Few bands have lost their creative leader and survived. That Midlake minus their singer-songwriter Tim Smith look set to add their name to Pink Floyd and Manic Street Preachers, instead of the far longer list headed by the post-Jim Morrison Doors, is a startling surprise.
Because the Texans’ much loved second LP The Trials of Van Occupanther (2006), which prepared the ground for the mainstream success of kindred Americana spirits Fleet Foxes, sprang wholly from Smith’s hermetic vision. Its pastoral songs were written by him while staring at a painting of a woman; any song which didn’t “sound like that painting”, he explained, was discarded. The sonic palette was drawn from early Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Elton John. Its torturously recorded follow-up The Courage of Others (2010) switched influences to English folk-rock, but Smith’s iron control of its content remained.
But during two years working on their fourth album, those restrictions squeezed the life from Midlake. Early this year Smith, their undisputed visionary, quit the band. Against all reasonable odds, six months later, a fine new Midlake album, Antiphon, had been recorded from scratch. And in August, guitarist Eric Pulido, now suddenly the singer-songwriter too, peered out at the crowd at Wales’s Green Man festival and yelled with relieved pride: “We’re from Denton, Texas. And we’re still Midlake!”
“In that moment and even now I want people to know that yeah, this is still Midlake, and maybe more Midlake than it ever was,” Pulido reflects, sitting with drummer McKenzie Smith in a west London hotel bar. “I hope I don’t have to shout it from a mountain-top – but in that moment in a festival, why not? It felt good.”
Antiphon is a looser and sometimes harder-rocking record than its predecessors, reflecting the band who played their last gig with Smith at 2012’s End of the Road festival, when they were more forceful than in the past, and Pulido was already singing at their stage-shy leader’s side. Antiphon’s second song, “Provider”, acts as a farewell. “‘Provider’ is about Tim, and my feelings towards him,” Pulido says. “It basically says to carry on, and that still I’m going to defend you and protect you. Even though I don’t necessarily agree, I still love you, and support what you want to do. What I hoped was that it was a loving send-off.”
The collapse of the rest of the band’s musical relationship with Smith was protracted and painful. As the sessions for a last album together which now seems unlikely to ever be heard dragged stubbornly on, they tried a Buffalo, Texas studio which had worked for them before, moved to LA, and retreated to Smith’s home. But the musical flaw they were trying to fix was within them.
“Making the new album our friendships were suffering drastically, it was becoming a very negative environment, and it wasn’t creative, it wasn’t inspiring,” McKenzie Smith says. “It was really quite the opposite. It was already deteriorating on The Courage of Others. Tim was already setting himself on a different trajectory. Tim’s favourite thing in the world is to write music, and record. And outside of that, he really had not much interest in doing anything else. Whereas the rest of us were really interested in playing around the world and getting all those experiences that only some people in life are ever afforded. And on this album, we already thought that if or when this ever gets finished, it is the last Midlake record. And that was bitter for all of us.”
Smith’s great strength, his singularity of vision, had become crippled by indecision. Midlake could no longer make the sounds he was hearing in his head, as the atmosphere in the studio became oppressive. Did recording become progressively more wearing, I ask? Because The Courage of Others also saw frustrating, trashed sessions.
“Progressively wearing is very accurate,” McKenzie Smith says, with feeling. “Yeah, that was the alternate title to The Courage of Others!” Pulido laughs. “It got harder and harder. But you felt that that was the MO. Work harder, and you’re going to get better. Somewhere along the way, we realised that’s not always the case.”
When Smith finally said he was leaving, the relief was mutual. What McKenzie Smith calls a “darkness” lifted, and the Antiphon sessions began almost instantly. Tim Smith and the band are great friends again now. But it ended so differently from the way he was feeling when I interviewed him for The Independent in 2006, and he told me: “I’ve talked to the group about having this Midlake compound, and we’d all live out there. It would really be much nicer if we all lived together, went over and borrowed sugar.” He concluded wistfully: “My time in the band is the happiest I’ve ever been.”
“There’s the fantasy, and then there’s the reality,” McKenzie Smith says, with weary wryness. “Wouldn’t it be fun if we all owned five farms that surrounded one another, and every morning we’d get up and walk down the patio and wave to him, and borrowed a cup of sugar, and then all day long played music, and everything was just a time of merriment and joy. But, you know...”
“I don’t think he or we would have enjoyed the reality of it as much,” says Pulido. “I don’t necessarily want to live on a commune with the guys, but I want to embrace what we have more than we have done in the past. It’s like, wait, we live in this town together, we’re friends, we make music together, we own a bar together, and we have a studio, wives, kids. That’s paradise to me, that we’re living in.”
It sounds as if they’re all actually closer to that communal ideal now. “I agree 100 per cent,” McKenzie Smith says. “It took Tim leaving for us to rally together, and we’re closer than we have been for years. Strange, isn’t it?”
‘Antiphon’ is out on Bella Union. The single “The Old and the Young” is out on Monday. The band tour from 20 to 27 February