The Midnight: "Synthwave is a really fun sandbox, but it's not the only sandbox that I want to play in"

The Midnight
(Image credit: Jimmy Fontaine)

Join us for our traditional look back at the stories and features that hit the spot in 2022

Best of 2022: On 7 May 2022 The Midnight sold out Brixton Academy in London. A 4,921 capacity venue that's often used as a landmark in a band's trajectory as they head to significantly bigger things. 

For the people who had been following the duo since their 2014 EP Days Of Thunder it made perfect sense, and was even perhaps overdue, but Tim McEwan and Tyler Lyle had also done it without any mainstream radio airplay or much media support. The reason for their success was simpler. 

The appeal of the Midnight's music is just too wide not to succeed at a higher level. A consistently strong output of EPs and albums has seen them viewed first as new leaders in the ever-burgeoning synthwave scene, then transcending it. New album Heroes is a case in point; mixing arena rock, AOR and even jazz into a nostalgic '80s blend. Heroes is made to be sung back by big crowds. And that's just as well.

The Midnight are an anomaly in the retrowave world in that they are a true live band proposition onstage. Danish-born, former pop producer, McEwan takes the drum stool and Atlanta native and singer-songwriter Lyle performs guitar duties as well a lead vocals as part of an expanded touring lineup. The result is one of the most successful fusings of rock and electronic music with pop songcraft we've heard in a long time. 

"It's going to be so interesting to see what people's responses are," ponders Tim when he reflects on Heroes. "My girlfriend says, 'That sounds so different from your previous work.' And I'm thinking, actually, I don't think it does it. For me, it's very much just a lot of extra guitars, but very '80s. It's taking '80s metal and anthemic rock into Midnight land."

Midnight land is really something the duo's fans celebrate and escape in; as Tim and Tyler will explain, Heroes is the final part of an ambitious album trilogy that began with 2018's Kids and continued on 2020's more experimental Monsters. 

Join as we draw together our extended interviews with Tyler and Tim to explore the origins and sounds behind The Midnight and the new album. 

  • Heroes is released on 9 September and you can preorder it from The Midnight's website, and also buy tickets to their September / October US tour

It'll never stop being surreal

Tim McEwan

How much of a landmark did that Brixton Academy show feel?

Tim: "That was a moment. Actually, I think it coincided exactly with our 150th show, if I'm not mistaken. We played the [London] Roundhouse back in 2019 and that was our 100th show, which was kind of like, wow, the 100th show. And that was the biggest show ever that we'd played at the time; I think that place holds 2,800 or something like that. And we were almost sold out basically – a couple of 100 people from selling out fully. So we were pretty hyped about that then – and we were finishing out the Monsters album. 

"Then Brixton falling on the 150th show was kind of a weird little moment. I live in LA now but I grew up in Denmark, and I lived in London for four years too. My parents flew over from Denmark for that show and I went out to dinner with them before. And then we came back and I just saw the line, literally around the block. And it was like a snake eating its own tail. And that was that was a surreal moment. 

"It'll never stop being surreal. When I walked down the alleyway to go into the backstage area with my parents and people are saying, 'Hey, Tim!' and I'm like, how do these people know me!? It's still very surreal because we're sort of very micro-famous in a tiny room. But wherever I go in my daily life no one cares. And it's wonderful, very freeing. And I know Tyler feels the same way. So we're privileged to be kind of recognised by the people that really care and love what we do. And that's a privilege. But yeah, that was a moment for sure. 

Tyler: "I'd say after around 1,500 people, you you stop seeing individuals and you start seeing pockets of people. And as that grows, the vibe totally changes. You're not doing an intimate performance. You're not doing an underground rock show. You're trying to lift this massive room up a few feet off the ground. And it's fun, and I feel like it's taken me these three-ish years of touring to kind of be able to hold that kind of space. 

"It was incredibly rewarding and fun and energetic and all the things that we hoped it would be. We can't wait to come back."

It was three and a half years between putting out our first EP and playing our first show and our first real tour wasn't until six years after Tim and I met

Tyler Lyle

There's a sense this is only the beginning of the bigger shows you could play, but when you first started as a duo did you even have live shows in mind? Was that part of the ambition?

Tyler: "I met Tim, as a singer-songwriter, in 2012. I'd toured around the US by myself doing Americana singer-songwriter stuff. So playing live shows was always a part of my DNA. And it's a different kind of show. But yes, as The Midnight it only started as kind of a creative exercise. It was only because it found a fanbase and a community, that was very vocal about demanding more music, that that we we kind of kept the ball rolling and continued the project. 

"So it was never intended to be live. It was three and a half years between putting out our first EP and playing our first show and our first real tour wasn't until six years after Tim and I met. It's taken a few years to kind of really figure out what the live show looks like in a compelling way that its fun for the audience and fun for us. So yeah, we're all learning. And this is definitely kind of a transition stage for us."

It is a world you can almost disappear into

Tim McEwan

You sold out the Brixton Academy with no real mainstream media support. It proves that good songs will reach people, but there's this whole aesthetic with The Midnight too – it's a world you've created, and that must attract people?

