Maximo Park: Maximum strength

Charlotte Cripps meets Paul Smith, the charismatic singer with the North-eastern band who are up for the Mercury Prize
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It's unsurprising that he's alone because, since he was recruited to be the eccentric front man of an existing indie pop band, that's how he spends much of his time. That can't be easy, surely?

"Being the focus of Maximo Park can make me feel quite isolated from the rest of the band, but I always knew what I was taking on," says Smith, as we go upstairs to his room. "Nobody resents me."

For Smith, solo interviews are not a problem. "Words are my forte," he says, though he confesses to always taking a little notebook with him on stage, lest he should forget his lyrics that he types on brown envelopes. "And I have a lot of ideas about how to present the band. Some indie bands play it down, but I want to be an exaggerated version of myself. I am trying to entertain people. It doesn't draw away from the impact of the songs as emotional vehicles. There is a transformative aspect to the songs - they are hopeful rather than stuck in one man's emotional mire."

Smith joined Maximo Park three years ago for one reason: to be a rock'n'roll main man. Plucked from the obscurity of his instrumental art-school band, Me and The Twins, Smith had never sung on stage or written a song in his life. "I had no ambitions to be a singer-songwriter. I played guitar."

Now he reels off his lyrics as though they were poetry, without being tempted to water down his northern accent when he sings. This caused some confusion on tour in Germany recently.

"A journalist asked me why I was singing about tales of war, but I was actually singing about tales of woe," he recalls.

What distinguishes Maximo Park - who were nominated for the Mercury Prize last week - from the current conveyor belt of indie-pop bands that includes the likes of Kaiser Chiefs and Bloc Party, is Smith's larger-than-life persona. He is in the same vein as other proudly regional pop mavericks, particularly Sheffield's Jarvis Cocker and Manchester's Morrissey.

"I am a servant of the music and I've got no self- confidence outside of that," he says, modestly. "When I get on stage, I transform. I deliver the songs in a flamboyant way. The music filters through my body. I react physically to it and I leap around the stage in a suit making lots of gestures. There is an irony to it, of course, and I sing about emotions with a humour."

Smith, the 26-year-old son of a working-class family, grew-up in a small town called Billingham and attended art school in Hartlepool. He studied drawing and painting, finding himself drawn to "industrial landscapes for their strange beauty".

At Newcastle University he gained a BA in English Linguistics and Art History and an MA in The Americas: Histories, Societies, Cultures, at the same time as discovering and drawing inspiration from the work of the New York beat poet Frank O'Hara. He may have joined Maximo Park as a tyro style icon, but he clearly had the literary ability to take to song-writing like a duck to water.

But life can be pretty lonely at the top - Smith recalls a testing time when the rest of the band abandoned him by mistake in a hotel in Canada as they drove off to do a sound check before a gig in Toronto.

"It was a bit frantic because my mobile phone didn't work in Canada," he says, "and I couldn't call them to say they had left me behind."

He also describes watching Jean-Luc Godard films on the tour bus, while the rest of the band - Duncan Lloyd (guitars), Lukas Wooller (keyboards), Archis Tiku (bass) and Tom English (drums) - watch John Travolta.

Lloyd apart, the band studied at Newcastle. Smith only knew the drummer at the time and met the other members after they had left. English and Lloyd became care workers, working with people with learning difficulties in Newcastle, while Wooller worked in Telesales. Tiku is a qualified GP. "It is quite handy," says Smith. "He once took the stitches out of our tour manager's back."

Maximo Park's uptight and sharp sound still has romance at its core. "One of the few songs that is not about relationships is the b-side of 'Gone Missing', which is called 'A19'," says Smith. "It is named after a road that leads from Billingham to Newcastle. It is about being stuck in a place. If I had never travelled on that road, I would never have found new horizons."

Smith's love life is currently in limbo, but much of the material for his songs comes from his past experiences in relationships.

"They always say with first novels write about what you know, so that is what I've done with the debut album," he suggests. "The album is a map of my feelings. I have weaved together a web of emotions to make a rounded pop album with as many hooks as we can cram in without it becoming ridiculous."

Maximo Park signed to Warp Records, an experimental electronic dance label, in July last year. Warp's head Steve Beckett saw in the band and their strange-looking front man something of the vision he had earlier identified in Pulp - the record label established the Gift imprint specifically to release such Pulp classics as "Babies", "O.U." and "Razzmatazz".

Since being signed, Maximo Park have had three top 20 singles from their debut album, A Certain Trigger - "Apply Some Pressure", "Graffiti" and "Going Missing". They have just returned from Ibiza, where they played at Manumission, and are off to the Fuji Rock Festival in Japan this week; they also played at Glastonbury and Scotland's T in the Park festival.

"From day one we always said we have to give every last single drop of energy every night we play," the singer says. Smith even got a little nod from Liam Gallagher the other day in the BBC toilets, when the band were appearing on Top of the Pops. "He asked me how it was going," he reveals nonchalantly.

He also had a little chat with Natalie Imbruglia and he is on waving terms with McFly. "I am very pleased by the courteous attitude of other bands, from Bloc Party to The Futureheads," he says.

Lyrically, Smith has been influenced by alt.country acts Smog and Bonnie Prince Billy.

"They paint a lyrical picture," he says, a note of admiration in his voice. "It can be poetic but it is also stark. They are not afraid to write something quite brutal. A lot of pop music is about creating an image. I don't mind glossing over things with the way that we look, but the lyrics have to be honest. I am not frightened about showing my own faults in a song."

He quotes a few lines from "Gone Missing", the current hit single: "I sleep with my hands across my chest/ And I dream of you with someone else" ("It's about suspicion and jealousy rather than based on any reality"), and he is very proud of "Acrobat", another song on the band's debut album.

He dissects the lyrics as if discussing a great novel, and even plays it for me by way of illustration. "It begins with the amplified sound of the pages turning from my notebook before I speak the verse of the song about a girl catching a plane - 'I don't remember losing sight of your needs' - before the chorus, which then moves back into spoken verse with vivid descriptions of the sky: 'The sky is often used as a metaphor/ and I suppose that's because it's so big and expansive'."

Had he ever dreamed of being nominated for the Mercury Prize? "No, I was only in my first band for fun, but when opportunity knocked, I took it."

'A Certain Trigger' is out now on Warp Records (www.maximopark.com)

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