Middle Kid’s Hannah Joy talks their latest full-length Today We’re The Greatest, from the album artwork to Neil Finn’s six-string banjo.
Middle Kids are one of the most loveable indie-rock bands you’ll ever meet. On their sophomore album, Today We’re The Greatest, the three-piece trade out anthemic bangers for reflective ballads. Amidst these softer spaces, the band inject real-life noises, ranging from scissor-percussion to the heartbeat of Hannah and Tim’s baby boy Sunny.
The result is an album that embraces “normal everydayness and then the total inexplicable magic that we experience”, making for an utterly memorable and Saudade body of work. We caught up with Hannah to find out more.
HAPPY: Before we get going I have to ask, has any interviewer begun an interview with: “we’ve got questions and you’ve got answers?”
HANNAH: [Laughs] No, no one has dared to say it!
HAPPY: [Laughs] I thought I’d get that out of the way! Anyway, it’s been such a treat to listen to the album, it’s been on heavy rotation in my car, loving it! You recorded the album in LA with producer Lars Stalfors, how was that experience?
HANNAH: It was freaking amazing because we’ve never recorded in a studio before. So we were pretty scared to do that. Mainly because Tim has had such a hand in producing everything, we just couldn’t really see how that was gonna work. But when we met Lars, he and Tim got along so well, it was so nice, they’re the best little friends. So it was really cool for us because it just meant that we had more space to get deeper into the songs without having to think about the technicalities or even manage some of our dynamics, we could kind of pass that on over to Lars. And then even just being in the studio was epic! He has such cool synthesisers and guitars, like these old Japanese guitars… So we totally just felt, you know, kind of renewed textures and colours into the song that I think we just wouldn’t have found if not being with him in that space.
HAPPY: Yeah, cool. You had more opportunities to be creative and he could handle a bit more of the technical stuff?
HANNAH: Yeah, and I think the pressure was good, you know? Because when we are at home you just have infinite space to kind of tinker away, or whatever. But kind of being in this pressure cooker with a 14-day limit, it actually brought up something good in us.
HAPPY: Yeah, classic right? What would you say is different about Today We’re The Greatest compared to Lost Friends?
HANNAH: I think that Today We’re The Greatest is a lot more dynamic, so there’s a lot more breadth and depth to the sound and even to the feel of the record. I think we were very intentional about creating different spaces within each song, so it feels like you are on more of a journey as opposed to Lost Friends, which sonically, is pretty bombastic and loud and high energy. You know, it’s really influenced by us playing big American festivals and lots of shows over there, ‘cause I kind of wrote most of it while doing that. But this, I think, wanted more space… ‘Cause even a lot of the music that I like to listen to, a lot of it is quite reflective or even sad or slow, and I think I was too scared to make slow music before because then I’d have to perform slow music and that’s too confronting, at least when it’s loud you can just be like “bla bla bla bla bla!”
HAPPY: [Laugh] Dance now!
HANNAH: Yeah, exactly! But this requires you to share more and sit in the moment more, but I think I felt like we needed to do that because we need to grow and do the next thing so… I think that there is a big step into that for this record.
HAPPY: I definitely picked up on the reflective, vulnerable side that you were trying to come across with. I reckon it will still resonate with audiences, it’ll just be more of a quiet: “oh shit, this is a deep moment” kind of thing.
HANNAH: Yeah, yeah.
HAPPY: The album art on the singles is pretty memorable as well, with the hands in black and white and the colourful images over the top. How did that idea surface?
HANNAH: Well, it was inspired initially by the visual artist Ben Lewis Giles who made all the artwork, but I think we just thought it’d work really well for our record because so much music is kind of this mix of just everyday human experience, which is like my face for the album cover or just our hands, kind of like interwoven with space for more whimsical, magical moments and you know, the tears or the streams from the eyes being that hyper-colourful, intense… superimposed on to that.
And then same with the hands, the butterflies or the raindrops or whatever and we just thought it was a cool marriage of these two things that we’re always grappling with and trying to explore the normal everydayness and then the total inexplicable magic that we experience as well.
HAPPY: Yeah, sick. So kind of an intersection of the mundane and the magical?
HANNAH: Yeah, totally. And it was cool to see it so wonderfully, visually represented. And I find it hard to express myself visually but I’m very moved by visual art so it’s cool when someone has a vision that they can bring to your project that you totally align with, but that it’s someone else’s contribution. That was a fun part of the project.
