Radiohead clones clogged the galaxy at the turn of the millennium, but few have come into their own like Midlake. The Texas group humbly set the stage in 2001 with its debut EP, Milkmaid Grand Army, which was actually as much Mercury Rev as it was OK Computer. After a growth spurt in the form of 2004's Bamnan And Slivercork—for which celebrity fan Jason Lee directed a video—leader Tim Smith and crew quietly unleashed last year's The Trials Of Van Occupanther. Suddenly, Midlake's bubbling psychedelia had become a bucolic, concept-heavy stew of indie-pop, folk, and the moodier end of the '70s rock pantheon. The accolades piled up, and 2007 saw the band handpicked to tour with The Flaming Lips, while Smith was asked to sing on The Chemical Brothers' new We Are The Night. The day after starting work on Occupanther's follow-up—tentatively titled The Courage Of Others—Smith spoke with The A.V. Club about navigating acclaim, recycling "Suicide Is Painless," and the specter of Radiohead.
The A.V. Club: From an outside perspective, it seems like Midlake popped up out of nowhere to instant acclaim. Did all the attention feel sudden to you?
Tim Smith: In some ways, because nothing happened on our first album, really. We've been a band for eight or nine years now, so there were six or seven years of trying to make it and trying to be known. Things did happen gradually. It's awesome that lots of people still haven't heard Occupanther and are just now discovering it. I don't want to mention any bands, but we're certainly not that band that blew up or anything.
AVC: Slow and steady wins the race?
TS: Yeah. I feel like we've paid our dues in a lot of ways. We've come a long way.
AVC: Midlake's origin as a jazz-funk band gets mentioned a lot. Do you think that has any relevance to what it's become?
TS: Certainly we wouldn't sound the way we do now if we hadn't had that as a foundation. We did try to get away from that sound, but I'm sure it's still there.
AVC: How so?
TS: Jazz musicians want to use all these complex chords and progressions, but it's just not that way with popular music. You want three chords. It just feels better. On Occupanther, I think there are three songs that only have two chords. [Laughs.] It's very simple stuff. That was something we fought against, putting too many chords in our songs and making it complicated. As a jazz musician, you want to show off, in a way, but this is a totally different style of music. We had to weed that type of thinking out. It took me a long time not to be hindered by my jazz thinking. Sometimes I wish I had picked up a guitar instead of a saxophone when I was 10, and really been into Sex Pistols or something, gone a different route. I'm not sure where I'd be right now, but it certainly wouldn't sound the same.
AVC: You're very open about admitting you didn't know much about indie music when you formed the band. Do you think that fresh approach was a benefit at all?
TS: No, I don't think it was. I felt like I didn't have my homework done. It took me a long time to catch up, and if I had started my homework when I was a teenager instead of when I was 23, then I wouldn't have had to go through all the mess we've gone through in the last seven years to learn how to write a song. [Laughs.] I had to do lots of homework: Radiohead was a huge influence, and Björk. A lot of those big bands. Then you realize, "Oh, there are a ton of underground bands, too." Then you get into Grandaddy and The Flaming Lips. I just hadn't heard that stuff, but it was needed.
AVC: There's a real sense of innocence and giddiness to your early releases, like a little kid with a new toy. Did it feel that way at the time?
TS: Not really. I've always been very down on my songwriting. It's always been a struggle. Back then, I would like my songs for maybe a month, then I would think they were trash and get on with something else. The Milkmaid EP was kind of a lesson. There are so many different influences on there: Radiohead, Rufus Wainwright, Clinic. We hadn't quite found out who we were. It was just something we had to go through. Looking back, that EP is like a bad diary.
AVC: The Radiohead influence seems to be fading with each Midlake release, but the middle two songs of Occupanther—"Branches" and "In This Camp"—still have that sound.
TS: Yeah. The beginning of "Branches" has a section like that. It has to do with my voice—I can't get away from the Thom Yorke thing. It also has to do with that chord progression. And in the middle of "In This Camp," there's this section that gets a little heavy—well, for us it's heavy. [Laughs.] That part was very debated when we were in the studio. We were like, "Wow, this really sounds like Radiohead." We have thrown away lots of ideas for that reason: We don't want to get called a Radiohead rip-off band. I think Radiohead is a lot closer to my natural tendencies as a songwriter than a band like, um, Jethro Tull. I listen to way more Jethro Tull than I do Radiohead these days, but I could write 10 Radiohead songs before I could write one Jethro Tull song. I want to sound more like Jethro Tull, but I just can't. That's a big struggle.
