Paul Smith (Maximo Park) Talks
Maxïmo Park are a band that have spent the last decade creating rather fine alternative music, generally made with guitars chock full of mighty riffs and poetic lyrics. Having toured the world and created a constant stream of brilliant music videos, the band recently released their latest visual offering for 'Give, Get, Take', the opening track from their album Too Much Information, and were announced as special guests for when The Who perform at Newcastle Arena on 9th December. I was fortunate enough to get to speak to frontman Paul Smith and gain several pearls of wisdom from a performer whom I have long admired;
Am I right in thinking you’re in Switzerland at the minute?
Have you got a gig tonight then?
Yeah, we’ve had 2 shows in a row and we’ve got another 3 to go and we’re finished, we’ll be back home on Sunday and it’s our last tour of the year so it’s a nice, picturesque way to finish a tour.
It hasn’t been a bad week for you really with The Who announcing you as their support in Newcastle as well.
It was pretty exciting to be able to say, well, we haven’t played with them yet but we’ll be able to play with The Who. We’ve played with The Rolling Stones as well a few years ago in Scandinavia. It’s one of those things where you just turn round to each other and say ‘are you up for this?’ and we all were, it’s a pretty easy decision to be made there.
Did they get in touch with you to say ‘would you like to share a stage with us’?
Yeah, I guess so. Obviously we’re from Newcastle and the show is at Newcastle Arena they’re probably approaching bands from the area – maybe somebody at the Arena suggested us. Our managers got in touch and they asked if we’d be up for it, they sent an email and we were in the dressing room together and just all said yes, absolutely!
They aren’t someone you’d say no to really!
Not really, if you don’t like The Who you might not say yes. We’ve all enjoyed The Who at different points in our lives so it was a pretty easy decision to make. They’re part of rock and roll history and it’s going to be just a big fun night! They’re playing 50 years of their hits, it’s an anniversary for them and for us it’s a hometown show. I’m pretty sure the crossover of people who like the kind of rock and roll side of our band will appreciate it all – I guess we’ll pick songs that Who fans will like.
You’ve also had the video release for Give, Get, Take this week. One of the things you’ve done quite a lot with your videos is to have the band performing in all manner of styles and this is a bit more back to basics. I wondered what the thought process is behind the video?
Well we’ve done films for all the other videos from Too Much Information and we commisioned an artist, the same artist who did the sleeve, a guy called Matt Stokes. He’d done the Brain Cells and Leave This Island videos and then we did a video for Midnight On The Hill which again told a little story and we weren’t in it and by the end of the singles from the album we thought ‘let’s have something with a lot of energy’ and we actually tried a video with lots of other people in it and again tried the next step away from things but we felt it wasn’t quite working and didn’t necessarily have the energy of the track. We thought ‘well, we’ve got the energy for it’ and we actually went to a place in Newcastle where we launched this album and we launched our beer, Maximo No. 5, that we did to coincide with the latest record. It was actually the first place where I met most of the rest of the band – I knew Tom from my Art History course at university and he asked me to support Maximo Park with my band MeandthetwinS which was me and my two friends Rachel and Laura who are identical twins. We made instrumental music and it was our first ever concert. It’s strange to think that in our first ever concert in the Bridge Hotel in Newcastle we were supporting the band that I would eventually go on to be the frontman of and still be that person years later. Aesthetically speaking it’s a very nice venue, it only fits 70/80 people and we thought it would be quite an interesting contrast between the silence of a pub in a mid-afternoon and a band coming in and making a racket. It did work, I think.
It’s nice going back to where it all began, showing an appreciation for your history. I absolutely loved the Leave This Island video.
