Midwest Telegram emerged from the depths of the Kansas City suburbs--and two years of lockdown and general pandemic living--in 2021 with an eponymous EP of dreamy DIY bedroom pop that wouldn't sound at all out of place on your favorite 90s college radio station. Add that to the fact that the band's members are barely out of high school and writing songs this good, well, it feels more of a matter of when not if they become one of the area's best known indie bands. We talked with Midwest Telegram about their process, their influences, and the insanity of forming a band in the middle of a global pandemic.
Please introduce yourself and describe your music for new listeners.
Willow: Hi, my name is Willow MacIvor, I am the drummer for Midwest Telegram. I would describe the music of Midwest Telegram as a little of everything. It is a blend of pop punk and folk, with some slow stuff, sprinkled in. As a band, we are always experimenting with new genres, and instruments so really we feel free to write whatever sounds good to us. Rishi is on vocals, Miles and Christian on guitar, and Meghana on bass guitar.
Given that you are a relatively new addition to the Kansas City music scene, how did the group come together? Have you all been friends for a while or was it more clandestine?
Willow: The band, generally, has been around since 2017, and even before then some of us were playing music together just not as a band. Midwest Telegram as it is known now though has only come about in the last few years. Before 2021, the band had a different name and different members. We began as a school band, practicing in the music room and not playing anything bigger than a pep rally, or a school dance. As people graduated members came and went, and at the start of the pandemic the band went away almost entirely. Around the middle of 2021 though, we decided that we still wanted to play music together, so we started practicing again.
Christian: All of us went to the same high school, which is how we all know each other. We actually have a kind of mantra we use when going about interpersonal conflict within the band, which is “friends first, bandmates second.” At our core, we are just a group of kids having the time of our lives playing music, and we try our best to preserve that innocent and pure fun.
Miles: First, I was friends with Meghana, same with Rishi. Me, Christian, and Willow became closer later on. Meghana and I were both in debate and bonded over the stress of the activity. I didn’t even pick up a guitar for the first time until a year ago. Once I did, in Spring 2021, I talked to Meghana over Facetime about playing music together. Then they suggested I joined what used to be called the “Rhizomes.” We subsequently rebranded into “Midwest Telegram.”
Rishi: I joined the project our sophomore year, and after a hiatus during the first lockdown of 2020, the band came back in full swing in 2021.
What does a typical songwriting session look like? Do you work together as a group or is everyone bringing different things to the table?
Rishi: Our songwriting process is collaborative and highlights each individual's strengths. Usually, one person will write the lyrics and basic chord progression for the song and present it to the other members. The next step in the process is finding everyone’s spot in the song, like what would be a good baseline to play, or vocal pattern to change. Sometimes the songs change entirely from their original draft after the band works on it together.
Christian: Typically, for me at least, I will come to rehearsal with a pretty dead set structure and composition of a song and let the band tweak as needed, other members have different and more collaborative ways about going through the songwriting process though, I’m just an old dog who doesn’t want to learn new tricks.
Miles: Most of the songs I write I do alone, mostly after midnight. Usually, I’ll have an idea and I’ll be burning to write it down, even if it’s horrible. I also try to finish almost every song I make, at least lyrically, even if it’s bad. I think practicing that consistency has made me into a better songwriter. We’ve done some stuff as a group before, like “Scurvy Song,” but 80% of the EP was done by individual members. Other members swoop in for support and edits after a song’s skeleton is finished. I also write my own solo material, but most of that I write riffs and progressions on the guitar first, then sing what first pops into my head when I play.
Willow: We all have very different styles when it comes to writing music, so it can sometimes be challenging to balance creative visions, but also it means that if I bring an idea to the band my bandmates will be able to run with that idea and make it something I maybe didn’t even consider.
What other artists or styles inspire and influence you as an artist? How do you find that these show up in your work?
Rishi: Every member of the band is influenced by different artists, which makes finding “the band’s” inspiration a difficult task; however, looking at individuals’ influences is rather easy. Personally, I find myself drawn to the vocal melodies of ballad songwriters like Adele, though I intend on taking a more indie-rock/emo style in the future.
Meghana: What other artists influence you? I think sound wise, we are very influenced by midwest emo acts like the get up kids, and singer-songwriters like Phoebe Bridgers and Alex G. We are looking to go in a noisier direction, and I have been heavily inspired by Kim Gordon and Sonic Youth in this process.
