The Midnight Just Wants You to Dance With Somebody
Tyler Lyle was born in 1985, a year when much of the synthpop music his band The Midnight emulates was enjoying peak popularity. Growing up outside of Carrollton, Georgia, however, Lyle was more likely to be boppin’ his head to ‘80s and ‘90s country hits from Garth and Brooks & Dunn when he was a kid.
“I didn’t know the dial on the radio turned until I was probably ten years old,” he laughs, pointing out that his father was the “music minister” at the tiny Methodist church his family attended and his great grandfather helped build in the early 1900s. “So I had bluegrass, a little bit of blues, a little bit of classic rock, but it was mostly country influence. I mean, peripherally I got Huey Lewis & the News and Tina Turner and some of those albums, that ten percent of [my dad’s] collection that sort of existed on the far end of the shelf. But, yeah, I didn’t really get interested in that [‘80s pop] music until much later.”
We’ve met up for a few late-afternoon beers at Wonderkid, a recently opened bar & eatery hotspot in the redeveloped Atlanta Dairies plant on Memorial Drive. Lyle, who left Atlanta for Los Angeles in 2011 but returned last year, acknowledges that “this area, especially, has been one of those that’s just changed…”
Of course, Tyler’s changed in that time, too. After meeting his now-wife while living in L.A., he married her in 2014. The day after the newlyweds held a big wedding party in Atlanta at Paris on Ponce, they moved to Brooklyn. But after his wife gave birth to their son two years ago, “the one-bedroom apartment got really small, really quickly.” Now they live in a refurbished old house in Ormewood Park they bought from Tyler’s parents in 2016.
And back when Lyle left Atlanta in June 2011, he was a budding country-folk singer-songwriter playing all the usual local rooms. While he still records solo albums in that style (his latest, The Floating Years, came out in May 2019), has toured alongside fellow Atlantan David Ryan Harris and returns to play Eddie’s Attic about once every six months, he’s met with far more widespread success in recent years with The Midnight, the synthwave collaboration between Lyle and Danish-born producer/musician Tim McEwan that started as a result of a co-writing workshop in 2012.
“Co-writing is great, because you have a pretty initial sense of who you wanna work with in the future. I’ve written plenty of bad songs with good writers. But yeah, it was initially great [with Tim]. It clicked… the first song that Tim and I wrote together was called ‘We Move Forward.’ And it was a track-based song structure. Meaning, the chord structure didn’t change between the verse and the chorus. It was just kind of a ‘build.’ And it confused me, because you have to change the chords between the verse and the chorus – how else are you gonna have a B part? And so, when I realized that you can come up with melodies in the same chordal structure, it kind of opened a world to me… It had a different kind of power, a different kind of authority. It was able to stand on its own in a way that, if I was just writing the thing by myself, it wouldn’t have. I viewed it initially, the first few songs, as a workbook exercise. Like, you’re learning a foreign language, and they give you the workbook, and you just work through it, so that you can sharpen and hone your skills. We didn’t know [our sound] was gonna be ‘eighties’ for a couple more songs in,” Lyle points out.
I’m wearing a Kraftwerk T-shirt this particular afternoon, which Lyle notices and compliments. They’re sort of a classic-era parallel to the pull of current bands like The Midnight. When Kraftwerk hit their stride in the mid 1970s through mid ‘80s, their music and imagery were looked upon as futuristic, or at least at the forefront of modern advances in music and technology. Now you go see them, and it’s a nostalgia-fest because they haven’t changed in 35 years. Their vision of the future, while cool to experience, is now retro and silly, like a Knight Rider episode. Even the films Kraftwerk show as backdrops while they play, the computer animation is Max Headroom level. It’s a future that never happened. Kraftwerk are stuck in the past now, and that’s part of their appeal to people today. The 1980s-steeped synthpop of The Midnight appeals in much the same manner. What was once theoretically pushing modern music in a new direction is now just another throwback genre to indulge.
