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Middle Kids on Mixing Beauty with Power for 'Today We're the Greatest'

Returning with their second full-length album, Middle Kids have unveiled one of their most vulnerable, personal efforts to date with 'Today We're the Greatest'.

Back in 2016, it felt almost impossible to avoid Sydney’s Middle Kids. With a debut single like “Edge of Town”, it made sense that the trio of acclaimed musicians would suddenly find themselves on the receiving end of global praise. With the likes of Elton John complementing the group’s music, and appearances on US television seeing them become a household name overnight, it made sense that there could’ve been apprehension for both fans and band when it came to backing up this hype with a debut album.

However, when 2018’s Lost Friends was released, Middle Kids found themselves proving that they’re in it for the long haul, with a stellar album that fused variants of indie rock and pop together in such a way that tugged on the heartstrings and sent hips shaking. With an appearance in the ARIA top ten, and even a J Award for Australian Album of the Year, it was clear that Middle Kids were set to be a staple of Aussie music for many years to come.

While the next year brought with it their New Songs for Old Problems mini-album, so too did it provide relentless touring, the creation of new music, and the announcement that Hannah Joy (vocals, guitar) and Tim Fitz (bass, vocals, production) were expecting their first child. Though 2020 served as something of a year on hold, it didn’t take long for Middle Kids to return with new single “R U 4 Me?”, the first taste of their second album, Today We’re the Greatest.

A powerful record that revels in the beauty of space and intimacy, and one that is as vulnerable as it is mesmerising, Middle Kids’ new record was one that was made with the intention of being something a little different to the rock sound they’d become known for.

“I want to make music that loves its listener,” Joy said at the time of the record’s announcement. “Music that makes people feel seen, seen in the tiny little places that hide away in their hearts. I want people to hear our music, and feel a sense of love. And when I say love, it can be challenging, intense and tough. But it’s in the guts.”

The result Today We’re the Greatest, a magnificent next step in an already-acclaimed career. Working with an external producer for the first time by way of Lars Stalfors, Middle Kids created an album which proves their worth as not only phenomenal musicians who play some of the most powerful music at the current time, but artists who have an exceptional grasp of what it is to make music that means as much to the listener as it does to them.

In anticipation of the new record, Hannah Joy spoke to Rolling Stone about the path to the new record, what it means for the band, and their upcoming run of intimate theatre shows.

Firstly, let’s go back a bit and look at the last album, briefly. It felt like you all had this massive rise in such a short time. There was Elton John in your corner, appearances on US TV, and relentless touring. What was it like to receive such massive attention in such a short time? Was it validating, daunting, or a mixture of it all?

Yeah, I think it was almost like something you don’t really think about, looking back. It was pretty quick, just in terms of the energy of it all from when we first released our song “Edge of Town”. We basically just went over to America a couple of months later, and for the next couple of years [we did] so much touring. To the point where you’re not even thinking about what’s going on, you’re just showing up to the next thing and doing it.

Which is obviously really exciting and intense, but I think we just love playing music so much that we were just stoked to be able to play show after show every night. For the beginning of a career for a band, yeah, it was pretty special, and honestly very unexpected, but we just kind of rolled with it.

When it came time to release the debut album, how were you all feeling? I can imagine there would’ve been some nerves at play given how much hype had been placed on you all?

Again, and maybe this is part of my personality, but I don’t really think about [things]. I just like, fully disconnect from what I’m feeling. An example is that I actually find performing quite scary, and I get pretty bad stage fright, but over the years I’ve learnt to be like, “Don’t think about it”, and I just go out there and afterwards I’m like, “Oh shit, what did I just do?”

I think with this record, it was partly that and partly like we were kind of making the record whilst we were touring so much. So many of the initial song ideas were just me noodling around in sound check, or just on the bus, or whatever. It was kind of evolving with us on the road, which is kind of cool, I guess, because it combatted any kind of that big open space where it’s like, “Now sit down and write a record.”

“It was like we were just on the move so much and all these songs were just sprouting up through the cracks, and we were trying to grab onto them when we could.”

It was like we were just on the move so much and all these songs were just sprouting up through the cracks, and we were trying to grab onto them when we could. So I think I didn’t really feel much pressure or nerves around it because I was… I don’t know… When you’re on the road, you don’t really think about it that much, you just get through it all.

I imagine that with touring like that, everything is so strictly planned that you’d just find time to make musical ideas whenever you can.

Yeah, it’s kind of awesome. Literally, we got emailed every day our schedule for that day, down to the hour. So you’re just like, “Off I go and do the things”. Which is cool, but luckily songs were just floating around in that time. But it was hard not to be [creative] because we were supporting all these amazing bands and hearing a lot of music at the same time, so it was like [we were] opening up musically.

