“Why The Courage Of Others?” says Midlake frontman Tim Smith. “I guess because I could use some more courage myself.” What Smith lacks in pluck, he clearly doesn’t lack in tenacity, however, for he and his Denton, Texas-based band mates spent two years recording TCOO, the process involving the jettisoning of an album’s worth of material, and all kinds of emotional and financial turmoil.
The end result is something of a masterpiece; a darkly compelling pastoral whose lyrics are far more personal than those on 2007′s much-lauded The Trials Of Van Occupanther. Though the new record’s twist is an acknowledged debt to venerable British folk acts such as Fairport Convention, that isn’t the full story.
eMusic talked to Smith and guitarist Eric Pulido about the trials and quiet triumphs of Midlake.
Making this record proved something of a Herculean task, but it’s being very well received. Do you feel vindicated?
TS: It’s certainly a relief, yeah. I wasn’t sure how it would be received, but I knew we were proud of it. As to whether I feel vindicated, that’s a tough one. It’s good to feel understood, but really I just make music for myself and the few people that will like it.
Did you have concerns about releasing such a dark work?
TS: It’s just who I am, I guess. The Trials Of Van Occupanther was very melancholic, too; it’s something that comes out in my writing. I know the new record is darker, still, but it was very much on purpose.
EP: As the record started to form and grow, we knew it was very minor- key and a little slower paced, but we felt it was an accurate snapshot of where we were at and the music that was inspiring us. It was ‘to thine own self be true. ‘The melancholy felt honest, and we didn’t want to go down that slippery slope where you start to worry about what other people will think.
In your defence, it’s often said that people’s favourite songs tend to be sad songs…
TS: Oh yeah — I love those sad songs, man. I love walking around town with my headphones on listening to the saddest songs I can find (laughs). Morrissey is always good; something like “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want” by The Smiths. Joni Mitchell, too.
Special as it is, The Courage Of Others is definitely a slow-burner…
EP: True. Every time of media today is trying to grab people’s short attention span, so the thinking is that you have that melody, that hook, that quick fix. We put all that to one side and tried to make something that had some power and durability. Working on the album as long as we did, it was important that we didn’t get bored with the songs. We kept driving for that intangible thing, that special emotion.
You’ve talked about how parts of the record were influenced by the late ’60′s output of English folk acts such as Fairport Convention, Pentangle and Steeleye Span, but do we also detect the influence of another of your favourites, US singer-songwriter Jimmie Spheeris?
TS: Definitely. A song like “Rulers, Ruling All Things” is very much Jimmie Spheeris- inspired. I wouldn’t pretend to be on his level, though. I love his Isle Of View album — it’s one of my favourite records ever and I think it will continue to have an impact on me for the rest of my life.
“Acts Of Man” talks about men causing the ground to break open — some kind of environmental comment?
TS: No. I’m speaking generally about the atrocities that human beings sometimes pull on each other. I do talk about nature a lot in the songs, but I’m not an environmentalist and I’m not speaking out to save the trees or anything. I just find nature really beautiful, and that comes out in the lyrics.
That said, “Core Of Nature” seems to value the great outdoors as a place of retreat, a place for reflection…
TS: Well, it works for me (laughs). I get a lot of enjoyment out of being outdoors, away from the city. Sometimes the city is great, but nature can be a real comfort. When we wrote “Core Of Nature” we were having a really tough time with the album. We’d ditched a lot of stuff and we only had about three songs recorded, and we’d been at it for about a year and three months. There’s only so long you can stay in the studio looking at the same four walls. After a while you stagnate. The solution was to go to this farm that’s about farm a three-hour drive from where we live…
…Ah, yes, the whole band went to a farm in Buffalo, right?
TS: Yeah. There was a ranch with horses and cattle, and we’d light campfires and cook hotdogs and marshmallows on the grill. We took recording gear to demo stuff and we started on “Core Of Nature” that first night. I didn’t have any words yet or hardly any melodies, but when we went home to the studio we knew exactly how we wanted it to sound.
How was the Buffalo trip for you, Eric?
EP: It was nostalgic for me just being there, because I’d gone there as a child. But to be together as a band away from our families and our normal lives and the daily grind of being in the studio — that was great. Some days we’d just hike out over the land. It was very communal and very bonding.
The narrator of “Winter Dies” seems unable to feel the pull and power of nature as he once did…
TS: [Hesitantly] No… I don’t agree. The starting point for that song was actually Jimmie Spheeris again. One of his songs ["Seeds Of Spring" from Isle Of View] starts: ‘The winter is worn and the springtime is born. ‘”Winter Dies” is another nod to Jimmie and a typical ‘changing of the seasons ‘type song.
What is “Rulers Ruling All Things” about?
TS: Well, I’m not a particularly political person, so it’s not directed at any political leader or anyone. I’ve had a lot of day jobs in the past where my relationship with the company seems great at first, but then it gradually deteriorates, and the boss seem kind of greedy or overbearing. It’s a song about people who wear on you.
Does the future of Midlake look brighter these days?
TS: Yeah, certainly. There was a time when we wondered if we’d ever finish this album or even stay together, but I guess I always knew we’d get there even if it took five years. It was a bit depressing at times, so it’s great to be out there playing and meeting our audience again.
EP: Just to be in the next chapter and touring having just about retained our sanity feels good. We’re not college kids living off parental income; we have wives and some of us have kids, too, so it’s good when they can see that Midlake is a going-concern again. We’re hoping this record might bring a little bit of financial stability.