The Lemon Twigs not only draw their musical inspiration from classic power-pop; they’ve also learned to record using authentic ’70s gear and techniques.
The Lemon Twigs are brothers Michael and Brian D’Addario from Long Island, New York. Though respectively only 18 and 20 years old, they have already released two highly acclaimed albums inspired by a shared love of 1970s power pop. Following on from their 2016 debut Do Hollywood, this year’s Go To School is a highly ambitious, 16-song double album ‘musical’ featuring cameos from Todd Rundgren and onetime Big Star drummer Jody Stephens.
The plotline of Go To School is purposely daft. A couple, Bill and Carol, adopt a chimpanzee named Shane and raise him as a human until — spoiler alert! — he ends up burning down his high school by the close of the album. If, as a concept, it’s cartoonish, then the hugely accomplished songs and elaborate, strings-and-brass-supported productions blow away any whiff of novelty. All the more impressive is the fact that the brothers produced the album themselves, working entirely in the analogue domain, in their Fortune Studio, set up in the basement of their parents’ Long Island home.
“We kinda had the initial parts of the idea when we started touring the first album,” Brian explains. “We didn’t want to stop being creative, so we talked about the next album a lot. The songs indicated certain points of the plot. Michael was going to school a lot at the time, ‘cause he was trying to finish a year early. So he wrote songs like ‘Queen Of My School’ that had to do with a nerd going out with the most popular girl in the school. Things just popped up gradually.”
Partly through choosing to record to tape, the Lemon Twigs have managed to create an album that sounds authentically ‘70s, recalling in parts Queen, the Who, Wings, various shades of orchestral pop and, of course, the brothers’ faves, Rundgren and Big Star. “I just think that they kinda mastered it back then,” says Brian. “For me, really, it’s the drum sounds. The combination of how clean they are and the way that they’re powerful. Every modern drum sound has gotta hit you right over the head with how powerful it is. I like that you can have powerful recordings with low drums from the ‘70s.”
“It’s just the idea that if we’re gonna be making rock music or melodic singer-songwriter-type stuff,” adds Michael, “the best-sounding music of that whole genre is from that era. Recording the way that they recorded, we do that because I don’t feel that it would be as good if we just did it on a computer.”
Like most millennials with an interest in recording, though, Brian and Michael D’Addario did start off working on computers. The pair grew up with music all around the house: father Ronnie D’Addario is a musician and songwriter, whose compositions have featured in TV shows such as New Girl and The Sinner, and whose 1981 song ‘Falling For Love’ was recorded by the Carpenters, but never released.
Thanks to their dad’s occupation, there was always recording equipment lying around the house. “He had the computer set up in the basement with a little MOTU interface,” says Michael. “He had Digital Performer and he still uses that. But I guess it was too complicated for us at the time, so we were just using GarageBand. My dad first started recording my brother’s voice before he was nine years old, but then Brian started recording himself. Until he was about 14, we were on the computer and then we discovered my dad’s eight-track.”
From here the D’Addarios began experimenting with their father’s dusty old Tascam 80-8 half-inch eight-track, used in conjunction with a small Mackie live mixer. “My dad had always told us how dreadful tape was, how tough it was,” Michael laughs. “But we took a crack at recording with it, just using pieces of his old tapes that didn’t have anything on them or were doubles of things.”
These recordings bagged the Lemon Twigs a deal with 4AD Records and led to the making of their debut album, Do Hollywood, in Los Angeles, which they co-produced with Jonathan Rado of similarly sonically ambitious indie rockers Foxygen. At the time, Rado was working on a 16-track setup in his garage, based around a Tascam MXR-16 and an Allen & Heath desk.
“It was a comfortable environment,” says Brian. “We recorded all the basic tracks in 12 days. We’d focus on one song at a time, fill up the 16 tracks, then we got a tape transfer and did digital overdubs at home on Logic. I overdubbed the strings, playing all of them myself, and just had to overdub each part eight times because I wasn’t very good at violin!”
