A blend of power pop and rock along with a hint of punk permeates the music of the New York-based band, The Midnight Callers, whose debut album, Red Letter Glow, came out Oct. 23 on the Jersey-based Jem label. Old school ’80s meets the ’90s. A big sound without the techno electronics produces an honest, straightforward style that is both catchy and refreshing.
“We’re all from New York City but different boroughs,” said lead vocalist and guitarist Chris Paine. “I’m originally from Massachusetts. Julien Budrino, our drummer, is from France. (Lead guitarist) Martin (Stubbs) is from Pennsylvania, right outside of Philadelphia. And Marley Myrianthopoulos, our bass player, may be the only one who is actually from New York City. I rehearse more for his name than I do the music — it’s always fun to say that onstage, depending on how many beers I’ve had.”
How did they come to be a unit and develop their sound?
“We started because Julien and I were in another band, kind of a ’60s mod-rock thing,” said Paine. “It was kind of a set parameter as far as songwriting and styles. I just happened to be driving to a gig one time and I said, ‘Hey, I’ve written a couple of songs but I don’t know if they’re going to be good for the next album.’ And Julien said, ‘Hey, these are pretty good. We should do something with it.’ So we started developing this album together and kind of recording it.
“I’m not the greatest lead player in the world and I can fake bass, so we had to kind of start building the team up as we went along. So we started recording an EP, started playing shows under Chris Paine & The Letter Train, which was kind of our moniker for whatever fell into this weird side project.
“Again, I wasn’t that good of a player, so we put an ad out on Craigslist and listed off some influences: ‘I love The Beatles, Tom Petty, Cheap Trick,’ and I mentioned Big Star. That’s where Martin came into the equation. He answered the ad saying, ‘Anyone who mentions Big Star, I’m in,’ and that’s how Martin ended up in there and then it was the same deal with Marley. We got him on board and when we all started to play together, we were like, ‘Okay, this isn’t just two guys’ side project while playing with another band. This is actually turning into a full-fledged band.’ So then we started going back and forth on names and decided on The Midnight Callers after the Badfinger tune.”
The band has been together for about three years, and worked on the album for six months. “We brought in Kurt Reil from The Grip Weeds to help co-produce and arrange the vocals because we really wanted to up our game a little bit,” said Paine. “When we started doing this, we kind of all thought to ourselves, we don’t need to spend crazy money in a studio, we’ve got enough technical ability, we can probably do it ourselves. We started talking and we said, if we’re gonna track drums we need a big ceiling, that big drum room, to get that big John Bonham sound, or whatever it is.”
“We did a lot of it DIY,” said Stubbs. “We tracked the basic drum tracks and rhythm guitars up at Chris’ parents’ place in Massachusetts. They have a beautiful A-frame and a great sounding drum room. So we went up there, took up mics, a recording console, our laptops and did all the basic tracking directed to Logic there.
“Then over the course of the next few months we did guitar overdubs, guitar solos, acoustic guitars, and then to get the vocals right we went to Kurt Reil of The Grip Weeds at House of Vibes (the Highland Park studio). He’s a master vocal producer who helped us pull the harmonies together, helped Chris finalize the lead vocals. It was a multi-stage process and not a traditional go-to-the-studio-and-record-an-album type of thing. He also did all the mixing and the mastering. Once he dialed in a sound that we liked, he mastered it from there.
“You’ve got to give it to Kurt. This was one of the first times recording our own music and we did not serve him up the best possible guitar tone or placement of drum mics from an audio perspective. We owe a lot to him for the way the record wound up sounding and the quality he was able to produce.”
Jem Records president Marty Scott’s input created a little extra on the disc.
“Earlier this year, after Bill Withers passed … we were all huge fans of his, so we did a cover of ‘Use Me’ and put it out on our YouTube and social sites,” said Stubbs. “We did the whole thing ourselves. We recorded it and mixed and mastered it ourselves and Marty said, ‘This is great! You should put this on as a bonus track,’ and that’s how that kind of wound up.”
How did they catch the interest of Scott anyway?
“That connection came from working with Kurt,” said Paine. “He had the tracks and we were just finishing the harmony vocals and a couple of YouTubers had posted some videos of us and talked about our live shows and Marty got wind of us and when he found out we were working with Kurt he hit him up and said, ‘Hey, what do you guys think about sending me over some rough mixes?’ ‘So he took a listen, he liked what he heard, the next day we had a phone call with him, and I think the next day he sent over the paperwork and we signed with them. We were so ecstatic that a label like Jem, with all of the history they have, was interested in us, so we jumped at it.”
Red Letter Glow is a unique title and one that is somewhat open-ended. But as Paine explained, it’s not that mysterious.
“I think we were trying to convey the feeling you get when you’re in New York at night time and streets are wet after a rain and you get that glow from all of the restaurants and clubs. We just wanted to give that sense of New York at night time.”
Even though Paine and Budrino have a history of working together, Paine said he and Stubbs are the writers. Well, sort of.
“I mean, for the most part, it’s us two. The thing I always caveat with is that Martin and I will kind of write the songs out, hash out how the flow is going to go, and the other two guys add their own spins on it that elevate it to a different level that neither of us could have expected. A good example is, we sent Julien a demo track to ’41 Miles to Roscoe,’ which is our lead single off the album, and we were playing robo-drum machines just to keep time, and Julien sent it back to us with this powerful kind of drum intro where he was smacking the hell out of the snare and it made the song.
“So, sometimes the songwriting is important, the actual words and melody flow. But sometimes it’s those little extra things that make the song. Just putting a little nuance or beat can make the song or make it a totally different song that works.”
Stubbs agrees with his bandmate but also realizes the importance of staying within a song’s structure no matter who gets the writing credits. (Many others would be wise to adopt his approach.)
“Lead guitar for me, at least, it complements the song, so the sort of highest power, if you will, is the direction of the song and where it goes, how it flows and fits around the vocals. I think a lot of times that lead guitar parts get written to complement the melody or a specific feel of the song. I’m not a fan of gratuitous solos or over-shredding, if you will.”
With the album’s recent release, it now faces the challenge of gaining the favor of audiences in a closed COVID environment. But The Midnight Callers have a plan.
“I think obviously COVID has put a damper on things in terms of playing live,” said Paine. “But we’re trying to be a creative as we can possibly be. We’ve been trying to find shows at breweries and we are trying to be outdoors as much as possible.
“We’re also finding opportunities to do livestream concerts. We did a livestream to celebrate John Lennon to coincide with the Jem Records release (of the Jem Records Celebrates John Lennon compilation), so, yeah, we’re just trying to find ways to engage the audience.
“Live is great but we’re also trying to record some more live videos so that way you still kind of get the sense of how we are live. But obviously, everyone has to stay at home right now and do their part. So for the time being, we’re sticking to social and video outlets.”
For more about The Midnight Callers, visit themidnightcallers.com.
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