Interview by Avinash Mittur
Midnight Chaser is a band that waves the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal flag through their music but with an American 70s hard rock twist, starting out in Pittsburgh PA, moving to the San Francisco Bay Area, and now having decided to move back to Pittsburgh. They released their second full-length album ‘Lion’s Choice’ a couple of months ago, and just performed at the Old Town Pub in Pasadena last night as part of a West Coast tour. Our LA resident yet SF Bay Area metal expert Avinash Mittur conducted interviews with the band in two parts, in San Francisco in November 2013 and last night. Read the in-depth conversation below.
The lineup is overhauled. How did it happen?
Josh: I was in a band with Zack a few years ago called Myotonia. We hadn’t played together in a while and he posted on Facebook that he needed a singer for his band. I actually jokingly replied, “Uh, I’m ready to sing for you,” and he said, “Oh, well if you’re serious then you can sing for us.”
Zack: I tried him out as a joke, because I did not think that would work.
Steve: Zack rebuilt the band pretty much. Zack knew Grant and he knew Josh.
Josh: He had only heard me do cookie monster vocals until the first Midnight Chaser practice.
Steve: Because we had lost so many guys, I was ready to stop. Zack was like, “No, let’s just look for some more guys.”
Grant: I recorded an album at Zack’s studio with the band that I was in before and also I knew Zack and Josh from Myotonia. I had seen their shows and known them from then. My friend who actually played guitar in Myotonia hit me up on Facebook and asked me if I wanted to play bass for Midnight Chaser because he couldn’t because he moved. He reached out to me and said, “I think you can handle it, just hit them up.”
Zack, you engineered both the full-lengths. Were you able to rectify any mistakes you made on the first album this time?
Zack: The two albums are so different that it’s hard to compare. From an engineering perspective, we’re talking about a different studio, entirely different members outside of Steve. Castle Ultimate has been five studios run by me and my best friend Aaron Hellam. We had one studio that we made back in 2002, we moved in 2005, we moved again in 2009, moved again in early 2011 and just recently we’ve split up and I’m down the hall from him. But this album was recorded at what I’m referring to as “Castle Ultimate 5.” The previous Midnight Chaser record, which I did not perform on, was at Castle Ultimate 4. It’s a different place entirely in a different city with a different feel. It was in an industrial park in Fremont. This album was recorded in Jack London Square at Sharkbite Studios.
Steve: I don’t think that people realize that while some bands take months and months to do an album, we did the two Midnight Chaser records in two to four days. We just come in and we do it and that was it. With this record, we definitely took our time. It’s really fun because what we would do is finish three songs that were done, then we’d record vocals for three that weren’t done and we’d listen to them for a week. Then we’d change the lyrics or change the arrangement and that was really cool. We’d never really had that before.
Zack: It was only just last week when I listened to the two albums back to back and it’s kind of ridiculous how much better this record really is than the last one. I think it’s in part because of the process of us being able to critically reflect on it as we go along. Me, from the engineer’s perspective, being able to go back and mix something not just from the constrictions of a day in the studio, but I can work out and listen to our music and it changes the perspective. It makes you notice the little things that you can change and do better.
Zack, does being a live member of the band help as an engineer?
Zack: Yes, some of the best recordings I’ve done have been with bands that I played in. No question about it. It’s a unique and fantastic experience to record a band that you’re in. The downside is that it’s really hard to fit it in, because it’s my job and it’s hard to do a record and fit in during my free time.
Steve: There’s also the business side. Luckily we’ve known each other for so long that I can tell Zack, “We’re paying for this whole thing right?” and he’ll be like, “Yeah yeah yeah, we’ll work it all out.” We’re treating it like a real transaction, we have to maintain that separation.
Zack: Steve is saying that, but my brain can’t put it that way. It becomes hard to prioritize. I’m not going to book a day for us because I know we don’t have a day’s worth of material. It’ll be random nights.
Steve: We come in, do an hour and go eat dinner. I’ve never recorded like this. What’s cool, especially with Midnight Chaser, the longer we play the songs and the older they become, the better they get. We change the songs a lot and we like it better when we play them. They age and it’s kind of funny.
