Interviews

The Return of Twin Shadow

After a tour bus accident nearly derailed George Lewis, Jr.'s career and changed the way he played guitar, the 35-year-old is back with his new album 'Caer.'

by Andrea Domanick
30 April 2018, 8:17am

Photo by Andrea Domanick

In April 2015, George Lewis, Jr. – the force behind LA synth pop scion Twin Shadow – was enjoying the career ascension that a decade of Prince-inspired genre fluidity and knuckle cracking musicianship had finally afforded him. The release of his self-produced third album, Eclipse, the month prior seemed to be doing just that for his career – a meaty, hook-laden record embraced by fans and critics, landing prominent song placement in films and video games and tours scheduled for the US and Europe.

Then, in thick early morning fog somewhere outside of Aurora, Colorado, Twin Shadow’s tour bus smashed into the back of a stopped semi-trailer. The four-vehicle collision left 12 people hospitalised, with Lewis’s driver, John Crawford, and drummer, Andy Bauer, in serious condition. Lewis found himself thrown to the back of the bus, pinned beneath a couch and mattress, a chunk of bone protruding to make a “teepee” out of his right hand.

Several rounds of reconstructive surgery saved Lewis’s hand. But when Twin Shadow returned to finish the album cycle and rescheduled tour, everything was different. Lewis could only play guitar for an hour at a time, if that. Bauer was out of the hospital and walking, but still unable to perform. Given the drummer’s five-year tenure in the touring band, Lewis reworked tracks with samples and drum machines instead of replacing Bauer.

“It really did change a lot of people's lives completely,” the 35-year-old recalls on a March morning at his rehearsal space in the bowels of Hollywood’s Roosevelt Hotel. “So the emotional toll is...I'm still calculating it. That's kind of an everyday thing. I'm in that place right now where I'm looking at it, and realising that I needed to just stop doing what I was doing for a second. I don't think I knew why I was making music anymore. I felt like I didn't have a purpose in mind.”

The accident would spur two years of existential free fall for Lewis. He decamped from Brooklyn to Venice in LA, and retreated into a romance that had blossomed on the road. But Lewis descended into depression, and the relationship fractured under the weight of his physical and emotional pain.

“[I was] not allowing those positive things to come into my life,” he says. “Ego takes over and is almost like a madness in the face of truth. Regardless of how good something is, ego can ruin the most beautiful things.”

The rest of the world seemed to follow suit amidst the dark vertigo of Trump’s election, and the impotent pushback against police brutality, of which Lewis is a survivor.

“We're all looking around us right now and thinking, ‘Is this the end?’ Like this really actually could be the end,” Lewis says. “Because we actually are powerless. We actually cannot do anything to stop the juggernaut. It's just spun out of our control, and we want to, and we should, continue to try to keep it all together.”

Last year, Lewis began to process these traumas, and perhaps a way forward, by making Caer, his fourth LP – named for the Spanish verb for “to fall” – which comes out today via Warner Brothers.

The album sees Lewis turning inward, casting off the sleek 80s pop bombast of Eclipse and his past work—though he never strays too far from it – in favour of a more chameleonic pop repertoire that explores the spaces between sounds. From Petty-nodding ballads like Rainsford collab “Brace,” to the dark R&B funk of “When You’re Wrong,” you get the sense that Lewis isn’t really sure what he wants Twin Shadow’s sound to be anymore. And that kind of identity crisis suits him, and the album, just fine at a time when the world’s only consistent m.o. seems to be throwing out the playbook. Caer a breather of a Twin Shadow album, sitting with and processing discomfort, rather than, as on his last two albums, escaping to the dance floor or pop nostalgia. Though there is certainly still nostalgia to be found – the record is replete with his trademark vintage synths and halcyon memories – here Lewis weaponises it, as on the Haim collaboration “Saturdays,” about reclaiming power through where you came from, and holding on tight to the things that brought us joy.

The result is Twin Shadow’s most personal record to date, excavating the pieces of his broken relationship (“Little Woman,” “Obvious People”), masculinity (“18 years”), and identity (“Runaway”). In exploring life’s sundry grey areas, it also mirrors modern tumult—the distinct sensation of becoming untethered from everything that has grounded you, and the ensuing reckoning with the nature of control, connection, and self.