Tim: "That's amazing to hear. I guess we didn't we didn't constantly consciously set out to do that with the first album Days Of Thunder – our EP, album, whatever you want to call it – in 2014, we didn't have this whole game plan. I don't think anyone has when they start a creative endeavour. But I think with [2018 album] Kids that's when the idea of an extended universe started taking shape. Then when we got to [2020 album] Monsters we realised we were creating this little world and laying little easter eggs and things that call back to other songs. And the Kids mall. 

"That was when we started having fun connecting things. And it's so beautiful and wonderful to hear people like yourself picking up on that, and responding to that.

"It is a world you can almost disappear into, it's almost an escapism in itself. And you know, we need that. I think we need that more now more than ever during these tumultuous times."

On that note, Heroes seems very open-hearted. It's hopeful, and that feels quite refreshing right now. But what happens at the start of a writing process with you guys – do you have that vision of where you want to go?

Tim: "That's amazing, thank you for saying that. It was very intentional. It's definitely a journey. This album Heroes was a journey more than any of the other albums. We tend to start with an idea. I think Days of Thunder was just us kind of doing our thing and I think I spent about a year on that EP just to figure out what the sound was and really dial it in. To get to a place where I felt confident enough about going in that direction. And so it was unlearning – I used to produce for other people and you have to unlearn all your sensibilities – 'Oh, this has got to work for top 40 radio, what are the labels gonna say to this?' 

"That doesn't apply a when you're your A) your own artist and B) in synthwave I feel you can do whatever the hell you want. And that that was really freeing but I had to unlearn a lot of things. And then [2016 album] Endless Summer was me trying to really confidently lean into that aesthetic. I thought about it as '80s Miami Beach or Venice Beach; really wistful, nostalgic, bittersweet and hopeful. And then Nocturnal was to me was, a lot of nods and inspiration from The Terminator and driving around Los Angeles at night in Downtown LA. The album cover is very neon-drenched.

We realised pretty quickly that we wouldn't have time to create the very ambitious record that we wanted and thought, well let's slow-play our hand a little bit

Tyler Lyle

"Nocturnal was a concept, not a concept album, but a concept in that it was a very specific sliver of emotion. And Kids was definitely the first time where [we planned a concept album]. I remember we had just finished Nocturnal and I called Tyler. I was like, 'I kind of have an idea for the next album and I want to call it Kids. I pitched him and I said, 'It's sort of what I imagine what the kids from Stranger Things are doing when they're not out chasing monsters. What are they doing? It's BMX bikes, it's ET, it's that movie Explorers, and obviously Stranger Things'. It very much lives in that universe. 

"And he said to me on that phone call, 'That sounds great and by the way, me and my wife are pregnant with our first child'. So it was a very poignant moment. And then really this sort of Heroes trilogy grew out of not being able to fit enough songs onto Kids, A) because of time, but also B) it became too [much] with all the work on my shoulders, and deadlines and stuff. We ended up saying, well there's more to the story. And then that became Monsters. And now Heroes."

Tyler: In fact, I think the bridge for Explorers was written in the in the delivery room. Tim was on such a deadline. But we realised pretty quickly that we wouldn't have time to create the very ambitious record that we wanted and thought, well let's slow-play our hand a little bit. Get methodical and tell one story really well over the course of, gosh, three years… four years."

It's a risk to be so earnest and so open-hearted, because a lot of that earnestness was protected by layers of kind of this electronic production before

Tyler Lyle

Tim: "We struggled with the title for Heroes for a couple of years. And Tyler wanted to call it Paradise for a long time. And he had the themes, and the stories mapped out very early on. Then I brought my sort of sonic palette to it, and we played together, but it became Heroes very late in the game. I think he texted me early one morning. And he said, 'I've got the title; it's Heroes, let's go out with dignity', or something like that. I was like, 'That's fucking it!'.  

Tyler: "In terms of it being open-hearted, it's something that we need. That's why we kind of leaned into that. And it's a risk, I think, to be so earnest and so open-hearted, because a lot of that earnestness was protected by layers of kind of this electronic production before. And you really kind of had to dig to find that, that warm centre. 

"But the production [of Heroes] is a little more stripped back for a Midnight record. And yeah, we'll see how the fans take it. For us, it's what we needed to hear."

I was listening to a lot to Def Leppard and Mutt Lange production

Tim McEwan

Stylistically, there's different genres in the mix of Heroes, as is often the case with you guys.

"We had been talking about kind of playing around in the hair metal world for a few years, like wouldn't be fun to make a hair metal album. And I was listening to a lot to Def Leppard and Mutt Lange productions. And not all of that is hair metal, but it's heavy rock. It's just super well-written, guitar-driven rock songs, but they're very poppy, Which is what I love about Def Leppard and Bryan Adams; big anthem songs, and Van Halen obviously comes to mind too. 

"And so it didn't start out like that. We had talked about the hair metal thing, and then I had a bunch of track ideas, Tyler had a bunch of song ideas in early January 2021. And we kind of got together virtually; he lives in Atlanta, I'm here in LA, so we were sort of sending tracks and ideas to each other. And at first, before the hair metal thing, it was like, ok, I've got it. It's late night, smooth jazz from the '90s – West Coast jazz, lots of saxophone and then wistful, walking the streets at night. Maybe not as hard as Nocturnal but smoother.