Grant and Josh, did you guys come from an old-school metal background like Steve did?
Grant: I’ve always been into old-school stuff, so I don’t think it’s been a big transition for me. It’s just been a matter of finding the right guys to play with, so it was a nice and fortuitous situation to meet up with these guys and play with them. It was totally the kind of stuff that I’d be excited about playing and I was excited about the material. It fit in line with the kind of music that I really enjoy, so it was an easy fit for me. I’m friends with these guys, we get along really well and we play and rehearse well and are relaxed about it. It’s a pretty natural feel at this point. It’s a productive and fun environment, we’re friends outside of the band and they’re all fun to hang out with.
Josh: This is the first band that I’ve sung melodically and cleanly for and it’s a lot more fun than any other heavy project that I’ve done. It was a challenge right off the band because it requires a lot more stamina and a lot more practice. Not that I get that amount of practice that I need- it’s definitely a challenge, but it makes it fun. It keeps me on point knowing that I can’t get shitfaced all week long, not practice and expect to show up and sound halfway decent. Like Grant, I grew up listening to heavy music too. As far as the traditional stuff goes, it definitely wasn’t my background. I grew up more on punk and hardcore, playing drums and guitar. Vocals are something I did because I had a loud voice and I could yell, luckily that morphed into me being able to actually sing and have a half-decent voice. It works out, and like Grant said, we’re friends and we can hang out. We’ll go to practice, we’ll play for forty minutes, then decide to go get food and drinks and it’s fun. If you’re going to be working a full-time job, play music and be half-way serious about it, if you can’t hang out with your bandmates then there’s no point in doing it. We all have fun and it’s why we do this.
Steve, when did the songs for Lion’s Choice begin to take form?
Steve: So we started writing the ‘Lion’s Choice’ songs when Brandon was still in the band, the original drummer. That was when we practiced on Harrison Street. Scott Atwood was still in the band too. That was like 2012, so it took almost two years to get that stuff done, which actually made it better.
So you were constantly playing the songs live, did the arrangements change over time?
Steve: Yeah, they changed completely. Switching singers is what really solidified everything. We actually had two other songs that were kind of older that we didn’t even write lyrics for, but all the music was recorded. We actually cut two songs because we wanted to get something done with the new members. We had to march pretty quick. Doug, the drummer who did the record, his work schedule started changing so we knew we had to get it done. The songs completely changed with new people in the band and after playing them over and over. I’m starting to think that if a song is less than a year old, it’s not that good.
Josh, for the songs that were already written, did you change the lyrics or melodies at all?
Josh: I went verbatim. The melodies changed just because I’m not listening to the recording and over and over again, and when you play things live some things change here and there. For the most part, Scott’s parts are still the same on the songs.
Grant, same for you?
Grant: Yeah, pretty much. We had demos of the songs for ‘Lion’s Choice’. We listened to those and practiced with those. I didn’t have the bass tracks singled out, so from what I know I’m doing it pretty much verbatim.
Steve: Also, we cribbed a lot of it from Sven [Soderlund, former guitarist]. A lot of the melodies and stuff for the leads… because it was Zack, Sven and me playing, we actually cribbed a lot of his stuff. He was cool with it. He wrote some really good stuff just on the fly.
Sven played a solo on the album, right?
Steve: Yeah, he’s on “Cry Wolf” at the end. It goes Zack- first solo, then later in the song is a full solo section with Zack and then Sven. He did pretty much one take.
Josh: The solo that sounds like a virtuoso walked into the studio, laid it down and then dropped the mic is Sven’s.
Steve, I noticed that you took less solos with the new stuff as opposed to the old material.
Steve: Yeah, I wanted the lead guy to be the lead guy. I only do like two solos on the whole record. The first and the last solo on “Rollin’” and the lead melody on “Lion’s Choice”. I think that’s it. Writing most of the songs and then being the only original member left… When we were in the studio the other times, I had to go and track two tracks per side of rhythm, and on the other record it started being too much. That’s when I wanted to get a lead guy, and it hits the limits of my skill level. I really wanted over the top soloing, and that’s why we got Sven first and then switched to Zack.
