Over the past 17 years, Aaron David Gleason has shed his skin from an alternative firebrand of the now-defunct The Midnight Radio to a funkadelic groove man named Gilly Leads to a hyper-sensitive psych-rocker. He’s been chewed up and spit out by the machine, but he’s remained firmly grounded in his own convictions. Now, he’s ready to unleash a massive, four-album collection spanning each and every vibrant chapter of his musical career.
Each of the albums, which includes two The Midnight Radio collections (All Hours and Other Hours), Gilly Leads and the self-aware manifesto This is Aaron David Gleason, slithers between genres as a way to process a storied past as much as to celebrate those musical roots that remain ingrained in his very being. His songwriting, too, bites hard and won’t let go, permitting Gleason to pen tales of sexuality, mental health, the world’s ruins and nonconformity.
Signed early on to a small-tier record label in New York City, Gleason’s sojourn began as frontman of The Midnight Radio. Having finally freed himself from “music jail,” as he calls it, he has pieced together a complete picture of those early days. All Hours and Other Hours were spliced apart in the alt-rock band’s heyday, a decision that left Gleason exasperated over the whole process.
“It would have made one fucking great album. The problem is that we left off some of the crowd-pleasing things. I’ll take some of the blame for this,” he says of the double-decker of tunes. “I thought that some songs were ‘important’ because they had better structure, and they were more lyrically biting.”
In Flagrante Delicto, which was the band’s proper label debut, was mixed by Joe Chiccarelli (Counting Crows, The Killers, Alanis Morissette) and Andy Johns (The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Van Halen) and seems to thread the high-voltage rawness of early ‘00s vintage-rock. Musically, the songs weave together jaded rockstar expression with a brooding cast-off shimmer.
Things soon fell apart for the band, but Gleason continued on as a solo act and took on an alter-ego. “I went by Gilly Leads on and offstage for the first seven years of my career. For the first five, I was really encouraged to be a character. That sort of backfired on me. In some ways, it did get the band The Midnight Radio signed and an engine behind us,” he remembers. “But when it fell apart, nobody had patience for this guy who was taking his stage persona offstage, as well. As a really insecure 25-year-old, it helped, but it hurt me, too. There was something intoxicating about putting on that armour.”
In issuing such an expansive and striking musical tapestry, Gleason situates himself as one of the boldest and most adventurous shape-shifters working today. As on Gilly Leads, he wields a searing rock vocal with screeching energy, exposing a potent, sinewy raw nerve that’s both admirable and addictive. He veers into the winding, shadowy depths of hell-bent alternative rock, combing the corners of the work of glam-rock confections. “Let’s get you up on the silver screen / Projecting the light until it beams,” he caterwauls on standout “You Belong in the Movies,” a funk that riffs up and out.
Then, with “I Was a Teenage Zombie,” he wallows in burning youthful recklessness. “I’m a zombie baby / Bringing our love back from the grave,” he howls in feverish cries. The production is appropriately spooky, as if ripped from a vintage horror flick. And Gleason’s irresistible swagger is ever-so palpable and seems to stick to the eardrums.
It’s David Bowie married with Randy Newman -- but that’s just the beginning of Gleason’s full potential.
Even before Gilly Leads was born, an otherwise ordinary visit at a local record store completely turned his entire life upside down. He explains, “I walked into a record store, and there was this drum beat. A voice comes in, and I look at the guy behind the counter. I say, ‘Is this David Bowie? ‘Cause I’ve never heard this song before. I know this is everything I’ve been looking for.’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, this song is called ‘Five Years.’ You should actually buy the whole album on vinyl if you can.’ I get this album, and it sounds cliche when they say this, ‘He was talking to me.’ I felt that. He has this one weird song where he goes, ‘Jamming good with Weird and Gilly.’ I love how he dropped that into a song with no context or frame of reference like we should all fucking be like, ‘Yeah, that’s great. I know those guys’ That just made me smile.”
He adds, “I had heard about this town called Leeds. That town sounded SO very British...and I wanted out of LA, so I took the town’s name and changed it a bit to be clever. I was 17.”
Gilly Leads fermented his penchant for killer rhythms and moody, skin-crawling melodies. It is an apt introduction to the kind of stylized eccentricities upon which Gleason’s perches so comfortably.
In excavating such a now-classically throwback style, Gleason hopes to further illustrate the depth of his craft, which he also flexed in working with Kennedy, known for his work with BØRNS, Mikaela Davis, Striking Matches and more. Kennedy produced a handful of tracks on Gilly Leads and ignited within him a similar desire to shake up the status quo. “He said, ‘I have this PC from 1993. I loaded it up with samples that fell off the back of a truck in the Ukraine. Let’s light it on fire and see what happens,’” Gleason says. “I really respect his creativity and the fact that he finishes things. I hate when people don’t finish things, but he does. He works his ass off.”
“It’s a special cocktail of insanity,” he says with a wink of his fearless four-album release, which comes to an artistic apex with the fourth and final entry, This is Aaron David Gleason. The songs are more reliably thunderous in the aesthetics of ‘80s arena-rock, doused in his signature ambient-based songwriting. Twinkling and intoxicating, “Bright Lights” is a prized piece of storytelling, which is then fused with an otherworldly instrumentation. “Deep down, she’s a steal / (Andrew) Wyatt’s girl out in the pool,” he sings.
The underpinnings of heart-torn romance are ever toughened with age, and Gleason is as world-weary as he is hopeful for a future that promises a kind of freedom he couldn’t have imagined. “It’s music where I wasn’t trying to get anybody else’s taste,” he says.
In 17 years, Gleason has zig-zagged from trashy dance-rock to well-trodden conventions and monstrous, limitless grooves. His songwriting has been a thick thread connecting each moment to the next, and his voice a beacon of hope for rock music’s ongoing importance. Through issuing such an extensive snapshot of his musical journey, he seeks for greater understanding not only of himself and his place in the world but the agency the listener can only ever uncover in the healing power of music. Midnight Radio - All Hours, Midnight Radio - Other Hours, Gilly Leads and This is Aaron David Gleason is staunchly vulnerable, genre-defying and quakes with boundless heroism.
At the end of the day, Gleason’s just a guy with one helluva powerful message to share.