Midlake [Republic, January 25, 2007]

These days, any mention of Fleetwood Mac would be bound to devolve into fits of laughter centered largely around Stevie Nicks’ witch-like wardrobe. But not in Denton, TX, home of Midlake. The native Texans (save LSU graduate Eric Nichelson) have made a name for themselves with the same sort of soft rock gentility that Ms. Nicks and her bandmates made thirty years ago. First Grizzly Bear, now this. Is soft rock the new dance punk? Doubtful.  The music being made by Midlake, Grizzly Bear, et al has serious lasting power.  The current run of folky-popsters don’t seem to be simply aping their influences.  When Midlake’s Tim Smith sings “Let me not get down from walking with no one,” you may not understand what he’s saying but you’re sure he means it.  It’s a kind of British sentiment of dreary winters, fresh rain in the woods, and traveling by boat, an amber fog through simple mountains.  Don’t think the Beatles; that’s too recent.  Think Paddington Bear. Or John Keats.
Smith has made these landscapes his own with this year’s stellar The Trials of Van Occupanther. Abandoning the frantic pop of 2004’s Bamnan and Silvercork for a softer, more gentile side has treated the group well. They have since found themselves opening for the Flaming Lips, touring Europe and Australia, and generally making the calm, pastoral life seem pretty cool. If nothing else, Van Occupanther is the single most honest record I’ve heard all year. Midlake’s songs are largely fictional, but there is a genuine simplicity to the music. I guess that this is what it sounds like when you make the music that you want, free from any kind of fashion or trend.  That said, my favorite record this year was Bruce Springsteen’s attempt at early 20th Century folk music, so what do I know about honesty?
So, given his leanings, I guess it makes sense that Smith would do his interviews at 9 am.

