Maximo Park – Interview – 2017

Part of the mid 2000s UK indie revival, Newcastle’s Maximo Park are one of its survivors along with the likes of Kaiser Chiefs and The Kooks. Their new album Risk To Exist is their sixth studio release and their sixth to make it into the top 15. They are a remarkably consistent band, born in an era when the internet hadn't quite taken the stranglehold it has now and when it was just about possible to score a proper hit, such as with 'Apply Some Pressure' and 'Our Velocity'. Their strong socio-political commentary is allied to a mixture of incendiary alt-indie and, more recently, post-punk funk and soul grooves. With the band about to take to the road for the beginning of a mini-record store tour to promote the new album, frontman and lyricist Paul Smith told Brightonsfinest about his love of records, why the band are still relevant and the maddening political landscape.

What are you up to today?
We're going to do an in-store connected with Banquet Records, in Kingston-Upon Thames. It's our album release show, I suppose. It will be the first time we have played a lot of the songs off the album. Pretty excited. We'll be playing at The Hippodrome. Hopefully we'll play all the songs off the album. No doubt we'll argue about the set. We're giving the proceeds of the first single, 'Risk To Exist', to a charity called Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), which is saving people in the Mediterranean. Without any prompting from ourselves, Banquet are giving a pound from each ticket to the charity as well.

Tell me about the album
The songs that we have written have always been heart-on-sleeve, very personal opinions. It's not really a surprise to our audience that world events get in there. It's just a bit more explicit this time. It feels to me that there has been a shift towards the right. Not just in the way people are voting – that's clear – but also in the language that's used, in the mainstream commentary that you hear. If you listen to the news or a discussion show, you might look at the newsstand on a morning and all the newspapers will have words like ‘benefits’ and you'll see scroungers next to it. It won't be focussing on the fact that most people on benefits are quite vulnerable and need help. These are decent people. It will focus on the minority, the people who probably are abusing the system and therefore the narrative changes overall. You get this particularly virulent form of a kind of right-wing hate speech that is put across as smoke signals. It's kind of subterfuge and it's quite clear what the end results need to be for these people who are trying to victimise more vulnerable people. To me, it does take the heat off people who could actually do something about the problems in our country. Rather than focussing on immigrants, perhaps look at the people who are keeping their profits in offshore tax havens. It seems to me things are mis-directed and things have taken a turn towards a more right-wing view in the mainstream context. For me, those things impinge on the record. There's no way of getting around it. It feels you have got to find a way of talking about it and probably in a more coherent way than what I've been talking about. That's why the songs exist. They are a little more concise. They ask a few more questions rather than making blanket statements.

So, you’re not feeling particularly hopeful at the moment?
I watch the news and it worries me. My own country is my perspective and what I know best. But when we were recording in Chicago, it was during the election season and the TV debates that were going on with Clinton and were just really hard to understand. How such an important debate had been boiled down to very trivial things and quite sensational things. The record talks about trying to approach things with a bit more subtlety. It feels like there are extreme views on one side or the other and nobody is listening to the middle ground.

You always have to have light at the end of the tunnel and there is hope on the record. The idea of solidarity and sticking together and a bit more empathy and seeing the other side of things is probably the way forward. And there's always another generation outside of people who are perhaps entrenched in their ways and that’s quite a hopeful thing to think about.

Tell me about the first song on the album, ‘What Did We Do To You To Deserve This?’
Musically, it was quite a different approach for us. We've tried to do something a little more spacious, a little more groovy. It's a way of trying to start the album off in a different way from what we have done in the past. The lyrics are a collage of different feelings that I've had about things that have cropped up in the news. I tried to put in words that signify what I'm actually trying to talk about, but without things like 'banks ruined everything'. You've got to try and put it across in a way that people can get into. Somebody who approaches the song without any particular knowledge about it could put themselves in that situation. It could be about being betrayed by an ex-husband, or a friend of yours. But it's more about the idea that people who are in a more vulnerable position, or in a working class environment, they do seem to be more detached. It feels like the country is becoming more and more unequal and wealth is being siphoned off into this place where only a limited bunch of people can access it and passed down to this very small concentration of people. I like to think that someone listening to it might feel galvanised by the rallying call in the chorus.