Music was just kind of swirling [around us], but that’s why that record does sound the way that it does. It’s very influence by a big American rock show, a lot of noise and big drums. Then we kind of toured that in that way, which is obviously quite different to this new record.

In 2019, you had the New Songs for Old Problems mini-album arrive. When you were making that, were you originally considering those songs as material for album number two, or had the plan always been to work on a smaller release between it all?

I don’t think i was writing those songs thinking they would be for an album, I think I was just in a very creative space at that time, and I was just making a lot, and we’d come back to Sydney after many months of being away, so we were just recording this all for fun – just making demos. Then we were like, “Oh shit, actually this is really cool”, so we just kind of threw it out there.

I’m not sure if it was a good thing to do in the end, but it was fine – we just did it. But yeah, there wasn’t really a strategy in terms of like, “What is this as a body of work?”, it was just like… I think a lot of our first years, we were just like [Hannah mimics throwing something up in the air] and seeing what happens.

In the grand scheme of things, it was probably wise you released something smaller given that 2020 saw so many things put on hold, and fans needing something to keep them engaged.

It’s really true, otherwise it would’ve been quite a few years between records. So it’s nice to have had that little bridge [between them].

With that all in mind, when exactly did you all start looking toward the second album? 

Well I think, when I got pregnant I was like, “Okay, here’s a very real deadline that I would like to have the record out before”. And we were again touring America and I was in my first trimester and I think what I realised was that what I wanted with this record was to take some space and not make this record in between everything. I really wanted to give time to explore the music and explore what was kind of going on inside.

So I think it was halfway through 2019, I took some time to not tour as much, which almost feels wrong because for our type of music, and especially in America, you’ve just got to run laps around the country. There’s so much ground to cover, and when you get opportunities, you just say yes. So I think I took a beat to kind of not do that as much, but I was so thankful that is the case – also because of the pandemic, but also because of what we created. It just allowed us to be a lot more intentional and thoughtful about what we’re creating.

“What I wanted with this record was to take some space and not make this record in between everything.”

I think for all three of us, our backgrounds and interests extend so much further than indie rock/pop, which I adore and I love, but when I first started the band I had just started playing guitar and I was like, “Fuck yeah, I can rock now”, so on Lost Friends I was like, “I’m going to rock all the time”, which is cool, but I think for this record I wanted to not rock as much and have more emotional moments or even more influences from some of our backgrounds. So we we really sought to do that, and I think we did do it, which is really cool. But I wasn’t actually sure if we we’d be able to get it all together.

There were a few songs [we had] by the end of 2019 that kind of – I think it was “Today We’re The Greatest”, “R U 4 Me?”, and another one – that made me go, “Oh, I can actually start seeing this as a body [of work] now”. And I had a few old songs that I was pulling in, like “Questions”, from a few years ago and “Summer Hill”, too. Then I think writing those new ones unlocked some of these other songs I wrote, and it was this kind of cool thing that gathered momentum in a couple of weeks, and then we recorded it very quickly, and I’m glad that we did.

The album was recorded in Los Angeles with Lars Stalfors, instead of with Tim. What was it that made you look outside the band for production, and what was it that drew you to working with someone like Lars?

Well I think we kind of felt that would be a really good growth thing for us. We tried to go into the studio [before] and we were like, “Ew, we don’t like this”, because we were so used to doing it in our own time in our own way. We were still tossing it up for this record whether we would do it in a studio, but I think because of some of the songs, they were so… I found the sound and the spirit of the songs quite quickly, and so I think I felt confident enough that if we went into the studio and got somebody else in, that we could do that because we already knew what the songs were and that we had our vision.

We could get somebody on board for that and that we wouldn’t lose the spirit or the soul of each song, and they could bring something else, breathe new life into it as well. I think sometimes you can run the risk of going into the studio or working with someone, and if you haven’t got your vision clear you can lose sight of what you’re making and be like, “Oh, this isn’t what I wanted to make”.

I think that with so many of the songs, we could see who they were and what we wanted them to be, and then when we worked with Lars, he just brought this amazing element of colour and texture. Part of that is just the amazing gear he has – these crazy synths and all these different guitars, and the tones that he was able to pull was just so insane. So I think that whole experience for us was just like so fruitful, which I’m grateful for because it could go either way, really. He got along so well with Tim as well, which is really important, because he has his hand in the production so much. But it was a wonderful experience.

On the other side of things, it’s great to have someone like Lars since he can sort of provide another point of view that is separate from what the three of you might have when going into the studio.

