Twin Shadow: Becoming George

Music Features Twin Shadow
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It’s a hot January night, and Twin Shadow’s George Lewis Jr. is vamping for a sold-out crowd at Los Angeles’ Troubadour theater. With a flannel shirt tied around his waist and a guitar in his hand, Lewis looks every bit the bad-boy musician. He plays the provocateur well, introducing still-unreleased cuts from his forthcoming third album, Eclipse, with stage banter that ranges from the sexually absurd (a discussion of a youthful three-way featuring a description that even he blushes at), to local smoking habits (“Who here vapes?” he asks, smirking playfully when a sizable chunk of people respond. “You’re an asshole, you’re an asshole and you’re asshole,” he says, laughing and pointing to raised hands.). The crowd eats it up, clearly admiring the ringleader who has somehow managed to become brasher, mouthier and cooler than the rest of us.

A few weeks later, the leather-jacket clad lothario is replaced with a kinder, gentler Lewis. Version 2.0 is calling from New York, back in the city he lived in for 10 years before moving to California. There to perform on Letterman, he’s currently resting in his hotel room, eating kale—a choice that he swears is an homage to his time in Los Angeles. Outside, it’s bone-chillingly cold, a fact that’s on the mind of many New Yorkers during one of the harshest winters on record. The falling mercury, Lewis says, was a big part of his decision to abandon the city in favor of the West Coast.

“I hadn’t had a motorcycle in a while, and I purchased one in New York,” he says, setting the scene. “I remember winter was on its way. I bought this bike and I remember thinking, ‘God, I just bought my dream motorcycle, and now I get to put it in storage for the next four to five months. It just kinda hit me—I should be in LA. I should be enjoying the things that I love to do and just trying to renew. I did New York for 10 years. I’ve got to leave and make room for the new New Yorkers.”

The statement is indicative of conversation with Lewis. He’s careful to not get to boxed in to any one line of questioning, providing surface-level answers only to wax surprisingly philosophical in follow-ups. When he mentions that his first Los Angeles apartment had a gated parking area that doubled as a basketball court, he says it quickly, the words carrying with them an air of sheepishness as though he’s nervous “jock” might be added to his list of perceived attributes. He’s sincere about his love for his motorcycle and reflects on the joy of reading car manuals from 1978 before briefly worrying that admission might make him sound like a gearhead.

Swedish R&B singer and tourmate Erik Hassle praises his “good energy and sympathetic eyes.” But Lewis will be the first to admit it’s a side of him that not everyone sees. He’s working on it though. It’s a quest embedded in the title of his new album. Eclipse, Lewis says, is more verb than noun.

“Oftentimes I find myself stuck on the treadmill of keeping my eye on the prize, and I forget to look at the people who are around me,” he admits. “The people who I care about. This idea of them—it sounds so cheesy when I say it this way—if I’m the earth, and my goal is the sun, this idea of the moon passing in front of it and completely blocking out that goal. Realizing that your goal is really about connecting with the people that you love. I’ll always have that ambition, but you find that people are shifted out of that line that was created, and I’ll see my goal again.”

It’s an observation delivered with an air of self-awareness that indicates if this whole musician thing doesn’t work out, Lewis could have a second career as a top-notch psychiatrist.

“I probably should,” he says, laughing at the observation. “I might make more money doing that for sure.”

Like many great American stories, Lewis’ transformation can be traced back to when he headed west. A self-declared patriot, the idea of experiencing his own personal manifest destiny resonates with him.

“I really like the American value that when things aren’t ideal where you are, you push into another direction,” he notes. “I think for Americans who visited Europe, there’s a tendency to want to escape to Europe to find simpler things. European living is much simpler and more peaceful. For me, I felt that same thing, but I felt that I still need to be in America. America needs good people to continue to be here and not escape. It will only get uglier if everyone who is good tries to run away from it.”

Lewis got the motorcycle weather. With it came a much-needed chance for isolation and reflection.

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Born in the Dominican Republic and raised in Florida, Lewis had been a Gotham fixture since the release of his 2010 debut, Forget. His creative journey became emblematic of New York City’s music culture. The album’s synth symphony introduced a musician who could phrase vocals like Morrissey and deliver Echo and the Bunnymen-level earworms, a mix that played into the early 2010 wave of curiosity with all things 1980s. (It didn’t hurt that the album was produced by scene stalwart Chris Taylor and released on his Terrible Records imprint.)

Lewis’ second album, Confess, fanned away much of the predecessor’s haze, embracing a stylish anger that manifested itself in squealing guitars, a percussive backbeat and barbed insults such as single “Five Seconds”’ refrain: “I don’t believe in/you don’t believe in me/so how could you/make me cry?” It was a slick rock album delivered with an R&B immediacy. It was not, however, the work of a wallflower, to say the least. Pitchfork’s Ian Cohen went so far as to label Lewis’ song persona—the girlfriend-stealing, empty-sex-having raconteur—“a total dick most of the time.”

For his part, Lewis says that he does, on some level, consider himself a confessional songwriter. And whether his fictional persona dovetails with the artist himself, one thing had become clear to Lewis—the excesses of New York were draining.