AVC: There are a lot of rumors about the guys in Radiohead being Midlake fans. Is there any truth to that?
TS: No, no. The first time I read that, I was blown away. As far as I know, though, they don't know who we are. I think it was just somebody at NME who said that in some article, and it kind of started from there. Certainly none of us has told an interviewer that, and our publicist never said that. That would be awesome, though. Two of the guys in Midlake met two of the guys in Radiohead, maybe it was Ed and Colin, and they said, "Hey, we're in this band, Midlake." But they had no clue who we were. [Laughs.]
AVC: Speaking of celebrity fans, how did Jason Lee become a champion of the band?
TS: He's a fan of Cocteau Twins, and the bass player of Cocteau Twins [Simon Raymonde] is the president of our label [Bella Union]. Jason had always been in contact with Simon, and Simon sent him our first album. Jason really liked it, and said he wanted to meet us and do a video for us. We met him at South By Southwest three years ago, I think, and he was very, very nice. He's written articles about us and taken photos of us. He came to [guitarist] Eric Pulido's wedding a couple of months ago. He's just a good friend now.
AVC: You've also got fans in The Chemical Brothers. How did your collaboration with them come about?
TS: It wasn't as much of a collaboration as people might think. I didn't go to England to do it. I never met with them. I never talked to them on the phone. They sent me the backing tracks through my label and said, "Pick one of the two tracks and write the lyrics and the melody, then sing over it." I knew who The Chemical Brothers were, but I had never really listened to their music. I borrowed some CDs from a buddy of mine and got familiar with their stuff, and then I just wrote my part in my living room in about a week. I recorded it and sent it back to them, and I guess they liked it. [Laughs.] That was basically it. I think it was quite nice how it worked out—very simple, very easy. I picked the one track that felt more like a Björk song. I could totally hear Björk singing over it, so I felt like it would be more up my alley.
AVC: How does it feel to get such high-profile attention?
TS: I can't believe it sometimes. I think people are lying a lot of the time, but I guess they're not. It feels really cool, and that feeling lasts for about two minutes. When you hear something bad, that's what stays with you. Earlier on, I would look online to see what people were saying, just to try to boost my esteem or something. I wanted to see if I was on the right track, but that's stupid, you know? There have been times when someone was dogging us, and I'd say, "Hey, he's right." I tend to stay offline now. [Laughs.]
AVC: The leap from Bamnan to Occupanther, especially the shift to an overt '70 sound, probably stunned a lot of people. Did it seem like a big departure to you?
TS: We knew that it was a departure. In the studio, we'd step back every once in a while and say, "Wow, this is quite different. I wonder what people are going to think." While we were recording it, though, it felt normal—'70s music was pretty much all we were listening to. We had all the old vinyl up around the room while we were recording, for inspiration. If we put on something, it would be Fleetwood Mac or Jethro Tull or Neil Young or Joni Mitchell. I was listening to Occupanther the other day—I had to check the mastering for the vinyl—and I hadn't listened to it in months and months. It really struck me how different it sounds than most modern indie bands. We weren't trying to rip the '70s off, though; we were just living in that world at the time.
AVC: Why '70s music?
TS: I hadn't really listened to that music before, so it was a hidden thing. I heard America whenever I was in college, but at that time, it didn't really mean that much to me. And I had heard Elton John, of course. But after making Bamnan, that music really spoke to me. I don't know why—it just hit me. It seemed more honest, very emotional. There was a quality there that I don't really hear in a lot of modern music, and I can't really pinpoint it. I don't know if it's just nostalgia, but that's why Occupanther sounds the way it does. We weren't like, "Oh, let's get this '70s thing going." We were just trying to be honest and bring something of ourselves to it.
AVC: "Roscoe" was the song that got many people into Occupanther. Do you remember its genesis?
TS: Like most songs, it was an accident. It wasn't some magical thing, like, "Yeah, that's golden!" On that particular day, there was a baby grand piano in the living room. We were borrowing it from someone, and we only had it for a few days. I was screwing around and came up with the riff, and I immediately thought, "That's M*A*S*H! That's the theme song from M*A*S*H. It's very beautiful. I wish I could use this." I recorded the riff on a tape real quick and put it away. Several weeks later, I came back to it and thought, "Man, this can be a Midlake song. It doesn't have to be the M*A*S*H theme song."
AVC: A lot of people have picked up on that similarity.