That was Matt Stokes and he knew the character that’s in the video and this guy – that’s his life, essentially. Matt just asked if he could film him going through the different characters and habits, this guy really is a larger than life character and indeed he does dance with chess pieces in his house in ladies underwear or whatever. On one level it’s completely ridiculous and bizarre and on another level it’s quite touching and poignant, especially with it being an older person in a music video which you don’t see really. You would think that society was just a bubble where twerking women and photogenic young lads pretend to play guitars. You’d think that was about it if you just switched on a music television channel these days, mentioning no names, so we decided to do something completely different. With Matt being a film-maker and an artist he’s come across some very interesting subcultures and he’s done different things, he did a film about northern soul and the album cover with the guy shaving his tongue which was an old flyer from a rave night and Matt had done some artwork around the theme of rave culture. It felt like an opportunity to capitalise on his knowledge of people who he might want to make a film about rather than who he’d like to make an exciting pop video about. Hopefully it’s an intriguing pop video as it subverts a lot of the norms you’d expect to find in a pop promo.
You’ve done that before, particularly with Hips And Lips with Tom Turgoose in his room – a very strange video that was brilliant in its own way.
Thank you very much!
How was being trapped in the cupboard?
It was quite claustrophobic. The whole thing was a bit Alan Partridge walking into the guys house where his face is plastered all over the walls.
With Too Much Information you released an extended version of the album as well – what led you to do that?
On one level it’s nice to give people extra stuff and entice a few more people to buy your record, especially if you believe in your record as much as we do. You want to do everything within your power to entice people into buying the physical copy of it and getting to read the words and enjoy the artwork – and pay our bills as well. Part of it is that our management company would require something like that and, while we always have the ability to say no, we have creative control over how things are packaged, whether we do extra discs or not. When somebody says do you want to do an extra disc we try to come up with a different idea – on The National Health we had some of the songs stripped down, taking all the synths away and we had acoustic versions of Hips And Lips whereas on this record we decided to try and show people the other influences that you might not guess, like Nick Drake.
It’s a fantastic cover of Northern Sky!
Thank you very much! We discussed the idea of B-sides and what we’d do for them. These days there’s a lot of stuff that’s released digitally only and B-sides only really come, for us, in a 7 inch form. There aren’t as many B-sides as there used to be so rather than putting covers on the B-sides we decided to utilise our cover version skills and put them into action for the bonus disc. As long as it is affordable and of good quality and looks good, I don’t mind embellishing the album. It means that hardcore fans can have a little bit extra, maybe they’ve never heard The Fall before and they get to hear our slightly amended version of Edinburgh Man, Middlesbrough Man. They might check out that song and go ‘that’s cool!’ and look into the originals. The Townes Van Zandt song, people might say ‘what’s that all about?’ and it’s alternative country and yet I feel a kind of kinship with artists outside of the genres that we’re in – from a purely lyrical point of view I love Townes Van Zandt’s music because i’s straight from the heart, very pure and economical which is something you could say about Leonard Cohen who we covered as well. We just thought ‘can we put our own spin on it?’ and the answer was yes. Those that delve a bit deeper wouldn’t be terribly surprised that we covered stuff outside of – I guess alternative-rock or whatever you want to call us – there’s a broader bunch of people out there that’ll be surprised and it’ll keep them on their toes.
You mentioned lyrics there, I’ve always been a fan of your lyrics – do you see yourself as a poet more than a vocalist?
Err no, I mean, I’m very interested in the words as they’re my focus in the band – coming up with vocal melodies and words is my focus, I allow other people to critique the lyrics but ultimately it boils down to me and the way I feel about the world and I think when I started writing lyrics that was what I did best. I tried to write political lyrics or things about certain issues in my notebook that came across as contrived, things that I believed in strongly but they didn’t work out and the ones that were straight from the heart and more emotionally rich were the ones I felt most comfortable singing. When I first started singing I’d never sung before, I’d never really written lyrics seriously, for me that was the starting point. It still runs through Maximo Park and helps identify us from album to album even if musical style changes, they’re still emotionally driven songs. And yet I’m drawn to other things, there’s a descriptive aspect to the lyrics and I’m allowed to indulge that kind of things outside of the band – like on the new record I’m doing with Peter Brewis from Field Music. It’s called Frozen By Sight and it’s 12 different travelogs, essentially different descriptions of places set to music that both of us have written and arranged by Peter fro a string quartet. You can do things outside of the band that focus on different aspects of the lyrics. Again, it still links back to the band because whether it’s Books From Boxes or Midnight On The Hill there is a descriptive aspect to songs, you are hopefully thrust into the middle of a situation visually and emotionally by the first verse or first verse and chorus and it’s something that I feel you need to do to get people to listen to a pop song. It needs to grab me, personally, when I’m listening to something. If the lyrics are good then I’m definitely going to keep going to the second verse and the middle 8 and by the end of it you either love the song or you don’t. You’ve got to try and pull the listener in from a lyrical point of view. I know people who are poets and it’s quite a different discipline, there are very different things going on in poetry that are probably beyond me! I would say that they’re poetic in their own way, we’re a lyrical band and it’s definitely one of our key component.
