Smile Politely

An oral history of Night Air on the Midway

In preparation for their re-release show this Saturday, May 26 at the Highdive (which will include an array of kickass supporting acts: Common Loon, Psychic Twin, Brief Candles, and Fahri), Chris sat down with the guys from Evil Tents to discuss the band, the album, and the story of how both of those things were birthed into this cold, hard, beautiful world of ours​.

The guys in Evil Tents are a talkative bunch. When I sat down for an interview I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Over cigarettes and beer on a lovely evening, the four gentlemen spoke at length, answering questions I had not asked yet and getting side tracked by things like poisoning Kings of Leon and making an album at Mas Amigos (which, to be clear, is not where Night Air on the Midway was recorded).

What came out of the interview was more than 3,000 words — a lot of which would make little sense to print. In between, however, was the story of their album, Night Air on the Midway, which is being released in its final, physical form Saturday at the Highdive.

Here is the story of how that album, as well as the band in its current incarnation, came to be, in their own words.

Nathan Westerman (drums): “Etienne” was one of the first songs John Isberg (guitar, vocals) and I worked on. John referenced “1979” [the Smashing Pumpkins] the first time we played as what he wanted the beat to be like. I love that some of those songs have made it this far and evolved so much and become so much bigger.

John Isberg: With just me and Nathan, I had to play melody and rhythm. When Isaac Arms (bass) joined, he could take more of the rhythm. With Aron Stromberg (guitar), we could do role-playing and stuff with 10-sided dice. I got chills when we first jammed “Etienne” out. It sounded like Adore [the Smashing Pumpkins album], I loved it.

Isaac Arms: I’m not much of a bassist, but I can go Michael Ivins from Flaming Lips. That dude can not play bass like a motherfucker, he knows when to shut up. I try to listen so I can be quiet. If you know any of my other bands you know I’m not too good at stepping back and letting the song breathe, so this has been a good experience for me.

Westerman: Drums are the same way. John brought me some brushes and was just like, “Scale it back.” I said give me some time because it is harder to play.

Aron Stromberg: You’re like Max Weinberg, just doing your thing. Chk chk chk … Just space out and let it go.

Isberg: [Sings “I’m on Fire”]

Stromberg: Funny, that’s the reason I’m in the band.

Isberg: Oh yeah, he played that song at a show we were at and I thought that’s fucking great, man. So good, we gotta get that dude. [Laughs] One thing I’m really grateful for is the music and the people and the context we’ve made for it all; there’s moodiness to it. I told Nathan the name Evil Tents and said, “Bear with me, there’s a context to come.” It’s like anything, Joy Division, what the hell does that mean? All of a sudden, now, you know. I’m just grateful for how things have evolved over time.

Arms: The physical release sounds quite different than even what we put online for streaming.

Isberg: Aron mastered and mixed it and it sounds quite good.

Stromberg: I’ve heard this band go through so many stages. Initially it was bare bones. I played with these guys twice separately [before joining the band], and when I heard what they had recorded with Caleb of New Ruins, everything was very well recorded and very precise; it invited depth. Now that I’ve heard it so many times, I don’t even know what to think about anymore.

Westerman: Can we say remastered so it sounds more special?

Arms: We can say remastered; it would be a lie though, because it wasn’t technically mastered. From someone who doesn’t master, and mixes based on weird metaphors and notions about food, the mastering opens the space up. It takes out the hiss or hum or something like that. It gives it a buoyancy and space.

Westerman: It gives it a definition; the drums sound really crisp and clear.

Stromberg: The drums were getting lost in the mix before — they were more of a wall in the center. Now there’s a lot of depth and width. You can hear everything more succinctly. Mastering is weird because it seems like such an afterthought. You get everything done then you master, and it’s a quick process — it’s amazing how much the sound changes from just a few tweaks here or there.

Isberg: Aron has spent a month not just mixing and mastering, but adding layers and layers of guitar and everything. It’s been cool to watch. Before that we had a very lo-fi thing going on. I had my acoustic, then Isaac joined and that opened it up, but it was still very lo-fi.

Arms: It was very lo-fi, very…

Westerman: The songs were always there; they are strong songs.

Arms: The songs were always there, so it wasn’t a change in identity wholly. But the character has changed and evolved. We’ve come full circle because we started bare bones and now it’s spare with some space, even though there is a lot happening. It’s mixed and mastered so well that the recording supports the songs and it communicates better. The soft release was the birth of the album; this is its christening.

Isberg: I describe the sound of the band as two guitars, an acoustic, and some drums and bass.

Westerman: We don’t want sticky labels on our music. My experience with art is that it is what you want from it. I was talking to my insurance guy and he asked what kind of music we played and I said something like folk-pop-rock.

