The release of Midlight’s debut single, Sink to the Level, last August marked them out as a band with something truly special going on. It was a track with a sense of atmosphere so thick and heavy that I wrote about it as a ‘living, breathing, constantly shifting organism’. Following this came the equally impressive Pandemonium in December – a song that’s already racked up over twenty-three thousand streams on Spotify alone. I don’t particularly hold much stock in numbers (probably because all of our track titles are followed by ‘< 1,000’ on Spotify) but there’s no denying that it’s an impressive tally for a song that was self-released only three months ago. Also, the song is fucking great. The point I’m labouring towards is that there’s a clear pattern to what is happening here.
With no live shows or anything like that due to obvious reasons, the London quartet have spent the last twelve months writing and recording new material in their self-built studio space. With this in mind, third single Emergency Song hits like a raw, still-smouldering document of where we are collectively right now. Following the success of its predecessors, it’s the first Midlight track to be released via Brighton-based indie label Airdriver Records. As before, it’s a rich, ever-moving arrangement that somehow feels impossibly light and airy – despite a menacing undercurrent that feels completely at odds with both of those words. Lyrically, the band paint with impressionistic, enigmatic strokes – and it’s driven home by a nuanced vocal performance that could well have come straight from the Thom Yorke playbook, full of melodic twists and turns where you least expect. Musically, a lone acoustic guitar provides the grounding around which everything else moves. It’s all about the tiny details too – with subtly-distorted vocals floating in and out, delicate chiming guitar, understated percussion, abrasive violin scrapes (calling to mind both Warren Ellis as well as Jonny Greenwood’s work on Radiohead’s Daydreaming), and some group vocals that come together to create distinctly eerie bed of sound.
It won’t be for everyone, but if you have a soft spot for Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool, Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock, or even Coldplay’s still-brilliant Parachutes, then this could well be right up your street, so to speak. I hope they continue to pick up the plaudits they clearly deserve, because there really aren’t many bands about that I know of who are operating at the level that these four guys are. File under: brilliant.
A conversation with Midlight
• Hi guys. Thanks for getting involved with the blog. I’ve been interested in what you were doing since I heard Sink to the Level back in August, and I thought Pandemonium was a great follow-up too. When I saw you were releasing your first track of 2021 I thought it would be cool to throw a few questions over.
First things first, I absolutely love Emergency Song. I think the lyrics are really interesting too… lots of people are releasing music directly influenced by the last year, but I think you judge it well in terms of avoiding the obvious pitfalls. I was wondering whether you could just give a little context on the song and where it came from?
Isaac: The song evolved out of an idea George had early in the first lockdown. We all really liked the essence of the song, and when we managed to get back in the studio together it grew very naturally. The song felt very relevant and was a way of us expressing how we felt about the pandemic. The song is kind of a reflection not just on the pandemic, but also the way the pandemic has allowed us space to look at what life was like before, and perhaps imagine what we would like it to be after.
George: Sometimes it’s easier to write a song from your own perspective, and sometimes it’s easier to write from someone else’s. At the time this song was written in March 2020 it was definitely easier to do the latter. The song is obviously about recent events but it also felt important to not be too specific about subjects. It’s important people interpret stuff in their own way with any context or subject they want to.
Owen: Once we were able to get back in the studio together it was something we all wanted to work on, and the instrumentation and arrangement of the song came together pretty quickly.
• One of the things I picked out in my review of Sink… was the atmosphere. Your stuff has this density and weightiness despite having all that space in there. Like with the new song, for me there’s almost more being said by the atmosphere of the song than perhaps lyrically. Like an overwhelming sense of the confusing times we’re all in has literally seeped into the song. This is a really long winded way of asking how that happens, and whether you think about the instrumentation as of equal importance?
Ollie: Yes I think ‘space’ is a really good way of putting it. Isaac’s guitar often plays quite an important part in controlling the character and size of the space, and any changes in it throughout the song. I also think in a more subtle way we always try to create space around the drums – sometimes close-in or sometimes giving it a bit more room. I also recorded some violin for Emergency Song at the beginning and throughout – I wanted to do something simple but quite clear in its tone and I hope that comes off!
Isaac: That is definitely very important to us, and is perhaps the starting point for a lot of our writing. We put a lot of emphasis on the mood and feeling of the song when it is being assembled. I think we also try to weave all of our separate parts, instruments and sounds into a cohesive whole that at times is in tension with itself and sometimes at ease. With Emergency Song, we were exploring both the chaos and confusion due to the pandemic, but also the monotony and repetition of life before it.
