The Lemon Twigs Are Rock’s New Old Young Dreamboats
We meet the precocious teen brothers whose debut LP, 'Do Hollywood,' is beloved by Elton John and Alice Cooper alike.
"Our arguments are really, really bad sometimes," says 19-year-old Brian D'Addario, one half of The Lemon Twigs. "I kicked him through the shower door the other day." Brian's talking about his younger brother, Michael. He's recounting an altercation where he and his sibling were pulling out of their driveway and Brian was talking incessantly, overriding whatever point his 17-year-old brother was trying to make, so Michael started punching him over and over. "I stopped the car, and told him to get out, and he wouldn't."
"Then he came round and kicked me in the face," says Michael, picking up the thread. " Then he thought he didn't get me good enough, so when we went inside, I was looking in the mirror to see if he'd made a mark, and he ambushed me and kicked me through the shower door."
Luckily the shower door popped out of its frame, shattering only when they tried to dispose of it outside. Brian brings up a picture of the mess on his phone. "I felt really bad," he says. "We had a discussion about violence after that, while we were cleaning up the glass—which took forever, but brought us back together. I was like 'We can't do this anymore!'"
They're both laughing in the retelling. As teenage brothers, they might squabble and scrap, but as a band, The Lemon Twigs, they're a meticulous team, creating a beautifully baroque psych mélange of The Beatles and The Beach Boys. Their newly released debut album, Do Hollywood, is a feast of prog-pop curves, demented fairground refrains, and unexpected time signatures. They excel at lushly harmonised codas—jaunty one minute, forlorn the next—and neatly applied patinas of strings and brass. It's an ambitious maximalist kind of pop that could leave the melodies fighting for air, and yet they manage to marshal their ideas and deliver them with a sophistication that belies their years.
This morning they meet me for breakfast in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, having caught the train from Hicksville, Long Island, where they live with their parents. They make an eye-catching pair: Brian is dressed like your run-of-the-mill indie kid, but with his shiny shock of brown hair he's also the spitting image of Trip Fontaine from The Virgin Suicides. Meanwhile Michael, with his sprouting mullet, bellbottom jeans, and octagon specs, bears the bloodline of Bowie, Joan Jett, 70s Paul McCartney, Ozzy, and Eric Clapton—all of whom he's era-specifically referenced to his hairdresser, Jayme Tarlowski, a.k.a. their friend Kuba's mom—so that his follicles will be snipped just so. They know the importance of making a visual impact, but their choices are playful rather than overcooked. In their first-ever video for these "These Words" they joust, daintily drink tea, and paint each other's portraits while dressed like Mozart's best buds. Naturally, Elton John is besotted, and they have the cosign of France's reigning sovereign of leftfield pop, Christine and the Queens. Alice Cooper and Questlove are fans, too. A month after we meet, the band make their TV debut on Jimmy Fallon.
Things are most definitely happening for The Lemon Twigs, but this isn't something they suddenly lucked into: Michael and Brian have been working towards a career in music in one way or another their whole lives. At the encouragement of their dad Ronnie, the brothers were banging on drums from the age of five, and soon after they started studying classical guitar with the Kiev-born Yasha Kofman, who founded The Classic Guitar School of New York. As a songwriter and studio/session guy, their father made sure music was the boys' earliest memory. His own shot at a big break came when The Carpenters recorded his song "Falling for Love." It never received an official release, but it seems he's still trucking: his Twitter recently announced that his new LP is nearly finished and features vocal contributions from his two sons. It's called The Many Moods of Papa Twig .
When the D'Addario brothers talk about their childhood, it seems half their recollections are not memories but rather flashbacks of seeing themselves in home videos. There's footage of the boys watching Yellow Submarine, the Dave Clarke Five movie, and The Monkees TV show. In one clip Michael sits in front of a keyboard trying to play "Strawberry Fields" ("I just didn't have the capacity at five years old"). They'd obsessively watch the exhaustive doc The Beatles Anthology. "We know all eight parts and every aspect of their story," declares Brian. "There's nothing anyone could tell us about The Beatles that we wouldn't know."