"There's a there's a TV show from the '80s called Midnight Caller which, which is the aesthetic, and the theme song was totally giving me inspiration. And then it went from that to blog house actually; a lot of the sort of electronic music that came out from Europe, and especially France in the mid 2000s; Kavinsky and Justice, a lot of that coming out online. And really, Tyler says that that's what he kind of found synthwave through – he feels like it came out of that movement. 

"I think it was a combination. It was that and then on the American side, and some British titles. Movie scores from John Carpenter in the '80s inspired young kids. And so then we were dabbling in that and then we had a whole idea that it could be that, metal and then blog house and then some smooth jazz… and it was such a journey. And then we became emo. Because we'd been wanting to do an emo album for a while too… so it's like there's never enough time! 

"A little over a year ago, we were in an Air B&B up in north California. I think this was May of 2021. And there's a song on Heroes called Heart Worth Breaking. It's a ballad and the track side was me taking inspiration from grunge and '90s rock – Smashing Pumpkins and things like that for the guitar tones. And Tyler wrote the top line very inspired by Juice Wrld. So it can come from everywhere. 

The key to this thing is an open heart and it's inviting everyone to the party; we didn't want anyone to feel left out

Tim McEwan

"We were just up there, enjoying our food, taking edibles and watching cheesy horror movies from the '80s. But we really discovered where we wanted to go. Then the last trip was when I went to Atlanta a month later and really figured out that this needed to be big anthems and big songs. And exactly like you said, the key to this thing is an open heart and it's inviting everyone to the party; we didn't want anyone to feel left out. I think if we need anything right now, as a society, it's inclusivity. It's the feeling that we need each other and, and we have to stay together, and we have to connect where we can. 

"So this was very much written with that in mind, and in that spirit of inviting everyone to the party, creating songs that are really meant to be sung at the top of your lungs at a Brixton show, with the 5000 other people, and then it becomes more than the sum of its parts, hopefully. 

"We feel that onstage and I think the audience feels that and I think it's been now a couple of years since we started touring. I think we really know the type of crowd we're playing to and what kind of songs work really well live and what kind of songs are fun to play. And the big songs that are inviting everyone to sing along. They're just so much more fun than something that's really navel gazey and just shoegaze and just very introverted. That's fine, but it's not the same doing it with with other people."

Tyler, I wanted to ask you about Avalanche, which has already been released as a single. Was fellow artist Jesse Frye was involved in the writing of that? 

Tyler: "So Jessie reached out was like, 'Hey, do you want to write something together? and I said, 'Totally'. And a few months went by, and she sent something. And a few more months went by, and it was just kind of sitting in my inbox. And I had this experience. 

"So in this house [where I'm in speaking to you now in Atlanta], I lived in this house when I was in my early 20s, I broke up with a lady and it was a bad enough breakup that I moved across the country to Los Angeles where I met Tim, and the person that would become my wife, and got a career and all that stuff. And then I moved back [to Atlanta] in 2019. And during the pandemic, I was on a run, and I saw the ex girlfriend, she was nine months pregnant. And, and I just had this moment of realisation that the end of love is not indifference, the end of love is love, everything kind of works together in its own time; to tell the right story in the right kind of way. 

"So I felt very inspired after going out on a run and seeing my ex girlfriend nine months pregnant. I knew that she'd gotten married. And I just felt such goodwill towards the world, like everything works in the way that it's supposed to. So, I sat down, I cut up the track – Jessie's first line, 'You are a whisper in the night',  I thought that was just beautiful. And I just I wrote the whole thing very quickly. Put it in a different kind of sonic space than Jessie had it but she was the initial spark, because she was the obligation on my hard drive to [say], 'Okay, I need to write a song'. And then I felt inspired to write it. 

So that's how that song came about and it happened relatively quickly. And Tim had this kind of anthemic rock loop going and we just could never figure out how to how to make it work. And then we changed gears halfway through the process and it became the song that it is now.

The heroes are all of these different people just trying to struggle to survive and live their lives as best that they can

Tyler Lyle

The final two tracks on Heroes are really moving, and they sound like linked passages of music that flow. How did they come together? 

Tyler: "Yes, Photograph was written when I was in New York – probably 2015 / 2016. We wrote it very quickly. And it was always just this moving kind of thing – 'profiles and courage / name by name'. And as we were about halfway through the process, kind of vetting songs were like, 'Yeah, that's what this is about'. The heroes are all of these different people just trying to struggle to survive and live their lives as best that they can. And that felt like an appropriate final track. 

"Around that time, shortly after writing in the cabin, and this would have been early 2021, Tim had had been writing some piano parts. So he wrote that little track [Energy Never Dies, It Just Transforms] and he played it. And we're both fans of Jon Hopkins. It felt right to have an ambient song kind of lead us out of the trilogy. It's a pretty sparse record in terms of instrumentals, unlike records we've done in the past. So it felt like a moving way to kind of ground everything in a headspace."

The Midnight

Recording Heroes at the Sound Factory studios in LA (pictured clockwise from left): Royce Whittaker,  Tim McEwan, Tyler Lyle and Lelia Broussard. (Image credit: Justin Little)

How were the musicians from the live lineup involved in recording?

