The Midtown Reunion Is For The Children

Victoria Asher

The Midtown Reunion Is For The Children

Victoria Asher

Gabe Saporta on how New Jersey pop-punk and emo heroes Midtown got back together, the band's doomed but glorious early run, and his proudly gaudy Cobra Starship era

Gabe Saporta beamed proudly as he flipped through videos of his sons, one sprinting in a Itachi Uchiha costume, his younger brother following behind dressed as Fireman Sam. The Jewish festive holiday Purim had just passed, and the Jewish musician and current music media executive “went all out” to celebrate. It was a fitting start to our conversation: His children were a core component of the upcoming reunion of his seminal post-hardcore group Midtown, who are opening for My Chemical Romance and headlining a few of their own shows in the fall. Saporta started the band as a New Jersey teenager in the late ’90s; now, he and guitarist Tyler Rann are fathers, and their children want to see their dads rock. “Literally doing it for the kids,” as he put it.

In a testament to the ironclad bonds of North Jersey emo, Mikey Way of My Chemical Romance is also partially responsible for Midtown’s reunion. Rann mentioned to Way that Midtown were considering playing shows again, which was at least partially true. The band had already reconnected via a group text that slowly evolved from just catching up to discussions about playing together. The three East Coast members (all but LA-based Saporta) reunited for a jam session on March 10, 2020; less than a week later, global shutdowns dashed any hopes of future rehearsals.

Midtown were finally considering some hometown shows for the end of 2022 when Way reached out to Saporta about opening for My Chemical Romance on their upcoming arena tour. “So I got good news and bad news,” Saporta told his bandmates once the opening slot was confirmed. “Bad news is, we’re not going to be able to play our Jersey show. The good news is it’s because we’re going to play the Prudential Center with My Chem instead.” In even better news, the My Chemical Romance concert had been sold out for years; they would be able to keep their New Jersey headlining dates after all. In some ways, Midtown were reaping what they sowed decades earlier: “We would take out Dashboard Confessional, and then they would go to the moon. We would take out Thursday, they go to the moon. We take out Thrice and then they get big,” Midtown drummer Rob Hitt recalled. “It almost felt like if you want your band to be big, let Midtown take you out.”

Saporta was wary about the expectations these types of reunions set for both fans and musicians. “I’m always on the fence on these things. It takes so much work,” he explained. “I also am not the hugest fan of nostalgia. When I’ve seen my favorite bands get back together, I’ve always been disappointed. So I don’t ever want to disappoint anybody and not live up to the vision that they have in their head.” The band members are in their 40s, with families and careers: Rann is a Vice President at fashion brand Theory, and Hitt is a software engineer who runs many bodega cat fan accounts on the side. Saporta, with his massive catalog from Midtown and his dance-pop band Cobra Starship, was worried about remembering his own songs. (“My brain is turned to mush,” he added.) But Way convinced him: “Playing arenas with My Chem is a pretty good reason [to get back together],” Saporta said.

“[Midtown] never actually had an official breakup,” Hitt noted, but the band informally disbanded around 2005, after 2004’s Forget What You Know. As Saporta described it, the band was a casualty to a music landscape coming to grips with massive technological and economic shifts. After releasing their debut Save The World, Lose The Girl on Drive-Thru Records, they became a de facto major label band when Drive-Thru was acquired by MCA. Label heads didn’t get their image — Saporta recalled running into their A&R representative courting another band the night of Living Well Is The Best Revenge’s release — and they “played a game of chicken” by withholding new music until they could wrestle their way out of their record contract. They then signed to Columbia just as Napster sent the industry into a panic. After three albums on three labels, Midtown ultimately died by a thousand business blunders.

Cobra Starship, Saporta’s electro-pop band, was built on the bitter ashes of his previous industry disasters. “Let’s just go as far as we can with this, have fun, and take the piss while we’re doing it,” he remembered thinking at the time. Saporta recalled every friend and industry connection from that period around 2005, no matter how small, that helped him get back into music after Midtown. “I have to give them credit,” he would add, grateful for their help even two decades on. There was fashion executive Kelly McCauley, who “basically laced up everybody with Diesel [jeans], from Warped Tour bands to the Strokes and the Rapture” and gave Saporta the advice to “get out of his own way.” Then he credited Seventeen writer Sophie Schulte-Hillen with encouraging him to crash Gwen Stefani’s L.A.M.B. show and ambush her on video about his parody song “Hollaback Boy.” That song, which blew up in the early MySpace days, was an appropriately raunchy and self-referential start to his new venture.