The album was recorded live in Chicago?
It was one of reasons we went to Wilco's studio. It had the reputation of being a great place to record. And as we found out when we got there it was miked up to perfection and you could start playing. In fact ‘What Did We Do To You To Deserve This?’ was the first take of the first song we played there and it's the first song on the album. We were there for three weeks and we rehearsed as much as we could, as if we were about to play a concert. It felt like we hadn't done that since our first record. Everything was as it was conceived from our Newcastle base. Tom Schick recorded it. He has done work with Rufus Wainwright and Parquet Courts, who we really like. We know the Wilco records, they can go from a very live sound to the sound of a band in a room. Quite classic, almost Muscle Shoals, just getting the feel of a band, a nice warm sound of a band in the groove. But, they also push the boundaries further out, into Krautrock, proggy territory. We knew there were capabilities for us in terms of the live recording, but also if we wanted to push things he could help us do that. There's a song on the record called 'The Hero' and the groove, as a singer I can say it's amazing. I had nothing to do with it – to capture the band doing that live, I suppose it's like a like a lot of classic funk or soul records, like James Brown or Stevie Wonder and 'Living For The City’.

There's a good tradition of people singing about hard times, but having a good time while they are doing it. That's the key to this record. We set ourselves to make something that was enjoyable to listen to but is hopefully provoking, not too heavy and not too light. A lot of music that is politicised is often pretty reductive and doesn't do the subject any favours. The message is often simplistic and we don't live in a black and white world. We love melody in our band, it's something we pinned our colours to the mast early, with melody and hooks. Emotional hooks.

Having a good time whilst understanding what is happening in the real world?
How to escape but not turn your back on the world you live in. To acknowledge what's going on. It's an acknowledgement of where my head is at as a lyricist. It could be a heartbreak. Some of the best songs such as 'Tears Of A Clown' or 'I Heard It Through The Grapevine', it's just pure pain, but with this beautiful melody and arrangement. Those are the things you try and capture. You may be deluding yourself but you still have to have those aims, to reach for something that might be beyond you. We're very happy with the record and feel we have fulfilled our original criteria for making it.

How do Maximo Park songs come about?
Duncan (Lloyd, guitar) writes the lion shares of the music. Lucas (Wooller, keyboards) is a bit slower in his process. He is a bit more meticulous, possibly because he was theoretically trained. He studied music at university, whereas Duncan works instinctively and has lots of melodies and ideas flowing out of him. In the past we've all contributed more, but now I end up doing solo records where I write a lot of music for that. There were a couple of contenders I wrote for this record, but they didn't really fit the template.

The band was set up as a democratic thing, which means things do take a lot more time than I would like them to, but we always get there in the end.

You weren't really a singer when you joined Maximo Park?
I didn't have any musical training when they asked me to be in the band. I only accepted because I was working in a call centre after finishing university and I was a little bit bored with life. But I thought, 'Well, I have no idea if I can sing'. I'd never wanted to be in a band. There were so many bad local bands where the singer was an idiot and was usually the most egotistical guy in the area. I had avoided things like that and was playing guitar with my friends in an instrumental band. We were influenced by Tortoise and Dave Pajo who was in Slint. But I would jump around the front beacuse I was also influenced by Roxy Music and Talking Heads, where the front person was dressed up and doing something slightly unusual, something that would draw the crowd's attention. Clearly that was part of the idea. The idea of pop. So, I was playing this more left-field music, but dressing up, throwing out some rock moves and trying to find ones that weren't so cliched, which is difficult! So, I ended up in the band! The only training I have had was just buying records ever since I could afford to.

You were a vinyl obsessive at the time?
I've spent more of my life than I care to admit in record shops. I'm a bit of an obsessive. I would save my money. I wouldn't drink as much as my friends did. I would go from my small town, Billingham, into Middlesborough, on the 92 bus and come home reading the lyrics and wondering what this record was going to be like. I am the archetypal music geek who somehow ended up being in the band. If I am in Brighton I'll go into Resident and go into the second hand record shops as well to see if there are any bargains. I love buying vinyl so that I can have the beautiful piece of artwork in my house. The 12 inch record is an affordable art piece in my opinion. We value the fact that pop music is an art form. Our very first single 'Graffiti' was red vinyl, seven inch, just 300 copies. A friend of ours had come into some inheritance and he knew we wanted to make a record. I did a little drawing in the middle, put our email address on there and that's how Warp Records got in touch with us. They saw it in the Rough Trade shop who had made it single of the week. For us to be doing a show in that same Rough Trade Shop in a few days time, it's nice to be part of that narrative.
Jeff Hemmings