AG: Uh, don’t take offense at this or anything, but you’re in a rock and roll band.  What on Earth are you doing awake at 9 am?
TS: I dunno, you’ve gotta write.  It’s cool because I don’t have a job anymore, you know.  We all used to have day jobs, but jobs don’t like it when you go on tour, they don’t want you if you can’t be there.  So I pretty much got fired from my day job because of all the touring.  So now it’s really cool.  I’m not really a rock and roller, anyway (laughs).
AG: Do you write every day?
TS: Pretty much.  My wife goes to work at eight o’clock and comes home at five, so in that time I try to write, try to be productive.  It doesn’t always come, you know?  I’ll try to write for a week or two and maybe one or two ideas will come.  If I’m not feeling it, I won’t do it.
AG: So did you guys all go to UNT [University of North Texas, in their hometown of Denton]?
TS: Yeah, all of us except the guitar player, who went to A&M [and keyboardist Eric Nichelson, LSU graduate].
AG: How’s the scene in Denton?
TS: Well, I suppose there is one, but I’m not exactly clued in on what it is.  I don’t get out a whole lot, I don’t really go and watch bands that much because we see so many bands when we’re out on the road.  Can’t I just stay at home with my wife? (laughs)  There are so many musicians [in Denton], people who went to the music school or the art school.
AG: Do you like living in Denton?
TS: Oh yeah, I love it.  I’ve been to many places in the world now and I just love my home.  I mean, there’s nothing special about Denton; it’s a small town.  But it’s got just enough.
AG: Are you from there originally?
TS: Well, San Antonio.  But I came to Denton for college and never left.
AG: What kind of music influenced you growing up?
TS: Man, we didn’t listen to a whole lot of music.  I mean, my dad had Sgt. Pepper’s, and I thought that was cool.  My favorite song at the time was “When I’m 64.”  But I really didn’t listen to a whole lot of music.  [But then,] you know, in sixth grade, you have the choice of either being in football or in band, and I chose band.  I thought that the coolest instrument – besides the drums – was the saxophone; I figured that that would be the one to pick up girls with.  So I played saxophone for thirteen years and totally fell in love with music at that point.  I started really studying jazz music all the way through middle school and high school right up to college.  I didn’t really grow up with the radio.  I mean I guess I knew what was going on, but…I dunno, in college I think maybe I had a Cranberries tape and I really liked them but I thought that the Beatles were really the only great rock and roll band.  I had no clue.  Then somebody brought Radiohead’s OK Computer to my dorm room and it actually didn’t do much for me the first time I heard it.  I think I couldn’t get past that name, Radiohead. (laughs) So he brought it back to my room and a few months later it was like, “Well, I really like this ‘Paranoid Android’ track, lemme just record it onto a tape.”  And I listened to that tape every day for over a year straight.  Every day, walking to class, I’d bring it with me.  Then I graduated.  That was the record that made me want to join a band.
AG: Looking back, does it upset you at all that you missed all those years of rock and roll?
TS: I don’t know…when I was in high school I picked up guitar.  I dunno, it seems like there are people who maybe started playing guitar in high school and then, like, ten years later they’re still doing what they were doing, you know?  I mean, maybe they’re a little better, but you know what I mean.  I think for me I would have gotten a little bit tired of it, of always listening to punk all the time.  I would have eventually grown out of it.  I’m sure it helped, because when you’re in [high school] band you have to play and listen to a bunch of classical music, and when you go to University for music, you’re exposed a lot to the history of music, so, yeah, I think that all of that was a big help for me.  I was never a big rock and roller (laughs), but I can rock out occasionally, you know?  It’s hard in my own writing, though, actually.  It’s not natural for me.
AG: Have you noticed that everyone who reviews your band makes it a point to mention that, not only do you like Fleetwood Mac, but you seem to be pretty okay with that fact?  Like it’s some sort of big deal to be honest with yourself and with the world about what you like?
TS: I dunno, man, but that’s a good point.  I mean, that stuff sounds great to me, they’re great singers.  I love that stuff, you know?
AG: I just think that that’s so weird, that you’re noteworthy for being honest.  Can you tell me more about Van Occupanther, about the recording of it?
TS: I had just really started getting into the old 70s folk-rock stuff.  That was like right after our first album [2004’s Flaming Lips-esque Bamnan and Silvercork] and that was really a big influence on the way that it all sounds. We’d always had that name around [Van Occupanther] in the band and we knew that we were going to use it somehow.  So I just started trying to write songs very slowly for it.  It was quite different from our first album.
AG: Just out of curiosity, what’s your favorite Neil Young record?
TS: After the Goldrush.
AG: Did you get to see that Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young tour?
TS: I didn’t know that they were on tour.
AG: Yeah, and it was a weird mix of people.  Like, there were people my dad’s age, around 55, and there were a ton of people my age, 22.  I dunno, I guess that some music is sorta timeless.
TS: Well, you know, it’s good music.
AG: Is capturing that same sort of 70s sound what you guys attempted to do going into Van Occupanther or is this just the way the music came out?
TS: Yeah, I mean, we definitely knew what we were doing.  I guess it was a little bit of both, though.  You know, you start falling in love with that style of music and it’s all that you want to hear and it’s all you want to write.
AG: Do you write more for yourselves or for fans, for potential fans?
TS: Mostly for us, but to be honest, when you’re writing a song there’s got to be a certain something.  Like, for instance, maybe it’s better to have a harder guitar.  I’m fine with a softer guitar but I’m sure that critics and people who buy records want a heavier guitar.  It’s a small part, you know, but it is there.  You have to think about your audience.  It’s harder for bands, you know, to be free without writing longer songs.  It’s hard to write a three-minute song.
AG: You guys seem to operate pretty free of current influence, of whatever’s popular and hip.  Is that a self-conscious move on your part?
TS: We totally do, so I guess so.  I just don’t listen to a lot of what’s going on.  I think that there are some bands out there who are really, really great.  I dunno, I guess I know what you’re talking about, this sorta dance-like thing.  It’s just not the music that moves me, you know?  I lean more to the classical side, the “beauty” side.
AG: Your record is very timeless, sort of a snapshot of something.  Like it exists outside of the influence, you know?  Is that timeless quality something that you guys were going for?  I mean, it just seems like Van Occupanther will be just as good in twenty years as it is today.
TS: Yeah, exactly.  That’s it.  You don’t wanna put something out that’s only good for a year.  You wanna be able to pick it up a few years from now and have it still sound good.
AG: Paul [Alexander, Midlake bassist] said something in an interview I read like “creating beauty, sincerity, and honesty are imperative while we’re writing and recording.”  How do you maintain these things?
TS: Well, we all love one another.   We all get along with each other because we’ve been doing it for so long.  We’ve been doing this for so long in our lives, and we always wanted to do it for however long we could make it.  It’s happened really slowly, you know?  Seven or eight years.  But, you know, it keeps getting better and better […] I mean, right now, we can almost start to afford some sort of tour bus.  Not to buy, but to rent, you know?  And in Europe, not really in the States yet.  So that helps out.  It’s hard, being out on the road, in this one little van together, and you’ve gotta sleep in, like, one little hotel room.  I dunno, I can’t say that it’ll last forever.  I’m 31.  But right now things are going pretty well.  We love doing this.  There’s nothing else we want to do.  I mean, I don’t think any of us want to go back to our day jobs.
AG: Well, that’s about all I have.  We’ll see you guys on February 2nd.
TS: Yeah, I think that’s the first day of our tour.  Where are we playing again?  The Howlin’ Wolf?
AG: At a place called Republic.  It used to be the Howlin’ Wolf but the Howlin’ Wolf moved down the street.  Have you guys played here before?
TS: Oh yeah.  Once at the Howlin’ Wolf and a couple of times at the Mermaid Lounge.  No one knew who we were though.  Long drive just for nothing.


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