Grahame Lesh of Midnight North has had quite a busy year. While some may know him as the son of Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh, Grahame has truly forged his own path and the beginnings of a unique legacy. When Live For Live Music caught up with Grahame by phone ahead of a show at Terrapin Crossroads in San Rafael, CA on January 18th, his mind was on an upcoming trip to the studio to record Midnight North’s fourth album.
Midnight North is fronted by Lesh (guitar/vocals) and Elliott Peck (guitar/vocals/keys), with Connor O’Sullivan (bass/mandolin), and Nathan Graham (drums/percussion/banjo) rounding out the Americana quartet. They recently finished off a fall tour with Cris Jacobs Band in November, and have been prepping to record their newest album ever since.
Over the course of the conversation, we spoke with Lesh about the growth Midnight North has seen since their first studio album, End of the Night, the process of developing their forthcoming album, and their upcoming show at Terrapin Crossroads. We also talked about the band’s songwriting process and the surprises they may have in store for fans this year.
You can read a transcript of the conversation below, edited for length and clarity.
Live For Live Music: I figured we could dig into a little bit of your background first before we got into the meat of the interview. You’ve been immersed in music from a pretty young age. How do you think your musical influences have changed over the years?
Grahame Lesh: Shoot, I think they’ve changed just kind of the same as everyone else’s. Like with new experiences, just getting to play so much in the last 10 years since my folks opened Terrapin Crossroads with so many different people really opens up a lot of new experiences to be influenced by, for sure. And also just the way the music industry has changed. You get influenced as you get exposed to different music and in a lot of different ways. Algorithms suggesting things to you based on what you used to listen to and whatnot. So, I think it’s probably been pretty natural considering what’s been in the air, and the people around me.
Live For Live Music: From what I understand, you began seriously focusing on music—as a career, at least—when your family opened Terrapin Crossroads. Now, Midnight North has three full-length studio albums. Your first one, End of the Night, was released in 2013, and the latest, Under the Lights, was released in 2017. How had your sound evolved over that time?
Lesh: Well, we kind of grew up as a band with Terrapin Crossroads. So that first album we recorded, we’d probably been a band for less than a year when we went into the studio. Elliott and I brought in a bunch of songs that predated Midnight North. Since then, we’ve just played so much. We’ve been out there honing what we do, developing the harmonies and the melodies—which is a big focus for us—and just getting to be better players. That all really adds up, I think, and has turned us into what we are. We’re going back into the studio next week to work on our fourth studio album. I’m pretty excited to take all of this experience and new material we have that’s very influenced by our experiences and put it down and try and capture that.
Live For Live Music: So you kind of touched upon this a little bit: It’s a unique quality for a band to have two leads. You and Elliott both take on vocal and songwriting responsibilities. How does that songwriting process work and what do you think having two leads does for your sound and the live experience?
Lesh: I mean, it’s just how we’ve always done it since we all met. I had these songs that I wanted to sing and she had the songs she wrote and she wanted to sing. I mean, to be perfectly frank, it’s a lot easier on both of our voices. Being able to combine the two leads with lots of harmonies, and sometimes even switching off who takes the lead within a song, things like that have just opened up a part of our sound that I’m not sure we knew we were going to have when it started.
But yeah, it’s really been cool for us. And we love singing harmony, so whether it’s with the two of us or three of us, or in other bands—with my dad in the Terrapin Family Band—or anything else. That’s one of our favorite things about making music. You know, focusing on that, having two lead singers has really been a way for us to go in that direction. The way we write, we mostly write on our own, or at least the bones of each song. I’ll start with something that I’ll end up singing and maybe Elliott will finish it. But, maybe it’ll be Nathan on drums or banjo finishing it or Connor coming up with the idea—or just the whole band working together. So it really changes song to song.
Live For Live Music: I’m sure the song really takes on a life of its own once the whole band gets involved in that process. You mentioned you are in the process of writing and recording your fourth studio album. Can you tell us what fans can expect from this release?