To hear him describe it, Cobra Starship was the culmination of influences throughout Saporta’s life. Born in Uruguay, he immigrated to America and landed in eastern Queens in early childhood. “I remember on the weekends my mom would take us to the roller skate rink and I would hear this music. I don’t know what it was. But I would call it ‘the roller rink music.’ It was freestyle — like ‘Two Of Hearts,’ Cover Girls — which would later influence Cobra Starship’s sound.” Another major influence, perhaps unsurprisingly for his neon-clad dance-pop band, was Saporta’s entrée into nightlife: “I turned 21 and started going to clubs,” he said. “There was a party happening called the MisShapes party that was started by former scene kids that embodied this ’80s resurgence.” That, combined with a DFA-led dance punk scene (which itself is currently seeing a nostalgic revival as “indie sleaze”), inspired Saporta to experiment with soft synths like Reason.

As with many topics, Saporta sketched out an A Beautiful Mind map of his Cobra Starship influences in rapid succession: Madonna, early Depeche Mode, New Order collaborator Arthur Baker, Phoenix’s United. It all added up to the neon tracksuits, keytars, and general debauchery that came to define Cobra Starship. And while it’s easy to look back on that era and laugh at the garishness of it all, Saporta took their sound seriously: By the time Cobra Starship called it quits in 2015, they had collaborated with both Cover Girls and Arthur Baker, a fan-to-collaborator full-circle most bands only dream about.

If Midtown, with their brooding lyrics and penchant for strange album covers, were always slightly out of step with an industry looking for pretty faces and easy singles, Cobra Starship were perfectly timed for the hypermediated landscape of the mid-2000s. They invited fans to make them a “Guilty Pleasure”; they poked fun at the capriciousness of music trends on “Pop-Punk Is Sooooo ’05.” Their rise alongside Fueled By Ramen label peers Fall Out Boy and Panic! At the Disco was met by a new kind of fan: terminally online, snarky, usually female teenagers, who incessantly mocked the bands they claimed to adore on Livejournal forums like FBR_Trash. It was a cruel preview of the parasocial relationships that are so commonplace in the pop landscape today.

As a “lurker” on those forums back in the day, I wanted to know if that level of familiarity bothered Saporta. To my surprise, he saw himself in their rabid fandom. “Dude, I have photos of me outside a Sonic Youth show waiting for them to come out. But I’ll take a photo and super obnoxiously hold Lee Renaldo’s ear while in the photo — not ask permission, just do it. I was that kid that was like, ‘Hey, I think I know this guy'” he explained. “As an artist, I feel like I owe something to the people who support me and allow me to do what I do for a living.”

Midtown’s reunion comes on the heels of a massive emo resurgence — once again, artists are picking up guitars and Manic Panic in a ploy for credibility. Did that newfound excitement for the genre surprise Saporta? To him, it was all about pop-punk’s intensity: “Having three young boys, I can tell you that young boys just want to break shit. I see the way my kids respond to music. They just want energy,” he observed, causally summarizing trends that have perplexed music journalists for the past half-decade.

Since their de facto breakup in 2005, Midtown have only played one show, at the 2014 Skate And Surf festival. “I just remember it was daytime, and it was cold,” drummer Rob Hitt recalled. The stakes for these shows are immediately higher. Their first Starland Ballroom show sold out in 30 minutes; they added a second show, which similarly sold out in a day — 4,000 tickets total, and that’s just in Jersey. “We have never sold that many tickets,” Saporta said, somewhat in disbelief. Hitt, who had low expectations after noting the lack of Midtown nostalgia on emo TikTok, was similarly overcome with gratitude for their hometown fans. “I loved the last show, but this already feels more special,” Hitt said. “And I think I can speak for everybody on that.”

TOUR DATES:
09/21 – Newark, NJ @ Prudential Center %
09/23 – Birmingham, AL @ Furnace Fest
09/24 – Sunrise, FL @ BB&T Center %
09/27 – Houston, TX @ Toyota Center %
09/28 – Dallas, TX @ American Airlines Center %
10/17 – Los Angeles, CA @ The Forum %
12/02 – Sayreville, NJ @ Starland Ballroom * (SOLD OUT)
12/03 – Sayreville, NJ @ Starland Ballroom * (SOLD OUT)
12/09 – Wantagh, NY @ Mulcahy’s *
12/10 – Worcester, MA @ The Palladium *

% with My Chemical Romance
* Midtown headline show

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