Noisey: How did the accident affect you and how you make music? Physically and otherwise.
George Lewis, Jr.: I'm still trying to figure out how the accident really affected me. Obviously I know the physical ways. I had surgeries. I have more surgeries in the future. And I know that it affected a lot of people who I really care about who were on that bus. And it really did change a lot of people's lives completely. So the emotional toll is...I'm still calculating it...I don't think I knew why I was making music anymore at that time. I felt like I didn't have a purpose in mind at that time, and now I feel like I do. That's refreshed something in me. I've gotten to a place where it's become a real positive for me. Although it was terrible that it happened and I wish that on no group of people traveling around and trying to entertain people. It's a horrible thing.

The album doesn't really fit into a style or genre, but more of a feel. On "Little Woman" for example, I'm not even sure what the instruments are at any particular moment. It just compounds itself into sort of an effect.
One of my favourite things in all music is when even musicians can't point out an instrument. My first music class I ever had was a teacher named Mr. Jones, and he used to sit and make us try to pick out the sounds of different instruments in an orchestra. To this day I still think it's really silly, because my idea of an ensemble of sound is that many things become one thing. Synthesisers, for example, have always been a kind of hallmark in my music, because they have this quality of like, no one quite knows what the sound is. That is my favourite place to be, sonically – is in a place where you're not concerned with what it is. "Little Woman" is a good example, layering things so that it just is mood and there's not so much, "Oh, is it this, is it that?" Which you can get into, but better if you don't.

That feel is reflected in the lyrics, too. You really dig into nuance. Can you talk more about some of those themes?
"Little Woman" is, for me, the heaviest track on the record. It's incredibly personal. It's about that moment in a relationship where you kind of know you're going to fuck it up. Or both of you are going to fuck it up. The song is really like an apology letter way before the breakup, and it's an apology to a person who is doing their best to keep things together, to give you so much of themselves, doing their best to take care of you. And in the face of that, like me as a person, not allowing those positive things to come into my life, for whatever reason. The fact that ego takes over and is almost like a madness in the face of truth. Regardless of how good something is, ego can ruin the most beautiful things. And that's what the song is really about. It goes away from me being the subject in the first verse, to the partner being the subject in the second verse, and it being really about praise, in a way, or celebrating that – the goodness of that person.

Self-sabotage works both ways in a relationship. Where do you think that comes from?
It's my belief that people's feelings on whether relationships should last or not – it’s like hitting the lottery for those feelings to happen at the same time. There's always someone who's ready to leave, for whatever reason. The reasons are so complicated. Everyone goes through it, and there's always this moment where you're tested, and it's either your ego being tested, or your predictions of what limits you are going to be pushed to. These ideas of compromise. It's a very complex thing, and there's a lot of layers there. That shockwave that you get – that fight or flight thing – happens on both sides, for different reasons. Being a man or being a woman I think plays heavily into that, and neither side will ever understand the truth to those kind of impulses.

That also seems to resonate with a lot of the broader themes of falling on the album – the big, existential fall we’re all going through right now. For so long things like identity have sat in these neat little boxes, and that's kind of a cultural learning curve we’re all confronting right now.
I've been thinking a lot about this idea that we are more two dimensional than we think, and that everything we're going through politically, socially, they're all actually the same. It's all the same conversation. What we're lacking is the nuance between black and white. It’s weird how the internet, or the thing that's kind of changing us all, is somehow very flat. What is all the grey? That's what we should be concentrating more on, rather than looking on from walls like, What's behind this shit? What's in this shadow? What's in this shadow? What’s in the shadow? It's more about like, the wipe.

