Twin Shadow: "In Search of Something Soulful"

Twin Shadow. Photos by Terrence Blakely. Used with permission from the artist.

"I can't really work on a record without having a goal. I think of making records as what I imagine making a movie to be: You do your research, you certainly rely on getting inspired in the studio, but you don't rely on needing some great inspiration to carry you through the whole entire process."

Twin Shadow's self-titled album cover
Twin Shadow - Twin Shadow

From 2010's Forget through 2018's Caer, George Lewis Jr., better known as his moniker Twin Shadow, has set his sights on one album after the next, with production styles and sounds morphing over time, each new release bringing with it an arc of transformation.

Forget was full of sustaining guitars, synths, and brooding vocals, but still built on a rock pulse. 2015's Eclipse—recorded in a Hollywood Forever Cemetery mausoleum with some of his touring bandmates—dropped the guitars in favor of modern production and soaring pop delivery. Caer included not only the deceptively breezy Haim collaboration "Saturdays" but also one of Lewis' most devastating songs, "Little Woman." A series of singles following that record explored Bachata and Merengue rhythms.

With Twin Shadow, Lewis returns with another new sound, bright as dayglo and infused with the punk, funk, and pop that first inspired him to make music.

"I was acting on impulses that I had and acting deeply on things that I really loved," Lewis says. "Embracing the fact that when I was young it was The Clash, Sublime, Stevie Wonder, Otis Redding, Shuggie Otis—that's the music that really excites me."

Twin Shadow - "Alemania"

Lewis began work on the record back in October 2019, traveling to Santo Domingo's FAMA Studios in the Domincan Republic, where Lewis was born before moving to Florida at an early age. At FAMA, he had access to high-end equipment and an engineer, Arturo, who helped him track the album's musical foundations.

"This was a state-of-the-art studio—they had an incredible, newer Neve console, amazing outboard gear, guitars that were unbelievable," he says. "A big thing that I pulled out the first second I got there was the Moog One—that's all over the record. Almost all the synth sounds are either that or the Moog Grandmother. Some of the [other] synths are my Prophet-6, my Prophet X."

On records past, Lewis has enjoyed challenging himself with new instruments, preferring to play even those he doesn't necessarily know how to play rather than calling in a trained musician. At this point, he's a more-than-well-established multi-instrumentalist and on Twin Shadow, he's playing and singing nearly everything you hear. But he still says he's a "bassist by night" and that he "wouldn't even consider myself a moonlighting drummer."

Self-deprecation aside, his drum playing provides the rolling pulse of the record: syncopated hi-hats, cracking snares, and skittering kicks. Expertly recorded through FAMA's Neve and later treated with Lewis' favorite compressor, the Empirical Labs Distressor, the drums are crisp and punchy throughout the record. But the human imperfections in the playing were equally important to capturing the feel that Lewis was after.

When listening to the isolated drums for "Alemania"—the lead-off track and one of the album's singles—Lewis says he can hear his keys jingling as he plays and his irregular kick falling around the accompanying Rhythm Ace drum machine. "I was really inspired by the way Shuggie Otis does drums and Sly & The Family Stone, like having a really off drum on top of a really steady drum, and having them play at the same time. Flamming kick drums, or kick drums that are almost out of place, or a few too many," he says. "Trying to get that variance in there was something that I really concentrated on."

"Alemania" has other particularly notable elements: an end-of-song dual "guitarmony" solo played on his beloved Orville Les Paul—invoking The Eagles and Thin Lizzy—and the song's vocals, which are cast-off and spitty, and seem to reveal even more of Lewis' voice than you can hear on his previous records. It's a sound he tacks up to two things.

The first is the headspace of the performance. "I always recommend this to other musicians who are banging their head against the wall for vocal sounds. Vocals are too wrapped up in our real emotional selves to be in this constant hunt for the perfect thing, because your voice is always changing. It's your fingerprint, but it's much more dynamic than a fingerprint. It can be so many things," he says. "For me, it's more about the headspace I was in. I really wanted to do vocal performances that were very guttural, that were very throaty, very punky, and reminded me of music I was into when I was younger, and a delivery that wasn't so melancholy but was more activated and more vulnerable in a way."

The second is the vintage Sony C800G that he got to use at FAMA. "I was really excited to be on that microphone and for the first time really just hear the quality of a microphone and really believe it. ... To feel that it's capturing what I really sound like."

Twin Shadow - "Sugarcane"

Lewis worked in Santo Domingo through December before returning to Los Angeles and his home studio there, where he used a newer Neumann U 47 and a Slate Digital mic to cut the majority of the record's vocals.

By late February 2020, he knew the album was well and truly finding its form. He was gravitating toward the same types of vibes, grooves, basslines, and drum beats, in a way that he could see the sonic world the album would inhabit.

"What people hear is a very concise—I hope—and very kind of capsule collection of songs," he says. "Because I had songs that were all over the place, all kinds of different styles. And there were songs that were really different from the record that I modified and brought them into the world on purpose."

