The Lemon Twigs On Writing Their Stephen Sondheim-Inspired Rock Musical ‘Go To School’
By Lilly Milman
Brian and Michael D’Addario — the brothers behind the baroque rock project The Lemon Twigs — were, in a way, destined to make music. Not only did they attend the same Long Island high school as Billy Joel (Hicksville High School), but they were born into a musical household. Their father, Ronnie D’Addario, is a celebrated songwriter in his own right and their mother, Susan Hall, sings on their forthcoming album. As children, both of the brothers appeared in several Broadway performances, but later ditched the theatrics to form the band — a decision that paid off, based on the critical success of their studio debut, Do Hollywood. But now that The Lemon Twigs have proven they can tackle rock n’ roll, they’re stretching their creative abilities and going back to their theater roots.
Their second studio album, Go To School, isn’t so much a concept album as it is a full-fledged musical soundtrack. Centered around a chimp raised to think he’s human by his “parents” — played by the brothers’ musical hero Todd Rundgren and their mother — the musical turns dark rather quickly as the protagonist begins to feel the effects of being different than the rest of the kids at school.
It is an ambitious project, to say the least, for Brian and Michael — aged 21 and 19, respectively — but one they felt prepared for. In addition to writing and performing all of the tracks, the brothers also recorded, produced and mixed the album themselves in their parents’ basement themselves (with a little help from dad, of course.) Although this is their most grandiose project yet, the D’Addarios are confident in their work. “I’m feeling excited because I’m very proud of it, and nothing that anyone says is gonna bring me down about it,” Brian told Billboard. Similarly, Michael remarked, “I know it’s good, you know? So, it’s nice to know it’s good while you’re promoting it.”
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The Lemon Twigs were heavily influenced by one of their favorite musicals, Assassins by Stephen Sondheim, during the making of the project. A sardonic critique of American expectations, Sondheim’s work tells the story of nine outcasts who all attempted to assassinate an American president. The play is narrated by Lee Harvey Oswald — a twist of dark humor that inspired the brothers while they were creating their own musical.
Go To School will be released via 4AD on Aug. 24. The Lemon Twigs are currently on a European tour and will join the Arctic Monkeys for a stretch of dates in September.
Billboard sat down with Brian and Michael D’Addario to talk about how they made the decision to address sensitive subject matter, empathizing with their characters and their favorite concept albums.
What was it like working with your parents on this record?
Michael: It was good. We’re always working with them in some capacity. We’ve done a lot of stuff with them, just not publicly. So, it’s just another recording day. I find it pretty hard to record anybody. I get frustrated and stuff. Brian’s better with sitting with somebody, doing a line over and over again.
Brian: It was great. They were upstairs the whole time because we recorded it in their basement. That’s where we have all our equipment. There were things that they helped us with. There were things that my dad helped because he worked in studios. We did the whole record not using the computer. So, we had to have help with certain things with tape. He helped us with that because he had a lot of experience. He did some low harmonies. Of course, we had to cast the role of the mother and our mom made sense for that.
You grew up on Long Island, which is basically the epitome of suburbia, and you recorded the album there. How do you think your surroundings and upbringing affect your process?
Michael: I think part of not being able to stop layering things on songs or us being so prolific or whatever probably has to do with the area that we grew up in. You know, we never have had anything to do except to record. So, a lot of people stop because they’ve got somewhere else to go or got something to do — some party to get to. But I never had anything like that.
Brian: Well, it’s kind of like the story, you know? There’s not all that much to do it seems. It seemed like that when I was growing up, but maybe that was just the lack of people I hung out with or something. It was very easy to stay very focused on what our passions were because it’s not like we were in L.A. or New York City where there’s all this fun stuff to do all the time that could potentially distract you.
You talked about relating to the chimp, Shane, but I was wondering if you related to the parent characters, Bill and Carol, as well when you were writing?
Michael: They’re archetypes. The dad was supposed to be a deadbeat and the mom was supposed to be a bitter ex-rock musician. We don’t relate to them personally. Other interviewers have been saying, “Is that supposed to be your parents?” It’s supposed to be pretty crude and a blown out of proportion version of them, if it is them — everything bad about them, none of their really great stuff. I think that the point was to have really everybody be really mean except for the main character.
