The Lemons are a feel good band. Listening to their music consistently induces heart-warming urges to sing-a-long, be generally merry, clap maybe. When I speak with Chris Kramer, one of the band’s formative members, he seems to have prescribed himself and his bandmates with a dose of something so jolly, not even the loneliest ballad in the land could bring them down. “Everybody’s a lemon,” he tells me repeatedly. “Everybuddy’s a lemon.”
The Lemons are, to be specific, a group of friends that live in a house together in Chicago and sing. They even have pseudonyms to go along with the world of jovial music-making they’ve created: Juicy James, Kimy Slice, Kelly Nothing.
As the story goes, a kid named John Lemon had some songs he wanted to record and Kramer (also known as Chris Twist) helped him do it. They shared them with a friend who was doing some booking and the friend ended up asking if The Lemons could play a show. “We weren’t even a band then but we did it,” Kramer says.
So came Hello, We’re the Lemons, the band’s debut cassette tape that would release three different times, the third edition on Burger Records.
A collection of light-hearted jingles that last on average about a minute, Hello, We’re the Lemons reads like an intricate crayon drawing, something that focuses in on the simpler joys in life, such as Kool-Aid and jelly beans.
“Max and I or uh, John Lemon and I started writing jingles together. Goofing around and writing little songs about all of the shops in our neighborhood. Just something to do on a Thursday night. And so we have a lot of songs that are just 10 second jingles for our friends or the ice cream that we like to buy.”
Songs based strictly on the power of a good chorus to inspire a good sing-a-long, Kramer says the band’s songwriting process always starts with a chorus. “We figure out how the song’s going to work around that [the chorus] and then we figure out all of the harmonies. That’s the fun part. We spend a lot of time in our van just working on our harmonies.”
The way Kramer sees it, the hook is a song’s best friend. Writing a good song means: “You’ve got one hook that’s really good. Then you’ve got another part that makes you miss the hook. Then the hook comes back again.”
The longest song by The Lemons is two minutes nine seconds, the shortest is 25 seconds, and the average is probably less than a minute. Technically, if you’re speaking in Lemons terms, they’re not exactly songs, they’re jingles. The Lemons write feel-good jingles. Everybody’s a lemon.
“The song doesn’t need to be any longer than, well, the song needs to be. The Lemons, we get our point across pretty quickly, so our songs are 40 to 60 seconds usually, and then we’re on to the next one. Some people like to meander a lot and make their point in three to four minutes. That’s just not our style.”
I ask Chris if he feels like the band’s devotion to breaking the unspoken rules associated with song length is their form of musical rebellion. He pauses. “No, I think it’s our form of short attention span.”
“Usually one chorus, sometimes two chorus’ in, we decide the songs complete. That’s all you really need. It depends on the song obviously, but your chorus is your best part. So our thought is, just get to the chorus and get on with it.”
What eventually got The Lemons to write a song over two minutes was the desire to give a friend, Jordan Speer (who, naturally, also goes by the name Beef Strong?) a little extra something to work with for a video. How’d they extend it? An intro and a really long guitar solo. You know, by Lemons standards.
When The Lemons perform, everyone grooves and smiles and after about 10 to 15 minutes of grooving and smiling, it’s over. It’s not quite enough time to finish a beer, but it is enough time to wonder why it’s over, and why it felt so good, and wait, am I lemon? Do I wanna be a lemon? What’s a lemon, anyway? It’s the set that makes you miss the set. “We like to keep it short, keep people entertained, and then get out of there.”
“In this book Commando, by Johnny Ramone, he talks about how he went to see the Beatles at Chase Stadium in ’65 and they played for 25 minutes. And so when the Ramones were starting they weren’t half as good as the Beatles so they were going to play for 14 minutes. And when we started we weren’t half as good as the Ramones so we played half of what they played, a seven minute set. We’ve expanded from there. We’re doing a solid 18 minutes sometimes now.”
Naturally, sometimes the “leave people wanting more” philosophy isn’t the most practical, and The Lemons are asked to play longer sets. “Something that we’ve talked about is adding other things to the show that aren’t just music making, so that we can do a 50 minute set and still keep people entertained by spicing it up. You know, song, song, song, something else (maybe Santa Claus comes and visits?) and then some more songs.”
In this, the happy-go-lucky Lemons fairy tale, what type of ice cream you like to buy is song-worthy and people are lemons and Don’t ya just love a good jingle. Everybody loves a good jingle.
“We want people to come and listen to the Lemons and leave feeling good. We don’t want to bring people down. There’s a lot of things in this world that are going to bring people down. We don’t want to be one of them.”
Alexa Carrasco is a writer who likes lemons. You can follow her on that Twitter business here.