Twin Shadow: Born in the 80s

As he gets prepared to unleash one of the albums of the year, George Lewis Jr., aka Twin Shadow, outlines his musical manifesto

Feature by Finbarr Bermingham | 04 Jul 2012

George Lewis Jr. is a serious man. “I don’t do irony,” he says, setting the tone early on. “I don’t really believe in it.” As the conversation unfolds, it’s clear there are some subjects to be treated soberly. There’s his music, of course, and by extension, his fashion. “Unless I’m going to really psychoanalyse myself and ask why I dress and why I wear clothes as a human being, I’m pretty sure they come from the same place.”

So when he tells The Skinny that it once took him four hours to do his hair, it’s fairly clear he isn’t joking. How long does it take him to get dressed in the morning? “It depends,” he says, deadpan. “Sometimes I’ll get nerves and I’ll know that some beautiful girl’s going to be at the show and it’ll take me an extra hour or something. But it really depends on my mood.” But boy, does it show. Lewis is a spectacular looking man. He’s tall, elegant and infuriatingly handsome. His dress sense draws a dandy line between Prince and the Cat from Red Dwarf. He looks, walks and talks like the epitome of cool. Seriously cool. Serious, and cool.

“I hear it’s pretty shitty over there at the minute,” he says, semi-sympathetically from his sunny Madrid base, as he receives a report on the climate malaise enveloping the British summer. “That’s too bad. I hope that it’s good for my show, and then gets bad for the Olympics.” He’s in Spain to kick off the European leg of his tour. His second album under the Twin Shadow moniker, Confess, is set to hit the shops in mid-July, right about the time Lewis rolls into town. He’s excited to bring his new songs to the stage and if his forthcoming dates are half as exciting as his latest record, we’re in for a treat. “This is the Wild West of the world!” he says, when asked what we can hope to expect. “You can do whatever you want!”

Lewis’s disdain for irony extends to his lyrics, which, he says, are always unflinchingly honest. Yet, it was left to a friend to dream up the title of the album. “When he said 'Confess',” explains Lewis, “it made sense, because it seemed like a culmination of what all the lyrics seemed to be about – kind of letting out an honesty. It’s challenging to tell the truth and to say what you want.” The music on Confess, too, is more direct than what we’re used to hearing from Twin Shadow. Building on the synth-based platform of debut Forget, the record maintains the elements of funk and soul, but is rockier enough to recall – sometimes even simultaneously – TV on the Radio and Bruce Springsteen. It’s ironic, given that the record was partly inspired by a move away from New York City to the glistening surrounds of Los Angeles, a place that allows Lewis to indulge in his newest preoccupation: riding his motorcycle all day long. “It only rains about once a year,” he explains. “It’s perfect.”

Whereas the first record earned Chris Taylor of Grizzly Bear a production credit (although George is adamant that his input was mainly to tweak a near-finished product), this one is Lewis’ baby, from start to finish. “It was certainly exhausting,” he says of the effort required. “But I’ve found that I prefer to be responsible for everything. I like to feel at the end of the day that everything is up to me and I don’t have to depend on anyone else. That’s very important to me.”

Indeed, this need for control is what led to the inception of the Twin Shadow project a few years back when Lewis was living between Berlin and Copenhagen, working for a theatre company. He’d spent his formative years playing in punk bands – a fact that’s hard to to come to terms with, given his standard getup, and one that raises a wry chuckle even from the man himself. “Yeah, that was me,” says he. “It’s hard to believe in bands anymore, because we’re very different people nowadays. We spend a lot more time alone – everyone’s on his or her computers and things like that. It just made sense, in a way, to create music alone. It’s a cultural thing which is happening; which has happened.”

If there’s one consistency to have bridged both records, then it’s the manner in which they’ve been received: with universal praise. Where Forget helped give Lewis the independence, freedom and wherewithal to do as he pleased, Confess looks set to bring him to a much wider audience. You will struggle, however, to find a single review that doesn’t mention the 1980s, either implicitly or via an obscure, sepia-tinged cultural reference. It almost certainly initially stems from Twin Shadow’s sonic template: drum machine, synthesiser, and Morrissey-esque vocals. 

