“Mono no aware” is a Japanese term relating to the wistful recognition of impermanence — a melancholic awareness that things are ephemeral and we can never relive the past. Are The Midnight an embodiment of this or are they the cure?
It was a beautiful summer night in San Francisco, a town that gets surprisingly cold when most of America is sweating their souls out. This mid-July night was certainly crisp, but 850 people would soon be basking in the heat of some extraordinary energy generated by the performances of two popular musical groups. Their vitality would rise to spiritual levels, infusing concertgoers with a deep sense of interconnectedness and warmth. But not yet.
The Midnight’s Tim McEwan and Tyler Lyle needed to grab a bite to eat after a strenuous afternoon. It was July 14 and they had just finished soundcheck at the DNA Lounge, deep in San Francisco’s Soma neighborhood, preparing for their first-ever show: a double-bill with FM-84 and his collaborator Ollie Wride. Together, the two acts have redefined the lighter, more pop side of synthwave as a professional, unassailably written and transcendentally performed medium. They’ve earned thousands of fans all over the world.
Not that McEwan really realized that. It wasn’t until they were all grabbing a slice at the DNA Lounge’s adjacent pizza place, and getting some air before the show, that something clicked.
“We were outside on the street. I looked to my left and saw a massively long line stretching around the corner,” McEwan told Vehlinggo during a recent phone interview. “I wondered what was going on — they were probably here for some show. I didn’t put it together that the line leading up to the door of the venue was for our show.”
“Then I saw some Midnight t-shirts,” he continued. “I thought, What the fuck? That’s when it really hit me. I guess if people are buying your music and buying a ticket to your show, they have to drag their body there and show up. That was a real wakeup call.”
When I caught up with Lyle and McEwan — the former at a fun, divey bar in Brooklyn and the latter over a couple phone calls — both men were preparing for their first-ever show in Los Angeles as The Midnight on Nov. 18 at The Globe.
McEwan lives in LA, making it a sort-of hometown show. Lyle used to be an Angeleno, so there’s a bit of a homecoming air to it. In many ways LA is at its core the heart and soul of the band. As they did in San Francisco, The Midnight will be headlining the show with FM-84 (AKA Col Bennett) and Wride. The venue is bigger, holding at least 1,000 people, underscoring the state of affairs for the acts: they’re big and getting bigger without relying on most of the typical record industry infrastructure.
The Midnight’s latest release, an EP entitled Nocturnal that came out in October, has been very well received. It hit the Top 20 on Billboard’s Dance/Electronic charts and rested at No. 1 on Bandcamp for a few weeks. After playing a successful show at the DNA Lounge, this all points to great things for The Midnight as they head into their next live show and beyond.
“It’s almost like we skipped the middle part of having to tour the country and play shitty venues,” McEwan said. “We went straight to playing decent-sized venues and everyone knowing our songs.”
Don’t be fooled, though. It wasn’t that easy.
The Midnight: An Unlikely Pairing
Lyle co-writes and sings on some of the most memorable songs in the synth business, but his background is resolutely in the realm of the singer-songwriter and the country artist. This contributes to the rich and compelling lyrics he writes.
One of his higher profile gigs was co-writing songs for the Court Yard Hounds, a side project of Dixie Chicks members Martie Maguire and Emily Robison. He contributed his considerable talent to a few songs on their 2013 album, Amelita. As a solo artist, he’s toured all over the country playing gigs big and small — with audiences of a few people to more than a thousand — and sold 20,000 copies of a solo album at a time when selling records isn’t easy.
Lyle hails from Carrollton, Georgia, which is about 10 miles from the Alabama border, more than 4,500 miles from McEwan’s native Denmark, and about a million miles from the neon-noir nostalgia of The Midnight. Carrollton is also a town with 100 places of worship for 25,000 people and a place in which a mayor in recent years banned a performance of The Rocky Horror Picture Show at a city arts venue on the grounds that it was offensive.
McEwan, born in Denmark to a Danish mother and Scottish father, has spent his music career as a producer and songwriter, crafting work for the likes of Sean “Diddy” Combs and New Kids on the Block — he had a hand in the Diddy cut “Strobe Lights,” featuring Li’l Wayne, and the New Kids’ 2013 cut “Wasted on You.” He also worked with British boy band The Wanted, among others, during a stint in the UK.
