After making a name with mick-take music in The Midnight Beast, Stefan Abingdon’s going solo. He tells TenEighty about his journey so far…
“I think I’ve always found humour in music,” says Stefan Abingdon. “It’s just fun to be silly and tongue-in-cheek. I’ve always been quite obsessed with ‘novelty’ songs – Teenage Dirtbag, United States of Whatever, Stacy’s Mom, that kind of thing. Elvis Costello and Beastie Boys have always been influences for me, and both of them have a very funny sense of humour.”
Since 2009, Stefan’s been part of The Midnight Beast, a comedy boyband that rose to fame on YouTube. They parodied other people’s songs, and then created their own, all with a distinctively silly, sweary, self-deprecating sense of humour. With two studio albums, a book, and two seasons of a self-titled E4 sitcom among the band’s achievements – in addition to over 80 million views on their YouTube channel – Stefan has turned his love of tongue-in-cheek music into a career.
Which is no surprise, because music is in his blood. “I was raised in a musical family,” he says. “My parents played country and western and rockabilly. That was literally the family source of income. It was only later on that I started realising that music wasn’t very sustainable – when I was younger, I saw my parents making a living from it, and that was inspiring.”
He started taking piano lessons aged six, but was asked to leave because he never practised. He had more luck with guitar – learning from his dad at first, and then self-teaching – but soon realised instruments alone weren’t his thing. “I loved the songwriting aspect of it,” he says. “That’s always been the thing that’s endearing to me.”
“I think I’ve always found humour in music – it’s just fun to be silly and tongue-in-cheek…”
At 12, he started forming bands. His first was a trio called Ink, and they played at the local village hall. “Nobody was in bands when we were 12, so we used to get really big audiences,” he laughs. “I watch videos now, and I’m like, ‘If I could fucking draw a crowd like that now…!’ It was so much fun.”
In his teens, he joined a drama group, where he met and befriended Dru Wakely, who was a drummer. Sort of. “He used to play on a plank of wood,” Stefan grins. “Like, he’d come round my house and tap along. But he was fucking wicked, I could tell.” Dru finally got a drumkit, and together he and Stefan started Icarus Burning, playing what Stefan describes in retrospect as “teeny-bop hardcore”.
Mainstream attention came with The Clik Clik. Fronted by Stefan and Maya Yianni, with Dru later joining on drums, the band’s mix of indie, hip-hop, grime, and electropop rode the crest of nu-rave from 2007 to 2008; they were noticed by the national press and toured with Hadouken! before splitting. “Clik Clik got really close to getting signed, and all the traditional stuff,” Stefan explains, “but we just kind of slipped through the cracks. It wasn’t even to do with why we broke up, but I think coming close to it – seeing how the system worked – made me want to take the mick out of it a bit. And I think that was where The Midnight Beast was born…”
Stefan was at a songwriting session when he first heard Ke$ha’s breakout banger TiK ToK. “I just thought it was ridiculous,” he says. “I thought the song was amazing, but I thought the lyrics were really contrived. It was about this party lifestyle, and I was like, ‘What is she talking about?!’”
On the way home, he wrote a parody, reducing the boasted transgressions of the original to the point of absurdity (‘I don’t care who I piss off / Yeah, I’m a real big sinner / Sometimes I eat my dessert before my dinner’), and later played it to Dru, who improvised some additions.
“And then Ash was round,” Stefan explains. Ashley Horne, who had been best mates with Stefan since primary school, often hung out with him and Dru, liked the same music, and went to their shows, but had been pursuing an acting career while Stefan and Dru’s interest was in bands. “The three of us went out, got really drunk, and then the next morning, we were in that giggly mode,” Stefan recalls. “We shot this video in my parents’ house for the TiK ToK parody, and I put it up under ‘The Midnight Beast’. And over the next few weeks, it gained millions and millions of hits.”
Within the first 24 hours alone, Shane Dawson had shared the video on Twitter, and Ke$ha herself had called it “better than my version”. “It was just phenomenal,” Stefan says. “I wouldn’t do what I do full-time [without it]. We all quit our day jobs. There was this fast realisation that our lives had completely changed, over a few weeks.”
“I had people in the industry saying to me, ‘If you go down this career path, people will never take you seriously again’…”
At the time, Stefan was “quite deep within the music industry” – playing in another band which he hoped would get signed, and starting to pay his way as a songwriter – and that world wasn’t sure what to make of The Midnight Beast. “I had people in the industry saying to me, ‘Just so you know, if you go down this career path, people will never take you seriously again’,” he says. “I was just like, ‘I don’t even think they do now, so don’t worry about it!’”
Just before the release of the Beast’s first album, Popjustice took down its previous, enthusiastic coverage of The Clik Clik in disapproval – but, says Stefan, “that was better than what most of the industry did with The Midnight Beast, which was to totally ignore it and act like it wasn’t happening. People like NME and The Guardian were worrying about it at first. They almost didn’t want to acknowledge that there was a subculture happening that didn’t need any industry involved. It didn’t need A&Rs, it didn’t need managers, and it didn’t need PR. I think that was scary back then.”
