Brian D’Addario, 23, and his brother Michael, 21, were still teenagers when they signed with legendary indie label 4AD and released their debut album as The Lemon Twigs, co-produced by Foxygen’s Jonathan Rado. The Long Island siblings are both singer-songwriters and multi-instrumentalists who expertly evoke the sound and spirit of ‘60s and ‘70s rock at its most melodic — and they’ve already impressed heroes like Todd Rundgren and Elton John.
But their recently issued third album, Songs for the General Public, is the kind of confident step into a brighter spotlight that its title implies — the sound of former teen prodigies now in the prime of their talents.
Brian D’Addario spoke to SPIN about how their new album contrasts with their last effort, the whimsical 2018 rock opera Go To School, and shared the premiere of the second music video from the General Public, for the rousing anthemic track “Moon.”
SPIN: I loved the concept album aspect of Go To School and how this new record is kind of an about-face from that. But the title Songs For the General Public did make me wonder: Is it tongue-in-cheek, or are you guys really unabashedly saying this is for a wider audience — that it’s more accessible?
Brian D’Addario: Well, I think when we first started using that title, it was initially for a pretty different set of songs that were more acoustic. But they were more straightforward, y’know, in that there wasn’t this grand sort of album piece. It was like every song kind of existed in its own world. That’s just an easier kind of thing to do, and it’s an easier thing to digest, and we were very aware of that. We were aware that we wanted to make that kind of album that was easy to pull off and easy to digest.
The 30 Best Albums of 2020
You say it was conceptually easier to pull off, but was it really a breeze to make by comparison?
Actually, no. We really thought that it would be. Songwriting-wise and arrangement-wise, yes, but production-wise, we just kept kind of raising the bar for ourselves. And as we experimented with different recording techniques and utilized different studios, a song that we thought would be done, when we learned this new technique, we realized it wasn’t done, and we would have to spend a lot more time working on all of the songs. So it just ended up being a whole lot more time than we thought it would be. But the good thing about it was, by the time we finished the record, the songs had a lot more lasting power, as far as our personal enjoyment of them.
When you say “new techniques,” do you mean trying new things in the studio in general, or a specific strategy or technology?
Well, there was the whole thing of taking songs we had worked on here, bringing them to Jonathan Rado’s studio in L.A. and putting them through his board. Taking songs that we worked on on one recording console and transferring it and fattening up the sound with EQ at another studio. And then when we got a few days at Electric Lady, we could print all these reverbs on the song and give it so much more depth and make it kinda glisten.
Songs like “The One” and “Why Do Lovers Own Each Other?” and “No One Holds You” feel very philosophical about love and relationships. Are those more like a commentary on love song tropes, or were you guys really going through something personally?
Well, “The One” I think kind of illustrates my actual point of view on the subject, which is that, y’know, one person should be able to love anybody. And it’s sort of a defense of falling in love with people and not being so critical in your judgment of, like, I require this person because I’m so wonderful; I need someone who fits all these specifications.
And I think that “No One Holds You” is sort of like this idea of, especially with the Internet, you’re looking at all of these different people, and you have a real perception of how big the world is and how many people there are out there, that maybe you’re not entirely present for people around because you feel like there are so many fish in the sea. And “Why Do Lovers Own Each Other?,” that’s kind of the same thing. I think I make my position clear at the end of the song, where it’s like, “Why do lovers try and offer everything they’re worth / They try to get as close to holy as they can on Earth.” You wanna be as close to an ideal as you can. It’s an admirable thing, to wanna be good and pure and true to a person in a relationship. But I dunno, sometimes it’s easier when you’re writing a song to just take the opposite point of view, just to be empathetic, or illustrate something interesting.
Given that you’re 23 and your influences are mostly music from before you were born, was that a product of growing up with your parents’ record collection?
I guess so. When I was a kid, I didn’t really — I just wasn’t aware of whatever was going on with whatever contemporary artists. I was just more aware of CDs I had that were my dad’s and my mom’s. I guess that’s where that comes from, and in the Internet age, you can just get obsessed with anything. So I was really obsessed with the Who in my adolescent years, and then later, a bunch of psychedelic bands, and a lot of contemporary stuff like MGMT and the Flaming Lips when I was 13, 14, but always stuff that had a certain melodic and harmonic identity to it.
Has it been hard to find contemporaries in other young bands that are into the same things?
It wasn’t really too difficult. The second show we ever played was with Foxygen at Webster Hall, and that was because I had just contacted Rado, because I was so obsessed with their music, and they were really into our music. It’s always been stuff like that, finding someone that likes what you do. And then, playing shows in New York when we first got started, it wasn’t too difficult, because once people saw us, they knew it was a pretty entertaining live act. We’ve always gotten a lot more attention and praise for what we did as performers than our records. That’s always been something that was easier for people to attach to and see as obviously good, I guess.
The first song I heard from you guys was one of my local college radio stations was “Tailor Made,” and it grabbed me, but I had no idea what year it was from, and I was excited to see that it was a newer band that had a record coming out. But you’ve really impressed artists from older generations like Elton John praising you guys, it must feel crazy to hear from people like that.
Yeah, it’s really…life-affirming, y’know? I mean, we have a lot of confidence in what we do when we’re doing it. But once it’s out, it’ll kind of throw you for a loop, because not everybody gets it. But someone like that that we love a lot who gets it, what’s better than that?
How would you describe what you and your brother do differently as musicians, and do you guys try to really have equal output as songwriters?
All of the albums that we’ve done so far have been half and half — it’s turned out that way. But I don’t know — Michael is very instinctive, and he has a real knack for production and setting the kind of parameters that you need to set in order to give something any sort of identity.
I have a tendency to just throw in everything. Whatever we have lying around the studio, I wanna use. And it’s always Michael who says, “You just can’t do that because it just ends up sounding like nothing, because you’re not able to discern what’s going on.” So we’re always doing that with each other, Michael might have a tendency to under-record, and I’ll add something it needs, and I’ll have a tendency to over-record. And that’s a dynamic that’s always at play. I get attached to things I’ve recorded and just assume everything I’ve put to tape is necessary. And it’s really good to have someone say, “No, that’s completely unnecessary,” bring you back to Earth.