HAPPY: Awesome. I saw that you’re doing a sneaky performance on Thursday in Marrickville the night before the album drops. Is there a track that you’re just dying to finally play live to an audience?
HANNAH: Actually, yes. I really want to play Lost in Los Angeles because I really like it, so that makes sense. But also I like the banjo and I think it plays to a lot of our strengths as players. We’ve actually never played that in our lives so we have to learn it tomorrow [laughs], so we will.
HAPPY: Awesome [laughs].
HANNAH: But I’m really excited about that one.
HAPPY: When I heard the song I thought: “Ooh this is a new instrument for the Middle Kids.” Any Sufjan Stevens fans in the band?
HANNAH: We’re actually all big Sufjan fans. It’s funny that the banjo to our generation is like Sufjan.
HAPPY: [Laughs] Yeah.
HANNAH: But the cool thing about that banjo is that it was Neil Finn’s from Crowded House and it’s also a six-string banjo, which is really cool ’cause obviously they generally have four. You kind of play it more like a guitar, but it was cool ’cause once we started to put the banjo on that track it kind of helped it get fully realised, which was one of those exciting things where you have a song, and you know the song, and you can already see the soul of the song and then a six-string banjo comes along and you’re like “Oh mama, here we go!” So that was like a cool experience.
HAPPY: [Laughs] Yeah, it just clicked.
HAPPY: Awesome. There’s plenty of unguarded lyrics on the album. So many just stuck out to me like the line in Cellophane “nothing more sad than a man who cries in his car in the driveway” or “my friends and family, they’re all in therapy” in R U 4 ME. Is honesty a really key part of the creative process for you?
HANNAH: Yeah, I think so. I think that -I was thinking about this the other day-, It’s really interesting, when I write lyrics it’s like I’m not really setting out to write about anything. I’ll usually start with some music and the music will almost like inspire words. I’ll play some chords that make me feel a certain way and then I’ll use lyrics to express what I’m feeling when I’m hearing those chords, if that makes sense. And so, often it’s like, from me, it’s from a very subconscious place that kind of pours out. But I think that as a person, I feel like I’m just striving to live more honestly and feeling like that is the way that I want to live.
When I feel like I’ve had a strong tendency to hide myself since I was child, and I think that as you strive to do these things in life, just naturally totally informs your art and what you put your hand to. And so, it’s been this kind of wonderful thing of like – because I write from a very subconscious place to begin with, it’s cool to see that when I find some chords that move me and then when I start singing, that what’s coming out is actually quite honest. And it’s not me being like “time to be honest!”, it’s actually because I’m trying to, in my every day, live out of that place and it’s been wonderful for me as an artist to see that influence my writing.
HAPPY: Wow, that’s a great answer. The last thing I’ll leave you with is something that really touched me. There’s a heartbeat on the last 30 seconds of Run With You which kind of ties that sentiment together, which is really nice. How did that happen in the studio? Who’s idea was that?
HANNAH: That was Tim’s. I mean, it’s the same with that and the rain recording at the end of Golden Star like the bird sounds. I think Tim has a wonderful relationship with sound. Not just music, but sound. He’s always listening. I think even as, what I was saying before, this record exploring human experience and a lot of that just being our day-to-day, it’s really cool because Tim is quite present to that and we wrote a lot of this record while we were reading or listening on Audible to this book called The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle: he’s like a German philosopher or whatever.
It’s all about being present because the future doesn’t exist and the past doesn’t exist yet we can so live in either of those and I think it’s really -I’m starting to ramble now- but bringing it back, that really influenced the record because Today We’re The Greatest is basically is a proclamation of saying “we’re great today, when we can be present and live our life that’s here now, in all it’s glory and all it’s mundane ways.”
And I think that it’s been really cool, how we could use sound to communicate that more, so not only instrumentation and different melody lines but also like the heartbeat of Sunny when he was 20 weeks in my tummy and you know, there’s like scissors as percussion, just like random little things. It’s kind of this cool, body of work that is built on beautiful music but also just sounds and thoughts around these kinds of things.
HAPPY: Yeah, just those raw sounds can be music as well. It doesn’t just have to be the instruments.
HANNAH: For sure! And that’s not really even my area, that’s a lot of Tim’s gift coming through there, like of his ability to kind of pull those in, that I think have really created some special moments on the record.
HAPPY: Thanks so much for your time, Hannah!
HANNAH: No worries!
Today We’re The Greatest is out now via Universal Music Australia. Grab your copy here.