MCKENZIE Smith knows he made the right decision. Last year his band, Midlake, parted company with their frontman and songwriter, Tim Smith (no relation).
The loss of a lead singer usually rings the death knell for a group. McKenzie and the rest of Midlake, however, were determined to continue. They respected Smith’s feelings, but they weren’t going to live or die by them. “It was a huge moment for all of us,” says McKenzie. “After Tim decided he couldn’t go on we sat down and had a long conversation. It was scary. At the same time we felt very passionately that we wanted to continue.”
If he’s being honest, Tim Smith’s departure was a relief. A classic soft rock crew from deepest Texas, Midlake were struggling to write material that excited them. After two years of toil in the studio, Tim Smith believed he had brought the project as far as he could. The moment he exited everything changed. An enormous weight had lifted.
“We felt very excited and very free,” says McKenzie. “We had worked forever on songs that never came together. Then, in six months, we recorded our new album. By our standards we were practically doing it at lightspeed.”
Smith’s departure left Midlake in need of a new singer. Rather than looking outside the ranks, guitarist Eric Pulido stepped forward. He had taken on an increasing percentage of vocal duties in concert anyway.
“It was a natural choice for us,” says McKenzie. “Honestly, we didn’t think about it very long. We just went and did it.”
Released next month, Antiphon is testament to the group’s fortitude and ambition. Cathartically fusing country rock and Radiohead angst, it chronicles a period of strife and intense creativity. For fans who had despaired of Midlake’s recent, much criticised ‘English folk’ phase, the LP will come as a surprise — and, more than that, as a blessed relief.
“After we had finished it, the thought occurred to us that we hadn’t told anybody that Tim had left,” says McKenzie. “For the first time we had a moment of … well, doubt is the wrong word. I think we were nervous as to how we would be received.”
They road tested the material on a short tour of Ireland and Wales, including stop-offs at Cork and Galway. “The crowds were fantastic — people were so welcoming. This is the happiest we’ve ever been on stage. I’m so proud of what we’ve done. Before it felt as if the band was falling apart. Now it’s like a new chapter.”
Midlake announced themselves to the world with 2006’s The Trials of Van Occupanther. Channelling their love for 1970s’ soft rock (Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours was a vivid influence), the record was simultaneously profound and catchy and it became an old fashioned word of mouth hit.
Hopes were high for the 2010 follow-up, The Courage of Others. But Tim Smith, an intense songwriter who favours the route less travelled, wasn’t interested in pandering to the new fan-base. He wanted to challenge it. So he delved deeply into his passion for late ’60s British folk revival. While the project that resulted had its fans, many were puzzled by the veer into flute solos and acoustic mandolins.
Was this the beginning of tensions within the ranks? “You want to keep pushing yourself,” says McKenzie. “We trusted Tim’s musical instinct. We believed in him. He is a talented guy. So it was like, ‘If it works, great’. We thought it would make sense. We all like folk music.”
Three years on, it is obvious that The Courage of Others did Midlake some damage. “It won us a lot of fans in Europe and Australia,” says Smith. “In America people couldn’t quite wrap their heads around it. That’s OK — British folk is not an area Americans are terribly familiar with. On the positive side, we were able to have a career in Europe with it. Nobody went into The Courage of Others thinking, ‘Tim you are making a big mistake’.”
One source of unhappiness was Tim Smith’s reluctance to tour. In their 30s, with families and mortgages, the rest of Midlake rely on the income from their live shows. “Tension is a weird subject. There is a lot of love in Midlake. We are a family, like brothers. It’s the funniest experience, to be in a band. It’s like being married — except you are married to five guys. You have moments of disagreement. It was clear to us Tim was less and less satisfied with his own songwriting vision and with the musicians that were ‘backing’ him up, though I wouldn’t use that word exactly. We were never a backing band.
“The music wasn’t coming out the way he wanted. We felt disappointed that we were letting him down. There was growing dissatisfaction. So we were working on this record and it wasn’t panning out and we know it was going to be a challenge to tour it.”
Some fans have wondered whether, having made a clean break, Midlake 2.0 shouldn’t have simply changed their name and started over. From a certain perspective it would be the honest course of action. Without Tim Smith is Midlake truly Midlake? “I understand that,” says McKenzie. “The fact is, we’ve worked a very long time to get where we are. To begin again would have been a huge challenge. We do this for a living. We have families to support. It’s hard enough to earn a living in music. You don’t want to make life even more difficult for yourself.”
* Midlake play Sligo Live on Friday
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