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Midnight was an American pop music group, formed in San Francisco in 2011. They are widely considered one of the best and most influential musical acts of the twenty-first century. From early 2013, the group consisted of Wes Winston, Marcus Hunt, Isaiah Lee, and Sonny Dex. Rooted in the hip-hop and rock of the 2000s and early 2010s, the group later worked in many genres ranging from electronica to neosoul, often incorporating jazz and other elements in innovative ways. Their immense popularity emerged first among teenagers and later evolved and expanded as their musical sophistication and songwriting prowess grew immeasurably. The group led the music industry into a two and half decade long commercial and creative renaissance and functioned as the major shared cultural touchstone of the Millennial Generation.
2005–12: formation, Guadalajara, and becoming Midnight
Childhood friends Wes Winston and Marcus Hunt first formed a band called Belligerent Doctor while students at Hayward High in the East Bay subregion of the San Francisco Bay Area. Belligerent Doctor started as much as a sketch comedy group as a musical act, and most of the songs they wrote together at the time were joking or absurdist in nature. As they neared the end of high school, they began to take music more seriously, playing smalltime gigs around the East Bay and competing in various local "Battle of the Bands" competitions. Around this time, they shortened their band name to The Belligerents, and they were billed on a few occasions as simply "Belligerent."
On graduation from high school, Hunt moved to Southern California to study music at CalArts, while Winston began higher education at UC Berkeley. In his second year at Berkeley, Winston met Isaiah Lee, a Vallejo native who was operating under the DJ name Shadrach at the time. Winston and Lee felt an immediate camaraderie, and formed a group called Gravy Robbers (the name was taken from a Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! sketch). Once again, Winston's focus was comedy, and Gravy Robbers released a satirical rap mixtape inspired by the work of Handsome Boy Modeling School. Winston also performed a series of surreal stand up comedy acts, often surving as an opener for DJ performances by Shadrach.
Meanwhile, Hunt dropped out of CalArts midway through his second semester, having concluded that music was an inappropriate discipline to be taught in an instiutional setting. In his own words, he spent the next several months "bumming around LA, stalking my favorite rappers - mostly the dudes involved in Odd Future and Black Hippy." He also fell in love with a girl named Teresa Jiménez while they both were working on the wait staff of upscale restaurant in Beverly Hills.
Increasingly estranged from his studies and unable to pick a major, Winston decided not to return to UC Berkeley for a third year, instead moving into an artists' co-op in Oakland. When Lee insisted that has continued participation in Gravy Robbers was contingent upon them rising beyond being a joke band, Winston recruited fellow musicians from his co-op to join. Elena Copeland, Felix Kohl, and Osvaldo Muñoz joined Winston and Lee to form a the group's new lineup. They renamed themselves The Arturos a few months later.
Hunt and Jiménez moved to Guadalajara to stay with her uncle's family the day after Thanksgiving in 2010. Hunt felt he could more easily focus on music with the drastically lower cost of living in Mexico. He joined a number of different bands while trying to form his own, but none of these arrangements lasted more than a month or two. When Hunt returned to the San Francisco Bay Area the following summer to visit family Winston invited him to jam with The Arturos and Hunt in turn begged the group to come play in Guadalajara. By that time, The Arturos had played every venue that would have them in the Bay Area, and frequently traveled on weekends to play shows in Southern California and as far away as Austin, Texas. Hunt was able to convince the group to visit Guadalajara for a week prior to the fall semester starting (as Lee and Muñoz were still full-time students).
The visit proved to be a thrilling experience for the whole group, but they returned to find their co-op was about to be evicted from its location in Oakland. Subsequently, the co-op relocated to a nearly condemned apartment complex in the Outer Mission area of San Francisco. The night of the move-in, Elena Copeland (who by this time was involved romantically with Winston) suggested to the rest of the group that there was something disingenuous about their group name given that only one of them had a Latino or hispanic background. Winston later remembered how she proposed their name change: "She also said The Arturos was a little bit clever, and that we were 'too good for clever.' And that's when she proposed we go with something simple, like Midnight." The group took this under consideration, though Lee was not present for the discussion. On Labor Day of 2011, the whole group gathered together and took a vote. Everyone but Lee voted to change the group name to Midnight. Lee refused to acknowledge the change, and continued to refer to the group as The Arturos all the way up to release of their first album years later.
