Note: The following was written by Roy Ghim. And … well, you all know Roy, right? Right. So enough with the explanations.
With Evan Braswell on bass, Matt Henry on drums, and guitarist/vocalist Zack Willis, they are more remarkable then they make themselves out to be. They’re Middle Kid, an expanded music project of Zack Willis’ invention, which originally was Zack bedroom-recording solo tunes on Soundcloud. Expanded, it has a Cursive-like thunder that is counterintuitive to the emo-esque underpinnings. Simply said, “It’s damn good indie rock,” especially for such a practically new band. They’ll be playing this Friday at the Artomatic Music Fest, sandwiched between Yellow K Recording artist New God and Gilbert Lee.
Roy Ghim: So Middle Kid is doing some shows this spring/summer around Frederick, including Artomatic on Friday, but first, let’s figure your band situation out. You all did a Café Nola show in January (pretty well attended based on a YouTube excerpt from the show). The website description is still up and for those checking it out, it read, “This is going to be self indulgent indie rock.” I’m guessing you supplied them with that; I’ll be the first to admit I laughed really hard reading that description. But what about that self-deprecating tag?
Zack Willis: Yeah I wrote that. Our first show back in January, I talked the manager into letting us use that description. That show was back when we had that hell blizzard and we thought the whole thing was going to be snowed out. The good crowd there was half a result of there being nowhere to go downtown and half because we have really good friends. But the self-deprecation thing is a matter of … I don’t know. Middle Kid was started as a solo thing back in March 2015. I recorded the first few songs on a microphone in my mom’s kitchen.
Roy: One of them was “Whiner,” which is on your Bandcamp page?
Zack: Exactly. The song, characteristically, is based on the fact that I complain a lot. Now that is my get-out-of-jail-free card. Self-indulgent and whiny are what I like. Happy songs that talk about how great life is? Annoying.
Roy: And yet, listening to that song, it makes people aware of that in a humorous way — you do like and appreciate emo, yet you are confident enough to make fun of its emo-ness.
Zack: I see self-deprecation as a defense mechanism for the most part. I got picked on a fair bit in my early years, and as time went on, I kinda realized that the easiest way to get people to stop picking on you is to make fun of yourself, as backwards as that is. I had someone once message me and say, “’Whiner’ is the most emo song I’ve ever heard.” I was like, “Yeah, but it’s tongue-in-cheek.” In any case, it’s self indulgent lyrically, but less so instrumentally.
Roy: I think I saw Cursive name-dropped as an influence. Having lived in Omaha many years ago, you couldn’t escape Cursive as one of a few resident bands that really punched out this kind of energy well beyond Omaha. I sense with your sound that you aren’t trying to imitate them so much as you’re channeling the ethos behind Cursive.
Evan Braswell: I was just listening to them in the shower.
Zack: Evan was literally just blasting Cursive in our apartment. Most of the way I like to play music, going to the whole Cursive element, is emotionally. I turn on distortion when the song brings me to an emotional climax. I scream the lyrics when I want to scream them. I haven’t come up with a concrete way to play any of these songs. Which is gonna make recording — we’re recording an EP in June — kind of interesting. Simply because I haven’t actually nailed down exactly how I want these songs to sound. I think there was talk of trying to record them in a live studio setting to capture that feeling.
Roy: My sources tell me that in the two Café Nola shows Middle Kid did recently, there’s been vast improvement between them, which makes an interesting case for people who want to see up and coming bands in Frederick. What do you think has evolved in the short time Middle Kid has been together in sessions and in live shows?
Evan: One thing for sure is that Matt and I have gotten a better grasp on the songs. We play off each other for the transitions and dynamics. Fun fact, Matt and I were really nervous because we barely knew the songs.
Roy: I’d imagine there’s something to be said of being spontaneous and in the moment when faced with playing live despite not a lot of time practicing together.
Zack: Matt and Evan have been playing music together for ages. I’ve been saying this the entire time that Middle Kid has been a full band, but I basically just stole two-thirds of Lilac Daze. So obviously, they mesh well together. I came in with songs already written that they added things to in order to make a full band. So the songwriting process wasn’t necessarily FULLY collaborative, whereas, the one fully new song that we’ve written, we all basically have completely down and it sounds excellent.