Grant, your bass tone punches through really well on the record. Was that a combination of you and Zack sculpting the amp tone?
Grant: Yeah, definitely. We just wanted it to sound the way it sounded like in the rehearsal space. It’s a combination of the amp and the distortion pedal I use, and I really like the tone a lot. Zack helped me achieve that.
Steve: We had played the songs for so long and played them a lot live, that really all we did for the recording was go for the best take we could get of each song. It’s not like we wrote anything in the studio, it was just getting the best sound and the best take of the song. This was also the first time that we didn’t track it all in one stretch, it took us like two months.
Josh, you were in a country band, Grit and Gold. Those two genres are so disparate, did your approach as a vocalist to the two bands cross over in any way?
Josh: I played bass in Grit and Gold and I did some vocals, but my vocals in Midnight Chaser reflect my personal style way better. I had a lot more fun singing in Midnight Chaser. Grit and Gold helped with control on low vocals and with singing tastefully and learning harmonies, but in the last year my voice has improved leaps and bounds, at least as far as I can tell. My voice is almost like yelling in key and it provides a lot of soul, and Midnight Chaser is one of the bands where I can do that. I’m not a typical metal singer, I’m not going to go up there and give you a high octave all the time and scream, I’m just a dude singer. Grit and Gold helped a little bit, but I was mainly a bassist in that band. It was bummer leaving them, but for a while I didn’t know which band I wanted to do more because I was having fun with both of them. As soon as I left Grit and Gold, it was all Midnight Chaser and we really started focusing on doing shows. We had the album out, Dave came in on drums and we able to practice a lot more. I got better, I dedicated a lot more time to it and therefore because I was doing better, I had a lot more fun. Just having the time to get better personally and bringing that to everyone else, everybody just has a better time.
That said, do you possibly regret not being able to redo your vocals on the record given how much stronger they are now?
Josh: I always regret not redoing my vocals on an album! But the reality of it is that you’re not going to go back and redo the album. To tell you the truth, I try not to read online reviews but I hear what people say. To me, that’s just how I sounded then and I can’t let that affect how I feel about how I sound now. I know my voice is strong and in a perfect world, I would redo every vocal on every album and do it stronger. Living in the past is not what we want to do, we’re moving forward, we’re writing new songs and my voice is going to be better for.
Steve: We had a thing where he was so brand new, but I was so sick of the songs and I wanted to get them done. We basically produced it just so the songs would come out. Yeah, he was going to get better but having the record done was a lot more important. We’re probably going to get more stuff out pretty quick. We’ve got a bunch more new songs.
Josh: This tour is really just a testament to how good I feel. Waking up this morning after hanging out with the dudes all night long, my voice felt a little crispy. Then being able to go onstage and do a set that I felt pretty strongly about, it means that I’m stronger than I think I am right now. As long as I keep that mindset, I think it’s going to continue to get better. But yeah, I can always improve. If you don’t want to improve, you really shouldn’t be doing this. My goal is to get better, and to play with people who are better than me. I’m surrounded by a bunch of dudes who are excellent songwriters and cool people, that makes me better as a musician and as a person.
Steve: We keep the vocals… they’re not over the top metal vocals. I like that style better. A lot of the old ‘80s stuff had that kind of feel, you don’t have to sing high all the time. I really like Rose Tattoo and bands like that. David Lee Roth has his own thing going.
David Lee Roth’s sound is like your technique Josh, yelling in key.
Josh: Yes, and he means it. It has soul. That’s why David Lee Roth kicks ass. The genre of New Wave of British Heavy Metal, it encompasses a lot of different types of music. There’s a scene for it and people want to hear it. Some people are tired of hearing just bludgeoning stuff, they want to hear some melody, they want to hear some good songwriting and that’s never going to change.
Steve: It’s funny being from the Bay Area, we are kind of a weird band. Helloween was a weird band, they’re so fucking weird but they’re so good. I like that. It’s not that we don’t take it seriously. Like Slough Feg and Brocas Helm, those bands are great and they don’t fit in with everyone else.
About the covers, is that kind of a tradition for you Steve? To put one on every release?
