Eclectic, eccentric and just wonderful – Midtown Social.
San Francisco is host to untold numbers of great bands, and Midtown Social is probably one of the most interesting. It falls under the genre of “Soul” however, the band and their music only start with that, and move on into whatever sound they are itching to make that week (and that will change the next week for the same song, and again the next week too). With vocalists Kisura Nyoto and the gay singer Aaron Joseph as the main contributors, nothing really holds them to a specific sound. The release of last years “Fantastic Colors” had the collective prepping for a very big tour that was canceled like everything else. I had the opportunity to talk to the singer Aaron Joseph about the band, the music, his history, and his experience as a gay black man, and his views of the BLM situation that continues. (We also had serious tangents about music that only real nerds would find interesting, thus this interview has been edited for content.) Aaron is an incredibly talented musician, with just as skilled a band that he works with. I can only imagine a live show by Midnight Social as a delightful assault on the senses. The band is ethnically diverse as the mix of music they produce, often things you would never imagine together.
JH: Well Aaron, thanks for your time. I wanted to talk to you on a few points, first of all, your music is great, the new stuff especially, BUT, with what was basically the cancellation of Pride month, and the current political shitstorm going on, I think that we would have a really interesting conversation. I wanted to talk to queer black artists because it should be a month of celebration, and colors, rainbow flags, drag queens on rollerblades in parades. But so much is boiling to the top, I think right now is a perfect storm to get your feelings and views out there as its happening RIGHT NOW.
AJ: Ok, I think I can cover that with you.
JH: Let’s start with the new album. I will say it this way, I have not had this much fun listening to a soul album since Curtis Mayfield in like 1986.
AJ: Wow, damn, thank you man, his vocals are insane.
JH: Well, yes, he was the king of it in his day. He mastered that falsetto, and not going too far into the cheesy territory, but he could go cheesy, and still be awesome. So this album “Fantastic Colors” has been like a good cold drink after a long walk in the desert.
AJ: I don’t usually get compared to Curtis Mayfield, thank you, I get “Sly and the Family Stone” a lot.
JH: Well, on this album, I feel the title song hit it perfectly. You have so many elements that are “different” enough, but still bleed over into what’s common between them that you can put them all in one piece, weave that thread that starts with one aspect, and mixes well with the next one, then that continues into a great tapestry, where each thread depends on the one before it and after it to make the song work.
AJ: Thank you, on that one we were a little concerned that it was going to be “too diverse” from the get-go for this album, but yeah it did work.
JH: Well, a black guy on vocals, an Asian woman playing the gypsy violin, I mean, what do you not have in there is an accordion player?
AJ: Actually, I do play the accordion, but decided against it on this album.
JH: Get out!!! That’s the only thing missing from the perfect “all black polka band.”
AJ: Oh, well, not that accordion is something I really would want to showcase, but…
JH: I do like the fact that you can mix enough of the sounds in there and find the commonality in it all, it is a nice audio package.
AJ: Well, aside from heavy metal, I don’t think there is anything we haven’t played around within our music.
JH: And polka.
AJ: Well, yes polka, or a waltz, but if you look hard enough you will find some ¾ in there.
JH: Well, there was the one “Socialite Boogie” that was fun, and you had the gypsy violin playing in there, and then suddenly you have the saxophone on top of that. YOU NEVER HEAR THE TWO TOGETHER, even when disco was at its finest no one tried that, cause the idea just sounds wrong. I mean, strings and sax sure… If your Gershwin, but never like what you guys pulled off.
AJ: (Laughing) Yeah, we enjoyed it and wanted to see what we could pull off with this one, and music is about experimenting, and what you are willing to experiment with. We played around with the trumpet on the same arrangements, and we wondered what it would bring to the piece doing those same parts with strings where it would have been the trumpet part. And subbing those out had a much warmer feeling. With Lydia our violinist we can do that, and then with a song like “Woke” for example, we need a heavier more traditional string arrangement and we get to use her in both capacities.
JH: Sure, I mean, when you think it’s been done, all possible clashes of sound have been done.
AJ: Yeah, it’s been done, there is nothing new.
JH: So you find something new to clash, and you think “Wow, that’s well done” or “Man that was garbage”. Frank Zappa said that and proved it.
AJ: Yeah, there is not any real middle ground.
JH: So, I bring these guys up a lot, cause they do clash everything, and do it well. A Montreal band called “BranVan 3000”, they are the “Whatever the hell they want to do” kind of band, jazz, funk, punk metal, hip hop band. Everyone should get into these guys, cause there is something for everyone, but on their total gem project album called “The Garden” had the opening piano line identical to your song “Golden Child”. So when I heard yours, it took me right back to that album, and it was just genius to hear it played like that somewhere else.
