By WILLIAM J. WRIGHT
For nearly 25 years, Midnight Syndicate has terrified and delighted fans as the world’s premier purveyors of instrumental horror music. Edward Douglas and Gavin Goszka have stood at the forefront of a musical genre that simply did not exist before the band’s inception. They’ve single-handedly revolutionized the haunted attraction industry with their eerie, symphonic compositions carving out a unique niche where only library tracks and sound effects recordings existed before. With soundscapes for haunts ranging from the smallest spook houses to Universal Studios’ legendary Halloween Horror Nights, Midnight Syndicate’s music has become as essential to the witching season as candy corn, costumes, and “The Monster Mash.” Above all, Douglas and Goszka are instrumental storytellers crafting soundtracks for imaginary horror movies through music and sound. Ultimately, this narrative approach is key to Midnight Syndicate’s success and ongoing evolution. As stated in their promotional materials, the music of Midnight Syndicate is “a transcendental and adventurous escape into the secret dimensions of the mind’s eye.” Put simply, Douglas and Goszka set the stage and your imagination provides the ghosts.
With the release of the band’s first-ever live album, LIVE SHADOWS (see Rue Morgue #200) and the EP BLOODLINES, a prequel to their fan-favorite 2005 album The 13th Hour that expands the world of the sinister Haverghast family first introduced in 2001’s Gates of Delirium, 2021 is shaping up to be the biggest year in Midnight Syndicate’s history. Midnight Syndicate fans have even more to celebrate with the recent announcement that the band will be reprising their acclaimed Conspiracy of Shadows live show this year at Sandusky, Ohio’s Cedar Point amusement park during their annual HalloWeekends event in September and October. Eager to get back on stage after the COVID-19 pandemic derailed 2020’s live dates, Edward Douglas and Gavin Goszka took time out of their busy schedules to discuss what goes into the elaborate production as well as the story behind the BLOODLINES mini-album that brought the duo back into the studio for the first time since 2016.
The material on LIVE SHADOWS is culled from your Midnight Syndicate Live! performances recorded at Sandusky, Ohio’s Cedar Point Amusement Park annual HalloWeekends between 2014 and 2019. Anyone who’s lucky enough to have caught one of the shows or seen your trailer for LIVE SHADOWS knows that the production is a creepy feast for the eyes with video screens, fog, props, and costumes. Did musical artists known for their theatricality, such as Alice Cooper and King Diamond, influence your approach?
ED: While artists like King Diamond and Alice Cooper influence our music, I don’t know how much they influenced the Midnight Syndicate Live! show. Back in ’96, when Midnight Syndicate started, there wasn’t really anybody doing what we do – these orchestral tracks for imaginary films that blended orchestration and sound effects and had a horror theme. There was no band consistently doing that at the time. That made it really difficult when it came to determining how we were going to do a live show. How do you do a live show for a band that does soundtracks to imaginary films? So what I found – and this was back in ’97 or ’98 – I found myself going back to my background in theater. I studied theater and film, and I did an earlier version of The Dead Matter coming out of college. So that’s where I was coming from before Midnight Syndicate. I pulled from that experience in theater and film to develop that first Midnight Syndicate Live! show in 1998. Now, fast forward to 2014 when Gavin and I are doing our first show at Cedar Point, we together had had 16 years of full immersion in the haunted attraction and amusement park industry. So I think that definitely added a layer and took the show into another direction and really got us to where we are today.
What went into conceiving the live show?
ED: It is a multimedia experience, so it’s a combination of theater and film and, of course, the live music and the interaction between those elements. We’re inspired by our love of haunted houses. Like with everything, Gavin and I complement each other and Gavin really brought in that experience of having played in large venues in front of very large audiences.
GG: When I looked at our show, I tried to look at it from an outsider’s perspective like a fan’s perspective. What would make for an interesting show based on what I’ve seen? I’ve seen really, really fantastic stage shows where there’s so much to take in beyond the music. There are visuals and that kind of thing, and then I’ve seen, on the other side of the coin, some shows that were just about the music with not much to really look at. I wanted to make sure that we gave the audience something more than just the music. It’s got to go beyond that to keep things interesting, especially if you don’t know our music and you’re just coming in from outside as a fan of Halloween or if you happen to be at the park for HalloWeekends. We want you to leave with an impression of, “That was really cool!” It’s a treat for all the senses.
The sets and props are incredible. Can you tell me about your crew and how much input you have in designing the look of the show?
ED: The cool thing is, the Midnight Syndicate Live! show is our own. Cedar Point really gave us free rein to do whatever we wanted, and at the same time, we’re great partners. With their perspective having done amusement park shows forever, they have a lot of valuable input and experience and you can take and use that when developing your show. They’re going to give you these tidbits of information about things they’ve learned over the years. You take that and incorporate it when you design the show and it makes the show stronger. It’s been that way every single year that we’ve done the show. Cedar Point has a really long history in Halloween events and haunted attractions. Cedar Point along with Knott’s Berry Farm in California was one of the first to do these kinds of things.
