Twin Shadow photographed by Milan Zrnic.
Today Twin Shadow releases his 45-minute mixtape, Night Rally, for free, via WeTransfer. Scroll down to download.
When I go to shake George Lewis Jr.’s hand, he does a skillful duck and weave. You know—the kind of move a person makes when the other goes in for the kiss, but you’re deft enough to make sure that smacker lands on the cheek. I awkwardly grasp his left palm. It’s not that he’s a germaphobe keen to dodge human contact, it’s just that his right hand is still delicate, post-reconstructive surgery. He’s still undergoing physio in the wake of the tour bus collision back in April which resulted in two totaled vehicles and left his driver, John Crawford, and drummer, Andy Bauer, hospitalized and in a serious condition. Months later Bauer is back at home and he’s walking, but he won’t be able to come out to perform on the rescheduled tour this August. Rather than replace Bauer—a musician he’s been touring with for the best part of five years—Lewis, who performs as Twin Shadow, has retooled the songs with samples and a drum machine to keep time.
“What he created for Twin Shadow was so specific and it can’t really be replicated," he explains. "My feeling is just to reinterpret the whole thing. We’ll be out there with four people still, but it’ll be a different setup and it’ll sound pretty different.”
As a self-confessed reckless teenager whose image is now—thanks to 2012’s Confess—inextricably linked to riding a sweet motorcycle (while wearing a covetable leather jacket), Lewis has been in plenty of collisions, but this pile up was by far the worst because it’s detrimentally affected the people he loves, the ones he calls his family: his band. He’s still processing the repercussions.
“It didn’t feel like anything slowed down, it felt like it happened really fast, but in that fast moment everything—my whole life—was right there,” he recalls of the accident. “So it certainly gives you a perspective on how to conduct yourself day to day; enjoying what you have, enjoying the people around you.”
The events also inspired Lewis to contact his friends in other bands, those who are maybe driving the vans themselves, drinking, playing a show, staying up late, and taking it in shifts to speed across the vastness of America to get to the next gig, while their buddies are passed out in the back. “It can be a really dangerous thing,” he says. “So in that way it’s changed me. I really talk to my friends who are on tour: be safe, be as smart as you can, but also don’t live in fear, just try to live it anyway.”
Twin Shadow released his third album, Eclipse, this past March. Recorded last year inside a chapel in LA’s iconic Hollywood Forever Cemetery, at the time of its release much was made of it being the 31-year-old’s first record for a major label. He left Bushwick and moved to LA! This is his bid for the big time! In fact he wrote Eclipse before leaving 4AD for Warners. Sure, when you compare the mustachioed, be-quiffed figure in the ultra-lo-fi, VHS-styled video for “Slow,” or The Warriors-esque “Castles In the Snow,” to the blockbuster bombast of “I’m Ready,” they’re showcasing two surprisingly disparate facets of the same artist, but it’s still clearly Twin Shadow. Over the course of five years any kinship to Morrissey’s rich tones has been replaced by sheeny pop hooks, ideal for a movie montage that’ll swell your heart and then split it in two. Indeed, “To the Top” can be found soundtracking the Cara Delevingne-starring romantic teen adventure flick, Paper Towns. But for all of this polish, there are still some beautifully raw moments wrapped in high def pop curves—“Alone” (featuring Lily Alise), and the synth-swaddled vulnerability of “Half Life,” being two prime examples.
“I always want to move in a different direction, or take a chance, because being stagnant is a very scary thing to me,” he tells me later that day, and even a cursory glance at his trajectory underscores this declaration. Like Dev Hynes, Lewis is a musical magpie. As a Dominican-born, rural Florida-raised kid finding his feet in the 80s and 90s, Lewis went from idolizing Boys II Men, to falling for punk and relocating to Boston, making music in a band that (some) compared to RHCP (“Even if people found it I’m still kinda proud of it in a weird way”). After that he packed his bags for Copenhagen, penning music for an alternative theater company, before u-turning back to the States, and setting up basecamp in Brooklyn. Once there he cut his teeth in a noise band, which, through a series of friend connections lead to Lewis’s involvement in composing for the Harlem-based Bill T Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. It was during this time that Twin Shadow began to take shape—bedroom recordings conceived and executed in solitude and given life online.