Definitely. With the previous album, The National Health, did you see that as a chance to show the political side to your lyrics?
Yeah, I suppose so. What I was saying earlier about wanting to write about things like that and not being able to fully articulate yourself in a way that wasn’t clichéd or preachy is something that I probably came to deal with on the album – a song might not explicitly be about anything yet, more about a feeling of frustration. Through to the current day there’s a lot of stuff brewing under the surface and if you travel on a train or any form of public transport for long enough you can see that kind of thing bubbling over. Whether it’s anti-social behaviour or what, society is there for all to see on public transport. I’m no different, the latter part of the song goes into a character-driven thing with a ludicrous character who is just annoyed at the world and he’s at the council and someone has told him to go away… He’s queued for half hour and it’s his turn to vent his spleen. I associate it with that whilst also stepping outside of it and feeling like it is slightly ludicrous, a lot of our songs are a heightened version of a specific emotion and I felt like that was a good chance to talk about the health of the nation as well as alluding to the dismantling of the public service of the NHS. It felt like a very appropriate title. Each night as I sing the song it doesn’t seem to have lost any of its fervour or relevance – to me anyway. I certainly can’t say whether it is relevant to anybody else but I sing it and I feel fired up when I sing that song.
On stage you’ve got a very lively demeanour which is very entertaining to watch. Do you still feel the passion for it that you did when you first started? Is the same fire still inside you?
Absolutely! You have to find it, that’s part of the challenge of being a frontman in our kind of band. It need energy, the songs require a certain engagement with the subject matter and I have to delve into my inner reaches just to think about what the songs are about and try to tap into that feeling, whatever it’s about. Whether it’s A Night I Lost My Head which we’ve been playing recently or if it’s something more existentially gloomy like Going Missing, all of these songs have lyrics allied to strong melodies and I can get pumped up listening to Duncan playing the riff from Going Missing and that will hopefully elevate my performance or Lukas’s incessant keyboards in Our Velocity. These songs are years old now, we play them on a nightly basis because some songs are so well known that while we’ve flirted with taking certain things out, we don’t play Graffiti every night because I think we’d just get bored, and they have this power within them that we’ve put into the structure of the songs that allow us to play them night in night out and note lose anything. Performing to me is something very important, I don’t want to be aloof but I do want to put on the show. I want to have a flamboyance about how I move on stage so that I can affect the person at the back of the room and the person in the front row who is right in amongst it. I want everybody in the room to get the energy. You tailor your performance for each of those songs.
I don’t mind people finding it funny, when you’re dancing away and sweating and you’re dressed up – people would probably think you were a real weirdo if you walked down the street like that. I’m on a stage and it is fun. It’s fun to watch people being extroverted and to watch people getting into what they’re doing, in my opinion. When I was a kid I would watch Iggy Pop or David Byrne and you’d see the sweat dripping of them and there’s something slightly ludicrous about a grown adult jumping around on a stage. You’ve got to embrace that and if that’s what your songs require, which ours do, I’m happy to go with it.
It comes across that you’re so passionate about what you’re doing.
Yeah, I try to talk to the audience every night as well and not just go through the motions. I think that’s the biggest sin that a performer can commit because music is a very important thing, it’s important to every individual in that room who has paid their money to come and see you. It means a lot to me to put the show on and to think that this could be the first or last time that somebody sees your band so you want to send them away with the impression of what each individual song is about.
