Midlake Finds a New Day

Music Features Midlake
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With its lush folk textures and widescreen prog-rock mysticism, Antiphon sure sounds like a Midlake album. But without the presence of Tim Smith, their former frontman and creative leader, is it even one at all?

For over a decade (and for better or worse), “Midlake” and “Tim Smith” have basically been synonyms. An eclectic and enigmatic songwriter with a background in jazz, Smith co-founded the band with a gang of fellow students at the University of North Texas College of Music. Built on that foundation of studious chops and tasteful musicianship, Smith directed the band’s vision with his ambitious songwriting—a singular approach that added a modern alt-rock wrinkle to the pastoral rock of Jethro Tull and the pop craftsmanship of Fleetwood Mac.

But signs of creative struggle crept in with 2010’s The Courage of Others, a haunting but monochromatic album inspired by the flowery progressive folk of Fairport Convention and Pentagle. After the Courage tour, the band worked for two straight years on their fourth LP, Seven Long Suns, but Smith (as he claims on the website for his new solo project, Harp) found the results to be “lifeless, stale and unemotional.” While never exactly a dictatorship, Midlake was certainly never a democracy—and chasing their leader’s perfectionist vision had grown tiring for everyone else. So, in a mutually beneficial move, Smith left Midlake in November of 2012, leaving the rest of the band with two wasted years, no new music and an uncertain future.

Again, what exactly is Midlake without Tim Smith? A potent musical force, as it turns out: Under the guidance of guitarist/de-facto frontman Eric Pulido, the remaining members (drummer McKenzie Smith, bassist Paul Alexander, multi-instrumentalist Eric Nichelson, flautist/keyboardist Jesse Chandler and guitarist Joey McClellan) started from scratch with a more collaborative approach, writing and recording a new album, the stunning Antiphon, in only six months.

For Pulido, this new version of Midlake is essentially a different band than what came before. “It was different in the sense that everybody had more of a voice,” he says. “I think it was more skewed in the past—for better or worse.”

Reflecting back on the laborious sessions for Seven Long Suns, Pulido is saddened by how much time and music the band lost twiddling its thumbs.

“I think there were some mixed emotions about it, but I think more so than not being happy with the material, it was not being happy with the process,” he says. “I think a better process could have made maybe for a better outcome for that record—for those songs. That was the difficult thing. We had a common goal, and we have a lot of likenesses in the quality of what we were doing, as far as the opinions of what it was. It was how to get there—that schism. The Midlake way was always, ‘We’ll beat it to death.’ And unfortunately, when you do that, you end up with something that’s been beaten to death and doesn’t have much life and energy left. You look back and go, ‘Where did we go wrong? Let’s go back to the drawing board.’ But in the process, you’ve lost a lot of material—and time! That was the biggest thing for me: I always feel like I’m on a clock. And there’s two years down the drain!”

“On the other hand,” he says, “you have to have that mindset of ‘things happen for a reason.’ And just learn from it and move forward. And that’s ultimately what we did. Obviously bands operate in all different ways—I’m not knocking the way that we did things, but I am embracing the way this way went. When you involve everybody more and people feel more a part of it, they’re gonna own it more. They’re gonna work harder; they’re gonna be more passionate. And I really feel that happened with everybody on this record.”

A key catalyst during the lightning-fast Antiphon sessions was the epic “Provider,” which began life as a Pulido solo song but was eventually presented to the band. Using the song’s sparse, brooding framework, Midlake started experimenting with new approaches to melody and harmony and production.

“Every song kind of had a new chapter, if you will,” he says. “But [“Provider”] was one where we got to work out a lot of things. Paul, our bass player, was kind of the main engineer and producer. ‘Provider’ was a song that I kind of brought to the table, but he definitely helped take the lead on trying to filter through some ideas we all had, and he had to apply that. It’s great for a songwriter, and especially one in my place who’s not prolific. I don’t have this huge body of work, so I needed the guys. I needed the help!”

“Whatever ideas I had, they made better,” he continues, “whether it was the harmony or the form or giving me feedback on my melodies or lyrics. They helped make it better, and I really leaned on that. That really helped in this process in the sense that we were kind of naïve again. We didn’t have the career—even though we were still Midlake, we didn’t have Tim to lean on. We had to lean on one another. I think we’d gotten so used to going, ‘He does that, and he does that.’ And that got thrown out the window. There were some likenesses: Of course, Paul still plays bass, and McKenzie still plays drums. But they were able to play instrumentally with everyone in a way that wasn’t within a certain parameter. It was about redefining things, and that was really fun!”

Suddenly, without a sole creative compass, they were free to chase whatever ideas crept in. Where The Courage of Others felt stifled in its quest to recreate ‘70s folk-prog, Antiphon is thrillingly eclectic—circling from the eerie, medieval psychedelia of “Ages” to the sprawling instrumental freak-out “Vale.”

“A lot of what we were doing was flying by the seat of our pants,” Pulido says. “We obviously had strong influences from the past of Midlake but also just from growing up. We’re fans of music first, so you have kind of a broad knowledge and taste of music, so when you’re creating, you start applying things subconsciously or consciously through your instrument or your voice. We were already trying to add more life and energy to the record than Courage of Others. That was a specific statement and something that we were into with the British folk. But this record wasn’t as defined by a specific time period or genre, even though psychedelia and prog were piquing our interest.

“It’s easy to go to Pink Floyd and go, ‘That’s psych-rock. Let’s do that thing!’ But that wasn’t what we were doing. It’s easy to tag a band into a certain genre—like ‘Led Zeppelin is rock.’ They did a lot of things, and they did them quite well. It wasn’t like we didn’t want some common theme, but we didn’t want to be defined by one thing, like, ‘Let’s make this thing.’ Let’s just write some music and try to apply some of these influences, whether it be Motown or a classic thing or a psych thing or a prog thing or a folk thing. Let’s just kind of air all these things out through your instrument or voice and see what moves you. See what feels right for all our tastes and desire. And then when you step back and lose some objectivity and perspective, and you say, ‘Oh, we kinda did that thing!’”

Now Midlake are faced with a new kind of creative challenge: figuring out how to bring Antiphon’s spiraling density (the heavily layered harmonies of “Ages” or the effects-laden sprawl of “This Weight”) to life on-stage. But one thing’s for sure—it’s a challenge they’ll be tackling together, as a unit.

“There’s no right or wrong way,” Pulido says. “It’s kinda just the way you do it. Not to say we didn’t have input or we weren’t a part of it [in the past], but Tim was very much the visionary. As time goes and you feel comfortable in your position where you’re at, it just gets normal, for better or worse. And I think in some ways, it was for worse toward the end because we were stuck in a rut all too often. Knowing what I know now, I feel like empowering everybody and making them feel a part of it as a whole and letting go of that narrow vision would—and ultimately did—make us find a new day as a band.”

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