Every era gets the youth revolt anthem it deserves. In this time of domestic turmoil, massive marches, resistance and confusion there may be no better smash-the-system call-to-arms than MISSIO‘s “Middle Fingers.” The booming electro-rock song with the simple refrain “I’ll just keep on throwing middle fingers in the air” — accompanied by a video featuring youth smashing bottles, swinging bats, ghost riding, burning designer clothes and setting off smoke bombs — feels like an eff-you-I-won’t-do-what-ya-tell-me to anyone telling you how to live your life.
And it is. But that’s only half the message, according to singer Matthew Brue, 25, whose deadpan, intensely personal lyrics hint at something deeper in the Austin, Texas, duo’s dark, but highly danceable sound. “That’s a very unifying song,” Brue tells Billboard. “[It’s] definitely based toward an ‘eff this situation’ mode, but the message is about finding the problem you struggle with, and lifting your middle finger with other people.”
So whether it’s a battle with the bottle — Brue says he’s more than six years clean — or worrying that you’re not good-looking enough for the room, Brue and studio veteran partner David Butler, 32, want you to know that “Middle Fingers” is a collective expression of solidarity, not a means to create conflict. This, from the band whose name in Latin translates into “mission.”
Brue and Butler’s signature song started picking up steam on SiriusXM’s Alt Nation earlier this year, landing them an album deal with RCA Records, which helped cap a three-year climb from the garage to headlining shows. Now, they look out nightly at a joyous sea of hundreds of flipped birds waving at them, a sight that makes them both feel like they’ve done something right. “That’s 400 people not thinking about the outside world, or our current situation,” says Brue.
The song has reached No. 9 on the Alternative Songs chart (dated Apr. 22) and No. 10 on Rock Airplay (dated May 13) and also hit No. 19 on the Hot Rock Songs chart (dated Apr. 1). It has also sold 44,000 digital downloads to date and has 3. 8 million on-demand streams in the U.S. through Apr. 27, according to Nielsen Music. It’s their signature track so far, but fans will get plenty more of their booming alt/electronic sound on the pair’s upcoming full-length debut, Loner, which drops on May 19 and features other easy-to-shout-to anthems like the moody “I Do What I Want” and throbbing “I Don’t Give A…”
Billboard spoke to Brue and Butler about their unlikely journey and why there’s something kind of amazing about seeing your mom in the pit giving you the finger.
How did the two of you first start making music together?
Brue: It was about two and a half years ago and I was coming out of my previous project and I was fed up and wanted to write songs, which ended up turning into early MISSIO songs. I had worked with David on a previous project, and we went in and did a five-song EP. Then I moved in with him and his wife, which is why we’re a band now.
Butler: We’ve evolved since we first starting writing together… the early stuff had a lot of cinematic qualities, almost like a movie score, but slightly more chill. As we started writing together, every song would uncover more of what would become MISSIO’s sound. “I Don’t Care About You” was the first song we wrote off the album, and we were stuck on it and couldn’t figure out how to translate what we wanted to do. So we started exploring bigger beats and letting our hip-hop influences come through. We stumbled by accident onto that sound, and released it in an early form and it was really well-received.
When we sat down to write Loner, we discovered something special in that sound. Matthew listens to new music, the cutting edge of what happening, but I’m more old school. I’ve been influenced by grunge and Led Zeppelin, and we both share a love of hip-hop. MISSIO is a weird mash-up of Matthew’s melodies, which are almost folk-influenced, and my burning desire to mess things up. It was never a calculated thing, but looking back it makes sense. There are a lot of elements where the record is programmed like a hip-hop record, but done through guys who’ve come from a rock background.
You’ve spent a lot of time in studios working with a variety of musicians, but what was it about Matthew that made you want to start a band with him?
Butler: We had such good writing chemistry. As a producer the hardest thing is finding authenticity, and Matthew’s brutal honesty in his lyrics is almost jarring. That drew me in. We both have a similar vision on what we want to do musically. Ever since high school, my dream has been to play music.
How did you land your RCA deal?
Brue: Growing up music was all I ever wanted to do as a profession. I spent a lot of years wrapped up in drugs and partying… that’s all I cared about. It wasn’t until I got sober at 19 that I realized I had a gift for writing songs.
I give a lot of credit to my parents. I wanted to quit music and they would never let me. They saw my gift from the outside. I grew up playing classical piano and singing in choirs, but I started writing songs because it was my way of sharing how I felt. In the different rehabs I’ve been to they said it was not healthy to hold your feelings in. I kept going back to drugs because I was holding my emotions in.
How does your mom like “Middle Fingers”?
Brue: We are interested in writing raw, honest music, not novelty songs. My mom went to our show in Houston at Buzzfest and I saw her lifting her middle finger. That was pretty awesome.
“KDV” is another rocker with a giant kick drum mixed with smooth pop vocals where you thank god for haters. How did that one come about?
Butler: Our typical process is Matthew and I demo out a verse and chorus and get a good feeling for a song before going in and finishing it in the studio. I finished all of our demos that day, and we had an extra day in the studio. When I got in that morning the producer we were working with said, “Let’s start something from scratch.”
I got this idea of starting with the biggest kick drum sound we could make, and the first hour I was just tweaking these kick drums until the studio monitors were crackling. The studio had all these bobble heads on the speakers and one was of Darth Vader. When we settled on the kick drum, we wanted Darth Vader’s bobblehead to be shaking so hard it fell off. The producer was sitting on the couch and he said, “You’re killing Darth Vader with that kick drum!” We were like, “That’s it!” Matthew walked in and we tracked the hook of the song and the rest came pretty quickly.
Brue: When the chorus came about I thought, “This is so stupid,” and I wasn’t sure I was cool with it. The lyrics came the fastest, in five minutes, which was rare for me. A lot of times it takes me a while to think through things. The thing I want people to understand about our music is that every time I write, it’s about my personal experience, there’s no weird symbolism. It’s all literal and real. Once the record comes out I think it will help a lot of people because it’s not just talking about things that haven’t happened.
“Everybody Gets High” sounds like one of those kinds of songs, chronicling your journey through vice and addiction. But it also has that kind of sing-songy melodicism and trippy electronic touch that softens the blow of the intense lyrical content.
Butler: At first glance most people will say it’s a pretty dark record, but as you listen it’s not just dark. It’s taking an honest look, and hopefully people will feel an acknowledgment that life is hard and there are lots of dark parts to it and that this is the real s–t that happens in everyday life — specifically in Matthew’s life, but there’s a relatability to it. He’s not holding his feelings in. That’s the point of the whole record. That’s what’s staring to happen at our shows. People who get our music… we know it immediately when they talk to us. They talk emotionally about what is happening in the songs.
Brue: We want to have an impact on people’s lives in a real way. On a small scale we’re already seeing that happen. We can be beat down on the road, and when we hear stories about how “Middle Fingers” changed people’s lives, that the themes are so encouraging… that’s part of why we do what we do, to share that moment. That’s why we’re on the road a ton.