Friday, 8 January 2010

An interview with Midlake

I've been listening to the new Midlake album The Courage Of Others for a few weeks now and after the initial bedding-in process it quickly became clear that it's a major release. The Trials Of Van Occupanther was a special record, and now they've done it again but in a very different fashion. While Van Occupanther was immediate this is a grower. They've eradicated all trace of the West Coast and espoused the measures of folk music. These are slower, more sedate songs. There's prominent guitar, harpsichord, and flute. What's similar is that they're again songs of another time and place. Another rustic environment in a simpler time but now addressed in the first person without characters - no Roscoe's here.

A couple of years back I talked at some length to Tim Smith while he waited to take the stage at Latitude. The resulting piece ran in Rock'n'Reel. I don't know if there was something the band or Bella Union didn't like about it but they've never even acknowledged its existence. Still it reads fine to me and given the issue is now out of print I feel quite happy to post it here.


It’s a warm Wednesday night and the two evenings of celebration of Bella Union’s 10th anniversary are reaching their climax. An alert and committed Royal Festival Hall crowd are back in their seats and good-naturedly await the arrival of Midlake, in the main un-phased by the interminable hiatus while the guitar tech and the sound desk get Tim Smith’s monitors just right. Abruptly all is in order and host Paul Morley is centre-stage for a mercifully brief introduction and then the five members of the band appear.

Unassuming, slightly furtive, and bookish, they take their positions and launch into ‘We Gathered In Spring’. It’s the first of eight songs they’ll perform from the album that’s brought them here, The Trials Of Van Occupanther. That each of these songs is greeted with warm applause of recognition, and that the audience almost beatifically gives itself up to the wash of sound flooding from the stage, is indicative of how this music has infiltrated its way into people’s lives. That they also play a song co-written with The Chemical Brothers, and are joined for ‘Young Bride’ by Paul Weller, affirms that they are set fair to be something significantly more than just the latest indie phenomena.

Over the last year the band have played a lot in the UK, progressing from shows at Kilburn’s intimate Luminaire to Shepherd’s Bush Empire to this South Bank palace of culture. Their increasing visibility and audience has been the consequence of the richness, mystery, and surprise of Van Occupanther. It’s a record of magic and otherness. A series of conceptually linked songs set in the American wilderness in the late 19th century, involving a ‘lonely scientist’, in an atmosphere that’s mainly pastoral but at times menacing. Harking back to pre-punk days and gentle psych-folk it has a rich and organic sound that warms and reassures, and its lyrical elisions invite you to join, as part-creator, this second life.

Comparisons are made, not altogether accurately, to later Fleetwood Mac and America, and the shade of the mysterious Jimmie Spheeris has been invoked by the band itself. However in their spirit of evocation of other times, though not necessarily musically, they are perhaps closest to Tandy and The Band. Tim Smith is both their singer and the composer of all their material. Talking from a trailer at the Latitude Festival he told some of their story.

The group are predominately Texans. Tim comes from San Antonio, the others from Houston and Arlington, and Eric Nichelson from Louisiana. They met in the small town of Denton. A little to the northwest of Dallas it’s a place that in recent years has been musically remarkably fertile. Slobberbone, Centro-matic, South San Gabriel, and Lift To Experience all came out of there. As Tim explains it was a conducive and nurturing atmosphere:
“It’s a small town of about 100,000 people; two universities and a lot of students. It’s got coffee shops, bars, places to play. It’s like a little Austin. People go for the good arts programmes and form bands. There are lots of bands. It’s a nice little community. “

They’d all come to study jazz and met on a course in the late 90s. Tim wasn’t much into rock but the others, particularly Paul Alexander, were:
“Paul was also studying jazz but he always loved The Pixies, Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine. I knew The Beatles and that was about it. Around 1998 when we started playing together I turned onto OK Computer. Slowly I stopped listening to jazz. I still respected it but I thought I’d rather listen to Bjork than Charlie Parker. I started to hear more; Portishead, and definitely Radiohead were huge for us.”

