The year is 1998 and the location is New Brunswick, New Jersey. It was almost a decade after The Bouncing Souls formed and almost a decade before The Gaslight Anthem took off – both out that very city. Right in-between those two bands, who are both still touring and favorites of ours, Midtown came to be. The quartet floated on the edge of pop punk notoriety and disbanded after seven years, but that doesn’t mean their legacy in and around Rutgers University was forgotten. If anything, it had held up immaculately as they prepare to return for not one, but two sold-out shows at Starland Ballroom this weekend.
Very few bands can break up for eight years, not officially release new music for 18 years, and still return as epic and as grandiose as Midtown have. The foursome reunited this year and immediately hit the ground running. The band is still fronted by Gabe Saporta (of Cobra Starship fame) and they played an earth shattering performance at Chicago’s legendary Riot Fest. It was a return of their rock stylings to the scene, which was aptly and directly followed by a spot opening for My Chemical Romance on their own massive reunion tour.
Whether you’ve heard of Midtown this year or been following them for the last two decades, they have made their presence known. TheAquarian made sure to discuss all of it with the band in our conversation with Heath Saraceno, their guitarist, and Rob Hitt, their drummer. (Midtown is rounded out by guitarist Tyler Rann.) We talked about everything the band’s reunion entails, and that may sound like a lot, but these two are some of the nicest people in the music industry and are always a pleasure to catch up with.
Obviously you guys have had a very eventful few months with this reunion in full swing and opening for My Chemical Romance. Tell me how it’s been on your end.
Heath: It’s been incredible playing those shows. When we were a real band I don’t think we ever played shows that big – not consistently at least. I mean, we played some shows with Blink-182 in 2001 that were in amphitheaters and arenas. Those were probably about as big, but these felt bigger. First off, by the time we went on this time the place was full. We were playing to a packed house every night. They were stoaked. They were warmed up. They were ready to see My Chemical Romance. They were willing to tolerate us for a while. We just had a really good time going out and playing. We have absolutely nothing to lose by going out and playing every night. It’s not like we’re worried about gaining traction as a band because we’re trying to hype up a new album or touring cycle. We’re just four dudes who are friends and want to go out and have some fun together. In some ways, these are the easiest shows we’ve ever played as a band.
Rob: I also feel like I never called it a reunion. Even though technically it’s a reunion, it felt more like your friends asked you to come hang out with them. You just happen to be rehearsing a lot and really hard. Sometimes it feels like I’m on the outside looking in at these shows. We just get to experience the vibe of everything that’s happening, does that make sense, Heath?
Heath: Absolutely. It’s like someone just picked us up with that giant claw machine, took us out of our life with our home and family and work, and just put us down in an arena somewhere and said, “Go have fun for 30 minutes.” There are fun things along the way; we got to do a secret show in Jersey in August, we played a couple of cool festivals [Riot Fest and Furnace Fest], and we did a small headlining show in Southern California. We’re just trying to savor every minute of it.
Rob: This is not a Midtown reunion, this is a Midtown gathering of friends.
I love that! That’s so interesting – I never thought about it that way, but you’re right. When a band is touring they’re always hyping themselves up for the new record or launching for the next tour. There is always so much pressure. But with you guys, there is no pressure to begin with. You’ve already made your legacy. It’s just hanging out with friends.
Heath: Just enjoying the fruits.
You mentioned it earlier, but I want to dive in on that. You’re first official show back after 2014’s brief reunion was in New Jersey at Crossroads… legendary venue. The amazing Pollyanna opened up for you guys. Tell me about that show.
Heath: This was one of the only things I feel like I ever was able to bring to the band as an idea. I’m so happy they were able to humor me with this. Andy Diamond, who books Crossroads, reached out to us a couple months back. One of our good friends, Alph, works at Crossroads, as well. Alph was talking to him about trying to get us there to do a secret show. We were trying to figure out how we were going to do it and we couldn’t figure out the timing. We wanted to do it sometime before Riot Fest but that would mean Gabe would have to fly in special for this and then fly out. We couldn’t figure out the timing. Sometime in late July Gabe told us he was coming to New Jersey for three days in August. We could practice Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, and then he would fly out. I saw that Wednesday as an opportunity – instead of doing a full band practice, to just do a show. I reached out to Andy and they had that day open. I brought it to the guys and was like, “I know this is crazy. I know at this point we would have practiced four times as a band. There is no better way to rip off the bandaid than to get out and do it – see if we can do it.” At that point, we would have been playing a show less than a month after that. We used that as a warm up show to gauge if we could do it. We did the two practices Monday and Tuesday, did the show Wednesday, and did 21 songs at the show. It sold out in a couple of hours. We went in thinking of it as practice with a couple of close friends. People were stoked – we were stoked. Then we had to go to work again the next day. It was a lot of fun playing that show. I thanked everyone profusely for humoring my idea and I think it worked out better for everyone.