That’s a very similar concept to Stan Lee from Marvel’s approach, he always wrote as if every comic book could be someone’s first to help make sure people get the real depth behind it.
Basically it’s hard but in terms of how can I keep doing it every night it’s easy because the passion is there for the songs, I feel strongly about them and that these songs could improve someone’s life in a very small way in the same way that pop songs improved my life. With that in mind, I want to give my best every night. Even if I’m really tired when I go to bed or if I feel it hasn’t been a great show, I can at least know I did my best and put in 100% and because of the songs and the nature of the lyrics I’d be docked if I didn’t come off in some way exhausted. That’s not for everybody, I certainly wouldn’t want Elliott Smith to have come off stage and jumped around but it’s just the way that our band do things. It’s what we’re known for amongst the people that come to see us. If it begins to be something of a bore or we feel uncomfortable doing it then we’ll stop to amend our performance. You’ve got to do things that are appropriate for you where you are right now. Maybe when I’m 45 or something I won’t want to be jumping up and down on the stage and it might look completely stupid…
It might start getting a bit harder to do!
Some people probably think it looks stupid now and obviously it’s not for them. You’ve just got to think about what you’re doing and I suppose that’s part of our band really. There’s a lot of passion and energy but there’s also a thoughtful process of ‘does anybody need this record? Does anybody need another record by our band?’ and each time we’ve felt that the songs were strong enough to withstand scrutiny and we’d say yes. These songs are valid, they say something to somebody somewhere and it’s that notion of self-justification and trying to have fun doing what you’re doing, keeping on moving with each record without throwing away what the essence of the band is. That’s something we’re always aware of, or at least I am, I try and think about what we’re doing rather than just letting it pass me by.
It’s very nice that you see it in a bit more detail rather than just ‘we need to get another song done, we need to get another album out’ and just ticking along. It’s great that you enjoy what you’re doing!
Well it’s a bit embarrassing really when you hear a band doing that. Why are you in this industry? When it is an industry there are certain things that you’re aware of and a lot of people depend on you and it’s your livelihood. I’m going off on a bit of a tangent now but I think that some people don’t realise that musicians need to eat or pay their mortgage. Doing things for money is essential to live in a capitalist society. On the other hand, you can’t allow that to compromise why you’re creating something. A song has to have that individual meaning to you initially. It’s great to experiment with things and try things out that you wouldn’t have done like trying to write and record a song in a day, things like that are totally cool with me. It’s when people are looking for the next piece of ‘product’. The industry needs to keep ticking over for its own sake and I suppose that’s understandable but I think it’s the artist’s duty to put the sort of thing to the back of their mind and ignore that sort of thing until it is time to put the record out. At that point it’s ‘yeah, flog it! Put it out!’ because at that time what we’ve made is something worth flogging, it’s worth promoting. You have certain people that pretend that they’re not doing that and that their act on stage isn’t an act. There’s a balance, I don’t want to give away exactly who I am but you want to give the audience every night a little bit of what you’ve got to offer and a bit of what sort of character you are. You can amplify it and I think withholding things is an important thing. You end up with people who boast about how they’re so authentic and ‘screwing it to the man’ who are on major record labels having money thrown at them. Ultimately, after all that stuff is out of the equation it comes down to a song and what it means to you. It could be a Caribou song or it could be someone with an acoustic guitar, it doesn’t matter to me what the medium is, it’s the message within it.
I’ve got just one more question for you – who is your least favourite cartoon character?
Let’s have a think… I used to watch cartoons when I was growing up an there were some that I loved but there were one or two that I used to switch off and think were boring. I;m trying to remember who they were because it’s a long time ago now.
Along those lines, what do you think of the Mike Read calypso song?
Highly inappropriate – even the Red Cross don’t want the man’s money!
That says enough I think.
They’re trying to make out that ‘those lefties’ have stopped charities getting money from this bizarre stunt but even the charities don’t want it. That says a lot doesn’t it?
The video for Give, Get Take is out now. Maxïmo Park will be joining The Who at Newcastle Arena on 9th December. For more information on the band, see their official website.