How Cosmo’s Midnight Grew Up – And Made Their Best Album Yet

"You get stuck writing music for other producers instead of music for people...we wanted to create music that was about feeling."

cosmo's midnight photo

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It’s a windy Thursday afternoon in the Sydney suburb of Haymarket, and Cosmo and Patrick Liney are tucking into a plate of dumplings and shallot pancakes. We’re sitting outside the beloved eatery Chinese Noodle House, with bowls of spicy fragrant noodles, pork and chive steamed dumplings, and the signature special braised eggplant laid out in front of us.

“We used to come here before every gig we went to,” Pat explains, pulling another dumpling into his bowl. “We used to have sixteen steamed dumplings each. And we’d just be burping the whole way through.”

The serving size has decreased a little over the years, so the burps are kept to a minimum today; the brothers, who make up Cosmo’s Midnight, have exemplary table manners, pouring tea and offering food at every pause. They’re clearly at ease, excited to talk new music, a far cry from earlier interviews.

“I opened up definitely more as a person — music got me out of my shell,” Pat admits. “When I started out, I couldn’t even do an interview like this, I would be too nervous. Performing live was the worst thing in the world, I couldn’t do it. It was the worst thing. I remember our first shows, supporting The XXYYXX, and me and Cos were just trembling.”

Cosmo nods alongside him in agreement. “That took a long time to wear off,” Pat continues. “But it got better, and I gradually got a new sense of confidence and self-worth.”

It’s that trajectory — that steady wrangling with identity and growth and confidence — which informs their immersive and impressive new album, Yesteryear, the follow-up to their acclaimed debut What Comes Next. A melty hybrid of dance, ’70s disco, R&B and ’60s pop (hence the title), it marks the first time the brothers have used organic instruments and jamming as the primary method of production — rather than plugging sounds into the Logic grid.

“As we finished our last album we decided we wanted to do a live show,” Pat says. “No longer the laptop/DJ set thingy, we wanted to bring instruments in and start performing. Which was new to us, because we did play instruments but not that much while recording the songs — everything was clicked in.”

The brothers were complete perfectionists — they would spend months neck deep in mixing and polishing, generally only finishing a couple of tracks per year. Eventually, they realised that the idea of spending months perfecting a track, only to have to deliberately mess it up a little so it could be played live, was just unsustainable. Constantly striving for perfection would only lead to heartache.

“It just sets you up for disappointment, because you feel like nothing is ever finished, so you just have to abandon it,” Pat says. “I feel like no artwork is ever finished, and if you keep trying to perfect something and overthinking it, you actually keep losing the original idea that made it feel so good.

“My dad’s a painter, and he says that you can touch up a painting for the rest of your life, and never be happy with it, or you can capture that initial feeling you really liked, and then leave it. It’s been a long process to learn to be satisfied when you have something good.”

Photo Credit: Sam Whiteside

Essentially, they flipped the entire process they’d followed on debut What Comes Next. Every song was jammed in and cleaned up, and every idea was kept as close to the original bold of lightning as possible. They wanted a light touch, to create something more visceral than cerebral.

Suddenly, they were pulling songs together in days, rather than months — and while a couple of the tracks on Yesteryear had been hanging around in demo form for a few years (‘Time Wasted’, ‘C.U.D.I (Can U Dig It)’) the album was pulled together in about 18 months, a pretty quick period considering the touring schedule they maintained at the same time.

They were ruthless with demos, shelving ideas if they didn’t feel good immediately, and only pursuing those that felt good and came together easily. The bulk of the album appeared rapidly — recent single ‘Idaho’ was written in about two days a couple of months ago, ‘Yesteryear’ appeared back in February. They also enlisted a mixing engineer, which allowed them to put some crucial distance between the themselves and the polishing process.

But perhaps equally as importantly, they realised they’d been guilty of making music to impress other producers, rather than the casual music listener — a revelation that greatly impacted Yesteryear.

“They’re not saying ‘Oh I really loved how they tweaked that guitar sound for two hours’, no one really does that. No one cares!”

“The general music listener isn’t looking for details necessarily in production,” Cosmo says. “Maybe in the lyrics they’re looking for meaning and stuff like that, but they’re not saying ‘Oh I really loved how they tweaked that guitar sound for two hours’, no one really does that. No one cares! So part of our writing process has been to stop thinking about that so much, and think about how you listen to music as just an enjoyer, rather than a writer. During the Soundcloud era, we got super caught up with thinking about other producers — like how would they like it?”

