Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Midlake Interview

I first interviewed Midlake's Tim Smith several weeks ago, only to find that most of our hour-long conversation went unrecorded. Luckily, Tim is a very kind and generous person, and gave me another chance. This attempt clocks in at about a half-hour, but I feel still presents the depth and intelligence that Tim, and the band as a whole, possesses. Midlake is a wide-ranging band, with an ever-evolving sound, and this, I feel, can be traced directly back to Tim himself.

You guys just finished a tour. How did that go?

We went all over the Midwest, and it was just the most difficult tour yet; driving in that van, and the cities are so spread out, it makes it kind of difficult to get a lot of rest. Just being in the van, and driving hours and hours a day, was kind of tough. We toured with Jason Lytle, from Grandaddy, who we really admire, and who was a big influence on us early on, so that was really cool, getting to play shows with him. We were also with John Grant, who is on the label with us, and who we helped make his solo album; he’s a great singer songwriter. So, you know, it was only 3 weeks on the road, but it was probably the toughest tour so far.

Because of the locations and having to drive?

Ya, in Europe we actually have a proper tour bus. So, we just get back to the bus at 1 or 2 in the morning, after the show, and then we can party, or just go to sleep if we want, and wake up in a new city by noon. In America, we don’t. So, its 1 or 2am, and then you try to get back to the hotel to sleep by 3 or something; you wake up at maybe 8am and then have a 7 hour drive to the next city. It’s just really difficult to get rest, and it can make you a bit grouchy. It’s not fun, not fun at all.

That European tour bus, is that supplied by a label? How do you have a bus there and a van here?

No, well, we do a lot better in Europe; there’s more turnout, more fans, and also the cities are a lot closer, so we can go to more cities and use less gas. I don’t know how many bands actually own a bus, but we just rent them. Its several thousand dollars for the month, so I guess you spend the money for comfort. When we first went to Europe we didn’t have the bus, just the kind of van we have in America, which was a real drag. So, it’s nice to be able to afford the busses. Certainly, we can afford them over there better than we could at home; we don’t make much in America right now, I think people are still kind of figuring out who we are.

The American music scene has felt strange these days; no one seems to buy records and no one is coming out to shows. As I’ve talked to more and more artists, I’ve begun to see a general consensus on the state of American music and the benefits of touring Europe; Tiny Vipers, Emily Jane White, and Vandaveer, all of whom are American artists, have all spoken about how they have incredible reception over there, while barely being about to sell records at home. Jake Bellows [Neva Dinova] said he gets crowds of up to 250 people, which is huge for him, whereas, when I saw him here in Denver there were only maybe 10-12 in the crowd. Why do you think so many musicians, yourselves included, are seeing this difference?

Two things, really. First of all I think that we seem more exotic; a band you gotta check out, coming all the way from America, which I think is a plus. But, the other thing is that, maybe, Americans are more in tune with what there friends like, or what’s hyped right now by the press. So, I think that plays a large part in it. Midlake is certainly not a mainstream band, we’re not hyped up anyway. So, if you’re not one of those bands then I think it makes it hard in America.

On the note of hype and how it affects touring, did you guys notice a larger turnout after the release of The Trials of Van Occupanther?

Certainly. Our first album, Bamnam and Slivercork, we only toured for a little while because we realized it wasn’t the album that was going to do it for us. So, we got to work right away on Van Occupanther, and it wasn’t until touring that that we got to finally quit our day jobs, and then started getting a tour bus. So, ya, that was definitely the start of us getting recognized, especially in Europe; it was still hard in America, but the bigger cities were nice: Chicago, L.A., New York, you know, we could still pull a couple hundred people.

How do you feel playing the new album, The Courage of Others, live?

Well, it’s more free in its approach live, and we do improvise a bit more, so it does change from night to night, in subtle ways. It’s a bit more fresh. On Van Occupanther we would tour with 6 or 7 keyboards, and so every night you had the same keyboard sound, everything was in tune, there was no difference, and the part was gong to be the same every night. And, that can kind of wear you down a bit; there’s nothing fresh about the show from night to night. And now we’ve done away with the keyboards, so when we play Van Occupanther stuff its more guitar-essential, and free, though not as free as the new stuff, which lends itself so much more to improvisations. So, it’s been nice.

