When Middle Kids arrived with their glimmering debut single ‘Edge Of Town’ in 2016, they became a staple of the Australian indie rock landscape almost immediately. They soundtracked hazy summer festivals and kicked around sweaty local venues, writing euphoric choruses that begged to be shouted out from a heaving crowd.
Hannah Joy, who fronts the three-piece, remembers that time fondly — a time before COVID-19 wiped the live music industry off the planet, and saw the band trade in large scale festivals and overseas tour for a six venue “tour of Sydney” late last year. “We were touring so much in the beginning of our career that with the first album,” Joy says. “I wrote so many of those songs during a soundcheck, or like, the ideas came out of there. Then we recorded some on the road, [where] the production was definitely influenced by big American rock shows, because that’s just the world we were in.”
On a recent sunny afternoon in early March, Joy and her fellow bandmate and husband Tim Fitz join me on Zoom, where the conversation naturally darts straight back to their beginnings as a band, five years ago. Australia isn’t short of indie rock acts, but Middle Kids — who are completed by drummer Harry Day — carved out space in the blossoming scene by writing songs that were, simply, head and shoulders above their peers — songs that felt invincible. They told stories of love, loss, and what it’s like to try and make sense of the world when you’re rarely in the same place, constantly on the move.
You can hear it in their aforementioned debut, but even more so in 2017’s self-titled EP. Tracks like ‘Old River’ and ‘Fire In Your Eyes’ seemingly hit a point where a switch is flicked and suddenly the song is flooded with scratchy guitars and bombastic drumming, courtesy of Harry Day. By the time their debut full-length Lost Friends emerged, one year later, the band were a well-oiled power-pop machine.
“It was a different time in Australian music. I think we were just excited to be a rock band,” Fitz adds. “We were loving just being a guitar band and making big, big rock songs.”
Lost Friends was a celebration of the fast and relentless world they were living in, proudly boasting both “sucker-punches to the gut” and “stadium singalongs”. Either way, it was loud, gritty, and imperfect — just like the band.
Middle Kids could have just left it there — with a top 10 ARIA charting album, a J Award for Australian Album of the Year, and a string of acclaimed international tours under their belt — or they could have dug in and produced half a dozen more albums of the same. Instead, the group changed tack, and wrote an album that was completely different from their first. Namely, it was quiet.
Finding Beauty and Power
Today We’re The Greatest, the second album from Middle Kids, starts with a track Joy says is one of the most vulnerable they’ve ever released. The slow-burning opener, titled ‘Bad Neighbours’, was penned by Fitz about a traumatic childhood experience Joy had some years ago. “Hope,” she solemnly sings, “is an underrated word”.
As the first of 12 songs, ‘Bad Neighbours’ lays out the blueprint for the rest of the record. It’s softer than usual, texturally luxurious, and wholly representative of what the pair set out to achieve: to create a record with “tender moments, more breath and more space”. And, although the lyrics are emotive, there’s much more being said in the quiet moments.
“We were just trying to express the next chapter of where we’re at personally and musically,” explains Joy . “I think when you’re making things, so much of the work is [allowing] yourself to get to the place where you can make something that is quite pure, and you’re just trying to rip down whatever is in the way, so you can make your art.”
Today We’re The Greatest was inspired by two words: beauty and power. Combined, they led Joy to believe she could break down any self-made barriers of doubt or insecurity that had previously stopped her from writing with this level of vulnerability. She admits, historically, her lyrics have been conceptual — clouded to preserve who Hannah Joy really is. She’s also admitted love seemed “too tinny, or too shallow to understand” before, calling herself a “tiny, stupid idiot”.
“It’s going to take a while to be confident in like, standing in that space when it’s not filled with chaos.”
In a way, she had hidden behind “big rock sets”, something she felt more comfortable and even safer in: “You just get up there and you’re like YEAH! You kick your legs and hit some things and you get off. But…letting silence be a part of your set and letting a lot of that just settle is actually quite a new thing for us. I feel excited by it, but I also feel like it’s going to take a while to be confident in like, standing in that space when it’s not filled with chaos.”
Chaos was replaced by maturity, consideration and love, in all its many conflicting forms. That’s not to say Today We’re The Greatest is full of ballads — standout singles ‘R U 4 Me?’ and ‘Questions’ beg to differ — but the rawness and intimacy of ‘Bad Neighbours’ and ‘Cellophane (Brain)’ is placed front and centre.
“When we started making this record, we had a bit more space,” Joy says of the album’s songwriting process. “And, for me personally, I think I have been in a more reflective space, because I was pregnant when I wrote a lot of those songs, and, just by way of being pregnant and being on the precipice of a season that I knew was going to be massive and change our lives, you really think.”
Joy and Fitz were expecting a baby boy at the time, who would eventually be born in January 2020 and named Sunny. The littlest middle kid was already influencing his parents’ music from the very start, namely on ‘Run With You’.
“Essentially, it’s the perfect song for Sunny, our son,” Joy says of the breezy pop track. “Once you can meet their basic needs, the best thing you can do for your child is just to always, walk with them and stay with them. I feel like the song, ‘Run With You’, is a song of empathy that’s basically being like, I will go with you, regardless of where you go or who you are, I will always be with you,” said Joy.
Then, just as you’ve settled into a quintessential return to form from Middle Kids, a deeply personal moment comes. The shine dims, the scratchy guitars quieten, and Joy’s rolling vocals fade into a soft pulsing — a recording of Sunny’s heartbeat.
