Midlake's second album, The Trials of Van Occupanther, conjures up a lost America, an 18th-century woodland paradise, back when the New World was new. With music redolent of early Seventies rock, from Neil Young to Bread, it equally recalls Henry Thoreau's New England back-to-nature treatise Walden (1845), and Huck Finn's rustic adventures. "Did you ever want to be over-run by bandits/ to hand over all of your things and start anew?" goes "Bandits", as romantic a wish as a rock song has made all year. This is Americana in its truest, broadest sense, with stellar fans including Thom Yorke, Beck and The Flaming Lips.
Listen to Tim Smith, this Denton, Texas band's singer-songwriter, talk though, and a different picture emerges. Because The Trials of Van Occupanther is also an album about exile, loneliness, and getting back to somewhere you feel you might belong. Its songs are fantasies of retreat, to a kinder, pastoral past. As the bearded, awkward Smith sits earnestly talking to me in an old east London pub, it becomes clear these deep desires are his own. More startlingly, despite making an album that seems so steeped in Americana, as he concedes its listeners keep telling him, his thoughts as he wrote it were far from his home.
"I don't think in terms of America," he says. "If anything, listening to classical music, which I love, I get images in my head of the 19th century in Europe, or England." Smith glances around him at this dusty pub, clearly as exotic to him as a rodeo might be to me. "You don't really get these kinds of bars in America There's some sort of romance in here. Those paintings behind us of horses, it puts your mind in another place. It's the same with classical music, or an old Andrei Tarkovsky film. There's such a huge difference, if you're just sitting around watching Big Brother all day, then you suddenly you open up some great masterpiece. It's some kind of magic that you can't talk about. Beauty, and some people get it and some people don't. But you see something, and just break down crying." So is it experiencing art that takes him into the other worlds his album pines for? "Yeah. And you wish you could live there all the time. It'd be nice, I could start dressing the same way as a Tarkovsky film set in the 13th century, and all the furniture could look like it. But," he reluctantly allows, "I don't think that would really work either."
Smith didn't grow up with great art around him. His Dad's Sgt. Pepper tape was the only music he heard growing up in a suburb of San Antonio, Texas, until sax lessons at age 10 led him into jazz. He painted too, skateboarding alone to parks, canvas in hand. Then he stumbled on Radiohead's OK Computer, at the Denton music college where he also met his Midlake bandmates. He listened to it obsessively for a year. You can hear its influence, and that of The Flaming Lips and Grandaddy, on Midlake's debut Bamnan & Silvercork (2004). But the new album's gestation took him further back, to the Neil Young of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969) and After the Gold Rush (1970), and early Joni Mitchell and Elton John. He stared at a picture he'd found of a woman in horseriding garb next to a gold tablecloth as he wrote, using it as a guide to make the album "a cohesive thing; if didn't sound like the picture, I didn't use it." The finished effect is wistful and elegiac, summoning up not only a long-past pastoral age, but early Seventies hippie communes, deep in California's canyons.
"I would love that sort of thing!" Smith says excitedly. "I've talked to the guys about having this Midlake compound, and we'd all live out there. We only really meet when it's time to record. But I think it would be really much nicer if we lived together, went over and borrowed sugar. I mean, I don't have that many friends. The guys in the band, those are my best friends I've ever had. I have this romantic vision that we could all hang out and have barbecues every Sunday evening. But it probably won't happen. It's like I sometimes think, 'Oh, I could be a monk.' But I'm not that extreme." So is it Midlake that's really his ideal society? "I would say so. My time in the band is the happiest I've ever been."
The songs on Van Occupanther deal with loners and outsiders, not least the title character, a self-sufficient yet paranoid scientist living on the outskirts of town, hounded by suspicious neighbours. It's hard not to think of the singer's own wistful wish for community. Are Occupanther and his fears really Smith's? "Sure. That everyone's going to be making fun of you for no reason, and you don't get it, and you just want to stay in your room? Yeah, I feel like that."
When Van Occupanther was almost finished, Smith and his wife emulated its lonely anti-hero, moving into a TV-less cabin in the woods outside Denton. The reality was far from his dreams. "We were bored out of our minds," he says, "so we've moved back to town. It sounds like a real romantic thing. But as much as I talk about it in the songs, it's very difficult to get out. It was a good experiment, because I had always thought I'd be totally at peace with everything. But I couldn't hang with it. I had to move back to civilisation."
Still, the album remains a monument to an imaginary rural past. On "Roscoe", Smith wishes he'd been "born in 1891" (birth-year of Prokofiev, a hero of his). "We Gathered in Spring" is still more mythically nostalgic, as he sings: "No-one lives to be 300 years, the way it used to be." Why does the past loom so large for him? "Everything is really good now," he concedes. "I like modern conveniences - transportation, the way you can talk to a friend in seconds. But a farm is more romantic to me than the streets of today. It is limiting, now I'm writing the next album. I don't know how much more I can find to say about all that. But to me pastoral things are still really beautiful. I can't see myself writing about modern society."
So it seems Midlake will be back with more gorgeous dreams of escape from modern America. Which leaves one last question; what exactly is Smith so desperate to escape from? "I get tired of hassling, day to day things," he tries to answer. "Whether its terrorists, or even walking into a bar and someone gives you a dirty look, and you just want to get away. As much as I try to evoke in the music being kind, and things going wrong but still trying to make it through, I very easily lose it and get furious. It's a scary thing. It's not just America; there's real darkness in most of us."
'The Trials of Van Occupanther' is out now on Bella UnionReuse content