Interview: Maximo Park
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The last time Maximo Park spoke to The National Student, it was 2005, just before releasing indie-disco favourite ‘Apply Some Pressure’. Two years on, on the eve of their heavier second album, Our Earthly Pleasures, drummer Tom English tells magazine of their whirlwind success and how they’re not set on stopping any time soon.
The Newcastle indie-rockers are currently working their way round a busy schedule and their ‘every day lives’ to talk to press to promote the new album.
Despite feeling ‘fuzzy-headed’, he’s chatty, charming and surprised at the amount of attention the band are currently getting.
“Every day is press at the moment, it’s incredible really. Someone has been doing an interview at all times since about a month ago, it’s amazing - I didn’t know there were so many journalists out there, it’s scary!”
In two years, Maximo Park have seen huge success and Tom has a refreshingly un-jaded view of this.
“It’s been amazing, we’ve been around the world a couple of times, we’ve recorded another album and our lives have changed forever - no looking back either.”
Their debut record, A Certain Trigger, was released in the flurry of angular, art-rock new-wave revival and was distinctly of the time. Even then, however, it was head and shoulders above their contemporaries, most of which’s albums now seem dated in comparison. A Certain Trigger hasn’t suffered at all from age - how come?
“Maybe because we didn’t really know we were of the time. We weren’t consciously trying to be of the time. I think everybody fell in love with the idea of this second new wave and critically it’s very easy to put a tag on stuff like that. Whilst we’re into as many new waves as the next guy, we didn’t really intend to go for the particular sound or any particular idea of belonging to a scene or a movement. We’ve always operated in a very quirky and different way to everyone else and I think that songs-wise we do try and write, although it’s a stupid thing to say, ‘timeless’ music.”
“While we do comment on our own lives the songs reflect the present day in that we’re living the life that the songs are about, especially Paul [vocalist], and we’re not very fashion conscious or even that interested in being perceived as ‘peculiarly British’, even though we obviously are. We’re all more into American music as a song writing base than any particular tradition in British music. That was a very long answer, I apologise!”
No apologies necessary! Back then it was the ‘new wave’, now, as they are a band with keyboards, is there a chance Maximo Park will this time round be classed amongst the ‘new rave’?
“Yeah, I’m already very fatigued by that one. It was something very convenient for the NME to latch onto and they’ve obviously made a great fuss about it. The Klaxons are a very interesting new band but to pin an entire new musical movement to it is a bit conceited really. Electro-clash and punk and dance crossover’s been going for a very long time, it’s not a new idea and I don’t think it’ll be the last time it happens either.”
So, now you’re going back into it, what do you think of the current music scene?
“At the moment we are kind of caught up in a wave of second albums from the school of 2004/2005 and it’s interesting to see how the other guys out there responded to what happened two years ago, but we’re not that interested in what’s going on around us. When we go to a festival we get a chance to go out and watch some other bands and get an idea of what everyone’s doing all at once, but most of the time we’re just doing our thing fairly separately from that.
“Funnily enough though, I read the NME today which I haven’t done for a very long time, not that I’d use the NME to judge everything that’s going on. There’s a massive demand for live music now which is excellent for us and I think record companies must be signing more bands than they used to because there seems to be a new band every ten minutes and they seem to be getting younger all the time as well, like The Kooks and The View. I’m impressed with the Arctic Monkeys because they’re coming back so strongly and whilst there are a lot of bands coming out of no-where, some bands will stick around for a good reason and that’s that they’re a good band. Hopefully it will be the same for us.”
All the singles taken from A Certain Trigger were contenders for single of the year and latest single, ‘Our Velocity’, is definitely one of the best singles of 2007 so far - was it always the obvious choice for first single?
“We always knew it was a distinctive tune and that it would be a single but we didn’t know it’d be the first until relatively recently. We do have quite a few to choose from for singles which is a great situation to be in. One guy at Warp [their record label] is saying we should release ‘song x’ and we say ‘what about song y?’ and then the radio people will go ‘we like song z’, so it’s great - we’ll probably end up releasing them all eventually! Actually I hope not, people will get tired of us.”
Maximo Park were the headline act on last year’s NME Shockwaves tour, playing with The Arctic Monkeys and We Are Scientists. Musically the shows had much harder and intense edge than the shows they played when they first broke - has this carried on to the record for the ‘Smiths meets Smashing Pumpkins’ sound you wanted?
“Yeah, we’ve become a bit more of a rock band since we released the last album. We’ve done quite a lot of big shows and we’ve harnessed that and put it on record. A lot of people would come up to us and say ‘you’re so much better live than you are on record, what are you doing?’ and whilst we didn’t think like that, we took it seriously enough to make this record more like a live show in terms of heaviness.”
“I think Smashing Pumpkins are a good band to refer to because they’ve got a really deliberately brutal recording sound and it’s really drum-heavy and they’re not afraid to use a big Marshall amplifier, whist still being a non-clichéd rock band. You need to prove there are ways of rocking that aren’t clichéd by creating your own style and still unashamedly rock somehow. It’s a funny thing to say we wanna rock like it’s 1992 and Nirvana have just come out, but because of the age we are, our era of rock is more grunge than the ‘70s, where everyone thinks of Led Zeppelin or Motorhead. There are other forms of rock out there that rock as well and hopefully we’ve come up with a new one.”