Owen: I think the instrumentation can be just as important at conveying the feel of a song as the lyrics, and can be used either to enforce the imagery of the vocals, or to contrast with them in a way, and to give meaning where the vocals might be intentionally leaving space. So yes we pay a lot of attention to where the instrumentation takes the atmosphere of the song, but we’re also careful to make sure it goes where we want it to go in the context of the lyrics.
• Your bio says that you’re originally from Brighton, but have set up shop in London. I must admit that I get a pang of envy when I read about your studio space. Could you give a little information on how this came about, but also what you think having this space has given you? I mean, from the perspective of a listener, I think there’s a level of depth (and emotional and musical intelligence) in what you’re doing that marks you out…
Ollie: Yeah, the studio has been really good for us. One of my friends was running this gallery space, and they had a spare room down in the basement.. It was a no brainer really. It’s given us the time to just mess around in our own way. It’s quite shut off from the outside – there’s a few bits of noise from the road which filters down through the ventilation but other than that it feels very private. We basically started with an empty room, so had to build it up from scratch with recording equipment – microphones, interfaces etc. And then I spent a week soundproofing the whole room which was fun. I also quite like collecting odd pieces of recording equipment – we have an old Drawmer compressor which I found in a Cash Converters for £10, and then other bits of homemade percussion – shakers, ocarinas etc.
Isaac: The studio has given us a lot of freedom to lock ourselves away and explore what we sound like. We have been building the space and everything that is in it for quite a long time and all the things we have accumulated contribute to our musical identity. I also think that writing, producing and recording our own singles has given us an appreciation of the process of generating consumable music – it’s hard! But we have learned a lot from it.
George: It’s given us the opportunity to try stuff and be comfortable throwing it away, there’s no attachment to a song or pressure to release it because we paid for 3 studio days recording it. That relays into the end products that people hear – they’re the best things we had to show, rather than the most recent.
Owen: We’ve been really lucky with our space. It allows us to capture a moment when something feels right, an example being the live take of Sink, which ended up forming the foundation of the recording. I think this is a large part of what produces the atmosphere you mention.
• How do you tend to work together? Sounds like a lot of collaborative work. Could you expand on your process, both in terms of writing and recording?
Isaac: The songs normally start with an idea from George, normally a seed of a song written on an acoustic guitar and with singing. Then we build on this all together, writing all parts iteratively and collaboratively, often trying to focus on bringing out the message or emotional core of the song, rather than diluting it with overly complex elements.
George: We are honest with each other, we respect each others opinion, and there’s a deep level of trust that we have built up over many years. That being said, I personally still have a level of paranoia over everything I might bring to the other guys because it is like putting yourself in the firing line over something that comes about quite intimately. It’s difficult to be completely objective with every song because in order to get to the point of sharing it with the rest of the band, I’ve told myself it’s good. I hope that makes sense.
Owen: Recording-wise, we don’t have a hard-and-fast rule, and we approach every song slightly differently. That being said, generally we track the bass and drums first together with guide vocals, and we always try to use whole takes as we think there’s something to be said for having the rhythm of the song as a single take, which includes acoustic guitar as well. Recording electric guitar is its own beast as Isaac often adds a lot of atmosphere and supporting sounds as well as his main parts, and we make sure sonically that they fit. Vocals often come afterwards, and George spends a lot of time making sure they convey the emotion he wants them to. Then at the end we might add any percussion or other sounds if we feel it’s needed.
Ollie: The recording process is always fun to play with I think – because we’re doing it all ourselves we’ve kind of gone down the path of setting our own rules and ways of doing things. For example having a phone recording the drums as well as the usual mics gives us a smashed distorted sound that we can feed into the main drum mix. Some of the stuff in Emergency was recorded at home – I did the violin at the beginning just in the living room of my flat as we couldn’t use the studio at the time.
• In terms of your influences, in my review was kind of picturing a cross pollination of A Moon Shaped Pool, Laughing Stock, and Coldplay’s Parachutes. I feel guilty mentioning the latter because they’ve gone on to make a few, shall we say, questionable records… but that first one is still spectacular! It’s a compliment, honest. Anyway, how do you feel about those, but also who are you listening to when you’re working on stuff?
Isaac: You are bang on. Radiohead, Talk Talk and Coldplay are all massive influences for us. I think that we have some collective influences, and also some quite diverse individual influences. At the time of writing Emergency Song I was listening to a lot of country and rock and roll from the 60s, like Ricky Nelson. We tend to draw on influences from across electronic music as well. We appreciate the power of simplicity in all sorts of music.