TS: Yeah, everyone has. But there's a song that Jethro Tull does called "Budapest" that has the same kind of riff. "Wind On The Water" by Crosby & Nash has the same kind of riff. It's used a lot. When I showed it to the guys, I was a bit worried it might sound too much like Radiohead, but Paul assured me it sounded more like Fleetwood Mac. [Laughs.]
AVC: The lyrics to "Roscoe" are also immediately striking, particularly your phrasing and imagery.
TS: It definitely has that feeling of escapism, of wanting to live in a different time and be a different person. Not being satisfied with the way things are. I didn't plan that. I guess I must just be like that.
AVC: Where does that escapism come from?
TS: The easy thing to say is that I enjoy classical music. I enjoy Renaissance paintings and medieval paintings. All of those put images in your head. When I listen to Prokofiev or Rachmaninoff, it's not the hardened streets of New York. It's out in the woods or something. That's my happy place. There's a real longing to be in that place, but people hardly ever get there. You get up and go to work instead.
AVC: What is it you're trying to escape from?
TS: I don't know. I guess there's a lot to escape from, but that's not solving the problem, right? I probably shouldn't be preaching that to people. [Laughs.] That's just the way I deal with a lot of things. I don't get involved in politics. I think most people who argue about politics don't really know enough about it to be arguing.
AVC: Yet you reference a very political book, Hobbes' Leviathan, in your song "Head Home."
TS: I didn't mean to. I was reading a poem called "Leviathan" at the time; I can't remember the author. It was just there on my desk, so I thought I'd use it. I didn't even know about the [Hobbes] book until someone brought it up to me. I guess I should go read it now, though.
AVC: You've said that you want people to listen to Occupanther "in the house when they're sitting around or washing up." What did you mean exactly?
TS: I want it to be something that you can listen to every single day, something very beautiful and pleasing. When you have a song that you really love—let's say a very sad song—and you're listening to it, and it's very meaningful, and you're milking every nook and cranny of it, you just wish you could go through your entire day with that feeling. But that feeling is gone the moment that the music stops. Somebody starts talking, and you lose it. I really love that that feeling. It's these invisible things that make music so wonderful. You can't really explain it. [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you ever reassess your aspirations as a musician?
TS: I'm always assessing and reassessing. I don't think I'm ever satisfied. I felt like I nailed it with our first album, then it did poorly. I thought, "Man, I gotta rethink this. I'm getting older." I feel like I failed in some ways on Occupanther. It's hard for me to listen to; I guess a lot of musicians say that about their own albums. [Laughs.] I shouldn't talk bad about it. It's done us a great deal of good. There are just some songs I wouldn't write again. I'm ready to put that album to bed.
AVC: How is the new album coming along?
TS: It's so difficult. I'm remembering what it's like to come up with the right parts and the right sounds for the drums and everything. A lot of people might think you just go into a studio and play your heart out and make a good album. It's not like that. If I want to record a piano, I have to take all the mics from the drums, see which mic works best, and figure out where I'm going to place it on the piano. I have to make sure I actually have a good piano part, and the more I play it, the more tired I get of it. There's just so much that goes on to make just one single part on an album. It can be very frustrating, and I'm just now remembering how grueling Occupanther was to make. I'm hoping it's going to go better this time. We've got a proper studio now; we're renting this small office space. We're about to leave on a U.S. tour, though, which is kind of a bummer. We've got all these new toys and ideas, and we want to try them out, but we have to leave for a month. We don't have day jobs anymore, though, which is great. We survive, just barely, off touring, so that's really good. But still, you show up at the studio at 8 in the morning and stay 'til midnight. I still have quite a bit of writing to do, too. I have ideas for most of the album, but they're just 30-second or minute-long pieces.
AVC: Where do you see this album going?
TS: It will still have that '70s vibe. It's probably going to be a little darker than Occupanther, a bit more mature.
AVC: Why do you think that maturity is so often associated with darkness, especially in songwriting?
TS: It's actually easier to write a darker-sounding song, so I don't know that it's not the opposite. As you get better and more mature at songwriting, you should be writing really feel-good songs. [Laughs.] I don't why it should get darker, but it's true—it just somehow sounds more mature to be dark. In many ways, my life is a lot easier now than it was when I was 22 or 23, so I can't blame it on age, like, "Oh, the darkness is coming." [Laughs.] I always go back to Radiohead. I'll put on a Radiohead song like "Myxomatosis," and it's just so dark and rich. There's so much to digest. People take you more seriously when you're serious. When you give them that dark stuff, it seems like you mean it more than when you give them the light, fluffy stuff.