GETTIN’ TWIGGY WID IT - AudioTechnology
The Lemon Twigs — aka the D’Addario brothers — teamed up with Foxygen’s Jonathan Rado to record their debut on tape in his garage. A healthy sibling rivalry has helped turn the teenagers into prodigious talents who wrote and recorded every part on the kaleidoscopic record themselves.
Story: Paul Tingen
Rado Studio Photos: Cara Robbins
Artist:The Lemon Twigs
Album: Do Hollywood
It’s the perfect Hollywood script. Take two teenage kids from New York with an obsession for ’60s and ’70s music and fashion, and deck them out in all the tawdry trappings of the era-that-taste-forgot: mullets, Bay City Rollers-style jumpers, bell-bottom trousers, and Pete Townshend-esque jumpsuits. In short, make the youngsters look like easy targets for ridicule and throw in a musician father who never made it big, but is their biggest influence. The duo’s plan is to record an album in a garage on funky, semi-professional analogue equipment with an eccentric young producer who claims to only have an amateurish grasp of recording.
Then flip the script and let them confound expectations by proving to be stunningly-good musicians, with the youngest channelling the spirit of Keith Moon. The album echoes acts like The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Who, as well as vaudeville and Broadway musicals, and sounds so out there that on first hearing it, most don’t know whether to love it or laugh at it. Lastly, in against-all-odds fashion, the teenagers take the world by storm.
Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction. That entire story-line has recently occurred in real life, the ‘reality stars’ being teenage brothers Brian and Michael D’Addario from Long Island who call themselves The Lemon Twigs. Brian, 19, plays drums, guitars, bass, keyboards, cello, violin, trumpet and whatnot, and his brother Michael, 17 — spectre of Keith Moon — also plays guitars, bass and keyboards. Both sing and write all the Lemon Twigs’ material.
Behind the scenes is father Ronnie, a singer-songwriter who had one song covered (though not released) by The Carpenters, and played guitar for Tommy Makem of The Clancy Brothers. The fourth character in this real-life script is Jonathan Rado (pronounce ‘raydo’) in whose LA studio the duo recorded. Rave reviews have accompanied the resulting album, called Do Hollywood, with accolades like “It’s fun, it’s weird, and like nothing you’ve ever really heard before”, “completely unconstrained by any idea of what’s appropriate”, and even “utterly bonkers.” The reviews add a grain of credibility to the hyperbolic blurb on 4AD’s website, which heralds The Lemon Twigs as being of “such singular originality that they change the very nature of their art.” Try living up to that as a teenager.
LITTLE HANDS MAKE LIGHT WORK
On the phone from London, where The Lemon Twigs were playing as part of a European tour, Brian D’Addario seemed unbothered by the hype. He was holed up for lunch in a Vietnamese restaurant where he expanded on his and Michael’s background, and how it eventually resulted in Do Hollywood: “We started playing the instruments we’re actually good at because our parents had them lying around the house. My father got us started on the guitar and drums. He initially showed us simplified versions of guitar chords, so even when we were very young we could feel accomplished and make songs, despite our hands still being small. Then our father taught us the full versions of the chords and from there we learned by ourselves. I started taking classical guitar lessons at age 12, which introduced me to classical music and expanded my guitar-playing technique.”
Adding to the D’Addario brothers’ creatively intense childhood were stints as child actors. Brian appeared in an episode each of Law & Order and CSI: NY, and several Broadway musicals like Les Misérables and The Little Mermaid, while Michael played substantial roles in the movies Sinister and People Like Us. However, music always came first. They founded a high school band called MOTP, aka Members of the Press, and went through phases of obsession with various musical genres and artists, including rap, My Chemical Romance, Nirvana and psychedelic rock. Their development was publicly documented by their dad on YouTube (username MisterRD) and his sons’ obsession with psychedelic rock resulted in an album — released in 2014 as a cassette run of just 100 copies — called What We Know.
