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Meet The Midnight

A synthwave duo formed out of a love of movie soundtracks and sax-heavy 80s pop, with one foot in the glory days of nostalgia and one in some post-apocalyptic future.

Plenty of artists from across the seas will be making the pilgrimage to Byron Bay this coming July, but it’s not just the global megastars you should be keeping your eye on. One of the hottest internationals on the Splendour bill has to be The Midnight, a synthwave duo formed out of a love of movie soundtracks and 80s pop in North Hollywood. Though they might not be a household name, The Midnight have still garnered plenty of critical acclaim for their approach to electronic music – so much so that they sell out shows every time they venture out of the studio to perform live.

July will mark The Midnight’s first-ever visit to Australia. Ahead of that, we spoke to one half of the group – vocalist and producer Tyler Lyle – to learn a little more about this fascinating neon-tinged outfit and what makes them tick from a musical standpoint.

the midnight live
the midnight live

What made you want to get into playing music when you were growing up?

My dad was a musician, and I grew up around them. I thought they were insufferable in so many ways. [laughs] They’d all be around our house, talking about what bass cabs they had and what guitar pedals they wanted to buy. As a kid, I just thought they were so lame. “Grow up and get a real job!” [laughs] My sister asked our dad to show him four chords on the guitar. For whatever reason, I happened to be there: 14 years old, having had no interest in music at all. I learned four chords that day, and that was it. Within a few months, I was playing covers. By 16, I was writing my own songs. That was honestly all it took.

 

Where is this all taking place?

I grew up in West Georgia. It’s about an hour and a half west of Atlanta, on the border of Georgia and Alabama. For the Australian audience: Picture the middle of nowhere. That’s West Georgia. It’s tucked away in the deep south of the US. On the plus side, I got all the good blues music, plus all the bluegrass and gospel. It was handed down from generation to generation, and it’s one of the few things I’m truly proud of as far as being from the south is concerned.

 

Georgia and the American South is also well-known for its hip-hop scene. Was that a big part of your listening in high school?

Sure – I mean, Outkast were one of the biggest acts in the world. They were the pride of Atlanta for years! To this day, the stuff that was coming out of the area at the time is still being played in my household often.

 

What can you tell us about the kind of music that you were making before The Midnight?

So, I’m 33. I met Tim [McEwan, the other half of The Midnight] in my late 20s in LA. I was signed to a publishing deal there, so when we met I was a writer for hire. Basically, I was trying to write pop songs with whatever producer or artist was in town. Before that, I was actually a folk singer. I was touring the country in my Hatchback for a good ten years. I call it the “Sadness & Deprivation” tour now. [laughs] I was kicking around coffee shops, travelling all of these long distances by myself. A very healthy way to spend your 20s. [laughs]

 

Obviously, what you’re doing now sounds nothing like folk music. What kind are we talking here – the more traditional Woody Guthrie sense, or the more Fleet Foxes/Mumford & Sons type of nu-folk?

I would say that I claimed to split the difference. I still write that sort of stuff, and I have a couple of musical projects at any given times. The Midnight’s the one that is keeping me the busiest, obviously, but I still very much have a foot in that whole folk world. I was really influenced by Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen… all those guys. It was very much music based in the canon of Americana.

 

What prompted the change in musical direction?

It was after I got in a room with Tim. He’d come from Copenhagen and was living in LA at the time. We get to talking, and he asks if I’ve ever heard of Swedish House Mafia. I’m like, “No… do you know James Taylor?” And he was like, “No.” I’m thinking, “this should be interesting.” [laughs] That first session, we wrote a song together called “We Move Forward.” We both thought it was really compelling – we were really enthusiastic about it. It doesn’t happen very often in these LA writing sessions where you immediately hit it off, but when it does you start planning to write again straight away.

The next time we got together, we wrote another song that we thought was really fun. It just kept going, and soon enough we had all of these songs – but they were weird songs.  We couldn’t quite figure out what world they lived in. At the same time Tim was really getting involved in this “retro-wave” scene that was happening online in the early 2010s, not long after the movie Drive came out. He had one foot in that world, so he decided to try out taking one of our songs and giving it that treatment. It came back with the works – the synthesizers, the LinnDrum [drum machine] beats and the compressed snare – and it worked.

That was sort of our lane from that point. It felt like hitting the sweet spot in the middle of the Venn diagram.

 

What is it about writing with Tim, out of all the people you’ve worked with, that you think made the most sense?

We have a total marriage of opposites. Our personalities are pretty different – he’s a little more extroverted, and he gives the sound the sheen and the aesthetics. I’m more introverted and am more invested in the lyrics and the philosophical arcs of our projects. I think the friction between us is a total win.

 

What were the biggest things you learned from your time behind the scenes as a pop songwriter?

I learned how grateful to be when I felt like something that was personal to me had clicked with other people. When you’re writing pop songs, a lot of the time you’re trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. You’re just working away, hoping that someone will like what you’re doing. All the while, you’re trying to appeal to a specific audience. If I’m honest, I don’t really think it was something that I was ever truly great at. I had a few cuts with some good country singers and some good pop singers. All in all, though, I feel as though I was too much of an artist myself. It’s a neutral field, being a songwriter. In retrospect, I was glad I didn’t have to keep booking those sessions after The Midnight started taking off.

 

Take us through the process of building up to your first live show as The Midnight.

It was all a slow growth. Our first EP came out in 2014, and people gradually started coming around to it. There was enough of a fan reaction to warrant still doing it. That’s when we put out our first album, Endless Summer, and when that dropped our fanbase grew exponentially. After that, we took the jump and made this our career. It made sense, after all: We liked what did, we knew what we were doing, and it was fun.

A couple of years later, we played our first show. Because what we do is so based in the studio, we never really had a kind of “Oh, shit” moment until we started doing these huge, sold-out shows in far-flung parts of the world. It’s flabbergasting that this music made it out of Los Angeles. I’m always delighted that this band has meant so much to so many different people. We never had a manager or a booking agent for the first four years, and there were no radio singles either. Everyone who has sought this music out has it mean something to them directly, and we’re really grateful for that.

 

How did you find the translation of what you were doing in the studio to the live setting?

Figuring that out was actually the main reason it took us so long to actually put on a live show. Neither of us really knew how to thread that needle. Tim had been a drummer when he was a bit younger, and I was a folk singer – they’re totally different muscles that you use to live. We sort of muddled our way through our first show – tracks being played in the background, with us playing our guitars and synths on top of it. We had a production manager come in who helped us carve out the whole thing. We added a sax player, and kept adding synths on stage. We all have one on-stage now: There’s our sax player, me playing guitar and Tim playing pad drums. It’s half leaning on what we know, and half jumping off into the dark. It’s been a steep learning process but we’re starting to feel very comfortable as a live act now.

 

Have either of you ever been to Australia before?

No! And I’m so excited! It’s a place I’ve always wanted to go to, but have never had the opportunity to do so. I’m thrilled that I’ve been able to make so many friends that are from Australia that live here, as well as friends of mine from here that have moved there. I can’t believe we get to come and play for you there – I can’t wait.

 

The Midnight - America Online

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