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Interview // TWIN SHADOW
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HIYA // George Lewis Jr

photograph by yours truly

 

"We could be the golden age. We could be. You guys don't seem very hopeful!" imagined George Lewis Junior. He's the man behind one what is undoubtedly one of 2010's biggest break out acts, Twin Shadow, as he mused during a gig in South Williamsburg establishment, Mishka.

 

The band was due back on tour the next day, and the streetlife/culture store situated just near Marcy Ave was absolutely packed with people. The windows were fogged with fans breathing out stale cigarette breath and whatever it was they had for dinner. No one any further back than three bodies deep could see a thing, but more people just kept cramming in. And with good reason.

 

Fated by one and all, from music blogs gushing over his debut Forget (produced by Grizzly Bear's Chris Taylor), to Time Out New York naming him one of NY's most stylish, to being put under Hipster Runoff's special brand of analysis; Lewis Jr had a pretty good year.

 

Like 98% of people with a creative output these days, Twin Shadow brings back (or forward) ideas from Lewis Jr's myriad of references into the now. He does this with a heavy lidded, sleepily seductive manner that both onstage and off comes with a charisma and magnetism that's much more reminiscent of Marvin Gaye to me than of Morrissey; despite the many comments of Morrissey-esque affectations in his presentation.

 

When I met him in his studio space in Bushwick, we talked a lot about patterns and repetition alluding to his music. And it is this that explains - logically - how any talented young thing can eventually find their voice (or sound) if they have the drive and patience enough. And whether George Lewis Jr's voice is totally original or not is irrelevant because for whatever reason, he's managed to speak to this generation in a connected and searingly honest way - and we're stopping in our tracks to listen.

 

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So. I’m like. A blogger. Is that a problem?

Oh did I talk bad about them or something?

Well...are you like, anti-blogger? I've read about a couple of awkward moments. And I just wanted to get it out of the way because I got the impression you might be a little bit touchy...? I mean, you as Twin Shadow is a relatively new thing, dare I say it - are you sick of doing interviews yet? How many have you done?

Ohh no no! I mean, I just had an interview with John Norris and he knew things about me that I never even knew!  It has been kinda crazy the last week. This is my 4th today. But don’t let that throw you!

Not at all.

So.

How important are props from Pitchfork, or hype from Hipster Runoff to you?

They’re as important as the many who read the sites - I see it the same as a newspaper. What’s cool about blogs and these sites is that it’s not being shoved down people’s throats necessarily. Because people actively go to these sites. It isn’t like a newspaper in that it’s not dropped off at your door. But I think it’s super important. They’re part of how we communicate. I’m not crazy about it myself, because I just don’t have the...I don’t know. I just kind of freak out.

You’ve previously said something about how you don’t feel like you’re a part of the internet generation. How old are you?

I’m 27.

So you must have just missed being born into the generation where the internet was an essential part of adolescence. I remember before I hit puberty, the internet was going to be something that everyone was supposed to have. I grew up with that but...

When all my friends were starting to go to school for computer programming and starting their own blogs and all that, I was just in a different mindset. I was very much into rock and roll and thinking about life in a simpler way.

Where did you grow up?

In Florida. But this was when I was in Boston, and I was like seeing a girl who was kind of a...crust punk...or whatever. And it was about simpler living, I guess; not that the internet is that complex, but it’s just something that hadn’t interested me when I was young enough to make it my thing. I’m sure if I was five years younger I’d probably be more interested in the internet. By the time it was introduced, I was already so into something else. I mean I’m into using computers and I’m buried into Ableton. I love that shit. I am involved in a sense, but not so much in a communication way.

 

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So can you give me the Twin Shadow bio, in a nutshell..why you began it, what you were doing before that and how you came about as you are?

I was writing music for other people, for a dance company. I was writing for this theatre company which was less writing music and more about doing like, Velvet Underground covers. I spent 2 years travelling around, back and forth doing whatever I could making money doing music. I had met a cello player who was a composer and I just worked with him writing songs. That, I guess was the beginning of all this because it let me travel a lot.

 

I lived in Copenhagen for three months, I went to Berlin, Scandinavia...so that was before all ‘this’ was happening. I was quite lost in music. And before that I was playing bass in a band with some friends of mine from Boston, and before that I was doing punk music. Anything I could get my hands on really. So when I was in Europe, I was slowly getting ideas together for this and not really actively seeking it out until the last time I was in Berlin; and after I had some time to focus and want to make something really solid and permanent, you know?

What was your feel about Berlin?

It’s just so relaxing. You have so much time to really think about what you wanna do, and if you stay there, you don’t usually end up doing what you want to do, I noticed. I was tempted to stay there. I felt I hadn’t conquered what I meant to conquer so...

So did you move to New York because you felt like this was -

‘The land of opportunity...’

Really though? Is it?

Oh I don’t know...I moved to New York because I was tired of Boston. And maybe there was a girl involved. [laughs] I’m a romantic. Chasing love around. It should be on everybody’s priority list.

Obviously, you use that as fodder or fuel for your songs, right? What’s your writing process like?

