Holler Country Music
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In Conversation: Midland

By Thomas Mooney

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Mark Wystrach, the frontman of country outfit Midland, is lounging on a plush, royal blue couch in the middle of a baseball locker room in Amarillo, Texas. Dubbed the Back to the Minors Tour, it's the final night of a five-show run that's taken them across the state playing minor league baseball fields. "I'm playing my baseball role up here," he says with a chuckle. He's leaning heavy into the look with an old ball cap, mirrored sunglasses, and a cheek full of David sunflower seeds.

The trio - Wystrach, Jess Carson and Cameron Duddy - are hot off the heels of releasing The Sonic Ranch, an album and documentary set that looks back at the group during their early days. Wystrach notes that the songs and recording sessions came even before they settled on the name they sport now.

The Sonic Ranch undoubtedly finds the band at their most charismatic and charming, yet perhaps more importantly, it's unassuming, candid and earnest in its expression. While their breakout debut On The Rocks and follow-up Let It Roll saw Midland become honky-tonk jukebox heroes, The Sonic Ranch has an aura of dusty border ballads and campfire tales. Where the other two have that Saturday Night shine and polish, The Sonic Ranch is a little torn and frayed on the edges.

"This is a very pure, natural sound and really set the table for our career going forward," says Wystrach. "It sounds like Midland, but it was a simpler time."

Songs like the roving ‘Cowgirl Blues’ (both versions), the jangly ‘Worn Out Boots’ and the highway ramble of ‘Texas Is The Last Stop’ all feel like vintage Midland songs, but sound weathered by the dry desert air of the Southwest. While those are some of Sonic Ranch's finest moments, when Midland are at their most natural, during the likes of California country tune ‘Will This Life Be As Grand’, the buckaroo ode ‘She's a Cowgirl’ and the poignant standout closer "This Town’, they sound their best.

The Sonic Ranch may not boast a smash hit anthem such as ‘Drinking Problem’ or ‘Cheatin’ Songs’, but in many respects that was never the intention. Those lights may have shined just a little too bright for The Sonic Ranch’s plainspoken and down-home spirit.

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Y'all released The Sonic Ranch a few weeks back. By keeping those songs in the vaults, I'm sure y'all planned on revisiting them at some point - was quarantine the harbinger for the project?

Since we first got together, it's been a pretty fast-moving train for us. Right before COVID happened, we were essentially on a rocket ship ride. This was the first time we were able to slow down, much like the whole world. When you all of a sudden come out of warp speed, your identity you've been building in your mind since childhood is ripped away from you. We didn't know if we were going to come back or what was going to happen.. I always like to say, “When God gives you lemons, make margaritas”. I think it was really special for us to get to take a break, because otherwise we never would have. It allowed us to focus on our families, our homes, our lives; we just got back to being who we were. Within that, we kind of had this "Oh shit" moment; we have all these recordings. We have this footage and we've never done anything with it, it'd never been a priority. It's just one of those things that is kind of serendipitous. Going back and listening to these unfinished demos that we had never mixed or mastered before, we realised they’d aged like a fine wine. It’s a very pure, natural sound that really set the table for our career going forward. Yet I love that you can listen to Midland from seven years ago and still weave a sonic thread through all of it. It sounds like Midland, but from a simpler time. These songs were made for the reason of exploring music and fleshing out ideas, so the joy and spirit is infused in these tracks and it almost gives it a gospel quality. It does kind of take you to church, and I'm very proud of that. I'm proud of everything we've put out, but I'm just really happy for our fans and for people who've never heard of us before to get to hear this side of Midland and to see the roots of it. The timing was perfect.

It's funny you mention there being a communal church quality, because they feel like campfire songs to me. Y'all also made a documentary that captured the recording process. There are some moments where it feels like y'all forgot there were rolling cameras?

