Interview with Midsummer

It was in a small record store in Denver, Colorado, that I was convinced by the store’s owner to listen to Midsummer’s first EP, Catch and Blur. The textured style of rock, filled with layered guitars, intricate rhythms, and poetic lyrics, was quite good, but it wasn’t until I saw the band play live in that same store that I was sold. Their next EP, Moon Shadow, was an immense work, a concept album that flowed and soared. I was eager to hear their next effort, again an EP, this time with friends Coastal.

A fan for several years, I had to get in touch with the guys from Midsummer and find out how they make such powerful music. Through e-mail, all four members of the band responded, telling us about their approach to songwriting, why playing live is so difficult, and how tough it is to be an independent band.

Delusions of Adequacy: Tell me about how Midsummer came to be and what changes have taken place in the band since you guys have been playing together.

Ryan: We met through various acquaintances and found we had a similar vision for the kind of music we wanted to make. Previous bands we were in had broken up or were in the process of dissolving, so we decided to start playing together, and the rest is a sordid history of murder, lies, and Jay joining the band.

DOA: I’ve heard your sound described as anything from Mogwai-esque soundscapes to shoegazer to textured indie rock. How would you describe your sound, and what influences do you guys bring together to create Midsummer’s unique sound?

Dale: We get asked that question a lot (all bands do…) and we usually respond by saying that we are a sum of all our parts; that is each person in the band has their own unique influences and perspectives, and Midsummer is a ‘melting pot’ of those different perspectives. I think that one of our greatest strengths is that we each write. When we are all bringing ideas to the table and contributing to the sum of our output, that is when we are at our best.

Ryan: I’ve noticed, as I’m sure you have, that most musicians bristle when they are described (or asked to describe themselves) with adjectives and/or categories. I think it’s an understandable response to not want your art to be lumped in with other people’s work or described by dime a dozen descriptors. However, I also understand the desire people have to put things in categories. My struggle to describe our sound doesn’t really flow out of this classic frustration, though. I really just find it difficult to describe music in words. Words like ‘ethereal’ or ‘textured’ are nice enough (and no disrespect to you for using them!), but that could be the description of a running brook in the forest. I don’t know that I’m any closer to understanding what an album is all about by reading music criticism. The best possible scenario is for someone to sit down and have a listen, and let the music bypass the need for descriptions, which is what’s occurring more often in this the Internet age. But to be perfectly honest, the other half of me finds what I just said to be total crap, especially since I love reading reviews. I guess there are no easy answers.

Jay: I think that we all hear something a little bit different in the sound we’re trying to create. Most of the time, this can mean that an individual’s vision of a certain song is compromised, but it always leads to a more unique, “Midsummer” sound. It can be a difficult writing process to go through, but worth it…most of the time anyway.

DOA: Your first two albums were self-released. Why did you choose to go the self-released route? Is that self-reliant streak likely to continue (although you worked with a label on your split with Coastal), or do you guys plan on seeking out larger label support?

Dale: At the beginning, it was really our only option. We are definitely very independent-minded; that is, we have VERY specific ideas about how all aspects of the band should be, from recording to artwork to packaging, etc… I know that whatever happens in the future we will strive to maintain that level of self-determination.

Jay: I think that this was mainly a product of necessity. We wanted to release our music and pretty much decided to do whatever it took to get it done. I think that if we’re still allowed our own discretion, we wouldn’t turn down outside help and resources.

DOA: Along those same lines, is it difficult for a band to self-release and self-promote their album as you guys have done, or is it something the band members enjoy doing?

Dale: We definitely enjoy making our own decisions, but it is a lot of work, especially when we are paying for everything ourselves.

Jay: I think that we really enjoy the process of recording and publishing, but we haven’t really figured out the promotion part of the equation yet.

Steve: Considering our financial resources are very limited, we find ourselves crippled in terms of touring, advertising, and recording when we feel it’s ideal to. So it can be very draining, because we can only realistically realize a portion of our goals. On the other hand, since we rely largely on word of mouth, to a certain degree we get to have more direct contact with the people who are interested in our music, either at shows or through the letters or e-mails people have to write us to obtain our music at all. So we’ve been able to befriend some people we may never have met if we had a big promoter or record store retail as an intermediary between us and fans.

