Catching Up With Midnight North

By Toby Oler Dec 17, 2015 9:30 am PST

On Friday night, Bay Area fixtures Midnight North will open The Mother Hips’ annual holiday show at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. The quintet made up of guitarist Grahame Lesh, multi- instrumentalists Elliott Peck and Alex Jordan, drummer Alex Koford and bassist Connor O’Sullivan appeared on a lot of people’s radars this fall when Phil Lesh and Bob Weir shared the stage with them at SOB’s in New York City.

JamBase contributor Toby Oler caught up with the members of Midnight North at Jackie Greene’s Greene Room, where they were working on recording the follow up to 2015’s Scarlet Skies with engineer David Simon-Baker (Los Lobos, Mother Hips, Jackie Greene) to discuss the genesis of the group, performance highlights from the road and more.

Tell me about the September Rainforest Action Network benefit in San Francisco where you guys were on the bill with Bonnie Raitt and performed as a backup band to Bob Weir and how that led to the NYC sit-ins with Bob and Phil Lesh?

Connor O’Sullivan: We were on stage and Grahame was still in the bathroom and Bob was like “Let’s go.”

Elliott Peck: So we’re jamming on “West L.A. Fadeaway” and Grahame comes flying out of the bathroom and pushing through the crowd.

Alex Jordan: Elliott was really stoked that Bonnie Raitt wanted to use her keyboard. She’ll never wash that keyboard again. We played a gig recently and a guest bled on it. We washed the blood off but we didn’t clean the keys.

EP: It’s got fairy dust on it. It’s cool to watch a woman who started so long ago that’s been able to stand up in a dude’s business. It’s a man’s world, this profession. And she started a long time ago when I’m sure it was not as easy to do as a woman as it is today. And she always sounds perfect.

CO: And that night led to us hanging out in New York with Bob.

AJ: They invited us to come check out Dead and Company at Madison Square Garden. We hung around and after the show told Bob, “Hey we’re in town.” And he says, “Yeah, where you playing?“

So, at lunchtime the day of SOB’s, Bob texted Grahame and asked “Could I come by and play a couple tunes tonight?” And the night before Phil had said he was gonna come and asked if he could play. Phil’s bass tech was down in the green room going over the setlist with us and asked “Are they gonna play together?”

We were like, “Do they want to?”

He goes, “I think they better. I think we better make sure that happens.”

Walk me through how Midnight North got started.

Grahame Lesh: I met Connor on Craigslist. Me and Eric Saar and Brody Jenkins were in a band and the bass player from that band moved to Africa as bass players often do. So we went to Craigslist and Connor loves Craigslist. He was the best person we met.

CO: I learned a couple songs and we just jammed. I didn’t know 100% what I was getting into. The music was hard rock. A lot of distortion pedals. Sometimes it almost sounded like the Mars Volta with a chick singer. We never played a gig. After eight months of rehearsals, the singer left the band.

GL: We kept jamming as a trio at first and then Elliott got involved.

AJ: I was living in Long Beach and was on the road crew for a Grateful Dead tribute band, Cubensis. One of the guys in the band was touring with Bobby Womack, before Womack passed. He was gonna be out a lot. I was asked if I could step in and cover some parts and a few shows turned into a 20 or 30 of shows.

One of those shows, Midnight North opened up for Cubensis in Long Beach and Malibu. We were in the green room in Malibu and I was the only other person besides them under 40. At the time the Giants were winning, so we talking about baseball and the Giants. Everyone else I knew was a Dodgers fan.

Grahame foolishly invited me to come up and jam at Terrapin sometime. I told him “You better be careful, I’ll take you up on it.” So I drove up on a Sunday and Midnight North had an acoustic show with no drummer. I brought my acoustic guitar and that’s when we hit it off. I put on their record, End of the Night, and listened to it about ten times in the car on the way up to learn all the harmony parts. So we sang and played and had a good time and Elliott asked, “Have you ever thought about moving up to San Francisco?”

I knew they only had two singers and they were so used to singing together that it was easy to add a third part. I think when you have three people that are all really interested in singing in harmony it makes a big difference because no one’s trying to elbow their way to the front. Everyone wants to sound good as an ensemble.

EP: We really want harmonies to be something we are known for as a band. Grahame always looks at Alex when Alex is playing a guitar solo instead of singing and he’s like “Harmonies first!!” It’s our motto. Put your guitar solo down till you got your harmony then you can pick that guitar solo back up again. You can’t have your dessert till you’ve had your dinner.