While we are on the subject of the new album, it has a much darker sound, more in the minor key. Was that a conscious decision?

It was, ya. I just felt like Van Occupanther was… well, I had just gotten into different styles of music after Van Occupanther was finished, and a lot of it I found was in the minor key, and that’s sort of what I wanted the next album to be. So, I was heavily influenced by that kind of stuff, British folk, and some American bands, like Espers. I’m never really satisfied with our work; I never sit back like, “wow, we’ve really done something really great and can’t top it”; I’m always seeing the flaws. I felt, in a way, that Van Occupanther was a bit too bubbly, kind of too carefree, I mean, it has its bits of melancholy, but I felt it was too poppy or something and needed to be darkened. So that’s what we did. Maybe we went too far, we’ll try to get it right on the next album, but I’ll probably just see the flaws in that as well.

What would you like to do with this next album? How would you like to continue progressing?

We’ve gotten hold of the flaws from our past albums, so, one thing I know is that it should be more raw, and live, and not as produced. I don’t know if we can do that, but we’ll certainly try. That’s kind of the main goal, to sound more raw. We’ve been working on the songs and feel quite excited about them, so hopefully we can get through another one without it being too painful.

Do you think you’ll be back in the studio soon?

Well, we leave in a week to go to Europe for a month, then come home for a week, then Australia for a week. But, when we get home, August 6th I think, is about the time we’re going to try and move into the new studio, which is right across the street from the old one. So, it’ll take us a few weeks to set it up and begin jamming together, writing more songs. So, ya, I’d say around the end of august we’ll be starting to really work on new songs. Then, we’d have august, September, October, and then late October and November we’ll be touring. Then we tour again n January, so we’ve got a few months coming up, and hopefully we can do most of it then. I don’t know how long it’ll take; I just hope it doesn’t take two years again.

Which album took two years?

Courage. We toured Van Occupanther for about a year and a half, and it was pretty much two years from the end of the tour that Courage was finished. We weren’t ready yet, we we’re the band that could make The Courage of Others at that time. It took a lot of practice, and a lot of listening and figuring out why we loved these bands that we were getting into. So, the first year was kind of a glorified practice session, with the record button on. We tried lots of things and a lot of it got canned, and then I’d just write new songs that were more in the style of what we wanted to do, instead of forcing some other song that could have been on Van Occupanther 2. It was a very difficult first year. The second year was when we finally got all the things that you hear on Courage of Others, so you could say it only took a year, just like the other two albums, but it was that first year that was difficult practicing and figuring out the direction of the album.

I know in the past you’ve been the primary songwriter, and as far as know still are, but since Courage, with its more live approach, have you began writing more as a full band?

Ya, we’ve been trying to mess around backstage, but I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s working so much. A few ideas have come, but we’ll see. We are going to try though, we’re gonna try a more democratic approach and get everyone’s input on the songs.

Do you mind tell us about working with John Grant on his solo record, Queen of Denmark?

Ya, Well, we were on tour and met John. We became friends and told him if he ever wanted to record an album really cheaply then to come to Denton and work at our studio. So he took us up on it and came to Texas and lived at my house for a while, then at Eric Polito’s for a while. At that time we were recording Midlake during the daytime and John Grant in the evening. Only maybe one or two of us would record with John though, it was never a full band thing, and it really must be said that it’s a John Grant solo album; it was never a collaboration of Midlake and John Grant. All the songs are John Grant: the melody, the lyrics, all the keyboard that you hear, the style you hear, is all John’s brainchild. It wasn’t a collaboration, we were there to press the buttons, and maybe if he need a guitar solo or something we’d put one, if he needed drums or bass, but it’s really his album. We don’t want it to be misconstrued as a Midlake and John Grant album, which I think it is getting out that way. It’s John Grant. It was a good break for us through, you know, we’d work on Midlake all day, and then have to record John at night. But it was a break for us because we didn’t have to focus as much, being that he wrote everything and just told us what he wanted, which is obviously different than working on Midlake.

I’m glad you clarified that, I think it really is being misconstrued as sort of Midlake being fronted by John Grant.

Right, ya, it’s not that at all. It would have sounded a lot different if it was just John singing over our stuff.

Also, Fiona Brice plays strings. How did you guys get together with her?

