Midlake: Trials And Reconfigurations

Midlake

Down one singer/songwriter, the revamped version of Midlake forges ahead beautifully. By Steve Klinge

Spoiler alert! The new Midlake record is not from the band that you grew to love with The Trials Of Van Occupanther. With each successive album, the members of Midlake transformed, foregrounding a different favorite section of their record collections. Their first LP, 2004’s Bamnan And Slivercork, was built on the experimentalism of Grandaddy and the Elephant 6 bands. 2006’s much-loved The Trials Of Van Occupanther turned to soft rock, with traces of Fleetwood Mac (of the Bob Welch era) and Neil Young (of the Harvest era). 2010’s The Courage Of Others shifted yet again, this time looking to the British folk of artists such as Pentangle and Fairport Convention for inspiration. All the while, the Denton, Texas, band favored dense, dark, detailed arrangements: emotional but restrained, brooding but inviting.

Now comes Antiphon (ATO), which announces itself with an opening title track that rocks harder and more insistently than anything in the group’s prior catalog. Midlake again sounds like a new band.

And, this time it is: It’s Midlake’s first since the departure of principal singer/songwriter Tim Smith, its first with guitarist Eric Pulido stepping into those lead roles, its first with former touring members Jesse Chandler (keyboards, flute) and Joey McClellan (guitars) officially joining drummer Mackenzie Smith, multi-instrumentalist Paul Alexander and guitarist Eric Nichelson.

As for an antiphon, it’s a call-and-response hymn in which two groups alternate, and Antiphon is Midlake 2.0, the response to Smith’s departure.

After touring for The Courage Of Others and Queen Of Denmark (the band’s acclaimed collaboration with the Czars’ John Grant that also came out in 2010), Midlake returned to the studio. The results, the group felt, weren’t up to par. Courage had taken nearly two years to record, so Midlake was used to committing to a slow process, but this time, the frustrations and tensions increased. The band tried returning to the studio in Buffalo, Texas, where it had worked on Courage but, according to Pulido, “It didn’t work this time; it didn’t go as well, and we didn’t achieve what we had in the past.” Then Midlake went to L.A., to labelmate Jonathan Wilson’s studio, but the album still refused to come together.

“We still didn’t get that ‘magic’ that we wanted,” says Pulido. “It was through no fault of the studio; it was just that the songs had been beaten up a lot, and they’d become a little bit watered-down. The life had been lost out of some, and you try to resuscitate it, or you write some new songs. It was just this merry-go-round, like, ‘Here we go again.’ Courage Of Others had a little bit of that as well, but we barely got out of the water and had a record. This one seemed like we took a step forward and two steps back. Right when you see a light it was, ‘Nope, that’s not a light.’ Or, ‘It’s not sunlight, it’s a headlight or a train.’”

Although Midlake repeatedly generated new material, the band kept ending up dissatisfied. The perfectionist tendencies that served the group well in the past worked against it.

“It just kept getting longer and longer with each album, in some ways too microscopic,” says Pulido. “I felt that the record we were making had a lot of potential, but we were squandering that potential by the month. We had a whole album and a half of material, but not enough of that was satisfying to Tim or to all of us. There were probably different levels of acceptance of different songs or material or whatnot. At that time, there was a lot of frustration from everybody. But if you would have asked me, ‘Is Tim going to leave?’ I would have said, ‘No, he’s not going to do that, he’s not going to bail. He’s going to stick through, and we’ll at least make this record.’”

But then, in November 2012, Smith quit the band. For Pulido, in some ways it was a shock; in other ways, in retrospect, it wasn’t.

“From the beginning, we were just going to forge ahead,” he stresses. “But at that point, for him, that was lost, there was no more. He didn’t have the desire or the strength anymore. Did I ever see this coming? Yeah, of course. He’s always been a little bit withdrawn or malcontent about where things are at. But he’d usually channel that—and we all did—into, ‘OK, we’re going to work twice as hard and twice as many hours.’”

Pulido’s role in the band had changed over the years, too. Since Smith wasn’t a fan of touring, Pulido had been “doing all the talking” from the stage. He’d also been singing more, sometimes doubling Smith’s lead vocals. The changes were gradual and not deliberate, but they now seem like signs to Pulido. Still, Smith’s sudden resignation was unexpected, and the band was forced to, literally, regroup.

“When he left—I can only speak for myself—it wasn’t what I wanted; it wasn’t the ideal situation,” says Pulido. “And there was a bit of a transition for a second there: What are we going to do? Who’s going to sing? Are we still Midlake? Are we able to use the material we’ve been working on? Do we want to? All these questions were rolling for a 24- or 48-hour period where we felt like we need to figure this out. But it was never a question of would we not keep going. After he left, we got together and went to the studio and got a game plan.”

The split was an amicable divorce, and initially the band negotiated with Smith about expectations and possibilities for the future. Smith wasn’t averse to the band keeping the name (“We felt like at the heart of it, we were and are still that band,” says Pulido), and he agreed to let them use some of the material they had worked on together, but he wanted to protect or separate some of it, too. Ultimately, the remaining members chose to start from scratch, although “Vale,” an instrumental track from the earlier sessions that Smith was not on, became part of Antiphon. Its work backing John Grant and Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle served as unwitting preparation for realigning the band.