While we’re overseeing everything, we have a great team that works with us that makes everything happen. There’s a company called Screamline Studios that we met through the haunted house industry – good friends of ours – that designed the entire set that you see and every set that we’ve done. Other elements that we’ve added to the show throughout the years also come from the haunted attraction industry. The videos are another thing. Gary Jones is a mentor of mine who helped me with The Dead Matter [in] 2010. He was really important in helping with the film elements of the show. And then we have the Smoley Brothers. I can’t say how huge their impact is because they’re brilliant, brilliant independent filmmakers and have been able to allow us to produce some really cool film elements for the show. Without them, the show wouldn’t be the same. Then, there’s David Greathouse: he’s been a fan of ours since the very beginning and he was also putting it in the back of our heads, “You guys gotta play live!” So much so that the first Midnight Syndicate music video we ever did in 2008 for “Dark Legacy” was actually us performing live on stage and Dave Greathouse directed that video. So, he was kind of planting the seeds early on. Dave is a really great special effects artist. He had a really good run on Face Off. He also works with the band Mushroomhead, so he has some theatrical band experience. Those are the elements: the film, the set, the makeup effects, and Cedar Point.
GG: One of the interesting things, too, was the difference in the venues. We had an absolutely huge venue the first year out with the Goodtime Theater, and the differences with what we were able to do with that and the kind of show that resulted from being there versus the Jack Aldrich Theater, which is a lot smaller and more intimate, changed the whole nature of the show. The Goodtime was very big scale, big lights. Cedar Point was very helpful with what would work in either space. There were things we could get away with in a huge theater that just don’t work in a 400 or 500 seat theater. It’s all about adapting the show and maybe even changing your vision for what you’re doing and how you’re telling a story. It’s an interesting challenge.
Does performing live on such an elaborate stage with effects and video pose any challenges?
ED: Because the show is so involved, it’s very not transportable, which is the biggest challenge as far as most Midnight Syndicate fans are concerned. The show is not something we can just place in any theater as it stands right now. It’s not the kind of show that you can pick up and move to another theater for one or two nights, then pick up and move to another theater.
GG: It’s been location-dependent, we’ve built a lot of the show around the Aldrich Theater, specifically. No spoilers or anything, but in this last show that we did, we wanted to enter the theater space in a different way, basically. Let’s put it that way. And that’s something specific to the Aldrich. If we were in a different theater, I don’t know if that would have been a consideration or a possibility. And some of the things that happen throughout the show, too, were very reliant on the way that theater is laid out.
Do you have a process for getting into character or an appropriately spooky mindset before you take the stage?
GG: I started doing different makeup for the different shows. That was a lot of fun. I try to challenge myself with it because I am not by nature a makeup guy. I’m new to that world, but I just started thinking about what would look cool for a certain show and what’s the feel and stuff like that. Every year, that’s kind of grown and developed and that’s kind of helped me pull into that character and that world. Once the brush hits your face, you just become that character which is really neat.
ED: I’m generally wearing the director-producer hat, so to get into performer mode is a major transition because once you’re in the performer mode, you have to trust your team completely and forget about all the things you’ve been worrying about up to that moment. That was certainly a challenge for me initially. It was a really big challenge. I would say that it has gotten better over the years, but it’s sometimes still challenging to make that transition. Once the team’s in place and I can trust them, then it’s not too difficult for me to get there because my character is just an extension of myself.
It’s a very ominous extension, because from what I’ve seen, the guy on stage isn’t the Edward Douglas I know. That’s not nice, friendly, accommodating Ed, That’s a Victorian-era psychopath!
ED: (Laughs maniacally) Perhaps…
Tell me about the other performers in the show.
ED: We have had the great fortune, again with Cedar Point’s help, to really get some fantastic vocalists. We’ve had a different vocalist every year. The three vocalists you hear on LIVE SHADOWS are Emily Viancourt, Ashley Watkins, and Janina Bradshaw. The fourth show didn’t prominently feature a vocalist, but we did have a primary actor who’s featured on the album and he did an outstanding job for us. Getting to work with them has been fantastic and what it’s going to do is it’s going to give Midnight Syndicate fans a chance to hear the songs like they’ve never heard them before.
Do you have any plans to release the show on video?
GG: We get asked that a lot! The nature of this show kind of goes beyond what you’d be able to really capture with a single camera aimed at the stage. In order to really capture the experience for everyone, we would really have to plan that out in advance and have multiple cameras and maybe film across different days to kind of get everything, so, as of right now, we have no immediate plans. It’s something we may consider doing in the future. We do get asked about that a lot. It’s tricky. If you’ve seen the show, you kind of know why we would say that and what that means. There are so many different elements that would be really hard to capture.
ED: We have done an excellent job capturing the shows that we’ve done so far on video, so we don’t want to rule anything out. I’ve just never been satisfied with the way the show translates to video.
GG: You miss things.ED: Yeah. I’ve just never been satisfied with it. The last thing we want to do after telling everybody about this show and getting everybody excited about it is not being able to give them the real experience. So, as of right now, the Midnight Syndicate Live! show is very much something you need to come and see in person to get the proper effect.