It’s very quick. Usually a song comes out within a day. With the recording of it, I don’t like to work on things very long. I usually can’t sleep before I’m finished. So it’s actually really quick. It’s a lot of actual writing that I do, pages and pages and pages, and I pull from it, what I want. If you looked at my lyrics sheets, you’ll find that I don’t edit much. Sometimes I’ll write a song for paragraphs and paragraphs and paragraphs and I’ll just pull the song out of it, but I don’t actually edit much aside from that.

Your music sounds so complete. I’m so used to listening to something and breaking it down and analysing it. But when I listen to your album for some reason I experience it as a whole. I remember you’ve said something before about the fact that you don’t think repetition makes anything perfect.

I mean, practice does make perfect but...

It’s so funny because I was talking to a friend the other day and he was saying how his dream art piece would be if he could get a guy and twelve other guys to look and dress exactly like him to come down a stairwell in exactly the same way, and see how long it would take some random onlooker to clock on to what was happening.

 

His theory was that it’s the only time when repetition creates something surreal instead of monotonous. I was like, no actually, repetition breeds surreality. Like, when you say ‘dog’ twenty times and when you get to like, the 8th time, it sounds weird. And how repeating patterns create optical illusions. I don’t know where I’m going with this. I’m just sharing!

And I’m going right with you! [laughs]

But obviously in music - and human beings - each time you repeat, something emerges -

There’s some many different ways to repeat yourself. Playing your chord like this enough times, you’re going to find a pattern. Really, repetition creates patterns. And a pattern, in our world essentially...it’s unique, I guess.

At the same time, they don’t necessarily repeat perfectly, ever. It creates a pattern yes, but one that’s ever evolving.

In music that’s called...a groove...[laughs] we’re going too far! There’s that repetition, and then there’s repetition towards a goal, towards being perfect. Like, it’s not like I get my guitar solo right the first time, but usually if I don’t get it right or get it to a place that I feel is printable, then I usually regret doing it another time and will remember for two weeks that it wasn’t the take I wanted. The further along I go, take 7 of the guitar solo, take 8, I’m so in my head that there’s no emotional connection to it. I’m doing it for no reason, I almost shouldn’t even be there.

 

So, I’m not that method that I’ll only do one take. I also believe very much in doing a record like a movie. I still know there’s an audience and I still know I’m making it for the people. At the end of the day, it’s not my record, it’s the people’s.

So you are conscious of that fact. I have an impression of - and this is media related obviously and I’m sure I feed into this too - but especially in terms of music from Brooklyn, in intellectual pop or indie or whatever the fuck you want to call it; that the people making it make it seem like they aren’t conscious of who they’re doing it for. Whether that’s for real or just for image...

It’s a spectator sport sometimes. It’s like a jazz romantic thing; it’s very selfish music making. I don’t believe in that - anymore. I used to. But I do music because it’s all I know how to do. I love it when I’m doing it. But I do it for other people not for myself. I care more about my audience more than I care about myself. That’s the only way I can spread my own love into the world without having to know everyone. It’s so important to know that you’re - dare I say it - an entertainer; there’s a responsibility in that. You don’t have to be responsible, but if you are, it’s to your benefit. I just see it very clearly like that.

 

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But you used to see otherwise? What made you shift your view?

 

Oh yes definitely. That’s how everything is for me. If I see something’s not working or not getting attention or not doing what I hoped it would do, then I stop doing it. And that’s why I’ve made a lot of changes in my life, because I try to realise things very quickly and change, if I can.

 

I think I had one distinctive moment, being so obsessed with the Beatles songs and then seeing some interview with John Lennon and he was just like, I’m just a person, this is just rock and roll, what do you want from me, this is all it is. It bugged me out, and at the same time I understood. Whether he meant it or not, he just wanted to be left alone.

 

Later, I took it as, once you make that thing; the process of making it is unique and special to you. No one can have that. That is your selfish act. Beyond that, what else do you need? You don’t need the future of your music to be a selfish act. If you’re putting it into the world, it’s for everyone else. For me, that’s 100%. I love making music. So I do it, and I have my moment with it. And after that, it’s like, please, take it. Pay me for it, but take it.

That’s nice.

 

If I was going to be a successful musician in your sort of genre, I’d really like for my work to go and be taken as yours has. Time Out NY named you one of NY’s most stylish people, but you’re still credible. And it seems to have happened quickly, the record, the critical acclaim, the touring - how intense was the build up to that point?

You know, I’m really happy about the way it’s going, I hope it continues to get bigger and bigger. When I expect a certain thing, I don’t know if it’s going to happen. But with this, I was so sure about it. Obviously, I had my doubts, but it feels really comfortable. It feels so right that it hasn’t surprised me, the way that it’s going. So I’m really happy that it’s gotten the attention that it has.

What about the title of the album, ‘Forget’. Are you trying to remember something, is it about forgetting something else...?

I think it is. When I took a step back and asked myself whether there was a theme on the record. Remembering and forgetting is obviously a theme throughout. For me, it was just a question of whether you actually can forget some things because I don’t know whether they’re actually useful or not anymore...trying to remember things that are relevant, actually being nostalgic and wanting the past back. And just wanting to let go of things that I can’t use, really.