Both agree that working with Rado, along with their love of Dave Fridmann’s productions for the Flaming Lips, proved instructive when it came to developing their own sound. “We like things that are sonically weird,” explains Michael. “This thing comes in, in the left ear, and it never comes back again. Also, it’s the willingness to experiment and not be afraid of distortion. My dad kinda told me, ‘You wanna get a clean sound and then you can mess with it after.’ But we always just printed stuff with effects with Rado.”
Growing ever more independent, the Lemon Twigs self-produced their 2017 EP, Brothers Of Destruction, at home on the Tascam 80-8, a process which convinced them that they could make their second album by themselves in their basement. “We did similar things with strings and horns where we overdubbed them after,” says Michael of the EP. “But there’s a song, ‘Light And Love’, that was fully done on the eight-track with a live mix. That was our first taste of that method of mixing.”
Approaching the making of Go To School, the D’Addarios decided to spend their album budget more or less entirely on the purchase of a desk and tape machine. The latter they found on eBay, where they sourced an Otari MTR-100 24-track. “It was in perfect condition,” says Michael, “except for the rollers, which we had to replace.”
“We get new ATR tape,” says Brian. “A lot of people, maybe they buy old tape, but we don’t do that. We try not to do many other takes of songs. We try to really get it right the first time, otherwise it gets very fucking expensive. It’s ridiculous. But this is what we chose. The fact that it’s in our parents’ house means that the rent’s cheap. We just used the advance for recording purposes, as opposed to living. We decided that we were not gonna try to move out or anything. We’re just gonna live at home and do it the way we wanna do it.”
Their choice of desk was far more unusual: a ‘70s-built 28-channel Polygram console made for the record label by Philips and purchased from guitarist Jason Falkner (Jellyfish, Beck). “Certain channels aren’t 100 percent,” points out Michael. “Like, panning maybe doesn’t work on certain channels. But the EQs are really great on it.”
Both Brian and Michael D’Addario are drummers, though on Go To School the latter performed most of the drum tracks. “I only played drums on two songs, ‘Small Victories’ and ‘Never Know’,” says Brian. “Just the style of playing is more kinda funky. I wouldn’t say that I do that better than Michael, but it’s more my tendency, I guess. Whereas he’s really rock solid on drums. If I was doing anything more straight or rock & roll, I wouldn’t hold a candle to him. And then with the funkier stuff, it’s like maybe I just have more of a lighter touch.”
The drum kit the Lemon Twigs use in the studio is also slightly peculiar: a ‘70s Pearl budget line Tempro student kit bought for $25 from their teacher when the pair were still in elementary school. Mic-wise, they used four Shure SM58s for the snare and three toms, a ‘60s-vintage AKG D12 for bass drum and a pair of Oktava MK-012 pencil mics for overheads.
“The basement is a pretty dead-sounding room,” says Brian. “The drum sound was really determined by how they were tuned. We could get a pretty natural sound. There were certain songs that we kinda purposely kept the toms very open and deadened the snare and bass drum a lot.
“We had a Urei 1178 [compressor] that added a lot of character to the snare and bass drum. The board really helped us get sharper sounds after they were already recorded. I think we were bordering on a little muddy with some of the drum sounds, because we love the sound of the compressor. So we just kinda had to do some stuff with post EQ in the higher mids, especially with the snare, to get it to pop.”
Remarkably, given the twists and turns in the Lemon Twigs’ complex arrangements, Michael in particular would often record his drum parts without a click or any musical accompaniment. “I usually manage to get a take,” he says. “I mean, we do punches if it’s, like, insanely good and we don’t want to do it again. But there’s been no metronome on any of our records so far. So it’s kinda harder to punch, but we still do it sometimes.”
One key track on Go To School, heavy-rocking mid-pacer ‘The Student Becomes The Teacher’, features Jody Stephens. The brothers first met the former Big Star drummer when he gave them a tour of Ardent Studios in Memphis, where the band made their albums in the early ‘70s.
