Paul Smith of Maximo Park: Soundtrack to my life (on shuffle)

Why the unpredictable nature of his iPod can provide a poignant personal backdrop
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The Independent Culture

It's night time in Newcastle, and the car parks are reduced to collections of glowing shapes, made pretty by the darkness. I can see slim girls kicking their legs through illuminated squares in the dead, new bricks of the local dance school.

I am surrounded by the detritus of my obsession with music. My new iPod and laptop are currently condemning my CD collection to redundancy, although I will remember the inlays fondly. Throughout my life I have been umbilically attached to the physical incarnations of the music I love. If even I am succumbing to these gadgets, then I think we can officially christen this a "digital revolution". Mind you, there's been a certain amount of necessity to this seismic change, due to the upheaval of my daily routine since Maximo Park's touring schedule means I live most of my life on the move. My resources are expanding but my ability to covet them is diminishing, hence my desire to crush my life into tiny boxes of metal and plastic.

Spending hours in front of a computer screen uploading songs is not my idea of fun, but it has its benefits, thanks to the wealth of songs now on my portable player. The most mundane of tasks can be transformed into uplifting, even transcendent experiences. There is a scene in the Lynne Ramsay film Morvern Callar where the title character, played by Samantha Morton, wanders around a supermarket with a dazzlingly good mix-tape on her Walkman. Anyone who has seen this isolated, otherworldly moment will understand how a random sequence of songs can surprise you and unexpectedly complement your activities. If I were a bad advert, I would probably say: "With a push of a button, I can now arrange for my songs to hit me in whatever order the machine decides."

On a trip to the sea at Tynemouth today, I took my iPod and allowed it to shuffle away to its (and my) heart's content. Thanks to the music, there was an added poignancy to the little grouping of kids in an alcove positioned a third of the way up the cliff face. Early January's greyness enveloped the coastline and cancelled out any remaining seaside charm, but there was a spirit about the cluster of kids with their hoods up against the wind; tiny sparks of flame visible as they got up to who knows what.

Meanwhile, Raekwon, from the Wu-Tang Clan, was rapping in my ears, beats thudding over samples from old-school kung-fu movies. I had no idea how apt it would be to have Mogwai's first album on my headphones as my calf muscles worked overtime to get my body up a steep, coastal hill while rain menacingly lingered above. There seemed to be a valiant struggle shared by the sound and the listener, borne out of the ponderous pace and the heaviness inherent in both activities.

The afternoon darkness escalated and I came across a decaying sand pit that had been usurped by rocks and puddles of sea water. A fence surrounding the cloggy patch had turned a violent, foul red, so I took a Polaroid photograph of it, before turning back from the beach and its tide.

I love taking Polaroids. There is an intimacy and beauty to this format that, I suppose, mirrors my love of records over faceless, streamlined MP3 players. I am whittling down my hundreds of photographs so that I can publish a book one day. Because it was so dark today, the ones I took were shaky and blurred. I saw some steps, with pale blue paint flaking from them, that stretched into the gloom, striped by puddles reflecting the last semblances of light. Nearby was a black metal cage containing very little, apart from an assortment of litter that had balled together into a papier-mâché lump. Its wiry frame stood still against the grassy slope like a useless torture device.

These are the items and scenarios that intrigue me; the more I look at them, the more they are invested with meaning. I enjoy documenting my surroundings in a way that is unique to me. It helps me make sense of the world around me. I hate things passing me by.

Some of my albums had been gathering far too much dust on the shelves before their current digital revival. I had almost forgotten about the John Denver tribute organised by Mark Kozelek, of Red House Painters, featuring Bonnie Prince Billy and Low, among others. Hearing Kozelek's lovelorn vocals coming out of my two tinny computer speakers singing "I'm Sorry" was a lovely but lonely moment. Denver's self-pitying lyrics ("I'm sorry for the way things are in China/I'm sorry things ain't what they used to be/But more than anything else, I'm sorry for myself... that you're not here with me") are full of loathing, regret and a bizarre clutching of straws in the midst of his loss. Kozelek has become the master of the transformative cover version, including acoustic albums of AC/DC and Modest Mouse songs, both of which amuse while calmly burying themselves in your head and your heart.

One of the things I hadn't considered was the length of some of the songs in my collection. Steve Reich's "Music For 18 Musicians" is one track long and runs at just under an hour. It unfolds gently, eventually becoming quite piercing, as is the tendency with minimalist compositions.

Terry Riley is also guilty of the sonic meander, along with Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Nina Simone, whose gospel version of "My Sweet Lord" goes through many different phases before climaxing at the 18-minute mark. While this may spoil the momentum of a run of pop songs, if the iPod is buried deep within your pockets, away from reach, the benefit is exposure to an artist who rarely gets selected when running your fingers across the spines of your pile of records. Oh dear, everything is starting to sound like a fetish object...

Apart from sifting through music, I've been recording stuff and listening back to it. Basically, musicians should work out whether their own material is worth listening to or not. We started our band with the belief that an artist should try to come up with original songs that added something to a world full of useless objects. Certain songs need a bit of work, and forcing yourself to listen to them helps to exclude the superfluous.

There's a new song of mine called "While You're In The Bath" that has a big gap at the start because I recorded it for two friends' art exhibition (The Set-Up) and they were filming it simultaneously. So, as soon as I start fumbling around to see if my record player is broken, I hear a clapperboard and my amateurish guitar-playing begins. I definitely need to sharpen up...

We've also just completed a new B-side called La Quinta which is quite intimate and works best on headphones. Recorded at home by Dunc, our guitarist, it uses a different kind of low vocal harmony, which I thought sounded like Squeeze, but the rest of the band told me I was insane.

Tom, our drummer, had bought a new percussion instrument with a long name, and I watched with great amusement as he tried and failed to control it. The recording is percussion-free, I should add, although, knowing Tom, by the next album he'll have mastered it and we'll be sounding like Steely Dan

Anyway, I have to switch off John Coltrane's A Love Supreme, which has been my accompaniment while writing, and venture outside to a jazz-free, city-centre street. Cheerio - Paul of the Park.

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