Right. I think where work is done, personally or culturally, is in the grey areas. The things that are not so clear cut are what need to be confronted, on whatever level. How does the album title fit in with that whole rabbit hole?
I like that when you say to fall, it could be anything – like to fall in love, to fall apart, to fall away from, to fall into. I love that this act of falling signifies a breaking point. it's incredible that people sing. It's the most beautiful thing in the world to me, because it's always about a breaking point – a breaking point of joy, a breaking point of sadness. It doesn't seem like, in this very practical numbers world that we live in, that people would still do something like that. singing is an act of falling. It's letting go of enough of what you do normally to go into a different state. So this idea of having to fall is – it's everything. It is this kind of rabbit hole of options. But they're all kind of similar. It's all just taking that one step over something. Which I really love.

Can you talk a little bit about "Saturdays," your song with Haim, in context of that?
I wrote "Saturdays" like that. It just came out. I thought of it when I wrote it as like, I'm gonna write the easiest Twin Shadow song ever written. All the things that I know I can do well, I tried to try to put down in the song really fast. I want it to have this kind of nostalgic feeling. I wanted it to have this sense of, you've woken up after the disaster and things are clear. And the idea of that song is just, we're all looking around us right now and thinking, "Is this the end?" Like this really actually could be the end. And we're all beyond the point of denial. Because we actually are powerless. We actually cannot do anything to stop the juggernaut. It's just spun out of our control, and we want to, and we should, continue to try to keep it all together. But it's out of our control, and this song is about bringing your emotions back to the important things, the things that actually do connect to the things that you had control over at one point, and there was joy, because you had control of something.

Some argue that artists have a responsibility to be political, others say it should be separate. How do you see that conversation and the legacy of music inherently political or apolitical?
Right. Everyone should do whatever the hell they want. Not being a part of the conversation is just as good as being a part of the conversation. It's just about choices. It's about what compels you. No one should ever post something in support of or against, if their feelings on it are lukewarm. Cause no one needs that. More than anything, I think all the lines are so blurred, right? You could say something's political, but really it's not necessarily political, but it's more just a human rights issue.

It's almost like the word “political” is inadequate.
Yeah, definitely. Like "political" just unfortunately has become a catch-all for being outspoken about anything. A girl talks about her period, and someone is like, "Why are you getting all political?" And everyone's scratching their head. But a lot of people aren't scratching their head. Our semantics changed so much, with these kind of catch-all terms and these hot button words and phrases. They confuse a lot of what really needs to be talked about. No matter whether music is overtly political, or it's just talking about someone's culture, it’s affecting society in the same way. And someone who carries a heavy hammer and makes it very apparent that they are political force to be reckoned with are probably doing less than to change things than people who just show themselves.

I use my platform on social media to talk about certain issues that really affect me. I absolutely believe that black Americans are at the biggest disadvantage in this country. And so that is the topic that I usually choose to talk about. there are a million other issues. women are also in that category. I don't necessarily feel like it's my place to talk about that, but I show my support whenever I can. I grew up with four women, and they mean the world to me, and they are black women, and they're beautiful, and they're the smartest, most incredible people I know. And I kind of know that things are going to be all good for them. They're going to take care of it.

But there's other people who need focus. It's easy with the March for Our Lives to look at kids and be like, "Yeah, we have to pay attention to them," but it's not so easy to look at black males in America and say, "Fuck, we really need to pay attention to these people. They really need our help because nobody cares."

Right. If anything, that seems like it's been a big blind spot of March for Our Lives.
Huge. Huge, massive blind spot. And you just sit there, and you just kind of grab your head every day, and you just say, Wow, there really is no place where the conversation can really spark and become trendy, even.hashtags are hugely unfortunate. it's ridiculous that we can't just have evolving language constantly. That we need slogans still. It's crazy. It's like, we need slogans to fight for human rights? Fuck. You know, that's a shame. But if we need it, so be it. With Black Lives Matter, it's funny how that is the most controversial slogan. It's just kind of insane. So that's where I will put my focus, because that's the thing that I feel. I've been arrested and been called a nigger by a white police officer for trying to help a girl who had fallen off a bike. So I know exactly what it feels like. It affects me in a very real way. Again though, it's really important that people just communicate their culture, their lives, what their lives are really about. And stay off the soapbox if you don't know how to handle the responsibility of the soap box. And that's it.

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This article originally appeared on Noisey US.