The song "Sugarcane" in particular went through several iterations. Lewis says the original demo had music similar in feel to D'Angelo's Voodoo but with squarely metered, Auto-Tune'd vocals that felt more like Kraftwerk. "It would have never fit in a million years," he says. "But that thing of chisling down what the record is, what the sound is—finding the things that you're doing most often and committing to those things. That's what makes this real record sound."

"Sugarcane" also features Clavinet, an instrument that Lewis says he never really imagined would be on a Twin Shadow record, until he had a certain realization of how its most famous player, Stevie Wonder, utilized it.

"I've always felt like guitar was so limiting in terms of how wide you can get the voicings. I always feel like the voicings are stuck here in the middle, and that's where my voice needs to go. And so Clavinet, I was like, 'Oh wow, right.' And it took me doing this record to realize that Stevie was playing guitar on the Clavinet. His playing style is literally like a picking style," Lewis says. "He's playing it like he's got a classical guitar with 20 strings on it. That really hit me when I started working on this record: that Clavinet was a way to have that guitar sound but to widen it and leave this space for my vocal."

In the video for "Sugarcane," you can also get a good view of another new instrument of Lewis', a custom-painted Fender Precision Bass that he used all over the record before it got its colorful paint job.

"I've always wanted a '70s P-Bass that I customized and painted, and everytime I think about the cost of an actual '70s P-Bass and me essentially destroying its value by painting it, I would get trigger shy," Lewis says. "Also, when you look at a '70s P-Bass—they're so beautiful, everything they've been through, and they have their own identity. Stealing that identity and painting on top of it felt kind of weird."

So instead he bought a Steve Harris signature model P-Bass, which is modeled after a '70s Precision. "It's probably the heaviest bass I've ever played. But I really like heavy basses, mostly because I like sitting and recording bass, and that weight makes me feel like I play more solidly." The large football team emblem on the body was also far easier to paint over, psychologically, than a true vintage patina. His thinking went: "I can't rep this. This is the perfect bass to deface and repaint."

The "defacement" is traditional rockabilly iconography with a twist, an image of the Queen of Clubs from a Ghanian playing cards set. His friend, artist and furniture-builder Joseph Martinez, painted it and ensured it would last with a heavy lacquer. "That bass is going to outlive me and many other people, intact, and probably without a scratch on it, the way he encased his painting in the finish," Lewis says. "I'm going to try to ruin the paint job. It will be a testament to how hard I've worked in life, when I sit and look at that bass when I'm 80 years old."

Check out the self-built Gretsch-style "Shady One" guitar in this video for "Johnny & Jonnie"

With the record pretty well wrapped up by the start of the pandemic, Lewis, who is not only a gearhead in music but also with motorcycles, spent a lot of time in his garage. There, he rebuilt an '82 Harley Davidson motorcycle and took on his first (and maybe last) two guitar builds, which you can see in several of the music videos promoting Twin Shadow.

One is a Frankenstein creation that paired a Lyle slim semi-hollowbody with an acrylic, Strat-style neck. "It's a nightmare to work on the wiring on an archtop," he says. So instead, after swapping the pickups, he just taped the wire on top of the body. "It was sort of a disaster, to be honest. It plays, but it's not great."

The other guitar was his "deep dive and first attempt at really building a guitar." The body and neck are from a kit modeled after a Gretsch, while all the hardware is custom and the pickups are Filter'Trons from TV Jones—who, oddly enough, used to live on the same Los Angeles block where Lewis now stays.

Lewis always wanted an Eddie Cochran-style Gretsch 6120, but sought to build his own rather than buy one off the shelf. He made the stain to match Cochran's orange finish, bound the body and neck, set the neck, and completed the pickup wiring—this time, internally—himself.

"It was really just gluing and clamping. I wouldn't call myself a luthier at this point," he says, before acknowledging that his talents may be better suited elsewhere. "I think to be a good luthier, there's a certain amount of rules you have to know that you have to follow, and that's the same thing with working on motorcycles. It's your life if you mess up certain things on a motorcycle, and the stakes aren't that high on guitars but the time—time, being the stake that's high—I can't imagine putting that many hours in again. It was a cool experience, but I'll leave it to the guitar builders."

With Twin Shadow including Lewis' reinvigorated guitar-playing and the human touch of acoustic drums, I mentioned how—despite the breadth of genres and sounds across his discography—there's a certain feel this record shares with his debut. "I've seen people commenting on the singles that have come out so far that this [new record] feels like the sister of Forget," he says. "And I really like that, because that record's very important to me."

But beyond any one instrument or some shared sonic signifier, Lewis says it's the songwriting that stays the same.

"My songwriting is the thing that I think is consistent, and the production can change wildly. I always write songs the same way. I just sit there at the piano and write the song in a very, I'm hesitant to say it, but in a very singer-songwriter-y way. When I write a song, I imagine I'm writing a song like Elliott Smith writes a song," he says. "Finding it in a very sort of spiritual way. It's not super clever, it's not super calculated, it's just in search of something soulful. I always know that I'm going to do the other part, heavily producing out the songs. But the finding the song thing is really important."

Twin Shadow is out now. Head to his website to hear and order the record.

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