by: Haley Miller
At Blue Light, stage left, spotlighted guitarist and lead vocalist for Midnight River Choir, Eric Middleton– who I found out later that evening from a post-show engagement, carries more passion, melodies, and just a downright gift for understanding and emphasizing the power of harmonies in music. His diversity displayed through music compiles to create a sort-of funky groove strong country-style– one that I have never heard before. But now that I’ve been exposed, I feel that this sound NEEDS to be around more.
Midnight River Choir was formed when a few strangers floated down the Guadeloupe River in New Braunfels, singing songs and making sweet music. When campers created a buzz around the river about the music coming from what they were referring to as the “Midnight River Choir”, the name, sound, and concept seemed to make sense and the guys started booking shows around the area within two weeks after meeting each other.
Though Middleton’s acoustic set on the 8 Days of Mayhem tour did not display this full range of sound from the entire band, I had the honor of listening to Middleton and fellow bandmate Justin Nelson (who came alongside to sell merch), play on their guitars on a small blanket in the middle of Tech Terrace Park and was completely mesmerized. Words won’t ever be able to describe the music that filled the giant park, but I can guarantee the birds stopped and listened–hopefully carrying their tunes throughout the West Texas wind.
The free-spirited 22-year-old has phenomenal ideas for his future without hyping up the actual “plan” aspect of it. The subtle confidence and obvious originality from this talented musician is one that’s hard to ignore. Eric didn’t play a single song without his head turning, eyes closing, and expressing his underlying passion for what he was playing during his acoustic set. The rhythms and harmonies conveyed during his own set and contributions towards Seth Candan and Brian Keane‘s songs were also consistently pleasing.
There was always something to watch throughout the entire performance. Whether it be Middleton picking his guitar finding the perfect backup melody for his friends on stage, drumming his hands against the guitar, or rocking out to one of his songs, his engagement in the music is hard to avoid. I’m making a strong effort to see Midnight River Choir perform as a whole. If a quarter of the band was that talented, I’d almost bet a full performance would be overwhelmingly phenomenal. But it’s one that I am absolutely ready for.
New Slang: OK, first where exactly are you from and which river did you and your band come together at?
Eric Middleton: I’m from Kirbyville and it was the Guadalupe River.
NS: Nice, I used to float out at Don’s, so I wasn’t sure if it was that river in the area or not. So tell me more about the Billy Bob’s nomination y’all recently received.
EM: Live at Billy Bobs recording contest, I don’t really know the exact date. There are two rounds of voting and we made it into the finals last year. Radio stations nominate I think 40 is the starting number, and there is an online voting registration and the top 10 after voting go to Billy Bob’s at the same time at the same day and play a 20 minute set while being recorded audio and video and what not.
NS: Did you like playing at Billy Bobs?
EM: Oh yeah it was so awesome. We only got to play for like 20 minutes with nine other bands, but it was really cool. We were nominated last year and getting with Smith Entertainment and on the 19th of this month, we’re playing our first headlining show at Billy Bob’s.
NS: That’s so exciting. I know Billy Bob’s is huge. Congrats! I want to talk about your music as a whole as a band there are SO many different sounds coming from y’all. I know you mentioned y’all write at the river quite often but what is your writing process really like?
EM: It was so crazy when we did that CD. We wanted to make a CD on South Congress in Austin on the week of South By Southwest in 2011. We worked for 14 hours a day for six days a week, and we had all these songs—anytime we get together at a rehearsal or a show we do a LOT of jamming. No words really. Yeah, we do a lot of jamming and we were ready to go to the studio to start recording, so we laid down the bass and drums and based it around that…but we did it all live. We stood in a circle and looked at each other and just recorded the whole thing that way. We had the live feel since we had the drum and bass tracks down so we got the feel so when you listened to it, it wouldn’t sound like, “oh, this guy came in and did bass, this guy came in and recorded this… and so on.”
NS: That’s what I was confused about actually. How y’all made time to compile all those different sounds. I had no idea y’all did that whole thing live. That’s awesome.
EM: Actually Justin [Nelson] (lead guitar) and Jager (former guitarist) and Mitchell [Pyeatt] (drummer) were all in the same room and I was in a glass isolation booth on the side so I could look at them with my microphone hanging out and after that we just built on that. We had Cody Canada produce it for us.
NS: So y’all wanted to record the record on South Congress during South By Southwest week…how was that for you guys?
EM: It was crazy. Every time we’d go outside for a cigarette break, we’d be able to catch a live band 30 feet away so that was cool. We actually had to ask a record store by where we were recording to hold off on their techno show for about 15 minutes so we could finish recording what we needed because the base was bleeding through the walls.
NS: That’s crazy! So on the track “Soul Food,” are there female backgrounds in there or am I hearing things?
EM: That’s our drummer, Mitchell.
NS: Oh nice. Have you considered throwing in a female with you guys?
