Catching Up With The Lemon Twigs, the New Princes of Rock ‘n’ Roll

On their fourth LP, Everything Harmony, the D’Addario brothers come of age through songs cycles and reflective storytelling

Music Features The Lemon Twigs
Catching Up With The Lemon Twigs, the New Princes of Rock ‘n’ Roll

I’m at Cheer Up Charlie’s in Austin, Texas 90 minutes before the Lemon Twigs’ set at High Road Touring’s SXSW showcase, and Michael D’Addario is missing. The band’s tour manager, Patrick, is canvassing the venue in search of the 24-year-old wearing denim flares and a jacket to match. As a band called BAILEN plays the outdoor stage, I stand in the middle of a sea of (mostly) drunk festival-goers with Michael’s older brother, Brian. He’s fashioned what looks to be a Nixon-era bowling-ball bag into a crossbody kit (it’s a Gola bag, but the vibes transcend); his bell-bottom jeans neatly hug the pavement. “This has actually been a trend, recently,” Brian says of his brother’s whereabouts, laughing.

Normally, Cheer Up Charlie’s is one of Austin’s most-beloved gay bars. Tonight, it’s virtually unrecognizable, filled to the brim with music-heads hitting on each other and trying to talk over the swarm of noise in the thick Texas heat. Patrick locates Michael, but we all deem Charlie’s to be too loud and set our sights on the tour van, which is about four or five blocks east. The Lemon Twigs are one of the hottest rock bands in America right now, but they can’t stop talking about Electric Light Orchestra co-founder Roy Wood.

Before the D’Addario brothers became the Lemon Twigs, they played cover songs in a band called Members of the Press. And before that, they both took turns as child actors: Brian had stints on Broadway and on Law & Order and CSI: NY, while Michael played Ethan Hawke’s son in Sinister. When they streamlined their focus towards music, they released their proper debut album—Do Hollywood—in 2016. Brian and Michael were only 19 and 17 years old, but the LP was a cosmic, charming blend of glam and baroque rock.

Seven years ago, the brothers embellished their own sonic range, proving they could bedeck themselves with campy bravado and robust guitar solos—all while alternating between playing guitar and drums and singing lead vocals. The Lemon Twigs have long possessed a potent stronghold on the architecture of pop melodies. Brian—whose full name is Brian Paul D’Addario—is named after two of the greatest song-builders of the 20th century: Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney. Growing up, they took cues from their dad Ronnie—a session musician and songwriter in the 1970s and 1980s—and even performed his song “Love Stepped Out” during their Do Hollywood days. Their mom, Susan, was an actress before becoming a neuropsychologist.

Michael, Brian and I leave Cheer Up Charlie’s—which I’ve elected to just call “Charlie’s,” though my Austin friend rebuffs my shorthand and proclaims that locals call the bar “Cheer Ups”—behind. Around the corner from the venue, we ascend up a mammothly inclined hill, which feels even steeper after an afternoon spent flying and running through airports. “Have you ever run into Eric Carmen?” Michael asks me once he’s found out I hail from Ohio, where his and Brian’s family grew up before moving out to Long Island. The former Raspberries frontman is in league with the psychedelic, power-pop company the Lemon Twigs keep: Squeeze, Big Star, Utopia and Wood’s non-ELO band The Move.

In 2017, the band closed their Coachella set with Todd Rundgren’s “Couldn’t I Just Tell You” and had the wizard and true star jam on the track with them. “He used my guitar, which had a horrible set-up. It was very hard to play and he was able to use it effortlessly. He asked for nothing in his monitor,” Brian says. Flash-forward six years, and Rundgren has become a mentor to the brothers. “He was a pro. He didn’t need any special tools to make himself sound great. He’s one of the absolute top artists for both of us,” Michael adds. “I feel weird even saying that I know him, as though we’re friends, but he’s made us feel like that.”

A year later, Rundgren—and Big Star drummer Jody Stephens—would guest on the Lemon Twigs’ sophomore album-slash-pesudo-musical Go to School. The songs revolved around Shane, an adopted chimpanzee who is bullied, heartbroken, riddled with vengeance, burns his school down and runs away. How does Rundgren play into all of that? Well, he takes up the role of Shane’s adoptive father. After playing a gig 10 minutes away from the D’Addarios’ parents’ house in Long Island, Brian and Michael picked him up at his hotel and took him to their studio to track some parts.

Go To School was an ambitious second outing for the Lemon Twigs. Few bands have ever dared to make a concept album so early in their career, but the D’Addario brothers wanted to take a detour from the everyday, teenage ongoings. Brian calls the project a “songwriting exercise” that revolted against their urges to make something confessional. “When we made the album, we didn’t have very much to talk about. We wanted to do something that was coming from different places, instead of writing the same words as we did [on Do Hollywood],” Michael adds. “It was a whim and we followed it.”