Rob: In the history of Midtown, I don’t think there was ever a time where I, as the drummer, for some reason in the middle of the set, was asked to tell a story. We’ve done two headlining shows since we’ve gone back to doing shows, and every show you’ve given me the mic to speak to the crowd. I feel that drummers should not be doing bits. This isn’t Jerry Seinfield at the comedy cellar. Either way, I’ve had two experiences to kickoff my comedy career at a Midtown show because for some reason Gabe wanted me to tell stories. Don’t know why that happened, but thanks I guess.
Heath: We’re just trying to help you get your comedy career off the ground.
Rob: Thanks. Love you all.
I imagine that with instruments, especially drums and percussion, your whole body is moving. When you’re in that zone and you’re sweating and tired, then you have to tell a story to entertain the people… I imagine that’s a little jarring.
Rob: I’ll take the break! [Laughs] 44-years-old and some 22 songs? My God.
Going back to what Heath was talking about with making that last rehearsal show, I feel like Midtown is synonymous with the New Jersey scene. When you think of New Jersey punk bands, you’re probably one of the first bands to come up. It’s fitting that not only are your reunion shows at Starland Ballroom, but especially to have our first official show back to be at Crossroads.
Heath: Yeah, it was very appropriate to do it there.
Absolutely! I know we talked a little bit about this in May, but it wasn’t so much, “The band is going to get back together for this purpose and this reason,” it was just guys having fun together. You have fun playing. Seeing you guys live, I can say now firsthand I’ve witnessed a Midtown show, and it’s just fun. You are having a fun time on stage and we can just feel that.
Heath: I think that it’s important when you play shows to be focused and try to not mess up and to try to play as well as you can. When you’re in the moment and you have all that adrenaline running through you and you’re running around screaming in people’s faces, you sometimes lose a little bit of that. You might miss a guitar line here or there, but it’s okay. It doesn’t matter as long as you can get through the song and not make a total ass of yourself. As far as our stage presence, it’s always been natural. It’s always just been like whatever we felt like doing at that time. If we felt like doing seven spins in a row? Jumping off the bass drum? It’s just a natural thing that happens.
Rob: Breaking the bass drum spur!
Heath: Breaking the bass drum on the second show. I mean, it happens.
Rob: Sorry Mike from SJC. We’ll blame Gabe for that.
Heath: It happens, but the goal is just to go out there and have fun… enjoy what we’re doing.
Rob: It’s definitely not a schtick because we’re pretty goofy at our band practices, too. Being at band practice and playing with these dudes is not a chore. I think for all of us, getting to band practice on two subways or PATH trains or the turnpike or the parkway–
Heath: Then setting up all the gear and lugging it? It’s a lot.
Rob: The jokes are rampant. I don’t think any of us feel like we don’t want to be there. After taking such a break, it’s just fun to play. It’s been a blast.
We can see that. Do you still get surprised that so many people still care and remember you and hold onto these records like Holy Grails?
Heath: Yeah, it’s surprising.
Rob: Maybe you say that, but I don’t believe it. Maybe I’m just a pessimist on myself or it’s like unpurposeful self deprecation, but I always feel like when I meet somebody that knows Midtown, my first instinct is, “Are you from New Jersey or Long Island?”
Heath: Or Florida!
