Middle Kids are, for all intents and purposes, a successful indie rock band. They toured the world behind their debut album (which landed in the ARIA top 10), supporting the likes of Bloc Party and The War On Drugs – and this Friday, they will build on this promising foundation with a new album.
But to vocalist/guitarist Hannah Joy, they “are just suburban kids”, speaking to NME from a hotel lobby in Melbourne. “We have these big dreams, and I think that’s cool, but most of life is just cutting your toenails and wiping your butt every day.”
Rather than ignore the mundane, Middle Kids spend their second album ‘Today We’re The Greatest’ on “a quest in life to find the beauty in the everyday”, says Joy.
Opening with the line “hope is an underrated word” and ending with the view that “life is gory and boring sometimes”, their second album asks “how you can find the good stuff within the day in, day out”. Like a lot of their music, “it’s angsty but hopeful”, Joy says.
A timely sentiment, perhaps, but ‘Today We’re The Greatest’ was mostly completed before most of the world knew what a coronavirus was. The album was recorded in November 2019, and Middle Kids spent 2020 mixing it. Joy and her husband, Middle Kids’ guitarist Tim Fitz, were also adjusting to life after the birth of their son, which Joy summarises as “utter chaos”.
“I think big dreams are cool, but most of life is just cutting your toenails and wiping your butt every day”
With touring plans impossible to plot with any certainty, Middle Kids weren’t sure when to release the album. See, everything about the first four years of the band’s existence was measured in shows played, miles travelled, and tickets sold. Their debut album ‘Lost Friends’ was full of scrappy, indie anthems tailor-made for winning over a raucous crowd.
Live music is restarting across Australia, but that’s just the cherry on the top for this release, not its raison d’être. The reason ‘Today We’re The Greatest’ is coming out now is that Middle Kids have finally realised that “the music exists without the touring”, Joy says.
More dynamic, more direct and more considered, ‘Today We’re The Greatest’ is “definitely our most favourite thing we’ve made thus far”, Joy enthuses. “As an artist, it’s a very exciting place to be if you’ve made a body of work that you feel still resonates with you.”
Middle Kids were deliberate with what sort of record they wanted to make. ‘Lost Friends’ was made in spare moments on tour, Joy writing songs in soundcheck and chunks recorded on days off from shows. The album was even mixed on the road. “It was a lot more from the gut,” she says.
‘Lost Friends’ was also straight-up indie rock and while Middle Kids are still playing in that world, ‘Today We’re The Greatest’ also draws from a broader range of inspirations. Cinematic and expansive one moment, urgent and furious the next, it reflects what the band actually listen to. “We wanted it to be a step forward, but still in step with who we are. It’s still Middle Kids,” Joy asserts. “We know our strengths. We know who we are, and this is it.”
Subconsciously inspired by Phoenix, The 1975 and Cocteau Twins but driven by what felt exciting in the moment, ‘Today We’re The Greatest’ sounds free. “It’s how we felt when we were making it,” starts Joy before explaining that “now, that freedom feels more vulnerable. We don’t really know where this record fits or what genre it is but you have to take that risk. If you want to express yourself freely, you have to risk it being rejected or creating something not good.”
The band did have two words anchoring the whole record: powerful and beautiful. “We wanted to make music that spoke to both of those and we wanted to explore what it looks like when you incorporate both of those into one thing,” Joy tells NME. “This album is more delicate in some ways, but it’s also got these bombastic, energetic moments.”
Opening track ‘Bad Neighbours’ is led by an acoustic guitar, Joy singing “In my dreams, we’re going down” while ‘Lost In Los Angeles’ is a stuttering song of reflection and loss. Those moments of epic emotion sit at odds with the frantic garage punk of ‘R U 4 Me?’ or the celebratory indie gallop of ‘I Don’t Care’.
“Even in the pain, how can we hope? This record deals with that”
On ‘Today We’re The Greatest’, Joy also drops the lyrical metaphors that littered their first record in a bid to “be more free about what I was singing about”. While their breakout single Edge Of Town found Joy “standing face to face with the king of the underground,” new tracks like ‘Questions’ (“How am I supposed to know you when you are drunk all the time?”) and the positive title track (“Someday we’ll be gone but today we’re the greatest, even though we feel so small”) see her as frank as possible.
“Historically a lot of our music has been vulnerable. People resonate when you actually share a part of yourself that aligns with someone else’s experience,” Joy explains. Aiming to “make music that creates story and empathy” has landed Middle Kids with “a positive record with a lot of everything. It’s a declaration that when life is gnarly or boring, which it is for everyone a lot of the time, it’s still great. Owning the messy bits, the dull bits and all the amazing, beautiful bits, that’s when we’re great.”
With a lot of the music written while Joy was pregnant, ‘Today We’re The Greatest’ is resiliently optimistic. “When you have a child coming into the world, you want to have hope for them and the world. Even though life is so hectic and confusing, can we have hope amidst that?” It’s a question the band often asks with their music. “Even in the pain, how can we hope? This record deals with that.”
There’s apprehension about being more direct, especially on tracks like the anxiety-riddled ‘Cellophane (Brain)’. “There’s such a deep desire in the human just to hide and be cool,” says Joy. “We can’t control how it’s received, though,” she acknowledges. “With our music, we just want to do everything that serves it best. If that means going deeper with yourself and expressing yourself, it feels worth it.”
That belief extends to the handful of love songs on the album that, while both powerful and beautiful, are never cheesy. There’s the angelic ‘Golden Star’ and the pulsating ‘Stacking Chairs’ that promises “When the party’s over, I’ll be stacking the chairs / When the world turns on you, I will be there.” Despite the gooey sentiment, these love songs somehow avoid fairytale cliches.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever really written love songs. It only works when my understanding of love isn’t fake,” offers Joy. “I’ve always been scared to go into that realm because I didn’t feel like I knew how to sing or speak about it. I’m learning to now, though.” The world needs more true love songs, she believes. “They’re very important and helpful for us to keep connecting to ourselves and each other.”
Following the release of ‘Today We’re The Greatest’, Middle Kids have a run of socially distanced gigs in May. They know the upcoming tour won’t feel like a normal run, but they’re leaning into the sense of newness. “It’s forced us to be more creative with the show to fit the environment,” Joy says, saying they’re planning to recruit string and brass players.
The question mark remains over international touring, and though Middle Kids have started work on album three, they have no idea where it’ll take them. They aren’t worried, though. “As people, we’re changing all the time,” Joy says. “The next thing will come from that place, so we never want for anything.”
Middle Kids’ ‘Today We’re The Greatest’ is out March 19 on EMI. The band will launch the album with a listening party on March 18