Willow: I am personally really influenced by the drumming of Marco Minnemann who drums for the band The Aristocrats. He is a very technically skilled drummer, fond of breaking time and using lots of little fills and flourishes to make his drumming interesting. I am not as skilled as he is, but on the song "The Girl with the Dark Purple Hair," which I wrote, there is a two-beat that breaks time during the chorus. In terms of style, I listened to a lot of classic rock growing up, like Kiss, Metallica, and Nirvana, as well as Pink Floyd. I think this has influenced how I structure songs, I also would say that bands like The Foo Fighters and The Aristocrats have influenced me as more contemporary bands.
Miles: My biggest musical influence is definitely Alex G. I appreciate the simplicity of his songwriting and how abstract it is. I think there’s a prevailing view that songs have to be autobiographical or expressions of the artist’s own pain or love. Most of the songs I write, I usually just write about feelings I have, but in a very vague sense. I think, “hey, wouldn’t it be cool to write a song about this,” then I do it. I don’t wait for inspiration. I recently read Jeff Tweedy’s How to Write One Song, and I share his view about songwriting as a craft, not some divine thing that you pull from oblivion. I like making vaguer songs because it allows the listener to project more meaning onto it themselves. I’d like someone to think of a certain memory, person, or location when they hear my music. Like a sonic Rothko painting.
Christian: I grew up on incredibly heavy doses of psychedelic rock, and I can tell that psych rock is like my musical origin point especially when I am playing a lead guitar part or soloing. Some other guitarists that really influence the way I play are Tom Verlaine of Television and Neil Young. Both of these players are super versatile and both have an incredibly unique “voice” when playing guitar. A guitar that speaks in a specific dialect is what I strive to play like.
You released your self-titled debut EP last year, how has it been trying to build a following in the midst of a global pandemic where a lot of the traditional promotional avenues have been limited?
Christian: Honestly, I feel like we are not letting the burden and weight of the pandemic slow us down any more than need be. I mean obviously we are all still wearing our masks and we’re all fully vaxxed and boosted, but we’re still playing a lot of live, in-person shows. I think we have a lot of trust within our circle of friends, and all of us and our musician friends understand the responsibility that falls on us as performers to keep our audiences safe and lead by example of what safe concert practice in a global pandemic looks like. Also, big shout out to venues like the Jazzhaus, the Replay Lounge, and Gaslight Gardens for requiring proof of vaccination, your diligence helps keep us and our audiences safe and we’re very grateful for that. Anyways, we also have done some very fun virtual interviews and submitted the EP to a few music review sites (namely Divide and Conquer) just to get a larger online footprint and create some more action on our socials, which in turn helps us promote our music on steaming services.
Miles: I book most of our shows, so promotion has usually been in the form of getting people to come out and physically watch us perform music. Lots of people say we play better live too, haha. Being in college, it’s pretty easy to get a big group of friends to come out to your show. I don’t necessarily care about getting a huge following, but I want people I know to come out and have a good time. I also really care about being around my bandmates, so recently, I’ve been saying I want to get big enough that it’ll force us to all be in the same city.
Rishi: Building a following over social media, instead of through gigging, might have been more beneficial to Midwest Telegram. Having a digital presence as content creators is becoming a more and more essential part of getting the attention of listeners. Using social media also gives an equal platform to smaller bands who might not have connections with venues just yet, like us last summer.
Willow: It has been very challenging. We do a lot of marketing and promotion for show digitally through places like Instagram, but the pandemic has still affected our growth for sure. It restricts the number of shows we can play, as well as the number of people who can come to those shows. Also, you build a lot of traction as a band through people who come to your shows spreading the word through word of mouth, and with fewer gatherings of large groups of people word simply spreads slower.
Miles: We also have a decent Instagram presence. One of our friends is pretty big on Tiktok and added our EP to one of their playlists that has a couple thousand followers, which has been ramping our streaming numbers up. It seems like promoting music nowadays is much less about “getting signed” to a label, and more about self-marketing, social media, and communications skills.
Midwest Telegram's recommendations from the Johnson County Library catalog:
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown
August Osage County by Tracy Letts
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward