By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
There's no doubt that those accolades are appreciated, especially for a band like Midlake as it gears up to release its follow-up to that breakthrough. Those nods certainly haven't hurt the band's chances at earning positive pre-album release press for The Courage of Others, its first new release in four years. Indeed, the very-early returns on the album have been positive: Already-published reviews from Mojo and Q—magazines from the U.K., where Midlake's 19th century bent has struck an especially strong chord with audiences—and stateside publications, including the Chicago Tribune, gushingly praise the February 2 release.
But, although critically adored, the band—partially because in nine years it has released only two full-length efforts—is not a major draw stateside. Overseas, the band's Bella Union label has successfully marketed the band; in the United States, its label situation has been less stable. Consider this sign of the band's comparative successes on each side of the Atlantic: During its now-completed two-week stint of the Southeast, the band traveled by van; in Europe, where the band has just launched its month-long tour of mostly sold-out shows in music halls across the continent, it will travel by tour bus.
With Courage, the band hopes its playing field in the United States will even out with its European counterpart. A tall order, no doubt.
"I will train my feet/To go on with a joy/A joy I have yet to reach."
—"Core of Nature"
Disregard the band's Bamnan and Slivercork debut. Midlake already has: "That record doesn't even sound like the same band," drummer McKenzie Smith admits.
Rather, look at Van Occupanther, with its new style and the interest it drummed up, as the band's start. Do that and it's easy to pinpoint the stress that comes with releasing a record like The Courage of Others: This is a sophomore release, and given the excitement those generate, they tend to go one of two ways. Either they launch a band onto a new, higher plateau, or they don't and are deemed a failure—hence the old sophomore slump cliché.
Given that Midlake just found its sound—or, rather, its identity—on its last record, the band seems aware of the fork in the road before it. Huddled among his bandmates in the small seating area his band's studio affords, guitarist Eric Pulido addresses the way the band's viewing its future.
"It's hard to say if it's better or worse," Pulido admits. "It's just different. Because, this time, there's actually some anticipation."
That can be a dangerous thing, especially for a band as meticulous as Midlake. This is a band with complete creative control; the members are as involved with every aspect of their content as they possibly can be.
That's the purpose of this Saturday get-together, actually. To promote The Courage of Others, the band has understandably booked the bulk of its non-performance time in the amp-up to the disc's release for press. Included among the many interviews scheduled is a slot on the nationally syndicated music-focused National Public Radio program World Café, which airs locally on KKXT-91.7 FM. The half-hour program is a blend of interview and, in many cases, toned-down, in-studio performances. Midlake, although game to produce all-acoustic tracks for the show's broadcast, has opted not to perform its songs in the broadcast studio. Rather, it's pre-recording those efforts here in its Denton base. The tracks are pretty much already completed; today's recording session is simply to add back-up vocals and minor instrumentation to the tracks.
"We've just learned that there are some things we will and won't do," bassist Paul Alexander says.
Pulido backs that sentiment: "Sometimes, there's just a give and take, and we've learned over the years that, sometimes, things don't work out the way you want them to."
It certainly doesn't make the band's to-do list any shorter. Before recording today's elements, frontman Smith, who handles the bulk of the band's recording, sighs at his band's added, self-imposed responsibility: "There's just so much work to do to get ready."
"Most of daylight, nothing filled my mind/Quiet was I."
Work—that's the key word. In 2007, when Midlake wrapped up its year-and-a-half of touring in support of Van Occupanther, the band made a commitment to treat the production of its third full-length like, well, the work that it was.
"It's definitely been a nine-to-five thing," says drummer McKenzie Smith. "It's been our job."
But it's been more than that. In the bathroom, a clear indicator sits beside the sink: a toothbrush. When brought up, frontman Tim Smith chuckles sheepishly. That's his.
"There were times," he admits with a sheepish smile, "when I would spend the night here."
He nods toward the couch he and his bandmates had shared moments earlier.
"It was that way for the first three months, actually. I was so worried about everything taking so long."
As the band's principal songwriter, it was Smith who bore the earliest brunt of producing a fitting follow-up to the band's break-out. And, in the first three months spent in the band's new recording environment? Nothing came. The pressure of Van Occupanther's success loomed.