While typically flying under the radar, synthwave has become ingrained in popular culture. From the soundtracks of movies such as Drive to the iconic opening theme of Stranger Things, and even the critically-acclaimed video game series Hotline Miami, the genre’s sound and trademark aesthetic has pervaded nearly all forms of media.
Case-in-point, one of the streaming world’s most popular creators, Dr. Disrespect, has styled his entire persona around synthwave culture, all the while regularly including music from some of the genre’s artists in his streams. However, despite synthwave’s prevalence, many aren’t familiar with the niche community.
We spoke with one of the leading acts in the genre, The Midnight, to learn more about the history of the band, their new album Monsters, the future of synthwave, and much more.
Describing their sound as "a John Hughes movie that had a baby with Miami Vice,” the band consists of Georgia-born singer-songwriter Tyler Lyle and the Danish producer Tim McEwan. The former made a name for himself with his deep catalogue of original folk and country works while the latter has a rich production background, having worked with Afrojack, Lil Wayne, New Kids on The Block, Diddy, Paula Abdul, and more. With drastically different backgrounds, one can’t help but wonder how these two decided synthwave was their next frontier.
After being introduced to each other by their publishers, The Midnight saw how much they enjoyed working together and began collaborating more closely with one another. They reveal that McEwan went down a rabbit hole online that saw them dive headfirst into synthwave culture through channels like NewRetroWave. Interestingly enough, the first song they created together, “WeMoveForward,” was actually deeply influenced by the sound of progressive house. When asked, McEwan shared that some of his inspirations include artists such as Avicii, deadmau5, Porter Robinson, Dirtyloud, Arty, and Mat Zo.
On paper, an electronic background makes a lot of sense with an act like The Midnight, while a folk or country upbringing seems a bit more unorthodox. Citing Bruce Springsteen and Alabama, Lyle explains how the genres do in fact play a huge role in the electronic-tinged sound of the duo. He demonstrates how many acts in the country sector are so great at creating worlds around their music with the use of symbols and archetypes.
“I'm really attracted to these sort of big mythological systems or worlds and I think country music does that really well,” says Lyle. “Synthwave is not especially new, but I am interested in being able to have it tell its own story from its own symbols and its own sense of time and place.”
Even the most casual Midnight listener can see how the synthesis of the two artists creates such a dynamic product. The vivid atmosphere laid down by McEwan and the engrossing storytelling provided by Lyle produce a soundscape that’s both sonically pleasing and emotionally resonant.
Looking at inspirations in the genre, they go on to explain how they began to discover synthwave mainstays like Futurecop!, Timecop1983, and Gunship, who further pulled them into the new direction. Initially unsure where The Midnight would fit in, they began to realize their position and aesthetic as they dove more into the niche community and continued to evolve their sound. Describing some of their design philosophies, they’ve embraced a mantra around boldness and willingness to take risks with their art.
If it seems like it’s a little over the top, go full-on. Add more. Make it more.
Despite an engaged online community, synthwave did not have much representation in the live music world. So much so that before their first-ever show as The Midnight—with another one of the genre’s leaders, FM-84—they legitimately didn’t know if anyone would show up. Their worries quickly evaporated when the concert went on to sell out days before they were set to take the stage, proving synthwave’s potential in the live market. Telling a story about when it all felt like it was coming together, McEwan recalls an encounter at an early event.
"I looked to the left and saw this long line of people going into the venue, queuing up outside the venue and I kid you not, for the first second, my first thought was ‘Someone’s probably in town, I wonder who’s in town to play a show?’" he rhapsodizes. "It didn’t dawn on me and it was only when I saw them wearing Midnight t-shirts that I noticed that the line went into the door of the venue that we were playing at and that is when it dawned on me."
Fast forward to present day, when Lyle and McEwan have completed a number of successful tours and released three full-length albums, including last month’s Monsters. When speaking on their latest, they reveal that it’s the second chapter in a trilogy started by 2018’s Kids. While the aforementioned album focuses on seeing life from the eyes of someone far away from adulthood, Monsters tells a tale of adolescence with adulthood on the horizon. From a production standpoint, McEwan shares that the volatile blend of emotions teenagers face helped to guide the sound of the album. He elucidates how the songs range from calm to sad to aggressive, and reflects some of the internal struggles of adolescence.
Whether it be Lyle’s personal favorite “Brooklyn,” a track that details the uncertainty one faces in the big city, or McEwan’s “Dream Away,” which saw the duo take on a more exploratory sound not confined to one genre, the nostalgic LP is representative of The Midnight firing on all cylinders. Shortly after its release, the album reached #3 on Billboard’s Top Dance/Electronic Albums Chart, a feat difficult for any act to accomplish, let alone one in a niche genre like synthwave.
Monsters by The Midnight was released on July 10th, 2020. You can purchase or stream their latest album here.