a week because I said to them, “Give me a shot at mixing it.” It’s hard for them to involve their Dad sometimes. So I mixed this one song and said, this is how it could sound. This other guy put a million compressors on it; any kind of tape noise was brought up, people’s breathing  … it was trebly, it was horrible, and then Brian got the hang of it and he mixed the whole album. I would come down and say, “Yeah, that’s good.” They’re getting more technical now, but when they first started engineering, it was more of a natural thing; they didn’t know technically what they were doing in terms of frequency, how to get the sound they wanted; they just had to try everything. They have the innate ability but they didn’t have the training. After a while, Brian did very well. Then, when they had it mastered, it came together, and that Do Hollywood album sounds good. At first, it was very lo-fi. That was a tough album. Once they went outside of themselves, they didn’t have a good mixer (even though he’s won awards and stuff), they didn’t have good transfers—

RA: —which speaks volumes in favor of the DIY process!
RD: Yeah.

RA: Getting back to production on your albums, speaking as a bass player, I like the fact that the bass guitar is prominent; not overbearing, but present in the mix.
RD: That’s good. It depends on your speakers, too. I do try to play them on different systems, but I pretty much trust the speakers I’m using.  The only thing I use the console for is monitoring the instruments and the vocals. I mix virtually. The mixer is on the screen, and you can get your perfect mix with a WAV file and a pen (if) you want to raise a vocal up, you don’t have to do it while you’re mixing and then blowing it …

RA: [Laughs] Ah, the memories of ten hands on the board!
RD: [Laughs] Those days are over for me, my friend! I tried to warn them, but they won’t listen. Because then you always have the mix, then when you ride around in the car, listening to it on different systems, you go. “Oooh … I forgot to do that,” and you go back and it’s there, and then fix it. They don’t do that. They already got rid of their mix, and they’re on to the next song. If they want to remix something else, they’ve got to get it all back again. They write it down, but it’s not precise. But they’re benefitting in other ways.

RA: The independent record label You Are The Cosmos contacted you through your sons, initially?
RD: No; somebody like you, this guy named Paolo Milea, who’s a friend of Pedro Vizcaino, who heads You Are The Cosmos Records. They’re out of Spain, and they’re big in power-pop.  He heard my sons, and then my sons kept mentioning me in interviews, so he checked out my stuff, which was on CD Baby at the time, and he told Pedro, you have to hear the father. Everything I’ve done with Pedro has been through Facebook Messenger.  He said, “I heard your stuff, I would love to release it. Can we do three albums at a time, in a boxed set?” He released two (boxed sets) so far. The next one I think is going to be a single record, because I don’t have three albums (of new material) now.

image courtesy of You Are The Cosmos Records

RA: I’m sure International Pop Overthrow’s David Bash is aware of you—
RD: I know David Bash. He wanted me to be in that International Pop Overthrow Festival, and I said, “David, I don’t have a band.” Then the kids said, “No, do it! Do it! We’ll back you!” So I had the four of them; that’s how that started. I’d love to have them all the time, but they have their own thing, you know. I would like to play out more, but the people that I play with, they all have their families; it’s hard to get that together now. Danny’s got this band, separate from the Lemon Twigs, and they said, “We’re playing this place and we want you to open. We’ll back you.”

RA: How do you see the music business evolving or changing?
RD: I’m no expert on that. Everyone’s saying that the only way you make money now it touring because people download everything for free, so that’s business. I don’t know how that’s going to end up. Like I said, I like CDs. Vinyl is coming back, but I still like CDs if they’re mastered right; if they’re not mastered right, they’re horrible. I think it’s really strange, audio-wise, that the business finally got to the point where at home, you can have things that sound great, finally. I remember when we used to record in recording studios, analog stuff, and everything would sound great in the studio, and you’d go home and it would sound like crap. Now, things can sound great (at home) and what do they do? They invent mp3s. Now, they’ve got a great WAV file that they compress. It’s very nice for convenience.  You can take a 12-hour trip to Ohio and have 5 hours of music on a CD, depending on your big your bit rate is. People are listening with ear buds that are hanging out, which means that the bass is not there, and I even see people listening on their laptops now. So, you’ve got the ability to have great fidelity and people don’t give a shit about it. Like, when they make a flat-screen TV, they don’t give a shit about the sound; the sound is awful. I have an old RCA TV, a tube TV, and the speakers are really good. I guess they figure that everybody has their TV hooked up to their stereos or something, so they don’t bother. But the question was, where is the business going? I’d like to know what you think, because I have no frickin’ idea of where the business is going. I’m not even in the business so much. I’m in the business of music, but not in the music business.