“We asked him if he’d want to do some drums on our next record and he was open to the idea,” says Brian. “Then we flew him to our house. He stayed with us and he helped carve the chicken at dinner and he was very nice to our parents (laughs). We just felt that that song was really good for his style of playing because we wanted a livelier sound. He played the Tempro kit. Really hard too.”
“We just did it live,” says Michael. “Brian played bass, I played a rhythm guitar and Jody played drums. We didn’t get it in one try, but it was one full take, no punches.”
Although there’s a lot of instrument swapping going on between the D’Addario brothers, with both playing guitar and bass on Go To School, the equipment setups for each generally remained the same. For bass, it was their dad Ronnie D’Addario’s ‘80s Fender Precision played through a ‘60s Fender Bassman amp on permanent loan from one of his friends.
“We did all of it through that,” says Brian. “Sometimes we used the bass channel, other times we’d use the guitar channel. We’d usually boost the lows on the amp. We used a [Neumann] U87 mic for most of the bass. When we were mixing, I boosted the mids. A lot of the time I was using a pick and we wanted to hear the definition. There’re two tracks, ‘Never Know’ and ‘This Is My Tree’, where we used a BC Rich bass because we wanted more of a funky sound for those.”
Guitars-and-amps-wise, the brothers had more options. Brian D’Addario mostly played the ’77 Fender Stratocaster that he uses live, though the pair also had at their disposal their father’s Gibson SG and Melody Maker guitars dating from the ‘60s, and Michael D’Addario’s Fender Telecaster.
“So we’ve got all the colours of the rainbow,” says Michael. “I’ll use an ‘80s [Fender] Princeton Reverb amp a lot for distortion. You can pull out the mid and the treble, so I’ll do that and turn it up all the way for distorted stuff. Brian gets a cool, really Big Star tone out of a [Fender Hot Rod] Deville that was given to us. I have a really tiny little Gretsch amp from the ‘60s, my dad’s first amp, and I’ll sometimes use that for distortion.”
“For one of the songs,” says Brian, “we used a Traynor bass amp that we had to boost really loud to get any sort of crunch out of. We used a [Shure] 58 for most of the electric guitars and for the acoustics we used one of the Oktava pencil mics, or we sometimes would use the U87 for the acoustic guitar. We had gotten a free guitar from Fender that we used because it had new strings on!”
Both brothers contributed lead vocal parts, Michael’s voice being more forceful and ‘rock’, whereas Brian tends towards the gentler singer-songwriter approach. Each would record alone in the studio. “We engineer ourselves, just to save the other person from going through that trouble,” says Brian. “We’ve got the remote for the tape machine and we do a lot of punches vocally. There’s no vocal booth, the basement is all open.”
“I sing a lot louder than Brian usually on recordings,” says Michael. “I’m more singing out, like, Whitney Houston-style [laughs]. He’s got that great tender vocal thing. So the U87 works really well for him. I think I have to get something else soon for me. I’m always distorting everything and when I back up too far it gets real thin.”
Another notable vocal contribution on the album came from their mother, Susan Hall, who plays the part of Carol on Go To School. Recording their mother singing, however, was a task that Michael left to Brian. “I’m no good at sitting there with people and doing a line over and over, again and again,” Michael admits. “I get very impatient and, especially to my mother, I get very rude and mean [laughs]. So I kind of left and would come down every few hours and see how it was going. I just find it excruciating to record somebody’s vocals. I think a lot of people hate recording vocals for other people.”
When it came to mixing, the brothers relied mainly on their pair of Yamaha HS7 monitors. “My dad got them for us for Christmas,” says Michael. “He was like, ‘You can’t keep recording and just listening to it back on your headphones.’ With monitors, I probably would never invest a whole lot of money into them, even though it would be great to have an accurate representation of what’s going on the tape. I’m more interested in what gets the sound onto the tape rather than what’s reproducing the sound. I listen to it on the headphones, on the speakers, or I’ll put it into the computer for a minute. So I’ve got enough things to test out my sounds to make sure they don’t just sound good on my speakers.”
