Looking back at their careers, most pop stars have a story that marks a turning point, an incident that set them on the path to where they are today. For Paul Smith, the 30-year-old singer of Newcastle quintet Maxïmo Park, his great moment came six years ago at a friend's birthday party when he performed a drunken version of Enrique Iglesias's schmaltz-fest "Hero".
"There was a covers band playing in a shed at the end of the garden," he recalls, cheeks flushing. "When they took a break they asked if anyone could play guitar, and someone shouted my name. "Hero" was massive at the time so I did the worst version I could manage. Everyone just stared at me and said, 'Wow, you can sing.' "
A week later, by chance, Smith was approached by Tom English, the drummer of Maxïmo Park, and asked if he would like to be the band's singer. Smith is sitting in an east London pub with the band's keyboardist Lukas Wooller, though Wooller rarely gets a word in. Smith likes to talk. His mind is an engaging jumble of memories, minor epiphanies and grandiose statements ("we are a band who live and die by our songs", he announces without irony). Far from the stereotype of the cynical, been-there done-that pop star, he has a wide-eyed, evangelical zeal about what he does. Still a fanatical pop fan, his conversation comes littered with references to artists that have moved him from The Blue Nile and Talk Talk to Bruce Springsteen. His passion is similarly apparent during live shows, where he grins, gurns and leaps around the stage with a heroic lack of self-consciousness.
We are here to talk about Quicken The Heart, Maximo Park's third LP, which Smith describes as "our most emotionally intense album yet". As the title would suggest, the overarching theme is love and romance. In "Calm" he reflects upon the easy silences of a long-term relationship, and in "The Penultimate Clinch" darkly mourns the waning of a love affair ("On my return I will smother you in everything I have learned until you turn blue"). In a startling change of tone, "Let's Get Clinical" finds Smith requesting to "go back to your house and finish the gin/In your dishevelled room we're gonna wash ourselves in sin".
"You can't really control what you write a song about, it's just what you have on your mind at the time," smiles Smith coyly. Asked if "Let's Get Clinical" reflects his current lifestyle, he lets out a sheepish giggle. "No, not so much. I was definitely involved in some, er, entanglements over the course of the last two records but I feel more calm and settled than I ever have. Where "Let's Get Clinical" is concerned, I'm not that kind of person, but I think everyone's got it in them."
In fact Smith maintains that his songs are drawn from a series of recollections studiously written down over the years. He pulls a dog-eared notebook from his bag.
"All these songs are moments that would have been lost in my mind had I not put them in here," he explains. "Some days you go out and play football with your mates and watch a movie, and other times you see or hear things that make you feel differently about the world. We live ordinary lives but there's plenty in them to celebrate and commemorate. These are the things that matter to me and when I sing about them I feel a little shiver."
It was Smith's way with words that marked Maxïmo Park out from their contemporaries when they first appeared in 2003 with their Mercury-nominated debut A Certain Trigger, an album which overnight raised them amid the ranks of their contemporaries Kaiser Chiefs, Futureheads and Franz Ferdinand. Smith's rich lyrical bent, combined with his be-suited, larger-than-life stage persona, lead to instant comparisons with fellow pop mavericks Morrissey and Jarvis Cocker. The album yielded three top 20 singles – "Apply Some Pressure", "Graffiti" and "Going Missing". Their follow-up LP, 2007's Our Earthly Pleasures, reached platinum status.
You have to wonder, however, what the future now holds for Maxïmo Park. When they rose to fame, guitar-wielding boys in the thrall of Eighties post-punk could do no wrong. Today guitar bands are out, the majority now derided by critics as "landfill indie", while eccentrically-coiffed girls with synths are in. So where does this leave Smith and co?
"Obviously we're five boys playing guitars so there's only so much we can do to shift that perception but I like to think we inject a little bit extra into our songs than the average band."
Smith pauses, thinks, and then begins again. "I like that thing where you feel like you're going into unknown territory. I think pop needs some of that, and that's where we come in. Whether it's the structure of a song, or a word or phrase that you haven't heard on the radio before, that is what we do. I think we challenge the medium of pop."
It's a philosophy that is echoed on Quicken The Heart. The opening track "Wraithlike" arrives as a declaration of intent, with Smith announcing "Here's a song that finally you can understand/A minor statement meant to counteract the bland."
Even so, you could argue that there's a discrepancy between Maxïmo Park's claims to push at the boundaries of pop and the influences they so clearly wear on their sleeves. Songs on Quicken The Heart, for instance, are audibly indebted to The Smiths, Gang of Four and Joy Division.
"I like to think that we create our own world using the foundations that are already there," argues Smith. "We are always going to be inspired by the bands that we love. The idiom that we've chosen is pop, it's the one that we know most about. If you hear echoes of great bands when listening to our songs, that's actually pretty cool."
Growing up in Billingham, south of Newcastle, Smith spent much of his teens writing and painting. At 18 he did an art foundation course, next came an art history and linguistics degree at Newcastle University, followed by a masters in American popular culture. His dissertation was on concepts of resistance in rap music.
Smith knew he wanted to write and he loved music, but it never occurred to him that the two could be combined. His first band was an experimental instrumental outfit, Me And The Twins.
Meanwhile, the nascent Maxïmo Park, then comprising Wooller, Duncan Lloyd, Archis Tiku and Tom English, were thinking of calling it a day. "We had been together for a year and a half but we'd all known each other for much longer," says Wooller. "There was no great plan. We just wanted to do something different from all the Oasis-influenced bands in Newcastle but we'd hit a brick wall. We were all around 24 or 25 and were working nine-to-five jobs. It was a struggle to keep it going." Smith becomes misty-eyed as he recalls English taking him to a pub and asking him if he wanted to join a band. Smith was working at a call centre at the time. As he saw it, he had nothing to lose.
"I was adrift," he reflects. "I was doing nothing in my life that I felt was worthwhile. I had no idea what it would be like to sing in a band but I thought, 'Well, I love music, let's see what happens.' Looking back, that was the single most important decision of my life."
A year later Maxïmo Park signed to the independent label Warp, home of electronic acts like Plaid and Autechre. It was an unlikely choice for a band distinguishable by its soul-baring lyrics and jagged guitars but it paid off.
Smith continues to take his role as songwriter, singer and de facto spokesperson for the band very seriously. "It's a real responsibility and it doesn't always sit comfortably," he admits. "When the guys first talked to me about what they wanted for the band they said, 'We need somebody to make people sit up and listen.' That's what I'm still striving to do."
Quicken The Heart is released on Monday on Warp Records. They tour from 13 to 28 MayReuse content