It’s so true, and even him having that holistic view of everything – even in terms of where you’re trying to go, and time-wise, and how you’re trying to get there – it just frees you up to then when we go into the studio, being able to fully go deep into that creative space without having to worry about things like logistics or even setting up microphones. Just logistical things that can really get you out of that head space. We could just go in there and do our thing.

Was the album originally planned for an earlier release, then? I’ve noticed a lot of records released around this time were originally set to arrive a bit earlier.

For sure, it was ready a while ago, but I think because we’re a touring band you kind of think you shouldn’t release anything unless you can tour it. Obviously that couldn’t happen, so we were kind of waiting it out, but then realising that, who knows what the hell is going on? And I think for your own creative process, I feel like these songs are still living inside of me, and I kind of need to let them go. It’s like a stake in the ground to then be able to fully dig into the next thing. So I feel even personally excited to share them so that my imagination is more free to then go to new places.

So when it came to making the album, had there been any specific decision of what you wanted the record to sound like from the start? Or any specific plans to do anything particularly different? Listening to this new album, it definitely feels a little more eclectic than anything previous.

It was very conscious, which is strange for us, because we’re often, and I’m quite often… I’m not sure if it’s the right word, but an ‘unconscious artist’. I just go with the flow, and whatever is coming out is what I’m going with. I think, for this, it was a bit of shift of gears – it was going after something.

I think the two words that we wanted to shape this record around were “beautiful” and “powerful”, and the relationship they have, and the tension of those two things throughout the record. Whether that’s musically or lyrically, but probably more so in the music, it’s creating spaces that are beautiful, which is something I really hadn’t thought much about before.

“I think the two words that we wanted to shape this record around were ‘beautiful’ and ‘powerful’, and the relationship they have, and the tension of those two things throughout the record.”

But we really wanted the kind of music that you felt like you could let yourself get in to as opposed to music coming at you as much. And I think part of that is because we all love music like that. Music is often such a powerful way for you to find peace or hear your own voice, or to be able to create these spaces for us to rest and to reflect, and so I think we wanted more moments of that throughout the record. But then also, having more punchy, powerful tracks – and I think we’re always going to make music like that because we do love to do that – it’s definitely got a lot more ebb and flow in the general arc of the record.

From a lyrical point of view though, it also feels much more – as a press release said, “personal and courageous”. Was this again something you were particularly aiming for, or something that sort of presented itself as things went on?

Yeah, I think that I wasn’t something I was necessarily aiming for while writing, but it’s something I’m aiming to do in general life – just being more honest and open as a person. I think that flows over into what I’m writing about. But I think, I mean, even for me, I’ve often written a bit more conceptually, and I don’t know if  that’s because I used to study classical music and I wrote a lot in that realm. It can be heady and technical, and [now I’m] more trying to write from my heart.

Even though there is a lot of that in our previous music, [now we’re] creating more musical moments that would support those kind of lyrics. With our last record, I think I did sing a lot about raw, vulnerable stuff, but it was just like, “Rock it out!” as opposed to singing that and then having the music reveal that more, which is a kind of way to even use instruments and sound to even tell a story and explore a theme.

Is it particularly difficult to sort of be a bit more vulnerable? Previous work was undoubtedly personal, so it’s not a new concept, but this album feels almost confessional at times.

Yeah, totally. I mean, like I’m scared now of the live show. I’m like, “What have I done?” because in previous live shows I could just run around the stage, and rock out, but now there are just so many songs where it’s not that, it’s just sitting in that space and sharing quite openly. So I am like, “Oh God!”, but that is the exact place you need to be at as an artist.

“To be vulnerable, it’s never comfortable.”

To be vulnerable, it’s never comfortable. Even if someone is very open, if they feel comfortable doing that, it’s actually not that vulnerable. But in its own nature, you’re always having to be going to that new place that feels unknown and a little scary, and for that to be then informing your art, I think to stretch and grow you just need to go there. So I think I’m [a bit nervous], but I know that this is what I want to be doing as an artist.

As you said, if you’re not pushing boundaries and exploring new ground, you’re never really going to grow as an artist, are you?

Yeah, and I also feel like there’s so much more to be able to show as well. And that’s been happening as the three of us have been getting to know each other more – and know each other’s sensibilities and musicality – and our skills are just developing, and I think this record wonderfully showcases each player’s moments.

Some of the fills that Harry does on this record, I still get [chills]. And a lot of the grooves that Tim did on the bass, and a lot of the crazy guitar sounds that he pulled, and even the way that I wrote some of my melodies to push my voice and to throw it around more, I feel like we were wanting to push ourselves too in terms of our chops. [We were aiming for that instead] of just cruising through a three-and-a-half minute song, [and we were] actually trying to create more moments in a song – which is hard, but very rewarding.

