Midlake: Out Of This World

This year's Splendour Of The Grass, as pricey as it appears, boasts one of the biggest and greatest line-ups in recent history.


Fans will be delighted to note that Texan five-piece Midlake are set to take to the festival stage, returning to Australia following the release of their latest record – The Courage Of Others – well and truly establishing the troupe as premier indie artists. One might be surprised, however, to learn how significantly band has evolved since its formation.


There was at least one record that had a few spins early on.


"In '99, we were discovering OK Computer I think, but up until then we'd been in jazz school, listening to a lot of jazz – 50s and 60s beebop," recalls bassist Paul Alexander. "We were listening to more rock and pop music - just starting to – so we made the transition from being jazz students into a rock band. From a jazz perspective, the logical thing you did was to move towards the 70s."


Whilst earning some critical acclaim in the release of their first record, Bamnan And Silvercork, with rising popularity across Europe, it would take their sophomore album to strike gold. The Trials Of Van Occupanther proved a distinct departure from their lo-fi, psychedelic pop-influenced debut and simultaneously thrust Midlake into the limelight. But as Alexander modestly reveals, the release of the record was business as usual.


"We sort of expected no one to care about it. We just made what we wanted to at the time. It seemed kind of gradual I think at the time from when it came out to when we finished touring. It was a steady progression over the course of a year and a half from going from an opener to a headliner. That was really cool," he explains. "But I don't know how much of an impression it made on us at the time. I think in retrospect we feel pretty fortunate that we were able to make what we made and people were interested in it."


Alexander, off the back of Van Occupanther, paints Midlake as a force of pure stoicism. When pressed as to the ideas and approaches towards their follow-up effort, The Courage Of Others, the bassist remains as diplomatic as ever.


"Essentially our intentions are the same on every album, to make the best album that we can and just try to be... we were trying to be honest, but that sounds kind of stupid. We were hard on it. If our music wouldn't wind up in our own CD player, then its not very good. If I wouldn't listen to it then we're not going to keep it," Alexander states.


"That's a constant thing about us. We're quite critical of our music. I think starting out we never had a full concept of what we were going to do. We started recording and we thought 'It's not a big enough step for the band'. Some of our fans would have preferred that we released what we were originally recording. But we didn't feel like it was a solid enough step for the band, so we scrapped all of that."


And The Courage Of Others – released four years after its predecessor – was, indeed, a record of much deliberation for the band. Alexander confirms as much, and above all, he's just proud that its finished.


"That was a hard album to make. It was a good thing for us. I feel like it's providing us with another album to make. It was quite a transitionary album, so it was an important thing for us creatively. It was a whole lot of fun to make. It was good when some of our goals were being achieved. We're lucky in a sense with our label that they're not telling us 'you have to do this, you have to do that' . We're quite fortunate in that regard."


It's this kind of creative control that, without question, every artist cherishes. Midlake were enabled to do things their way – and often, according to Alexander, it all begins with front man Tim Smith.


"One of the classic ways we would get a song together is that Tim would generally have a basic progression and a melody - an initial feeling of a song – and we'd sort of start playing that together and see if we can capture a feeling," he divulges.


"But a lot of times he wouldn't write lyrics until he felt like they were good songs, until the whole band and an arrangement was starting to happen."


"It's backwards sometimes to a lot of songwriters but I have a feeling that next album we'll probably do something different. We always seem to start trodding on whatever we've just done," the bassist laughs.


Midlake displays notable consistency in at least one crucial aspect of their craft, their music is caked with beautiful imagery - from forestry to animals to bandits to hunters. And with Smith's recent immersion in the heydays of British Folk, the stylistic components of the band are as important as ever.


"It's deliberate for me, the cohesion between the musical content and the way the album art is. It has to do with this imagined place that we hope our music is residing in. When you make something you've created a world somewhere. Whatever you create, you create a place where that exists. In this creative place there's this sort of fictional existence, where something's commonplace: that's the world where everything sounds like that or everything looks like that," Alexander explains.


"I feel like these ideas, visual ideas... try to reflect this place that we don't see on earth very much. We want to see it, we feel like maybe it's here, but it doesn't feel like its here in 2010."


With a brand new record and tours of North America and Europe ahead of their eventual appearance Down Under, 2010 is shaping up to be a busy one for Midlake, with much to look forward to. A mention of Splendour In The Grass prompts Alexander to muse upon the band's festival experiences.


"Usually there's a pretty good crew working there, you get a lot of help. And you get a chance to play, usually, for a lot of people, and in our experience a lot of people who don't always listen to our music or are familiar with us. So it's an opportunity. Though sometimes that's not a good thing because they may not care at all, and you think 'Why am I here? Jesus!' Sometimes its kind of nice just to hang out with other people."


Either way, Midlake are in for a warm reception upon their return to our shores, their sideshows selling out as quickly as you can say Van Occupanther. It would seem, then, that ten years on from their days spent studying jazz, the future is as bright as ever.

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