Why Do Birds Sing?
Midnight Larks Stir the Melting Pot
I’d almost begun to wonder if they’d fluttered off in different directions, abandoning the invigorating promise they’d radiated upon alighting on the scene during the spring of 2015. Like many of you that year, I found myself irrepressibly charmed by Midnight Larks and their melting pot of sounds. They swiftly established themselves, playing out often and attracting a flock of devotees and supportive friends. As their stable of cool original songs wormed their way into my noggin, I greatly anticipated the album they began work on late that autumn. Momentum seemed to be with them.
And then, as the weeks turned into months turned into years, with assurances that the album was “coming out soon” never materializing and their attentions distracted by other bands the three members joined or started, Midnight Larks shows came less frequently, and when they did they simply charged through the same batch of songs (albeit great ones) they’d already been playing for two years. So, part of me assumed they were just starting to lose the spark as they moved on to other interests, leaving the recorded document to be unreleased.
Thus, I was quite happy to get the news earlier this year that the band’s self-titled debut album was, in fact, being pressed – and with its impending release, Midnight Larks remain as committed to their creative outlet as they were in the beginning. It’s just that… well, you know… these things take time. Especially when you’re doing everything yourself.
“It took us a long time to pay it off,” explains bassist/guitarist/vocalist Nikki Speake. “That’s why we were playing so much [early on] – we were playing like once a week! We worked our butts off, really, to pay for that.” Notice the absence of online panhandling… I mean crowdfunding.
“The studio was very kind and let us record and then owe them the money. So we had to work to pay them. We had to play to pay,” comments guitarist/organist/vocalist Sasha Vallely. “And then we were saving up for mixing, mastering, and then trying to get it pressed.”
“We were lucky and we’re very grateful to PBR Music,” adds Speake. (As part of its music-intensive marketing campaign, the beer company periodically awards grant money to selected independent bands around the country.) “So we eventually were able to pay off [the debts] with that. And then, I think we thought that we were gonna get signed. We sent it to all these labels, and… nobody wrote us back, ha ha ha! Nobody gave a crap! So that was another delay. If we had just been like, ‘Whatever, we’re gonna do it on our own,’ it probably would’ve been [released] last year.”
So, they did it all on their own. And, record company disinterest notwithstanding – you should give a crap! Because this album is a delight! Recorded at The Green House in Marietta (run by the folks in The Law Band), it’s a sassy mix that illuminates the swirl of sounds the group deftly spins: groovy blacklight psychedelia, beat-crazy garage rock, surf noir, haunted country & western (emphasis on western) and girl group-style vocal arrangements, swathed in reverb and delivered with a darkly cinematic flair. It’s a diverse album but a cohesive one, which is important. It doesn’t sound like 12 different bands, but a dozen different shades of one very adept and exciting band.
As wide-ranging as the songs on Midnight Larks are, so are the origins of the three members. Speake comes from out in the sticks – Dadeville, Alabama, to be precise, population 3,200.
“My whole family has always played music,” she says. “My grandmother was in a touring gospel quartet. And my grandfather on the other side of my family wrote songs on harmonica and piano. So I was always kind of around that. I just started writing songs when I was a teenager.”
Going to college in Auburn, she joined her first band – an all-girl punk band with the incredible name Whistle Bait. “There was nothing to do there, except, ‘I’m bored – let’s form a band!’ So we just played music.” The scrappy outfit – which included guitarist Katie Barrier, later of Pine Hill Haints – played shows with Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers, the Immortal Lee County Killers and some of the other groups from the area. “We just did it for fun. And then after that, I had my own kind of psychedelic country band with my neighbors called Virgil Otis, where I wrote the songs. But then I didn’t play music for almost a decade after that. I went to grad school, and just kinda thought it was something I had to give up. And I hated every minute of it.”
After moving to Seattle for a year and not liking it there, Nikki’s sister encouraged her to come back south to Atlanta. “[She] lives here, and she was having a baby, and she was like, ‘Just move here! I want you to be around and see your nephew,’” Nikki recalls. “So I moved to Atlanta, and I’ve loved living here. I never thought I would, but I’ve really enjoyed it. Everybody’s been very supportive.”
She soon started playing again, first in a trio of fashionable country ladies called Sioux City Sue with Kasey Price and Jennie Castillo. “That kinda started me getting back into music.” And back into it she dove. After Sioux City Sue dissolved and Midnight Larks established themselves, Nikki (who’s seriously just about the sweetest thing ever, no kidding) also joined Shantih Shantih (replacing original bassist Valentina Tapia) and a year ago formed the honky-tonkin’ Nikki & the Phantom Callers. “My mentality about it was that I didn’t play music for so long, and I was so sad about it – it was like an empty space in my heart, to be cheesy – so I think that was why I just wanted to take as many opportunities as I could get,” she says. “And now I’m a little bit over-committed, but I just tell myself it’s good, that I’m making up for lost time.”
Vallely hails from Birmingham – no, not the one northwest of Dadeville, but the one northwest of London. The burg that spawned Black Sabbath and Judas Priest, among other burly British noiseniks.
“I used to be a metal chick, back when I was a teenager,” Sasha remembers. “My first real big concert was Metallica. The first band I ever joined was a metal band. But I was a backing singer, ha ha ha! They were called Koma. So bad… My sister played bass in the band. That was my only metal band. I’m not good enough to play heavy metal. You’ve got to be able to shred. That’s why I play punk!”