Still, Go To School was an achievement from top to bottom. Songs like “The Fire,” “Small Victories” and “If You Give Enough” remain in the echelons of the band’s catalog, as they embraced a theatrical, Broadway approach to rock ’n’ roll—a glaring callback to Brian and Michael’s acting days. Though they didn’t just want to make a record that hoisted up adolescent heartbreak or loneliness, Go To School wound up becoming a great documentation on alienation, unkindness and loss. “You can’t afford to show your face / And smile back / The spark of a new love can cause a heart attack / So leave me here to smile / Until my teeth turn black / And I won’t grieve for you,” Brian’s falsetto ran on “The Lesson,” in a persona fusing Elton John and Stephen Sondheim.

Two years later, on Songs for the General Public in 2020, the Lemon Twigs made a hard pivot towards a spangled, Jim Steinman-style collection of sexual, tough and leather-coated songs that tackled every sonic interest Brian and Michael had. They ditched the theatricality of Go To School, adopting something with less throughlines and more experimentation to quench the thirst of their rock ’n’ rolling, magpie curiosities. On the Wings-summoning “Hell on Wheels,” Michael unveiled his Blonde on Blonde-era Bob Dylan impersonation; Michael’s “Somebody Loving You” was Marc Bolan-core down to the bone; closing cut “Ashamed” found the Lemon Twigs circumventing oddball balladry with a finale of Velvet Underground-style, droning guitars. The D’Addarios have always been tongue-in-cheek and devilishly audacious, but Songs for the General Public was their cleverest, campiest fit of creative intensity and comedy. On “Hog,” Michael sang of hating an ex from the seat of his piano: “You ate me alive / Eat me out / And don’t leave any left for tomorrow / Au revoir / Replace me with a cut-out / Well I hope you don’t get caught in the rain.”

Initially, Songs for the General Public was slated for a spring 2020 release. But COVID-19 pushed it back to August. That delay allowed the Lemon Twigs to return to the songs and fiddle with the recordings more, though the only obvious change that fans may have encountered arrived like an Easter egg: The version of “Fight” that is on streaming services is a different take than what you’ll hear on the vinyl pressing of the album. Getting the extra space to work on Songs for the General Public opened the door for Brian and Michael to expand their own recording process on the next project, which they did—doing numerous recordings of their new compositions and getting laissez-faire with their vocal takes.

The Lemon Twigs are gearing up to release their fourth LP, Everything Harmony. I mean it when I say this: Recorded with Andres Valbuena and Daryl Johns and mastered by Bug Sound’s Paul Millar, it’s the best thing the D’Addario brothers have ever made. But, the album isn’t arriving without its hurdles—born directly from a frustrating six months of recording at the Music Building in Midtown Manhattan in 2021. “We were tracking some of the songs, and our neighbors were blasting music from speakers that go from the floor to the ceiling. House-shaking bass,” Michael says. “And then, there was a heavy metal band and, outside, sirens were going off all the time.” The room they were working out of was a rehearsal space, not a bonafide studio environment. But they weren’t planning on making a record when they first got there. “We’re horrible with planning, and everything is always very chaotic and very shambolic, other than the actual music-making,” Brian adds. “We did about six months of coming into the studio really late, working really odd hours so that we could have some quiet, because every song we had was acoustic.”

In September 2021, the brothers called it a day at the Music Building and hitched cross-country to Hyde Street Studios in San Francisco to finish recording the album. “It really came to a head when Brian would be doing takes and takes of [‘When Winter Comes Around’] that would get interrupted by sirens,” Michael says. “It put us in a situation where Brian just did the guitar and vocal at the same time because, if we got one that was quiet, we had to use that. We thought it wasn’t any way to make a record.” Wanting to replicate the echo chamber sound of East West Studios that Weyes Blood used on her last LP And In The Darkness, Hearts Aglow, the band found Hyde Street. While there, they added complex textures to the arrangements, including notes of vibraphone, harpsichord, French horn, strings from The Friction Quartet and a wall of vocal harmonies that would put Phil Spector in a tailspin. The migration west became a blessing for the band because, in Brian’s own words, Everything Harmony wouldn’t have gotten finished had they stayed in New York City.

Brian and Michael have been calling Everything Harmony their “Simon & Garfunkel record,” given how much they let these new songs breathe atop dynamic, orchestral and—mostly—acoustic arrangements. Lead single—and longtime setlist cornerstone—“Corner Of My Eye” is very Fate for Breakfast-era Art Garfunkel, as Brian splays an inquisitive falsetto over a sweet, catchy, plucky melody. It’s chamber-pop perfected to a T, which you can hear through a delicious wall of harmonies cascading at the 1:50 mark. “I’ve got a wonderful feeling / That’s ripe for being wrong,” Brian sings, cheekily. It’s their most-conscious and present album yet, as the brothers couple the anxieties and romances of their mid-20s with their textbook humor. “[While making the album] we were, consciously, being mature in a way that’s kind of funny,” Michael says.