What can you tell me about the new mini-album BLOODLINES?
ED: We really wanted to re-release The 13th Hour on vinyl. I think that’s where it started. And then we were like, “It would be really neat to expand on this world we’ve created on this particular album. We started throwing around song ideas and concepts. What we came up with is a prelude to The 13th Hour.
GG: It extends the story a little bit. We don’t have a lot of unused tracks like a lot of bands. You know, you’ll have this back catalog of songs that were in consideration for a given album and they just don’t end up getting used, and they end up getting released on an extras and B-sides album or whatever. If an idea’s not going to work, we know that pretty quickly and we just don’t develop it then. We have a lot of rough ideas that never really got developed, but we don’t have a lot of studio recordings that don’t get used. So we didn’t have that to pull from. It wasn’t like we could re-release The 13th Hour in an extended, deluxe edition with all these B-sides and stuff. So we were like, “What if we just play into [The 13th Hour] storyline and did kind of a precursor to those events.” You just kind of start running with your imagination. That’s kind of what it was based on.
ED: It was one of those amazing production meetings that we have that really energized me. Gavin had independently thought up some of the things he wanted to bring to the album, and I had thought on my own some of the songs I wanted, and we got together and it just clicked! Really quickly, we found some stuff we both loved and we started formulating exactly what we were going to do on BLOODLINES. It was awesome. I am so excited about this extended EP. We haven’t done a studio album since 2016’s Zombies!!! board game soundtrack. So just to get back in the studio and write and bounce ideas off of Gavin like old times just feels great.
In the same way Bing Crosby owns the holiday season, Midnight Syndicate has come to own Halloween with more and more people turning to your music to set the mood every October 31st. How do you feel about Midnight Syndicate becoming such an indelible part of Halloween?
ED: Gavin, is “humbled” a dumb way to respond?
GG: No. It is humbling!
ED: It is! Because people tell you these stories of what the music means to them, and now we get people talking about how they remember [our music] playing while they were trick-or-treating when they were teenagers or little kids or their parents used to play it for trick-or-treaters or haunted house actors go, “Oh! This song! I remember this playing in my room or my scene. For a month this was the only song I heard.” It brings back a lot of memories for people. We are really happy that we can have that designation.
When we started out, we kind of knew that the pickings for Halloween atmosphere in ’98 or ’97 were not very good. There was novelty music and there were sound effects tapes that had been created in the ’70s and ’60s that were just being recycled. If you were looking for orchestral, instrumental music to set the atmosphere for your home or your haunted attraction or your theme park, there wasn’t much to choose from. We saw that, and we really let the people know about us. It really took off for us and that really laid the foundation for how we were able to get around the world and build the following that we have today. It was really Halloween that did that.
GG: The funny thing is, the first time we went to the Transworld Halloween and haunted attractions trade show in Chicago when we were promoting Born of the Night, nothing like it existed at the time. We had no idea how it would be received. We kind of went there hoping for the best. To see it take off there in the haunt industry and then spread outside of that to the gaming industry, and then we found out people were using it for background music and writers were using it to get inspired, it’s really neat to have seen that.
ED: We sold close to 2,000 albums practically out of the back of our van that first year in Cleveland. We got limited airplay, and we weren’t even playing out. That’s a lot to sell to just a little market over like a month and a half, but no record label would listen to it. They were like, “Soundtracks to imaginary films?” or “Halloween music? What? Sound effects tapes? We’re not interested.” We couldn’t get a label or a distributor to pick us up. What we did then was approach all the Halloween stores where there were people who really wanted this music. We would sell directly to these stores. We reached out to all the places that were selling costumes and Halloween merchandise, and they would take our music and put it out there, play it in the store and people would hear it and that was kind of like the equivalent of our radio airplay. That’s literally how we built up this international distribution network from the ground up. Halloween has been integral to Midnight Syndicate. It’s a huge part of who we are.
Now that Midnight Syndicate is in its third decade, how do you keep the music and the working relationship fresh?
GG: That’s a good question!
ED: I think the live show has kept things exciting. It really got us working in a different way.
GG: It was really challenging. You have to think completely differently. It’s not about just translating a musical idea into a recording. It’s like, how are you presenting this to an audience that’s going to be interacting with it actively? Keeping it interesting and bringing something new to the table that people may not be expecting. It’s a different set of creative skills. It’s been challenging in a good way–positively challenging.
ED: Yeah. It was a nice change of pace for us. From ’98 to 2016, we were in the studio every year. So doing the live album was a nice change of pace for us to work together on something different. And now when we get back to writing the music, like with BLOODLINES, it’s cool. It’s not old hat. It’s fresh, and it’s totally challenging.
You can see Midnight Syndicate perform Conspiracy of Shadows live at the world-famous Cedar Point amusement park September 17 through October 31 at the park’s HalloWeekends event. BLOODLINES and LIVE SHADOWS are on sale now at MidnightSyndicate.com.