Rock and roll will never die, but it sure has come close to flatlining a few times in the recent past. The storied history of the greatest genre can prove as much a disabling shadow as it can a well of inspiration, and far too high a number of bands have become complacent in resting on the laurels of legends rather than making a name for themselves. Where rap and pop are arguably in an increasingly amorphous and wide-reaching renaissance period, rock constantly risks tripping into a rut whenever the newest artists to enter the fray resemble fragments of the old institutions.
It’s become easy to grave-dig your sound in the Internet era, where the backlog of rock and roll greats are within immediate reach and access, and many bands seem content in copping the styles of their heroes without having any of their own. The worst offenders today can sound like they’re 60 when their singers are 19; they arrive devoid of life because the world no longer resembles what they are trying to be. No band should strive for their first album to sound as relevant as Neil Young’s 68th, yet it would be foolish to ignore the foundational lessons of After the Gold Rush or Harvest in the name of revolt.
That’s why Chicago’s Twin Peaks, a cheery quintet of barely-20-somethings, proved an immediately refreshing voice when they broke through the noise. Their identity has never been derivative of any aging rock star’s past, because even as they incorporated the tricks of the greats in their garage rock and faux-punk, they always used them to advance their own intuitively expressive perspectives. T. Rex and Ty Segall have more in common than meets the immediate ear, and Twin Peaks are the intersection point that proves it. They’re a little retro, but overwhelmingly youthful, and on Down In Heaven, their third studio LP released last month, Twin Peaks have never sounded more essential.
The band is only three years out from their debut, 2013’s beloved basement tape Sunken, but already their sound has shifted considerably since their days in high school. “Maturing” is an oft-used and reductive term, but it’s not unfair to say their influences have gotten a bit older — trading in the casual recklessness of their first two records for something closer to a refined power-pop blues, resembling Big Star more than FIDLAR. Furthermore, they’ve now passed through a significant portion of what we generally consider one’s “formative years,” and age would inevitably play a role in the band’s current approach.
“We listened to a big variety of music in high school, when we had written Sunken, but we were 18 at the time and a lot of life’s elements had yet to dawn on us,” Cadien Lake James, one of the band’s three lead vocalists, said when discussing the evolution of Twin Peaks. “We were all three years older making Down In Heaven, having been on the road for three years, traversing the States 10+ times, crossing seas, playing in Mexico, and that whole time we’ve been getting turned onto new music, life experiences, etc. that add up to a very different set of influences and a wealth of personal growth.”
Down In Heaven is a notably solemn affair, delving into themes of loneliness and unrequited love, where Sunken and the band’s subsequent album Wild Onion were more buoyantly optimistic. While James insists that they are all still “happy-go-lucky guys,” he noted that they’ve grown a more road-weary perspective, describing that the band now has “a lot of responsibility. We work non-stop with a trying schedule touring and writing, we’ve seen relationships begin and end, we aren’t home connecting with those close to us, we’re traveling, meeting new people every day instead…it all adds up to having left the nest. We are the same people, but a lot has changed for us the last few years.”
Yet James doesn’t think of the band’s new material as “sad songs,” instead offering that “it’s like wallowing joyfully in the romanticism of loneliness.” He goes on to suggest “loneliness is something that’s universally shared. You’ve got to be happy with yourself.” This isn’t far removed from a few years ago, back when the band was proclaiming: “Nothing is forever/That’s right, but don’t let it get you down,” on their biggest hit to date, Wild Onion’s “Making Breakfast.” Even if their sonic temperament has settled, they’re still forging ahead with the same outlook.
Life on the road hasn’t removed from the band their appreciation of their hometown either, and hearing James talk about the roots of Twin Peaks makes it immediately clear that this band wouldn’t have become who they are today if they had grown up anywhere else. “We all met in Chicago, we all — excluding our lovely, cherished Ohio boy, Colin — went through the Chicago Public School system, we shared the same teenage experiences — so we are united in our approach and vision,” James says. “We went to the same shows and went batshit crazy over the same bands in basements abundant. We all saw the Pixies together getting high in the crowd as sophomores, we all would go to Peace Fest to get high in Lincoln Park with Chicagoans every summer and eventually ended up playing it together. Chicago has instilled us with a ton of confidence and lifted us up and we have a lot of pride in our city.”
But while it’s impossible to take Chicago out of the band, the band has begun to explore beyond their city. In recording the new album, the guys chose an outpost in rural Massachusetts, which is perhaps responsible for the less urgent, increasingly laid-back vibe of Down In Heaven. Where in the past the band had to be efficient in managing limited studio availability, this time around they had the freedom to take it all a little more loosely.