“Yeah, it’s a really strange dynamic,” Lyle acknowledges. “Our fans tend to be mid-twenties to mid-thirties [in age]. But there is a strong contingent of people who will have a Suicide or Kraftwerk shirt on. The old guard who remember Devo, and who’ll come at us with references and we’re like, ‘Yep, no clue! We don’t know! We love the [Yamaha] DX7 [synthesizer], but we don’t use it – we use the plug-ins!’
“My sense is that synthwave has become a popular genre because all of these emulations and plug-ins are cheap and easy and accessible. And if you are an 18-year-old kid with a laptop and not a ton of musical knowledge, you can become a synthwave producer with basically no money spent on extra plug-ins. It’s kind of an intro-level…it’s the new GarageBand, in a way. You’re not gonna become a pop producer, [which] requires a little bit more knowledge, sampling and things like that. But you can get a kick drum, and a snare drum sound – it’s already in the preset pack – and then you can get a pad, and you can have your sound moving around, and that’s your song,” Lyle says. “And I think what set [The Midnight] apart was that Tim was interested in going into that world as a producer who had 15 years of experience, and me as a songwriter who had ten years of experience, and put a little songcraft into it.”
It’s interesting to note that, as a child, Tyler never envisioned himself delving into music, let along making a living at it. “I received musical instruments kind of every year as a child for years, until I was like, ‘I’m never going to be a musician! I’m not interested. I don’t care!’” he laughs, explaining that while the family business was in mobile home sales, his father had personal musical aspirations. “My dad… played in these, like, country cover bands and classic rock cover bands on Saturday nights in the crappy little honkytonks around west Georgia and east Alabama. [He] was a songwriter… He kind of wanted to go the Nashville route, that ‘80s/’90s country thing, at the Bluebird Café. We would all take trips to Nashville a few times a year to see my dad play his four-song set at the Bluebird. And so I grew up kind of under the shadow of this, ‘Gonna write a country hit song, and then we’re just gonna coast,’ and it never happened for him… He had a voice message from Garth Brooks saying, ‘Not gonna use this song, but it’s a real good song, Mark.’ And that was kind of as close as he got.” Tyler’s dad taught songwriting and the music business at the University of West Georgia, and built a small recording studio in a double-wide trailer out back of the family’s house, where he and his musician buddies would hang out. “And I just thought, ‘These guys, they just talk about bass cabs!’” Lyle laughs. “‘This is the most boring version of life I can imagine!’ So I wanted nothing to do with it. But my sister asked to learn a couple chords on the guitar, and my dad taught her, and I was a fly on the wall, and I learned them in a couple hours. And that was it – I was on my own journey. This was probably when I was 14 or 15.”
Teaching himself to play by listening to Beatles songs and studying Dave Matthews tabs on the internet, within a couple of years Tyler was good enough that he got a gig as worship leader and guitarist in the band at a large Southern Baptist church. “This was the time when the… whole light production and rock band thing kind of kicked off [in big churches]. Yeah, it was a few hundred bucks a weekend, which, for a 16- or 17-year-old, is good money,” he says, confessing that, while he believed there was a God, as worship leader, “I was the guy who was supposed to filter out the spirit for everybody, and I knew it was kind of a fraudulent thing I was bringing to everybody, ’cause I hadn’t heard from God – I just knew how the play the chords of a song.”
That lasted until his freshman year of college. “I went to a small, Wesleyan school in Kentucky called Asbury. And it was just kind of conservative to a degree that I was not prepared for. And after that experience, I was like, ‘I kinda need to get out of this.’ So I went to Georgia State [University] for a couple years, moved to Paris, and after that I was, like, done with all that [church] craziness.”
The first place Tyler played other than a church was at IF Coffeehouse, which used to be in Little Five Points behind and under the row of shops along the east side of Moreland Avenue, next to the Star Bar’s Little Vinyl Lounge. Not too long after that, in 2006 he played Eddie’s Attic’s weekly open mic contest – and lost. Undeterred, he kept entering it from time to time, and in 2010 he not only emerged victorious in one of the weekly open mics but went on to win the Decatur venue’s biannual open mic “Shootout” that summer. “And that was kind of the real start of my music career,” he says. “It gave me a thousand dollars in my pocket, and gave me recording time at Tree Sound [Studios], where I put together a blues record – just a weird record, I recorded it in a day – and put out a little double EP that year.”