George: Well, AMSP is one of the albums we all collectively would have in our top 10 so thanks for that. From my perspective, the use of acoustic guitar on the album is sort of a sonic and composition standard I aim for. Laughing Stock is an album that made us step back and explore different ways of building interest and tension in simple and powerful ways. I know that personally my love for music and songwriting is kind of owed to the first four Coldplay albums. I don’t really care what people might think of that because I probably wouldn’t like some music that they’re in to as well. I think this song in particular has shades of both A Rush of Blood to the Head and Viva La Vida as albums. Each month I feel like we are individually listening to different stuff, which is the beauty of having four people creating something, even if sometimes that can make it hard. I’m listening to All Things Must Pass by George Harrison at the moment, which probably doesn’t rub off much on this release, but I’m sure it will for our next one.
Owen: You’ve hit the nail on the head with the albums you’ve mentioned. Something those three bands have in common is a sense of trust and connection which you can feel in a big way in their music, and it’s something we all relate and aspire to as well. A big positive of being in a band is that we’re often in different phases of what we’re into, things which sometimes trickle into our music, but we always have a strong core of music and artists that we share at the heart of it. Personally I’ve been listening to a lot of Jeff Buckley and Nick Cave recently, two of my favourite artists that I always come back to. There’s a rawness and imperfection to both that I love, and the arrangements on Grace are so unusual that they take you on a journey in a way that not many albums can.
Ollie: Those three albums and bands have been very important for us. We initially got into Coldplay when we were all at school together, Radiohead happened at uni, and then Talk Talk has been a more recent one. Our listening habits vary quite a lot as you’ve probably already guessed – at the moment I’ve been listening to a lot of David Berman’s albums (Silver Jews and Purple Mountains), and experimental club (Loraine James, Jennifer Walton).
• What are your plans for the future? Obviously the last year has been a strange one, but are you planning anything specific beyond playing this stuff live at some point. I’m guessing you’ve been working on a lot of material…
Ollie: We plan on releasing an EP at some point. We basically have a large body of work that we’re constantly working on, reconfiguring, and adding to. We’ve definitely got an EP or two, perhaps even something longer who knows. We’re going to keep working and writing and when it feels right we’ll be releasing in longer formats for sure.
George: We are looking at gigs for this summer and autumn, whether or not they will be support or headline slots is TBD. We should hopefully have some new faces coming to the gigs and knowing the songs before they arrive, which would be a first for us. Like Ollie says, an EP is on our minds and we will be sure to get around the country to support a release like that.
Isaac: Regarding live, I just can’t wait to be playing gigs again. We have spent a lot of time being quite insular with our music, and even releasing music in lockdown feels very strange, very disconnected. I am very excited to have a more direct, real connection with an audience. We do have some plans in mind, and everything is so uncertain at the moment that it feels like we have to be very flexible, but in short, we have loads of music that we are constantly working on and are looking forward to getting out into the world.
Owen: Obviously the live aspect of being in a band is something we’ve missed massively over the past year. We have a lot of material that we’ve been working on, and we find that playing songs live often changes our perspective of them, and I’m looking forward to our music being guided by that aspect of it again. Also I think we’re getting to the stage where we feel ready to produce a body of work soon, and so we’ll look to tour with that as well.
• Finally, there’s a clear trajectory set out if you look at the streaming numbers (which in general I don’t really care too much for), but looking at the growth and the support you’ve had from Tom Robinson and Shaun Keaveny on 6Music, I can’t help but wonder what you define as success? What is the ultimate goal for you?
George: I think success is having a community of people that actively engage with our music, and linked to the ultimate goal of doing music full-tme and fulfilling a sense of purpose. I resonate with your feelings on streaming numbers, but this year of all years, that’s one of the main things we have had to go on. It might not tangibly mean the same as selling a record, but it really has cast the net to start finding our audience which is the major benefit of streaming. Having support from 6Music was a major goal that we set out before our first single, and it’s come quicker than we probably thought it would. Shaun has been really genuine in showing an interest in our stuff and we will never forget the day he played Sink to the Level on his show without informing us. It was a bit of a head wobble moment for me.
Isaac: It’s all very strange trying to measure how well you are doing, especially when you don’t have any real, human interaction with an audience. That said, I am very proud of what we have managed to do in such an uncertain time, and I am sure we will keep on building on it. I suppose the ultimate goal is to keep making music, keep learning, and try to get our music into the ears of the people that it will mean something to.
Owen: We all share how you feel about streaming numbers – in a time where it feels people are putting a lot of importance on it, we place more value in people connecting with our music in a meaningful way, even if that’s at the expense of numbers. We’re trying to build a community that connects with us and vice-versa, and the ultimate goal is to carry on making music we’re excited about, and to hopefully become self-sufficient in the process
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