Mark Wystrach smells weed. It’s 8:30 a.m. on a Tuesday morning in New York City in late July, and while the singer doesn’t know exactly where the wafts of herb are coming from, as he wanders the What Goes Around Comes Around vintage store in Soho with his Midland bandmates—guitarist Jess Carson and bassist Cameron Duddy—he’s sure the source is nearby. The group’s second album, Let It Roll, is just a month out from its Aug. 23 release, and between a brutally packed run of summer concerts, the next night’s late night show performance, and beginning to prep for their fall headlining tour, the Austin-based trio has agreed to several hours of clothing crate digging together.
“I found it!” Wystrach proclaims, laughing. He reaches into the front pocket of the top he wore here—a worn-out, yellow baseball shirt that got scooped up at some other haunt during some other stop-off, which is draped open over a white tank top—to lift out a half-smoked joint.
The day begins.
Midland first broke big back in 2017 when their debut single, “Drinkin’ Problem,” a heady love letter to time spent down in the doldrums, became an unlikely winner at country radio. With sounds as well-worn as the barstool its protagonist refuses to abandon—think warm, Dwight Yoakam-esque country and swirling, Laurel Canyon folk—the ballad cracked the Top 5 on Billboard’s country airplay chart, went platinum, and even earned the outfit a Grammy nomination. It also landed them coveted slots at festivals like Bonnaroo and Stagecoach, as well as opening gigs for superstars like Little Big Town, Kenny Chesney, and Tim McGraw and Faith Hill on the couple’s Soul2Soul World Tour.
But it’s not just their yesteryear-inspired tunes making waves. It’s also their ten-gallon hats and their glinting gold chains; their gaucho ponchos and bolero ties. The Aloha shirts, silk button-downs, and Ranger-style belts—all of it—are a far cry from the baseball-cap-and-T-shirt aesthetic that’s dominated their genre in recent years. “We were wearing this stuff like ten years ago,” says Carson over a breakfast of over-hard eggs and bacon before we head to Brooklyn for their second store-stop of the day, Front General Store.
“I’m actually blown away that there’s so many people in country music, very specifically, that either missed the memo or didn’t come up with [a look],” says Duddy, who has also enjoyed a career as a successful music video director, helming near-ten clips for Bruno Mars as well as working with Britney Spears, Rita Ora and now, of course, Midland. “This is the first time that musicians have looked worse on stage than the people in the audience. I don’t get it.”
Speaking to the rhinestone-encrusted history of the genre, he adds, “Country musicians were the first gangster-looking [group of performers]. Those guys were dripping in diamonds and gold. They informed the R&B guys and Motown guys—all that flash came out of Nashville. So it’s just very strange to me…not that I expect Cole Swindell to wear a sequin suit on stage, I guess.”
“What’s interesting is that the rhinestone suit came out,” says Carson, referencing the once-upon-a-time uniform of artists like Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley, “and then that became so normal that you had people like Waylon [Jennings] saying there needed to be a change, that it’s all about jeans and old boots—that was the Outlaw thing, to buck back against that slick Nashville look. Fast forward to 2019, and it’s so much about wearing a T-shirt and a backwards baseball hat that for us to wear those suits again was revolutionary.”
People outside of Music City have also noticed. “The person who made Diplo’s suit that he’s been wearing told me that his only point of reference was Cameron’s from our first album cover,” Carson continues. “That was the one picture he brought in.”
“Diplo, if you’re reading this,” Duddy interjects, “I got your number, dog. I challenge you to a one-on-one basketball game.”
The band’s affinity for digging through secondhand stores was originally born of necessity, each agrees. “Struggle is really the pressure that forms you,” says Wystrach, who grew up on a cattle ranch in Arizona and, prior to joining this group, played in other bands and worked as a model in Los Angeles. “You always have to make do with what you have. And that hunger and desperation really fuels all creativity. Rarely do you see a band start off with their coffers full. We certainly did not. And dating back to when we all first met out in L.A., that was just the vibe. That was the scene then, and for us, it still is now. We’re thrifty by nature. We don’t have stylists feeding us $3,500 Gucci shirts.”
Quips Duddy, pointing to his own patterned button-down: “This is a women’s blouse. Like, a Sears blouse from probably 2003. For me, brand doesn’t matter. It’s just about how it works.”