“That we come from different worlds makes for a richer experience.”
Part of what makes The Midnight great is the merging of these two forces. There’s a friendly tension between the European-bred neon-noir and the Southern-bred poetry.
“I came up in the Nashville school of songwriting, where writing lyrics and a melody meant you wrote a song,” Lyle told Vehlinggo at the High Dive bar in Brooklyn. “In LA, producers have a track and then have a top-liner sing over it. I’m getting used to that a bit more.”
Lyle admits that McEwan knows a lot more about the synth realm than he does, which is a reality he welcomes.
“Tim adds an element I can’t do myself,” Lyle says. “I can listen to The Midnight and enjoy it in a different way than when I listen to my own stuff. The ego of the thing is outside of me. The spirit of the thing comes from the outside.”
As McEwan tells it, Lyle is the kind of songwriter he can rely on to come up with something that just works.
“I love when I can trust a person in the room creatively,” McEwan says. “I’ll play some chords and let him do his thing, and not worry about him coming up with something good. That we come from different worlds makes for a richer experience.”
These two disparate souls — music professionals with differing frames of reference — came together in LA in 2012. Lyle’s A&R representative, Katie Donovan, put him and McEwan in a room for a co-write session, the type of intensive, all-day (and sometimes multiple day) experiences arranged with the hope of yielding hits.
“We didn’t know what we were going to make together,” Lyle said.
Before that session began, McEwan had Googled Lyle, found an EP of his and thoroughly enjoyed it, he said. Once the two were in a room together and writing, it only took a short period of time for magic to happen.
“Within a half-hour he had written over my chords some of the verses for ‘WeMoveForward’,” McEwan said, attributing some of this quick clicking to the years of experience they both have working in this type of environment.
Lyle said McEwan had been delving in the synthwave scene for a while, checking out the synthwave blogs — and both men had seen Drive, which came out not so long prior. “Tim could put this kind of aesthetic on it,” Lyle said.
But McEwan says Lyle adds something significant to the aesthetic.
“The melodies I come up with are very different from what he comes up with — he thinks in ways I don’t and vice-versa, as well,” McEwan says. Overall, “it’s a very natural way of working.”
Going Back to Move Forward
McEwan was in London when Drive was in the theatres. He’d been working on some songs with some acts — crafting electro and electro-pop tunes, mostly. A lot of the music he’d been listening to centered on progressive fare, like Porter Robinson and Deadmau5.
It was 2011 and Drive had opened that September. Between that and his exposure to some other nostalgia-minded synth music, it made for what would be a fruitful trip for all of us.
“I was there for a week and I remember I saw [Drive] alone in a movie theatre,” McEwan says. “Literally that same week on that trip someone showed me Futurecop!” He went down a YouTube rabbit hole and would discover influential early acts like Tesla Boy and MPM Soundtracks.”
“Seeing Drive, when I heard College and Kavinsky, and the aesthetics of the movie — and later discovering Futurecop! — I thought, What is this magical place?” He said. “It spoke to me on a deep level. I was hungry to feed my inner artist at the time.”
As his listening pattern went from the nostalgia-minded aesthetics of the Drive soundtrack to the straight-up ‘80s-retro machinations of synthwave, McEwan got more and more hooked. The melodic side of the music struck him, but so did the spirit.
“What I like about his genre is it’s a bunch of bedroom producers coming up with this underground thing — not every track has the best mix or perfect production, but I’d much rather listen to something some scrappy kid put together in a bedroom that feels fresh and speaks to me than something with a correct mix that has no vibe,” McEwan says.
Overall, he says, “the musicality and the melodic elements of the whole synthwave genre spoke to me.”
But it wasn’t until McEwan and Lyle met that fateful day in 2012 that McEwan was able to fully indulge in the nostalgia for the Toto, Phil Collins, The Police, and others he’d faithfully listened to as a kid growing up in his Scottish-Danish home in the ‘80s.
“It took a year to figure out what the fuck this was,” McEwan says.
Even, then, though, The Midnight might not have happened as we know it. McEwan says that originally their first song, “WeMoveForward,” would probably have ended up as a solo track of his featuring Lyle and housed on SoundCloud.