What the Beast had instead was YouTube. “It felt exciting,” Stefan says of the site, “in the sense that everything felt it was up for grabs. Now, it feels like everything’s being done. It’s quite hard to form a niche now. And nowadays you can have a phone conversation for two hours with Google – it’s people’s jobs to tell you how to succeed, whereas back then, there was no formula.”
How does Stefan look back on the band’s beginnings today? “I wouldn’t have ever done it any differently,” he says. “It was such a life-changing thing. We had no control over it once the snowball started happening – all we could do was try and keep up with it. I’m just glad that the stuff we were putting out, I’m still a fan of now. I could have just put out Clik Clik stuff and put Ash and Dru on it, but I’m glad we had a vision for what we wanted to do and stuck to it.”
The Midnight Beast quickly developed enough of a fanbase to exist offline, too. “The live show came about really easily, because me and Dru had been playing in bands for ages, and Ash had done musical theatre live,” Stefan explains. They took inspiration from Beastie Boys, “because it’s three people commandeering the audience, they flit between a rock band and a hip-hop band, they wear different genres on their sleeves”, and also The Prodigy – “they don’t care about the audience thinking they’re triggering every sample, they care about putting on a fucking amazing lighting and visual show.”
They learned early on that The Midnight Beast worked as the comedy act at a music festival (“our show isn’t a comedy show – it’s a rock show, it’s a music show – so you could zone out a little bit from the lyrics and just have a good time, which is great”) but not vice versa. “We’ve played shows with comedians, and the audience has been like, ‘I can’t hear the lyrics, I don’t know if this is meant to be funny, it’s a bit loud compared to the other acts, we’re sitting down – what the hell’s happening?!’” Stefan laughs. “And that isn’t as fun. That’s been a learning curve.”
But on the whole, playing live is part of what made the success of the TiK ToK parody – which has had over 16 million views to date – feel tangible. “Suddenly, when we’d play a show on Brighton beach, there were like 2000 people on the beach,” Stefan marvels. “It was like, ‘This is real. This is completely real. 16 million is nothing on this – people turning up to shows, selling out tours and stuff, E4 and the BBC offering TV shows…’”
“I believe it when YouTubers say they’ve got a formula to how they get hits, but I have never discovered that formula!”
They accepted E4’s offer; The Midnight Beast, a half-hour sitcom in which the boys played versions of themselves, debuted in 2012. On YouTube, their songs could exist in isolation, but here, they had to function as part of a wider narrative.
“We realised by the second series – and we implemented it a little bit, but not to the full extent – that if you’ve got a song that exists in its own entirety as a song, the storyline will stop, you’ll have a song about the storyline, and then when you get to the end of the song, nothing’s changed,” Stefan acknowledges. “We started realising that you need to find something out about Ash during the song, or Stef needs to do something during the song. And the minute that you started moving storyline through the course of a song, that’s when the scripts started making sense.”
He feels they finally nailed it in After the After, After Party, a 2014 web series for Comedy Central. “I love the shows that we did on E4, but that was different,” he says. “It was almost a Flight of the Conchords vibe. Then we did [2016 Vimeo Original] All Killer, which was like a mini musical, almost an opera, and then Sky let us make a pastiche of Grease for Valentine’s Day, and we did it in both of those.”
This summer, they’re taking All Killer to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. “That’s ten songs, and a storyline moving through all of them,” he says. “I feel like we’re reaching the pinnacle of our ability, with music and storylines, to integrate the two. It feels original again, like the first days, when we put up the first video. It’s taken us a while to get there with storylines, but that’s exciting.”
Even today, the TiK ToK parody remains The Midnight Beast’s biggest hit. “Which is weird,” Stefan admits. “It’s the first thing we ever put up, and we’ve never reached that, do you know what I mean? So it’s a weird start. I believe it when YouTubers say they’ve got a formula to how they get big hits on videos and stuff, but I have never, ever discovered that formula!”
But as YouTube has evolved, they’ve had to try – the type of content they make can’t be turned around as quickly as the platform’s algorithms demand, so they’ve experimented with other forms. “The way to get a fanbase on YouTube is to do regular content,” he explains, “and if you need to do regular content, you’ve got to boil yourself down to a formula – you just have to.”
The trio developed The Monday Beast, a weekly vlog format that started in 2015, and wrapped its third season last year, “and even that killed us,” Stefan says. “We took it really seriously, and it got such good attention. But it never felt good enough for us – it felt like we were putting up the edit that should have been six edits before the final one.”
To what extent do the band feel like part of the YouTube community? “We got big very quick, and it seemed like we went to TV very quick,” Stefan points out. “Five years after the Beast had started, we went to one of the first parties that the YouTube Space threw, and suddenly we had these YouTubers saying they’d grown up listening to us, which was amazing. We always used to be like, ‘Why didn’t you collaborate with us?’, or, ‘Why didn’t we make that happen?’, and a lot of them told us they thought we thought we were too big for the YouTube world back then; it was almost like we were existing in our own way. We found that amazing – we were like, ‘Oh, we felt like the outsiders’. It felt like a community that we were looking through the window of.”