Tim: "In the production, we had both Lelia [Broussard bass, guitar and keys] and Royce Whittaker [guitars, live MD], and then also Nikki Flores who we've worked with in the past. They were all part of the production. Royce laid down a tonne of guitars for this album. We spent a whole week in the studio with him laying down guitars, dialling in tones and having a tonne of fun with that. 

"And both Lelia and Nikki Flores, they both co-wrote a little bit on some songs and also helped on the vocal production side. So essentially, it was taking some of that burden off of me on the production and helping to edit vocals and recording Tyler. So they were very much in involved with the process, but really sort of behind the scenes because they're all accomplished singer / musicians / songwriters/ producers in their own right. 

"Nikki, before we collaborated with her, the synthwave community knew her and she's been a working songwriter and producer for mainstream artists for the past 10,15 years. She's worked with Christina Aguilera and JoJo and a tonne of people. She's just super, super talented and always a fun co-writer and co-collaborator. And the same goes for Royce and Lelia. So it wasn't that we just had everyone play their instruments. It was more in the production and the writing phase."

I will spend days on a snare drum or kick

Tim McEwan

The relationship between your two worlds is always carefully balanced in your music, and especially this record. Did that dynamic take time to develop? 

Tim: "It didn't really take time actually. It's always been very much me on the production, colouring In the world, and Tyler bringing his whole background of talents for poetry and writing. And obviously his voice; his tonality, bringing that and jumping into my sonic world.  

"I come from the pop world; producing pop music. But I listen to so many things. And I feel that when I met Tyler, I unlocked something in me and I didn't know I had; a starving artist inside of me because I was at a place in my own career where I needed to express certain feelings, emotions, colours, chord progressions and voicings that I felt like I couldn't in mainstream radio music. 

"So it was always very much him bringing either an almost finished written song and then me massaging that, maybe tweaking some melodies, or a really kind of rough idea where I would just completely take it apart and play around with it. Then I build my music around him. 

"We have very clear separation between what we do. I think maybe I have slightly more opinions in terms of the top line, or some lyrics. It's never a case of like, 'No, that's not good enough – back to the drawing board, Tyler.' It's never like that. It's more of a case of, what if we did this? What if he pushed in this direction – sort of an overall kind of bird's eye view. But we very much enjoy that. 

"He's a master of his domain and to some extent, I try to be a master of mine. It makes for a freeing collaboration. Tyler doesn't really care about what kind of snare drum I use, he's not worried about that, where that's what I'm very much focused on, and how that all works. I will spend days on a snare drum or kick and, and all that, but he cares about the bigger picture. And I care also about the bigger picture, but in different ways. 

With synthwave fans there are the people that just want the fast cars and the neon; the palm trees and the skylines. And that's fine, but I think most people are looking for more things in music

Tim McEwan

"It was always like that, and I think where it maybe changed a little bit, was when we really started touring in around 2018. In the fall, we had our first proper tour, and then 2019 was a full year of touring. It became our primary source of income and a way for Tyler to put food on his family's table and all that stuff. And so that shifted everyone's priorities and it really became the main thing. 

"As a result of touring and playing these shows, playing these songs live… I think it took Tyler a while, it took a while for us all to kind of really understand what it was we were doing it but also, it gave him a clearer understanding of the types of people that come to our shows. 

"With synthwave fans there are the people that just want the fast cars and the neon; the palm trees and the skylines. And that's fine, but I think most people are looking for more things in music. And I think we had to play the shows for Tyler to realise, oh, these people are also coming for what I have to bring to the table. And I think that was necessary and needed because I knew that the whole time. I had been running our socials and seeing how people responded to these songs. And it's been really great to see Tyler just really fully embracing that world that is essentially outside what he grew up listening to. 

"Synthwave and electronic music was something he was introduced to later in his grown up life or his late teens or whatever. And whenever I'd say, 'What if I put your voice through a vocoder?' he goes nuts. He's like, 'Hell yes, let's do it!' He's one of the most adventurous artists I've ever worked with. And it's very freeing. 

"So there's zero fear about being protective about one's own instrument or anything like that. And I think we very much look out for each other's interests in this partnership when it comes to that. It was always a really sort of a clear delineation but to answer your question, as brief as I can, touring, obviously, really put things in clear perspective. And his voice became louder in a good way. Like it needed to come up and it's a 50/50 thing. So I always wanted Tyler to feel like you can be yourself here and obviously he can and knows that and that's that's very important. And the same goes for me.

"And then now I think this is the most like pop-rock sounding album we've done and I think we'll always keep vacillating between trying something new and then coming back to where we came from, and then trying something new further away. And then we come back to where we come from and that's the fun of it. So we'll see how people respond. Sorry, I'm incapable of doing short answers!"

Tyler: "Tim is in charge of the sonics. How it works is I write a lot of songs, and The Midnight and what we're doing conceptually happens in the editing process. So this is the third album of the Kids arc. We call it a trilogy. But we wanted to tell the story of growing up. How do you become yourself? 

"Sonically on this record, Tim had to make a lot of discoveries. He had to watch a few Mutt Lange documentaries, and things like that, but for me it comes at a good time. I'm a dad, I'm growing up and I'm learning how to kind of transition out of that starving artist / early 20s up-until-dawn mentality and learn how to be an adult. And I think that that's kind of what Heroes is about; learning to take the the projections of what you thought and make the best of what you have going forward. In light of maybe the projections not not happening." 