She subsequently ended up in an assortment of ensembles, including a blues-punk band called The Mobsters that played around England. When her mom relocated to Brisbane, Australia, Sasha tagged along for a while; she’d already spent time in Melbourne, so she sort of felt at home there, especially when playing music, which she did with a girl band and an acoustic country duo. But she also felt isolated. So when she got an offer to move to Los Angeles and join The Warlocks, she jumped at the opportunity.
“I [had] met them in England,” she explains. “I used to work at this music venue called The Academy, and they played there. And they were like, after the show, ‘Do you have a place we can crash?’ I used to always put bands up at my house in England. I actually put Mastodon up at one time, and they trashed my house! They had a party. I’ll never let ‘em forget that, ha ha ha! But yeah, [The Warlocks] stayed at my house, and then became friends. And they knew I played bass, so when their bass player quit they asked me [to join]. Then I ended up playing keyboards and drums. I think they just wanted someone that fit with the band. But I’d never even been to LA before, so it was a bit scary.”
As is often the case with those drug-drenched L.A. bands that circulate in the Brian Jonestown Massacre extended family, tensions arose, and Sasha and the singer, Bobby Hecksher had a falling out, with Sasha leaving to join Spindrift, another band full of Warlocks and BJM alumni.
“It’s all incestuous,” she laughs. “I was married to one of the Jonestown Massacre guys. He was in the band for a while – his name’s Christof. So it’s all a big family. Everyone plays in everyone else’s bands. They’ve had like hundreds of members.”
Sasha stuck with Spindrift for several years, a couple albums and numerous tours, but had to leave in late 2012 due to back surgery for a condition called spinal stenosis. And that’s what led her to Atlanta.
“I had to have surgery on my neck, metal rods put in my neck. And I couldn’t move. I couldn’t move my hand or my arm. Years of headbanging and touring and sleeping on floors [led to it], basically. Not sleeping right, sleeping on floors and couches, touring. That’s hard on your back. And lugging heavy equipment. I’d been in a lot of pain for years. And one day it just went out. And it was scary.”
Facing an extended period of rehab, Sasha relocated to Atlanta, where she has relatives. “And I ended up meeting a guy, and having a baby. We lived together for a while, but I’m a single mom now.” Her son, who turns four in April, is who she recorded her solo song and video “Sweet Little Boy” for in 2015. “He loves music, too. He sings to me sometimes. It’s the cutest thing in the world. Like, he’ll sing my songs back to me.”
Like the other Larks, Sasha – who teaches music by day, as well as contributes to Guitar Girl magazine – has her own extracurricular musical project, Sash the Bash. Which wasn’t named as a nod to Canadian experimental violinist Nash the Slash, who, sad to discover, passed away back in 2014. Nah, it’s been Sasha’s nickname going back to her childhood. “I was a tomboy, and I used to just bash everything. One of my first instruments was drums.” While she bashes the electric guitar in the two-person project, rocking out in a thrashing fury, she’s had a succession of drummers, including Rod Hamdallah and the late Tony Dinneweth. Currently she employs Lindsey Tulkoff (who also plays in an all-female AC/DC trib band called Ballbreakers!) on the kit. “It’s been good therapy,” Sasha says.
The third member of the Midnight Larks family, drummer/percussionist/backing vocalist Pietro DiGennaro, comes to us from Baltimore, where apparently he and Biters guitarist Matt Gabs were the only two rock ‘n’ rollers – and now they both play in Atlanta bands! It was Gabs, in fact, who recommended that The Booze hire Pietro as their drummer, which they did in 2011. (“He already looks like he’s in your band! And he’s really good on drums!”) After that run ended after a year or so, Pietro stayed in Baltimore, to no avail.
“There just really wasn’t much of a music scene in Baltimore. Like, laptops took over, and it was kind of a bummer. I sat around for two years not doing crap. My drums were collecting dust. And so, I moved down here, and was overwhelmed with a bunch of bands. I guess because I went through that period when I wasn’t playing with anybody, when I came here I drunkenly said yes to everything.”
He’s knocked it with a great number of local bands since then, including Black Linen and Andrew & the Disapyramids. These days, he’s pared it down to Midnight Larks (he replaced original drummer Erin Santini very early on) and the ass-kicking three-man uprising known as Bad Spell (with Bryan Malone and Shane Pringle). “Yeah, I was so busy. And you sit down to play the drums and you’re like…’OK… what am I doing right now? What are we playing?’ It drove me crazy.” But he still finds time to DJ occasionally, spinning vinyl at the Star Bar or Argosy.
So… now he can also spin the Midnight Larks debut album! It’s a milestone for any band, and certainly this one’s put a lotta sweat and love into theirs. So what’s next on the agenda? Bigger and better shows (they’re in the lineup of that Atlanta Music Festival thing with Black Lips, Gringo Star and many others in late April, and also the Muddy Roots fest in Nashville – their first show up there). Maybe some limited touring (Sasha’s motherhood duties rightly take precedent). And definitely cooking up new songs (some freshness is sorely needed, they’ve been coasting on this batch since early on). But, for the moment at least, allow them to enjoy this impressive, long awaited accomplishment.
“I feel like through this process we’ve all learned a lot,” Speake shares. “I feel like if I had enough money, I could start my own record label now, because I know how to do the entire process from start to finish. And that’s been really cool. I’m very proud that we did that.”
Photo by Kellyn Willey.