AJ: One of the hardest part of harmony singing is blend. You can have three perfectly in tune voices that don’t sound good together. I think that was one of the things that got us all excited when I first sat in was that it did blend. It was very natural.

GL: Our favorite thing to do live is to sing. Now that we have Koford so we can have four part harmonies. Any time there’s a maj7 chord or an add9 it’s like all the parts are here.

Alex Koford: I was working at Terrapin Crossroads doing security, doors at shows, loading gear on and off trucks, ticketing. I learned lights. I started playing with American Jubilee during a recording session for their first EP. I was hanging out. I knew the guys. I played shaker on a track and got to stomp in Ross James’ cowboy boots and that was my audition and I got the gig because I could stomp in time.

AJ: We’ve been doing every Sunday night at Terrapin at 7:30 for a couple years now. It’s where we’ve played some of our most comfortable shows and also had our most rockin’ trainwrecks. The coolest thing is that you can hear us work on new stuff.

EP: Now I feel like I’ll come to the band with this raw idea and watch it totally come to life.

CO: When we write songs, we will workshop it at Terrapin. Like “Headline From Kentucky,” we don’t play it anywhere but Terrapin right now because we’re still working it out.

GL: It’s great to get home.

CO: We’ll be back next week.

Elliott, you’ve played a bunch of the Phil and Friends shows in the Donna role where they recreate a show from certain years. What kind of prep goes into that?

EP: You get the setlist a few days before and you go on the archive and its’ listening, listening, listening. I asked Phil, “Do you want to replicate this how it was or do you want it open for interpretation?” He’s like, “No, I want it to be representative of the era but I want it to sound like us. I want it to sound like the people that are in front of you that night.”

One thing I noticed it’s two hours before the show and it feels like holy shit we haven’t rehearsed enough. I don’t know what’s gonna happen. But then every single time I perform with him you just get on stage and it sounds cheesy but the music just kinda takes over. He picks the right people.

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You all got an insider’s view of the Fare Thee Well concerts this summer, what were some highlights?

AJ: This was now the last night. We had started doing “Attics Of My Life” as a band because we recorded a video of it for JamBase. For the second encore here comes “Attics Of My Life.” Grahame had pulled us on side of the stage by the monitor boards.

CO: You’re not hearing the mains. You’re hearing the actual amps and the real drums. It’s powerful.

AJ: I’m singing along and Grahame’s next to me and he’s singing and Connor is singing along too. And I look up and there’s Elliott on this raised patio and she’s singing along too. I got teary.

EP: Crazy to go backstage and be part of this machine and see what Grahame kind of grew up in. Cool to see it first hand. And I was a big Phish fan so to see Trey there was wild. Hard to even comprehend in the moment.

At Terrapin Crossroads, you never know what musicians are going to show up. Who are some of the best musicians you’ve seen or played with there?

EP: Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams. One of the best shows I’ve ever seen. It was the anniversary of Jerry’s death and they did this whole night around death and birth and the cycle of life. They brought in candles. They brought in a choir. And the choir and Teresa started off the night with Pink Floyd’s “Great Gig in the Sky” in pitch black darkness.

AK: It’s hard to pick one. Jason Crosby is an incredible person to play with or Scott Law. Or the times I’ve gotten to play with Tim Bluhm or Greg Loiacono from the Mother Hips are special to me cause I look up to them so much.

CO: Any time Chris Robinson plays with Phil. I like that.

AJ: Scofield and Medeski playing with Phil and Friends. Grahame regularly sings one of songs that we do, “Wind and Roses,” with Phil and Friends because Phil just loves that song. Here they are doing it and Scofield took the lead guitar part. I mean we do this song every week. So hearing Scofield take a pass at that was great.

GL: Al Schnier from moe. has come and played with the Family Band and he kills it every time.

EP: Another favorite was one of my first weeks there in 2012 right after the place opened.

CO: Terrapin was not what it is now. There wasn’t live music every night of the week. Midnight North I don’t think was Midnight North, it was Grahame Lesh and Friends.

EP: It was decided to do album night and to cover the Graham Parsons’ album Grievous Angel. Fortunately I was in the right place at the right time and they said, “You’ll be doing all the Emmylou parts.”

CO: I learned all the bass to that whole album. Phil heard about the idea and decides he wants to get involved and play bass so I had a day or two to mess around on the mandolin and piano. While we were rehearsing we found out Mike Gordon was gonna sit in. I remember rehearsing in the Grate Room and a line formed outside a block long. Where else are you gonna see this? Where else is this gonna happen?

Tickets for The Mother Hips and Midnight North at Great American Music Hall in San Francisco on Friday night are available here.

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