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Midlake: “We have to be unapologetic about where we're at”

Midlake: “We have to be unapologetic about where we're at”

17 December 2013, 12:30

“I’d already done a lot of singing in the band; backing on the records, and doubling up on some of the harmonies live, with Tim. I guess I was already considered the ‘second singer’.”

Eric Pulido got a promotion of sorts this year, when he became Midlake’s new singer. Tim Smith departed a year ago to pursue a new project, Harp, leaving the band with a frontman-shaped hole and two years’ worth of material for a follow-up to 2009’s The Courage of Others that they ultimately chose to scrap. As for Pulido, he found himself thrust front and centre in pretty sudden fashion, leaving him with little time to make some major adjustments.

“The old stuff doesn’t actually feel all that different; it was the new stuff that took some adjustment, but I feel like everybody’s stepped up since Tim left. There’s a real energy from all of us now; I think we’ve all taken some rejuvenation from it. It was actually really fun to sift through the old songs and figure out how we were going to make it work differently, and make it feel fresher.”

Midlake are hardly a band renowned for their prolific nature. With a return of four full-lengths since their 1999 formation – including one of the last decade’s finest, The Trials of Van Occupanther - they probably won’t be threatening Ryan Adams’ rate of return any time soon, and Smith’s exit threatened to set them back even further. The six-month turnaround for the terrific Antiphon, then, was uncharacteristic in the extreme.

“We’d already been working on a new record for two years, and that’s a pretty long time to have nothing to show for it at the end,” Pulido relates. “There was definitely a little bit of an inherent urgency in terms of wanting to get something completed. We were working really well together once we got started on Antiphon; a lot of excitement, a lot of energy, just this totally healthy way of working.”

“At about the halfway point in the process, we sent what we had to Simon Raymonde at our label (Bella Union) and he loved it. What really spurred us on was him telling us that if we could have the thing finished by June or July, we could get it out this year. we were really keen to not end up having to wait until next year; we didn’t want to hold back any longer than we needed to. So, that was a motivation, but I don’t think it was unhealthy in any way; nothing was rushed.”

Previously, the writing of Midlake material had usually originated with Smith, meaning that his erstwhile bandmates were forced to find a different way to approach the conception of material for Antiphon. “In the past, it was always narrower in terms of the influence, in terms of the scope,” says Pulido. ”I mean, there were always different ways of songs coming about in the past, but a lot of the time it was Tim bringing something in and the rest of us kind of running with his idea. This time, it was definitely more communal. I feel like, if I was bringing an idea in, the band were happy to apply what they wanted to it and, a lot of the time, they were vastly improving on what I’d come in with. For better or worse, we’ve worn our influences on our sleeves in the past and, as much as there’s some degree of that on this record too, there was a freedom to come up with new ideas that made things far more dynamic.”

There’s an evidently freeform feel to many of the tracks on the new record; it was no surprise to hear Pulido confirm that much of the material was born out of jams and a more relaxed approach to writing. He claims also, though, that there was a degree of external influence on the direction that they ended up taking. “We’ve always known and loved a lot of music where drum and bass has been more pronounced and more powerful. Having said that, we’ve always been very committed to doing specifically what is right for the song in question, and not forcing anything; that’s been the case certainly on our own stuff, and I think with the John Grant record, too. We found that on Antiphon, it really fit to bring that rhythmic quality to the forefront a lot more than we had in the past, even if it was only a case of making it louder in the mix. I feel like it made the transition to playing the new stuff live a lot easier, as well.”

The reinvigoration that the band experienced in the wake of Smith moving on seems all the more surprising when you consider that, as is now on record, they had originally planned to amicably split after their next album. “That particular idea was Tim’s, and we all agreed to it. I think it came about because he wasn’t happy, and our idea was sort of, “well, if that’s how things are, let’s at least try to finish things on a high.” At that point, there was just no real concept of Midlake ever being Midlake without any one of us, least of all Tim, so that was something that we all agreed to, to go our separate ways once this record and the touring was done and dusted. It wasn’t like we went along with it reluctantly; I was already embracing the idea and working on solo material, and in hindsight that was a good thing because I did use a little bit of that stuff for Antiphon.”

