Midlake‘s McKenzie Smith talks with Siobhán Kane about their new album The Courage Of Others.
Bamnan and Silvercork (2004) had warmth, and The Trials of Van Occupanther (2006) contained depth, but Midlake‘s third record The Courage of Others illustrates something even more worthwhile, that they are still searching. The writing and recording was a lengthy, sometimes difficult process, but the result is an intriguing kind of receipt detailing the toll of life’s experiences and the struggle to create something meaningful, and while there are moments of glorious inspiration, especially in terms of experiments with vocals and harmonies, the record is mainly a testament to hard work (they have also just completed producing their friend John Grant’s new record Queen of Denmark) with quite romantic results, as drummer McKenzie Smith tells Siobhán Kane.
It took three years for this record to evolve, can you describe how it eventually came together?
It was a painstaking, thorough, and rough first year. We originally planned it to happen over one year, and we were working on stuff, but it just wasn’t coming together, and it would start to get to the awkward point where people were asking us, and hanging out, or passing through town, wondering what we had come up with and we had to admit that we felt we had nothing. Basically we knew we didn’t want to repeat ourselves, and of course make the record better than the last one. Then after a while Tim came up with ‘Acts of Man’, and we got that together in a matter of days, and we thought it sounded okay and felt we had some kind of reference point, a benchmark.
Sometimes that is all you need, and the legacy was there from the last record, since the song ‘The Courage of Others’ originally started life as a potential b-side from the last record and ended up on this album and as the title.
I know, we liked it so much that we decided to save it for the new album, and then it ended up becoming the album’s title, you just never know. We have actually recorded many different versions of the song, maybe one day we’ll release them.
That song actually leads into unusual territory, at first it seems like it will be a call to bravery, but it is an acceptance by that person that he can never be brave and have what he truly wants, – ‘I will never have the courage of others/ I will not approach you at all/ I was always taught to worry about things/ All the many things you can’t control‘, it is heartbreaking, and sets the tone for the entire record.
That is why it had to be on this record, that was the mood, the feeling, it’s not the happiest message! [laughs] It is definitely a darker record than the last one, some albums just feel heavy, don’t they? It was just a feeling that came from the whole process, and we were listening to a lot of heavy, dark records at the time, perhaps subconsciously we were thinking ‘okay, let’s steal that’. After we came home we were looking for inspiration, and found it from so much vinyl and we immersed ourselves for a long time into simply listening.
Some British folk bands of the late sixties/early seventies in particular seem to resonate with you.
Yes, that period really appeals to us, and certain bands in particular like Steeleye Span, Pentangle, Incredible String Band; we kind of stumbled into pockets of music and kept making playlist after playlist, it was like this other world, then one band led to another band – we all loved it, responded to it, and none of it felt overplayed, it was like we had discovered a hidden world, there was and is this whole wellspring to draw from; the style, the instruments, the influence.
The artwork also seems to be informed by that particular period, for example, the photograph from ISB’s ‘The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter’, or Steeleye Span’s ‘Hark! The Village Wait’, there is an eeriness and strange light in the artwork.
It’s very present, Tim in particular often responds to artwork when he is rooting around and looking for records; most of the stuff he buys is based on the artwork. At home we have a shop called Half Price Books and they literally have rows and rows of records and books for a dollar each, it’s so easy to just go in and scoop up fifty at a time. The artwork from some of those records, and of those bands is amazing and dark and intriguing, and Tim, like with the last records, does the artwork for the band as well, so once we had the tone of the record, which is much darker; the artwork followed.
How hard is it as a drummer to contribute to the creativity of the band, since Tim essentially leads the way, and has a very clear vision?
It’s a curious thing, for sure, I think that it ends up being the right thing, but you have to get over your pride. Tim has been the executive producer since almost the beginning, and I suppose after a few years we unofficially elected him the leader of the band, perhaps you need one, as you’re all trying to be heard, but at the end of it you are a team, and to somehow navigate, he is a good captain of the ship, it works better than the alternative. Though when we first started work on this record, Tim said that he wasn’t sure if we were going to have drums at all, and I was like ‘uh-oh, I am unemployed’, and I was worried, but as time went on a ton of drums went on the record, so I was pretty relieved.
You were also working with Annie Clark [St. Vincent] on her second record ‘Actor’ around the time of recording ‘The Courage of Others’, that must have been an interesting respite.
I love working with Annie, she is so talented, and it was a massively different experience and a break to work with her. When I got the call we had been working on the Midlake record for two years, I then went to work with Annie and all in all it took around five days. With St. Vincent it was very loose, a group effort, me, her and her producer and I would try out different things and it would be yes or no and then I would go away, and every couple of weeks when she needed more stuff I would go in again.I was the only one that really got that kind of creative break, and it happened several times with Annie, so it was great.
How did you feel when you completed the record, and started rehearsing it? It must have been strange to start touring again.
We finished the album in October, and after a week or two went straight into rehearsing for six weeks, and then the shows started. We started with smaller cities, places we might have never been before, it eased the pressure and also introduced us to some people who may have never seen us before. It was great to get us used to playing live again, we have expanded to seven members for live gigs, and we are playing more to our strengths, I think, but we had to get used to it. You have to have a different mindset when you know you are going to be on a year of touring, you have to gear yourself up. Mainly this time we are doing it where we have a three week period of touring, and then home for a week, it makes it a lot easier. We really did it hard early on, before we had any fans, it was pretty bad, at least people now show up to our gigs [laughs].
Midlake play Vicar Street on Sunday 14th February. ‘The Courage of Others‘ is out now on Bella Union.