Rob: Or Florida or Southern California – like a very specific county of Florida. Either I’m just pessimistic about the true Jersey legacy of Midtown or you’re just from New Jersey. It would have been nice. I don’t know what Midtown songs truly transcended. Midtown never had a “Hey There Delilah” [Plain White T’s] or an “Ocean Avenue” [Yellowcard]. So like maybe there was something there, right? That’s awesome. I think when we first put the first show on sale, though, and had to add a second one, then had added shows in Long Island and Worcester, I think it was more like shock. Less than, “Oh, it’s Midtown’s legacy,” it was like, “This is crazy! Ok, let’s be awesome for them and let’s play a lot of songs. Let’s learn a lot of songs. Let’s play some songs we’ve never played before or haven’t ever played since we were teens in the beginning of Midtown. If people are going to be this cool to us, then let’s try to return the favor.” That’s what Heath and I are doing on Monday night and we’re going to do it again on Sunday. It’s going to be wild. To be honest, at this point in my life there were some songs that I never felt we would potentially not just play again – that I could play or perform – but I really think if we had to play any Midtown song and I had two days to learn it, we could play any Midtown song. I didn’t even feel that way in 2005 or 2004 when we broke up. It’s makes this a lot more interesting and fun.
I want to ask about one of the things you said about how Midtown never had a “Hey There Delilah” or that one super smash radio hit that propelled you guys into that crazy stardom. I would even argue that Midtown, to me, was never that kind of band. All those bands that tried actively to have that one big radio single, they wouldn’t end their album with a 14 minute epic like “So Long as We Keep Our Bodies Numb We’re Safe” with the same verse repeated for eight minutes straight. I feel like you guys, at least from my perspective, never chased that.
Heath: Well, we didn’t start a band to become the middle-est band in the world. We always wanted to be a band that people loved. We wanted to take over the world – we really did. We wanted to be the biggest band in the world. We wanted to be the best band that we possibly could. I don’t know, but we definitely tried.
Rob: There was always something in the thread of Midtown and songwriting and whatever it was that we did, and that made it important to us to make it more interesting for us to have something that was our own. I think you said it best – how can we make the album interesting with the tracklist or the whole point with the beginning? If you just came out to some of our shows you’ll see Heath sing some songs. Even right now in a 35 minute set, yeah, Gabe sings, but Tyler sings some songs, Heath, sings some songs. Gabe, the “singer,” might be adamant about having Tyler sing it because that might be more fun or more interesting or his voice plays to how that cover song can be played out to the fans. It just makes more sense. I think Heath said it right when he said, “What’s the point of being in the middle?” That’s no fun. Be who you are and enjoy it. You do listen to a lot of pop punk bands, or any music for that matter, and when a band or an artist decides to become big it becomes very derivative. For us it was always important to not be derivative of other bands. Of course if you’re pop punk or punk or emo or whatever genre, of course somebody who isn’t familiar with the genre is going to say, “It all sounds the same! You sound like Green Day!” I think that you, Valentino, you’re going to be like, “That does not sound anything like Green Day!”
Yeah! No, it doesn’t!
Rob: Someone that doesn’t know anything about the scene might be like, “They sound like Green Day,” but for us, personally, it was always important to do what we wanted for us. I think it made things a little fun and more interesting… at least we try to, whether or not it came out that way.
I know we’ve been talking a lot about your Jersey legacy because we’re supporting these two Jersey shows and The Aquarian is from Jersey. I think this level of originality that you both are talking about… you guys saw the crowd you played to at Riot Fest and you don’t get that unless you have a very true genuine connection to your art.
Rob: Riot Fest was cool! If you’re in a band and you’ve ever played a festival and there’s many stages, you have that weird 15 to 20 minutes in between when you go on and there is two other stages going at the same time. In front of your barricade is like almost completely empty. So we had Jimmy Eat World in Riot Fest playing on the main stage right before us. We used to tour with Jimmy Eat World and it’s not like our music is super similar, but Jimmy Eat World is big. There’s another example of song – they had “The Middle” on Bleed American. Before they went on I’m like, “Oh, fuck!” Nobody was there. I’m like, “Ok, maybe we were confused about how big Midtown was,” and then as soon as they ended it started to fill in. The second Jimmy Eat World’s set stopped, it was like “Holy…” You just saw–
Heath: A wave. It was a wave.
Rob: A wave of people! I don’t know if you saw on our Instagram, but Conor, our friend that helps us out with photography at the shows, was behind me and took this photo. I think you see part of my drum kit and then you see Gabe jump in the air and then you just see under his legs and all around him… just a mass sea of people. I think it happens to every band, you’re like, “Aw, man. We’re playing this festival on the side stage and nobody’s here.” It’s just the nature of why would anybody be at that stage if there’s no band performing, you know? It doesn’t matter who they are. That was fun especially because that was our first big show back. We had done that show you were talking about earlier in the interview at Crossroads. The technical venue capacity was 230 people and we did a show the night before at a club with The Academy Is, but this was literally the first real, big show we had played. It was just one of those moments where we were like, “Maybe we were confused about this Midtown thing,” and then we played it and it was all, “Oh my God – that was incredible.”