“We recorded acoustic guitars outside beneath a tree by the lake. We all played late into the evening. We improvised a fair chunk of our parts. There was no clocking in and out. Just living, playing, writing, hiking, cooking, drinking, canoeing, playing basketball and baseball and glow in the dark frisbee beneath the stars, driving to the waterfall,” James describes. “It was an entirely different environment that after years on the road, somehow feels more our pace.”
From their origins in Chicago, their development on the road, and their habituation into a recording process more their speed — the threads that stitched together Down In Heaven form a logical narrative. If the clanging surf-rock of “Stand in the Sand” reflects an 18-year-old mindset during their restless rise as a band, a song like “Stain” is the natural descent. This isn’t a band slowing down though, just giving themselves some more room to stretch. Down In Heaven is their best album to date — where Sunken and Wild Onion panted with puppy-love agitation, Down In Heaven takes deep breaths with an assured charm. They’ve finally caught up with themselves, their energy no longer overshadowing the songwriting.
When it comes to composing their material, the band benefits from having multiple perspectives, which conglomerate together with seamless cohesion on record. Twin Peaks are pros at crafting harmonies rivaling those of old-school staples such as Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, but they allow themselves to be a little rougher around the edges. Sometimes they sound like they’ve just gargled sand, while at other times they hit a register as brassy as their accompanying trumpets. Rather than a class of choir boys, they come across as your friends egging you on from the backseat.
The sloppy riffs of previous Twin Peaks releases have become a bit more sophisticated on the new LP, but are still as breezy as ever. Lead single and album opener “Walk to the One You Love” cuts through a burst of psychedelic screeching with clean slides and warm hand claps, while “Butterfly” comes in quick and rumbling. Both songs have their gaze fixed downward even as the music remains exultantly steady: “I will let you walk to the one you love/But who is the one you love?” James ponders in doubt on the former, “Oh it’s such a butterfly feeling to have you for a friend/Oh but somehow I get the feeling, that I’ll be lonely again,” Clay Frankel worries on the latter. No matter who takes the lead, every member of Twin Peaks seem painfully aware of the risk of heartbreak, summed up best by Clay during “Cold Lips” when he shouts out the doleful wisdom: “You can live how you want/If you don’t mind living alone.”
With so many cooks in the kitchen, you could imagine some sense of competitive instinct leading to disputes, but James insists there is no ego involved in determining whose voice comes across most frequently. “Of course everyone is proud of their songs and wants to see them on an album, but we do a good job of all agreeing what songs work best together to make a cohesive collection of art. We’re all working for the whole rather than ourselves,” James explains. In spite of having three different lead singers, it all’s pretty indistinguishable when you’re actually listening to the band — in the sense that they mesh so well together it’s difficult to discern any individualities when their identities are so well representative of a single entity.
Perhaps it goes back to having grown up together since a young age, where their personalities would naturally begin to resemble one another’s. And with attending shows as a group of high school students being so instrumental to their collective history, one could easily imagine teenagers today attending Twin Peaks shows and feeling inspired by their carefree outlook and technically-impressive live performances. But unfortunately for their younger fans, the band’s upcoming show at San Francisco’s the Independent has a 21+ age restriction that seems counterintuitive to their overall brand.
James himself seems a bit disappointed: “I prefer to play all-ages shows always. Having missed out on a lot of shows when I was underage, I understand how frustrating it is to have a band come to town and play a 21+ show.” Yet he also accepts the reality of the industry, and that sometimes it even has it’s own benefits. “When it comes down to it, sometimes all ages rooms are booked, or sometimes it’s just a good look at a better club to play a 21+ show; one of my favorite venues is the Empty Bottle in Chicago, and it wouldn’t have the same vibe or charm if it was an all ages club.”
Many in San Francisco likely share that sentiment about the Independent as well. While this time around Twin Peaks are going to be singing their songs for an older audience, many of whom probably discovered the band on this current album cycle, Twin Peaks’ endless touring schedule (they’ve probably played every last music festival over the past few years) means it won’t take long for them to return for all their fans. “San Francisco knows we love them and we’ll always come back,” James says. “SF has been great to us and we’ll never forget that.” While Chicago is the band’s guiding spirit, the Bay Area fosters a similar breed of bands like Twin Peaks who use their influences to create something as vibrant as their influences once were — and we’ll always share our home to those who keep rock n’ roll vital.