Midnight is actually one man. Jamie Walters — a.k.a. Athenar — handles all instruments and vocals. Although the band has been around for more than a decade their profile has risen exponentially since the release of Satanic Royalty. Midnight will likely be lurking around some best of lists for the 2014 follow-up No Mercy For Mayhem, which my colleague Sean Frasier described as a “lovingly blackened pastiche” while noting that our friends at HH “excel at identifying artists who climb over the corpses of inferior imitators.” Athenar talked to the Deciblog about Cleveland Rock City, his hatred of travel and Men At Work. You can’t stop steel, folks.
When did you first think of Midnight? I remember seeing an article about you in Metal Maniacs about 2008 or 09.
I recorded the first stuff in early spring 2003 around Easter. It was kind of something to do, y’know. There was no real motive behind it. I forgot about that Metal Maniacs. I’m not really a fan of interviews. So instead of interviewing me he interviewed other people about the band. In thought it was a cool idea.
How did you teach yourself all of these instruments (guitars, drums, bass, possibly others)?
Practice at my house — there were always drums and odd instruments there. I’d just fool around on them and became a jack of all trades and a master of none. I’m passable on all instruments but barely get by. I don’t consider myself a great guitar player, bassist or drummer at all, but I can get by.
I’m also not one of these people that talks about something and is like: “I listened to that in my teenage years.” Anything that I listened to I’m not ashamed of; I still listen to it. When I was young I listened to Michael Jackson and Men At Work. In a few months I wanted to go hear Van Halen. Then it went to Black Sabbath, Judas Priest and Iron Maiden. Month by month I’d get into heavier stuff like Kreator and Celtic Frost.
You mentioned radio. When I listen to Midnight I feel like you focus on writing good songs, which is a bit lost in metal.
For sure. That’s one of the things: I’m a fan of songs. I always thought it was obvious that people should like songs. But now it seems like people want a sound. They want to hear something that takes away their attention rather than grabs it. I’ve always listened to all types of music so there is something buried. There are song structures buried in my brain, what’s left of it. I’m always humming something or changing the lyrics, but there is always a tune or a rhythmic pattern. It’s not something I try to do but it’s there.
The reception for No Mercy For Mayhem has been significant considering the band’s roots.
I don’t pay attention to it. It’s nice and cool if someone likes it. Sometimes if too many people like it – like Ghost – people will say “only the cool people can like it.” If everyone thinks it’s good other people will just think it sucks!
In fairness, sometimes people say things are really good because they are.
Well, I think that, too. I didn’t set out to sign to a record label and I never tried to jump on a tour or sign with a record producer because they have a good name. I just do what I feel comes from me. I think I’m a genuine person and hopefully this reflects that and people can relate to it.
What do you think people identify with in Midnight? I think one writer called you more or less the saviours of heavy metal.
Wow, I wish you wouldn’t tell me that because now I’ll think about it. (laughs). I guess that’s nice. It’s cool that people like it but it’s up to the person.
How did you get involved with Hell’s Headbangers and what has Chase (Horval, label founder) meant to the band?
He’s been great. Four brothers work there and they all do their part. I would just be happy recording and releasing CD-Rs. But they can put it out there and let more people hear it. They give me free reign to do whatever I want. They also ask for my opinion. It’s not like some labels where they want you to do three big, stupid t-shirt designs a year and put an ad on everything. That’s not me. I don’t need 14 hoodie designs with a merch sheet.
There have been some cool items, like the blue vinyl for Satanic Royalty and the picture disc for No Mercy.
I’m a record collector nerd, too. They ask if they can put it on a certain color. They know what they are doing. I leave most of that stuff up to them but I trust them.
How did you get in touch with the label? The Ohio connection?
They are from Medina which is 30 miles away for Cleveland. Cleveland is a small city and everyone knows each other. Even if they don’t know your name you’ll be “the dude with the Sodom back patch.” They always had an offer out there that if I wanted to do a record of any type they were open to it. Nuclear War Now! was putting out stuff and he’s a good guy but he puts a record out and it’s a done. Hell’s Headbangers keep it in print so people can hear if. It’s not 500 records and you are done. It would have really sucked if Judas Priest only put out 500 copies of Stained Class.