“In some ways, we always felt like this workingman’s band because we just love to play,” says Pulido. “Obviously our main thing was and always is Midlake, but it was cool to be able to play in different styles for different artists. Unbeknownst to us at the time, it was kind of a blessing in disguise that we had done that so much.”

Soon after Smith’s departure, the new Midlake got back to work writing and recording, and the band surprised itself at how quickly (at least in Midlake’s terms) everything gelled. Ultimately, the group finished Antiphon in six months. Collectively, Midlake felt confident in the new material and directions, and the process was more truly collaborative than in the past. While the group was working on the record, it was reassured by the response from its longtime label, the London-based Bella Union.

“You lose a little bit of objectivity when you’re trying write and record a record in such a short period of time—six months for us is like overnight, considering we spent two years on a record that never saw the light of day,” says Pulido. “It was sort of fast and furious, but it was great because I think we got closer. It was a great communal effort that had been lost in some ways in the past. I think Tim would agree with that. When Tim left and we started this next one, I felt very passionate about everybody stepping up to the plate. We needed everybody’s heart and soul in this. I didn’t want it to be my record; I wanted it to be our record. Even though I know a large part of the onus was on me for singing and writing the material, everybody’s voice and personality and style is in this record. We’d been playing music together for a long time, and just because it isn’t exactly the same doesn’t mean it isn’t real and honest and something we feel passionate and good about—and ultimately that is still Midlake.”

And since Midlake had always changed gears from album to album, the fact that Antiphon differs from the others is, paradoxically, within the Midlake tradition. Some of that newness is a carry-over from the record it was making with Smith—the swirling, powerful “Vale” suggests that—but Pulido says the band took things like the psychedelic atmosphere, the broader dynamic shifts and the upbeat melodies further. The songs still have carefully orchestrated arrangements, and they ebb and flow, shifting from electric-guitar leads to quieter, flute-driven passages, as in the past. But they are often grander and given to moments of abstraction and dissonances that comes from the band’s love of early Pink Floyd and Genesis (coincidentally, two bands that also regrouped after shifts in leadership).

Pulido’s vocals at times recall Smith’s: They can be thickened with reverb, and he’s fond of long, sustained lines and occasional archaic or biblical phrasing that lend songs a timeless quality. “Onward forth unto a land unknown/Swords were drawn upon their own,” he sings on “Provider.”

“Obviously, Tim had an influence on me, and hopefully we did on him,” says Pulido. “He used a lot of imagery that was very classic, so it didn’t really have a time period.”

Although the war imagery on “Antiphon” and the divorce references on “Aurora Gone” could have double meanings, “Provider” is the only song Pulido wrote overtly in response to the band’s experiences.

“It’s basically, in a loving way, how I describe Tim: as the provider,” says Pulido. “He was The Guy. I was saying, ‘Carry on, far from the golden age.’ It was like this romantic thing that we wanted, and in some ways we had. But at the same time, I love you and respect you and will even defend you. ‘Follow me down a foxhole in the ground.’ Even though I don’t agree, I’ll still defend you, still support you, I love what you’re doing, I’ll always buy your records, and I wish you the best, basically.”

Smith, who has started a project called Harp, feels similarly. “They’re all great guys, and it was sad to lose the closeness we had, but musically we didn’t see things the same way,” he says. “I think my leaving has helped both them and myself. It probably should have been done years ago.”

After exiting the band, Smith moved to Kerrville, Texas, and he’s been steadily working on a new album. For now, it’s a solo work.

“It’s a very slow process,” he says. “My musical standards far exceed my abilities, but the hope is eventually I’ll have enough songs that I’m proud of to release something. I’m not sure when that will be or if it’s meant to be. Some of the material I’m working on I feel is quite strong, and I’m positive that if I can finish, it’ll be a very good album. The sound will, of course, be a continuation of the ‘old’ Midlake sound because that’s inherent with me. The transition into this was fairly smooth because I’m essentially doing what I was doing with Midlake, though trying out ideas alone takes much longer than with an entire band.”

Of course, Antiphon is also a continuation of the old Midlake sound, although fans hoping simply for The Trials Of Van Occupanther, Part II may need to adjust their expectations. That is part of the burden of changing, growing and developing after having created an album that meant so much to some people. Pulido knows that that record became a deep part of some listener’s lives.

“That moves us to no end, and any record that we’ve done that captures that for somebody, we’re grateful for,” he says. “The reality is, that album has afforded us ears to even hear what we’re doing now. If they like ‘Young Bride’ or ‘Roscoe’ or ‘Head Home,’ and they hear that we’re doing a new record, well, then you might get a chance for them to hear the new stuff. They might like it, they might not, but I could never knock the fact that a record that we made together has allowed us to shape a career that we have been able to grow and to expand on.”

Through the growth and expansion—and subtraction—Midlake has retained a sense of serious purpose and thoughtful exploration. Given the personnel changes, Antiphon is its most dramatic shift. But it’s not a total break with the past.

“Hopefully there’s likenesses in any of our past discography,” says Pulido. “It’s the same people, so there’s a common thread there. We just wanted—like we always do—to be honest and be inspired, and create the voice of Midlake.”