While they continued to rehearse and play shows incessantly, their co-op's new location in San Francisco wasn't working out. Only sixteen of the original twenty-four co-op members had moved to the new San Francisco location in the first place, and now each month more members were moving out. Throughout this time, Hunt continually contacted them from Guadalajara to report how much cheaper it was to live in Mexico. Eventually, every member of Midnight except Lee agreed that moving to Guadalajara was the best plan for the new year. Muñoz withdrew from school to make the move, while Lee remained set on completing his degree at UC Berkeley.
In January 2012, Midnight packed all that they owned into a van and drove to Mexico. Hunt officially joined the group, replacing Lee. While living in Guadalajara and touring around the country, the group began to hone their working methods and style. Hunt and Winston worked as the primary songwriters and vocalists, Kohl and Muñoz served as the rhythm section, and Elena played piano and sang back up vocals. They also played in a wide variety of musical styles, including Cumbia, Salsa, Reggaeton and even some boleros. In addition to their own compositions, which tended to fit in the rock and hip hop genres popular among their peers in the US, they played many covers, as Hunt later explained: "Classic Rock is very, very popular in Mexico, so we played covers of probably every song ever recorded by the Doors, the Stones, the Beatles, Creedence...all that late 60s stuff." Promotional materials from the period reveal that the group continued to be called by several alternate names, included Midnight, Midnite, Medianoche, and occasionally the Arturos. Hunt also proposed marriage to Teresa Jiménez during these months.
That summer, the group visited their respective families in the US and played a series of energetic shows in the Bay Area that garnered them their first significant local press attention. However, tragedy interrupted their successful homecoming when Hunt received word from Guadalajara that his fiancé had been murdered. The cicumstances of how she was killed remain unexplained to this day. Hunt immediately booked a flight back to Mexico to be with the girl's family. In addition to being Hunt's fiancé, the rest of the band had grown close to her while living in Guadalajara, and the group considered calling off the rest of the shows they had planned for the summer. Winston eventually convinced Lee to join the group for the remaining shows, as Lee had graduated from college a year early that summer.
While the group was in Mexico earlier in 2012, Lee befriended a young rapper from the Bayview neighborhood of San Francisco who went by the stage name Sonny T. The two formed a rap duo, Sonny T and Shadrach, and played numerous shows throughout the first nine months of 2012.
Midnight intended to return to Guadalajara and rejoin Hunt at the end of that summer, but Muñoz wanted to finish his degree, so the group needed to persuade Lee to take his place and join them in Mexico. Lee was hesistant, and only agreed when Sonny T was willing to go as well so that Lee could continue in both musical acts.
Lee ended up loving Guadalajara. Both Midnight and Sonny T & Shadrach played successful shows that fall, and often joined each other on stage. Despite this, there was a lot of personal trouble even beyond the group's mourning of Teresa Jiménez. Felix Kohl felt his contributions to the band were increasingly minimized ever since Lee rejoined, and began to focus more on his other artistic ambitions - primarily sculpture and painting. Sonny T returned to California to be with his family over the holidays. And Copeland sought a more serious commitment from Winston. Since they first met at the co-op, their relationship had been casual and open. Winston wanted to keep it that way, and so Copeland left Mexico and Midnight shortly before Christmas. Shortly after her departure, Kohl announced he was leaving the group and moving to Mexico City to pursue sculpture.
The remaining three members of Midnight were left in a predicament. They had already signed on to do a one month residency at a nightclub in Guadalajara starting in early January of 2013. But with half of the group quitting, they were unsure if they could pull it off. They asked Sonny T to join the group in order to fill out the rhythm section, and he arrived shortly after New Years Day.
Sonny T learned to play their entire repertoire in the forty-eight hours prior to their residency beginning. During this residency, the final lineup of Midnight began to develop the musical chemistry that would rocket them to stardom two years later. They played originals by Hunt/Winston and Sonny T & Shadrach alongside dozens of covers and audience requests.