DOA: Tell me about the latest release, the split EP, This Ageless Night, with Coastal. Are you guys good friends with Coastal? And how do you think your music worked with theirs?

Dale: We love Coastal. I really enjoy the transition between the two bands on This Ageless Night.

Ryan: This EP is the most straightforward thing we’ve done thus far. We really wanted to make a concise statement, especially after laboring for so long in the writing/recording process of Moon Shadow. It was nice to do some short songs for a change, although I don’t think we’d be satisfied making records like This Ageless Night every time. As for Coastal, we’ve known them for a while now, and they’ve become good friends. We’ve had the pleasure of performing with them several times in California and Utah, and it seemed like a logical extension to record the pairing since our music contrasted so nicely with theirs in a live setting.

Jay: I think that it was a good pairing, both in our music and personalities. There is a great amount of mutual respect between us.

Steve: I’m just proud to be on any CD with a track like “Sunbathers.” Plus, Torch is hot.

DOA: On that release, “Japanese Beetle” is one of the most unique and engaging instrumentals I’ve heard in a long time. It’s not often you hear keyboard-driven instrumentals have such vibrancy, especially in a rock forum. Give me the story behind that track.

Dale: We have gotten the most mixed reactions from that track. I’m glad you like it. I like it too. It started as a melody I was playing with on my computer, and slowly evolved as the band listened to it, critiqued it, made suggestions etc. Steve (a.k.a. ‘the enchanting wizard of rhythm’) added the percussion, which gave the track some much-needed energy.

Jay: It improved a lot after the rhythm intervention.

Steve: We wanted to maintain a certain chronological energy after “Silent Blue” before laying back a bit with “Till Human Voices Wake Us.” Hopefully “Japanese Beetle” accomplishes that. More than anything, it was a fun experiment to give us some practice with electronics and programming before incorporating them into our yet to be recorded full-length album.

DOA: On Moon Shadow, you guys seemed to be going for a more concept-based release, numbering the tracks just with numbers and using more poetic and intricate lyrics, while This Ageless Night seemed more traditional in terms of song structures (length and such). Tell me about that album (Moon Shadow) and the concept behind it, and do you plan to do more in that direction?

Dale: Moon Shadow is my favorite thing we’ve done. I think we might like to do some more ‘concept’ oriented material in the future, although we have no immediate plans to do so. Our full-length will be more unified than This Ageless Night or even Catch and Blur (the band’s first EP), but I don’t think it will be a ‘concept record’ in the way that Moon Shadow is.

Jay: Moon Shadow was fun to do because, having semi-mapped out the concept, we were each allowed to fill in a piece of the story. It was definitely the only time that we’ve taken such an extremely wholistic approach to an EP. I think that it taught us a lot that we can apply to recording the full-length, but on a different scale.

Ryan: The basic ideas behind Moon Shadow were to tell a story, both through the words and music, and to allow each member to have the opportunity to lend their unique creative voice through the sole writing of a song. It was an interesting experiment, because although we all knew the story going in, we weren’t sure how cohesive the final production would be. I think we succeeded for the most part, and learned a lot from the areas that didn’t quite work.

Steve: Moon Shadow is also my favorite. I feel it captures a side of our writing that has not been recorded too extensively, despite the fact that we’ve had numerous songs we perform (or have shelved) in the same vein.

DOA: What approach do you take in songwriting? Is it started by one person, or do you all contribute? And how important is it for you to get the lyrics (which read more like poetry than song lyrics) just right? They feel like a vital part to the songs.

Dale: We really do place a lot of importance on our lyrics. I appreciate your insights here, since I think that lyrics are often underestimated or undervalued by people who listen to rock/pop music. Personally I think that lyrics ARE a vital part of the songwriting process. Music is essentially another form of language, and if you are going to bother to ‘say something’ using words and music, you should do so with care, specificity, and deliberation. When words and music are combined as a form of communication (i.e. in a song) they basically become inextricable. I have a LOT of respect for people who can masterfully intertwine music and lyrics: Simon and Garfunkel, The Innocence Mission, Death Cab for Cutie… etc..