During that time, Lyle was playing most everywhere around town, with and without a band: Smith’s Olde Bar, the Red Light Café, Vinyl, the EARL, Under the Couch. And he’d travel regionally in his hatchback, playing rooms in Charlotte, Knoxville, Chattanooga or wherever, usually making just enough money to pay for gas to the next gig.
In 2011, after having his heart broken by a girl he’d met and started dating the previous year, Lyle moved to L.A. and involved himself in the music industry in a more career-oriented manner, signing a production deal, working on a project with a couple of the Dixie Chicks and doing the co-writing exercises, 99% of which went nowhere. That other one percent, though, began on a random Tuesday in 2012 when he met McEwan.
“There is video footage – and I don’t know if it’s on YouTube or not – of him playing for Denmark in the EuroVision contest, on drums,” Tyler discloses about his slightly older musical partner. “He’s a drummer from way back. But he wasn’t a band kid. He was kind of a studio rat from an early age… Tim is currently in Denmark for his dad’s 80th birthday.” Turns out Tim’s father is a somewhat beloved figure in Denmark due to running a children’s television program there for many years. “His dad was the ‘Mister Rogers of Denmark,’” is how Tyler puts it, laughing.
“Tim is fascinating… Our temperaments are so totally opposite, but in a great way,” Lyle underscores. “He moved to London around the early 2000s to do music, and was kind of in the ‘grime’ club, with music production stuff there. When I met him, he was working with a Danish publishing company in L.A… I met him at Raphael Saadiq’s studio in North Hollywood, and whenever you go in to meet somebody [to co-write] you’re kind of given their credentials, so I think he’d done a P. Diddy remix, and he worked quite a bit with the New Kids on the Block, Jason Derulo. So, in that urban and pop world, on the production end. But like me he had some middle-end credentials – and time. He’d been in it a little bit longer than I had.”
The Midnight made their recorded debut in 2014 with an EP titled Days of Thunder, somewhat appropriate since so many of their songs sound like gems you think you remember from 30-year-old (and older) movie soundtracks. The 12-song full-length LP, Endless Summer, followed in 2016, solidly establishing their effervescent, ‘80s synthpop fixation, its cover art pounding the point home with the duo’s neon logo and a prominent faux copyright date of 1984.
As blatant as their dedication to their chosen era and sound may be, it’s difficult to resist its charms. It’s excellent nocturnal driving music. The way Tyler’s heartfelt but broadly appealing songwriting and smooth, soothing, endearing voice matches with McEwan’s gently proceeding synthwave soundscapes, pulling out every hackneyed ‘80s pop recording practice in the manual in the process, sparks the synapses like a sweet buzz.
The group was steadily building a following during this time, mostly through the chatter of synthwave enthusiasts online, but would not play their first show until 2017, the year their Nocturnal EP reached number 17 on Billboard’s Dance/Electronic chart.
“Everything that The Midnight has become has been because there are enough fans that have hounded us to kind of keep going,” Lyle says. When a promoter who ran a synthwave club night in San Francisco convinced them to do a show, it was mainly an MP3 through the soundsystem and Tyler singing and playing an electric guitar that wasn’t properly turned up, augmented by newly-added saxophonist Jesse Molloy, whose instrument lends a welcome brazen sexuality to the sound. They were still trying to figure out the live presentation, but they sold out the show beyond fire capacity. A few months later, they played another show at the Globe Theatre in downtown L.A., with a capacity well over a thousand, and sold it out. “We played the show, and it was not great,” admits Lyle, “but the next day was the day that shows up in all the movies where every agent in town calls, and you’re talking with everybody, and you’re the next thing for six hours. So that day we kind of got the management, we got booking. For the first five years of The Midnight we had nothing… Our second show, at the Globe in L.A., was when we became a viable band, as well as business.”