The album has songs like “Stacking Chairs”, which is more focused on love. Middle Kids didn’t previously seem like the sort of band to write a ‘love song’ per se. But does that sort of give you a bit more confidence to do more things you previously thought you couldn’t?

Yeah, for sure, because I think that a song is so – and I think I’m learning this as an artist – much more than the lyrics. There’s so much going on, and when you listen to a song, you’re connecting to so many different things on so many different levels that I think I feel more trusting now that yes, what I’m singing about is important, but also there’s so much else going on.

If it’s all really good and interesting and exciting, it’s beyond being a love song – it’s so many things. It’s is that, but it’s also this, and I think that’s cool because it’s not just about one thing, it’s about many things. Which is why it’s so great being in a band, too, because it means you’re all carrying something and you’re all bringing something.

I think “Stacking Chairs” is a good example – even of just like that commitment kind of love, but even just I feel that with three of us, we just keep being in it together and keep growing together, and out of that you can make really wonderful things.

It’s a great example then of how songs can mean something to you and even different folks inside the band, while meaning numerous different things to people outside of the band, too.

Exactly, a few people have been like, “Oh, ‘Stacking Chairs’ is about friendship”, and I’m like, “Sure, whatever you want”.

Something interesting about the record is the ending to “Run With You”, where you and Tim recorded the sonogram of your child and included it in the song. That’s obviously an incredibly special thing to do as not only parents, but musicians as well. From a personal point of view, what does that sort of add to the song? Because it too would obviously mean so many different things to so many different people.

I know, and I also think that – without sounding too lofty – it just keeps showing you that there’s music everywhere, and that sound is so interesting and meaningful. I think this is partly where Tim’s gift comes to the fore, because he’s just listening all the time, and he’s just thinking, and so influenced by sound – he’s always recording.

But I think in this particular instance it’s very profound, because he was 20 weeks old, he’s such a little thing, but it’s such a sign of life, and him, and it’s pretty cool now seeing him grow and listening to that song. I didn’t even think much of it at the time, I was like, “Oh, that’s kind of a cool and cute thing to stack on at the end of that song”, but now as Sonny is becoming a person, I’m like, “Oh, that’s actually so rad that a sign of your life is very imprinted in this music, and adds to it in a very cool way”.

So does that mean Sonny gets a cut of the royalties down the line? [Laughs]

[Laughs] Yeah, exactly. We’ve already got him working, so we should probably be careful of child labour laws.

Now, with the album out in the world, you’re also hitting the road for a brief tour. It’s been a while since you’ve had the chance to do so. How is it all feeling for you to have this return to the stage, and this return to a sense of normalcy?

Yeah, it feels very exciting, and what’s really cool about this tour – for us – as well is that we’re playing in these concert halls, and I think because everyone is sitting down, it’s a very different environment and you want to try and create an evening of music that fits the environment and complements each other. So we’ve been thoughtful of how to create a night that fits that space and brings out the best in all of those elements.

So we feel really excited because we’re getting strings and brass in, and different instrumentation, and it’s perfect timing too, because this record really lends itself to that, and creates space for these kind of other musical moments. But I think that’s cool, because we probably would’ve have had the opportunity to make a night like this without the pandemic.

It’s a wonderful example of, even though it’s shit times, there’s a little seed that’s like, “Well, you have to play, everyone has to sit down, you can’t just do a rock show”, so it pushes you to go, “Okay, well what can we make?”. And it’s really beautiful, well, we don’t know yet – hopefully it will be. But it’s something that we really love, so we will feel very different because we can’t do a normal Middle Kids show, but maybe that’s fine.

It’s just adapting to the times, really. But with that in mind, if touring returns to normal, would you look at doing something like that more in the future? Or is it too early to say at this stage?

It’s a good question, because I actually think yes in little moments. Like, I think wanting to make the night more of a ‘musical event’ seems exciting, and makes a lot of sense to us, because all of us grew up playing in orchestras and going to different chamber music [performances], and playing in jazz. That is a cool coming together of where we’ve all come from, and then yeah, having the moments where everyone can jump up and down and sing and rock out or whatever, to me that feels like a really exciting thing. I don’t know how we’ll pull that off, but I feel excited to think about that more.

Middle Kids’ Today We’re the Greatest is available now.

Middle Kids – Today We’re the Greatest Album Tour

Thursday, May 13th
QPAC, Brisbane, QLD

Friday, May 21st (Sold Out)
Melbourne Recital Centre, Melbourne, VIC

Saturday, May 22nd
Melbourne Recital Centre, Melbourne, VIC

Friday, May 28th (Sold Out)
City Recital Hall, Sydney, NSW

Saturday, May 29th
City Recital Hall, Sydney, NSW

Tickets on sale now via Handsome Tours