Our first 20-something shows sold out. By the time we played our first live show, it was already much bigger than any any musical project I'd ever been a part of

Tyler Lyle

What was the journey like for you as a guitar player, Tyler? Obviously the guitar isn't the driving instrument in The Midnight as it was when you were playing solo singer-songwriter shows. 

Tyler: "Our first 20-something shows sold out. So by the time we played our first live show, it was already much bigger than any any musical project I'd ever been a part of. So I felt like we were an aeroplane trying to take off on a very short runway. So I put a lot of pressure on myself; learning how to be able to be that kind of frontman, not just the storyteller in a room full of 150 people, but with the lights and the production and the the electronic kick drum. 

"It felt a lot more to me like when I was playing church music as a teenager, when I first started to learn how to play the guitar, my dad was the music minister at a small Protestant church in the US. And it really felt more like that, like we're inviting some kind of spirit of the room in, rather than just telling stories. So that was the first kind of kernel to unlock, because somewhere in my brain, I knew how to do that, but the second kind of door to unlock to learn to play the part of the frontman out of generosity towards the audience. 

"The first couple years live, I was just so self conscious; what should I do? What am I doing with my hands? I'd feel so awkward – is this me singing is or is this somebody else. But all that kind of ended and it became more fun. 

"When you realise that it's all about the experience, you just kind of put everything into that moment as a form of generosity to the fan who's had a hard week and just wants to hear some music in the company of other people. And it's taken a long time to kind of get to that place. But the shows are much more fun. And I think they're better because of it too."

When someone showed me Cubase back in 1997, my mind was blown. You could be your own band? I geeked out

Tim McEwan

Tim, you have this background in production but you play drums for The Midnight live. What's your history as a drummer?

Tim: "I started a drummer before I got into production. About a year ago for the fall tour I went from playing drum pads and playing synths while being upfront to being where I'm more comfortable with my main instrument, the drums. Even though it's been over 20 years since I played.

"So I spent the last year or so getting my drum chops back. And it was really only with the help of our MD and guitarist Royce Whittaker where he was able to really do it in a way where we could fuse the sort of energy from live drums, but also using triggers on the kick in the snare to really add that punch and that electronic kind of big sound, without it sounding like a garage band – which was very important for me. 

"That was the hard balance is using those elements. But on the records, it's still very much programmed and samples. I might use live samples, but it's all sample-based."

So back in the day, were you playing in rock bands as a drummer?

"That's a very gracious term, if you want to call 14 year old me in high school playing with two other kids a rock band [laughs]. It was us trying our best but when I was about 12 it started to kick in and I could understand chords and melodies. I had a really strong ear and so I had a fairly good understanding of chord structures and things like that. 

"So I would start to direct my bandmates. I would tell the guitarist, 'Hey, I came up with this thing last night and could you play this and then could the bass play those notes." And then I'd jump on the drums and essentially start producing us, unbeknownst to myself. And so it was when someone showed me Cubase back in 1997, my mind was blown. You could be your own band? I geeked out."

Is the studio your happy place?

Tim: "Absolutely. I started as a drummer, I was always planning to be a drummer. I played for 10 years and then when I was 17/18, I was introduced to production. Growing up I got introduced to a lot of '80s pop rock like Toto, Michael McDonald, Phil Collins and that kind of stuff. Then getting introduced to Missy Elliott and Blackstreet, Teddy Riley, and Timberland and Usher, Jermaine Dupree and just hearing all these sort of r&b and hip hop producers that were doing things with samples that were just blowing my mind. 

"So that was really much more interesting to me, I felt like you could make sounds that you just couldn't do on a live drum kit. And so that opened up the door. I knew I wanted to be a producer. 

"It's kind of a full circle thing coming back to the drums now, after such a long time. It's the instrument I feel most comfortable with in terms my chops and my technical abilities. But where I feel most at home is absolutely the discovery, the production and the creation process in the studio. It's my happy place for sure."

The Midnight

(Image credit: FilmMagic/FilmMagic for Outside Lands)

A lot of these songs existed previously in different forms

Tyler Lyle

Which of these songs came from a more singer-songwriter place in terms of structure, where they were more formed when they came to Tim?

Tyler: "It's kind of a binary album in the sense that we have the kind of big shouty anthems like Heartbeat, Avalanche and Change Your Heart Or Die. And then we have the ballads, like Heart Worth Breaking, Aerostar and Place Of Her Own.

"So the way that Tim and I work, most of these things had a former life is some sketch on my Evernotes app. Tim put together 17 to 20 rough electronic loop demos and and we just kind of went back and forth about the story that we wanted to tell. 

"A lot of these songs existed previously in different forms. Souvenir was probably the most finished, and Golden Gate was [also] a song that I put out on my solo record [The Floating Years] a few years ago. But they sound totally different and mean something different in the context of the songs [on Heroes] than they did on on my record when it came out."

There's some great clean modulation on the guitars in these songs, alongside some hard rock tones, how did you approach the guitar sounds in the studio?

