Midlake in the studio, recording The Courage Of Others // Photo Credit: Jon Beck
Midlake. Last seen, well, sometime ago, parading the impressive Trials of Van Occupanter around the UK and taking Album of the Year plaudits from just about everyone. Since then, they’ve taken themselves off the radar, recording the follow-up, The Courage of Others. As part of our Bella Union week, label boss Simon Raymonde tried to find out what his charges were upto, and how the recording process was going…
Do you feel an external pressure to get back into the studio after an album as successful as Trials Of Van Occupanther? Or are you self-motivated to get in there and write new songs?
Tim Smith: We liked Van Occupanther, thought it was a good album, were slightly worried about the possibility of never having another ‘Roscoe’, but felt we could make a better album overall. There were many things about VO that we wished we could change. Our standard of what was acceptable had risen after touring. We wanted a better album and knew we could make one. Even if it took us 10 years, we wanted to be pleased with it. Other people’s expectations of us were never really a bother.
With the new album Courage of Others, I know you’re trying to better the last album. Of course as an artist, there would be little point in going in to the studio at all if you felt you couldn’t, so now a few years have gone by, how does the approach differ on this new album to previous ones? Give me a typical ‘studio day in the life of..’
Eric Pulido: This album has been more of a communal and organic process than ever before. Its been nice this time around not having a day job and treating Midlake as such. We work 9-5 and sometimes 7-midnight as well Monday through Friday, and an occasional weekend also. You would think we would have finished 3 albums with a schedule like this – believe me, it feels like it – but there were many growing pains and lessons learned to bring us to where we are today. We feel like we’ve matured both musically and personally these past couple of years and for that we are grateful. The growth has made us a better band, and without that, we may have just hung it up and called it quits. We don’t feel like we reinvented the wheel with Courage of Others, it’s just a representation of where we’re at and what is influencing us as a band.
For those of us who have been in bands, we know what a tough dynamic it can be to keep spirits up, and keep everyone happy. Have there been times where some of you have thought about doing something else? As I am sure the answer is yes, were those moments just fleeting or do they surface regularly?
Paul Alexander: Yes, being in a band is like being married to four other dudes. Any time you have to work closely with another person for years on end your own shortcomings and theirs become magnified. Multiply that by 4 and you have a totally dysfunctional family. There definitely have been moments for each of us where one wondered if we could keep doing this, either personally, musically or financially. Those moments are usually in conjunction with great difficulty or stress, so I’d say making this album has almost broken us, several times.
For us fans, one of the beautiful things about Midlake is the journey your music takes us on. There are vivid pictures in my mind when I listen to ‘Roscoe’, ‘Bandits’ etc. Since the 1980′s when the former boss of 4AD took me to see the films ‘Stalker’, ‘Mirror’ and ‘Andrei Rublev’ at the Paris Pullman all-night cinema, I have been a huge fan of the film director and writer Andrei Tarkovsky, and his book ‘Sculpting in Time’ is a wonderful collection of thoughts and essays on culture and art, and how music and film affect us. Listening to your music takes me to a similar place as Tarkovsky does. It’s often very sad, yet utterly beautiful and spiritual. (This is a long question isn’t it!) My own band Cocteau Twins were often described as making sad and beautiful music. Our fans I think expected us to be sad all the time which was funny. Tarkovsky said: “Art is born and takes hold wherever there is a timeless and insatiable longing for the spiritual, for the ideal: that longing which draws people to art.” Do you feel that longing and are you drawn to music to fulfill that longing?
Paul Alexander: Yes, Tarkovsky said it better than we could and likely understood it better as well.
Often bands have a ‘sound’ that is a product of their environment. I don’t feel this with Midlake. If I didn’t know you were from Denton, Texas, I might think you were from Thomas Hardy’s Wessex! Are you visualising PLACE when you are writing and recording? I remember for the Trials of Van Occupanther, you had the photo that ended up as the front sleeve, on the wall of your studio during the recordings and I know you mentioned were a fan of Breugel around the time of the last album. What images have been inspiring you this time round?
Tim Smith: This time around we didn’t use a specific image, place or time. I think there’s just some imagined sound, a sound that we feel, a sound that could somehow fall into the spaces left by other bands.
From the subject matter that has dominated your first two albums, should we conclude that Midlake feel that ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’?
Paul Alexander: People are the same in 2000 AD as they were in 2000 BC, we just have iPods now. So modern life isn’t total rubbish, but it is distracting. So i suppose one of our aims musically is to make people forget that it’s 2009 and remember that they are just human, that many have come before, that we aren’t necessarily more advanced. We want to remind people about the great mystery of our existence and this genius place that we live, despite our fatal flaws and fickle nature.