“I everyone realizes immediately when they move to LA that the chaos just disappears,” he says, laughing. “I think you can create chaos in LA, for sure. But LA in its natural state is not very chaotic. Even the traffic isn’t very chaotic. It’s just kind of molasses.”

Trading the train for traffic, as it turned out, would be a major source of inspiration for the musician. Forced to contend with the sprawling city, Lewis took to driving, both for transportation and as a way to pass the time. Along the way, he discovered a major component of the car culture—the radio.

“For the first time in a long time, since I was a kid, it was becoming exciting to me,” he says. “Even hearing things that I absolutely hate. It was the first time in a long time that I let myself go and enjoyed whatever was on at any given moment. Listening to songs all the way through. I think I just became more open and understand to what was happening to music. I don’t think you understand it unless you live in a city like LA where you absolutely have to be in the car at least once a day. Of course when I come to New York the first thing I do is ask the cab driver to change the station to Hot 97. That’s the theme of your night.”

It wasn’t just the commercial pop hooks that caught his attention. The arbitrary and enduring medium of the format spoke to Lewis’ base desire as a musician, to be presented as one the top contenders in his field. To be heard.

“If you’re born anywhere from the mid-’80s to the beginning of the ‘90s, there’s so much old technology that you ran through,” he muses. “You saw the death of the CD player, you saw the death of the record player. You saw the death of tape. We all saw the death of analog television. It’s all digital satellite and internet. All these deaths of different forms, especially in music, it’s incredible to me that radio still a way that people communicate to the masses. It still works. It’s crazy to me that you’re sitting in your car, and the car still has an antenna that picks up radio, and tons of people live their lives through whatever comes on. But at the same time, we all know that what comes on is a very small amount of the music that comes out there. Luckily we have access to tons of great music that comes through the internet. But it does always impress me that this very old form exists and dictates what the majority of people tend to like. It just interests me in general. It’s a phenomena.”

Lewis isn’t shy about his populist agenda. In the past, he premiered the video for “Five Seconds” in Times Square, and he chose to move from 4AD to Warner Bros., a major label, for the release of Eclipse. Art and commerce, he contends, can and should live side-by-side.

“I just want people to hear my music,” he says. “I just want everybody to hear my music. When you’re a kid and you dream of doing this, your first dream, or at least mine was, I imagined myself singing the national anthem at a baseball game, or playing in a stadium. Being Michael Jackson. Being Boys II Men. Being Red Hot Chili Peppers. Being Pearl Jam. Being Nirvana. That’s what I dreamt when I first dreamt about playing music. Those were the templates for me.”

Coming from a musician on the cusp of releasing an album, the acknowledgment feels practical rather than overtly id-driven. It’s not a stance that everyone shares.

“I think people around me sometimes want to shut me down,” Lewis continues with a rueful laugh, acknowledging that in the past he’s been called out for his verbose honesty. “People think my ambition is ego, which I don’t find to be true. I think there’s a huge sea change right now. Believe it or not, in two to three years, people wanting everyone to hear their music is not going to be discussed. That’s what everyone’s going to want. Everyone is going to want to be on the radio…I think it’s a cultural thing. Within the last 10 years, with all the self-awareness that the internet brought, with what YouTube brought, all the behind-the-scenes, reality television, brought this shame on ambition and things that are grotesquely out of sync with just being a normal person. Just being someone who gets through their day. There’s always going to be underground music. Which is great, because that’s what keeps this whole thing interesting. But I think more and more, people aren’t going to be ashamed of having big dreams.”

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Work on Eclipse began with another big-city ritual, the hunt for real estate. The answer came in the form of a show at the Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. A sprawling piece of land located in the heart of Los Angeles, it was everything Lewis was looking for—secluded, with few neighbors other than the masses of twentysomethings that would flood in every Saturday for the Cineaspia movie night. But while the location was peaceful, and surprisingly cheery, Lewis notes the irony of his new digs didn’t escape him.

“For me personally, death has very much been on my mind,” he says. “In the last year I unfortunately lost three friends. It was weird. But the thing about the cemetery is that it’s not spooky. It’s such a good vibe. I didn’t find myself thinking about death too much inside of the cemetery.”

At that he pauses, laughing darkly before delivering his painfully honest punchline.

“Maybe that was a coping mechanism so I didn’t freak myself out,” he continues. “As you grow up, as your friends get older, you start to deal with these things. Things happen. People get sick. I lost some friends to drug addictions that I didn’t know they had. These things happen, and you’re confronted by it. I can’t really say exactly what I think about all of it. I think some of it is in my music. But I don’t try to focus on it too much. It’s a weird thing. I’m still uncomfortable at the thought of death. I think most people are.”

He and his band—keyboardist Wynne Bennett, bassist Spencer Zahn and drummer Andy Bauer—set up shop in a small chapel at the end of the property. There they tracked drums in the building’s man sanctuary and transformed the priest’s quarters into an all-purpose control room. Lewis estimates that over half of the album was written and recorded during that time.