Yet, there are many things about George Lewis Jr. 'The Package' that reinforces the aesthetic. There’s the enormous, immaculately sculpted hair; the pornstar moustache; the image of him speeding down the Californian freeway atop a Harley Davidson in a tight leather jacket and, of course, the front cover of his new album, with his mug beaming back at you, kitted out like an extra from the Rockers. While Lewis insists he’s keen to distance himself from the comparison, in reality, he seems to be doing everything he can to perpetuate it.

“Yeah,” comes his resigned response. “This thing comes up a lot. It’s usually the people who I really feel understand the music a lot that never once mention the 80s. They only take it in as songs and listen to the lyrics first and not the production. The production is just atmosphere – it doesn’t matter. It’s like asking what kind of camera you shot a beautiful scene on. Unfortunately a lot of intelligent people love to hate something because of a description that somebody they admire has written. So I hate to lose these people before they even try it [the music] out, because of people saying 'it’s 80s this; 80s that.' The truth is, I don’t even like the 80s… I couldn’t give a fuck about the 80s!”

It is, indeed, unlikely that Lewis remembers much about the 1980s. He was born in 1983 in the Dominican Republic, but left as a child after his mother was mugged at a service station. His parents have since returned to Hispaniola and his homeland has assumed more prominence in Lewis’s life. “There’s a thing about Latin blood,” he says, thoughtfully. “I truly believe there’s a spiritual connection to your homeland that’s unavoidable. When I go there, I feel like I’ve returned home. The people are so kind and very different from Americans. They’re real salt of the earth people.”

For many in the UK, the Dominican Republic represents a cheap Caribbean getaway: a land of white sands and turquoise coral. For the locals, however, the reality is much harsher – 10 per cent of the population live on less than $2 per day. Lewis, though, is a realist. “I don’t diss the resorts at all. It’s a tough country; a very poor, poor place. But the resorts are just as important to that country as the shitty parts. That’s how a lot of people there make a living.”

Upon leaving the Caribbean, Lewis’s family rocked up in Venice, Florida – a place he recalls in less glowing terms. We put it to him that Florida is like LA: a sunny getaway; a Tropicana of palm trees, patrolled by scantily-clad rollerbladers and perfect for riding his motorcycle. “No,” comes his curt reply. “It’s a strange place. It’s just like the South, but it’s more like the South than the South. When people think of the South, they think of ignorance, but at least it has culture and a lot of character. Florida has some character, but it’s just a bunch of ignorant people and lots of old people, lots of shopping malls and lots of alligators, just behind the shopping malls.”

Lewis goes on to describe the Sunshine State (to give it its euphemistic nickname) as “uninspiring” and “devoid of good music.” His memories, far from being filled with sunshine, are dreary and depressing. The KKK, for instance, once confronted him at a party at which he was playing guitar. He never goes back, despite the “load of friends who love to get married and call me up for their weddings.” Yet, it was in the jam bars of Florida that he took his steps into music and as unlikely as it may have seemed to him at the time, his first record, Forget, turned out to be an ode to his childhood home. “There’s no such thing as Florida music,” says Lewis, “but if there was, I think my music would be it. It’s music for people who understand how strange Florida is. When I listen to Forget now, I picture everything about the place. If you listen to that record in Florida, you’ll know what I mean.”

His adult years have been nomadic. At various points, he’s been “settled” in Boston, Europe, New York and now, of course, Los Angeles. “Nobody knows I live in LA,” he says, somewhat cryptically. “My friends all think I still live in New York, so it’s kind of a secret that I live in Los Angeles.” It’s the fear of boredom that keeps Lewis on the move: when somewhere stops interesting him, he simply packs up his stuff and heads for pastures new. So does he view himself as some sort of wandering minstrel; collating a scrapbook of stories and music from wherever he lays his hat?

“Well, I really believe in storytelling through songs,” he says. “Even in the 80s, they had amazing songwriters who were writing songs similarly to the Beatles or Harry Nilsson. They had that type of songwriting, but production that was of the time period – the drum machines and synths. I’m from the same songwriting schools as those people. I really believe in the complete song: not just a mood song, or a song that’s just about the beat or some repeated hook.

“I believe in storytelling and that’s something that isn’t done a lot these days. People think of it as being old school, but it isn’t: it’s something that will continue forever and ever. Storytelling will never change, but its popularity wanes and comes back again. I’m going to keep doing it until it becomes popular again and then they’ll say: 'You know what? I guess he wasn’t so 80s after all.'”

Confess is released on 9 Jul via 4AD