“We just thought that was a really cool sound,” explained Fitz, who suggested recording the 20-week sonogram sound and working it into a song. “And we have a few sounds in there that felt like…we kind of took over to LA from home. We had them on our phones or on our computers that we recorded in Sydney. I feel like we wanted to nestle the songs in a feeling.”
Grandeur vs. Intimacy
The next challenge in the creation of Today We’re The Greatest was finding a way to balance the past and the future of Middle Kids. “We still have that core,” Fitz says of their blazing rock side, “but we’re pushing in a few other directions.”
“We really don’t want to be a band that pushes so far in some new direction that it leaves people that like our band feeling abandoned. That’s another thing, when trying to find a new sound, we wanted to make sure that it connects with what we’ve always done; we want all of our music to be like one evolving story.”
The pair tell me it’s easy to write a song one way and then be swept up in the magic of recording and have it transformed into something completely different. Considering the sentimentality of this album, it was important to make sure each and every song “hadn’t lost its essential character” by the end. “You can go after the biggest drum sound in the world or this crazy guitar sound and then, at the end, you realise you actually lost the song in the recording process. It’s actually getting in the way of the listener having the emotional experience that they should,” Fitz adds.
Although the album is bookended with soft, acoustic moments, the remaining tracks vary. ‘Some People Stay In Our Hearts Forever’ and ‘Stacking Chairs’ are beautifully melancholic in tone but contain uplifting and soaring hooks, while ‘Summer Hill’ is a frenetic burst of power. This, naturally, took a bit of configuration to make flow as seamlessly as it does on Today We’re The Greatest.
‘Stacking Chairs’ was one song in particular that has seen many forms, the first of which saw it take on a “1975 groove” that didn’t sit quite right. Fitz clarifies: “We were trying to work out where it sits, like, how grand is this song? Or how intimate is it? And sometimes the grandness and the intimacy are fighting each other. Is it happening in a small room? Or is it happening in a big space?
“It’s a lot about this intimacy versus the grandeur. I think maybe for a lot of the songs, it’s a bit like that. We didn’t want to overwhelm people with just epic sound so that they saw the intimacy and the vulnerability in the songs isn’t lost.”
Fitz and Day, who largely rule the instrumental side of the project, endeavoured to break out of their mould by finding unique sounds and methods to experiment with. Hidden amongst the uplifting atmosphere of ‘Summer Hill’ is the sound of a pair of scissors, repurposed as percussion. Then you have ‘Golden Star’, which features audio of birds chirping in a rain shower that Fitz recorded at his and Joy’s old home in Sydney.
“Musically, it’s like, there’s more space for us now to kind of pick-up other instruments and draw on some of these different sounds, which is really exciting,” Joy comments, acknowledging the technical growth the band has had in recent years.
She proceeds to tell me how “immersed” in music all three members are, despite only learning how to play guitar specifically for Middle Kids. Joy grew up playing piano pretty exclusively, with a fixation towards classical and jazz. She recalls a sense of liberation and just plain old fun whilst learning guitar: “I was like, YES, now I can finally rock. So, I think I was like really enjoying rocking and so a lot of the songs I was writing on guitar.
“Now we’ve had more time, and we’re kind of, you know, settled in as a trio relationally,” she continues. “In terms of our musicality as a group, to me, it does feel exactly as if you’re saying, it’s not like we’re over here now; it actually just feels like a next step into something that still feels Middle Kids. It’s just the next phase.”
Together, We’re The Greatest
“Someday we’ll be gone, but today we’re the greatest, even though we feel so small,” Joy sings on the album’s closer. It’s an ode to everyone and everything that’s woven into Middle Kids’ second album: the band, their growing family, the ups-and-downs of intimate relationships, painful memories, a love worth celebrating, and, of course, the constant desire to push further into the unknown.
It’s a powerful song that Joy claims as one of her favourites of the 12 tracks: “It’s the closer on the album, and I think, you know, we’ve gone on a journey starting at ‘Bad Neighbours’ and finishing in this place is almost like… often we build, like, on our last album, there was a song called ‘Bought It’ that was basically a little SparkNotes version of the album. ‘Today We’re The Greatest’ is a good synopsis of the album.
“It’s singing about the messiness and the beauty of life and holding it,” she continues. “I think that is a lot of what we wrestle with in our music and I think that song kind of wonderfully expresses that in quite a triumphant way, like a hopeful way. And it’s without ignoring the hardness and anxieties of life. It acknowledges that and is still able to be a great declaration as we finish the album, which I think is really cool and because it is random to call it the title track and have it be the last track, but it just feels really right to end that way and to be looking forward.”
Here, Middle Kids summarise a series of struggles and uncertainty leading to hope, written in time for the album’s recording in late 2019, and yet timelier than ever now. Despite current circumstances, the band are more hopeful than ever — maybe as a result of having a child, maybe the prolonged downtime at home, maybe a combination of many things — either way they openly appreciate the “enriching” and “exciting” time spent in the lead up to Today We’re The Greatest’s release.
Middle Kids aren’t who they were five years ago. In many ways, Today We’re The Greatest is transitional: there are moments older fans will expect and adore, but it’s in the quiet spots that we’re offered the first glimpse of what the future holds for Middle Kids. This is only the beginning.
Debbie Carr is a freelance music writer who has written for NME, triple j and more. Find her on Twitter.
Photo Credit: Imogen Wilson