Eclipse is a big, swooning piece of macho rock that would easily slot into radio playlists, particularly its buffed-to-a-shine singles “Back to the Top” and “Turn Me Up.” The lyrics are simple (“We don’t want to be flatliners—pump, pump, pump it up”), and the drama in Lewis’ voice is pushed to visceral levels. The release is also notably light on guitars, swapping strings for crisp synths and pounding percussion. Despite often playing the guitar live, Lewis makes it clear he has no Hendrix aspirations.

“It’s funny because [guitars are] something that I’ve been talking about getting away from,” Lewis says. “It’s a weird thing. I sometimes feel like I signed up to play guitar when I was 14 years old and there’s nothing I can do about it. I’ll just always play it. But sometimes it’s the last thing that I want to play. I don’t practice guitar anymore. When I play it, it has to be very instinctual. It has to be very spontaneous. I practice singing now and I practice playing piano now. It’s just a weird thing. I go on and off of it. Sometimes I love it, sometimes I hate it. Sometimes I feel like nobody does it well, and that it’s my job to play it. I don’t know. Sometimes I feel the need to protect it. But sometimes I’m like, ‘Yeah, get rid of that thing.’”

But despite its potential for bombastic sing-alongs and liberal use of chorus crescendos, Eclipse is also a very sad album, its larger-than-life central character coming to grips with the aftermath of self-inflicted destruction, loneliness and shattered love affairs. (“Do you know why I stumble? Why I’m way down on my knees/I’ve been racing through a half-life/and it’s taking its toll on me.”) The results are rarely pretty.

Lewis doesn’t try to hide the fact that now, perhaps more than ever, he’s writing about himself. The song “I’m Ready,” with its rattling percussion and spoken-word opening describing “a boy in a car at the top of a hill looking down at LA” was even written as a bit of a welcome-to-the-city gift to himself. The song sees Lewis is at his most vulnerable, pleading with both Los Angeles and himself, “Hold on to me/it’s the end of me/I’m trying, I’m ready/I need this love.”

“Music really is the only place where I can see myself 100 percent,” he admits, ruefully. “I mean, I also kinda say what I mean in life. I am honest, and I do my best to stay honest. I think music allows you to be venerable on another level. It really lets you get to the core of everything. Oftentimes, even though I’m honest, I’ll often be prideful in person. I’m really hardheaded and I always have to win an argument. In music, I’m allowed to actually admit that I’m wrong. Which is really hard to do in person.”

Lewis holds no illusions that moving to Los Angeles or simply trying to be a better person has solved all his problems. But he is better, mentally, emotionally and physically, than he’s been in a long time. (“I kind of knock on wood when I say that,” he notes wryly.) But just because he’s feeling good enough to trot out “old George” for shows, doesn’t mean he’s immune to making the same mistakes in the future.

“Nobody’s forging new ground every moment,” he says. “Some people try for that and they go insane trying for that. Life is about repetition. Music is about repetition. Art is about repetition. The reason for that is because oftentimes, there is just one path. But walking that path several times will yield different things.”

The word is humbling—a vocabulary choice that Lewis doesn’t dispute. The way he sees it, he got lucky. The people who have stayed with him, the people he’s reconnected with—they’ve helped shove him towards self-reflection.

“I think that everyone has a pull,” he says. “Everyone has this magnetic thing about them. Once you’re on a path, it’s very easy to stay, hard to stop. To stop going in that direction. In fact, it’s impossible sometimes for you, yourself to change direction. Someone else has to bump into you and change your direction. I think that’s all it is. I think you can probably compare it very much to a physics aspect to who we are and what we do. We’re traveling through this space and everyone is set in motion. It takes bumping into other things, it takes other things to set you into motion or to stop you or destroy you. Or to make you bigger. I do feel like it’s kind of random.”

Lewis also says that that he’s become good at letting things go—including songs. No matter how dark Eclipse may be, he has moved past that phase in his life.

“I think about my immediate feature,” he says. “Going on tour, releasing this record, promoting this record. My little goals, trying to buy a house, trying to work on my motorcycle. The big dream is always going to be there. That’s one thing I know. Now I’m trying to enjoy the small things around getting there.”

He’s also thinking about friends and family—more than ever. While “old George” might roll his eyes at the Hallmark moment, this man is sincere about the fact that these days, he’s just appreciating people in his life more and more.

“My mom is a person I see who gets in my way and gives me a good reality check,” he says. “She keeps me grounded and focused on the fact that I have to be healthy and I have to be happy. Or else all my goals don’t matter. There’s a lot of people in my life that I pushed away because of my ambitions. I’ve been trying to regain those relationships. So there’s tons of people. There’s friends, there’s ex-lovers…I think people bring me the greatest amount of joy. Like when I hang out with my friend Adrian, and we’re not in a typical bar setting or a nightclub. We’re just hanging on his front porch, and he’s working his motorcycle, and I’m working on my motorcycle, and we’re just laughing about the silliest things. There’s no happiness greater than that. The most simple things are where the most divine happiness lives.”

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