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on Tue, 07 Mar 2017
Interview by Lauren Foster
Maximo Park are an English alternative rock band, formed in 2000 in Newcastle upon Tyne. The band have released five studio albums: A Certain Trigger (2005), Our Earthly Pleasures (2007), Quicken The Heart (2009), The National Health (2012) and Too Much Information (2014), with their sixth, Risk To Exist, set for release this Spring.
We caught up with lead Paul Smith ahead of their upcoming show in Birmingham...
Your sixth album, Risk To Exist, is set for release on 21 April. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
Well, we recorded it in Chicago with Tom Schick, who’s known for his work with Wilco and Beck and all sorts of other people. We wanted to record live, to capture a bit more of the spirit of us when we play live, so we rehearsed loads and went out there and did that. We’ve got Mimi Parker from the band Low on backing vocals as a guest. That was pretty exciting for me; I’m a big fan of the band. We’ve also got a horn section on it, so we’ve tried out a few different things. It’s the first time we’ve had guests on the record, and lyrically as well, it’s a little bit different from some of the other records. It’s a bit more politically explicit, I suppose, and talks a bit more about social issues. As a lyricist, I write from the heart, try to express myself each time we make a record and hope that other people will connect with it. Those were the things that were on my mind at the time of writing the record. There’s a bit more space in the music, it’s a bit groovier on this record, although the Risk To Exist single is a little bit of a red herring in that respect; that’s pretty punky and energetic. There are lots of spacious moments on the record where the drums and the bass do a lot of the work. The vocal and the keys and the guitar are a bit more minimal this time. Yeah, it’s a bit different from some of our other records.
And the title? Who came up with that?
It was something that was written in my notebook and ended up being the title of a song. We’re a bit different each time. Sometimes we look at all of the lyrics on the record and try to find something that’s just embedded. For example, the title of our first album, A Certain Trigger, was a line from the song Once A Glimpse. By our fourth record we’d done that three times, and it felt like The National Health was a good rallying call and a good way of summing the record up. So Risk To Exist was the same sort of thing, really. Life is a fragile thing and we need to look after it; to be empathetic and understand as much as we can about each other. So it felt like that particular title made sense for the rest of the record, too.
You’ve written songs with political implications in the past but have stepped it up a game with Risk To Exist. From a songwriting perspective, how did it compare to previous albums?
When we first started out, I’d never sung before; I was just in a room with these four blokes. I’m a big fan of music and didn’t want to make anything that would be embarrassing, so I looked at all the different writers I liked and tried out a few different things. The one thing that I kept coming back to was very emotionally driven stuff; personal reminiscences or little stories that might spark something with a listener. That was the thing I felt most comfortable about when I was singing, and that sort of set the template for the kind of band we are. There were a few political lyrics in there that didn’t feel right, so some of them ended up being in there filtered. On Kiss You Better, it says, ‘Everyone should have a choice’, and when I sang that live it was the bit that I emphasised. Anyone who knows the band will not be particularily surprised by the tone of the record. You find ways of expressing these things. If it feels right, it probably is, and if it feels a bit off, then you should probably step away and have a little think about it. The lyrics on the single itself are clearly about the migration crisis, but on the other hand, it’s just about how fragile life is. I’m not making inflammatory political slogans; it’s more about asking questions, wondering why the world is like it is and wondering what your place is in it. In that respect it’s no different to the rest of the records, just more explicit. I’ve tried to simplify some of the things that I wanted to say. Other things are still ambiguous enough to be about whatever you want them to be about. There’s a song called I’ll Be Around which is a good example. It’s wondering what to say about things politically. There’s a line in it saying, ‘What should I say’, and the next line is the chorus, ‘I’ll be around, don’t think that I won’t, I’ll be around for you’. It’s that idea of being close to somebody, or even a class of people, and just saying, look you’re not alone. There’s also a line that talks about ‘When you think you’ve had enough, with a government that’s out of touch, I’ll be around for you’. Just that one word, ‘government’, suddenly puts a different spin on the song. So you can see the song through that prism if you wish to, and if you don’t and you just want to enjoy a good tune with a pretty universal message, then you can do that instead. There’s a marriage of social content but it’s also about good tunes; tunes people can dance to. That was the challenge that we set ourselves - can we make pop songs that don’t talk down to people about these things, that are also just good songs. I think a lot of so-called political songs are just telling people what to think, and I don’t want to be that kind of band. I certainly don’t want to ignore what’s going on in the world and live in a weird bubble, but people can work things out for themselves, and that’s part of the pleasure of listening to the song.
Sticking with the political theme, do you have anything to say to Donald Trump?
