Although they formed two years prior, The Midnight truly became The Midnight with their modern synthwave classic Endless Summer, released five years ago.
The album, released Aug. 5, 2016 and featuring favorites such as “Sunset,” “Jason,” “The Comeback Kid,” and “Vampires,” marked a more cohesive creative experience for producer Tim McEwan and singer-songwriter Tyler Lyle than what came before. The two previously saw The Midnight as a rewarding side project, but the wake of the release of Endless Summer saw a fuller realized vision for the two musicians who had come together in 2014 in a bit of music-industry matchmaking. (You can get more on the general backstory of the band in this in-depth profile in Vehlinggo from 2017.) The record was the catalyst for the formation of The Midnight of Nocturnal, Kids, Monsters, Horror Show, and the band of today. You could also give it some credit for laying the groundwork of what the band could or will be.
“Endless Summer was really the one that established us as an act alongside the bigger acts in the scene at that time,” McEwan told Vehlinggo over Zoom last week. “That album… definitely symbolizes the real start of The Midnight as the band that we would eventually become.”
Lyle and McEwan are celebrating the fifth anniversary milestone with the July 23 release of The Rearview Mirror, an EP of orchestral versions of some Endless Summer cuts with Lyle on vocals, along with the recently released special edition of Endless Summer featuring “Comet” and “Bend” — two fan favorites finally getting an official release. While the special edition gives die-hards a couple songs for which they’ve longed and casual fans a glimpse into their song curation process, the orchestral release puts The Midnight’s songs through a rigorous test to see if they hold up outside of the highly controlled electronic context. The verdict is promising: The release, recorded with Minna Choi’s The Magik*Magik Orchestra, shows that the duo’s songwriting is so strong that it doesn’t really matter how these songs are presented. They’ll sound great regardless. (You can pre-order The Rearview Mirror in physical and digital formats right now.)
For this interview, Vehlinggo caught up with the LA-based McEwan and the Atlanta-based Lyle separately over Zoom to discuss the legacy of Endless Summer, along with the new fifth-anniversary releases and what’s in store for the future of the band. (The Q&A has been edited and condensed for length, clarity, and house style. You will also notice my elaborations in italics amid Lyle’s and McEwan’s responses. This is marked with an “Editor’s Note” tag on the first line, but afterward they’re just italicized.)
Vehlinggo: By the time this interview comes out, people will get a taste of your orchestral experiment, The Rearview Mirror, with the single release of a downright compelling iteration of “Vampires.” I can understand the natural decision to release the fifth anniversary reissue of Endless Summer with bonus tracks “Comet” and “Bend,” but this is — in the best way possible — creatively audacious. What was the inspiration behind this release? I dig it something fierce, but organic orchestral arrangements are quite a different context for your music.
Tyler Lyle: Initially, it came out of the idea of doing a stripped down or acoustic kind of set of The Midnight songs — seeing how well they could translate outside of the digital. And initially we were going to work with a small chamber orchestra here in Atlanta, before the pandemic. But the pandemic happened and we knew that the five-year release was coming up. So it’s just something that was kind of the right time at the right place. It all just kind of organically came together.
Tim McEwan: [Our manager] Justin [Little] had worked with [The Magik*Magik Orchestra] with a few bands. Minna [Choi] has been ingrained in the indie world for quite some time and is sort of the go-to person for people who want a smaller, intimate orchestral indie approach. It’s not a 40-piece symphony or movie score like tapestry — it seemed to really suit what we were looking to do.
(Editor’s Note: Among the acts Choi has worked with are Death Cab for Cutie and Weezer.)
TL: I’m a folk singer and somebody who comes at this world as like, “Well, these are the three chords and the truth; this is what I meant to say and what I said. And there it is.” And with The Midnight, obviously, it’s a whole sonic universe and Tim puts a ton of love into how the music sounds. But it’s also kind of frustrating to have fans be like, “We don’t like your solo stuff. We don’t like Americana. We don’t like stripped-down acoustic stuff.” And then for the fans of the folk stuff to be like, “Yeah, I just can’t get on board with The Midnight.” And it’s like — “Guys, it’s my voice. It’s my songwriting.” The things that are different are out there in the margins — the meat and potatoes are all the same.