“That album was done in a 2007 version of GarageBand that we never updated because we were too lazy,” recalled Brian D‘Addario. “We were just trying to fit in with the psychedelic rock wave, which wasn’t very suited to our personalities and approach to songwriting. It’s not nearly as much who we are as the new record. I think classical guitar, musicals and ’60s-’70s pop music are the three main influences on our new album.”
EACH TO HIS OWN
As if the brothers’ story isn’t unusual enough, it also turns out they wrote and demoed the album separately from each other, each playing almost all instruments on their own demos and the corresponding final versions. It’s one way to resolve, or perhaps prevent, sibling rivalry. In between bites of Vietnamese food, Brian gave us the lowdown: “Usually if I write a song, I’ll demo it and play all the instruments. I like to demo quickly, so I do it on an iPad with GarageBand. Michael also does his own demos, and uses a Tascam cassette Portastudio, because he likes to do it on tape. But for Do Hollywood we did a lot of demos on our father’s Tascam eight-track reel-to-reel to get in the habit of recording on tape, because we knew we would be working with that at Rado’s. We also use a Mackie desk, which is meant for live stuff. At the time we didn’t really invest in our studio, because we knew we would only be recording demos there.”
It’s hard to get a lot of technical detail out of the young D’Addario, who answered many gear questions with “I don’t know,” or “I’m blanking on the name.” So he offered his father’s e-mail address for help. According to Ronnie, the eight-track is a Tascam 80-8, which runs 1/2-inch tape at 15ips. The Mackie turned out to be a 16-channel 1604-VLZ Pro. The monitors at the D’Addario’s home studio are Yamaha HS7s. There’s also an old Alesis XT reverb, and a dbx 1066 compressor. In other words, a smattering of new gear and a bunch of stuff from the heyday of D’Addario senior.
Brian and his brother contacted Rado because, “we love his band Foxygen, and his solo stuff as well. I like their production style and he writes good songs. He’s not trying to fit in with what’s happening today, he’s just trying to make music he thinks is good.”
RADO ON THE RADAR
Originally from New York, multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Rado now lives in Los Angeles, where he broke through to cult fame with Foxygen, a duo with singer Sam France. The band’s psychedelic and avant garde-tinged music is strongly influenced by the 1960s and ’70s. The band’s third album, We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic was its most commercially and critically successful. Rado released a solo album in the same year called Law and Order. On the phone from New York, where Foxygen was playing a show, Rado recalled how and why The Lemon Twigs and he hooked up: “They sent me a tweet, something like, ‘Hey Rado, listen to our music!’ I did, and I thought they were really good. There were some influences from modern psychedelic bands like MGMT, but underneath that I felt their song writing was stellar, especially considering their age. I could tell there was extreme talent. We met up in New York and I met their dad, Ronnie. I found out they’re into The Beach Boys and The Beatles, which to me is very organic whereas the psychedelic music they were trying to play at the time was rather inorganic, with a lot of phaser and reverb effects. I was like: ‘You guys need to write 10 great, timeless pop songs, not worry about influences and make a really dry-sounding pop record.’ They were clearly capable of doing that.
“A little later Brian sent me his demo of I Wanna Prove To You, and it blew me away. The title of the demo said, New Brian Wilson song, and I wondered whether it was a Brian Wilson song I hadn’t yet heard. When he told me he had actually written it, it completely blew my mind. After that I received a Lemon Twigs demo every week, with each being better than the previous one. We agreed on a series of 12 days in February 2015 for them to come to LA and record their album at my studio with me recording and producing.”
Rado qualified his last statement by adding “quote-unquote” after the word “producing,” because, he explained, “They are genius musicians, by far the best musicians I have ever seen. Michael is the best drummer in the world and Brian is an incredible guitar player. They knew what they wanted in every little nook and cranny of their songs. They knew they wanted a little triangle here, a little bell there, or this or that synthesiser sound. They were very prepared. I had a little bit of input in some ideas and shaped the way everything was recorded and sounded. It was a really cathartic process for me, because until that point I hadn’t really produced that much.”
