As a name, the Midnight Juggernauts―Vincent Vendetta, Daniel Stricker, and Andrew Szkeres―could not be better suited to a band that borrows from dramatic fiction and take listeners along on imaginative flights of fantasy. Electropop is their native genre, a pretty woolly term born out of the 80s to describe a form of synthpop often classified as cold and robotic. But pack up your horror―pulsating with Brian Eno reverie and other meaty 70s prog-rock influences, these soundscape warriors have crafted a mammoth of a sophomore album, The Crystal Axis, which will be available digitally on May 28 and physically on August 31 in the U.S. (Buy the digital album over at iTunes and pre-order the physical disc at the Midnight Juggernauts homepage.)
Anthem caught up with Daniel via Skype earlier this month while the boys from down under made a stop in Istanbul to play a show.
Are you guys still in Turkey?
Daniel Stricker: Yeah. I actually just raced back to the hotel. I was at the Grand Bazaar trying to buy some stuff. Turkey’s amazing. Have you been here before?
I’ve never been. What’s it like over there?
D. S.: It’s pretty cool. I’d never been here before either, none of us had. It’s a really massive city with like 29 million people living in Istanbul. There’s a lot of water―it’s surrounded by the Black Sea and there’s this river that stretches to the Mediterranean. There are a lot of hills. It’s really different. We’ve been in Europe and mainly the UK for the past 2 weeks and we were in South America for a week before that. The rest of Europe feels, obviously, quite European, but here, it feels more Middle Eastern―it’s a lot drier, there’s a lot of sand, and there are a lot of palaces and mosques. We had the choice of either coming here or going to Spain for this trip. We jumped at the chance to come here since we’d never been.
I know things can get pretty hectic when you’re touring, but do you guys set aside some time to go sightseeing and all that?
D. S.: Totally. We’re only in one place for a couple of days usually though. I guess we just try to make an effort―I know I do. We all try to go out and do as much as we can, even if by the time you get home you’re completely destroyed. [Laughs]
I can imagine. That seems to be one of the big perks about being in a successful band. You get to see all these amazing places and expose yourself to new cultures left and right. Have you ever found yourself in a particular place and thought, “This could totally be my final resting place”?
D. S.: There are a lot of places where I felt that. We were in Edinburgh a couple of days ago. I don’t know if I can visit right now, but I always love going there because of all the castles, cobblestone streets, and mountains everywhere – it’s really medieval. I thought it was Paris for a long time and then we actually got to live there for a couple months in 2008. I’m now thinking Croatia or someplace really beautiful. We’re really lucky to be able to do what we do. It’s a lot of traveling, but being able to check out these places is great.
This is probably impossible to quantify, but how much does all this traveling influence your music?
D. S.: Definitely a lot. We have this new album coming out really soon and I think the fact that we traveled so much throughout 2008―we didn’t even go home for eight months―was probably a huge influence on the record. We’ve even picked up some influences from world music and stuff like that. I remember coming home at the end of 2008 and beginning of 2009, having a whole bunch of field recordings from the 70s from Gamelan and Cambodian music. A lot of different cultures definitely worked their way into the new record. There are a lot of weird cord progressions and such. Playing festivals and seeing a lot of bands that we hadn’t seen for a while were big too. I remember playing Primavera in Brussels and watching Caribou – I was really into it. We obviously don’t sound anything like them though.
When is your next North American tour happening? We feel really neglected over here.
D. S.: We want to be there more than you want us to be. [Laughs] We’re heading over there for a couple days at the end of July and then we’re coming back for a proper tour toward the end of the year in September, October, or November. I think the problem right now is that there are a lot of European festivals in June and July, so it’s really hard to work out when to go over there. At the end of July, I think we’re doing 2 shows in L.A. and two in NY. It’s going to be a pretty quick trip.
And what can we expect from your new record, The Crystal Axis? Could you talk about some of the things that inspired the album?
