Music is a weird and powerful thing. Strangely it can stir up emotions that may have long been dead or resurrect memories of times and places that become synonymous with that sound. What resonates with one person can often leave many dumbfounded and vice versa and sometimes the greatest works of art are the ones that are sadly unknown by the greater populous.
One such band that falls into the latter category, especially in Europe, is Midsummer – a small, unsigned five-piece from Whittier, California – now lying dormant and who for the better part of a decade crafted truly mesmerising, boundary-pushing music that began with the intricately twinkling guitar melodies of EP Catch and Blur in 1999 and culminated with 2007’s grandiose, sprawling epic long player Inside The Trees.
My first introduction to them came in late 2002 after stumbling upon a page set up for them on the now-defunct (or at least now vastly different) MP3.com – one of many websites attempting to make sense of an unfamiliar digital landscape in the wake of Napster’s demise. I was instantly drawn in by the subtle atmospheric textures of keyboards and heavily-reverbed guitar swells that accented the chiming, interlocking guitar melodies, as well as the layered emotional singing (the result of having three alternating vocalists) that still acts as an extremely heavy influence on my own musical endeavours now, some eleven years later.
Most of us have those bands that we cherish, that remain “our” band – whether it be a small band like Midsummer or an international giant with universal acclaim. As the idea of writing a piece regarding musical influence came into fruition this past summer, it seemed more appropriate than ever to write a long-overdue love-letter to a band that still continues to mean a great deal to me. Rather than just wax lyrical about songs that I have obsessively listened to for my entire adult life, the thought of digging deeper and understanding more about the history of the band and the records they created became more interesting. As a perennially self-sufficient independent musician myself, the desire within me to speak to the source of inspiration – knowing that they were essentially in the same boat before me – directly was enticing. Learning about their inspirations, their work ethic and their future was an ultimately rewarding experience. If in writing this it exposes them to an audience previously unaware of their existence, no matter the size, then a small justice has been done.
At this point I should give a gigantic amount of thanks and gratitude to Dale Bryson and Ryan Pue – two of Midsummer’s three vocalists and guitarists – for taking time out to talk to me about themselves in such great detail. I implore you to investigate this band further – invest your time and energy in their music and you will be richly rewarded.
So, as far as I’m aware, the first Midsummer release was the “Catch And Blur” EP in the late nineties. How did this record come about? Were these the earliest songs for the band? As first records go, this one is particularly impressive – it’s such an assured, confident record.
Dale: I have some very fond memories of recording those songs. Catch and Blur does include some of the earliest songs we wrote together, and I’m proud of how well it shows such a clear “cross-section” of the personalities in the band. Everyone contributed to the songwriting process, there are 3 different lead singers, each song showcases a slightly different perspective on the band’s “sound”, and yet still there is a pretty great cohesion and flow from song to song. That said, Catch and Blur does not include all of the very first songs we learned and played together; most notably Wilderness, which didn’t get recorded and released until Inside The Trees.
Ryan: We also give a lot of credit to how well it turned out to the producer, Andy Prickett. We’d all made pretty mediocre recordings with other bands up to that point, and he was the first person any of us had worked with who both understood our vision and also had the skill to realize it. He helped us think through the arrangements to tighten them up, but also allowed us to throw out crazy ideas without judgement. Plus, he’s one of the coolest guys you’ll ever meet, and he worked through the night(s) to get that EP done. It was about as great a first recording experience as we could have hoped to have as a fairly new band.
How did Midsummer come to be? Did you have a clear idea of the sounds you wanted to make from an early stage?
Dale: The details would be a long story, but in short it was a bit of an evolution at the beginning. What brought us together was a shared set of influences, sounds that we liked, movies we liked, books, etc. I think we had a pretty clear idea of what sounds we wanted to make and the types of songs we did (and didn’t) want to write… but with multiple songwriters all contributing to the process it wasn’t always easy to take an idea and grow it into a song that felt like it took on the “Midsummer identity.” There were several songs along the way that somehow couldn’t fully make that transition (or just weren’t very good) and as a result got left behind along the way.
One of the things that I particularly like about that record in particular is the mix of voices, to me it gives the songs an extra depth without sounding too jarring from song to song. “Beryl And Jasper” is a particular highlight for me. Speaking from personal experience, it really is a revelation when you find someone who can get an excellent sound when recording. It must have felt amazing for you all to find someone who really understood where you were coming from at such an early stage. Forgive my ignorance, but did you stay with the same producer for subsequent releases? There’s something about the overall sound on each record that is just breathtaking. Also, there seems to me be a definitive “Midsummer guitar sound” – very clear, chiming and chorus-heavy – that I think runs through each record.
Ryan: We felt a bit of trepidation with utilizing multiple lead singers on our first release, as there aren’t many bands outside of The Beatles that have pulled that off, but we were young and naive enough to throw caution to the wind. And yes, it was pretty astonishing to work with such a skilled and ‘golden eared’ person, as they say. The only experiences I’d had up until then were at either very rudimentary studios, or scenarios where the producer or engineer was always at odds with the band’s vision, which was frustrating to say the least. It was hard not to smile hearing our very rough demos come to life in that studio.