There’s a complexity to the Lemon Twigs’ presentation. In their van, Brian sits poised at the edge of the trunk—ready to shepherd any questions—while Michael—the baby brother who is much more reserved—stretches across the backseat and nurses a bottle of warm Topo Chico. On stage, the roles are reversed: Brian is the shier performer, while Michael adopts the responsibilities of a showman, enlisting a certain type of flair into his mid-song mannerisms. But both of them, together, command a crowd. They understand that, to play the full part of being rock stars, they must live through the songs in real time, too. Hip shakes and foot-twists abound, there is flavor beyond the eccentricities that fill-out their retro sheen. It tumbles into their approach to conversations, where they are electric together, riffing off one another with ease.

While Songs for the General Public was a 50/50 songwriting split between Michael and Brian and led to a hodgepodge tracklist, the conception of Everything Harmony was much more and synthesized and particularly influenced by Brian’s sonic vision and interests. Following his brother’s lead, Michael reconfigured his output to help make each song on the tracklist parallel with the next. “The vibe was me trying to figure out a way to get my own stuff to be more in the wheelhouse of Brian’s, while also having its own feel to it,” Michael says. The brothers have, according to Michael, “billions of songs” that they can record at any time, but Brian notes that they each picked their absolute best pieces for this album. The result? A Van Dyke Parks-style song cycle that merges creative intuition with bloodline chemistry that culls everything from Syd Barrett to Arthur Russell to Philip Glass.

I could go on and on about why Everything Harmony is this perfect, idealistic rendering of mid-century, singer/songwriter bliss. Unlike their first three albums, the Lemon Twigs have toned down the loudness. Don’t get it twisted, though: the D’Addario brothers can still melt your faces. Two tracks on Everything Harmony—“In My Head” and “What You Were Doing”—tap into the glam rock ethos that still courses through their veins. “In My Head” arrived as a single last month, and signaled an end to the amber-colored, retro sheen the Lemon Twigs were once so deeply engulfed in, as Michael gives hypnotizing, McCartney-inspired “Ooos” that contort and bend like boa constrictors.

Since Do Hollywood, the band has been considered old-school, as they’ve filled their tracklists with sounds that appease everyone from Baby Boomers to Urban Outfitters obsessives. Yet, the truth of it is, the Lemon Twigs’ sound is indescribably anti-retro. It’s a pastiche of many things, yes, ranging from Beach Boy harmonies to Elliot Smith lyricism. But, they somehow manage to remain wholly original. And, though “Any Time Of Day” is an amalgam of psychedelic yacht rock rife with Bee Gees-style harmonies and “Every Day Is The Worst Day Of My Life” rides the high of a “Thirteen” by Big Star energy, one thing could never describe the Lemon Twigs. Unlike other bands who implement textures of bygone eras into their work, they do not sound like replicants of the past. They’ve ditched the expectations of sonic association and scene-stealing doo-wops and hijinx of the last seven years to make their most inward-facing album to-date. “When you’re doing any sort of rock ’n’ roll, or uptempo thing in general, you do have to have more of a persona,” Brian says.

What makes Everything Harmony such an achievement is that it finds the D’Addario brothers at an apex, churning out tracks built to last. Never before have they made such beautiful-sounding work, and that’s a product of them being more present with each other in the studio. “I think, at a certain time, we weren’t as on the same page. On this album, we were really on the same page, exploring working together in a way that’s not done in spurts,” Michael says. “On Songs for the General Public, I would play all the instruments and sing all the background vocals, or Michael would do that. But now, every song has the part where we work together in the beginning, then one person does overdubs and then we work together again at the end. We do all of the harmonies together, because we know that the sound is unique,” Brian adds.

Those harmonies are sublime and irresistible on Everything Harmony. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a sweeter sounding album, vocally, in 2023. Implementing techniques they picked up through working with Weyes Blood and Jonathan Rado of Foxygen—alongside learning vocals from Beach Boys videos and their dad’s own aural techniques—the Lemon Twigs have assembled an endless cache of reference points that are both timeless and technically relevant. A handful of the songs on Everything Harmony required multiple vocal takes, but the brothers have their sights set on streamlining that on their next album, which is already almost done. “We’re trying to get to a point with our singing where we’re good enough—and practiced enough—that we can go in and do the vocals in one take,” Michael says. “We did so much singing on the same mic on this album, now we are definitely able to go into the studio and do two-part harmony and have no problem getting our pitches right in the exact same place.”