Did you grow up with a lot of music around you? Where are your parents from?

My mother is Domenican, born and raised. I was born in the Domenican Republic as well. My father’s from Brooklyn, he comes from a Jewish family. There was a lot of music in the house when I was growing up. My dad listened to a lot of 70s singer/songwriter stuff. Kris Kristofferson, Cat Stevens, Paul Simon...My mum listened to a lot of Domenican music, a lot of Sade, so that was in my house all the time. Now I can admit my Sade love. Kind of.

Playing music, I was probably the least encouraged. My sister, she played the flute. And cello. My twin sister wasn’t really encouraged either. I kinda came into it on my own. I got into a little bit of trouble at school and had an extra period added to my day so I had to do something, so I decide to learn saxophone.

On the social heirarchy where were you? Were you a cool kid?

I will say this. I feel like my position was probably class clown slash king of the nerds.

Yeah, but that’s a cool kid.

In our modern indie, post revenge of the nerds way, I guess so!

Maybe you weren’t a ‘popular kid’, but it means you were actually liked.

You know what I always felt like? A chameleon. I had the jock friend, the total nerd friend - and also because of what I looked like, I feel like I was able to move in a lot of different crowds. I still feel like that. The black kids were always like, are you black or are you white, what’s your deal? And I wouldn’t even be able to answer that. I was like, I guess I’m black. I think. Can I hang? Some of them let me hang, some of them didn’t.

 

I really think physicality is a huge, huge part of who you hang with. I was in with both the black kids and the white kids. I was a little bit all over the place. My table consisted of a bunch of pretty nerdy young men. There was a bit of me taking advantage, cheating with my homework and stuff - I was a bit of a spazzy kid.

 

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And from there, at that age, were you already like, “I want to play music when I grow up.”

I knew I wanted to play the saxophone. I didn’t know any further than that. I remember thinking jazz guys looked cool. But they didn’t connect to my understanding of pop music at the time.

What does that mean? Who did you love in pop music?

That means like, for example, Boyz II Men were all I could listen to for a long time. Before I really got into rock n roll, Nirvana and Pearl Jam and stuff like that, which eventually became my music. But at first it was like, Janet Jackson. And Michael Jackson and Prince. You know, this kind of R&B mixed with rock, where the concerts were epic. That was my first love. I used to literally take my mum’s Sade disc and sneak it into the living room when everyone was asleep and listen to that. That kind of pop music, that’s pretty mainstream because these are huge huge artists. But I loved Nirvana too. I’ve watched every single Nirvana video on replay for a number of reasons! And because of the sounds.

Who are you listening to now?

We spent a lot of time listening to the Matthew Dear record on tour, Arthur Russell, Burial, lots of Elvis. That new collection of Elvis 75, so good. Giorgio Moroder, always listening to The Knife. Some Phil Spector stuff...[half whispers] Sade. Love the Ariel Pink record. And the Tame Impala record is just amazing.

How long have you lived around here (Brooklyn) for, and how much do you think this kind of environment has influenced you and given you fertiliser to do what you do now?

If you talk about it from a music perspective, absolutely zero. As far as surrounding, of course. Tons. Around here is where I really experienced New York for the first time. You know, really long scary walks to your house in the freezing cold cause it was 20 minutes from your subway stop. And to have visions, your moments of fear, hallucinations...The city itself, I’m a little romantic about New York. It always has this mysterious quality that if you try hard enough, any night of the week could be really insane. The twists and turns you could go on - I’ve had nights like that.

For a lot of people who ‘go to the big smoke’, New York is like, someone who’s approval you really want, and though it likes you enough, doesn’t really care either way what you do; they get that small fish in a big pond syndrome. Did you feel that?

I think a lot of people see New York that way, and I think they should stop seeing it like that. New York hasn’t been a place of real possibility because people are always a little shy to step to it. Like, they feel like they’re not good enough for it. Everyone’s good enough for New York! People are like, 'oh, I can’t walk down Bedford Ave because of oh the hipsters!' and all that. I cringe when I hear that word. We’re all fucking the same age, we’re all really good looking people. We all finally have a sense of style. We could be having a sexual revolution instead of like, 'oh I don’t want to go to that coffee shop because I was there yesterday'...all these hang ups that drive me crazy because it limits our generation to such a forgettable existence.

 

Let’s just have fun, let’s just have a good time. Who cares, let there be punks and hipsters and this and that. Let everybody be a part of it. You watch these videos of the gay disco scene and all the faces...it’s amazing! It’s like, where is that New York? I know it’s here because I have had nights where I’m like, yes, this feels like how I envisioned it. But everybody should just chill out. Let’s not be our parents. Let’s not be our government. America’s right on the verge of giving up our generation to this extreme conservatism. Why should kids ignore trying to have a good time, trying to be artists or enjoying the beauties of life? Why should we be uncomfortable with each other when we could be having a better time...?

I’m running my mouth aren’t I [laughs].

 

TWIN SHADOW is currently touring the UK and the US pretty much non-stop with almost a gig per day until March - don't miss them. Check dates and for tickets HERE

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