In a scant three years, the Sydney three-piece Middle Kids have accomplished more than some groups do in a career. The trio of singer-guitarist Hannah Joy, bassist-producer Tim Fitz (who is married to Joy), and drummer Harry Day have racked up 20 million streams of their first hit “Edge Of Town,” sold out the Sydney Opera House, won Australian alternative radio juggernaut Triple J’s 2018 Album Of The Year, and logged television appearances on Corden, Conan, and Jimmy Kimmel.
On songs like “Edge Of Town,” “Mistake,” and “Real Thing,” the listener can easily imagine Middle Kids to be a band with the expensive producers and big album budgets of the 90s alternative boom. The reality is quite different: The band record most of their work in the home shared by Fitz and Joy, then simply add lead vocals in a studio. (For his contributions, Day found a beautiful farmhouse to record drums in for the group’s debut LP Lost Friends.) If the result seems more like an arena act than three Sydney friends and an engineer buddy, it’s largely down to the trio’s talent and resourcefulness.
We met up with Middle Kids for pints on a hot Saturday afternoon at Austin’s Waller Creek Pub House just before their soundcheck for a sold out show supporting Local Natives. The band are a bit road-weary on show number 23 of a six-week tour without many nights off, but are happy to chat about their band, the creative process, and self-care over pints of Real Ale and Live Oak across the street from where they’ll play to a crowd of 2,200 in just a few hours.
We’re hiding inside a pub today, but here in Texas people will go and drink outside at a picnic table even when it’s 103 degrees outside. Is Sydney like that, too? Do people sit on patios drinking past the point of reason?
Hannah: Yeah, we’ll sit outside a lot in the summer, even in the heat, it’s a classic Australian pastime to do that—especially in the hot sun on the beach.
Tim: Texas has been the place where I've felt it's like Australian air, or really Sydney air. The last two days—I feel used to this.
My first exposure to Middle Kids was at KCRW’s South By Southwest showcase here in 2017. That’s a tough environment: no real sound check, 35 minute sets, borrowed equipment. How was the SXSW experience for you?
Tim: I think Cherry Glazerr played at that show! We were here 48 hours and played seven shows. It was a formative time for us, and we saw some other really great bands.
Hannah: I think about that time as a training ground. We were just six months into being a band, and we hadn’t played many shows. That was a moment where we all felt ‘ah, now this is what touring is like.’ After that, regular touring seemed like a dream.
There seem to be some sonic clues to your influences in the guitar and production sounds on your first album, but the cues are all over the place. I personally hear Pixies, The Pretenders, and Yo La Tengo. What were your favorite influences from your record collection?
Tim: When we were recording early on as a band, we did actually reference Pixies specifically for their guitar tones. In general, my influences are 80s and 90s alternative bands. Hannah listened to a lot of melodic, soaring bands like Radiohead and Coldplay, and I think that comes through. We also love indie folk like Sharon Van Etten. We’re finally now at the point where we’re figuring out what our band sounds like.
Hannah: I'm not a big music listener, actually! The way I write is more out of a personal overflow. I'm not so conscious of what I'm referencing. I have listened to a lot of Sufjan Stevens and The National, that music that’s like storytelling with instruments. I don't know if you would hear that in our music. It’s more evident in the way that I write a song, or the arc of the song, you know?
Harry: You’re always betraying your influences or forsaking them! I grew up playing all sorts of music, but it’s a skill to stop playing just the music you like and learn what fits the moment and actually makes sense for your band.
The new EP New Songs For Old Problems has some heavier lyrical themes— there’s anxiety, political unrest, and conflict in the songs. Before you stop and edit yourself as a songwriter, does your songwriting lean more toward the general, or is it based on personal experiences?
Hannah: I think it is deeply personal, but I zoom out and make it about a concept when I write and sing. It’s something I’m experiencing emotionally. With the last EP, I was generally feeling more frustrated about myself, and the political world, and I can see it when I listen to those songs. On the full-length, I was feeling happier, and you can tell that, too. It does influence the content, but it’s more by projection.
When you’re feeling indulgent, what’s your favorite pub food to pair with a round of beers on a day off or after a big show?
Hannah: At home? Chicken Schnitzel. Oh my gosh. The Chicken “Schni” is a staple on every pub menu in Australia, and it’s essentially a really big chicken nugget. I’m sure the Germans would be mortified, but that’s mine—I love it.
Harry: On the road, poutine is an amazing one. It’s a naughty thing. We have a place in Montreal we go for poutine every single time. It’s nice when there’s a food that’s specific to a place—then you don’t order it every night and end up hating yourself.
Tim: Those two are good for me, too.