Which brings us to the premiere of Twin Shadow’s hour-long mixtape Night Rally, a little bit of unvarnished Lewis, a stop-gap between Eclipse and his delayed tour, kicking off this August (dates below). Lewis had this to say about the collection and the reasoning behind it making its way into the world now.
“After our April 17th bus accident the Twin Shadow family returned to their separate homes off the road. It was a painful experience that left us all feeling raw and exposed. While spending time healing and resting in my apartment in LA I started to sift through old hard drives. I found all these ideas I had nearly forgotten, most of them more realized than I remembered.
The more I dug the more I realized how much music was made in the last five years. Being home I had the time and perspective to enjoy all the little impulses, embarrassing choices, and exciting moments that I couldn't bottle. There were also some songs that I couldn't understand why I never finished. After listening back several times, I decided to make a small collection of the songs that stuck out. The mixtape consists of recordings from 2010 to 2014.
So here it is, a glimpse into five years of late nights, mornings after no sleep, the bad decisions, the good ones, the sobering solitude, the mistakes, the ideas lost, and the singing out of key... True demos. The mixtape is now free to download from the WeTransfer Night Rally wallpaper, and an actual cassette tape will be available to purchase only at the merch table of the Night Rally Tour shows. Thanks to everyone who showed support during this hard time. See you at the Night Rally."
Back to that day in early July, Lewis is in New York City for the first ever men’s fashion week. Strolling through Soho in a black Morrocan-styled tunic and some complementary leather slip-ons—toe tips curled slightly upward, Aladdin-style—the multi-instrumentalist cuts a stylishly assured figure. When he started back in 2010, although Lewis concedes he cared what he looked like, he insists: “I couldn’t tell you what fashion week was.”
I explain: “Well it’s when all the hot girls run around New York in packs—like, even more than usual.” In the city, fashion week is as seasonally reliable as that bitter March freeze, just when you thought the spring thaw was round the corner; that cold snap that makes you shrink into yourself again. As an artist who lived in the in NYC for 10 years, its presence was surely unavoidable?
“I always thought, there’s a convention in town,” he says, smiling. “Most of them look like aliens dropped down on Planet Earth. Like the mothership landed somewhere—let’s be honest about that. Believe me, New York has plenty of beautiful women without them.”
For the inaugural men’s fashion week, the only leggy types he’ll be encountering are male: He’s modeling for Public School. The NY-based label—which specializes in sleekly modern, minimalist silhouettes—has fostered a five-year strong relationship with Lewis ever since they reached out and proclaimed themselves fans. Lewis showed up at their workspace when the brand’s Dao-Yi Chow's and Maxwell Osborne, were still a fledgings, only to find his face all over the mood boards. Apparently Lewis's early sartorial choices, particularly his propensity for sporting turbans, directly influenced their first collection. Since then he’s curated and composed music for their runway shows, but this is the first time they’ve asked him to stand tall alongside the other clothes horses.
Eventually we arrive at the hotel. We order a couple orange juices and get to it, discussing everything from popular misconceptions, teenage rejection, women, style, and ambition, cynicism and positivity, his family and dealing with his father’s struggle with mental health. Lewis doesn’t shy away from any of it. As he puts it, “Life just fucking kicks you in the ass.” True that. So you might as well be upfront so you can forward. Here goes.
Noisey: You’ve talked a bit about a sort of shift from cynicism to an open positivity and I was wondering what it was that sparked that move.
I think it’s about me finding myself in a rut. Really the lowest place you can be is when you look on your phone and there’s not a person you want to call. You step outside your door and you just go back inside. And I was getting to a place like that, a place of solitude.
And why was that?
Life. Life just fucking kicks you in the ass. I mean there are a million reasons why I ended up in that place. Sometimes I can explain how I got there, sometimes I’m just like, wow. A lot of it had to do with being exhausted from touring and recording albums, the expectation of what people wanted now that I have a fanbase. So I got in this really weird rut and I just needed something to get me out of it. You always hear about positive thinking, and I’m still one of the most cynical people I know, but I am allowing myself to try. If you watch the news for 12 hours you’ll become immediately cynical, but then you get out and you really share time with people you start to realize how good life can be. I shared time with people and I made time for friends.
And was part of that coming into a different mindset to do with moving to LA or did that happen afterwards?