And so that was kind of the impetus of beginning to think about translating these songs into a different kind of sonic space. But yeah, the five-year anniversary proved to be a great [opportunity]. The world was opening up enough. We could get 24 people in masks mostly into a studio space and record.
What does it feel like to hear your songs this way?
TM: Oh, it was awesome to hear. It’s so funny, because Tyler and I both are like, “You sit in your bedroom and you come up with these melodies and these little sounds…” and I think it worked because our music is inherently so hyper melodic. There are a lot of moving parts and it’s all very melody-based.
So when we were recording it just a couple of months ago in San Francisco and Oakland, to hear them run through the parts and just hear an oboe play [a part] and suddenly there’s a violin playing the “Vampires” hook or whatever, it was just really cool. We felt like they’re adding a level of class that we never deserved in the first place. It was very cool and really humbling. I don’t get super sentimental about our music, but it was a bit like, “Wow, we’ve come this far!”
Endless Summer definitely symbolizes the real start of The Midnight as the band that we would eventually become and I think hearing the symphony orchestra versions is really a good example of the idea of “Wow, not only have we come this far in many other ways, but I never would have thought that we’d be recording orchestral versions of any of those songs five years ago when I was making that album.”
“We felt like they’re adding a level of class that we never deserved in the first place.”
It really is quite the trajectory. Who was responsible for what in the arrangements?
TM: I mean, it was really in Minna’s hands. She was conducting the orchestra and by then she had written it all out. A month before she started doing the orchestral arrangements, she would send us versions and we’d say, “Oh, this is good, but how about instead of a violin we could do bells.” It was really mostly minimal and tiny tweaks. Our job was to stay out of the way. Really, it was left to her devices, so I can’t claim any, and I wouldn’t want to claim any, credit for those arrangements.
That’s full-on Minna just really doing a beautiful job at taking it and running with it — using her sensibilities and her know-how and knowledge about how to arrange for an orchestra, but also being good at staying true in the right places to what people come to hear The Midnight for. [She captures] certain melody licks and certain rhymes and feelings and chord progressions. And she doesn’t really stray too far from the heart and the soul of these songs, while still adding a new dimension and level of musicianship that I really thought was very beautiful.
Why did you choose these specific songs from Endless Summer for The Rearview Mirror?
TL: So, obviously, “Comeback Kid” and the pandemic — there’s a tie-in there for us personally and also a message of hopefulness for the fans. “Sunset,” because we just wanted to hear what it sounded like. “Endless Summer” was the most out-of-left-field choice, but because we knew Minna’s work and we knew that she was such an amazing talent, I wanted to hear what those themes would sound like in another space. We also chose “Vampires,” which was kind of sparse on sung parts. There’s just two verses in it. Yeah, these are the ones that we come back to after five years.
(The album closes with “Memories,” which kicks off with lyrics that reference the EP’s title. It’s a beautifully fitting end to a release that features novel iterations of the songs mentioned above.)
Going back five years: What was The Midnight to you during the making of Endless Summer compared to now?
TM: We didn’t even know what it was, let alone what it would become. In terms of the energy and focus and loving care that was being put into the project, it was definitely my fun side thing. Coming from the world of writing and producing for other artists, it was like, “Oh, I get to do this!” You could never do this on Top 40 radio, which was so fun to me.
(McEwan and Lyle met in LA, but by the time of the Endless Summer sessions, Lyle was living in Brooklyn — not far from what was then Vehlinggo HQ.)
TM: Every time [Lyle] was in LA, we would try to get together. I did a trip to New York in late 2016, too, where we ended up writing a bunch of stuff, and so it was like whenever we could get together, we would write some stuff. It would be a totally fun sandlot for us to both play in, and then I would go away and work on the tracks for months. There were low expectations at that point. Obviously, there were fans, but there was no label involved and the only deadlines were what we put on ourselves.
So by the time of Endless Summer, Tim was getting better at figuring out how to approximate the balance of retro and modern pop, while blending in Tyler’s rich narrative tapestries?