Tim’s then instrument was saxophone: “When we got together we were playing a lot of jazz-funk stuff. Quite a different band; a female vocalist, trombone, trumpet. I was playing tenor sax. We played two, three shows and realised we had to change things around. That’s when we started to become the band we are now. I realised saxophone was going to be out. I put it down, picked up the guitar and started to write.”

Their first recording was a seven-track mini-album called Milkmaid Grand Army. Appearing in 2001 it has tantalising titles like ‘She Removes Her Spiral Hair’ and ‘I Lost My Bodyweight in the Forest’. Bella Union intend reissuing it shortly though Tim is not particularly enamoured with it:
“That was something to sell at shows in Austin or Dallas as we didn’t have anything to give to anyone who latched on to us. They were the songs we were then playing but it’s quite disjointed. So many different influences there; one song might sound like Clinic, another like Rufus Wainwright. We still hadn’t found our style. If the label wants to put it out that’s fine but I’m not real proud of it. I’d call it a bad diary reading.”

The line-up needed one final tweak and that happened when Evan Jacobs left: “Eric, our lead guitarist, was then acting as our manager. He didn’t play guitar at the time. We had another guy in the band but he decided he wanted to go on to do other things. He now has his own band Tacks, The Boy Disaster and he went on to play piano in The Polyphonic Spree for a while.”

As Tim tells it Eric hadn’t considered being a member of Midlake: “He had no idea. We knew he played some acoustic guitar, joking around. He was friends with McKenzie the drummer. After Evan left we tried out one or two people, and it didn’t work out with them, so we thought we’d give Eric a call. He would need to get an electric guitar and learn how to play but he was very thrilled and it was a good fit. I knew it was the best line-up.”

Eric Pulido’s joining was one of a number of turning points that were seemingly serendipitous. Tim had not intended being the singer: “I’d written and recorded songs for another singer to audition but we found we liked my voice on the tape.”

Songwriting came first, though it was difficult: “I enjoyed that most of all. My first love was writing songs but to begin with it was awful. I’d write a song and hate it in a week. Then I’d go two weeks, and then maybe a month. But I wanted to keep doing it ‘cos I was never satisfied. I’m very critical but I can go on loving a song a lot longer than I used to.”

In 2003 they were contacted by Bella Union, an unknown label to them. The drummer from Lift To Experience had given Simon Raymonde the demos for their first album and Simon had loved them:“We had no idea who they were and it sounded a bit fishy. Simon wrote back and said he wanted to have our babies. After being turned down by so many other labels it felt really good to have people appreciate what we were doing.”

These were demos for Bamnan And Slivercork released in 2004. It’s something of a Cinderella album. Most people who’ve heard it do so in the wake of Van Occupanther and in many cases have been disappointed that it’s quite different. Where Van Occupanther sounds natural Bamnan sounds more artificial. There are some examples of Van Occupanther’s trademark harmonies but not enough, and while the keen ear can pick intimations of the phrasing and concerns of the later album it is clearly indebted to certain fairly obvious influences. Thus Tim’s thoughts on it are a little contradictory:
“I think we felt during Bamnan And Slivercork we had finally found the proper voice. We were listening to The Flaming Lips, Grandaddy and Mercury Rev. They were big influences. We tried to write songs and make them sound a certain way. We did start a concept album so it’s not so all over the place. It’s unified bits of music.”

It’s a record that probably deserves better and revisited after the first flush of infatuation with Van Occupanther has abated it gives a lot more. Though drenched in Mercury Rev a song like ‘Balloon Maker’ is memorable and does still get played live. Tim recalled: “I remember thinking I couldn’t write a better song than ‘Balloon Maker’, but half a year later I was listening to different things. You change your taste. Then there was no question about it, I could write something better than that.”

He’s quite easy that things panned out in the way they did: “It’s fine. I’d love that people had heard the first album but I’m a much bigger fan of Van Occupanther than Bamnan. No question. It feels better. The problems on Bamnan we’d learnt how to fix.”
But they’d also decided to make a change: “I don’t know if it was on purpose. It was just the music we started listening to; a lot of that 70s folk stuff, like Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. We were a band that sounded nothing like that and I was in love with this other music. So what could I do? I couldn’t be in this other band. I had to do what I loved to listen to.”

