Interview: Midlake

Andrew Mueller

By Andrew Mueller

on 11.06.13 in Interviews

Few well-known bands survive the departure of their singer and/or primary songwriter, fewer still prosper — AC/DC, Pink Floyd and Genesis are among a tiny huddle of exceptions to the rule that once the frontperson departs, the rest of the band are left with little choice but to seek alternative employment.

Midlake were faced with this situation in 2012, when singer and creative force Tim Smith quit during the recording of their fourth album. The remaining six members of the group made two dramatic and courageous decisions. One, to carry on without Smith, replacing him with Midlake’s guitarist, Eric Pulido. Two, to scrap what they’d recorded with Smith and start again.

The risk has been rewarded: Antiphon is arguably Midlake’s best album yet, taking a more psychedelic, freewheeling approach to their pastoral rock ‘n’ roll, and downplaying any lingering preconceptions of forests, flutes and facial hair. It’s not the Texas band’s first gear shift: When they emerged in the early 2000s, they touted lo-fi electronica in the vein of Grandaddy, before moving through ’70s-vintage Laurel Canyon FM rock (on 2006′s The Trials of Van Occupanther) and British folk-rock (on 2010′s The Courage of Others). But the change of perspective this time is unmistakable. One track, “Provider,” addresses Tim Smith, and Midlake’s future without him, directly: “Onward forth unto a land unknown/ with only hope for the seeds to grow.”

Between soundchecks in Paris, Eric Pulido talked with Andrew Mueller about breaking up and moving on.

Where does the title come from?

“Antiphon” was a word that I found in a liturgical setting. Its literal meaning in Greek is “opposite voice,” and it usually refers to call-and-response. To me, it seemed to tie up in a neat little bow what this album means to us. Not only in regard to what happened with Tim, but in regard to the plight of man, and how we respond to things. The song “Provider” is about Tim, and what transpired, but the rest of the record has a more general purpose.

How close did you come to giving up entirely when Tim left?

It wasn’t an option, to be honest. I don’t know if I’ve told anybody this, but the record we were making was going to be our last — we’d decided, amicably, to hang it up after that, and we’d made that commitment to ourselves and those we work with. As the process of making that record wore on, and became more difficult, I still had hope of fulfilling that commitment. When Tim decided not to, as much as I could understand and even respect that, it wasn’t so much “if” as “how.” Within 24 hours, we’d got back together and said “OK, so now what?”

And are you now planning to continue?

I think so, yeah.

Was there one big reason for Tim leaving, or a bunch of little ones?

He didn’t enjoy touring. And he just didn’t see any hope of achieving what he desired with this group of people. I just think he didn’t see any hope. I didn’t agree, and it hurt, in all honesty, but you gotta get back up. I didn’t want a failed album to be the end of our legacy. That doesn’t sit well with me. Even if this one tanks and people don’t like it, it’s an honest representation of us.

How much of the album you were working on with Tim was finished?

That’s a relative thing. If you’d asked Tim, he’d have said one song. There were lots of others which maybe weren’t quite up to par, though we were playing some of them live at one-off shows.

But you decided to start from scratch.

Well, we thought, “We have this material, and we could use some of that, but we’re gonna need a lot more.” And as we started to jam, for want of a better word, and started to write, we quickly decided to leave behind what was there. That was partly out of respect for what Midlake was with Tim, but also because we wanted to make our own statement.

Was there any talk of changing the band’s name?

That was brought up for a second, but the band that made those other Midlake records, and collaborated with John Grant [on 2010's Queen Of Denmark] and Jason Lytle [on stage, intermittently] were still part of the band. An important part of the body had been lost, but it was still the same body. And it wouldn’t have been true to the band, especially given that Antiphon is our most collective effort by far.

On a personal level, how difficult have you found the transition from guitarist to frontman?

I think I probably think about that now more than I did back when Tim left. I just went, “OK,” and thought I’d just slide across and we’d forge ahead. There was kind of a transition going on even when Tim was still in the group. In hindsight, it’s possible to see that he was pulling back. I was standing in the middle of the stage a lot of time, and speaking to the crowd. Becoming the singer wasn’t something I wanted. It’s what happened. We just asked ourselves: should we get another singer, or should I just scooch over? So that’s what I did.

You were talking there about the possibility of people not liking the record. Midlake are one of those groups who tend to polarise opinion — with The Courage of Others, some critics compared you unfavorably to Jethro Tull. Did that affect your writing?

No. I don’t blame ‘em, especially because we take left turns sometimes — or every time. I can understand when people don’t agree when we change course, sure.

You mentioned that you had been jamming a lot in the early stages of writing Antiphon, and it does sound like that. It’s much freer-flowing and meandering than other Midlake albums.

Yeah. I think that might be a bigger psychedelic and prog influence coming through.

Was there a sense of hitherto suppressed impulses bursting forth?

Kind of. Tim was always the main filter. So at first, we were like kids in a candy store, pulling stuff from anywhere we liked. But at some point you have to start sifting.

There’s a definite emphasis on the idea that this album is a cohesive work, not just a load of songs — you reprise “Provider” as the closer, and some of the tracks segue into each other.

Well, we definitely weren’t thinking of it as a concept album. But there are linking threads. And I’ve always loved to listen to things as an A-side and a B-side, and I hope other people hear this record that way as well.