Along with being encyclopedic Beatles nerds, the pair have each mastered bass, keys, guitar, and drums, although onstage they switch off between the latter two instruments, each taking their turn to sing lead. "It's weird to me that people couldn't sing or do harmonies because we've been doing that since we were really little—our mom and dad taught us to do that," offers Brian. "There's a video of us putting our fingers in our ears, gathered around an unplugged mic, doing simple harmonies."
"Like George and Paul," nods Michael.
"Like George and Paul? More like John and Paul."
"But George and Paul did the sharing of the mic…"
"So did John and Paul."
"All the fuckin' TIME!"
"Paul's on the right of the stage and George is in the middle and they would go over there. Oh, John and George."
"No, John and Paul you idiot!"
And so it goes. Some of these home videos have made their way online, like the clip for "Livin Large," a self-penned rap that by their own admission is more MattyBRaps than Beastie Boys. Or a video shot in the backyard when the boys were going through a pop punk phase, making music under the guise MOTP (Members of the Press). More recently they've been indulging their wrestling obsession under their company moniker MRW Wrestling. They shoot surreal promos and skits, and in one ambitious episode they film a 45-minute faux pay per view wrestling special with called The Wrath of the Sushi Chef in which Brian is dressed as a bumblebee. The origins of their dramatic flair can surely be traced back to when their mom picked up her passion for acting and began to dabble with the local community theatre, encouraging her sons to get involved too.
"I remember thinking it was going to be really hard to make it in music, so I thought maybe being involved in the entertainment world would help in terms of connections," recalls Brian, at that point, an evidently savvy seven year old. Both excelled in the spotlight and eventually landed an agent. Michael filmed a couple of features (most notably horror flick Sinister starring Ethan Hawke), while Brian had several years of success on Broadway, first as Gavroche in Les Miserables, and then as Flounder in The Little Mermaid, a production where the entire cast wore heelies to give the impression of moving underwater ("The heelies aspect of The Little Mermaid was ravaged by the press!"). Brian juggled his education and nascent career by doing his homework backstage between scenes, but mostly he'd be dreaming about his post-show reward: a Gordita Crunch from Taco Bell.
"At first you don't care and you get every [part], and then you get to the point where if you don't care you're not going to get anything because everyone's competitive," notes Michael. "I feel like the standards are just getting higher and higher for how smart kids have to be. Kids are more grown up, I guess."
The pair soon turned their focus back to making music (and finishing high school), recording demos and firing them off to labels over the internet, essentially hurling their efforts into a black hole. Thoroughly disheartened, in 2014 Brian tweeted at Jonathan Rado, whose band Foxygen, the brothers admired. Still unsigned and with no money to offer him, Rado was so excited by their demos he invited the duo to record in LA, putting them up at his house for 12 days while they laid down the basics on tape. ("He didn't even make us pay for the tape!" exclaims Michael.) They then spent a further on-off 18 months tinkering with the tracks, adding strings, and throwing in some brass, signing with 4AD in the interim.
Today, sitting in the greenhouse-like back room of eatery Café Colette, the brothers practically inhale their burgers and then bicker over stolen fires. It turns out the pair work best independently, bringing their respective songs to the table when they're more or less fully formed, workshopping the compositions here and there but leaving each other's lyrics well alone.
"We're starting to co-write more," says Brian. "Before this we were possessive of our songs. We don't want each other to sing each other's songs, but now we want to get into switching mid-song because that's a cool thing The Beatles and The Beach Boys would do. A lot of the time people don't even know who is singing because [those bands] switch so much. But we know."