TM: We knew a little bit more about what we were and we went for it sonically. I remember really struggling with how dreamy to go on a song like “Kick Drums & Red Wine” [from 2014 debut Days of Thunder]. My pop brain — I was schooled to think, “Does it need a chorus? Do these chords feel too laid back and chill?” And then ultimately I did decide to go really dreamy, and then when Endless Summer came around, I was like, “I’m going all in,” because I knew the scene had taken us in. I was like, “Now I can go full throttle with this.”
“Now I can go full throttle with this.”
TL: I wrote the songs, but Tim really put in the labor of love — the extra six months of crazy-making that goes into polishing a big statement like that.
And that was a year before we’d played any shows. That was before we had a manager and any of this stuff. At the time of Days of Thunder, we were probably making a couple grand each in a year [from The Midnight]. It was not a huge part of my day and I know it was Tim’s passion project and he put a ton into it.
When I moved from LA to New York, Tim called me and was like, “Hey, are you cool if I’m just The Midnight.” And I was like, “No, I want to be in the band, too.” He was like, “Well, how’s it going to work?” And I was like, “Well, we’re going to write songs. I’ll come out to LA and you can come up to New York and we’ll write over the computer.” And that’s what we did, yeah.
Once we started touring — I guess our first show was 2017 and we really toured in 2018 — everything changed. As the team got bigger, things became easier and we could reach for more specific things.
TM: Fast-forward to now, it’s obviously 50-50 and we are very involved, both of us, and ironically enough, during the pandemic we were able to really be creative. We’ve been able to get in a room together and [work] on this new album.
TL: In this last year and a half during the pandemic, we’ve been able to… build things out in a way that’s like, “OK, well maybe we do want some chanty anthem things with some ripping guitar solos and some cool live parts that linger and expand and unfold.” These are things that we weren’t thinking about when we were making music just on our laptops, seeing what would fit. It’s a much more expansive vision and we’re able to do a lot more with it.
TM: We know what this band is now. We have had the luxury of time and not having to tour, so we were able to plan out multiple sessions where we could be in the room together and really create and get weird and explore all kinds of things.
So this has been a really fun process, versus before when it was like “All right, we’ve got to have an album. Can you send something over, Tyler?”
I don’t mean to make light of anything, but I feel lucky that I’ve been able to stay safe and healthy and alive, and not at risk. That’s been a big, big privilege.
OK, so you’ve teased that you’re working on a new album, but let’s not forget that Monsters never got its tour because of COVID-19. It came out July 10, 2020. But now, you two and your touring crew are getting ready to hit the road in the fall and the spring. What can you tell us about this multi-continental tour?
TM: I am really excited to play these songs and I’m really stoked for the new constellation of the band. It will be me, obviously Tyler, Lelia [Broussard of Jupiter Winter], [sax player] Jesse [Molloy], and then Royce [Whittaker, the other half of Jupiter Winter]. So, I’ll be on a full drum kit now for the first time and it will feel for the first time like a real live band. That I’m excited for and I’m excited to play some of these new songs.
“It will feel for the first time like a real live band.”
TL: And we now have all of the tools that we need to make it big and fun and intimate and spread out. The high watermark for me was going to [the] Electric Forest [festival]. You see these great EDM artists who learn to play like a jam band — they learn to do a [Grateful] Dead-type set where things can expand and contract.
And there’s this natural breath to a live set and that’s what I’m most excited about. But yeah, we’re ramping up production, so it should be a much bigger show and it’ll be different night to night as well. Because we’ll have same back-to-back nights in the same city, so we really want to be able to serve the people that are coming to hear something twice.
This is all great. I can’t wait to hit up your Brooklyn show next year. Anything else you want to add that I didn’t ask?
TM: You know, there is a big sense of gratitude from us to the whole fan community and synthwave community. Not just our fan community but the synthwave community in general is made of people that really are, for the most part, accepting and inclusive and supportive. I love that. I’m proud to be part of that community and Tyler is too. It means a lot to us. Kindness and decency is always something that I’m going to champion and we see it in the synthwave community. That’s something I would say I’m very thankful for.
You can buy The Midnight’s “Sometimes She Smiles” as part of the Vehlinggo Presents: 5 Years compilation on cassette, CD and digital formats.