Well, Donald Trump gets a lot of airtime, that has to be said, and it’s going to be the case for the next four years because every time he tweets, which is quite regularly, he says something that’s either contradictory, inflammatory or often not true. There’s something new every day, so you could be here forever. The other day it was the speech where he said there was an incident in Sweden - but obviously there was no incident, so that’s lying! There are songs on the record which talk about holding power to account and about truth and lies. There’s a song called What Equals Love, and the opening line is ‘And the lie was not enough, tell the truth and you’re not tough’. It’s the idea that people can see through it, for a start, but also to be a liar is seen as quite tough. I can remember being in America watching the debates between Clinton and Trump. At one point, she said, ‘You haven’t paid tax for 20 years’, and he said, ‘Well, that makes me smart’ . He came back with it so quickly and thought it was brilliant, but I just thought, how can anyone vote for this man, knowing that he doesn’t abide by the same laws that they do yet calls himself ‘the voice of the common man’? We get a lot of that in our country as well, with people like Nigel Farage. I don’t want to give the man airtime - because everybody gives him a platform to say what he wants - but again, he’s not ‘the common man’; he’s a very rich banker who’s done well from a privileged class system. I find that idea of being a liar, and of being cloak-and-dagger about things when you’re in a position of power and are supposedly representing people, I just find that reprehensible. But there you are, we could talk about it forever...
You were signed back in 2004 and released your first single, The Coast Is Always Changing. Are there any particularly fond memories or stories you fancy sharing from when you first started out?
There are loads and loads. I remember sleeping over in Lukas’ front room after we’d done a gig in London. He lived in London for a bit, which helped because he could go and put our records into people’s shops. Our first ever single, a friend of ours had inherited some money and he paid for it because he knew we wanted to make a 7”. We got about 300 copies on red vinyl, I had a drawing done in the middle of it and we put our email address on it. That’s how we got signed. Somebody from Warped Records got in touch via the record. I remember sleeping over in Lukas’ flat after playing Archway Tavern or somewhere like that, and the next day this record came. The big box had been delivered to his house and the buzz of getting that record and being together, that was good. I mean, we got the test pressing of the new record last week, and I’m still excited. We’ve worked on it for two or three years. You go out and record, you’re away from your family and you put a lot of effort into it, so just to have it in your hands is still exciting. And I’m looking forward to getting the artwork - again, that’s taken months and months to get together. We’re commissioning one of our friends to do the artwork and work on the videos and that kind of thing. It’s all those things that people don’t see that are still very important to me. I remember lots of things. Seeing the video on MTV of The Coast Is Always Changing. Our friends had just filmed it in a little pub up in Newcastle, and just to think that other people were hearing our music was very exciting. I never want to preach to the converted, but I always hope that somebody will hear it on the radio and go, ‘Oh, I’ve never heard these guys before’; somebody who’s just a young music fan, or somebody who didn’t like us before - who’d heard a couple of songs and had made up their mind. I’m always very hopeful of that with each new record.
I remember hearing Apply Some Pressure on the radio and searching high and low until I found out what it was. To this day it’s still one of my all-time favourites. Have you got any particular favourites?
A lot of the early songs from each record, one or two of them that are singles, you always get a lot of people hearing them, so you play them a lot, and I still enjoy playing pretty much all of them. If we don’t, we sub it out for a bit and it comes back and you’re like, ‘Ah, I’d forgotten how good this one is’. With Books From Boxes, for instance, it felt like we’d aimed to do something and had pulled it off. A lot of people heard it and it means a lot to people, and to me. It’s a moment in time. I don’t know the person it was written about anymore, but each time we sing it, it comes alive. For a lot of people, it might have that same effect. I love the guitar melody that Duncan came up with. It just feels like we did something good and put it into the world. I feel proud of it.
Maximo Park have secured 1.5 million album sales and four UK Top 10 albums. Did you ever expect the band would be so successful?
No, not really. There was something in the air when we were starting out. Everything comes in cycles and bands were starting to be played on Radio One. If you tune into Radio One now, there aren’t so many bands, it’s more processed pop music or RnB; it comes from a different place. Whilst I would like it to be more diverse, it’s a youth-music station, and just to have your song on it is pretty important to you because it gets through to people. When things like that were happening, we started thinking, ‘Well, maybe they’ll play us on the radio - they seem to be playing a lot of other bands; they’re playing Franz Ferdinand or whatever’. So from that point of view, you’re hopeful, but if I was in a band starting out now, I wouldn’t be as hopeful of having widespread success because the routes are kind of closed off a little bit. For us, every day something else happened - we’d be nominated for the Mercury Music Prize or the new single would go into the top 20. It was a very exciting time, a very busy time, but I also knew it could end tomorrow. If somebody hadn’t liked the next single off the next album, then that would’ve been that. We’d have continued to make records, but whether anybody would’ve heard them on a wide scale would’ve been a different matter. That’s still my attitude. If nobody likes this new record, which I hope they do, we’ll make another one and we’ll like it. Some people try to chase success; we’ve always done what we wanted and have been very lucky that other people have liked it, and on a mass level. I try not to look too far into the future and I very rarely look back. It was nice to do something for our 10th anniversary and just say, ‘Yeah, we made it in the fickle world of pop music’. We played the first album in full. It was a bit of a laugh and that was the point, like any good birthday party. Then we put it straight to bed and went off to make this new record.
What does the future hold for Maximo Park?
Tour, make music, tour, make music with other people and stay creative. That’s all we can ask for. We’re playing a few festivals abroad, we’re doing Y Not and Truck Festival and we’ll see what else gets announced...
Maximo Park are playing O2 Institute, Birmingham on Friday 5 May.