Roy: There’s a math equation emerging: middle kid + 2/3 Lilac Daze = Middle Kid.
Evan: I failed remedial math in college, but this makes sense.
Roy: About the Middle Kid name, it’s not a given that everyone knows, so I’ll spell it out: You are literally a middle kid in your family. Again, you have a funny take on that, but on the serious side, do you feel that psychology of being in the middle affects you and your worldview on things?
Zack: I guess my answer is yes. I think that growing up as a middle kid, I kind of hid in the background so as not to be a burden. I think the middle connotation extends past simply being the middle child in the family, but also in that I’ve always felt exceptionally average in everything I’ve done. All the video games I’ve played, I’ve never been great at. My grades have always been fairly average, my guitar playing is average, etc.
Roy: From Urban Dictionary: In short, it’s where the older child gets all the awards, the younger gets all the love, and the middle gets nothing.
(A real-life example)
Oldest: Hey I just turned 16!
Mom: Lets go pick you out a car!
-1 1/2 yrs later-
Middle: Hey I just turned 16!
Mom: Oh.. er.. well we’re still paying for your sib’s car, so you’ll have to just borrow from her when you can..
-2 yrs later-
Youngest: Hey! I just turned 16!
Mom: Yay! And I just finished paying for the other car! Lets go get you a car!
Middle: Hey! I should be the next one to get a new car!
Zack: My first car was actually my older sister’s car that didn’t work anymore and I had to get it fixed, so that is pretty funny. Honestly, I think I’ve always felt like I didn’t get quite as much attention, but in reality, my family has always treated us fairly in terms of things like that.
Roy: Now that I’ve brought up all these raw emotional feelings, how do you feel about this Friday’s lineup at Artomatic, being in the middle between Gilbert Lee and New God?
Zack: Well I made that lineup, so it was definitely intentional (laughs). I try to always put us in the middle. Second is a good place to play, and I live for the jokes.
Evan: I’m just happy to be playing Artomatic again (I played with Cheshi last Friday).
Zack: I’m so stoked to be playing Artomatic. New God are amazing. I have their record on vinyl, actually. Gilbert Lee, I haven’t heard, but I’m sure he’ll be great, too.
Evan: Zach’s putting on their record now. Artomatic is the coolest idea ever. Frederick felt really stagnant for awhile, so it’s refreshing to see such an abundance of artists. I played Artomatic a few years ago as well, and it’s been really exciting to see it grow.
Zack: 100 percent agree. I love supporting local artists to an unhealthy degree. I saw Heavy Lights play six times within the span of a month, and we have art from Ashley Hoffman, Goodloe Byron, Ashli Cheshire, and our friend Emily Jessee (she designed the amazing poster for Friday night). Emily actually paints, too — people don’t know that because she never mentions it. It’s really cool. Everyone is so damn talented.
Roy: That poster is rad pop art. I’d love to get a copy of it.
Zack: We’re planning on printing some bigger copies for the show and giving them out at the merch table.
Roy: Last question. I asked Ashli Cheshire, of Cheshi, about her thoughts on the need for all ages shows to help grow the local music scene in Frederick. Do you have thoughts on other variables that can help grow the scene here?
Evan: I think there’s a bit of exclusivity and others feel frustrated for being left out. Being more inclusive, booking eclectic shows, and being patient are my suggestions.
Zack: We played a show at Area 31 not so long ago with the dudes from Modern Baseball. And them being Modern Baseball, the show got a decent amount of attention from kids all over the place. Let me tell you, those kids are supportive. They drove an hour and a half. One dude drove from Morgantown! Just to support some musicians they liked. As a result, they were exposed to our music and apparently dug it. They downloaded it, they paid for it (it’s pay-what-you-want), it made me really happy. There’s a long sappy facebook post somewhere about that night. The lack of art spaces doesn’t help, either — ones that are willing to host music, that is. It’s a topic I’m passionate about.
Artomatic Music Fest continues this Friday. Saturday night features Old Indians’ penultimate show with Blue Heaven. All Ages / Free / both shows start at 8:30 p.m.