SURF’S UP, LO-FI DOWN
Brian remembered the sessions at Rado’s being a blast: “We stayed at his house for a week and a half and recorded all hours of the day. We were rushing because we were there during a school holiday and needed to get back before that ended. We had a limited amount of time and didn’t want to screw things up. It was the most fun I’ve ever had. Michael and I knew exactly what the arrangements were going to be, and because Rado was on the same page as us there were hardly any decisions he made that we couldn’t get behind, and vice versa. It was a great match; like having a third brother in the room.”
Given D’Addario and Rado’s love of analogue and the 1960s and ’70s, and their general off-hand approach to recording technology, you’d imagine they were aiming for a lo-fi aesthetic. Apparently not the case, as both referenced the Beach Boys’ 1971 masterpiece Surf’s Up.
“We were talking a lot about the fidelity of the Surf’s Up album,” recalled D’Addario, “because it has a very full sound, and the arrangements are very clean, even though things distort a bit sometimes. We didn’t want to make a lo-fi album. We aimed for it to sound as good as possible, and if that ended up sounding mid-fi because the equipment we were working with was semi-professional, that was fine with us. We weren’t trying to channel a particular era, it was just allowing the record to be based on a wide array of sounds we all like.”
“I was trying very hard to make a clean, dry-sounding record,” said Rado. “I was thinking of Surf’s Up a lot, that was the sound I was trying to recreate. Tape hiss comes in and out of the Lemon Twigs album, and I like that. Everything is pretty clear. I’m never trying to make things intentionally lo-fi. I was trying to make a good-sounding record, just with the most basic gear in the world, because I did not have anything else at the time.”
“It was a great match; like having a third brother in the room”
SEMI-PRO DREAMS OF TAPE
So what exactly was the “semi-professional,” and “basic” equipment Rado recorded Do Hollywood on? “My studio, which is called Dream Star, is a converted garage in my house in LA,” explained the musician-producer. “My girlfriend’s dad helped me build it. We put up a dry wall and we soundproofed it. It’s pretty much a two-car garage with tons and tons of recording gear, so there isn’t really much room to move around. There’s an upright piano, a drum kit, tons of guitars and several keyboards, like a Wurlitzer, a Minimoog, an ARP Quartet, and a Roland Juno 60.
“Dream Star is a tape recorder studio. I have a Tascam MSR-16 16-track, an old Tascam 288 eight-track, and I recently got a Tascam 24-track. The Lemon Twigs record was done on the 16-track, which is a half-inch machine. I also have a 32-channel Yamaha desk, and a 16-channel Tascam M2516 mixer that we used for monitoring. I love Tascam as a brand, because their stuff is so geared towards home studio recording. It’s meant for the average person to buy and be able to use straight away. It is very simple. I didn’t go to recording school or anything, and have never worked in studios, so I taught myself everything, and they are very easy machines to learn on.”
Rado’s strong preference for tape recorders is as much about the working process as the sound. “A tape recorder is so much easier to use than a computer. I don’t have Pro Tools, though I do have a laptop with Logic and an AD converter so I can digitise recordings if I need to. But I never keep my laptop open. I don’t ever use a computer while working in my studio, because for me not having a screen around is amazing. Not having any kind of modern technology, and being in an environment in which all equipment is from the ’80s or older, means that people don’t get distracted and don’t sit on their mobile phones as much. When I record in Pro Tools or Logic, it ends up sounding very clinical, very clean, and sterile. Whereas when you record on tape, and use it in a creative way, you can get an amazing sound.
“I learnt to record on a four-track tape recorder, but that was limiting. Once you start bouncing a million times you get a muddy lo-fi sound. I used GarageBand for a while, when I couldn’t afford a tape machine. We made the first Foxygen album on that, and after that I got the 16-track tape machine. With the computer I can create hundreds of tracks, but I like the idea of recording many things on one track. When recording the Lemon Twigs album I’d have a vocal harmony, a shaker, a drum overdub, a synthesiser, and then some more harmonies all on the same track. The way those things punch in and out gives you an interesting sound. Another thing that’s great about it is the total lack of control. You can’t go back, there is no undo, which is great for the type of music I make.”