Yeah, that's the idea, it was voyeuristic. It's really for fans and people who have never met the band before, that opportunity to just be a fly on the wall. You're seeing the way that we creatively collaborate and within that you see a whole lot of tension. Early on, there was tension between us three guys - three artists - who have very strong ideas of what they want to do. Before, there were a lot of butting heads. There was a lot of tequila and beer drinking, it was like a camping trip. Early on, we didn't know how to appease one another, how to get our way or how to infuse our personalities on the songs. It was fascinating to go back - I realize now that we've grown immensely as songwriters, recording artists, performers and as people. I mean, I was single and wild during that time. For me to now be happily married with a beautiful kid, I'm saying, wow, I've matured a lot and our music has grown.

I figured in revisiting this material, you'd be nostalgic, introspective and reflective - you'd see just how much y'all have developed as artists. When establishing a band, there isn't a roadmap - you're trying to cultivate a sound and style, but there's so much up in the air. Now looking back, do you think you achieved what you originally set out to accomplish?

I think that all of us had the concept. We'd known each other predating The Sonic Ranch, and had played in bands together too. I don’t think any of those prior projects worked because there wasn't that magic three. There is a particular magic in three, and that was rather quickly realized when we came together. By day four in the studio, there was so much fun being had that you could actually start to see an album take shape. The camaraderie was just growing; the laughs, shit-talking and the prodding with each other. But looking back, there was also the drive, the work ethic - we were working 16 hours a day. I’ll always remember when we were recording master vocals for ‘Fool's Luck’. As I was singing I had this vision of us playing to packed out stands at my local fairgrounds in Sonoita, Arizona. In my mind, it was bigger than I would ever allow myself to dream. In reality, that’s probably half the size of the shows we're playing now, but at that point - even before we left Sonic Ranch - I knew that my life was going to change. I knew that I was going to chase this wild idea - this entity - that Jess, Cam and I had created together.

One of the songs that really strikes a chord for you personally is ‘Worn Out Boots’. When y'all played it last night, you dedicated it to your wife.

The great thing about being a band of songwriters is that although we all view the world differently, there's also a lot of convergence in our outlooks. Jess has written some of my favorite songs - he has this sensitivity and ability to be earnest with himself or with me, as if I’m his muse sometimes. Being able to write lyrics and work out the arrangements in this way, I sometimes feel like we’re Bernie Taupin and Elton John, the three of us.

With ‘Worn Out Boots’, the moment I went to sing it, it felt like a pretty honest picture of my life at that point. You know, I've always toed the line and I've enjoyed going pretty fast. I definitely believe that I have guardian angels that have looked over me and kept me alive, as I used to be pretty wild. I can still be pretty wild, and I'm a dad now. I get that from my own dad - he’s a bit of a hellman. But if you're a country artist and you grew up in a bar and honky-tonk, that's kind of your landscape - you're going to find yourself dancing a little close to the edge sometimes. That song is about redemption. Deep down in the good times, the faster you went, the lonelier you got. There are tough times and I was doing a little too much of almost everything. When I met my wife, we were cruising and moving pretty fast. I truly believe that great relationships just exemplify and identify the best aspects of you and turn down the shitty parts. It's still in there, but they amplify the better parts of you and she's done that for me. So, the song’s about not being perfect, but finding somebody that makes you feel like you are, even with all of your fallible sides. My wife saved me, I’m not going to lie. Some of us need saving sometimes.

Now looking back, how important was Sonic Ranch?

We call The Sonic Ranch ‘la onda’, which means spirit in Spanish. There were three studios, so at any given time there were three different groups recording. In the morning, you're all having coffee and breakfast and hang with all the cooks, who are all family. It's a community - it's a living, breathing thing. By day four or five, you know everybody's names. When you got an hour or two off, you're popping into their studio, hearing rough mixes and what they're working on. Later in the nights, when everybody's done, you drink mezcal, tequila and beer. When the tension gets too much to handle inside the studio and you just need fresh air, somebody rolls a joint and you go for a walk under the moonlight to the pecan fields. It's very spiritual. I don't know, I just felt that these were the greatest 10 days of my life. I just wanted to keep experiencing it, keep creating. That's what got me high.

Midland's new documentary and album, The Sonic Ranch, is out now via Big Machine Label Group. Watch the full documentary, Midland: The Sonic Ranch Documentary, below.

Photography by H Smith.