D. S.: We were touring a lot and playing live as a band, which definitely shaped the sound and the way we approached the new record. It’s not a full throttle dance record. In a way, it’s still very much a pop record, but it goes on these weird tangents. All three of us were listening to different things at the time, which I think shaped the record the most. We all came at it from a different perspective. Personally, I was listening to a lot of Brainticket and a lot of field recordings from the 70s like I was saying before. I was also listening to a lot of Eno, always listening to Eno. I guess a lot of stuff from the early 90s. There’s such a broad range of influences. I know Vin and Andy also have very different influences. There’s nothing specific though. It’s about coming at it from all these different eras of pop music.
From what I can gather from listening to your first two singles—“This New Technology” and “Vital Signs”—it seems to me that you guys are still very much interested in creating full-bodied pop songs that have definite hooks to them. Synth is still very much a paramount ingredient. I’m just wondering what the other tracks on the record sound like.
D. S.: That’s a tough question. You sort of lose perspective when you work on something so closely. We should just send you a copy.
I like where you’re going with this. Say more things like that.
D. S.: [Laughs] I mean, it’s a pop record and as you said, especially for those first two tracks. I guess the rest of the record is kind of in that vein. “This New Technology” is more of a rock kind of track and “Vital Signs” is more – I don’t know what “Vital Signs” is like… It’s got a lot of prog-70s vibe to it. It’s not an experimental album at all, but it has experimental tangents. I guess if you compare it to Dystopia, it’s way more layered―some of the tracks have like 100 layers whereas it was more about having fewer layers and still making it sound big on Dystopia. It was sort of compressed in a way. The new record is a lot more under the mark of analog equipment. I guess it’s more of an organic record.
Did you guys get to experiment with new toys in the studio?
D. S.: Totally. We went to this beach house and purchased all this new stuff. Have you seen our new album artwork?
D. S.: All the things that you see in the picture are instruments that we actually used on the album. You can spot the synths in there. There’s something like 20 synths that we had and most of them were really old. We spent a lot of time working with those. Also, we got a bunch of newer pedals and other stuff that we’ve been playing around with. We used a lot of samples from those field recordings that we’ve been collecting as well. It’s a mixture of a lot of different gear. This new album has a lot more synth than the first one. There are a lot more atmospheric elements to it. You can hear the weird ambient layers that we added if you listen to it carefully with headphones. There’s a lot going on in the background that we spent a lot of time on.
Would you say your new record signifies a reinvention of your old sound or more of an evolution?
D. S.: It’s probably more of an evolution. I don’t think we wanted to reinvent Dystopia because we’ve kind of done it already. We didn’t necessarily just want to make another indie dance record and we certainly didn’t want to try to be something that we weren’t. We just wanted to tap into where we were at the time. We didn’t even really think about it. We just wanted to make a record that we’re really into and hopefully people will come on that journey with us as well.
I just remembered the last conversation we had in L.A. where Vincent mentioned collecting B-horror films from the 80s. I also read that you guys have been watching a lot of Italian cannibal films recently.
D. S.: Yeah.
How does something like that influence your overall sound? You guys have a track called “Cannibal Freeway” on The Crystal Axis, but aside from that, I’m assuming that kind of influence is largely imperceptible.
D. S.: It definitely affects our sound. We watch a lot of old horror films, including Italian cannibal films. We watched this film called Cannibal Holocaust when we were touring around in the van. That’s a really weird film. It’s from the 70s and these people are searching out this cannibal tribe. They start ripping bodies and eating them. They’re actually real bodies that they’re filming―they’re dead, but still very real. So, you’re watching these bodies being ripped apart and animals being ripped apart. The soundtrack for that was amazing. I’d say the new record is a lot more percussive. The cannibal films and horror films definitely had an influence whether it was about creating ambient soundscapes or adding certain percussive elements.
You guys also brought in an engineer for the new record, which you didn’t do with Dystopia. Was it weird having another person in the studio?