Steve: There are actually covers that we play that aren’t on the albums too. Like we’ll play “Strutter” a lot. It’s like if you can write a better song, why not play the original? I like when you do a cover and you can’t tell. Like our old label Heavy Artillery didn’t know that “Too Wild to Tame” wasn’t our song. I couldn’t have written something like “Cry Wolf” better, so might as well play it. I think it’s good to play covers personally.
Josh: We’ve gotten compliments too. It’s great because we always have fun playing them, and we wouldn’t release them if we thought we did a shitty job.
Steve: The dude from Avenger wrote us on Facebook a few years ago saying that he liked our cover of “Too Wild to Tame”. I’ve always wanted to play a two set night where we do one set of all original stuff, take a break then do all covers.
Grant: It’s just nice to have a bunch of songs to pick from.
Josh: Our setlist has been different every night. We’ve just been picking and choosing really.
Steve, when did the idea for moving to Pittsburgh come about?
Steve: Well, the band actually started in Pittsburgh. When I was there from 2005-2009, we started off as Awesome Party, and then I finished school moved back here. I brought the singer and bass player with me and we were a four-piece. We started in Pittsburgh and now after being in the Bay Area, it’s just getting really expensive. I went back to Pittsburgh a couple of months ago and the scene is just crazy. Everything Oakland was… it still is like that, but we’ve lost a lot of that kind of vibe. I don’t want to diss Oakland because it’s still the best place, but the music scene is like… it’s hard to find members. You can play out a lot, but trying to schedule five people in a room for more than two hours more than once a week is getting so hard because everyone is just barely hanging on. It’s all those things combined.
Musically, Pittsburgh is just a great place. My old bands Wrathcobra and Ladybeast, they’re still going. Then there’s bands like Carousel too. Right now, it’s just a great place to play music. There’s a lot of bars, a lot of music venues and a lot of players. I told everyone in the band, and Josh is coming with me. I didn’t want to mix the two things together, like I’m moving for me personally and I feel bad. Just getting the record done, everyone in the band does such a good job but you got to find the right people. We have the right people to play a lot, but not necessarily the right people that want to just go in a room and write. I think I can find those people in Pittsburgh because there’s more slack time. Most of the Midnight Chaser songs, a lot of their origins came from when I was in Pittsburgh. How we’re writing here is almost to a crawl, because we’re always practicing for shows and not writing. We have six or five ideas fleshed out that just aren’t getting worked on because everyone’s tired and the Bay Area is becoming a really difficult place to do art or music unless you’re rich.
Grant, you’ll be moving in more of an art direction right?
Grant: Pretty much, at least for a while. That’s kind of like what I went to school for too, so it’s definitely something that takes up a great deal of my time and something that I have a lot of passion for. I think after a couple of months you never know, I might be willing to move myself. I just felt like the timing wasn’t right for me when moving came up as an idea. I sort of have a lot of other things going on that I felt I couldn’t drop right away. I’ll always keep the option open, so if Midnight Chaser ever wants to tour and I’m still… if they call me and ask me to play a tour, I’m super down. I love playing bass in this band, I love hanging out with these guys but if they need to find someone else in Pittsburgh, that’s more available then that’s what’s up. We’ve talked and it’s been brought up for me to remain in the band, and it definitely means a lot to me. It’s definitely been really fun and really inspiring for me to play in this band. I look forward to seeing what happens!
Steve: And Zack, with his business, is just not willing to move at all. When I get to Pittsburgh with Josh and we find a drummer, then we can write new songs right off and have fun. Then we can find another lead guy that can solo and then I’ll call Grant and be like, “Hey man, this is it.” So we’ll give it some time and see.
So do you think that the sound will resemble the Midnight Chaser we know?
Steve: Some of the stuff is a little different, it goes in a bunch of different directions.
Josh: It’s still Midnight Chaser. Just from my limited experience with the band, it’s Midnight Chaser. Steve’s done most of the writing with the band and he still has that melodic sensibility, the raw rock essence of things. It’s fun music, music you want to hear live more than anything.
Steve: Songwriting works best when you can jam with a drummer and get everything hashed out.