Carson is fairly described as an encyclopedia when it comes to clothing, which makes sense given he owned his own vintage shop when all three men were living on the West Coast. An early job in the industry for the guitarist was as the picker in the backroom of Out of the Closet, a nonprofit chain of West Coast thrift stores. “I was back there one day and the guy next to me was just throwing all these clothes in the dumpster,” he remembers. “Like, leather jackets and old concert T-shirts. I was like, ‘I’ll take that stuff.’ And I ended up selling one of the leather jackets of eBay for like $1,100. I had no idea what it was, but it was a 1940s motorcycle jacket that is really sought-after.” Education, he figured out, would be hugely helpful—and profitable.
“It’s a hustle,” he cautions, “Like, we were just in [What Goes Around Comes Around] and there’s a $750 Alice in Chains T-shirt. Not two years ago, somebody walked into a Goodwill somewhere and paid $8 for that.”
It’s made the group favor the smaller stop-offs they make across the country. “When you’re out in the middle of nowhere, it’s like a treasure hunt,” says Wystrach. “Jess is really proactive with it. He’s out there searching, sniffing out these places. You’re chasing certain designers or types of craftsmanship that only a few people have keyed into. And when you find that stuff, it’s epic. I found a leather jacket at the Fairfax Flea Market, when it was first starting off, for like $80. It turned out to be worth like $1,500, and you find that stuff because it’s cool to you. It looks good, feels good; it fits you right—and you only paid however many bucks for it, so you don’t give a shit if you get it dirty or you go out partying in it.”
Of course, the importance of saving your own stuff, it turns out, has also been a lesson learned. “Do you know how rich I would be if I kept all the metal T-shirts I had from the late Nineties?” asks Duddy, shaking his head. “Pantera, Metallica—I’d be fucking rich! And I fucking tossed them! I threw them in the trash.”
There are certain items, it’s worth noting, that the group won’t cop hand-me-down. “Never wear another man’s boots,” says Wystrach, who has recently sprung for a pair custom Lucchese cowboy boots. “You have to get the whole bottom off of them and [get them] re-soled, which, at that point, you might as well just buy new ones. Duddy agrees: “Cowboy boots are well worth the investment because, if they’re made well—and if you maintain them—they’ll hold up forever.”
Hats are equally finicky, it turns out. “You’d be surprised how sensitive those things are,” Duddy continues. “So, of course, you can find secondhand hats, but a lot of times you’re shoving them on your head. And then you’ve got a band on your head, or it’s too big.” Instead, the men favor a maker in Waco, Texas: Cameron Morris, the current owner of Standard Hat Works. “He makes all these hats—this one, that one,” Carson says, pointing to his own and Duddy’s caps, “on machines from the Civil War. We love supporting people like that; people who are doing small-batch, handmade, Old World craftsmanship. It’s different than getting something that came from a factory and was maybe not even touched by a human.”
“That’s just who we are,” Wystrach continues. “We’re not the kind of guys that are going to starting going out there and starting spending all [our] money.”
You were, I point out, just seriously considering purchasing a vintage Fendi sweater.
“Okay, listen,” he explains, “that sweater was fucking dope.”
So while their shopping budgets may have changed, their style has not. “The concept is not to dress up in costume,” says Wystrach. “The concept is to dress in reflection of your own personal style. The moment you start walking around in somebody else’s—metaphorically speaking—boots, you’re not going to be coming off confidently. You’re going to feel out of your own skin. You want to show your own pizzazz.”
It’s that mindset that’s guided both On the Rocks and, now, Let It Roll. The only differences the group is grappling with are the pressures of a now-expectant audience and one truly jam-packed schedule. “It’s like I always say,” offers Carson, “mo’ drinkin’, mo’ problems.”
Laughing, Duddy adds: “Jess kept saying that in the studio! We we’re like, you’re fucking right, man.”
They recorded the upcoming 14-song collection in fits and starts on random “off” days over the past 18 months, collaborating with familiar names from their first LP, like Music City songwriting powerhouses Josh Osborne (Blake Shelton, Kacey Musgraves, Kenny Chesney) and Shane McAnally (Musgraves, Sam Hunt, Reba McEntire, plus nearly every other active recording artist in the format). “We have a lot of fun when we’re writing together,” says Duddy. “Things come very naturally and very easily. It’s not uncommon for us to sit down and write two or three songs at one time. That’s not normal. I mean, shit. They’re our soulmates when it comes to writing.”