Tim: "That was me and Royce for five days at a little studio in Silver Lake. We had about ten different guitars – he brought all his and borrowed some, plus they had some at the studio. We brought different guitar amps; he had the original Rockman amp, the portable amp that Def Leppard used a lot for Hysteria. I think it was designed by the guitarist from Boston [Tom Scholtz]. You can buy it for about 500 bucks and it sounds killer, both for distortion and the clean guitar sound; that Def Leppard sound.

We had the original pre-'85 Boss Chorus pedal, made in Japan, that had the right sound – we spent a long time dialling in those tones, and I spent so long in the editing

Tim McEwan

"We used the [Music Man signature] Petrucci guitar for that clean sound and Royce also had a Strat for a lot of the cleans. We were going hard on nerding out about how these people got that tone. We had the original pre-'85 Boss Chorus pedal, made in Japan, that had the right sound – we spent a long time dialling in those tones, and I spent so long in the editing. 

"Every take Royce would record, we'd have a dry take and we would have a stereo take of the Rockman, and then we would have a stereo take of a Marshall [JCM800]. Then we would have everything going through an outboard chorus. So we'd have five tracks per take to edit through and figure out the blend of those. It was a bit of a nightmare but it was worth it."

Tyler:  "We use a lot of really good analogue gear, including the tri chorus for the guitar. And we recorded through a lot of different amps. Tim had 150 tracks of guitar and had to say, 'Well, how do we combine this? How do we get rid of this?'

What about the vocal chain? 

Tyler: "The thing that I recorded on my own here  [Tyler now has a small studio near his home] was was my vocal chain. I sing through a Soyuz 017 tube mic into a Rupert Neve Designs Shelford channel into an LA-2A into my UA Apollo."


(Image credit: Future)

A lot of the early 'guitar solos' were Tim playing on the synth. I'm not a virtuosic guitarist so I'm glad that we have one of those in the band

Tyler Lyle

How do you tend to approach your guitar tone in the live mix for shows, Tyler?

Tyler: "Royce is given a wide berth and he is more of a like a classic Steve Vai tones, lots of compression, lots of sustained things like that. So I'm kind of trying to stay out of his way. The overdrive pedal that I'm bringing [out on tour] is an old Marshall Gov'nor. It's the first pedal that Marshall ever released from like 1988 / '89. The Bluesbreaker that was made famous by John Mayer was the second generation of this but the Gov'nor is the first . I think I can make it sound beefy and clean. 

"I'm gonna bring the Strymon Volante and the BlueSky for delay and reverb. So I think that most of my tones will be kind of medium gritty, or clean and shimmery. So I'm just trying to stay out of Royce's way. I know my shapes on the board and I I'm getting better at at you know, palm mutes and things like that."

And in terms of guitars you're not protective of that area when it comes to recording, Tyler? 

Tyler: "I mean Royce is a beast. Why drive a Ford Fiesta when you can drive a Porsche? Royce is a madman and my history with the guitar is mainly on the acoustic guitar. I'm a rhythm guitar player, who can who can eke out a solo every once in a while, but I'm not adding anything to the picture. A lot of the early 'guitar solos' were Tim playing on the synth. I'm not a virtuosic guitarist so I'm glad that we have one of those in the band."

But you definitely like your guitar gear - especially pedals.

Tyler: "Oh yeah. It's funny that you're asking about pedals right now, because I'm about to do a deep, deep cleanse of a lot of the old ones. We've been playing through Kempers up until now. And they're, they're great because they're very light and they're almost there sonically. But the last couple tours, I was just profiling an amp and I had my pedalboard running through the Kemper and it works pretty well. But now I'm learning the Neural DSP [Quad Cortex] user interface and it's so cool. It's kind of perfect. 

"I nerd out on on multi-stage overdrives and Neural DSP gets a B plus in the overdrives. It gets an A plus in basically everything else, except for like really kind of algorithmically detailed reverbs. But everything in the middle I think is going to be Neural DSP. So I'll have a much smaller board this time. 

"I might have some fun [pedals], like the Fairfield Circuitry Shallow Water, just weird modulation pedals, things like that. Things no emulator programme would ever be able to kind of do. I think I'll be able to have more fun with those weird pedals. Chase Bliss is releasing their mass version of Generation Loss, which is a kind of like a VHS tape emulation pedal. It just adds all these crinkly weird textures to your parts. So those are the things that I get really excited about. But yeah, the pedalboard is getting a redux and mainly the hard work will be being done by the Neural DSP Quad Cortex this time around."

We have a saying backstage; it's good when it's fun, and it's fun when it's good. So pedals just make it more fun for me

Tyler Lyle

Do you like the freedom of being able to maybe bring an effect in the set one night that you might not bring in on another?

Tyler: Yes, the one thing that I didn't like about the Kemper was these are my five presets or whatever, and every room sounds different. Each room requires a little bit more or a little bit less delay and nobody in the audience is going to hear it but I hear the differences. So it's nice to be able to just turn the shimmer up just a little bit or turn the turn the echoes up just a little bit depending on the room size. 

"So it's also is just one of those extra conversations that you have in your head, you know, does this chorus sound right? Do I do I need to tweak it just a little bit? It's another creative palette that you get to play with onstage. 