EM: There is one song with female vocals though. “Arms of a Stranger.” Adam Odor engineered and mixed that record. He’s one of my favorite people in the world. A couple of his claims to fame were mixed and engineering “Willie and the Wheel (A collaboration album with Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel),” the Dixie Chicks’ “Homewrecker.” So he mixed and engineered for us and his wife Megan is a singer so we kinda said, “hey, pick whatever song you’d want to be part of,” and she added echo vocals in that song and it sounds so cool. For the next record, we haven’t thought about it too much because our band is based upon the four-part harmony we do between us. If we were to add any female vocals on the record ,they would be very subtle, and they would probably come from my sister.
NS: Awesome, keep it in the family. Now I know y’alls story- you guys were then strangers, floating on the Guadalupe River singing songs, people overheard you guys sing. The rest was history. How long after that night did you guys decide to really start something? Get in the studio and realize OK, we really have potential; let’s do this.
EM: Well, before the whole band thing came about when I first moved to San Marcos about five months before. I ran into Mitchell, our drummer, who I didn’t know at the time, backstage at a Cross Canadian Ragweed and Stoney LaRue were playing in New Braunsfels. He was the only other dude backstage with X’s on his hand and he had a beer and I was like, “dude, what the hell?” I met his dad that night, Rodney Pyeatt, who was lead guitarist for Stony at the time. Before I moved to San Marcos, Rodney called and said I couldn’t move to the hill country without a record, so when I was seventeen, I recorded a track with nine originally songs on it.
NS: When did you start?
EM: In relation to the night, two weeks after that river float we (Nelson and Middleton) started playing together around town then Mitchell and Jager used to come and hang out and learned the songs. Our first show after that river show was two weeks after and people started to take an interest in what we played. We realized we really needed a product; we had a little bit of money, so we went into the studio three months after forming and recorded. Then, we waited two years to work on the next one; we did a lot of preproduction. Like I said, Cody helped us out a lot and his wife is our manager and they take good care of us and set us up in the management warehouse, do prerecording in the warehouse, so we were super prepared for the next album.
NS: Since you all work on the melodies and four harmonies, is there not one specific person that leads the music writing process?
EM: Our process is…different between the four of us. We all separately sit together and write–and it’s super easy for me to write a verse and a first half of a chorus. Mitchell, our drummer can make up awesome melodies right off the top of his head and is great at hook lines. So we ‘ve got a verse, a full chorus now, and a melody and Justin usually comes in and ties it up all together. Once we hit a wall, we just don’t dwell on anything. If I sit down and say I’m not getting up until I finish a song, it’s going to be a shitty song. But, as long as it’s coming out, I write it down and when I hit a stopping point, I go back to it the next day or call up my dudes to hang out and put stuff together. Also Seth [Candan] and I have been doing a whole lot of writing together.
NS: Working on anything else coming up in the future?
EM: We’re doing as much as we can. Doing a lot of traveling up to the Midwest. We went to Chicago and played up there for a benefit in October for Cubs pitcher Randy Wells and found a cool stretch of venues and we’re leaving April 24. On our next run, Tulsa, Okla., Manhattan Kan., Lincoln Neb., Iowa, and Riverton, Ill. Five shows at the very least once every two months. We could go up once a month and play different venues. We just have a whole lot more traveling coming up. Playing in Colorado July 4 in Meeker.[The] longest running annual rodeo and we’re playing at an old folks’ [home] Monday and Tuesday leading up to it. Definitely acoustic, five to seven for two nights and they pay great. We can be in bed by eight and wake up in the national forest in Colorado. It’s going to be awesome. But that’s about all we’re doing.
NS: Alright well is there anything else you’d like to cover?
EM: Well, you were asking about a record. It’s not solid, but we’re thinking about doing a live CD. We don’t want to do it in one venue. We want to just be live from Texas and record around 25 shows and pick our favorite songs and put them on the record. We want to do songs from our first CD as well. The old quality is horrible, when I listen to it I want to throw up sometimes, but everyone else likes it so I’d like to have some songs from that CD, our current one, and maybe one studio track that kind of gives people a little preview for the next album. When I talked about it, we didn’t have any new songs written for it, but Seth and I wrote about 14 hours worth of music on the river not long ago, so we have a lot to work with now. We almost have enough now.
NS: And you would bring those songs you and Seth recorded into the album?
EM: Absolutely. Seth talked about [Mike] McClure helping them out and we’ve had Cody Canada helping us. When they came up, we were fans. Everybody was writing songs together and both of those people, whoever wrote the song would record it at the same time and produce it on the same record. For example, Cross Canadian Ragweed and Randy Rogers both recorded “This Time Around” and Randy’s version went awesome… but, I want to bring that back. That’d be really cool in the near future to write a couple of songs and both record them–we have a funky groove style and we could come with really cool stuff mixing funky groove with Muddy Waters sound that Seth has. Definitely plan on spreading the roots in the near future.