It happened in the middle of when I went to LA. It’s funny I feel like all the press I did for the album was like, “And then he moved to LA and sunshine!” No, I was there for three years and half of it was like, “What am I doing?” But I do think if you take advantage of the good parts of LA it’s a breath of fresh air after living in New York for 10 years. But then there’s things missing from LA that New York totally has—like inspiration. You have to seek it out in LA. You have to make it happen.
And it’s not because everybody’s so beautiful and everyone’s really zen and happy?
That’s a façade, the zen and happy. But it is really beautiful and every day is the same, so you can definitely forget about all your troubles and a lot of other people’s troubles because in New York, you’re face to face with a little more of that.
On a lot of the album you put yourself in the position where you’re pining for the girl, or the girl leaves you in the dust, which is a funny contrast given your portrayal in the press as something of a man about town whose problems with ladies might be somewhat less than your average so and so.
I wouldn’t say I experienced some kind of huge heartbreak during the making of the record. Certainly there was a shift where I found myself trying to meet people who were out of my league, I guess. Or challenging myself to go talk to some girls who I was intimidated by.
Well it’s always important to try and date people you’re a little intimidated by because you should be challenged. It makes you better and it makes the relationship better.
Yeah exactly and not even intimidated by their physical beauty, just like, oh that person’s an artist and they’re doing this and I look at their work and I’m like, oh my God. And so in doing that I definitely met a lot more challenges along the way. But it’s not just about that. I consider this huge period of my life from 13-18 where I was struggling so hard.
The struggle was real?
In my teens the struggle was real! Those years are some of the most heavy and important years of your life. You know, everything lasts a little longer then. If I feel like writing a song from that angle I pull from when I was a teenager.
Oh, so you can still tap into that?
For sure. Those feelings are still so potent. I remember being 12 years old and asking a girl out by singing, “I wanna know if you wanna be my girl,” like full on in front of tons of people, and her getting up crying and being like, “Fuck You,” and running off and me never seeing her ever again. Those things are traumatizing experiences.
That sounds like a scene from a very dramatic teen film. It’s ballsy though.
I was always ballsy. I had one friend in kindergarten who was my forever crush and I never, ever got to go out with her. I asked her out for probably seven or eight years straight. Every day. And she lived down the block, so we took the same bus. It never happened, but we’re friends now.
Amazing. What kind of environment did you grow up in and what were you exposed to?
Well I grew up in a house with three sisters and a pretty eccentric father who was a part-time school teacher, part-time total crazy person.
My mom’s bipolar too. It’s hard.
Thanks for dropping the bipolar thing. No, it’s actually something that I’ve been actively trying to talk about. That was my house. It was interesting to have a mother who’s so solid and kept everything together because it was always on the edge of falling into the abyss. When you have one really unstable parent and the other parent really loves them it’s like, you can’t just break off. You have to ride that wave forever. I’m still riding that wave. So, that was growing up in Florida on a manmade island, that’s part of Sarasota county, that didn’t have a lot of young people on it—it’s a military base that was then turned into a little town community. It was really bizarre. You know that movie Trash Humpers? That’s what everyone looks like in my hometown. Yeah, it was like a freaky, redneck, geriatric community.
That’s a very peculiar place to grow up. How did you access culture?
The cool thing was that my parents, really because my father was in the school system, he knew that the school next to us was terrible. So we used to drive an hour to a much better school, which was interestingly enough in the middle of the ghetto of my town, and kind of on the outskirts of it, but it was a really good school. It was an art school so they forced us to go there, which was really good, except I dropped out after a year.
How old were you? What happened?
I was 16. I just couldn’t hang. I was way behind and I felt the frustrations of that because I couldn’t pay attention—I was the class clown, I was a troublemaker. None of the teachers really helped me although my art classes were great. All of the teachers had had my sisters before me because they were older and they would be like, “What’s wrong with you… why aren’t you like your sisters?”
That pretty much axed my high school career. I don’t blame them, but that’s when I got really into music. I knew how to play the saxophone but I didn’t know how to play guitar yet, I just kinda walked around with one. I got really lucky though: I’d constantly sneak my way into this bar where there were jams and I literally learned how to play by hanging out at this bar. They wouldn’t let me drink, but they’d let me play with all of the musicians there. And I met a guy named Zack, who was older than me, and he took me under his wing and really showed me how to play and write songs.
