Earlier this year, the English producer/DJ Midland was tapped by dance music impresario Pete Tong to make his very Essential Mix for BBC Radio 1. Midland (real name: Harry Agius) took a month off to focus almost exclusively on the mix; in addition to selecting material from a wide range of genres, he refocused his writing efforts to create tracks that he might debut on the air. One month stretched closer to two. “I was working on the mix so long I was losing my mind,” he recalls to Billboard over Skype.
When Midland’s mix was broadcast at the end of February, he unveiled several new productions for the first time, including “Final Credits,” a remarkable disco number stitched together from a series of old samples. It opens with a guitar loop that cannot quite achieve liftoff; the riff traces and retraces the same path for roughly 100 seconds. “You want people to lose themselves in it,” Midland says. “And you want people to wait.”
Then the first of two major energy shifts occurs: The guitar breaks through the wall, an achievement that’s celebrated by the intrusion of a supremely squelchy synth riff. This alone is enough to buoy countless disco-sampling dance tracks, a fact that Midland freely admits. “If you hold a loop for that long, even when it just changes and completes the sequence, people love that,” he says.
But just shy of the three minute mark, “Final Credits” morphs once again, as a crusty soul vocal tumbles down from the heavens to cavort with that guitar. The voice is borrowed from Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “Neither One Of Us (Wants To Be The First To Say Goodbye),” one of Knight’s last hits for Motown. “I dropped the vocal into the wrong channel which was pitch-shifted up,” Midland recalls. “It fell in in the right key.” The results are tragicomic — it sounds as if Knight has been huffing helium, but oddly, her tale of a relationship in free fall is no less affecting.
The fact that Midland, who just turned 30, created a masterful house track like this is unexpected given his origins in the much faster world of drum and bass. As a teenager, he was handed a copy of a live recording of a drum and bass rave, with Andy C behind the decks. “It was on the way to a rugby game on a school bus,” Midland remembers. “The moment I got back I took out the CD decks and was like, right: how do I make things play at the same speed?”
He threw himself head-first into drum and bass, practicing mixing for endless hours in his bedroom, and quickly located the scene when he arrived at Leeds for university. “I was so obsessed with drum and bass,” he says. “I just wanted it all inside my head.” The intensity of his interest was such that he “ruffled a few feathers.”
“I was super young, super keen, went to every party, met everyone, chatted to everyone,” he explains. “The guy who ran the radio station, they used to host a room at one of the biggest rave nights in the city. I was watching the DJs with him; every song I would just tell him the name and chat about it. He was like, ‘Just shut up — you can have a set!'”
But at a certain point, Midland began to look at the world of music beyond drum and bass. “Because of the tempo, I felt there wasn’t a huge amount of area to maneuver,” he says. “Now there are people taking it in super interesting directions, but it felt like I couldn’t bring anything new to the table.” He went to Spain for a month and didn’t listen to music. When he came back, he had a taste for slower music — the sounds of Moderat and Aphex Twin — and he started to produce for the first time.
Midland has a theory about the learning curve for music production — “You spend three or four years learning how to produce and the curve goes up very slowly, then four or five years in, it goes ‘shwoo’ really quickly” — that he believes is born out by his own experience. His first release arrived in 2010; in 2013, he started to generate a new wave of interest due to a well-regarded set he did at Panorama Bar — the more house-oriented room at Berlin’s Berghain — and the release of “Trace,” which relied on a nasty kick drum and goofily distorted vocals to create the type of dance-floor bedlam that has crossover appeal.
Midland now feels like he has new control over his output. “You can go into the studio with an idea in your head, a very vague vibe, and you can do it,” he explains. “The last three records I’ve done have been written like that. Not accidental — like, this is what I want to do.”
“Back in the day, with all my tracks, it would take five minutes — always the second drop would be the best one, but as a DJ, you’d have to really want to get that far,” Midland continues. “I think that’s what lost quite a few people in the early days. My music was very unplayable.”
Now he faces a different reaction: when he slips “Final Credits” into his sets, a dance floor might erupt in cheers. Midland suggests his response is usually to hide behind the turntables. “You get messages from people like, ‘I asked my wife to marry me when you played this song,'” he says.
“I always think about people who have their big track in the first year or two of their career,” Midland adds. “That would be terrifying. I only started enjoying DJing and felt like I could actually do it two, three years ago max. I still get it wrong quite a lot. But maybe less often.”