Strangely, the music that Rado makes, whether with Foxygen or solo, is rather kaleidoscopic in nature. While the sound indeed has an analogue quality, one imagines that the complicated, collage-like nature of his output actually would be far more suited to working on a DAW. But Rado disagreed: “When I work with Sam in Foxygen, we just love the unpredictability. If something doesn’t work in the way that we thought it would, all the better. We have learnt to embrace that type of thing. With the Twigs it’s the same. It was a really great experience working with them because they embraced all the unpredictability of tape, and they worked with it better than anyone. Often when I’m working with a band, we will hit a certain point with tape where we have filled up all the tracks and there is nowhere to go and they want to finish on the computer. That’s fine. I’m okay with doing that. But for an album to be made completely on tape is a really beautiful thing.”
There’s another reason why the idea of recording and overdubbing Do Hollywood to tape stretches the imagination — the endless tempo changes. How did the D’Addarios record those without the benefit of tempo maps, variable clicks, or elastic audio? According to Rado, the explanation is old-school simple. “Brian is the best drummer on the planet!” he explained. “That’s how they did it. Also, the brothers have played with each other their entire lives and are totally synced, even when changing tempos. They just feel these changes and get through them together. I can’t stress this enough: they are the best musicians I know. We don’t use clicks with Foxygen either. I have never liked using clicks. I only use them when I’m producing someone who wants to record more radio-friendly music. For me, the feeling you get of two people playing together is the best. Getting a natural take with a drummer and a guitar or bass or keyboard is important for my sound.”
“We recorded everything live at Rado’s studio,” added Brian. “Michael cut almost all the drums because he’s tighter, with me on keyboards. It wasn’t too much of a challenge because we rehearsed a lot beforehand and those tempo-changes are so ingrained. Other than drums, whoever’s song it was, he would overdub most of the instruments on that song. The other person then sprinkled a few textures on top. There were some exceptions where we switched things up a bit more.”
“Brian and Michael’s demos were very different,” Rado continued. “Brian’s demos were almost like you would hear them on the record. Michael’s demos were a lot looser and lo-fi. He had a lot more going on in his head than what was on the demo. They would cut the track in one take. Very occasionally we would punch in if there was a mistake.
“We alternated between a Brian track one day and a Michael track the next, just like it is on the album. If we did a Brian song, Michael played drums on it and Brian layered the rest of the instruments and his lead vocals, then at the end they would sing harmonies together. For his own songs, Michael would play drums on his own without a click, and he’d overdub the other instruments and maybe Brian would have a guitar part or piano part to contribute. The only song that Brian played drums on was Frank.”
Do Hollywood sounds remarkably clean and transparent. Despite having two larger mixing consoles, some of the tracks were pre-mixed on a small Allen & Heath ZED mixer. “I recorded the drums on two tracks with the kick and the overhead on one track, and the snare on the other track,” said Rado. “My basic setup was a Shure SM58 on the kick and an Akai dictation mic that came with a reel to reel on the snare. It has this really mid-range response, and I EQ-ed the hell out of it.
“The overhead mics were two Michael Joly Neumann re-creations, using a Rode mic base. They were the main mics I used on the album, on vocals and so on. The kick and snare would go into the A&H mixer preamp and the overheads into the UA 610 mic pre, then through a UREI 1178 two-channel compressor, and into the tape machine. It was a very basic setup. My favourite drums sounds are kind of naive. I will just move a mic until it sounds kind of cool then leave it there. If someone accidentally bumps the mic and it moves it, that may sound cooler.