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antiphon

Given the instability that the departure of your lead singer and principal songwriter must surely cause, then, it seemed as if the easy option would’ve been to take Smith’s decision as a sign to bring Midlake to a premature end. “What changed was that Tim left long before we were even getting close to that agreed point of calling it quits. My thoughts were, you know, “this changes things, because we can’t go through with what we’d agreed on now – Tim isn’t going to be part of this last record.” It just seemed like, from there on in, it would be a good idea to kind of abandon any sort of timeline and just take things day by day. I don’t really want there to be anything hanging over us, and I don’t want it to be me – or anyone else in the band – setting an agenda. A lot of the time, you aren’t going to know what you want to do in a year’s time, you know?”

“It’s just easier playing things by ear. Right now, we’re playing shows and promoting the record, and we’re happy to cross whatever bridge is coming next when we get there. We know we’ve got options, whether it’s another Midlake record or working with other people; some of us have our own studios, and we have our own Midlake studio, so there’s going to be a lot of possibilities once we’re off the road. I think now more than ever we can apply that freedom we took from Antiphon to other things.”

In accordance with the intra-band collaborative effort that defined the creative process for Antiphon, the album was self-produced. “It was mainly Paul , actually; it’s credited to Paul and Midlake, but he certainly spearheaded that side of things,” says Pulido. “We actually did some songs, when Tim was still with us, out in LA with Jonathan Wilson. I really enjoyed it, more than I thought I would; it was nice to just be a player in somebody else’s band, to be steering that kind of boat. Those sessions didn’t come to anything, mainly because that iteration of the band was kind of on its last legs at that point, and I think it was becoming clear that we were going to struggle to take something away that we could all be satisfied with. I do want to pursue that again in the future, but it just wasn’t an option on this record. We were writing and recording kind of at the same time; we couldn’t really go to a producer and be kind of like, “hey, we have X number of songs and we’re ready to get them down.” We took everything as it came, really.”

On the thematic side of things, there’s an obvious resonance to the meaning behind the title of the new record, given the upheaval of the past twelve months. “It’s a word I found in a liturgical setting; it was used to describe call and response singing. It kind of really fascinated me, and I came to realise it would tie up nicely into a bow what this record is – our response.”

Pulido hasn’t done things by halves when it comes to stepping into Smith’s shoes, writing the bulk of Antiphon’s lyrics – “Paul did two songs, ‘Ages’ and ‘Corruption’, but the rest was all me.” It seemed natural, then, to ask whether the lyrics were subject to the same kind of freedom he’d spoken about in relation to the record’s instrumentation.

“I think the way they’ve come out is linked to the way we made the album, but not particularly obviously; it’s more that I had to take the same approach to writing because I’d been thrown into this position, and I realised I just had to get on with it. I wanted to write it in a pretty classic manner; I’m not a prolific writer, as much as I enjoy it, so I didn’t want to mess around with the standard way of doing things, you know? I just knew I had to jump in, enjoy it and try not to overanalyse it. The good thing about that, I think, is that the lyrics have come off pretty honestly.”

Midlake arrive in the UK in February, for the first time in what has, quite frankly, been far too long. It’s the first time British fans will witness the new lineup in a live setting; I wondered how the knowledge that they might need to win over those still sore about the loss of Smith had affected the band since they resumed touring. “We’ve been playing pretty much non-stop since August at this point. I’m glad to say that the excitement to go back on the road has kind of carried on, and we’re really enjoying the shows. The fact that it’s a different version of Midlake hasn’t been a problem for us at all, I don’t think. That’s a big part of our mentality now, actually. We have to be unapologetic about where we’re at, about what’s happened within the band since our fans last saw us play. We can’t really afford not to own this, you know? We’ve moved forwards, and hopefully we can take our audiences with us.”

Antiphon is available now via Bella Union. Midlake tour the UK in February 2014.

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