It’s funny, Riot Fest was the first festival I worked officially. I was talking to you, Heath, about this at the festival. I didn’t realize that when you’re side stage, you can’t hear the stage in front of you. You hear the stage behind you. I’m watching Midtown, but all I heard was the other side. It’s so weird to see a show but not hear it. You forget that’s the most important part.
Rob: By the way, 25 years ago, I think the experience for you would have been a little different. Now a lot of bands have in-ear monitors. The bands are using the professional in-ears and they’re hearing everything beautifully. They’re hearing all the samples. They might hear a click track. It sounds great to the band whose on stage because you don’t need those monitors next to the drums or front of the stage anymore… it’s like when people ask, “Can you get me onstage?” If you really wanted to see the band and not just feel cool, you would not be side stage. You want to really enjoy the audio and the sound? Get by the soundboard. That’s where you’re going to get the best sound because that’s where they’re mixing it from. To be honest, when people are side stage and they’re filming us, I like to see when they’re filming the crowd more than when they’re filming us because that’s the fun stuff we get to see. The people putting their arms in the air, singing along, crowdsurfing, stage diving, the pit. Another really great example, and this is an out of body experience that relates to the experience of a show versus watching a band, when we play with My Chemical Romance in these arenas, the lights are on us but everything is dark where the crowd is sitting. So in our song “No Place Feels Like Home” that Tyler sings, we ask the crowd to put up their lighters.
Heath: No one smokes anymore.
Rob: Exactly. We had everyone turn the lights on their phones. I don’t know why or how it made the arena look from the perspective of the stage, but everyone was going in unison from left to right with the lights. Having not done any drugs when that moment happened on stage, it really felt almost like an out of body experience like I was in some weird sound… What’s it called?
Heath: Sensory deprivation tank.
Rob: Sensory deprivation tank. It literally felt like a sensory deprivation tank where I stopped losing focus of the song I was playing on drums and I actually had to like kind of kick myself from time to time. “Pay attention, Rob!” Your mind just starts going in this other world. “Where the hell am I? Is this what happens after you die and is this what it looks and feels like?”
Heath: I had the same feeling. It was one of the most beautiful things I ever saw in my life.
Rob: No, Heath, you’re not talking about me. [Laughs]
Heath: Oh, the lights? Yeah, that was fine [Laughs]. No, it was beautiful. It looked like a lot of things were on fire and just floating. I don’t even know. My brain couldn’t process what was happening. You can’t tell how far away the lights are so it was crazy. It was incredible.
Rob: A good example is, you know how all these brands, in the night sky, they’re hiring 1,200 drones or 10,000 drones and they’re putting them in the sky to say something? You see them moving around and you don’t know the three-dimensional perspective of where everything is. We could probably talk about this another 20 minutes.
I totally understand. It’s one thing to know you’re playing to 20,000 people, but even when the lights are on you don’t see all of those individual people. Something about the motion of all of the lights, you’re spatially aware of, “Oh, I can see all 30,000 people in front of me. That’s crazy.” I want to thank you guys so much for taking time out of your day to talk with me, talk with The Aquarian. I have one more question. Previously, it was an understood thing of, “Ok, we’ll reunite in 2014, play a few shows in Jersey ,and come back in another 10 years.” Now we’re at the end of this Midtown run, this big Midtown reunion. The December shows are here. Do we have to wait another 10 years? Will there be more around the corner? What can we expect?
Rob: You have to wait six months.
Heath: For one more show! I think that when we said that in 2014, “Wait another 10 years – we’ll do it again.” I don’t think we were serious about that. I don’t think we thought we would ever do it again. When this came up we had to do it and we’ve just been having a really great time doing this together. We’re having a ton of fun traveling, playing shows, getting familiar with these songs, and getting closer as friends as full adults. We have one show on the books for next year, and I don’t think we’re ruling out playing more shows, but we just don’t have any other plans.
FOR INFO ON THE SOLD-OUT NEW JERSEY DATES ON MIDTOWN’S TOUR, AS WELL AS WHAT’S TO COME, CLICK HERE!