So you always knew you could sing obviously, you were serenading girls at 12.
Yeah cause I was obsessed with Boys II Men when I was a kid. So that was like my first mission: Be in an acapella R&B group. Not a boy band.
A lot of billowing white shirts though, let’s be honest.
Well don’t forget about baseball caps with bowties. That was a little bit of an unfortunate, ice cream man look. That was really bad. I don’t know whose decision that was. Rock ‘n’ roll saved my life. I think what happened was, I was super frustrated and I knew immediately that once I started writing songs and playing guitar I would never get anywhere if I stayed in Florida, so almost overnight I convinced two friends to move to Boston with me because my older sister was going to college there. I knew if I really went wrong at least I could go crash on the couch.
Good backup plan. Changing gears—do you feel like you’ve been unfairly perceived as extremely ambitious and that ambition is still considered a bit of a dirty word?
I think in our post-Kanye world, people love it and they hate it. You bringing it up means that I’ve been misunderstood.
Well I don’t know if you’re misunderstood, maybe that’s actually who you are…
Well I certainly am, but it’s more—it’s myself. I think people confuse someone who is ambitious with someone who wants everyone else to be ambitious. Like, “Hey look at me, I’m ambitious, why aren’t you?” That’s not me at all. It’s more like self-criticism. I’m just hard on myself and I always want to move in a different direction, or take a chance because being stagnant is a very scary thing to me. It’s really easy to repeat yourself and just have everyone love you and I’m just not interested in that.
So your ambition has to do with evolution as opposed to fame, celebrity, money?
Yeah exactly. I think maybe when I first started I was like, “Yeah I want money.”
Who doesn’t want money? That’s just life.
I think I used to say that in interviews and people just took that as, yeah this kid just wants to be famous. But that’s so secondary to the joy that I get from making music. But I’ll still take the money.
No one’s going begrudge you that. Just looping back to your parents—how is your dad now?
He’s in a good place now. While the album was being made he was in a really heavy manic place for what felt like almost a year. I know it so well because I grew up with it. When I was a kid I didn’t have an understanding of it, but once I started having an understanding it was like, two months mania, two months depression, five months of normal dad. I’ve heard that with bipolar disorder there’s an evolution to it and as you get older the periods get longer. In my father’s case that’s very true. So it was a long time and it was a very traumatic time because he was being arrested a lot. He was in and out of hospitals, and he wasn’t in this country, so it was really hard to wrangle him. He was in the Dominican Republic—and he’s an American in the Dominican Republic—so they’re not going to put up with his shit.
It was really heavy, a lot of having to fly down there, having to get the family that was there to rally. We finally got him into an institution and got him medicine. What people don’t know about bipolar disorder is that the depression is just as bad as the mania. Watching him go through that was really scary and that’s a whole other thing you have to try to control because it can just fall away. Now it’s finally like things have calmed down and he’s kind of balanced out again, which is good.
It must have been quite scary to realize that you too could suffer depression. For me I’ve always been the total opposite of my mom, like, oh I mustn’t have the gene, but if I suddenly found myself in it, I would find that very, very hard. It would scare me, basically.
Yeah, I think it’s tough because I have my ups and downs like everybody else and I wonder how much I attach it to my genetic makeup and how you know? Your perception of yourself is never as good as what someone else sees, so I’m constantly checking in and being like, do I seem OK. It is scary knowing you come from that and I know there’s a line of it in my family, but I try not to focus on being afraid of it because I think that’s a pretty easy way to slip.
Well I appreciate you being so candid. In your recent videos you’ve been collaborating with photographer Milan Zrnic in terms artistic direction. Is this a long-standing relationship and how did it come about?
Milan and I met in early 2010. There was a magazine called 'Sup and it was my first cover shoot. He was randomly assigned to the shoot last minute and I remember him sending me a style guide and at the time I was wearing turbans a lot—which I’d just learned to tie—and I was really excited. It was kind of a joke because people always thought I looked sikh or…
Sure. You’re racially ambiguous. Welcome to the club.