We also worked with Andy on Moon Shadow, which was a very different experience (much longer, considerably more difficult arrangements and instrumentation, larger scope, etc.). We probably took years off of Andy’s life on that one, but he was great to work with again. We worked with a few different people on subsequent releases, but the bulk of the non-rhythm stuff for Inside the Trees was recorded at home by Dale and his considerable skills.
I like to think that we created some unique guitar sounds along the way, but I also think we were always pushing in new directions so as not to get in a rut. For instance, Inside The Trees has a lot more distortion/fuzz on it than, say, Catch And Blur, which had very little. And Moon Shadow has a very distinct sound that shows up on every song, where as many songs on ITT have very little effects on them. The follow-up record that we’d started a few years ago continued that trend…some distinctive sounds, but also new territories being explored. I think it felt particularly good for us to strip back a lot of the effects we’d used, so when we wanted to bring them out, the impact was more, well, impactful (haha!)
Could you tell me a little about the idea behind “Moon Shadow” and how that came to be? Like you mentioned, the structures are much more complex and unusual, but still very melodic and alluring. The lyrics are also very poetic and somewhat cryptic – even after the best part of a decade of listening to the record there are still lines that I can’t quite decipher, but that really just adds to it’s charm.
Also, did you have any label interest around this period? I’m unsure right now whether “Moon Shadow” was a self-released effort. There just seem to be more ideas there in the space of four songs than some bands manage to achieve through their entire career!
Dale: Thanks for the kind words. And thanks for mentioning our guitar sounds, which is something we did work very hard at. You referred to them as “chorus-heavy” but we used all kinds of effects: chorus, vibrato, tremolo, reverbs, EQs, etc. in different combinations and sequences. We tried very specifically to give each song its own unique guitar sound – even using effects on the bass in certain situations.
One of the things I enjoyed most was crafting the sounds for each song. Getting the right combination of sounds across all the instruments and hearing them blend was often times a beautiful, almost magical experience. It actually made mixing difficult because I think we always had memories in our heads of how all the instruments sounded when layered together live – trying to replicate that in a mix wasn’t easy, and at times we were more successful than others.
When we set out to make our 2nd EP (Moon Shadow), I remember we very consciously wanted to make sort of a “concept” record, where the lyrics formed a cohesive whole across all the songs, and where the songs functioned together sort of like movements in a symphony. The funny thing (in retrospect) is that we had very lofty ambitions, but were simultaneously very self-conscious about it. Making that record was a long, difficult process. In my memory, almost every aspect of the creative process for Moon Shadow had this sort of push-pull that we had to battle through. In everything from the lyrics, to the artwork, to the music, to just figuring out what our goals were creatively, emotionally, psychologically, we had this ongoing internal debate over extremes: overt expression vs hidden meaning, grandiosity vs restraint, pretentiousness vs indie-modesty, ambition vs self-doubt. I remember discussions where we were analyzing the meaning of each lyrical phrase, and debating individual words within the lyrics. In the end a lot of it boiled down to us as four individuals figuring out what our creative goals were both individually and collectively. In many ways this process shaped the record.
Moon Shadow was self-released. I think in the end one of the biggest factors that shaped the story of Midsummer is that one of our main goals was to make the music we wanted to hear, on our own terms. We created our share of difficulty for ourselves by prioritizing this “ideal” much of the time, for better or worse. But dealing with a record label would probably have made it that much more difficult, especially on a project like Moon Shadow. Not that we had labels knocking down our door – we didn’t. But as much as we would have liked to have made a career out of making music, if you look at how we invested our time and money the majority of the time, it was in writing and recording, not in pursuing any sort of record deal.
That, to me, is what being a musician is all about – the craft of writing and creating – rather than worrying about whether somebody running a label is going to even like it or whether everybody in the world is going to hear it. If it makes you happy – and eventually some people find it and enjoy it – that’s the best thing. It’s commendable that you stuck to your ideals and focused on creating the best thing that you could for yourselves.
Let’s move on to Inside The Trees. It’s such a wonderfully unique and progressive album, I love how it encapsulates the sounds found on the previous EPs while also venturing into new territory. To say that a lot of it was recorded by yourself Dale is so impressive – the sound is so full and multi-layered yet immensely clean. The second half of the album is so full of surprises and has some of the more jaw-dropping moments to it – the climax of “With Snow The World Surrounds Us”, the duelling ebowed-guitars of “Inside The Trees” and the choral and brass arrangements on “Candle Street” in particular.
At what point did you begin piecing ideas together for it? Were you writing some of the songs whilst making the EPs? You’ve mentioned that “Wilderness” was a very early song – was it one that was put to bed quite early on and then resurrected or one that just stayed with you until the time was right to record it?