On Everything Harmony, Brian and Michael have ventured into a confessional lyrical approach. On “New To Me,” Brian writes from the perspective of a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease: “When my mouth is open wide / Like someone cut the lights / I flicker from your sight / Past the doorway to the end of struggles, big and small / Now I cannot recall / You can let go of them all / And I’ll see you soon my friend.” The jangly rendezvous of “Born To Be Lonely,” which was inspired by John Cassavetes’ Opening Night, tackles the fragility of growing up, atop the glow of some Herb Alpert French horns provided by Alicia Mastromonaco: “I have friends, I don’t need more / They’re seashells washing onto shore / They come and go, I’m here all day / Withering my life away / I take the bus, go to the store / Though I’m not hungry anymore / The scene is set, the die is cast / My final chance is fading fast.”

In their mid-20s, the D’Addarios have penned their most thoughtful and personal record yet. A statement like that might conjure some yawns from anyone over the age of 30, but what the Lemon Twigs have accomplished on Everything Harmony is a mark of growth stemming from a “palpable mood of defeat” felt while writing and recording it. The brothers have modeled this chapter after Simon & Garfunkel, and have taken their best swing at mimicking the folks legends’ ability to couple humor with grace. After taking wildly different approaches in concept and in production on their first three albums, Brian and Michael didn’t want to spin the tires and make another Songs for the General Public. “We were exploring boredom, exploring things I’ve always liked but never wanted to make anything like—like Suzanne Vega and Teenage Fanclub, people who are influenced by the past but not so tethered to the sonics. That was an exploration, a little bit of change,” Michael says. “We were trying to be more open to other influences and not be so narrow-minded about what was coming off the speakers.”

The big, Bowie-sized sound that the Lemon Twigs cut their teeth on years ago is not lost. On “What You Were Doing,” they erupt into a foxy guitar solo that would cozy up nicely to any Mick Ronson lick. We are of a time when no album is seismic in a technical way; hums of masterpiece status are few and far between. But Everything Harmony toes the line, regardless. I think about my own dad’s moans and groans about rock ’n’ roll being dead and his dismissal of any new band’s feeble attempts at retreading well-read waters. His favorite bands are all either broken-up, buried or sold out to the corporate underbelly of legacy tours long ago.

But I remember being 18 years old and watching the Lemon Twigs play songs off of Do Hollywood at Amoeba Records during a YouTube livestream. Alongside them, I have grown up, too. Perhaps my dad was onto something, even in his disconnected, misguided beliefs. There is something beautiful in watching your heroes unspool the magnetism of their own potential before your very eyes, and few heartbreaks run thicker than watching them, eventually, fade out of the zeitgeist. Luckily, Brian and Michael are only 26 and 24, and both have many albums and a couple billion more songs left to flesh out. These boys are one-in-a-million; the new princes of rock ’n’ roll.

After a round of technical difficulties with the sound, the Lemon Twigs kick off their Cheer Up Charlie’s set around 10:15 PM. I linger at the very back of the crowd, taking note of the folks stopping near the venue’s entrance to listen to Brian and Michael play. After rummaging through checkpoints from their entire career—including “Foolin’ Around,” “Queen of My School” and “The One”—Brian provides a beautiful rendition of “Corner Of My Eye” while Michael plays a left-handed guitar re-stringed into a right-handed vessel à la Jimi Hendrix. There is a significantly larger crowd around the stage than there was 20 minutes ago, much of it composed of folks older than the D’Addario brothers themselves.

It’s clear that the Lemon Twigs have entered a new era, with compositions that are as immortal as they are perfect. They’ve always been music nerds, getting stoked on whatever CDs or sonic affections their parents passed down to them. To memorize a bevy of musical history and then translate into sophisticated renditions that are original, you must be a student of the craft and your consumption of it must be immense. “We were really lucky that our dad and mom had really great taste and got us into every Beach Boy record,” Michael adds. “When you want more of that music you just go wherever can give you that. Like any other musician, there are people who just go to that place because they think that’s what they’re supposed to do. But we aren’t like that. We do it because we are obsessed with it, so we keep trying to always find it.”

After playing eight tracks, Brian and Michael D’Addario careen through a haze of righteous neon one last time and tumble into an explosion of musical stardom on “Leather Together.” Watching them perform—and getting to see the cord between their souls bend into unflinching happiness—is a gift. From Do Hollywood to Songs for the General Public, the brothers tunnel-visioned themselves towards the music so deftly that nothing else mattered. But they are bound by blood, and a glossy, unbreakable chemistry has risen from that on Everything Harmony. It only makes sense that their best album poured out of them once they pointed their gazes on each other, instead.

Matt Mitchell is Paste’s assistant music editor. He is from Columbus, Ohio, but you can find him online @yogurttowne.

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