Midlake is a talkative group. The guys in this Denton band answer questions at length, cut up at all times and sound like the oldest gang of friends in the world. But there's one exception: Their songwriter, lead singer Tim Smith, is glaringly quiet.
For the short time he actually spoke, Tim made sure to play down his abilities, saying he preferred TV to writing, that his beautiful paintings around the house were an infrequent hobby (they also fill the liner notes of the band's debut, Bamnan and Slivercork) and that "nothing really happens in my life." But when he stopped dodging praise, he locked eyes with me, and his voice sped up in a way that sounded giddy yet focused as he rattled off recent musical inspirations, including Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Jimmy Spheris. It's a tame list of favorites, considering the band's otherworldly take on rock music, which has earned them a record deal with the UK's Bella Union label, a Best of Dallas critics pick for Best Local CD Release and admiration from the likes of actor Jason Lee. But then again, you'd never guess that the band began as an acid-jazz quintet, either.
"A lot of stories about us are about our roots," Tim says at the outset of our interview. "We're not particularly fond of that."
But jazz and the University of North Texas had a hand in the birth of Midlake, as drummer McKenzie Smith and bassist Paul Alexander met at their first jazz ensemble audition in 1997 and immediately started their own band. They enlisted friends Eric Nichelson on guitar and Evan Hisey on keyboards.
Meanwhile, Tim had graduated from UNT and planned on moving back to San Antonio to get a job fixing broken musical instruments. In a twist of fate, he happened upon the rest of the band, friends from school, at a local restaurant, where they persuaded him to stay in town and join on saxophone.
As McKenzie tells it, months of "funk grooves with endless, improvisational solos" soon bored the group, so the guys began sharing their influences to rekindle their drive. Radiohead and the Flaming Lips, among many others, led the band to a new rock direction, and after 14 months of near-daily rehearsal and many shifts in sound, the guys played their first show as Midlake in the fall of 2000. Shortly after, they recorded an EP and lost keyboardist Hisey (now in the Polyphonic Spree), and, after a number of unsuccessful replacements, old friend and manager Eric Pulido joined on guitar in January 2002.
"These guys were schooled musicians, and I was this business major that wrote songs for the fun of it. All I had was my uncle's old electric that didn't even work anymore," Pulido explains, "this Smurf-blue ax thing. It was sad."
But Pulido's friendship was an important, comfortable addition to the group. The band's desire for comfort also drove the creation of Bamnan, as they spent more than a year and a half tinkering with sounds and songwriting in their makeshift living room studio.
"With this album, it was more of what sounded good regardless of how we were going to play it [live]," Alexander says. "There was no democracy. Anything that sounded great got recorded."
The resulting album, whose odd title derives from misspelled directions attached to a child's broken clarinet that Smith once found at work, could be considered a lo-fi version of The Matrix: Stories grapple with the drudgery of a 9-to-5 world, while layered synthesizers battle acoustic guitars and wavering vocals for the sonic lead.
That theme is repeated in a series of elaborate videos created for concerts. The videos are full of papier-mâché wolf masks, men wearing monocles, spaceships, fish, Tim's artwork and more. Midlake made the movies because, as Nichelson claims, "it's not very interesting to watch us play," but their performance is actually quite a sight. With no less than six synthesizers onstage and each member fiddling with something at all times, the guys keep busy while re-creating the many layers of Bamnan. Really, it's their near-perfect renditions of album trickery that steal the show, but the cost of sounding authentic with so many synthesizers in concert hasn't been lost on the band.
"We have lots of credit card debt," Tim says.
Maybe such debt will be alleviated by the band's recent momentum, which began when Midlake gave a CD to their old friend and former Lift to Experience drummer Andy Young. He sent it to former Cocteau Twin Simon Raymonde, who had released LTE's final album on Bella Union Records in Europe. After one listen to Bamnan, Raymonde e-mailed the band: "I want to have Midlake's babies. XO, Simon."
He offered to master the album at Abbey Road Studios, to which the guys agreed--if only to see the words "Abbey Road" printed on their CD. Sadly, that was left out of the liner notes, but glowing reviews in Q, NME and CMJ made sure to note the detail, and the band already has two successful European tours under its belt, along with recent wall-to-wall shows in Los Angeles and at New York's CMJ festival.
Midlake also found a die-hard supporter in Jason Lee, who has turned his eye to music after a successful career in movies (Chasing Amy, Almost Famous) and skateboarding. Lee directed the video for their single "Balloon Maker" and will include their songs in an upcoming skateboard DVD.
"Simon gave me the CD," Lee says via e-mail, "and, of course, I flipped when I heard it." To him, the music "has heart, sincerity and meaning. In a time when it's all about being 'hip' and 'ironic,' a band like Midlake comes along and stabilizes life."
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Though Bella Union has brought Midlake limited exposure in America thus far, the label will soon open an office on our shores, which Pulido hopes will allow the band to stick with BU for a wider Bamnan release in the States. The guys have already directed their attention to the next album, which the band humbly promises will sound "a lot better." While they hope to add an outside engineer and better equipment to the process, Midlake still expects to record in their living room.
"After what we went through to make the last album, I don't want to go to a studio," Alexander says. "I'd rather put that money into gear."
Midlake is determined to further distance itself from its jazz roots with the next album, Van Occupanther. And yet, it's their detachment from the clichés of rock that makes them sound so refreshing, and Tim's creative passion should push Midlake's boundaries for years to come.
"I don't like to listen to too much modern stuff," Tim says. "A lot of indie bands are trash to me. It's just not good. And they're probably not making a lot of money, but...You listen to a lot of music, and you feel like, 'Man, I could do this. I'm not hearing exactly from anybody what I want to hear, really, so I want to try to do that.' That's the strong drive...trying to get away from sounding like the standard band. "