Effects-wise, the Lemon Twigs were mixing with a limited palette: a Fisher Space Expander spring reverb and a Roland Space Echo tape delay, used mainly for slapback. Both of them had to do all of the fader moves manually, ‘70s style, which was to prove challenging on certain tracks. “Sometimes,” says Michael, “we’d have to completely alter the EQ in the middle of the song, and also the level, because a snare drum would become bass trombone. It was really difficult.
“‘Rock Dreams’ was probably the most difficult track to mix, ‘cause there were vocals spread across tons of different tracks. There were a couple of tracks of Todd, and we didn’t want to delete one even though it wasn’t gonna be used. We didn’t want to commit to that just in case, y’know, in 20 years we want to hear what the alternate Todd vocal was. And also ‘Queen Of My School’ was really hard to mix for some reason, even though it seemed it was recorded in a very straightforward way, just two guitars left and right and then some horns and stuff. But I think the vocal was completely uncompressed and all over the place and we had to ride it like crazy.”
Keen to remain in the analogue domain, the Lemon Twigs mixed down to an Otari MX-5050 reel-to-reel two-track borrowed from WKCR-FM, the radio station at Columbia University. “At that point,” says Michael, “we’d done so much work purely analogue, so why not just mix to a two-track instead of mix to two tracks in the computer? We weren’t gonna print stems from the 24 channels of the board. We didn’t have a 24-channel digital interface or anything like that, so we just had no way of doing that. And if we were gonna bring it to a studio, what would be the point of this board that we just got?”
In entirely old-school fashion, one track, ‘The Fire’, was spliced together on tape from two different mixes. “We took the beginning of the first take,” says Brian, “and then we put in this section that has mandolins and a drum solo on it that was from a second take. Then we put it back to the first take after that section.”
So meticulous and devoted to the album format were the brothers that they even compiled two-track tape masters for cutting engineer Scott Hull at Masterdisk in New York, spending time judging the amount of leader tape needed between songs for the gap lengths. “That was a cool process,” says Michael, “cutting together with the leader, and choosing not to use leader in certain places. Rather than just telling the mastering engineer, ‘Add a few seconds right here,’ and then he just clicks it in.
“My dad helped a little bit at the beginning to show me how to do it, y’know, with rocking the reels. I did all the splicing. It was the night before the mastering and it was a crazy night of just splicing until 9am.”
“That was really down to the wire,” Brian adds. “We had the mastering session booked because we had a due date with our label. That was crazy, those two days before. Our dad was up with us all night helping us get it together.
“We had to master the record twice, ‘cause the first time we went to a place and it didn’t sound right. It was overcompressed. We were there and we kept telling the person to compress it less and there was some weird resistance. Then the next place we went, which was mastering with Scott Hull from Masterdisk, was excellent.”
Appropriately enough, Go To School is an album best experienced through its double vinyl cut. Remarkably, the D’Addario brothers have already written their third album, which they plan on properly beginning to record in December. Rather than being another ‘musical’ though, this one will be a more conventional affair.
“There’s a new track we’ve started recording back in the basement,” says Brian D’Addario. “We’re gonna get some more mics. While we were using the 58s for everything, we were like, ‘We should probably get some Sennheisers.’ There’s a lot that we could do.”
“Yeah, we just want to do stand-alone songs,” concludes Michael D’Addario. “We would like to have a really great collection of songs that stand on their own. But we’re putting a lot of effort into making sure that, in a way, it’s just as ambitious.”