Speaking of The Smashing Pumpkins, they are one of the scores of bands who have re-united and returned to playing live recently. Are you looking forward to it?
“I am actually. A lot of bands are doing it, looking to cash in on their retirement fund but as long as they do it well, then I’m all for it. I’d love to see them live because I never got to see them live first time round.”
Magazine however would like to point out here, bitterly, that in 2000, good money was forked out to see the Pumpkin’s on their ‘last ever tour’, and now they’re back.
“Ah, scumbags! I’m sure they weren’t planning to come back, but their bank manager must have given them a few harsh words.”
The band’s American alt-rock influences range far and wide, which is why it was a dream come true to work with Gil Norton, producer of, among other things The Pixies’ Doolittle album and The Foo Fighter’s The Colour & The Shape. What was it like working with Gil?
“It was great. He’s a top guy, he kind of joined the band for a while which is what a good producer should do, rather than being an important person behind the glass. We really got close to him and he’s done some pretty massive records in the past and it was hard to calm down about that.
“Also the studio we were in is where The Cure recorded Disintegration which is one of my all time favourite albums and just knowing that was recorded in the very room we were in and knowing that Gil had worked on Doolittle you can get a bit staggered by that, but he gave us the confidence to do what we did. I’d recommend him to any other band who wants to pull one out the bag!”
They were obviously impressed with him then, but what did he think to them?
“I think we were a refreshing change for him. We’re quite an odd bunch of guys and a bit younger than bands like Feeder and The Foo Fighters, who he’s worked with lately. We wanted a cruder sound than what he’s accustomed to since he stopped working with The Pixies - we wanted to get that raw, ripped and powerful sound he got with them more than with what he’d done since. We wanted to roll back the years and blow a few cobwebs away for everyone. He came up to Newcastle for two weeks before we did the album and went out with us a lot, which I think wore him out, because he stopped coming out when we got back to London!”
A huge strength of Maximo Park’s songs is singer Paul Smith’s straight-forward, heartfelt and intelligent lyrics. Have the new songs still got the personable lyrics or have they become more abstract?
“Definitely the former - Paul does like metaphysical stuff but for the lyrics he’s very much concerned with the personal. If you’re going to be that honest and direct then you can’t really do it through abstract or woolly lyrics, you’ve got to say what you’ve got to say. I think Paul is unique in the way he does that - he’s a very direct kinda guy.”
At this point, Tom breaks off to say goodbye to his landlady who was visiting his flat. Ever the professional and experienced interviewee, he apologises and gets back to the question…
“Yeah, Paul’s lyrics do work and it’s not because he’s trying to say something bland and universal in the way that Johnny Borrell might write a lyric, but people still seem to connect to it. It’s obvious really, the more honest and direct you are, the more people are going to connect.”
From now until October, the band are playing almost constantly all over the globe, including a UK tour in April - are you looking forward to playing the new songs?
“Yeah, we’ve been sitting on this album for nearly six months now and we’re desperate to get it out there. Playing it live in particular because there’s no point playing songs no-one’s heard, but once the album’s out we’re really excited about playing the new stuff.”
The shows have always been a little more than just a concert. There’s a huge intensity and rush of every band member giving it their all and massive choruses, interspersed with Paul Smith either jerking about the stage with his distinctive dancing, or reading poetry, book held aloft. What can we expect from the shows these days?
“Drama. High drama, but in a groovy kind of way. We try and make each song as heavy and intense as possible but I think with the new material there’s still a sense of humour and we like people to have a good time rather than go mental moshing. Whilst that’s good fun you want to entertain people with the music as well as the whole physical experience of the gigs. A band like us fifteen years ago would never get the crowds we get now but because so many people go to gigs now, a lot of them just go mental. That’s great but we want people to really get into the music too, maybe that means calming down slightly…I don’t know, maybe not, I shouldn’t really encourage anyone to calm down!”
The prospect is an inviting one, but probably not one that will catch on.
Over the last few years the band have done a huge amount, from playing Moscow and China to having features on BBC Two’s The Culture Show and everything in-between. Do you take it all in your stride or does it just seem crazy?
“It does seem crazy sometimes. When we were in China we literally have a video camera on us the whole trip. There wasn’t a moment we weren’t being Maximo Park. We are always performing or representing who we are. I’m not complaining, but there’s always a lot of cameras and a lot of journalists - a lot more than what we’re used to now. It can be a little bit on top from time to time when you get a reality check, like when you go home or you see yourself on TV and you think ‘Christ, that’s a bit odd’.
But, it’s part of what we do and we’re very keen to do all these things. We realise to have this opportunity is a very special thing so we’re not going to get too complacent about it.”
Let’s hope not, as Maximo Park are one of the sharpest and interesting bands we have right now, and judging by the new material, they’ll be around for a long time yet.
As Tom has to dash for more promotion work in Edinburgh, finally, what are his earthly pleasures?
“Sake at the moment, the Japanese wine - that’s pretty earthly, it’s made from rice. Hopefully people won’t take the title the wrong way and think that we’re just being smutty, there’s more to life than smut - sometimes!”
And with that, he’s off to do some more work, promoting one of Britain’s best bands.