And even once The Midnight was truly born as a project of the two musicians, it took a while to get the debut release, Days of Thunder, which featured “Forward” and “Gloria,” another cut they wrote together in those early sessions.
“I got to a point where I felt completely at home [with the sound] and loved how far I could take it,” McEwan says, adding the caveat that “it took me a while to figure out the tone of the first EP, because I wanted to get it right.”
“If you don’t like the ‘80s I want you to hate The Midnight; if you’re even somewhat into the ‘80s, you’re going to fucking love this shit.”
McEwan’s mantra for Days of Thunder was along the lines of, “if it feels like it’s a little too much, add more.”
“I wanted to be clear and confident about what it was,” he said. “I thought to myself, If you don’t like the ‘80s I want you to hate The Midnight; if you’re even somewhat into the ‘80s, you’re going to fucking love this shit.”
In other words, scare the right people away in a no-holds-barred onslaught of ‘80s pastiche. Although just doing 40 minutes to an hour of trope gesticulations wouldn’t cut it. McEwan and Tyler are, after all, professional songwriters who’v been known to craft a well-written and catchy cut from time to time.
“These are pop songs,” McEwan says. “They’re just dressed up in an ‘80s jacket and slick-backed hair. It’s no different than Coldplay or The 1975. I’ve always thought there’s room for melodic synthwave to become big. I don’t know if it would go as mainstream as house did, but it appeals on many levels based on the songs and melodies.”
With McEwan developing a framework on which he and Lyle build The Midnight’s songs, Lyle is poised to bring something distinct to the table. It’s not just, as mentioned earlier, his different personal and professional background. (Although his experience as a worship leader in a charismatic Southern Baptist church certainly gave the ready performer an early template for being in front of people.) There’s also the very earnest and very human contemplations behind the melodies he writes. Those lyrics aren’t secondary thoughts and they’re not left to fester in secondhand exercises of ‘80s movie tropes.
“The Midnight is my permission to explore God and sex through a lens of nostalgia,” Lyle says. “What I’m digging at usually is trying to answer questions for myself about sex, spirit… Teenage pastoral ‘80s images provide a really easy way to do that.”
He pointed to “Los Angeles” from Days of Thunder as an exemplification of that.
Lyle also indicated that as our post-ideological society renders the sacred no longer sacred, nostalgic veins of energy pop up. The human need for big explanations and interconnectedness with something is a powerful emotion.
“Nostalgia is a way for us to sort of filter ideas about transcendence,” he says.
The Story of The Midnight’s Nocturnal
In the summer of 2016, The Midnight released Endless Summer, which is one of those titles that could be taken to evoke those veins of nostalgia mentioned above. (Or, considering it was 2016, I wouldn’t judge you for reading it as something more of a lamentation.)
The 12-cut album showed that this project was no one-off nostalgia trip. It was, rather, a potent force of increasingly sunsetting areas of synthwave — the original, lighter, and more pop-oriented variety along with shiny outrun. Featuring sax-heavy vocal cuts like “Vampires” and Nikki Flores collaboration “Jason,” and instrumentals like “Daytona,” Endless Summer comprehensively established The Midnight as an utterly serious and entirely fun project for both the musicians and the audience.
But it is this autumn’s EP, Nocturnal, which hit Number 17 on Billboard and which arrives in between two crucial live shows, that indicates something even more profound. It represents the duo at their creative peak, blending their pop sensibilities with Tangerine Dream influences, bathed in a neon-noir moodiness. It shows that you can be dark without being dark synth. It’s a glorious achievement of a release.
The EP kicks off with the exquisite “Shadows,” which bears all the classic markers of a The Midnight song: an unabashed sax solo, a wash of synths, Lyle’s impeccable songwriting, and McEwan’s retro-modern production. It’s so quintessentially The Midnight that you might be surprised by the underlying influence.
“If you want the secret code to ‘Shadows,’ it’s ‘The Thunder Rolls’ by Garth Brooks,” Lyle says, referring to one of Brooks’ darker hits from the early 90s.