On the last night of the residency, Wes Winston got very drunk and became involved in a fight after the show outside the club. He was badly beaten and subsequently hospitalized. As soon as Winston was healed enough to travel, Midnight returned to the United States as a group.
2013–14: Early exposure in the US
Winston took a month off to fully recover from his injuries at his parents' house. During that month, Sonny T & Shadrach played what would be their final shows as a rap duo. In the spring, Midnight regrouped and the audience response to shows they played together convinced both Isaiah Lee and Sonny T that the group had more potential than their duo. In May, SF Weekly published a feature about Midnight entitled "The Best Local Band You've Never Heard Of." At this time, they all lived at home with their parents.
The following month, the group piled back into the van and toured the country, paying for gas and food with the little money they made from each gig they played. At some point during this tour, Sonny T changed his stage name to Sonny Dex (his given name was Dexter Holmes). After nine weeks on the road, the van was totalled in a highway collision that occurred late at night after a show in Boston. Injuries were minor, but they had to spend weeks doing odd jobs, begging, borrowing, and stealing while sleeping in the totaled van and on a friend's couch and floor in order to scrounge up the money to pay for the plane tickets home.
On their return, they each got day jobs and rented a house together in the Bayview neighborhood of San Francisco. Whenever they were simultaneously off work, they would often drive to Portland, Seattle, and Los Angeles among other cities to play gigs. At shows in the Bay Area, they began to notice an assortment of teenage girls would often show up and crowd to the front of the stage. They began calling these girls (who were not all teenagers, particularly at 21+ shows) the Nightingales, and Hunt and Winston both began thinking about how their music appealed to this audience. Lee also dated one of the older nightingales, Tina Andreson, off and of for the next year and a half.
After playing a series of well-received shows at Slim's in San Francisco, they were invited to audition at Polyvinyl Records. Polyvinyl eventually decided not to sign them, citing a lack of resources for promotion, but did agree to release a single the following spring. "Get Down Below" b/w "Abrazos" didn't make much of an impact on its release, and the group cancelled plans to put out a mixtape on their own.
Prior to the release of this early single, Midnight made a final trip to Guadalajara. They toured around Mexico for the three weeks between Thanksgiving and New Years of 2013. The trip went off without incident, and they tightened their live act considerably coming back to San Francisco with a show that was both wild and tightly controlled, a potent combination.
While playing a show in Seattle in June 2014, they impressed the owners of the independent label Double Skin Records who signed them to record an album the following day. Over the summer, they recorded seventeen songs for an album to be titled Good Kids, Bland Cities (alluding to Kendrick Lamar's good kid, m.A.A.d city). Double Skin Records convinced the group to pare the album's length down to nine songs, and final proof copies were produced in September. Just after this, they discovered Double Skin Records was in serious financial trouble. The label filed for bankruptcy and cancelled the release.
Meanwhile, the group met Dave Gonzalez, a young talent manager from LA, after playing a show at the New Parish in Oakland. After signing on to represent them, he helped them self-produce copies of Good Kids, Bland Cities which he termed their "mixtape and calling card." Midnight sold copies of the CD at shows and left free copies at cafes and book stores, while Gonzalez attempted to use it to sell the band to record labels. He obtained auditions and meetings with a range of companies including Republic, Nonesuch, Sub Pop, Glassnote, and Stones Throw. Most of these labels quickly passed on signing Midnight, with the exception of Fool's Gold and Polyvinyl who did not offer immediate decisions.
Good Kids, Bland Cities began to build a following on some college campuses and most notably online. The UC Berkeley radio station KALX played the mixtape in its entirety, and several fans started the first unofficial Midnight fan site. Around the same time, Gonzalez struck up a friendship with Molly Gauss, an A&R representative at Epic Records. Gauss told Gonzalez that she believed she was on her way out at Epic, but was convinced Midnight had star potential and was willing to gamble her job over it. She thought Epic was crazy for not giving the group a look. "If Epic didn't sign them, I was planning to quit and start my own label to sign them, that's how much I believed in them," Gauss said later.