The Lemon Twigs are rounded out by Danny Ayala on keys, who they've been playing with for eight years, and Megan Zeankowski, another school pal, who they taught to play bass. Nevertheless, Do Hollywood is 100 percent the brothers' vision, a record split fifty-fifty to avoid any quibbles: five songs with Michael taking the lead on vocals and five from Brian. Brian's heart-on-the-sleeve swoon song "I Wanna Prove to You" opens the record, followed by Michael's murderous tale, "Those Days Is Comin' Soon," and then Brian's "Haroomata," and so forth. It's a keep-the-peace decision.
In many ways the brothers are opposites. Brian likes to demo on his iPad; Michael prefers cassette. Brian admires Leonard Cohen and often has no idea what he's writing about in the moment until he zooms out. "It's totally unconscious and it's not easy or me to recognise my feelings," he explains. "Afterwards, I have to figure out what I'm writing about; I kind of have to trick myself into writing about myself." By contrast Michael prefers straightforward stories told in the most straightforward way, the perfect foil to the complexity of their music. "I love Lou Reed, but I can't really write that well, at least yet," he admits. "What I'm trying to accomplish now is simplicity.
Michael tells me three out of the five songs are about his ex-girlfriend: "I was unhappy, but I also didn't know what it was supposed to be to have a girlfriend or whatever," he says. "They were all working towards a break up."
Brian and Michael are fascinating; they're wry and funny but also disarmingly earnest. Artsy teen anomalies. It's the younger of the two whose attention span wanders first, like a true drummer, smacking out a beat on his thighs, absentmindedly clanging together the salt and pepper shakers. Brian's much more focused, a long way from the boy who nearly got kicked off Les Mis for "being too ADD." As our chat winds down, talk turns to Brian's electronic side project Digiboy—"All MIDI stuff, no guitars, that's what I'm doing to show that I'm a modern man"—and fashion. These days Michael is dating Arrow de Wilde, daughter of acclaimed photographer Autumn de Wilde, who directed their recent glam-tastic retro-futurist video for "As Long as We're Together." Arrow lives out in LA, so it's a long distance thing ("Whatever," he shrugs), but it means when he's out there she takes him to the best LA flea markets. "She knows the spots, and I just buy up a bunch of shit and bring it back, or she gives me a lot of stuff."
He's pretty light-hearted about his looks, although they seem so painstakingly curated. It's refreshing to see someone so young confidently embrace an impish, Bowie-esque androgyny. He thought nothing of wearing slash of dark lipstick on Fallon, and in one early press shot he donned a tummy exposing pale pink knit paired with some nut-cuppingly tight sparkly gold pants. He shrugs again; he's always been a chameleon.
"I don't even know what we're going to look like next year," says Brian. "Michael gets scared of dressing too 70s, but every year of my life I've worn something different. When I was into Nirvana in middle school I tore all my jeans, wore cargo shorts, and long socks like Dave Grohl. I just like to dress like the bands I like." These days, Brian would be happy with gym shorts and an endless supply of plain white tees. Sometimes Michael sneaks his cast offs into Brian's drawers to spice up his brother's wardrobe.
"He's always been more conscious of the aspects of music that aren't music, which is good, because I'm totally not, I know what I don't like, and that's about it," says Brian.
"Every time I wear something more casual he likes it," says Michael.
"I don't like it when he wears lace."
"Lace! It's not lace, it's mesh!"
"Ew. Mesh is gross."
"And satin! That's my favourite stuff!"
"He says it's his favourite stuff when I say I don't like it!"
Like many close musical duos, doubly so when they're related, these two enjoy being ornery—pushing each other's buttons but without specific intent. Michael says that growing up his desire was to be "similar but not the same."
"I just didn't want to have the same preferences as him," he explains. "Brian would always put pepper on his shit, but I didn't want to put pepper on my shit. Brian liked lobster, so I developed a taste for crab. He didn't know that, but I'm kind of nuts about that stuff."
Brian looks thoroughly unsurprised by this revelation. He knows his brother better than anyone. He just smiles and says, "And that's the story of us."
Kim Taylor Bennett is an editor at Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.