"I saw The War On Drugs recently. And it seemed like their touring schedule has been brutal. We share the same booking agent in the UK actually, but you see [singer / guitarist /mainman] Adam Granduciel's wall of gear – every other song he's got a new guitar. You can just tell that he's taking a tonne of pleasure in the gear, in the journey of messing with this modulation sound ,of messing with this reverb and getting this overdrive sound just right on stage. And you can you can see him getting tired and retreating back to the Marshall amp behind him and just losing himself in that. So it's it's just another narrative that you can enjoy that nobody else is gonna care or see, but you've got to make it be an end in and of itself in all the ways that you can. 

"So interacting with the audience is fun, playing with pedals is fun and interacting with the band is fun. You know we're there to have fun and we have a saying backstage; it's good when it's fun, and it's fun when it's good. So pedals just make it more fun for me."

I noticed on Instagram that you got a Fender Deluxe Reverb too.

Tyler: "Yes I've got a few singer songwriter shows booked and I've got a beautiful new Gibson Hummingbird acoustic that I put a pickup in and I'm gonna play through the Deluxe Reverb. It's just such a cool sound and it sounds it's so classic, but it's so textural and just a real reverb. It's great – I love it. 

"Also for recording, I've got a Kemper but I've also got a Milkman which is Tim Marcus. He kind of does the boutique version of the Fender Deluxe and the Princeton but it's a rack-mounted unit. I have that in my studio as well so I don't overdrive everything and wake the neighbours."

You're using a Fender Noventa Strat with P-90s live with The Midnight?

Tyler: "Yes, the P-90s are beastly. I have one guitar tuned standard and one guitar tuned up half a set, for whatever reason Tim likes to have a lot of songs in C#. So that's the guitar that's tuned up half a step. 

"I also have a US Fender Tele, it's awesome. I often joke with my lighting guy that if he ever sets me on fire with the lights I would buy him dinner. But he set that guitar on fire so it's got a big singed hole in the back that always makes me smile when I see it. 

"So I've got that and there's also a Mayones Legend that I play. It's a luxurious ride. I love it – the fretboard is so fast and so clean. And so it's got the humbuckers, it's great."

Once you engage the binaural function on the Super 6 it can do things in different sides of the ear, it's like stereo on crack

Tim McEwan

Tim, Heartbeat has that Van Halen Jump sound on the keyboard intro – is that an Oberheim?

Tim: "I wish I had the Oberheim Xa, I know the intro sound from Jump is played on that. I have an OB-6 but it doesn't have enough voices to sound think like that. What I used is a synth I bought last year, it's from a company in England called Udo and it's called the Super 6 – it's incredible. 

"It's the first binaural synth and it's essentially built to feel and sound like a mix between the Juno 106 and the Jupiter 8. It technically has 12 voices, but once you engage the binaural function it can do things in different sides of the ear, it's like stereo on crack. And that's what I made that sound on. It's such a beautiful synth and it took me a while to wrap my head around it because I'm a bit of a technophobe, so I get a little bit paralysed by all the choices."

Read more

Tim mentioned you've got into modular synths in the last couple of years, Tyler?

Tyler: Yeah, since the pandemic I needed a challenge and I was already watching so many pedal review videos. Knobs [YouTube channel] , Scott, is a guy who lives in Toronto and he made just the best pedal review videos that I've ever seen. And then he had a six-part series called Why To Modular. And I saw it and I thought, I need to learn this. I'm in a synthwave band, the analogue synths are totally Tim's world and I don't don't know anything about this. And it felt like a hard, good creative exercise to jump into and yes, I'm playing my first show with a modular synth next week in Florida, 

"I've got five solo folk shows and and I have the modular and the acoustic guitar and they they don't belong in the same room on the same stage at all. But it's incredible fun creating this instrument from scratch and asking, what does it need to do? How does it need to work? Well, you kind of get to decide the parameters of it which means you need to know a lot more about current voltage and modulation and amplification… and all of these things that I'm late to the party on. 

"It's been it's been a lot of fun. It's been chaotic and expensive. But I've learned a tonne and I think we're gonna bring it on on the road with us this fall in some easier lifting kind of ways. Not bringing the full rack but but a small little skiff. I think it would be fun to mess with some delays and gate some some reverbs, shimmers and things like that."

Could that end up feeding into the writing dynamic between you two? 

"Maybe, I think it's best kind of either in the lane of techno DJing or ambient. My setup is more in the ambient world. And it's great but I find generative synthesis way more interesting than sequencing on Ableton. Which would be the easier way to write songs. 

"So yes, to be decided, but I always have my little Zoia pedal backstage, I'm always building synthesisers, it's just good to kind of go through the process of knowing how filters work, and LFOs work and all of these component parts that I never really paid a lot of attention to. It just makes it more fun to be able to have an OB-6 or a Prophet onstage and be able to do more fun things with it. So as a writing tool, it's less interesting. But it's really fun to get really deep really quickly, in ways that you can't on your DAW alone."

The Midnight

(Image credit: Medios y Media/Getty Images)

With us, we we have to feel like we're challenging ourselves

Tim McEwan

Are there cliches that you hear in synthwave? Are they even cliches or just signature traits? 