D. S.: It was definitely a new experience for us. I actually only joined the band just before we recorded the first album, so even for me and the other guys, we hadn’t worked together on a record completely from start to finish before―that was another thing that was new. But yeah, it was interesting having someone new in there. It definitely mixed things up and we got some more perspective. We were telling him what influences we were into and he’d send us some stuff. So, there was a lot of back-and-forth for like a month before we even started recording.
How extensively do you guys road test songs before heading into the studio?
D. S.: We didn’t as much for the first record, but we did for this one because we continued to work on it for another 6 months after having finished tracking it. We just started playing all the new songs and we were making changes based on stuff that we were trying out live. For example, we changed “Vital Signs” like heaps during the last 6 months of the record because we started playing that live a lot. We’ve been trying to do as much live as we can. So, from show to show, the tracks are going to be completely different. The bridge in that particular track transformed a bit. It was definitely cool being able to play it live and change the song as it went along because we’d never done that as much before.
Speaking of shows, something caught my eye when I was looking over your Wikipedia entry recently. Supposedly you guys played above a Chinese restaurant one time and the items from its menu made its way into the lyrics. Is there any truth to this?
D. S.: When the band was first starting out―I wasn’t even in the band at the time―Vin and Andy would just write the songs in the morning and then play them that same night. One of their first shows happened to be above a Chinese restaurant and there weren’t lyrics for one of the tracks. [Laughs] So, I think they just grabbed the Chinese menu and that became the lyrics.
That’s unbelievable… I would totally pay to go see that.
D. S.: I don’t think that’s happened for a while, but maybe we could do it again. Our next album will be just stuff derived from a Chinese menu.
I also wanted to talk to you about the Midnight Juggernauts’ strong visual aesthetic. How hands on are you guys when it comes to hammering out the specifics for album covers, photos, and other promotional materials?
D. S.: We’re really hands on, even with the videos. For instance, for the “Vital Stats” video, we only had three weeks to work out what we wanted to do and Vincent came up with the idea. We then pulled all of our efforts together. This one artist that we wanted to work with for a while built the structures and we sort of gave them this direction that we wanted to take. It was very much a collaboration between us and the guys who ended up directing it – it was really a co-direction. The album cover is from that clip as well. We took a photo of the environment as we were creating it. So, we’re heavily involved in everything in terms of the artworks and stuff. With our band, it’s definitely more about setting a mood for the music. We’re all really into the forms of different artworks. We obviously don’t do everything ourselves, but we’re very involved with the people that we work with.
You’re now jetting off to Amsterdam, Luxemburg, Paris, Lausanne, and Zurich to play more show. Have you guys played in these cities before?
D. S.: We’ve played in Paris many times. We’ve never played in Luxemburg. We played in Switzerland a couple times. It’s really awesome because for some reason, France, Spain, Switzerland and a bunch of other European countries have really embraced us on our last record. All the shows in France are already sold out, it’s crazy. It’s really good for us there. I don’t know what it is about our music that has connected with French people, but I’m really looking forward to going back. We’re only there for a day though, which really sucks because we have lots of friends there. Switzerland is also amazing. We’re doing the Montreux Jazz festival in July and it’s on this amazing lake in Montreux, which is where “Smoke on the Water” was written. Like we were saying at the beginning of the conversation, to go to all these places, meet people, and see these things is so cool.
I actually listened Dystopia a lot when I was visiting Switzerland last summer. Being engulfed in that kind of serene beauty really heightens your music.
D. S.: That’s the funny thing with music. Music always reminds me of a place, a thing, or something that’s happened. That’s why I like soundscape kind of music, ambient music, and a lot of Eno’s stuff. I also like krautrock. It’s interesting listening to music in different environments, for sure.
Have you guys decided on a third single for the new album?
D. S.: Not 100%. There are two or three tracks that we’re considering. There are a lot of pop tracks on the record. They’re not necessarily radio friendly pop tracks, but they’re like the 70s pop sound or something. I don’t know if radio would play that. [Laughs] It really flows like an album. I thought Dystopia flowed well as an album and I still think it does, but I feel like this new one even more so. I think it’s good when you listen to it from start to finish.