Along with Young, Mitchell and others, the name of Jimmie Spheeris is often mentioned: “He’s my favourite. That album, Isle Of View, is definitely my favourite album of the last four years. I tried to tune my guitar like him. I read online the way he would do it, and tried a bit of that. I’d written ‘Chasing After Deer’ and ‘We Gathered In Spring’. When the band heard them it was such a departure from ‘Balloon Maker‘ that things had to change. We had originally planned to have more keyboards and we had the sounds ready to go, already programmed, but every time we’d add a keyboard to this album it’d sound colder, so we left it off, and it remained more of a piano and guitar record.”

Tim writes alone but is then happy for all contributions: “It’s hard for me to write with other people, but everyone can have a go, work out parts they want to put on a song. Anyone’s welcome to pick up a guitar, play the piano, whatever. We‘ll switch around and whoever comes up with the best part that’s what’s on the album.”
They record at home: “It allows a lot more time to be creative, and not to worry about the money. It took us about a year. We had day jobs. We don’t anymore. When we finished the album we had a seven-week tour over here, and our jobs didn’t want us back after that. “

Van Occupanther ironically was not planned as a concept album:
“I wasn’t really trying that with Van Occupanther. I had the name first and then there was the song, and the album was going to be called that, but I never had the idea of a whole album based around this guy or the village. The songs were written around the same time and from some kind of place similar, but I wasn’t really trying to do that. The label didn’t think Van Occupanther would connect with an audience. So we all agreed to find some sort of prefix and decided upon The Trials Of. We could all live with that. That makes it sound more like a concept album.”

The striking images on the cover of the two figures, either out of a mummers’ play or The Shining or some David Lynch-like fantasia, came from Tim’s imagination: “That was in the middle of making the album. I actually drew a guy that looked like the guy in the gold and then I painted a picture like that with another guy in the painting in a burgundy velvet suit. The painting was going to be the cover but just looking around I was so influenced by a lot of the 70s covers and thought we needed a real photograph. So we went out to the Texas woods and shot it”.

Did that rustic, simple existence appeal to him:
“I think it was about wanting to live in a different place and time.
I love so much of what’s going on now. Computers, iTunes. But there’s a lot I don’t feel a part of. Humility, and all the virtues, go out the window these days. I just kind of romanticise the nineteenth century, like the 70s, way out proportion. I look at old photographs or watch movies from the 70s; everything looks so beautiful, so perfect. But everything looks better in retrospect, like today will look good.”

At the Festival Hall one song, ‘The Pills Won’t Help You Now’, was a co-write with The Chemical Brothers:
“They approached Bella Union. I’d never talked to them. They had written the backing tracks, or the chord progression, for two tracks. I picked one, had written the melody in two weeks and sang on it. I gave it back to them, they were quite pleased and that was it. It was such an honour, though to be honest I don’t know too much about the Chemical Brothers’ stuff. I don’t think of myself as too big into electronic music at all but its fun to do occasionally.”

They also played ‘The Children Of The Grounds ‘ intended for their next album: “It’s a little darker sounding. I think the next album will be darker. Maybe half the album is written. I still have a lot to write but I just want to get started recording. We’ll begin when we get back. We’re still waiting on gear to come in, but now we’ve got a proper studio or at least a space we can convert. We recorded the first two in the living room.

“We’re doing it ourselves again. We’re still figuring things out. It’s a learning thing. It’s a bit of a frustrating process as being fun. It can be so gruelling by the time it’s done. I’m just saying that as it might take us a year. There’s pressure but I’m quite confident it’ll be a better album. I’m pretty sure from listening to the demos. I just think the songs are better. I don’t know if there’s any ‘Roscoe’s? There’s definitely no ‘Roscoe’s in the bunch, but you can’t expect to write 20 of those! We’ll see.”

And so we will. And we’ll see how Tim and Midlake manage a level of fame that’s still a little bewildering. Later this year they return for one show, topping the bill at a festival: “To headline one of the days at a festival. I couldn’t believe when I heard that. That people would want to come and hear your music, and have you on a festival is so strange to me. People don’t know who we are. Actually that’s not really true. I’ve got to stop thinking like that!”

Originally published in Rock'n'Reel Nov/Dec 2007

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