AJ: Ok I am going to check them out.
JH: Then the next dance song, “Savoir Faire”, that one you would dance at home to, swing your hips, getting your mojo on, on your way to getting some horizontal time, you know, the build-up to “Imma score tonight”. Did you write that one with that sensual outcome? (Probably the best “Feel good” video we all needed to see right now)
AJ: I wrote that one with the idea that we are so distracted with our media, phones, and technology, but forgetting that we can have fun with just simple things. I was thinking that when I was in my room writing it to just let loose and have fun. We get so caught up in the things that we have to do all the time that involve other people or things, or interactions, but it’s great to just let loose, alone and have fun with nothing complicated or involving any other people or things. We don’t lose ourselves in the moment anymore, we are always posing or trying to keep an image or whatever, cause in our world today, people use social media to show everyone what they are doing every moment, this one is about, just not having anything to do or show, just, let lose and do nothing except for yourself.
JH: Sure, and now we are all at home, in lockdown and quarantine, and social distancing, perfect timing, on top of race riots and a police state. So are you a Northern California native?
AJ: I’m originally from Chicago, but I’ve lived here for over a decade, so I do consider myself native now.
JH: Did you move there for the music or the community?
AJ: Well, there is just this vibe on the west coast that I didn’t feel in Chicago, and even as a kid I was really sensitive to see that there was a very different racial dynamic that was impossible to ignore. I also felt that moving to California would put me in touch with the people I was supposed to meet. It was also this feeling of destiny that I needed to come to California where I would find “my people”, people with the same sensibilities and the same musicianship. Here they have bands with a relative soul-full sound, and that was what attracted me to the musical aesthetic of the region. There is a soul in a place that can manifest itself in the music.
JH: And, I’m sure the gay community was a bonus?
AJ: YES, it was a huge bonus. I had been going to school in Madison Wisconsin, and the gay community at the time felt very exclusionary, I never really felt accepted as a person of color, I felt it would be different on the West Coast. I got the sense that there were more open-minded people here and that I didn’t have to wear my racial identity on my sleeve as much. Don’t get me wrong, I met some wonderful people whom I love dearly, but back in 2007, it was still considered socially acceptable in the community for a white man to say “I don’t date black men” and just throw that around in casual conversation. That is becoming less the norm which I very much appreciate for the younger generation coming after me. But that was just a fact of life, and it’s not to say that I didn’t see that when I moved to California, but there seemed to be more of a willingness to acknowledge and to work on those types of issues that I wasn’t seeing 10 years ago in the mid West.
JH: That was very eye-opening for me to hear you say that I never would have thought that, but I am unfortunately never going to be the guy in that situation to be able to “understand” it by experience, it took you to have to tell me that to even understand that was going on. I hope that the readers see that for the good and the bad. I think people should be inclusive at all levels in the community because they can understand being marginalized, I assumed that anyway. My wife’s cousin married a black man, and these guys are two very different guys, but you look at them and think, ok two men, married, in love happy, cheesy, been together for 25 years. And that is how I see it, but I am the outsider. Forgive my ignorance on this, but that alone was worth this whole interview for me to learn that. So, can you tell me about growing up, realizing that you were gay, and your family situation?
AJ: Sure, my family history is one of those situations where my father who is from Trinidad, and my mother got divorced before I was born, so I never got to know my biological father growing up. By the time I was old enough to know that I was gay, that was a hard realization because my family was very religious, and not very open to that at the time. I stayed in the closet until I went to college and I felt comfortable coming out because I was not living at home anymore. I would say there was a lot of emotional isolation like many gay men in that situation, so I was pushing myself in all of these artistic activities, dancing ballet, hip hop, jazz, and theater. I didn’t deal with the politics or social implications of my skin color or my queerness. It wasn’t until college really when I felt that I could engage with that side of myself, and what that meant. I had an amazing childhood that I was able to explore my creative loves, and luckily they didn’t stop me from playing piano, and ballet lessons and all those things that were deemed “unwanted” at the time.
JH: Well, part of why you and I are talking is because I want to make the world a little bit smaller, I want to shrink the world around the community. But how was your family with it when came out finally?
AJ: Well, it wasn’t easy, and when I did come out, there was a LOT of work that needed to be done. I do love them, and it meant enough to me to work towards their understanding and acceptance. Unfortunately, my biological father didn’t and doesn’t accept it, and it’s been hard living with that knowledge, but at the same time, when you consider the Caribbean culture and the homophobic history, and it hurts, but I am lucky to have a family that loves and accepts me.
