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Chicago Rockers Twin Peaks Flew to Wales and Came Back With Their Best Album

Twin Peaks
Cooper Fox

Twin Peaks

Chicago in the summertime is as beautiful a place as you’re liable to find anywhere in the country. The unsightly mountains of gray sleet, shoved into gas station parking lots by heavy trucks front-loaded with plows, finally melt away, and the entire city turns out for one festival after another; Old Style in one hand, Vienna Beef hot dog in the other. No ketchup please.

For the five members of one of the city’s most exciting bands however, this last summer was spent mostly secluded indoors. Twin Peaks spent the warm-weather months carefully writing and refining the songs that would make up their next album, a stunningly eclectic collection of songs titled Lookout Low. The long hours performing under the artificial lights in their practice space ultimately proved worth it. It’s probably the best thing they’ve released yet. 

Twin Peaks have come a long, long way over the last six years. The group first hit the scene back in 2013 with the release of their delightfully ragged, quick-hitting debut Sunken; an album they created on an antiquated iMac using some seriously outdated recording software in singer/guitarist Cadien Lake James’ basement. Since then, they’ve remained impressively prolific, releasing another couple of studio albums -- the fuzzed-out party rock record Wild Onion in 2014 along with the more mature follow-up Down In Heaven two years later -- along with 2017's gloriously unhinged live record Urbs in Horto, and a 12-track compilation titled Sweet ’17 Singles

With every new project the band have continued to refine not only their collective approach to music making, but also their overall sound. Each record has built on the strengths of what came before it -- which brings us to Lookout Low, the band’s latest full-length offering, out this Friday (Sept. 13). It’s easily the most sophisticated-sounding project that Twin Peaks has released thus far, featuring some of their most well-written and meticulously arranged songs. 

Tracks like “Better Than Stoned,” “Ferry Song,” “Casey’s Groove,” and “Unfamiliar Sun,” shimmer like a lazy sunset on a waning summer’s day, while other tracks like the organ-fueled “Oh Mama” leap out of the speakers with a surprising ferocity. The lead single “Dance Through It” is an impossibly catchy ‘70s-style funk number, powered by a thick bassline and kissed off with some tasteful horns. Then you have “Under A Smile,” a gospel-tinged ballad that’s given a tremendous lift by a choir of gorgeous backing vocals. The entire experience is akin to listening to an AM radio station some random afternoon in 1973; a seamless evolution from their earlier, psychedelic ‘60s garage rock sound. 

James himself describes Lookout Low as the product of, “A band just following the tunes down a fucking road in the shire, passing the creek, looking up at the mountain, jumping in the water; just kind of having fun. A little playful, a little thoughtful, a little whimsical.” The group’s other singer/guitarist, Clay Frankel, is more succinct: “If someone came up to me, I would just say it just sounds like old-school rock and roll.” 

For Lookout Low, the band decided to break away from how they made records in the past. Instead of recording the whole thing by themselves with their close friend R. Andrew Humphrey behind the boards in a co-producer’s role, they elected to take a more deliberate, “professional” approach. They cast their eyes far from the shores of Lake Michigan all the way to Wales in England where Ethan Johns, one of the most-respected and sought-after roots-rock producers on the planet, with credits includes Kings Of Leon, Ray LaMontagne, Joe Cocker, and Sir Paul McCartney, has a recording studio. 

“We were in a van and we had on Aha Shake Heartbreak, the second Kings of Leon record, and one of us was like, ‘Hey, who the hell recorded this? It sounds great!’” James says. Once they learned that Johns was the son of the legendary Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones, and Beatles engineer Glyn Johns, their enthusiasm only intensified. “We reached out and he got back and he was like, ‘Hey man, love what I hear. The group sounds good, I'm down to do it for whatever you guys can afford.’”

The decision to work with Johns wasn’t at all a given, but when they heard about his predilection for live recording, the deal was essentially sealed. “We had a lot of discussions about it, but at the end of the day once we learned about how his process went, doing it all live, even doing the vocals live, it was really intimidating for us, but it also felt really exciting and felt like the right challenge for us. It would really make us better musicians and a tighter band, and it felt like it was worth trying.”

Recording live has its benefits -- just ask Neil Young -- but it’s also a precarious and oftentimes terrifying proposition. In order to mitigate the amount of time in the studio trying to nail down the arrangements, the band hunkered down in their practice space in Chicago and wrote and rehearsed the entire record and then some. It was the first time that drummer Connor Brodner wrote his parts before hitting record. They ended up demoing 27 different songs before heading out on tour. When they came back, they whittled the list down to 15, and got to work tightening up each song as best they could so that by the time they left for Johns’ studio across the Atlantic Ocean they had every drum beat, every riff, every bassline down cold. 

The sweat equity ultimately paid off. “There were at least two songs, maybe three songs on the record that were first takes,” James says. “We'd laugh cause we're like, ‘All right, we're getting warmed up.’ And you'd hear [Johns] come through and say, ‘All right boys, that was it. Come in. And you'd be like, ‘No way.’ And then you do five more and then you listen to all of them, and you choose the first one because he was right.” The band ended up spending three weeks in the U.K., but there was no time for sight-seeing. “We would go into Monmouth and you know, get some dinner, have some drinks and stuff,” Frankel says. “But other than that, we were kind of just on this sheep farm.” 

Since returning from the sheep farm, the band has kept busy by steadily rolling out new singles and videos for songs like “Dance Through It,” “Oh Mama,” and “Ferry Song,” clearing the way for the album’s big release day, while giving fans and casual listeners alike a hint at their newly refined sonic direction. While it’s hard to define what “success” might look and feel like for a record like Lookout Low at this particular moment. James says he’s happy if he can simply cover his rent. “I have a place to go, I get to play music with my best friends in the world, and I get to travel,” he boasts. “We're really lucky, so whatever comes it's awesome.”

It’s true that rock and roll as a whole doesn't have the same cultural currency or commercial appeal in 2019 as it once did -- unless you’re Tool, anyway. But Twin Peaks have steadily built a dedicated audience over the last half-decade with their exuberant sound and stage presence, selling out venues from coast-to-coast while creeping up in font size on festival posters. They've done it by staying true to themselves and their music and remaining wholly unconcerned about how they fit into the larger musical landscape. “First and foremost, I try to remain a fan,” Frankel says. “You try to make things that we all like, first off, and then we just hope everyone follows along.” 

And besides, if Lookout Low doesn’t set the world on fire, that’s fine by them: They’ll simply make another record again a year or two from now. “There's so many bands and so much competition, you just gotta stay active and you got to stay on the road,” James says. “We try to keep trucking and we just try to keep writing songs. We're already talking about if we carve out time next year to start recording.”

Speaking of the road, the band has got a tremendous slate of gigs lined up that will keep them onstage from now until February of next year, hitting everywhere from La Boule Noir in Paris to the Riviera Theater in Chicago. And for those who might be concerned about how some of the mellower selections on Lookout Low could potentially bring down the energy of Twin Peak’s typically chaotic live shows: Don’t. It doesn’t really matter how sweetly their songs simmer on record, once the band gets onstage all bets are off.

“The shows are going to be pretty psychedelic,” Frankel promises. “I mean, 100 percent -- all it takes is someone watching me shake my head around for them to feel the energy than if it's a chill song,” James adds. “I've just got to headbang on the one and they say, "Oh yeah, it's got energy.”

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