Trials

After a tour with the Flaming Lips, loads of hype and an amazing new record, the only thing Midlake's missing is confidence

"In the States, I'm still worried it'll slip through the cracks again." Midlake lead singer Tim Smith is at his home in Pilot Point, an hour north of the Denton house where he and the rest of the quintet recorded The Trials of Van Occupanther, and he says this while preparing for yet another European tour to promote the record.

To anyone who has heard the album (or noticed the band's recent--and unprecedented--accolades), his sentiment couldn't sound more ridiculous. This year, the band has played to packed, enthusiastic houses in London, received rave reviews throughout Europe (along with countless music Web sites across the globe) and opened for their self-proclaimed "idols" the Flaming Lips at huge showcases on both sides of the Atlantic.

The commotion is because of Van Occupanther, an album full of unbelievable growth and warmth. Old fans have been shocked to hear the group's former synthesizer-rich sound eschewed in favor of guitars, pianos and a swell of '70s singer-songwriter influences; who would've guessed that one of the most beautiful and catchy records of 2006 would owe so much to Fleetwood Mac and The Band?

Not pictured in this Midlake photo: the fashion model who inspired the entire new album.
Cat Stevens
Not pictured in this Midlake photo: the fashion model who inspired the entire new album.

But what makes this album work isn't just its unabashed love for '70s fare. The album, above all, is a result of Midlake's modesty. Their first (and just as oddly named) full-length, 2004's Bamnan and Slivercork, really did fall through the cracks; in spite of support from huge fans like Jason Lee (My Name Is Earl) and Simon Raymonde (Cocteau Twins bassist and owner of Midlake's label, Bella Union), the album only made minor impact in Europe and never saw official American release.

So the band holed up in the "Midlake house," where a few of the members live, and spent nearly a year writing and recording Van Occupanther in their living room. It's the group's second home-recorded album, but this time, they upgraded to using analog equipment from Denton's Echo Lab to record whenever possible between day jobs. When that began, Smith and his wife moved to Pilot Point: "We wanted to get a house so I could actually make some noise when I write music," he says, but he couldn't afford rent for a full-sized house near Denton.

"It is kind of out in the country," Smith says and then laughs: "I got kind of lonely out here." No kidding--the lyrics in Van Occupanther reflect solitude and a return to nature, a huge shift from the work-obsessed paranoia of Bamnan. Nowhere is this more evident than the pastoral rebirth of "Bandits," in which a man dreams of being robbed and starting anew--"It's not always easy/When the winter comes and the greenery goes/We will make some shelter," Smith whimpers as the song's final lilt of acoustic guitar and flute fades.

After completing Bamnan, Smith discovered '70s songwriters such as Joni Mitchell and Jimmy Spheris. "Once I fell in love with all of that, I stopped listening to a lot of modern recordings," he says, and the rest of Midlake soon followed suit...though reluctantly at first.

"He brought some different influences here, like yacht rock or some Christopher Cross," guitarist/keyboardist Eric Pulido says over the phone while touring in the U.K. "And some of the Jethro Tull stuff...you hear 'Aqualung,' that famous riff, and you're like, 'Is this where we're going?' But dig into the albums, and there's beautiful stuff. You really start to see these bands for more than their cliché hits that we know them as."

Smith's biggest influence, strangely, was a photograph in a fashion advertisement. He refuses to name the brand out of embarrassment, but an obsession with the photo drove Smith (who painted Bamnan's liner notes) to create an album concept that would match his newest musical tastes--and the visions they inspired.

"There was this woman, she's beautiful and she's wearing this equestrian gear much like the guy on the cover [of Van Occupanther]," Smith says. "I thought if the album can sound the way this photo looks, it'd be really great...There is this place where you hear really beautiful music. It takes you to this world inside you, you can't really go there in real life. This picture was part of this [for me]...if [a song] didn't sound like the picture looked, it was out."

The cohesion in theme and sounds is exceptional, as is the warm, lush production (from the band's living room, no less). Though the album's genesis may have been modest, Smith's voice has never sounded more confident, especially when it holds those lovely notes in the chorus of the supremely catchy single "Roscoe." And the late-1800s world of the British countryside (and the accompanying, frustrating love story) is matched with the full band's refreshing blend of '70s sounds and modern touches of Mercury Rev-style noise, guitars and synths.

Through happy coincidence, that mix of the modern and the timeless found its way to an important new Midlake fan. For Van Occupanther, Bella Union found American distribution through a new company called World's Fair, which happened to be co-run by Flaming Lips manager Scott Booker. After a few recommendations and friends-of-friends' suggestions, Midlake was invited to play with the Lips at this year's SXSW Music Festival, which blossomed into eight more concerts together in the States and Europe.

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