Brian: We definitely tried to emphasize with those sort of feelings — that sort of unfulfilled dreams and the disappointment that goes along with that, and how that can affect how you treat other people. Having been able to be fortunate enough to realize a lot of things that we wanted to do as kids, I feel like I have to constantly remind myself of how lucky I am. A lot of people that I know have to deal with that kind of disappointment. I think it’s frustrating when you know your worth and other people don’t — other people don’t recognize what you recognize in yourself, and that causes you to question it. If that was something that I had to deal with, I don’t think I’d be able to create as easily and be as happy as I am, or it would at least be harder. So, we just tried to empathize with that aspect of the story.
You use this project to address some pretty dark subject matter, violence in schools, yet you juxtaposed this with a sort of whimsy. How did you make these decisions about balancing the whimsy with the darkness?
Michael: I think that it’s the same as most musicals that aren’t Chorus Line or something like that. Assassins is one of our favorite musicals. It’s all about the assassination of all these presidents over time … Lee Harvey Oswald is talking to all of these people … There’s a real whimsy to that. That guy’s a murderer. I think that’s just kind of a tradition. You know, Sweeney Todd. I think that musicals are allowed to do that.
Brian: It had to do with trying to elevate the story into an area that wasn’t so steeped in our reality. I just find the constant bombardment of the problems of the world at all times sort of tiring. It does a number on your spirit. I think that everybody needs moments where they’re able to separate themselves from this reality to be able to charge themselves up to dealing with it. It’s very good to be aware of it and it’s very good to try to help with it. But I think everybody needs times to separate themselves from it, so that they can feel like life is worth living. We didn’t want it to be a topical story. We wanted it to be a timeless story. Both of those things played into it.
Why did it feel important and necessary to address this topic?
Michael: I can’t really answer it because we didn’t do anything based on a responsibility to… It just kind of is part of the story. I hope that’s not being flippant about something that’s very serious, but there are tons of very serious things that are in movies that aren’t so serious, you know? That’s just kind of like the thing that happens in the story. I hope that’s not too frivolous.
Were you nervous about people taking it the wrong way?
Michael: I believe what I believe about it, which is just that it’s art and that we have a right to go to that place — as long as we’re not being disrespectful — and not have it be so politically charged and everything, and just have it be part of it. So, that’s my view. But if people disagree with that, it’s just the way it is. Maybe we’re not big enough for it to worry me or something.
Brian: We just sort of related it to our particular story at the time. There are a couple aspects of it that are different from the sort of things that we see on the news all the time. For one, it’s not clear that the intention is as sinister as what you see on TV. It’s true that the main character wants revenge on the people that did him wrong, but it’s not clear that he wants to kill them. He sets fire to the school. You can imagine, it goes out of control and hurts people as a result of it going out of control. And then the character’s still a sympathetic character. It’s up to interpretation.
I wasn’t really nervous. There have been moments in the past, since it’s all been done, that I’ve thought people can be very sensitive and I hope that people don’t misinterpret it or jump to conclusions. Based on interviews we’ve done so far and showing people the album, people have pretty much taken it the way we intended them to so far. So, fingers crossed that we don’t end up trending.
What was going through your head during the writing and recording process?
Michael: We were just doing what we also do, which is record what we feel like. I think a lot of the things are biographical like Do Hollywood, but kind of altered to fit the story. There’s a song called “Lonely” on the album that’s very blunt and maybe even silly. It’s got a line about waiting outside of school for your parents, and then the other people talking about hanging out, but they don’t mention, “Why don’t you come?” And that’s silly, but I think I wrote that a couple years ago when I was 15.
So, when we were recording it this year, I decided, “Let’s just do it exactly the way I wrote it then.” It was really genuine and it’s rare for things to be produced on this scale, but have a lyric that came from a real 15-year-old heart. It’s even more interesting than just being a guy who writes musicals and putting yourself in the 15-year-old’s shoes. Things like that happened, a lot of natural things like that. It was a natural process.
What are some of your favorite concept albums, if any?
Michael: If I had to choose a rock concept album, then it would probably be Berlin, the Lou Reed album. If I had to choose any album with a concept, it would probably be Assassins.
Brian: Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) by The Kinks is a great one. Soap Opera by The Kinks is another great one. There haven’t been that many concept albums that have been that fresh in my mind, despite the record we made. It was more influenced by musicals, like Oklahoma! or The King and I or Assassins by Stephen Sondheim. A Little Night Music. Stuff like that really inspired us to stick with this idea of the story.