Yeah, exactly. So I used to wear turbans for fun and I thought they were really beautiful and he had this really cool idea of this night beach scene with all these turbans and I saw him improvise really last minute and I was excited by what he was able to do. So after that shoot I immediately said we should work together, but it actually took three years to happen. Actually the previous album cover was supposed to be shot by Milan, so I wanted to make sure on this last record campaign that I really had someone I was collaborating with on a super consistent basis. He and I really partnered up and we did three main shoots that covered all of the artwork, on the record, and the record campaign, any remix work. He also worked on the last two music videos so there’s a real cohesive feel.
When you first started talking about the aesthetic you wanted for Eclipse, were there specific references you brought to the table?
Yeah, both of us have a very similar love for Sade. My mom was a huge Sade fan and she looks like Sade a little bit. Growing up I listened to so much of that and those music videos were a big part of my life—my mom folding laundry and making me watch Sade videos. And I love the elegance of that time. She did it so well and it borders almost on this adult contemporary thing, but somehow it comes off very high art to me, and so we wanted to touch on that. He’s a huge fan of Herb Ritz and all of those photos of famous actors in the 90s. I also talked about how the 90s was this exciting time in Hollywood because it was this ageless time where Jack Nicholson was just as much a star as Brad Pitt or Winona Ryder.
There was this equal playing field, like fame really had this broad stroke and I think because of that there was a lot of class and it wasn’t just young trash, it wasn’t just pulp all the time. You know the biggest brick wall we hit is Gregg Araki, who is one of my favorite directors. He directed Doom Generation and Nowhere and that’s some of my favorite stuff of the 90s and that totally contradicts the other references. I’m trying to meld those worlds together. So like, there’s a photo of me wearing round sunglasses and my tongue is sticking out and that was more of a spur of the moment thing where I knew the shots were looking so put together and really beautiful but I wanted to add a little energy to it and Milan got it perfectly.
So you’re releasing this mixtape online. Will it be in physical form too?
We’re only going to put it out physically on actual tape.
Old school. I went swimming upstate the other weekend and I found a Velvet Underground cassette at the bottom of a swimming hole.
That’s really weird that you said Velvet Underground tape in a swimming hole because that’s literally almost a lyric on Forget. There’s a song about a swimming hole, we meet at the swimming hole, and then the next lyric on the demo—but not on the record—was, reach for the velvet tape between my legs, because I had a tape deck which had a Velvet Undergound tape in it. So it’s cool that you found that. And it’s weird that you said that. I thought you were quoting it.
No, that actually just happened. And then these two local guys picked up the tape and were like, "Velvet Underground? Wasn’t Slash in that band?" Uh. You’re thinking of Velvet Revolver.
They're strangely not far off because Lou Reed did do an album with Metallica, and Metallica’s first tour was with Guns N’ Roses.
So it’s all connected.
You can connect every last one of us.
Twin Shadow Tour Dates
08/21 Portland, OR Doug Fir Lounge
08/22 Portland, OR MusicFest NW
08/24 Seattle, WA Neumos
08/25 Seattle, WA Neumos
08/26 Vancouver, BC Imperial
08/28 Edmonton, AB The Starlite Room
08/29 Calgary, AB The Gateway
08/31 Saskatoon, SK O'Brian's Event Centre
09/02 Winnipeg, MB Garrick Center
09/03 Minneapolis, MN Varsity Theater
09/06 Chicago, IL North Coast Music Festival
09/08 Omaha, NE Waiting Room
09/09 Denver, CO Bluebird Theater
09/11 Dallas, TX South Side Music Hall
09/12 Houston, TX Untapped Festival
09/15 Raleigh, NC Red Hat Amphitheater
09/17 Pittsburgh, PA Stage AE
09/18 Cincinnati, OH PNC Pavilion at Riverbend
09/19 Columbus, OH The LC Pavilion
09/21 Austin, TX Moody Theater
09/22 Austin, TX Moody Theater
09/25 Nashville, TN Exit In
09/30 Philadelphia, PA Union Transfer
10/01 New York, NY Terminal 5
10/07 Orlando, FL The Social
10/08 New Orleans, LA Republic New Orleans
10/10 San Antonio, TX Paper Tiger
10/12 Phoenix, AZ The Crescent Ballroom
10/14 Belly Up Tavern Solana Beach, CA
10/16 Santa Ana, CA The Observatory
10/17 Los Angeles, CA The Fonda Theatre
Kim Taylor Bennett is an editor at Noisey and she's on Twitter.