“Is it a state of being?” Kelly Nothing wonders aloud, answering my question with one of her own. I’ve asked what it means to be a Lemon, and a band with seven members is bound to have varying answers. Juicy James pipes up: “Getting in the van? Like, going on the road,” until Nothing exclaims, “Having fun! Having fun with your friends!” They all seem to get behind that notion.
The Lemons have always declared that Everybuddy’s a Lemon, as spelled out on their Bandcamp page. It’s an idea that permeates more than just a band bio and EP title; it informs the way that their music is born. Musically, The Lemons sound like eating ice cream with your crush on a summer day; like dancing with your friends on fast forward; like driving with the windows down listening to The Beach Boys and Ramones; like a coloring book of your favorite memories; like falling in love with the world around you while sucking on a Jolly Rancher. The Lemons are a drop of sweet joy on the tongue of an oft-jaded music scene.
Just look to John Lemon for a perfect summation of their approach to songwriting: “When vibes are good, we write a tune. When vibes are bad, we don’t do much!” It’s as simple as that. The Lemons’ next album, out sometime this coming winter, will have come out of those good times together. The whole Chicago crew, with stage names like Chris Twist and Bad Boy Billy Sour, live together in “a big house covered in ivy,” and that familial vibe, as Lemon puts it, is evident in their music.
“There’s so many of us, so it’s really important for us to learn how to tolerate each other and continue to love one another unconditionally,” says Kimmy Slice. Nothing notes that people often come up to The Lemons after shows wondering if they all truly like one another. “Usually, yes! It’s like a family, you know? You fight with your siblings. But I love these people,” she says. With their seven members taking up most of the space of the Empty Bottle’s green room, nestled into corners and talking in crisscrossed conversations, it’s hard not to believe her.
It makes you wonder how the band came to find one another, and it seems like they’ve followed an ever-expanding narrative of recruitment. “It’s kind of like The Lord of the Rings. They’re all on this journey and they just pick up people on the way,” says Slice of her invitation into the band. A few of the members had also been approached with a simple “So I heard you want to be a Lemon!” by drummer and singer Juicy James, also known for his solo project Today’s Hits. Knowing each other as friends and fellow musicians made it easy for this ragtag team to come together with a likeminded sense of being able to find the joy in making 30-second snippets of musical happiness.
There’s an interconnected history of the musicians’ separate projects aligning in mutual fandom. Nothing notes seeing Kramer Versus Kramer (Twist and Lemon) in some of their earliest shows, even covering one of the band’s songs while she was involved with another great Chicago band, The Rubs. They all support each other’s separate musical endeavors, which inevitably bleed together in a way that can only happen under the canopy of a collective DIY scene like Chicago’s.
James’ work in Today’s Hits can be differentiated from The Lemons simply for the fact that the others aren’t there. “[In] Today’s Hits I do anything, and if it’s good, The Lemons take it,” James jokes. But Twist elaborates, “That’s where the whole ‘everybody’s a Lemon’ comes in. Like, no one person is The Lemons. It’s all of us together and it’s everyone else who also wants to be there with us. Also, there’s an omnichord.”
We discussed how a big element of “putting things through the Lemon filter” is the quickness with which a Lemons track can fly by (their longest song is just two minutes and nine seconds) as well as the fact that they all sing together. Their omnipresent harmonies are like a collective embrace, a group hug for your ears. The jangly tones and smile-inducing lyrics allow the band to exist in a timeless, genre-less space. The only thing they subscribe to is keeping things light and fun.
“We try not to write about sex and drugs explicitly,” says Nothing. Slice adds, “But we’ve kind of, like, hit puberty now. So we’re starting to have crushes, and learn about love and romance. Now we’re thinking about that stuff. We’re thinking about holding hands, and maybe kissing?”
The Lemons aren’t as interested in songs that come out of bad times. You won’t find them writing some heart-wrenching breakup song or angry love letter. It’s not what they’re about. Nothing describes it as “finding that innocence that’s left in you that maybe you wish you still had, and just going with it.”
That glow follows them everywhere and inevitably creates an atmosphere of adventure around them. My first week in Chicago, I saw The Lemons play on the rooftop of Nothing’s now deceased DIY space, Animal Kingdom. In their early days, they played a Halloween show where they acted as a cover band, The Melons, but just played their own Lemons songs. They’ve played a birthday party for a dog at Bric-a-Brac Records. They’re just trying to have fun, and with their tunes to guide you, it’s almost impossible not to join them. Soon enough, you’ll be a Lemon too.