Nocturnal also features “Tokyo Night Train,” an instrumental number that is a well-executed homage to Tangerine Dream’s “Love on a Real Train” from the soundtrack to the 1984 Tom Cruise and Rebecca De Mornay film Risky Business. It’s also Lyle’s favorite cut on the EP. For his part, McEwan loved the film.
“Risky Business is kind of ethereal and dreamy, and not just a fun coming-of-age romp,” he says, adding that the film touches on big existential questions that people of all ages face, such as who we really are and what we’re really doing.
“I love the Tangerine Dream soundtrack,” McEwan said. “I wanted to do an homage with a progressive feel.”
Although Nocturnal is only a seven-track EP, it was originally supposed to be a full album. However, the rest of the tracks didn’t fit the theme. Lyle wanted to do a full Halloween/October release that was a bit darker than the usual The Midnight fare, taking inspiration from the tone of Stranger Things, John Carpenter’s films, and the like. Interestingly, McEwan would get inspiration from them, but it wasn’t always from the score. Sometimes it was just from the story or overall imagery of the film.
McEwan likes to jog around the Griffith Observatory grounds, which offers some beautiful and expansive views of Los Angeles. That alone inspired him — he’s a bit of a crepuscular runner, taking to the streets during sunrise and sunset. But add to that this fact:
“It’s where the Terminator first arrives [in the beginning of the first Terminator],” McEwan says. “Running up there and seeing the whole city and the sun setting — it’s so vibey and such an LA thing. I was very inspired by that.” The title cut to Nocturnal has a “not-so-subtle” homage to Brad Fiedel’s score. McEwan wanted something darker, albeit not necessarily in the vein of metal-inspired synth artists Perturbator or Carpenter Brut.
“I wasn’t trying to be hard, but I think I wanted it to feel slightly moodier and darker, while still maintaining the chords I like to go for,” McEwan says.
Another aspect of The Terminator that influenced him was the relationship between Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor. Originally, Connor thinks Reese is out to kill her, before realizing he’s in the ‘80s to save her from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s killing machine.
“She’s looking at Kyle Reese thinking he’s after her, but kind of intrigued by him,” McEwan says. “There’s this romantic element which I think is beautiful.”
Live Shows and Future Plans — And, Yes, a New EP
The show at The Globe in Los Angeles is coming fast, and will probably sell out, filling the downtown venue with about 1,200 or more fans, admirers, and those intrigued by these powerhouse acts. They’re bringing Flores along to expand the experience, and no doubt it’ll be the experience of the year.
That said, both Lyle and McEwan have said they don’t foresee upending their lives to embark on a massive tour, but they have been looking into hitting up a few additional key cities and, perhaps, even festivals.
“We’re trying to be more strategic and smart about it,” McEwan says. They’ll want to play centrally located venues that can serve the most fans possible.
They’re also working on a new, more “summer-feeling” EP to be released in spring or summer 2018.
“I like to think about it as what the kids from Stranger Things are listening to when they’re not chasing monsters,” McEwan says.
The Midnight is growing bigger and bigger, with McEwan finding it hard to respond to every tweet, Facebook comment or message, and email like he used to be able to. He spent a week catching up on three months’ worth of unanswered messages left when he was deep into EP-making mode. It’s safe to say McEwan is some variation on an Inbox Zero guy — he doesn’t like unanswered messages.
“I’m a weird completist and perfectionist,” McEwan says. “I like to reply to every tweet, etc.” But that’s not possible, so help could be on the way in the form of an assistant or something of that nature.
For his part, Lyle is fully prepared to take in the interconnectedness of the live experience again.
“Something I do love about this community is that music means something to people at these shows in a different way than I kind of really understand or what I go to records for,” Lyle said. “I don’t know if I’m supposed to make pretty wallpaper for people’s time in their house or car, or if I’m supposed to be injecting positive psychology for holding on. I feel very conflicted about what our objective is, but I’m glad people are engaging with [the music].”
When he’s on stage with McEwan, performing his heart and soul out, Lyle feels a vibe that harkens back to his early days in Carrollton.
“[The San Francisco show] felt like a spirit-to-spirit experience… like I was back in Carrollton, Georgia, at a megachurch leading worship,” Lyle says. “It’s something I’m excited to lean into. It goes back to my roots.”
(Update 2018: Check out the review of The Midnight’s followup, Kids.)