Tyler might maintain that they were no great shakes as a live act for those early attempts, but if that’s true then they’ve certainly come a long way in the short time since. I saw them in the Spring of 2019 at Atlanta’s Variety Playhouse (“That was probably show number 12 or so,” Lyle estimates), with that same three-piece configuration, and they were positively wonderful. It was good, lightweight fun, and aside from OTP cover bands it was the only time I’ve ever seen anyone do “The Boys of Summer” by Don Henley, and non-ironically at that. I tell Tyler that next time they should continue the Eagles-meet-the-Eighties theme by doing Glenn Frey’s “You Belong to the City,” which is really more in line with their style anyway – and has that sexy ‘80s saxophone to boot.
It’s worth mentioning that many of the biggest mid ’80s MTV hitmakers – Tina Turner, Bruce Springsteen, ZZ Top, Peter Gabriel and those aforementioned former Eagles – were by that point aging 1970s music veterans that successfully adapted their style to the changing trends of the post-new wave era. It’s probably a big reason why The Midnight – which combines Lyle’s Americana singer-songwriter sensibilities with McEwan’s production finesse – works so well. “Even if you listen to like a Petty record from the ‘80s, or a Dylan record from the ‘80s… it has such its own sound, in a way that is so specific to that time,” Lyle points out. “It was a wave, and it was so specific, and then it was gone.”
Contrasting his two musical avenues, Lyle agrees that “the folk stuff is more heart-based. You can see everybody in the room, you can make eye contact and have a moment with the crowd, whereas with The Midnight it’s kind of a throwback to the Southern Baptist megachurch light/sound production. Which is great, because the more mythological you can make it… Dylan wrote in terms of archetypes, and it was genius, because he’s not talking about specifics, he’s talking about really broad strokes that everybody has their own relationship to these archetypes and symbols. And I think that’s the smart move with The Midnight – to kind of create the world that everybody can kind of have the closest connection to. The audience can kind of make their own connections, on their own terms.”
Released in July, The Midnight’s latest album Monsters is doing quite well, especially considering all the upgraded touring they were planning to promote it (they had been booked at the Tabernacle this month, for instance) was cancelled in the wake of COVID-19. But he’s noticed a few gripes about it from hardcore synthwave devotees. “It’s a little less ‘80s sounding,” he concedes. “We’ve got trap beats on the record that that we got a lot of flack for.”
To be sure, the Monsters cuts that use beats less associated with ’80s spandex wistfulness – such as “Fire in the Sky” and the title track, recorded with similarly nostalgic long-distance synthpop duo Jupiter Winter – tend to be the least effective on the record, but they’re not as jarring a departure from The Midnight’s formula as detractors maintain. Far more successful is the completely irresistible “Dance With Somebody,” which could probably more accurately trace its point of references to the cusp of the ‘90s. Elsewhere on Monsters, the mid ‘80s still reign supreme. “Dream Away” filters in a whiff of that vague, new agey “worldbeat” flavor that wafted into so many ‘80s hits. “Brooklyn” is pure, airy, soft-serve blue-eye-soul. Tyler’s vocal ascensions lift “Last Train” into the night sky, and speaking of, “Night Sky” employs the old vocoder trick over syncopated electronic blippery. The slick guitar solo in “Seventeen” perfectly captures the way ’80s pop hits would often toss in some crossover fretboard flash a la Eddie Van Halen on “Beat It,” still I don’t know quite how I feel ’bout Lyle’s musing (after a couple beers, granted) about wanting to possibly dip into hair metal and power ballads with future Midnight endeavors.
“There’s something freeing about people coming to the music and not knowing if it’s kind of a joke,” he laughs. “Like, there’s some kind of aesthetic distance that we get to play with, and we get to kind of exist on both sides. People aren’t sure if we’re being ironic with what we’re doing, or if we’re totally being genuine and open-hearted. And there’s something really nice about [that]. Because nostalgia exists the way that it [does], a lot of people are so connected to these sounds, and… we can, I think, at once be writing classic song structures, something that I think is compelling and emotionally interesting, and at the same time, be adding this kind of ironic layer or commentary about an era of history that happened, you know, 20 years ago, 30 years ago…It’s an interesting exercise in people’s perception of what music is.”
Photo by Nicole Mago.