The youngest of five children, Midland’s upbringing was one of transitions – not least a move from Tanzania, where his father worked as a civil engineer and where Midland grew up, back to the UK and then on to all boys Catholic boarding school, an experience he largely didn’t enjoy. Influenced at various stages by the music of his parents and older siblings, including the R+S techno of his brother, Midland – Harry Agius to family and friends – learned to play music and performed with a school jazz band and in the more formal setting of a choir. But it was the move to university in Leeds that saw him discover tastes that were truly his own, and that have shaped his music. Drum ’n’ bass was his first love at uni, closely followed by the dubstep he heard at the city’s nights like Exodus. During his first year there, a student living directly beneath him in the halls knocked on his door and introduced himself, having seen Harry practising on his turntables through the window. The fortuitous close proximity of this student with similar interests, one David Kennedy (who would go on to record as Ramadanman, then as Pearson Sound, plus co-found the Hessle Audio imprint), would create not only an incredibly strong friendship – the pair would be housemates for six years – but also lead to Harry’s first release, the co-production Ramadanman & Midland ‘Your Words Matter’ on Aus Music.
That skippy, garage-infused success was followed by Harry solo releasing on Phonica, Aus Music (again) and More Music, labels he’s continued to work with. His friendship with Kennedy and then Kennedy’s friends Ben Thomson (Ben UFO) and Kevin McAuley (Pangaea) could have seen him follow a similar route, but when the Hessle Audio guys moved to London, Harry stayed in Leeds for a while. He trod his own path when it came to music, too. In Midland’s early releases were influences of garage, dubstep and techno, and his output would vary wildly in style, often on the same EP. The house he produced was sometimes marked with a significant sub-bass element, a clear influence from the d’n’b he’d absorbed. People knew neither where to place him, nor in which direction he would go.
“I think that jumping around in the first three or four years kind of hindered me,” he admits. “A lot of the people I came through with seemed to get big more quickly as they were honing a sound. But now I feel like I’ve honed my own schizophrenic approach. I feel like I’ve made that little corner my own. That was always the plan, but it was a long game.”
Resisting the urge to tread just one path reveals both patience and a certain bloody-mindedness. The latter is a trait also displayed in his DJing, in which he’s adamant that beat-matching is the least of the skills a DJ needs to truly impress. But then, he’s learned from some of the best.
“I knew all the Hessle guys really well, but they all moved to London, Ben, Pangaea...” he says. “When I moved there and became better friends with Ben, I started to play gigs with him and people like Joy Orbison, and then my style evolved. I think they’ve all been pivotal in helping me develop. I always felt like they were at the top table and I was a few steps behind, so when I started to play with them I had to bring my A-game. You can’t play back-to-back with Ben UFO and Joy Orbison and flop it.”
Never wishing to be defined by his sexuality, Harry was well into his career before he started talking publicly about being gay. “In the past some promoters have made off-the-cuff remarks around me that were homophobic, without realising I was gay,” he says. “I remember one guy coming up to me when I was DJing and showing me his phone screen. It said: “Sorry to be so gay, but I just wanted to say you’re my favourite DJ”. It was such a loaded, complicated thing to read. He was apologising for showing emotion, which he attributed to being gay, but at the same time he was giving me a compliment. I didn’t really know how to process it.
“I’m at a stage in my life where I can talk about it now though,” he says, with a confident smile – one perhaps aided by the fact he married his partner two years ago. “I felt so ashamed for so long and I really don’t like the thought that there might be teenagers out there who are feeling like that. They don’t need to. The reaction’s been so sweet,” he says. “That was the part that I’d always been terrified of. But I get young guys in caps and blokey types coming up to me at gigs now and saying “Midland! Is your husband here?” or “Congratulations on getting married!” And then they walk away not knowing that they’ve made me well up.”
Having just turned 30, Harry Agius seems to have attained a confidence in his personal life that’s matched by a golden period for his productions and his DJing. As he bounds off to catch up with friends and enjoy the sounds of Marcel Dettmann after his Dimensions Festival set, it’s abundantly clear that far from being the final credits, his 2016 anthem is just the beginning.
Midland plays Undercurrent Amsterdam at ADE on October 21