RA: I see something cool happening. Things are morphing from the “music business” to the “musician’s business.”  Artists are out there on the road, and because of social media, you now have this degree of intimacy between artist and audience that really didn’t exist, couldn’t exist, 15-20 years ago.
RD: Occasionally, one will actually answer you, although that’s a dangerous thing, too. I’ve had people who, if I show any signs of encouragement … people send me stuff, because I’m “their dad,” and they know my stuff, and they want to know my opinion. I always try to be nice, because I’ve been in that position, and I’m still in that position. So I go, “OK, I don’t want to ignore somebody.” So I’ll say, “I listened to that, I really liked it; you could do this here …” And then they’ll write back again and again, and then it becomes, oh, we’re pals now? My kids said the best thing you could do is just not answer, but I feel funny doing that. I’m not in a position where I can help them … but I actually do listen, and I do answer them.

RA: To continue answering your question, though, I see the ability for real music and real art to start rising to the top, again. I don’t think it’s going to be the same template as when the major labels were involved in discovering and nurturing new artists, but great music always has a way of being disseminated.
RD: I know there’s a whole circle of power-pop people. You’ll see the same names, certain record companies involved with that. You Are The Cosmos Records is a part of that.

RA: It must be nice for the boys to be home for a while to catch their breath. I know that they were just in London doing some press.
RD: Yes. They started out in Spain and went to London, maybe Germany too. I’m surprised they’re not here!

RA: They probably figured that Dad’s talking to somebody; let’s give him some space.
RD: No, they just went out with Danny (Ayala). They’ve been rehearsing for the tour.

RA: I understand that Brian and Michael will be touring with new backup musicians.
RD: That’s true, and to clarify something for the fans, the Lemon Twigs were always Brian and Michael—as on the albums, which is Brian and Michael doing everything. Going forward with new musicians will be the same thing. The new band is not the Lemon Twigs. Therefore there is no band breakup. The boys got their record deal on their own and they invited Danny and Megan (Zeankowski) to back them on tour. Brian taught Megan bass and gave her the bass parts. Brian also worked very hard together with Danny on his keyboard and harmony parts. They are still good friends. The new album is very different and Brian and Michael needed specific types of players for this music. Their setup is much the same as Foxygen’s or Steely Dan, not The Beatles or The Stones. It never was. The confusion is very understandable, but misguided. This was a great opportunity for Danny and Megan to launch their own careers. They did a fine job with the Twigs, but it was never meant to be a “group.”

RA: Going back to your own music, your vocals stand out to my ears as a sort of combination of Paul and the very round tones of Brian Wilson’s voice. The influences are there, but the sound is intrinsically your own.
RD: That’s good, because sometimes I worry about that. You know what? I’ve seen a lot of artists who are trying to sound like other people; I try not to. I’m influenced by them, but I don’t want to be copies. I wouldn’t do that unless it was one song where I was purposely doing a tribute. But I’m glad that you hear me in there!

[A short break in our conversation occurred here when Brian and Michael came home. We spent a few minutes chatting before returning to the interview.]

RD: You were asking about my favorite (tracks) of mine. The easy answer is probably the “Best Of” album, except I have to do it from all the albums. In other words, maybe three off each album. So it might have been other ones that I liked even more, but I would say that these are a good example.

RA: When the boys gave you their Top Ten lists, had that exercise ever been given to them before?
RD: No. And I was surprised by some of it. They would tell me and I would go, “Really?” Especially “Yesterday’s News” surprised me that both of them (liked it); a track that I thought was just all right. Some of them I think were probably obvious, like “A Very Short Dream” because that’s one of my favorites. “Chinese Mind,” an Irish guy named Robbie O’ Connell taught me that tuning and I immediately, of course, wrote a song with it. It’s an open tuning—DADGAD, and “Good For You” which is on the Greatest Hits, that has that tuning too. “Nice Meeting You Again” … yeah, a lot of these surprised me. “Walking Wounded” I can see; “Love Stepped Out,” well, they do that song, … (continues to scan the boys’ lists) yeah, it’s interesting. I thought that Michael would go for “Time Will Tell On You” as well. I always was very happy with that record. If you’ve ever listened to something when you’ve recorded and you were sort of pleased with it … I always liked the way that came out. The 12-strings are just jangling, and it’s the band. Some of my favorites are based on the way they come out, you know. Sometimes you just get it right! I’ll tell you an interesting thing about “Get It Right” … on this album, there’s an instrumental that last for only a minute called “Get It Right” that I wrote in the ‘80s and then that harmony part, I did a string version of it here, but it’s kind of backwards, so I called it “Got It Right” … I don’t know if anyone would ever notice it. You might want to check that out!

RA: How about new music? Has anything caught and kept your ear these days?
RD: (To Michael and Brian) Do I like any new music besides you guys?

Michael D’Addario: You like “Roar” by Katy Perry? (Brian laughs)
RD: Tries to embarrass me!