Dale: Inside The Trees was definitely a labor of love for all of us, in just about every way. If I told you how long I spent mixing it, you probably wouldn’t believe me.
One thing I always found difficult throughout all the recordings we made was trying to replicate the “feel” and the dynamics of our live performances in recorded form. While working on Inside The Trees I was extremely conscious of dynamics – I did everything I could to replicate the natural energy and dynamics of our live sound, without over-compressing or over-processing anything. It required a lot of delicate balancing and it wasn’t easy. Even the mastering process was more painstaking than normal – a heavy handed master would have squashed the balance and dynamics. All in all I/we are extremely pleased and proud of how it came out.
That said I think it baffles a lot of people because it’s not “as loud” (compressed) as most of the music we’re used to hearing. You have to turn it up to get the full experience – but that’s intended. We want you to experience the quiets and the louds and the interplay between parts. It does require a little more commitment from the listener, but it should make for a more engrossing and vital listening experience.
As to how the album came about… Basically it was the album we had in our minds since day one. Not that we had all the songs written or anything, but throughout the life of the band it was something we were working towards. We ‘saved’ songs specifically for Inside The Trees even while we wrote and recorded our first 3 EPs. Wilderness was one of the first songs written for the band. It was never put to bed – we played it live from time to time and just basically held on to it until we knew the time was right to record a full length…so, Inside The Trees to us is really kind of a thesis statement, it’s a condensation of what we wanted to say from the outset. The 3 EPs are in a way like prologues or overtures. But ITT is what we were driving towards the entire time.
I think that the level of dedication and effort put into ITT really comes through in every aspect, from the songwriting and the performances to the mix itself and the way that the songs are sequenced. I guess that it is quite a demanding listen but ultimately it’s a more rewarding one. I love an album you can really sink your teeth into, and ITT is definitely great for that.
Once you’d finished making the album, did you all consciously feel that it was time to take a step back from the band? I take it that all or most of you are married with steady jobs – did it just feel natural to put that part of your lives on the back-burner (whether temporarily or permanently)?
Also, does writing music still form part of your lives? I feel that a desire for creativity never really leaves you, and it might be that your creative energies are all focussed elsewhere now. Could you see yourself personally going back into the world of recording/production for another band or musician that you had mutual respect for?
Dale: These questions are hard to answer, and I suspect that the other guys may have better answers than I do. I don’t remember experiencing a mutual, conscious feeling that it was time to step back from the band (Although each of us may have felt it clearly at one time or another, I don’t think it was ever a mutual, collective sort of thing.). I think the “step back” process was much more drawn out and complex. Big factors in this were indeed things like marriage, children, day jobs, and the like, as well as the length of time it took to get ITT recorded, mixed, and completed.
Music has been a huge part of my life since I was young – and it’s not something that is easily compartmentalized. Music intermingles with many areas of my life. So while Midsummer definitely has been “back burnered” in some sense, I can’t say that it ever felt normal or conscious to put something like Midsummer completely aside. In life we are always juggling priorities. For me it has felt much more like an evolution or a transition, rather than a conscious “setting aside.” There are special things about Midsummer that I’m sure we all miss on some level, but I still have a strong and deep connection to the music that is woven throughout my life – and Midsummer is and always will be a part of that.
I agree that the desire for creativity never really leaves you, although it does wax and wane somewhat. Personally I feel like I’m able to find many methods of creative expression, and music is still a big part of that. For example, at times I’ll dabble in creating electronic instrumental music. …However rarely am I doing something as raw and as vulnerable as true songwriting. Songwriting is very difficult.
As to what I might do in the future… Creative opportunities usually present themselves pretty organically, so I’m content to remain open to possibilities and see what happens.
Ryan: I think Dale’s comments on Inside The Trees are well said, and echo many of my own thoughts. I especially love how some of the later songs came together. The title song in particular is a favorite of mine, and I really feel the magic of our collective songwriting voices in that one…it highlights why I enjoyed playing in the band so much. I can’t really explain how a song like that comes to fruition, from a four track tape of a few ebow parts to its final state. I can grasp some individual pieces of the process, but the mystical side of it is quite beautiful and overwhelming to me.
Writing music is still a very important part of my life, although the time I have to put towards it ebbs and flows widely. I have enough songs on tapes and laptops to fill a few solo albums and side projects, haha. I wrote a couple albums worth of folky songs with a few friends up in the mountains a few years back, and that was a very rewarding experience. I never want to let that muscle atrophy. And, I still have hope that the Inside The Trees follow-up album that we’d started will get finished someday…I was and am really proud of the songs we were working on. Here’s to hoping.
Well, that is promising. Even if nothing more comes from Midsummer as a collective, I think you’ve left behind an amazing and substantial body of work. I’m personally grateful as you guys have been a big influence on my growth as a musician and writer over the last ten years, and I’m sure that I’ll always carry those influences with me in whatever musical venture occurs.
Keep updated here: Midsummer
by Ian Breen.