George Lewis Jr. of Twin Shadow on how he wanted to be in Boyz II Men's gang growing up
Kimberly Ayala Ramirez
George Lewis Jr. grew up in Florida but moved to Boston where he formed his punk-funk cabaret outfit Mad Man Films. That band split after releasing two albums, and Lewis moved to Brooklyn, where, inspired by the music of his childhood, he started writing songs on his own under the name Twin Shadow. The project's debut album, 2010's critically acclaimed Forget, produced by Grizzly Bear's Chris Taylor, drew upon the more synth-tinged pop and R&B from the '80s, but also seemed lush and sultry, like an offering from later-era Roxy Music.
The followup, this year's Confess, expands on the thick atmospheres and injects a kind of soulful urgency reminiscent of Sparks. The music video for "Five Seconds" has a dreamlike world-weariness that captures the mood of the entire album. While hazy, the music is hopeful and sonically rich, like early Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark.
Building on a foundation of synthpop and R&B that is the core of the band's sound, Twin Shadow's latest offering gives the songs an air of the melancholic and introspective. Like the mood of someone assessing his life and finding a way to move beyond regret and a yearning for simpler times. We spoke with Lewis about his unexpected Colorado connections, his motorcycling hobby and why he moved on from punk.
Westword: The Night of the Silver Sun is a novel you wrote with Eric Green. What got you interested in writing a novel about a motorcycle gang in the future?
George Lewis Jr.: Nothing, really. I was just bored one day. That's it. I wrote a piece in a magazine called "'Sup." It was a non-fiction piece about my experience around buying my first motorcycle eight years ago. Somebody asked me to do some writing, and I thought, "Why not try some fiction?" I was bored on tour and started it, and it sprawled into something bigger. I guess the fact that it's in the future doesn't matter. It's the difference between something taking place inside or outside. Obviously it affects the characters but it's not substantial.
In the video for "Five Seconds," on the back of one of the helmets, it says "The Teds." Is that related in any way to that British sub culture?
It's loosely based on that. In the story, it's based on the fact that this very prestigious family is called, "The Edward Family." And "Teds," which is the name given to Teddy Boys in the '50s and the British motorcycle subculture who were called "Teddy Boys" because of King Edward and the Edwardian period. He was kind of the most fashionable king. It was a time when dressing well was really important and being flashy as a man.
What got you started riding motorcycles, and what was -- and is -- the attraction of that for you?
I had seen pictures of my father with the first kid that he had on his motorcycle. I was always fascinated with that picture because he didn't ride while I was alive. He would tell me stories of he and my mother going on rides. It always excited me, and it was something I had always gravitated toward, in terms of looking bikes up at the library in an encyclopedia of motorcycles and loving motorcycle movies. It's my hobby in life. I'm not passionate about it like I am with my music. I don't eat, drink and sleep it. I just do it for fun.
Referencing that interview you did for Under the Radar, why do you want Bob Dylan to hear your record?
I feel like I have a kinship with him. I'm sure a lot of people feel that way. I just have a feeling he might like my songs. He's been an inspiration to me as a lyricist. I think that there's not a lot of people who really care about words as much as someone like him or Leonard Cohen. I just take words very seriously. They're almost more important than the music to me in a way.
Why did you want to record in L.A. beyond there being a studio you felt would work for you?
It's literally because I wanted to be able to ride my motorcycle in the winter. I knew I was going to have to record it in November and December. There's just no way I would have been able to do that and enjoy riding in New York or anywhere in the northeast or anywhere in most of America for that matter.
What inspired your move from a kind of punk band to the kind of music you do now?
I think I just got more focused. I think everybody has this thing where they go back to basics. You could say punk is basic, but, I mean, in terms of popular music. When you grow up, you're inevitably more surrounded by pop music than you are by music of any kind of subculture or subgenre. That early exposure to that, I think, you always want to come back to that. Part of that, I think, is just knowing that it reaches more people in a way. Not everybody wants to smash their first through their door. And I did want to do that, so I did that and then I moved on.
How did you get introduced to the punk world?
My friend David Hopkins used to come over and kind of forced me to watch Sex Pistols tapes. I hated it. I just didn't get it at all. I was too happy-go-lucky a young man, I think. But it definitely planted the seeds later for when I got pissed off. That music started to make more sense to me. But he was probably solely responsible for me getting into punk.
In that interview for The Vine out of Australia, you mentioned that Tupac Shakur was a huge influence for you. Why did he and his music make such a big impact on you?
A lot of music from California captivated my imagination, because in Florida, you're kind of living a Cali lifestyle, but it's not as extravagant. So it's a boring version. So when you hear all this music from California, you kind of imagine the more exciting place that's similar to where you are. You can relate to it on a physical level but the day-to-day experiences are different.
So it was fantastic, all that stuff -- Dre, Snoop -- those videos you see, lowrider cars, drinking forty ounces. I remember thinking that it was just so crazy that people could drink forty ounce beers, because in Florida they're illegal. At least when I was in my teens you couldn't get forty ounces of beer. I think 32 is the limit in Florida. Things like that. The accessories of fun.
Why did you want to be in Boyz II Men?
Just because I think I loved the harmonies. They looked like a gang, you know? That first music video of them, they're all wearing the same, exact clothes. A lot of my childhood was kind of spent lonely because there were no kids on my block, basically. There were two. I went to school near my house but nobody going to that school lived nearby. They lived off the island; I lived on the island. So that gang mentality and that look was always appealing to me.
You've probably been compared to all kinds of singers. But your voice is reminiscent of Dan Harman and David Bowie. When you were starting to write pop songs, were you inspired by anyone that helped lead you to discovering your own voice?
Not really. I mean, I always wanted to sound like John Lennon, but could never sound like that. But what's interesting about voices like Bowie or Morrissey, I think those voices just made me feel okay about my voice; made me feel like I could do something with it. Though I wasn't trying to sound like them, I realize that the timbre of my voice is similar.
How did you meet Patrick Wimberly from Chairlift?
I was pretty excited about their band early on. I think Chris Taylor had just started working on my first record, and they were looking for a temporary guitar player to play a show in Central Park. So through someone they knew, they asked me, and I said, "Of course!" I just did that one show with them, but it was really a good time, and I immediately connected with Patrick. It must have been two years ago now.
When you were starting out playing music, you probably had ideas of what it would be like and then learned how it really is once you got into it. What did you learn that was kind of an eye opener or maybe deepened your understanding of it?
I don't know what I've learned. I'm still learning. I don't want to say anything because I don't really believe in giving advice anymore. I've learned for myself that being in a band is a fucking hard thing. It's a chore but if you nurture it, it can provide a lot for you, and it gives back. But that's something I probably already knew.
I'm excited about coming to Denver. I have childhood friend there, Alicia Marsicovetere. She has a huge part in the Twin Shadow history. When we were growing up, basically the only friends we had were this Italian and Welsh family who had three sisters. So I grew up with my three sisters, and these three sisters and their father, Danny, who passed away when we were young, gave me my first microphone and a delay pedal. He was also the first person to bring me to a studio to record my voice. I haven't seen her in God knows how long.