With a sound so carefully constructed under laboratory conditions in your own self-built studio, how do you cope with the vagaries of live sound and touring all over the world, or have you adapted yourselves to this challenge over time?
Eric Nichelson: Yes, we’ve gotten better over time with the live situations. I know in the early stages of touring we had to figure out a few things to make the songs translate in the best way. Obviously with this new record we will have to go through that process all over again, but hopefully we will have learned a few things from last time, and the live show will come together quickly. Hopefully our soundman will have an easier time with us since we wont have ten keyboards going all the time!
I would imagine that making videos to accompany Midlake songs often seems like a headfuck ( I always found it so ), but of all your videos, I think Jason Lee’s Balloon Maker was my favourite. Even though the song has a magical mystery tour vibe to it, the film is like Cocteau’s ‘Orpheus’, surreal, dream-like and thought-provoking. How do you feel about this and videos in general?
Eric Pulido: I agree, ‘Balloon Maker’ was one of my favourite videos as well. The time period, video process, and friendships created all made for that being a special video for us. Jason was actually in Denton recently and shot footage for another video that we will have for ‘Courage of Others’. We used to really rely on videos as an integral part of our live show and it was cool to have a visual to go with the music, but during the VO touring, we started to feel like it may be a distraction and traded them in for a static image. Also, it became a daunting task to try and make a fitting video for every song live (which is why we began using edited movies!), so we’ll see what happens this time around. Maybe we’ll get dancers!
You’ve all been involved with some pretty wonderful names in recent times, Flaming Lips, Chemical Brothers, St Vincent, Regina Spektor, etc. Have these non-Midlake activities helped with perspective when returning to the Midlake fold?
McKenzie Smith: It’s really great to step out of the band mindset for a minute and play with other great musicians that you respect. I really enjoy playing in different musical settings and being challenged to perform well in the studio in a very short amount of time. Touring is different than recording with other artists but I also enjoy that and find interesting the many similar and many different dynamics between Midlake and other bands. Coming back to Midlake is really incredible though because I get perspective and distance from it and then realize how fortunate I am to be playing with these guys. They are all like my family and my best friends and I have a hard time imagining life without Midlake. Musically speaking it is always amazing to come back to because I’m constantly amazed by Tim’s songwriting and the rest of the guys I get to play with in this band and see how special being a part if this band is.
Since VO, a number of new artists with a feel for pastoral folk, inspired by Steeleye Span and Fleetwood Mac who were influencing you several years before, have now come through, with a similar style to Midlake, artists like Grizzly Bear, Bon Iver, etc. Is that something you’re aware of and how does it sit with you?
McKenzie Smith: I think it’s great that more bands are coming out with sounds that are influenced by great artists like that or any genre for that matter. The more great bands the merrier, although it does make us have to work harder to “up” our game and still be considered in the same league. We are happy for bands when they are able to break through all the mediocre and just plain awful music and actually have a bit of success. I hope they feel the same and we are all on the same team and not competing against one another.
Mckenzie really is the best drummer in the world. He used to tell me he was pretty good, but I recently had him in, with Paul from Midlake on bass, to drum on the debut album from English singer-songwriter Lucas Renney, and I couldn’t actually get over how good he really is. Do you guys realise?! Seriously, you’re all fabulous musicians, but where does the search for greater musical knowledge or technique end and is the seeking of inspiration and an original approach to your writing more important to you? What I mean is do you worry about one day becoming ‘too good’ as a musician and too technically perfect? (This is why I rarely practice!)
Paul Alexander: Mckenzie is an anomaly, he cant even remember learning how to play drums. But in general, technical facility is only a tool, we all have it to some degree and rarely in pop music is it very much required. So technical perfection in a rock band probably equals some of the worst music you’ve ever heard. For a professional orchestral player its different, but still only a tool. The most important thing is the feeling inherent in a song or composition and the honesty with which it is conveyed. If playing your instrument well helps that emotion, wonderful. If it hurts it, then you better know how to play like shit.
What would you all be doing today if you were not in Midlake?
Eric Nichelson: Tim would be working at Arby’s fast food restaurant, Paul would be driving a forklift in a sweltering hot industrial building, Eric P would be a professional baseball player, Mckenzie would be playing drums for a much shittier band, and I would have graduated college and have a much more normal job.
Somehow I cannot really imagine anyone else ‘producing’ Midlake, so how have you dealt with all that?
Paul Alexander: We cannot imagine it either and we must do it ourselves. If we are unable to produce something beyond where we have been or cease to be able to work together in the studio, our band is finished. The way we handle it is we get to work. It takes us a long time to make an album so the relationships within the band are very important. I think our label understands that this is the only way to get a new Midlake album. Luckily for us, Bella Union just leaves us to do our thing.
When will it be out do you think?
Maybe February 2010, sorry for the wait.