We’d done a tour with Stephanie Dosen, who is also on Bella Union, and Fiona was playing violin for her. So we met Fiona through Stephanie, and then invited her down.

So, before we move on, The Courage of Others and Queen of Denmark were recorded simultaneously?


Do you think any ideas from John Grant leaked into Courage?

Well, I thought what he was doing was really amazing, and I would hear some of the tracks back and think it was really great, but I don’t think it affected the way I wanted our album to sound. I was really impressed with what he was doing though.

Quick side note, I was wondering if you listened to Wishbone Ash at all?

Ya, I have several albums, though haven’t necessarily heard a whole lot.

The only reason I ask is because I was listening to Courage a few weeks ago and my roommate walked in and just yelled “Wishbone Ash!”, convinced for a moment it was a new Wishbone recording or something.

Oh wow, that’s cool. I’m more familiar with the album Argus, and I really love the start of that, so ya, I guess I see the similarity there.

What other kind of stuff have you been listening to these days?

Roy Harper’s Stormcock; that one I’ve really been checking out a lot, as well as other Roy Harper stuff, but that’s my favorite. There’s also a band named Comus, and I think they only have the one album. That’s kind of the two big ones right now.

So I was curious about what types of art you enjoy, outside of music?

Poetry and painting are big inspirations. And film as well. All three influenced me in some way. A lot of times I’ll maybe get a picture of a painting and look at it to draw inspiration when I’m writing a melody or a song. So it’s a very immediate influence. Those are the three big ones for me.

I think I’m gong to break all three of them down, but to start, what kind of painters do you like to be inspired by?

Well, before Fleet Foxes came onto the scene I was really into Brueghel. Now they’ve used the Brueghel piece for there cover, so, I’m not trying to copy them or their style, I was into Brueghel before that album. He’s a big one, as well as Bosch. I do tend to like a lot of older styles, from the renaissance, Middle Ages, byzantine, or gothic style. A lot of religious stuff over impressionism or that kind of thing. I don’t check out too much impressionism or abstract when it comes to inspiration for writing.

The same thing goes for poetry as well. I’m not a scholar or anything, and I need to check out a lot more, but for now I’m stuck on Goethe. That’s probably my favorite poet right now, but I also like Heinrich Heine, a German poet from the 19th century. Also, Robert Bly. I usually go through an anthology and enjoy the random good things I find.

And movies as well. It’s usually movies older movies from the 70’s or something. I was really inspired by Andrei Rubalev by Andrei Tarkovsky, and that’s what the cover of Courage is based on, kind of the costumes used in the film. I really love that movie. I really enjoy older moves, you’d never see stuff like that today; the editing s really strange, and the storylines are weird. A lot of people couldn’t get into moves from the 70’s, it’s a different format, and a lot of kids would probably think those movies were awful.

I actually just saw Andrei Rubalev for the first time a few months ago. To think about the inspiration one would take from there, you know, its just such a cold, dark film, with lots of silence in the snow… do you think you’re inspired more by the feeling of the film, or the specific ideas within it?

I’d say the feeling probably. I generally gravitate more to the feeling of something, as opposed to plucking out all the ideas. You know, what you said, the cold, dark, snowy silence, that sort of thing. It’s hard to say, but you’re right, it’s those feelings. It’s really hard for me to talk about lyrics and my own writing.

There’s really no question behind this, but you’d mentioned Hieronymous Bosch, and I think it’s interesting to think about the inspiration one would draw from looking at something like The Garden of Earthly Delights, such a hell drawn piece.

Ya, he’s kind of out there, and I don’t know how much of that translated into what I write for Midlake, but its still inspiring to me, even if our art doesn’t share the same quality.

I’ll make this the last one, the now-standard closer. Do you think that music is more powerful to the musician as its being written and performed, or to the listener as its being received and interpreted?

That’s a good question. I think the listener always has the greater reward. For me, my favorite album is Jimmy Spheeris' Isle of View, and it’s really my favorite album of all time, but I think I love it more than Jimmy loved it. I think it means more to me than it probably meant to him. And the same can be said for many albums, like OK Computer or something; I think that album means a lot more to the general public than it does to Thom Yorke, I‘m sure. So ya, I think the listener really has the greatest reward.

--Zane St. James, June 10th 2010

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