MD: You like Foxygen.
RD: How could I not like Foxygen? They got you guys going? I would like to like some new stuff. I think something about the Twigs that I think a lot of the older (generation) are so happy that they like something new. When I was just out of high school, when The Beatles broke up, even then I was a “young fart.” I found it hard to find anything new that I liked back then. And, luckily, I found the Beach Boys in 1971, and I bought all their old albums and freaked out; it was all new to me. I always said that they got me through the ‘70s! I like a lot of different kinds of stuff. I like Bach, I like Gilbert and Sullivan, I love Richard Rodgers, and Gershwin and all those guys, and that was ahead of my time. I loved Sinatra—so, I’m not liking something because it’s new, I’m not liking something because it’s not appealing to me. I hate to say that, because I don’t want to sound like I’m putting it down. Steve Allen always hated rock ‘n’ roll. He always sounded so stupid, putting down everything, even though I loved him. I don’t want to start saying I can’t stand heavy metal and I can’t stand rap. I certainly haven’t heard a lot of it that I like, but I don’t want to sound old and closed minded.

RA: I usually respond with “I haven’t heard enough to form a valid opinion.”
RD: [Laughs] Well, that’s true, in a way, because if I hear something in a genre of music that I don’t like, generally, then I won’t be interested enough to try to dig it up, you know? Now, if the kids play me something, I might say, “Oh, I like that!” but I wouldn’t be aware of it to listen to it to begin with.  [To Michael] Who’s that guy that you were surprised that I liked that had this song that was like one chord the whole way?

MD: That was Alan Vega from Suicide. We played him “Jukebox Babe”, a song on one of his first solo records—
RD: —and I really liked it! They think of me as I always have to like something that’s very inventive, chord-wise—

MD: No, but if it’s rock ‘n’ roll, I realized it made sense, because it has a really cool rockin’ spirit, like, obviously, it’s what he liked, but it’s so much weirder than all that stuff—but it’s definitely got that cool factor, like that Elvis and Chuck Berry stuff happening.

RA: Did you ever get to see Chuck Berry?
RD: Yes.

RA: Lucky.
RD: I’m lucky to have seen him, but he was horrible, because he didn’t give a shit. Little Richard was great! When they were little, at Westbury Music Fair, we saw Chuck Berry and Little Richard together. Chuck Berry had his usual pickup band, three kids backing him, and he made a mistake, and he kept repeating it over and over to make you think the he meant to do it, and it was horrible. (I thought) “Stop! Please stop!” He didn’t give a shit. Little Richard was great. He sounded great, and his band was great. At one point he invited people up, and Michael—

MD: I’m not embarrassed; I think it’s a good story.
RD: Somebody lifted up Michael and put him on Little Richard’s piano, and Michael was just like [pantomimes a scared child] … and we asked him what was wrong, you weren’t dancing or anything … he was scared, he said that he looked dusty because he had so much makeup on.

MD: I can’t remember it, though.
Brian D’Addario: I kind of remember it. I remember the lights.

MD: I think it was a circus stage, but I don’t really know.
RD: It wasn’t long after 9/11, and Little Richard was talking about how big his head was, saying, “I got a big head! If I was on that plane, I would have beat them terrorists with my head!” I was at Westbury once when Carl Wilson had left (The Beach Boys) to do a solo album, and they got Brian, who was pretty much a mess. He sang “Don’t Worry Baby” and Michael (Love) said, “Well, as you can hear, Brian’s got a cold.” When they first came out, Dennis came down our aisle, tripped, fell, sprained his ankle, and was out for the whole show. He would occasionally come out and sing. I heard that he and Michael got into a fistfight backstage. That was a nutty time.

RA: Mike Love is an interesting character, he said tactfully.
RD: I always liked his voice. It was a big part of the sound of The Beach Boys, as silly as it was, and he always did great bass parts. He came up with some good lyrics, except when he was quoting titles all the time. People can say that Paul is corny, and George is so cool, and John’s so cool, but he’s the one that wrote the hip tune about John (“Here Today”).

Roy Abrams and  Ronnie D'Addario
image by Michael D'Addario

RA: Thank you so much for inviting me into your home today. It’s been an absolute pleasure talking with you, and I wish you continued success with your music!
RD: Thank you, Roy. It was a pleasure having you over!

Fans of the Lemon Twigs—and of great songwriting—will want to own the rich catalog of Ronnie D’Addario, where a wealth of musical treasures awaits: Check it out here.

© Roy Abrams 2018


  1. awesome interview, filled with lots of nice side facts bout the sons!

  2. What a wonderful interview! I love your insights and questions. Ronnie D'Addario is a phenomenally gifted composer, world-class musician and a lovely human being to boot. I can't overstate my admiration! ♥♥♥