Maximo Park interview: 'There are no answers on this album – but it's good to question the world we live in'

‘Those wild thoughts and extremes are what drive you to keep making music’

Neil Wood
Friday 21 April 2017 12:18

“We wanted to say something about the way the world is,” Maximo Park frontman Paul Smith says.

“If you see something and you think somebody needs to stand up for it – whatever issue it might be – then you should. There’s a responsibility as a citizen and as a human.”

We're sat in the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art on the banks of the River Tyne to discuss his band’s new album Risk To Exist.

The gallery is exhibiting Disappearance At Sea, which draws attention to the journey undertaken by migrants and refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea.

Its themes are close to Smith – and Risk To Exist’s – heart, and they reoccur throughout our conversation.

The first new song to enter the public sphere was the album’s title track: it laments the government’s reaction to the migrant crisis. All profits were donated to Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), a Malta-based foundation dedicated to preventing loss of life to refugees and migrants at sea.

“I read an article about MOAS and the impulse behind it,” says Smith. “It seemed devoid of politics and was responding on a humanitarian level. It relates to the exhibition that’s on here.

“Every person has their story and nobody would put themselves in that position if they didn’t feel desperate. It’s hard for these people to leave their home and feel displaced, never mind being a scapegoat for everybody’s problems.”

He articulates this subject at length, citing articles and art as he goes, and it is clear he is frustrated with how a song he wrote two years ago still remains relevant today.

“We have to be engaged as a country rather than being the island nation and turning our back on people,“ he says. “We are all connected. Our government is part of the world – we’re all linked. So you can’t say it’s nothing to do with us,” he says.

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Politically tinged lyrics are nothing new for Smith. After all, he writes about the world he lives in. But, without preaching, Maximo Park dig deeper on Risk To Exist, using personal stories and situations to represent broader issues of responsibility, empathy and togetherness.

On “The Reason I Am Here”, in which Smith adapts a line from a Lorca’s poem “Landscape of a Pissing Multitude” (‘We will have to make a journey through the eyes of idiots’), sees him tackle Brexit, identity and his decision to stay a resident of his native north-east.

“People say ‘who does feel European anyway?’,” says Smith. "Well I do. I’ve been connected to the art and literature of Europe. I accept a lot of people don’t feel like that in this country, but much of that will be fuelled by this base feeling of ‘who are these people to tell us what to do?'"

Elsewhere on the record, 'Get High (No, I Don’t)' sounds like a twisted and sultry salute to the Spencer Davis Group and deals with political leaders polluting the nation’s conscience with poisonous ideas and language.

“I’ll Be Around” – another early song to surface in this cycle – came about when Smith was staying above Berlin’s famous Hansa Studios. Its use of the phrase ‘a government that is out of touch’ set the agenda for the songs that would follow.

Smith's use of the G-word was not without considerable thought and, as a collection of lyrics, Risk to Exist carefully tows the line between the literal and the overbearing.

"That song is saying I won’t use these familiar clichéd allegories and metaphors," he notes. "There must be another way of writing about these things. In the end, the song’s answer is ‘I’ll be around for you’. It’s a solidarity song. It can be very intimate and personal."

But that notion of having answers is one that Smith is keen to dissect – not least because the album raises plenty of questions.

“There are no answers on this album,” he concedes. "But it’s good to question the world we live in. That’s what all art does and pop is art to me."

The record will be released almost exactly 10 years after the hugely successful Our Earthly Pleasures LP, and is evidence of a band refusing to rest on earlier successes. Instead, Maximo Park have subtly shape-shifted over time, flirting with varying genre and style.

Right from its opening seconds – the smooth, Stevie Wonder-style beat of “What Did We Do To You To Deserve This?” – it is clear they thrive on challenging themselves and their art.

“We had a number of different directions we could go in,” says Smith. And that is exactly what the album does: it twists and turns in different directions, referencing disco, groove and Eighties pop along the way.

There are flashes of influence from Prince, Roxy Music and Genesis, but the now-familiar Maximo Park core is central – the energetic, jagged hooks that punctuate their previous records – and from there the band branch off and explore new ideas.

Smith and co flew to Chicago in autumn having chosen to record with Tom Schick where, in between watching the Chicago Cubs make World Series history, catching Angel Olsen live and avoiding the “spiders, centipedes and interesting insects” they shared their Airbnb with, the band knuckled down in Wilco’s Loft studio for three weeks.

They recorded live, working with a horn section and roping in one of Smith’s all-time-favourites, Low’s Mimi Parker, who tracked five songs worth of vocals in one day.

"It was just weird hearing her talk," he says. "It’s like ‘the woman from Low is talking and I can hear everything!’ It was one of those dream-come-true moments."

Crucially, though, the album sounds like a band having fun. And that provides a perfect juxtaposing platform for the at-times-bleak political and social tones of Smith’s lyrics.

That light and shade is something Smith’s heroes do well – he talks about Fela Cuti, Red House Painters and Smokey Robinson as masters of the craft – and when put through the Maximo Park prism and packaged as an entity, the dynamic of sound and subject is Risk To Exist’s greatest asset.

Touring is next on the Maximo Park agenda – a string of UK dates will see them close Live At Leeds festival and take on Royal Festival Hall – but you get the sense Smith is already wondering which direction the band can go in next.

"It’s life or death when you’re in the moment," he says. "You’re thinking; if this is rubbish, how embarrassing would that be? But if this is great it could be the best song ever written.

"Those wild thoughts and extremes are what drive you to keep making music, and aim for this impossible perfection."

Risk To Exist is out via Daylighting now. Maximo Park play a special closing show for Live at Leeds festival on 30 April

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