For a moment, you can see genuine surprise on Conan O’Brien’s face as he shakes Hannah Joy’s hand. Her band Middle Kids have just finished their performance of “The Edge of Town” on his show, and they killed.
The dynamics and underlying passion of the song brings to mind Bruce Springsteen, with the group bringing spine-tingling harmonies to the indie-rock chorus. When they played it on the show, they rocked the ending out hard, unleashing everything they’d been holding back for the bulk of the song. It’s no wonder O’Brien looked shocked.
This was back in February, when the Australian four-piece had only played one small U.S. tour. They hadn’t even been a band for a year.
Around that same time, Middle Kids released a self-titled EP. There’s a full-length in the works too. On the band’s current three-month tour—they stop in Santa Cruz on Sept. 30—they will stop in Connecticut to mix the tracks for a full-length that is expected to get an early 2018 release on Domino Records.
But everything leads back to “The Edge of Town,” the first song the band ever wrote and released, even before they had played a show together. At that point, Middle Kids was more of a side project for its members. Joy in particular had been pursuing a solo career. Guitarist Tim Fitz had a different band.
“We kind of threw it out there, not really knowing what the response was going to be. So then we had to catch up, ’cause people liked it more than we thought they would,” Joy says.
They saw something not only in the response, but also in how they collaborate as a group. Joy primarily writes the bare-bones elements of the music. Before Middle Kids, she wrote mostly on the piano, and had more of a singer-songwriter execution of her music.
“The very nature of writing and playing on the guitar kind of toughens it up in a way that I’ve really enjoyed. Tim brings a lot of his influences to that,” Joy says. “That song was just so cool. It opened the floodgates. It felt like, ‘oh this is so our strength’ in terms of that indie rock vibe. We had all these other songs that took that vibe so well.”
In no time, “The Edge of Town” was a hit on Triple J, pretty much the only station for indie rock in all of Australia. Middle Kids quickly became everyone’s main full-time project.
The invitation to perform on Conan came a few months later. The group was playing at a festival that Joy says is the “South by Southwest of Australia.” A man introduced himself to the band’s manager and said that he booked for Conan O’Brien’s show, and wanted them to play.
Meanwhile, the EP captures the unique songwriting of Joy and Fitz, as well as their live energy, which pushes and pulls with outward energy and internal reflective calm. It’s not a unique recipe, but the execution of it is exceptional, and shows the promise of a young band. For their upcoming full-length, they hope to expand on it without straying from what made it so good. Joy says the biggest difference is that it might feel a little bigger: “Like when we’re strumming a million guitars and you’re playing four on the floor.”
When Middle Kids comes through Santa Cruz, it will have been just roughly 13 months since their first show, so they are still discovering who they are. They hope to do a lot more live shows to find out.
“We love this project so much, so we have no qualms with making it the thing for our life,” says Joy.
INFO: 9 p.m. Sept. 30, Catalyst Atrium, 1011 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. $15. 429-4135.