Together, they penned tales of wayward cowboys, lovesick rock n’ rollers, and charming drifters, and laid them over a landscape rich with Bakersfield twang, throwback acoustics, and modern pop sensibilities. Some are dreamt-up characters, but more often, the men who populate Midland songs are amalgamations of experiences of all three bandmates. Referencing “Drinkin’ Problem” as well as “Every Song’s a Drinkin’ Song,” off Let It Roll, for example, Wystrach says, “The three of us have all been bar hounds. We’ve been that guy. But that character also reminds me of my uncle, to a T. I picture him every night when we’re singing. And I grew up in a bar, and there were countless other hard-on-their-luck old cowboys drinking their life away.”
As for how such songs manage to feel good despite the weighty subject matter, he adds, “It wasn’t, within that, all bad times. There were a lot of joyous times. When it was good, it was great. That touches on all of that.”
The clever wordplay “Drinkin’ Problem” introduced—for reference: “It’s a broken hearted thinkin’ problem,” Wystrach croons over a shimmying beat, “So pull that bottle off the wall/People say I got a drinkin’ problem/But I got no problem drinkin’ at all”—gets kicked into high gear on Let It Roll. Immediate highlight “Playboys,” an easy-rolling meditation on the ever-constant pull of a life on the road, surprises with a subtle comma. “Get on the stage and play, boys,” they sing over a storm of old timey strings. And later: “This old world would be a dull place, boys/If it was all work and no play, boys.”
Recalling the writing session, Wystrach says, “We were sitting at home, out in Dripping Springs, [Texas, outside of Austin], with Josh and Shane, who come out to Texas to write. It was a beautiful day, and we were exhausted. We had been touring nonstop for two or two-and-a-half years at that point. ‘Playboys’ is literally just ripped right out of the daily journals of what we’d been going through.”
Since their debut, Carson has become a father for the third time, and this fall, Wystrach will become one for the first. The singer recently announced that he and his fiancée, Ty Haney, the founder of activewear-cum-fashion brand Outdoor Voices, are expecting a girl before the end of the year. Duddy has a four-year-old son with his wife, photographer Harper Smith. “It’s hard,” says the bassist of the balancing act each are trying to pull off. “And it’s all in the music.”
“There’s no way to sugarcoat it,” agrees Carson. “I mean, you’re just gone. You’re on the road constantly.”
“For me,” says Wystrach, “I think of it like a video game. On The Rocks and before that, when we were forming our first bands, was like the entry level of figuring out the [music] landscape. It’s so foreign and exciting and scary, at the same time. And then you level up, and it’s getting used to being out there, constantly. Like really taking your heart and soul and putting it out there and seeing what happens. You’re getting used to, for the very first time, playing real shows, doing TV, doing awards shows—getting nominated for Grammys. It’s hard for your head to not swirl. Now, we’re leveling up again.”
Comfort comes in the form of each other, mainly. “Thankfully all you have to do is look across the bus or reach across the table and you’ve got your best friend there,” he adds, “your brothers that you’re going through all this stuff with. We’ve realized that this band is going to be as strong as the bonds between us.”
As has been proven by countless acts before them, being in a band—or rather, staying in a band—is not without its own unique challenges. “There is no other ‘art form’ where you have to juggle commerce, art, and then personalities like this,” admits Duddy. “You’re painting by yourself. You’re taking photos by yourself. There may be a dynamic with your subject, but ultimately, that’s your own craft. In films, there’s a totally different hierarchy. So a band is unlike anything else.” Shaking his head, he adds, “Plus, you are performing. So you’re with subjects, at the same time…”
After a beat, he adds, playfully, “You know, all you can do is hope to wake up and look fucking cool. And go to bed looking cool, too. That also helps.”
Photography by Kathryn Wirsing | Video by Robert Mroczko and Tom Jezik | Audio by Ash Knowlton | Grooming by Colleen Runne | Special thanks to What Goes Around Comes Around & The Front General Store
Source : Esquire