Isberg: With some spacey vibes in there.

Arms: Brass tacks, we’re dream pop.

Westerman: Mazzy Star is the closest comparable sound, but what are you going to call that? What it is, is that I’m so close to it. When John and I started it was folk. When Isaac joined, he added rock; when Aaron joined he added space.

Isberg: Space suit folk.

Stromberg: I’m a huge fan of the merging of the digital and analog worlds.

Isberg: When I was in Reds I used a vocoder, and when I did live shows I would sing through the vocoder because I liked the weirdness of it. That was what I thought. With this record I tried both ways and I liked it with the vocoder because it seemed stranger. There’s a couple tracks that don’t have it at all. The first and last are just me and the acoustic guitar, very organic, then coming in we were free to be whatever.

Westerman: Even when we first started playing, just you and I, I thought, “I’m going to go into this almost in a mechanical way.” I wanted to be repetitive like a drum machine.

Arms: We have so much fun playing that I forget how horrifyingly dark our songs are sometimes. Like on “Bury the Knife in Your Heart.”

Stromberg: That’s a weird one, I don’t know that I see it as being dark.

Isberg: It’s pretty dark [laughs].

Stromberg: The lyrics are dark, but it’s a stark contrast to what’s going on.

Isberg: That’s the beauty of it. Same in “Come Back High.” It’s like the worst codependent relationship you could be in and it’s like, “I don’t care,” and just come back.

Westerman: I don’t know that John’s completely decoded the meanings of the songs, so there’s still room for interpretation.

Arms: I don’t even know what he’s singing.

Westerman: Like anything, the listeners bring their own interpretation to it.

Stromberg: We’re shooting to do the album at the show.

Arms: Give people a taste of what they could buy.

Isberg: We may squeeze in a new song or two, but we want to work on those more after this.

Stromberg: The album is how we learned to play together. We listened to that album and have branched out from that. We don’t play it the same way now.

Arms: And now we’ll write some new songs the way we play now.

Isberg: We jam to start practice, and it just kicks things off organically.

Arms: Sometimes that’s how we end up with songs.

Isberg: That’s how we got “Night Air on the Midway.”

Arms: And “How Dark.” We basically had it, but then it became its own thing.

Isberg: I had a demo of it then we tried it out and it became really cool. That was 95 percent jam, 5 percent of an actual song.

Stromberg: There’s a jam element to it, but what brings us together is the trade off of melody between the three of us and Nathan working.

Arms: We weave and thread and he ties it to together and makes it work. And makes the asses jiggle.

Isberg: Our sound is going to keep changing. I have a new guitar and we’re thinking about space more. It will be different, but still us. We’ve definitely changed.

Stromberg: I think the album has helped us change because the whole process has been recursive. We do a lot of listening to what we’ve practiced and what we’ve done.

Westerman: It’s a lot like football. A lot of game tapes.

Stromberg: It’s a process where we’re reinterpreting what we play.

Arms: With some locker room horseplay.

Stromberg: And we’ve played the songs a lot differently the last few shows we’ve done.

Isberg: After the release show we’re going to try and do stuff at the end of the summer, maybe some five-day tour of the Midwest.

Arms: Or New York, LA…

Isberg: Paris, Rome.

Arms: No, fuck Rome, that place is dirty.

Westerman: We’ll do some weekend tours, hit some potent spots, play places on the way there and the way back. I thought we were destined to be an opening band, because this community loves rock bands, so how were we going to be received? It’s great that people are interested in hearing what we’re doing.

Arms: We’re proud of our finished product. I’m excited about the people who never even streamed it, because they damn well never heard all the demos we passed around back and forth to each other. Aron mixed and mastered it, so it’s a headphones album. It’s written by John Isberg, so it’s a nighttime driving album. I played on it, so it’s a pot smoking album, and Nathan played on it, so it’s a pot smoking album.

Westerman: My CD burner wasn’t working, so I never heard it in the fucking car until a couple months ago. When I finally got a burned copy it was pretty sweet because Katie [Nathan’s girlfriend] had a stack of CDs with Patti Smith, Arcade Fire, whatever, in the car and she listened to it all on her own. It was really nice to hear the finished product. We both listened to it on a drive to Chicago recently and that was cool.

Stromberg: It does feel really nice to hear in a car, doesn’t it?

Arms: We are night driving music. We are pot smoking music. We are water bed fucking music.

Isberg: Well, that’s an odd genre.

Evil Tents are playing this Saturday, May 26 at the Highdive with Common Loon, Psychic Twin, Brief Candles, and Fahri. Doors are at 9 p.m. and the show starts at 10 p.m. Tickets are $7 and only available at the door.

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