Hannah: Really? We eat a lot of burgers with our beer, too.
Harry: Tim’s just a bit self-conscious about how much we all talk about food.
Tim: I feel like all of our band Instagrams are just us eating food. Which is likely because playing and eating food are all you do on tour.
We’re all enjoying some Live Oak Hefeweizen and Real Ale Swifty APA’s here, but Hannah’s sitting this one out to protect her voice. Touring can be unhealthy, with too many restaurant meals and lots of sitting around. What do you do to take care of yourselves on tour?
Hannah: It’s something we’re still learning. Getting a grip on a healthy relationship with alcohol is very helpful. It’s easy to have a tenuous relationship with alcohol. Sometimes I stop to remind myself who is in control. Because it’s easy to let it control you. Once you control that, it influences everything else—not being hungover all the time is pretty good.
Tim: Leaving space in the schedule for things like eating at nicer or healthier restaurants or allowing some time to sleep are really important.
Harry: You can get into an unconscious survival mode that’s not great.
Hannah: For me, a good long walk is good, too. Especially when you’re in a new city. You get to see the place, you have time to think, and you get to move your body.
Tim: That connects you with the place as well, rather than just sitting ‘round the venue.
Health items aside, do any of you have a good release valve on tour to break the travel, soundcheck, show, sleep cycle?
Harry: NBA basketball has been mine. With the season over, I’m not sure what I’m going to do!
Who do you support?
Harry: The Raptors.
Hannah and Tim: Convenient, eh?
Hannah: He’s always loved them, though.
Harry: We were in San Antonio the other night, and… Spurs fans seemed pretty sour about the Kawhi Leonard trade.
Hannah: Going back to the stress outlet thing, sometimes we’ll play games. We like finding a bowling alley here and there. And, I know it’s food-related again, but we love a good coffee shop.
Tim: I love finding a good secondhand book store. That helps reset you. Being in a local place filled with ideas and grumpy, esoteric people behind the counter is nice.
Hannah: This also means we end the tour with a lot of books, which is not great for going back to Australia.
You’ve been on tour constantly for the past two years at a time when global politics are especially messy and complicated. Are your conversations, say in the USA and UK as two examples, helping you better understand what those countries are going through?
Hannah: You do often talk politics with people as you travel, and there’s fear and anger, but I find that most people I meet are more optimistic and hopeful about what they personally can do to fix problems than you’d guess from your Facebook feed or a newspaper. When you’re face to face with someone, there’s a general desire to do good.
Tim: People are tempted to make everything a big political debate, and that can be important, but you see that people often connect better with their hearts or on a personal level.
Hannah: It’s easy for political issues to dominate the cultural world. That’s there for us, but there’s a broader range of things to talk about in your work
You’re headed back to Australia soon. In the Sydney pubs, has the craft beer movement taken over, or are the classics like Victoria Bitter, Crown Lager, and Tooheys still what people order?
Tim: Craft beer has definitely taken off in Australia, but people always come back to the true bastions of beer like the ones you just mentioned. I think VB is still the ultimate, and reigns supreme down under.
Hannah: For me, if you start on VB and stick with it, you’re good, but if you start on another beer and then drink VB, you kind of assault yourself.
Tim: I’ll sometimes get sick of the rich, crafty things and switch back to VB. It’s like coming home.
Harry: What was the brewery we went to in Newtown that was really cool?
Hannah and Tim: Young Henry’s!
Tim: There’s also a really nice place called The Bitter Phew in Sydney that’s small and local.
Are there dominant styles there in the way that IPAs are dominant in the US at the moment?
Hannah: We don’t like IPAs as much—I feel like people do go for pale ales and session ales a lot. It’s cool because even craft beer hipsters in Australia will enjoy a VB or a Coopers.
Tim: We’ll probably come under fire for saying that.
Here in Texas, there’s a resurgence of lager and pilsner love at the moment, and Texas has always enjoyed wheat beers at well.
Tim: I feel like we’re seeing a lot of craft Mexican-style lager here, too?
Yes, that’s definitely on trend. Before we wrap up, Australia is really having a moment, and there’s some great talent breaking out like Gang Of Youths, Angie McMahon, Courtney Barnett, and Stella Donnelly, just to name a few. Who should we be listening to amongst your peers that we might not have heard yet?
Tim: One that has been around for a bit, but that I really love, are Ball Park Music. They haven’t toured much in the US, but they’re really amazing.
Hannah: If you haven’t heard Julia Jacklin, her new album is beautiful and her voice is stellar.
Harry: I’d say Camp Cope, they’re a cool three-piece punk trio. They tour here a lot, and they’re an awesome band.