How did growing up in Cleveland affect your growth as a musician?
There’s an attitude people have here, a fuck it type attitude. It’s a never try too hard attitude which is maybe why we don’t have any sports championships. I was born here and I’ve lived here for 40 years and nothing much has changed.
What was the metal scene like when you were growing up?
I started going to gigs around summer of 1987 when I was 13 or 14. In Cleveland we had a station called Z-Rock along with a really good college radio station. The college station had a lot of good DJs and would play thrash. Z-Rock was a little more mainstream but at night they’d still play Possessed and Carnivore. I thought Cleveland was a big metal town, at least as a 14-year-old kid.
So you were getting exposed to not just big bands but the underground.
At that age you want to hear faster and heavier and darker and more obscure. In summer of 1987 the second gig I went to was King Diamond and Trouble. You wanted to find out about bands like Exhumer or obscure German thrash, but at the same time I listened to Led Zeppelin and Bad Company and Ted Nugent. Cleveland is in the Midwest so they didn’t care if you listened to AC/DC and Bathory or even punk. You could listen to Angry Samoans and you weren’t set to be a punker with a mohawk. A lot of punkers were listening to Judas Priest, too.
It seems like a city where you can’t escape classic rock. You’re going to have that station that only plays Led Zeppelin and 38 Special.
Even classic Cleveland punk bands like The Pagans weren’t dressed like punkers they were wearing Cleveland Indians t-shirts and jeans. They weren’t trying to be over-the-top punkers with safety pins through their noses.
Is that something we’ve lost in metal? Everything is a small tribe rather than people just uniting around records they love.
These subgenres are idiotic. “I only listen to symphonic power metal.” Heavy metal is a subgenre in itself, so what’s wrong with listening to that? Can’t you just say you like heavy metal and hard rock? It’s now broke down to “I only like a certain type of black metal.” But don’t get me wrong there are good 17-minute songs. “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” is good.
When Venom did At War With Satan the long song was an exception; it was such a novelty that the novelty became the record.
It was 20 minutes long and a band like that had never done that before. I still like that album. It might not be as much as a song as a collection of riffs but I think it’s really good. It’s tough to make a 20-minute spin unless you have a spooky five-minute intro and a spooky five-minute outro. For the most part that is twenty minutes of riffs.
What two records did you listen to the most when you were a teenager?
Kill ‘Em All – I just played it over and over because I was learning to play. That’s where I learned to figure out riffs. That definitely got played a lot. I could go for on days about stuff that stuff that got played too much.
Did you stick with Metallica through Load?
I did. That might not be my favorite album. There was only a small period of time right before And Justice For All where I thought I was a little too cool for school. For that band to make those first three records, they have a free pass to do whatever they want. Load might not be my favorite but it’s Metallica. And I’m sure they don’t care what I do (laughs).
Do you ever see yourself just doing the band or will you just play when you feel like it?
I’ve turned down more offers that I’ve accepted. Being away from home for five months out of the year is not for me. I do this because I like it and if I did that I wouldn’t like it. I’m not doing this to make a living. My life is half done – what the hell! I play music because it’s what I like to do. In 2013 we might have done 13 shows. It seems like a lot and it was in some far away countries. But if you only pay 13 shows a year that’s not too many.
That has to be a trip to go to other countries and meet people who like your band.
We were in New Zealand and crossing this bridge and it kind of hit me how weird it was to be (there) and people want to hear this music. But it’s not a bad thing. I try not to think about it and do what I do.
Do you still listen to Men At Work?
Every once in a while. The first record isn’t bad. They have a song called “Overkill” on the Cargo album and if a band calls a song “Overkill” they can’t be that bad. There’s Motorhead’s “Overkill” and Men At Work. You pick which one you think is the best.