Jay: Usually one of us will have some ideas to bring to the band. Steve and Dale tend to have extremely detailed plans for a song, while Ryan and I tend to have a collection of parts. Either way, though, everything must be deconstructed and built up again both in the actual parts, structures, and melodies.

Steve: The thing I’ve always been most excited about in this band is that everyone writes and everyone contributes to each other’s songwriting. So the band is sort of a chemistry experiment that has created a substance or personality distinct from any of us as individuals, which could never happen again if band members were changed.

DOA: When I first heard you guys live, touring for Catch and Blur, you completely blew me away and sold me on the band completely. There was a vibrancy to your live sound that was extremely impressive, especially considering the intricacies of your music. Is it difficult to make the transition to a live setting, and how important is playing live to you guys?

Dale: Performing live is one of the biggest challenges for me. Our music is intricate, as you say, and I always want things to sound just right. In a live setting you can’t control things like you can in a studio, which can be difficult to deal with. At the same time, forcing myself to ‘let go’ in a live setting can be both moving and healthy. Our songs are often made to be their best by playing them live. Playing live exposes the weaknesses in our songs, and forces us to refine them.

Jay: It actually took me quite awhile to get comfortable with playing live. I didn’t have much experience with performing and I had to slightly alter my approach to the music. Basically, I’m teaching myself to rock. I try to think in terms of energy rather than precision. While accuracy is still important, I would rather sale the passion of what I’m playing than hit every note flawlessly.

Ryan: I go back and forth on this one. There is a great mystery to some bands that can be eroded with over-exposure, both in a live setting and in media. However, seeing an artist you really love perform live can be a transcendent experience. Sometimes I feel a strong desire to be onstage attempting to give people that feeling I’ve had a few times over the years. At other times I just want to spend a year in the studio crafting a record that will do more for people than seeing us live could ever do (unless we had 50 musicians performing with us). I would say it has been difficult to make the transition because we have a lot going on in our music, and we unfortunately don’t have access to an orchestra for performances. Perhaps we should contact the LA Philharmonic.

DOA: I’ve met several other people from around the country who were turned on to you the same way I was, through a tiny Denver record shop. Maybe it’s pure coincidence (and you can just say if it is), but has Double Entendre been an important source for exposure for you guys? Is that kind of grass-roots, word-of-mouth exposure common for the band?

Jay: That’s an easy “yes.” Paul (owner of Double Entendre) has been a terrific supporter.

Steve: Yes, in fact Paul’s support encouraged us to tour in the first place.

DOA: What bands have you guys been listening to lately? Anything to recommend?

Dale: I always tell people to listen outside of their usual habits/styles/scenes. I often find the greatest inspiration outside of ‘current’ rock music. Broaden your horizons. Lately I have enjoyed Aphex Twin, Led Zeppelin, Miles Davis, and classical Renaissance music (Palestrina and Victoria).

Ryan: Old Blue Note jazz (Hank Mobley, Cannonball Adderley), the Innocence Mission, Sigur Ros, Four Tet. Steve really enjoys the Go Go’s and Frankie Goes to Hollywood.

Jay: Lately I’ve been listening to Baroque-and-earlier choral music, but mostly Bach. It always goes back to Bach for me. I’ve also been trying to catch up on a lot of groups that are old standards for a lot of people, but relatively new finds for myself, such as The Flaming Lips and Blonde Redhead.

Steve: Noisy/mathy rock: Sonic Youth, Hella, Destroy All Nels Cline. Electronic: Kraftwerk, Squarepusher, Autecre, Ikue Mori, Neu!. Eastern music: The Master Musicians of Jajouka, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Symphonic: Bela Bartok, Igor Stravinsky, Beethoven, George Crumb. Free improvisation: John Zorn, Fred Frith, AACM, Zeena Parkins, etc. I’ve been very into Lauryn Hill recently. Also almost any traditional/free jazz from the 60s, and a variety of folk music. I’m obsessed with Don Peris’ album Ten Silver Slide Trombones.

DOA: Anything else you want to share?

Dale: I really like the new Iron & Wine CD. Brilliant lyrics.

Jay: There will be a full-length one day.

Steve: After tasting ginger, red bean, and green tea flavored ice creams, I’ve decided that the Japanese have far superior taste in the culinary arts over America’s overly-sugary-sweet mentality. This is no laughing matter.