“You get stuck writing music for other producers instead of music for people,” Pat says. “And I feel like this record we really stepped back and wanted to create music about feeling, rather than thinking. To make you respond to it on a more emotional level rather than a physical or technical level. We wanted to write music that was more enjoyable, rather than from a technical perspective.”

Photo Credit: Lois Vega

Yesteryear is very enjoyable, a pillowy bed of an album that warrants repeat listens to uncover each shimmering layer. As Cosmo says, it’s got “headphone quality” — there’s a superficial enjoyment to every track, he says, but if people want to dig deeper, they can. Considering dancefloors and festivals are off the table for the foreseeable future due to COVID-19, having a dance album that can lend itself to private, quiet listening is appropriate.

In many ways, Yesteryear feels more closely connected to Tame Impala’s The Slow Rush and Currents than the thumpier dance cuts of Cosmo’s Midnight’s back catalogue. Both Cosmo and Pat reference Kevin Parker’s work frequently over the course of our late lunch, and the Currents influence shines through brightly on cuts like ‘Idaho’ and ‘A Million Times’. Both albums take time to unfold and reveal their gems, but both are infinitely rewarding.

The musical touchstones stretch back a lot further — the brothers tick off The Beatles, Paul McCartney, the Beach Boys, Todd Rundgren, the B52’s, KC and the Sunshine Band, and Chic (“a lot of Chic”) as the big inspirations. It is, as Patrick puts it, a bit of a “genreless mush” — the best of the past filtered through the brothers’ sieve.

“Music is so focused on trends and what’s popping, it can start to feel dated really quickly — and we got swept up with the hype when we were younger and we wanted to make what’s popping,” Pat adds. “And now we’ve had some time to really figure out what we like we can just write what we like, instead of trying to ride the wave. Writing what you really enjoy is honestly what people react to best, because it feels personal and natural, instead of like ‘Oh they’re doing this dancehall song’.”

Something that’s also now shining through on Yesteryear is Pat’s vocals. After mustering up the courage to sing briefly on What Comes Next’s ‘Polarised’, and getting positive feedback, his gentle voice is all over Yesteryear; for the first time, the brothers took the reins of the songwriting across the record.

“We made a decision to really invest time into the singing and figuring out what I wanted to say as a songwriter as well,” Pat says. “Because we’d always just handed off doing lyrics, and the melody, and really the whole message of the song to someone else.”

“This album for us has been a big arrival in terms of having our own voice.”

“And then what is you in that track?” Cosmo jumps in. “The music is there, but a lot of people listen to the lyrics, which is why we decided to do that.

“I feel like I’ve started to arrive at some adulthood,” he continues, after a pause. “I’m still a sheltered individual to an extent. I’m not aware of the world’s problems personally — I’m not affected by any of them, COVID hasn’t killed me and I’m not in poverty, but I feel like I have arrived at a point where I’m more aware of myself in the world. And the whole process of writing music, since when we were 17, has been a growth as well and realising what was just a passing trend. This album for us has been a big arrival in terms of having our own voice.”

Pat excitedly reels off the story of how he came up with topline of ‘Time Wasted’ while driving. “Not to be clichéd, but it was like a lightning bolt,” he says smiling, tapping his chopsticks between his fingers. “I pulled over the car right there, got my phone out and recorded the voice memo of the verse and the chorus right there — and after that it was just finessing it all to get it right. It was a gratifying moment, it felt so right.”

The wind has picked up considerably over the hour we’ve been talking, and plane tree pollen has started to fall into our empty bowls. They’re both clearly excited for Yesteryear to be released into the world, although they admit they feel like they’re sending it off into “vacuous space”.

“Before, you’d have the music and you’d tour it right on top of it coming out, so it’s very tangible, you can feel whether people are loving it and it feels great,” Pat mulls. “Now, it feels like you’re playing everything by ear.”

For an album with considerable “headphone quality”, maybe that’s not a disadvantage.

Cosmo’s Midnight’s new album Yesteryear is out now via Sony Music Australia. They’ll play through the album this Thursday October 8 live from the High Garden Sydney Rooftop.  

Jules LeFevre is the editor of Music Junkee. She is on Twitter.

Photo Credit: Sam Whiteside