JH: Wow that is powerful, hold onto that. So real quick before I forget, back to the music, “Move Your Body”, was probably lots of fun but also probably was REALLY messy when you recorded it.
AJ: (Laughing) What makes you say that?
JH: Cause it was so complex man.
AJ: I know it was, even the simplest things we do have this level of complexity. We went into the studio with that pretty well-tuned, we had a good idea what we wanted it to sound like. We did work with our producer after recording, but the basic structure was pretty much there.
JH: But getting to that point, knowing how you were going to do it, you can’t tell me that was easy.
AJ: Oh no, the actual arrangement of that track took longer than any track on that album. When you bring an idea to a project like Midtown with so many players and ideas. You really need to have a clear vision, from my perspective I really want to come in with a clear idea of what the song is going to sound like. With this track, I came in with an idea that wasn’t at all where we ended up. This is one example where I thought I knew what the song was about, and what it was going to be, and halfway through doing a 180.
JH: So it was that messy then, it does sound like it was fun getting there.
AJ: Oh my god, it was a disaster.
JH: But it was probably just as much fun getting there.
AJ: YES IT WAS, but like anything, the fun part was finding it, and we are saying, “We have spent so much time on this one, do we even like it anymore?” and that moment of clarity when it sounds how it is supposed to sound and we say, “Yes, that is what this one is about.”
JH: So “Candlelit”, that had this wonderful familiar gospel thread, but not so much to say “HI THIS IS THE TOKEN GOSPEL SOUND!”
AJ: Yes that one was when the three of us writers were in a “hang practice” to play with ideas, and it was one of the easiest pieces we have ever written. We wrote it in an hour and a half, and with one rehearsal we knew exactly what it was supposed to sound like.
JH: So when you played with Kaylani, with her being so big in the queer circles, that must have been quite the love fest.
AJ: That was actually San Francisco Pride, the crowd was wonderful. Hope to do that again another year. Beginning 2020 we were looking at playing a tour all over the country getting booking offers, then COVID hit us hard. On top of everything else that was going on, losing the band’s livelihood was hard psychologically, to see those opportunities yanked out from under you, was a little debilitating. I kept going back to march and then thinking it was bad then, and now that all just seems trivial in comparison.
JH: Right, you are healthy and not being beaten up by cops.
AJ: Exactly so keep things in perspective, it all could be much worse.
JH: Well, my anarchist mentor was a lawyer who went to Harvard and he left right in the middle of it and went to the south to get involved in the Civil Rights Movement in the ’60s. Grumpy Irish Catholic son of a bitch he was. He told me that after getting sprayed with fire hoses and chased by dogs and other things that were actually a lot of fun, he told me why he did it. “History will never know our names, but it will forever remember what we did.” I think that now, we need to understand that and get involved, the lines are being drawn for doing the right thing for your fellow man. I’m sure the way you see whats going on, is probably more threatening than I see it. But it’s probably still unsettling for you being gay and black.
AJ: Well, a lot of people on the white side of the conversation forget that this is not a new feeling for me, I had a moment of agitation recently when all of this exploded, but I have been dealing with this my entire life. I didn’t feel any more upset then than I did a year ago at the last visible killing. It’s been a constant cycle of feeling this and recognizing the value of people’s color in this country, it is inseparable from the experience of living in the United States.
JH: Are you at least excited to see that the conversation has boiled to the top for everyone?
AJ: YES, If anything, Jeremy, I would say I am more hopeful than I have been in years. After all of the other uprisings we have seen in response to a killing in the last decade have fizzled out, but now it’s different. I haven’t seen the white brothers and sisters just really rallying about this as well. It’s different, it’s real this time, I think the whole country is starting to acknowledge it more, and that’s amazing. I hope that we take the opportunity to do something about it, I think we need some real changes to occur so it’s not just lip service any longer.
JH: What in your opinion can we do then?
AJ: We want our white allies to know what they could do individually to not be part of the problem. I think any attempt to try, even if it fails, as long as your intentions are in the right place, really do make a difference. Doing it for Queer people, for People of Color, any gesture, or step to make a difference is needed. The changes start there, but the real changes will happen at the election level, vote to remove people who are actively against us.
JH: Thank you for that answer. Here is my final question … what would your message be to the young gay kid who is in the closet, afraid, and in that vulnerable state, maybe even suicidal?
AJ: I would say that our history as queer people is legendary, our gifts to culture are such amazing gifts to humanity. We have been given something special, while it seems like the world hates you, or you are not good enough because of who you are, there are people in the world that will love you, and see who you are, and to value that about yourself and not be afraid of it.