As Fool's Gold made an offer to Gonzalez, Gauss convinced her bosses to draw up an unconventional contract that she promised was a no-lose proposition for Epic. The five-album deal offered almost no money upfront to the group in exchange for a more generous royalties package. It promised no promotional budget or even a guarantee of releasing any music in exchange for a nonexclusivity clause that allowed the group freedom to work elsewhere as long as they delivered at least one album per year to the label. And while Epic would pay no penalties for breaking the contract, Midnight would face stiff ones for doing the same. Gauss had promised her bosses she would quit if Midnight was not a success in order to get the contract out the door.
Gonzalez came to Midnight with the offers from Epic and Fool's Gold along with a guarantee from Polyvinyl that they would make an offer before Christmas. The group voted unanimously to sign with Epic.
That November, they were flown down to LA and the spent the two and a half weeks prior to Thanksgiving recording their self-titled debut album at Sunset Sound. The record was mixed in December and the masters were complete by January. The whole thing cost just over a tenth of the budget of the average recording artist signed with Epic.
2015–17: "The most popular musical act in the world"
Midnight and More than Required
Epic ended up acceding to Gauss' request for a real promotional budget for Midnight's debut album because the music departed from Good Kids, Bland Cities in a couple of key ways. While both touched on growing up in go nowhere towns choked with strip malls and the need to escape these places, Midnight added a much greater emphasis on the role of love, romance, and sex. Also, Good Kids, Bland Cities contained a good deal more absurdity and eccentricity than their debut. And almost every song on Midnight was danceable. These changes were noted in a glowing advance review of the album from Pitchfork that Gauss and Gonzalez arranged to have published just a week after the album's first single was released.
This first single, "Want You to Want Me" b/w "2am Surprise," was released at the beginning of February and entered the Billboard 100 at No. 84. It entered the top ten by March and hit number one a week before the full album was released, powered by an intense reaction from the group's rapidly growing fanbase of teenagers along with an innovative marketing plan designed by Gauss, Gonzalez, and the group's new touring agent Howard Silva.
Silva's first success was getting the group to serve as the opening act for Frank Ocean during his two month tour that winter. Gauss, Gonzalez, and Silva also succeeded in getting the group (still relative unknowns at the time) involved in lip sync battles with Jimmy Fallon, a viral comedy video with the Lonely Island, and a front page broadcast on YouTube of a live performance with Frank Ocean. They also hired street artists to create Midnight-related graffitti in cities all over the country. But the key to promotion was what Gonzalez described as 'fan intimacy,' which involved person to person online contact between the group's members and its fans.
The result was that the group's album debuted at number one on the Billboard charts when it came out at the end of March. This came as a shock to Epic Records and the entire music industry. Epic quickly tripled its promotional budget for the album. As the album and its first single remained at number one in the charts during the following weeks, Midnight was invited to perform on Saturday Night Live and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and a number of magazines including Rolling Stone, Spin and Entertainment Weekly rushed out cover stories featuring the group.
In May, Midnight kicked off its first headlining tour of North America with three nights of shows at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco. The tour was a major blockbuster, with extra nights added at many venues because the tour was planned before the extent of the band's newfound popularity was known. Over the summer, "Want You to Want Me" was knocked out of number one on the Billboard 100 after 13 weeks by their album's second single, "That Just Happened."
First World Tour and Current Fantasy
Off the Bubble, Second World Tour and Still Wave
2018–22: Artistic peak, Soap Records, discord and break-up
Concordia and Final Tour
Soap Records, Greetings from Noiseland and hiatus
The Last Album Ever Made and dissension in the ranks
"The Fall of the Lawnlord, the Rise of Kennex, and the Return of the Fox"
Angel Island, Good Kids and break-up
- Midnight (2015)
- More than Required (2015)
- Current Fantasy (2016)
- Off the Bubble (2017)
- Still Wave (2017)
- Concordia (2018)
- Greetings from Noiseland (2019)
- The Last Album Ever Made (2020)
- Angel Island (2021)
- Good Kids (2022)