Despite the complexity of some of the arrangements on Go To School, the Lemon Twigs managed to avoid having to bounce down tracks on the 24-track MTR-100 machine. “We just made certain decisions,” Brian D’Addario explains. “We planned ahead for that. A lot of the times it usually just meant we’d do a single vocal or something. We did a lot of both of us singing into a mic doing harmonies rather than bouncing them down.”
“I’m very used to bouncing all the time, ‘cause I came from working on the eight-track,” says brother Michael. “I was always wanting to stuff as much as I could into things, and print and bounce things. But with this recording process we would sometimes have three string players play at the same time and record that onto one track, rather than one person overdub it three times and bounce it down.”
Scanning through the list of credits in the artwork for Go To School reveals an array of other instruments played by the D’Addario brothers: double bass, piano, organ, banjo, mandolin, cello, chimes and percussion. Elsewhere, nine brass and woodwind players and seven string players were brought in, all of them recorded in the basement.
“For a song like ‘Queen Of My School’,” says Brian, “Michael would say, ‘I want a horn arrangement on this.’ Because it’s a rock & roll song, we figured sax, trombone, trumpet. Our reference for that was probably ‘Rocks Off’ by the Rolling Stones. When I did the demo to ‘Home Of A Heart’, on the bridge there was a tremolo-style part on guitar, so that just suggested mandolin.
“For the orchestration on ‘Born Wrong’, I had an initial arrangement that was just strings. Then Michael said, ‘No, you have to add flutes and stuff.’ He would play to me [Frank Sinatra’s 1963 live album] The Concert Sinatra and the arrangements on that and say, ‘Listen to how the melody is being played here and then there’s other things going on there.’ So I kinda kept those sort of principles in mind, of different sections playing different roles. All of the players came to the basement but usually, like, two to four at a time.”
For the recording of the string parts, as with most of the album, it was mostly Michael D’Addario doing the engineering, in a trial-and-error process involving the brothers’ Neumann U87 alongside a borrowed U47. “The problem is the orchestrations really needed to be ‘on’,” he says. “I had no experience recording other people playing strings, and it was just a lot of, ‘I’m sorry, guys, we have to do this again.’ Like, over and over and over. Because you can’t get away with it not being perfect as you can with a guitar part. We may have used a pencil mic for some lighter sounds. But we were paying people to come in and do this over a matter of hours and we couldn’t really take any risks. We had to record with microphones that we knew were gonna work.”
One of the D’Addario brothers’ biggest musical heroes is Todd Rundgren, who sang on two of the tracks on Go To School. The pair had first met the musician and producer in New York after one of his shows, and some time later invited him to appear with them on stage at the Coachella festival in California to perform ‘Couldn’t I Just Tell You’ from Rundgren’s 1972 album, Something/Anything?.
When Rundgren was back in the New York area, he agreed to come to the D’Addarios’ basement to sing on the album. “At Coachella, we hung out with him and talked to him about maybe being on our record,” says Brian. “We didn’t know what he would do on it – we thought maybe he’ll sing something, maybe he’ll do a guitar solo. But then we thought, ‘Oh yeah, Todd could play the dad.’
“He had a show on Long Island, 15 minutes from our house. We drove him to the house from his hotel the next morning. He had listened to the demo of the song [‘Never Know’] and mostly learned it and he just tried to get exactly what we wanted. He was so easy to work with, because he’s so musically gifted. Even though the song wasn’t a super-easy song to sing melodically and rhythmically, it was so easy.
“Then we spontaneously asked him to sing something on the song ‘Rock Dreams’. He asked, ‘Do you want me to do it really Broadway?’ And so he goes, ‘Good morrrrrrning, it’s breakfast [laughs].’ Him just attacking that song was really good for it.”
“He’s so natural in the studio environment,” adds Michael. “He was very quick. It was a matter of hours. There was a second of, ‘Wow… you’re working on a 24-track here?’ I don’t think he had worked on tape for a lot of years, but it didn’t faze him at all. He’s very sharp musically. You get comfortable after a while and you just naturally lose a certain sharpness, but I don’t think he has.”