Lesh: I think they can expect us to go into the studio and be as creative as we can be. I’m not sure we know specifically what to expect yet, either. Hopefully, we surprise ourselves a little bit. But you know, we’ve been playing some of these songs live. I think I can hint that we’re going to maybe strip some stuff down and play acoustic and take advantage of some of the other skills that we’ve started to develop. We’ve been doing live acoustic parts of our set, sometimes around one mic. I mentioned it a second ago that Nathan, our drummer, is a great banjo player too. And some of the songs we’ve been writing fit an acoustic vibe. We’re going to at least explore that in the studio and see if that’s the best format for these songs.
But some of them, they’re Midnight North songs that we’ve been playing for a little bit. Songs that we haven’t had a chance to lay down and run the gamut of the funky rock n’ roll to the more horn-based—something like Tedeschi Trucks [Band]. We’re trying to get going that direction and sometimes it all depends on the song. You can definitely expect us to follow each song to its logical conclusion and come up with something that sounds like us but is also a step forward.
Midnight North – “Long View” – (Teaser)
[Video: Midnight North]
Live For Live Music: Will there be any brand new songs debuted on the album or do you try and work those out in the live setting first?
Lesh: There are a few songs that we haven’t even thought about debuting live yet. Songs that had been written—or at least finished—in the last few months when we’ve either been on tour and haven’t had time to really work them up, or at home since we’ve been on a little winter break. In the past, we’ve generally just worked everything up live and played a bunch before we laid it down. But we’re going to do a combination this time. There will definitely be some debuts. At least, stuff we will track before we play live. We’ll see if we can hold off on playing them, but yeah, I’m pretty excited.
Live For Live Music: So you haven’t begun recording yet, right? You’ll be doing that soon?
Lesh: Now, I don’t know when this is coming out, but we were going to start setting up on Sunday (1/12) and we’ll be at it on Monday (1/13).
Live For Live Music: Your upcoming show at Terrapin Crossroads is scheduled for next Saturday on the 18th, and as I understand it, the proceeds are going to help fund the upcoming album. What kind of surprises do you guys have in store for that event?
Lesh: Well, we just announced the main one. Our friend Jason Crosby will be joining us for the whole show as a special guest. There may be some other guests, some of whom are related to a band member. I’m sure everyone can guess… My dad generally comes down and so we’ll convince him to play a couple of tunes for sure. We’re going to do two sets. We’ll play for a while. I’m sure we’ll bust out some new tunes, maybe one that hasn’t been heard, and all the ones that we’ve been playing live that we’ll be tracking.
We’re going to do an acoustic set, and luckily for us, we’ll have Jason, you know? He’s not just an all-world keyboard player, he’s also an all-world violin player. So we’re going to add that aspect to this acoustic set so it will be really special as well. That may even allow us to say it’s a three-set show because I’m sure we’ll have the acoustic set in the middle of the two longer sets.
Live For Live Music: Do you have any other 2020 plans that you can share with us yet or just something that people have to wait and see?
Lesh: Well, a good amount of it people will have to wait and see. We’ve got a short run in the Northeast coming up at the end of February. One show that is already announced, but there will be more. That one show is at The Hollow in Albany, New York on the 28th of February. We’ve got a couple of festivals on the West Coast at the end of March and beginning of April. WinterWonderGrass in Squaw Valley [CA] and Skull and Roses Festival in Southern California [Ventura].
Those are both going to be a lot of fun. We’re really excited to see all the other bands on those lineups and hang out with some of our friends. Cris Jacobs is on WinterWonderGrass and Fruition is, too. We’ve got a bunch of friends like Keels‘ band, for example. So lots of stuff going on then. And then spring tour is going to be announced pretty soon, so keep an eye out. We may be coming to your town…
Live For Live Music: Awesome! Alright, so last question here. When can we expect you to rock a 32-foot stack of amps like your dad?
Lesh: [laughs] That’s a very good question. I’m pretty sure my dad made sure to have the tallest stack of the Wall of Sound, even within the Grateful Dead. I don’t know if I will ever be able to match that and I’m not sure anyone will.
Live For Live Music: Yeah, especially if you have to load in.
Lesh: Yeah, yeah, exactly. Work still. You know, I still like helping with the load in as much as I can, at least with Midnight North. We’re a team. We’re team players in that band. We try and keep all the gear compact so that way we can travel light and we can be a little more agile unlike the Grateful Dead was during those years.
Tickets for Midnight North’s show at Terrapin Crossroads are available now. Visit the band’s official website for more tour information and to purchase tickets.