“There is a lot of natural room sound on the album,” acknowledged Rado. “That was kind of an accident because I might have over-compressed things. At the time I may not have fully understood how to you use compression. There are many things on the album that work but are total amateur mistakes on my end. On These Words, you can hear Michael’s foot on the hi-hat more than the actual hi-hat. We were all pretty inexperienced. Reverb sounds would have come from a spring reverb in a Shure PA system and we had some Space Echoes and stuff. I also have an old modular synth from the 1960s that has a great spring reverb we used on vocals and the snare. Michael’s acoustic guitar and vocal on As Long As We’re Together was recorded live with two mics, without drums or click, and he overdubbed to that. I did a stereo mix off the Tascam board into GarageBand, which is the only mix by me that made it to the album.”
The Do Hollywood credits list Rado, and Brian and Ronnie D’Addario as mixers. According to Rado, he did rough mixes of all the songs, which the band used to shop around for a record deal. “Initially it was a difficult sell for them,” he recalled. “I remember a few labels passing on the project. They then continued mixing the album, which was fine by me. I’m not a mixer. It’s a very scientific type of process that I don’t particularly like doing. People can get very sensitive, and I don’t necessarily like to deal with people when emotions are running high. Recording albums is hilarious and fun because people are completely caught up in the moment, but when they get to a mixer and they listen to it and it sounds like shit, the mixer gets all the blame. I don’t mix for that reason, but I think my rough mixes were pretty good.”
Back at the Vietnamese restaurant, Brian D’Addario picked up the rest of story. “After we completed the recordings at Rado’s, I overdubbed strings, trumpet and replaced the vocals on These Words and Frank because I had done some very bad vocal takes. By this stage the sessions were in Logic. I then mixed most of the album. I overdubbed the strings over and over, so it sounded like an orchestra. It took a lot of work! I’m not too good at those instruments, so it was a lot of repeating the same line endlessly. I was using an AKG choir mic, I don’t know what the model number is. It’s meant to capture sound from faraway, so I had to put it at a distance to make sure things didn’t sound too muffled.”
Via email, Ronnie D’Addario added, “The mic was an AKG C1000. We had two different tape transfers done, because the first transfer wasn’t very good. On the song, How Lucky Am I, the piano and background vocals were better on one and the lead vocal was better on the other transfer. They asked me for help on that one, so I made a new digital master out of both and synced the two together. I mixed that song with Brian approving.”
“What also happened,” continued D’Addario junior, “was that we had taken the recordings to a professional mixer, who made it sound different than what we wanted. After two weeks we told the label we couldn’t use what he did, and that I’d try to mix the album myself. The other mixes were very compressed and I was telling him to build dynamics back into these mixes. I had to be so hands-on that it made no sense to use an outside mixer. I mixed everything inside Logic, and it taught me a lot about how Logic works. When I didn’t know how to do something, I’d look it up on YouTube!
“I only used Logic plug-ins while mixing, and sometimes many of them. The problem with the tape transfers was that the first one had a very low level, and the second one was a lot louder, but also had more hiss. We didn’t know whether the tape had been damaged or what. I hadn’t noticed this until I compared it to the rough mixes, which didn’t have hiss. So I had to use Logic’s noise reduction plug-ins to eliminate as much hiss as possible.”
DIGITAL SAVES TAPE
Interestingly, for a band that wears its 1960s and ’70s influences on its sleeve and loves to record on tape, today’s technology saved the day. It hasn’t dented the D’Addarios faith in tape, who’ve since acquired a 24-track Otari tape machine they aim to use for their next album. Similarly, a new Foxygen album was recorded to tape at Electro-Vox recording Studio in LA, with the Lemon Twigs as the backing band. “We kind of treated that studio as my garage, with really amazing gear, and not being afraid to go after sounds that are cool, rather than correct,” said Rado.
Brian D’Addario, meanwhile, explained, “We’re going to produce the new Lemon Twigs album ourselves, because we want to build up our recording and production chops. Do Hollywood definitely has Rado’s stamp on it. I feel really happy we did it this way, because he taught us a lot, but we really want to have our own identity.”
On the evidence of Do Hollywood and their dress sense, the last thing The Lemon Twigs have to worry about is carving out an identity. But then, in good Hollywood tradition, this story demands a sequel!