Since then, they’ve wholeheartedly embraced that world, collaborating with the likes of Hannah Witton and Bethan Leadley. “Now, YouTube is my TV,” Stefan says. “I was a late developer in being a fan of YouTube as a platform. YouTube can sometimes get a bad rep, and I think that’s insane, because the filmmakers, the writers, the directors, the cinematography on the channels, the composers… They’re really talented people. To suddenly get introduced to that crowd, and just be like, ‘I really like the stuff these guys are doing, and I want to collaborate and be a part of it’, was great. And now, I’ve fallen in love with it in a different way.”
Earlier this year, Stefan launched ‘ST£FAN’ – a solo side-project, named in reference to the Ke$ha parody that started it all. Two tracks – Boring and This is Life – are out already; an EP follows in July, supported by gigs at The Social in London. “I guess the thing that attracted me to it was that The Midnight Beast blew up so quick, right at the beginning, that I didn’t know why it worked,” he admits. “Starting from as near to the beginning as I could with a new project just felt like a really exciting journey.
“When we were suddenly playing to 3000 people on a tour, it was like things started getting a little numb – it was quite hard to reach another high and another high. And then when it dips down, and you don’t do a tour for a while, you get a little sad. It’s a weird feeling. And without being able to describe why we’d had any of the success, I thought, ‘I need to just focus on something else’.
“I’m celebrating every little achievement that this project gets,” he smiles, “because it just feels like, if it does really well, it’s just down to me. And if it doesn’t go well, it’s down to me too! It has always been something I wanted to do, so why wouldn’t I do it in my twenties, rather than think about it when I’m older and be like, ‘I wish I would have done that’?”
Will it continue beyond The Boring EP? “I’d love it to go bigger,” he replies. “I feel like I have a lot to say, and I feel like I have a lot to say commercially as well. I think it’s awesome that quite weird and eccentric pop songs can flourish these days. I hear Twenty One Pilots, bands like that, and it’s awesome they’re doing something different and left of centre.
“Because of the specific nature of the way that The Midnight Beast goes, it will always be a bit of an alternative thing. I don’t want us to come out with a completely radio-friendly song with no swear words, I don’t want us to become a product of someone else’s musical taste – I want it to be its own thing. I like that this is different. It’s still edgy, but it’s a little bit more commercial in the way it can fit in. Midnight Beast find it very hard to support other bands, but I’d love to go on tour supporting someone, whether it be Twenty One Pilots or Katy Perry. I think it’s cool that a project like this could adapt itself to work in its own kind of field.”
There’s a freedom to it that comes from not having to deliver a gag every line. “If the Midnight Beast come out with something that’s not funny, people would be like, ‘What is that?!’,” he says. “Whereas [this is] being able to sing something because it sounds nice, or being able to have a longer guitar solo, or to be able to do an instrumental song, and just take those kind of risks. And it feels authentic to me, I think. I collaborated with my dad on this EP, which was really nice. It just doesn’t feel like I have to dress it up in anything but ‘this is some tracks by me, and if you like them, awesome… and if you don’t, cool, but maybe play it to your mate’!”
He’s still as invested in every detail of the music videos as he is with the band, but “unlike The Midnight Beast, I think ST£FAN songs can exist a little more on their own, which is quite nice”, he says. “I’ve been playing with the idea of putting out audio before video, and it seems to be going down well, which is really different for me – that didn’t feel like gut instinct, but it was great.
“In a weird way,” he adds, “I feel like my personality is working on YouTube more than ever. I’ve been watching a lot of Andrew Huang, Red Means Recording, Cuckoo, Roomie – I feel like there’s a really nice collective of people that are really musically talented, that can play the YouTube game a little bit as well. I’ve already built up an audience that didn’t know about Midnight Beast, and probably wouldn’t even be into it, and that’s quite exciting – and already some Beast fans are getting into it, too.”
“As long as music is at the heart of everything that I do, then that’s doing something right…”
Going forward, he wants to hone and focus his skills. “The generation I’m in, we all do a lot of roles,” he observes. “To exist in the creative industry, we have to be editing, directing, writing, grading… I think that’s a really good thing, but at the same time, it can sometimes make you alright at all of them, rather than really good at one of them, or really good at five of them. As I go on, on the journey between the Beast and this, I’d like to shave off the ones that don’t matter, and really concentrate on the ones that do.”
The Beast isn’t over – “we’ve been really excited about writing, and starring in stuff that we write, and long-form stuff like the Edinburgh musical” – and Stefan’s dream for the band would be to have a musical on in the West End. “That would be phenomenal,” he says, “and that would lead to another version of my life that I wouldn’t have expected.
“I want to be a songwriter for the rest of my life,” he says. “I’d love to be a writer for my own projects, but I’d also love to write for other people, and have a home studio that people come to. But at the same time, I want to travel the world, and perform at festivals and [on] tours, and support cool people.
“As long as music is at the heart of everything that I do, then that’s doing something right,” he sums up. “That’s the most me that I can be, I think.”
Photos by Olly Newport.
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