Tim: "I that's a good question. That's a good framing, because I think cliches are only cliches for a reason because they become synonymous of a thing, or they become overused. But the reason they're overused is because they sound cool, or they work and so there's always truth to that somehow. 

"My broader view of synthwave is it's a really fun sandbox, but it's not the only sandbox that I want to play in. And it's a very limited sandbox. I'm by no means comparing synthwave to dubstep, but in the same way as dubstep, that very broad popular version of dubstep that kind of blew up 10 or so years ago, I know that it's a much deeper style and genre but the restraints of the brostep became its downfall. It's like, alright, wait for the drop. And then it's just like a bunch of super harsh squashed noises. I understand that's a punk kind of attitude, which I'm all for, but once you're stuck, you're stuck in a style that you can't move out of, then that style dies. It has to evolve. 

"With us, we we have to feel like we're challenging ourselves a little bit and ultimately I think with Monsters, we were challenging ourselves but also the listener to go, 'Is this synthwave?' I don't know. I don't think we have an answer. If you if you think it's synthwave, great. If you don't think it is, that's also great. It can be whatever you want it to be. 

"But I think in synthwave, yes there's a rolling bass and then those types of wrong beats at 95 BPM, or whatever that is. But again, having said that, if it's done right, it's awesome. I love it. And I will keep doing that, because I think it's such a groove. So that could be a cliche to some people, but also, if you're doing it really right, and it is really well mixed, and it's good sound choices, then it's just a killer track. So, you know, I don't really care so much about what's considered cliche or not. I think it's more fun to subvert that sometimes."

You guys transcend the synthwave tag in many ways, but it's definitely part of your identity. It's a style that seems to resonate with music fans across genres – drawing listeners from rock, metal, to pop and electronic music. The '80s were obviously a time of huge development in music production, but why do you think people gravitate to this nostalgic style of music? 

Tim: "I think personally, we yearn for something. In this day and age, we yearn for something that harkens back to that points to a more innocent time, in our eyes. In all reality, the '80s were far from innocence. You know, there was a lot of stuff going, a lot of turmoil while Reagan's America did not work out like they said it would.

"An answer could be that when we talked about doing kids I was saying, ET and all that stuff; it's about fun and kids on their bikes and the hopefulness. And Tyler went, 'Ah, yes, the failed promise of capitalism in the '80s'. Great let's also do that and that's what you hear in our song Wave, one of the first songs on Kids. I built the track to be kind of wistful and hopeful and uplifting, fun and youthful – just sort of innocent. About video games and stuff, but then I peppered it with this news footage; these clippings of people talking about video games like they're this new thing, and they were. But also Tyler's song and Tyler's lyrics are very cynical and really talking about the day and age we live in now. It's seeing the '80s, that time seen through the prism of today. And that's what's interesting. 

I think we live in a complex time and I think people yearn for a simpler time

Tim McEwan

"So to answer your question, I think we live in a complex time and I think people yearn for a simpler time. And I think that's why we're also seeing the synthwave, and optimism of the '80s is an example of that. But we also see people buying more vinyl and analogue photography; a lot of tangible things that aren't digital. We yearn for that, and we want to have something that feels tangible we can hold. Not just a file on a computer. So I think we need that. 

"I think that's why we take pictures on iPhones, and then use filters to make them look like they're analogue. Because we want that dust, we want that film grain, we want all the things we thought were 'mistakes' or errors back in the '80s and '90s. Then we got rid of them, and then it's all clean, and there's no character and that's what we yearn for."

Nostalgia as a theme, that's what this project is about

Tyler Lyle

Tyler: "It's a fantasy land that actually existed. You know, it doesn't exist in the way that we remember it. I was born in '85 and the gated snare, the early LinnDrum sounds, the synthesiser pads, the [Yamaha] DX7s; these were all ingredients in my subconscious. Walking around Kmart, the grocery stores, with my parents, in the late '80s. It was a part of myself. And you forget that until you hear that one sound that puts you back there. 

"It's like smelling something familiar. It's just it's tied to memory so quickly. And so that's mostly Tim's department, is to make it sonically hit your heart in the right kind of way. But nostalgia as a theme, that's what this project is about, and we don't call ourselves a synthwave band but people do and we're fine with that. But we think nostalgia is kind of the point; that's the network we're trying to crack with that. And so this idea of a discovery of origins, you know, the closer you get to certain themes, the closer you get to certain sounds; it's a hidden self that you didn't realise was in there. And it kind of hints at the fact that we are bigger than we think we are. There's more hidden in us than we can we realise. 

"So it's really about kind of poking holes in that hidden area that that we haven't had access to consciously, in decades. I also think it feels safer in a lot of ways. That's where we were when we were kids listening to Phil Collins and to Whitney Houston and Bruce Springsteen. We have connections with our parents and with the top 40 radio. I think it's comfort food for a lot of people."

  • The Midnight's album Heroes is released on 9 September and the band tour the US in September and October. Visit The Midnight for more info.  
Rob Laing
Guitars Editor, MusicRadar

I'm the Guitars Editor for MusicRadar, handling news, reviews, features, tuition, advice for the strings side of the site and everything in between. Before MusicRadar I worked on guitar magazines for 15 years, including Editor of Total Guitar in the UK. When I'm not rejigging pedalboards I'm usually thinking about rejigging pedalboards.