Thicker Than Water: The Re-Rebirth of Midlake

Midlake members Eric Pulido, Jesse Chandler, Eric Nichelson, Joey McClellan and McKenzie Smith, from left to right.
Midlake members Eric Pulido, Jesse Chandler, Eric Nichelson, Joey McClellan and McKenzie Smith, from left to right. Barbara FG
On a chilly January day in their hometown of Denton, the members of beloved folk-rock outfit Midlake are having a spirited discussion about bagels.

“Supposedly it’s the water you use that makes the difference, but I don’t know what the science behind that is,” keyboardist Jesse Chandler says. “I’ll recommend you some amazing bagel places to check out if you’re ever in New York, and word to the wise: supposedly if you’re heating up a bagel, you’re supposed to wet it first. That’s supposed to help with the ‘mouth feel.’”

Chandler involuntarily cracks a smile, and his bandmates join him in a fit of laughter. “I can’t believe I just said that word in an interview,” he says, laughing.

“I’ll tell you what, Jesse. The Andy’s [Bar] kitchen isn’t being used at all, so if you want to start your bagel empire down there, do it,” interjects singer/guitarist Eric Pulido, referring to the Denton bar which some members co-own.

“You’re going to need to import that New York water, baby,” jokes drummer McKenzie Smith. “It’ll be called ‘Jessie Chandler’s Mouth Feel – wet your bagel.’”

The abundance of laughter and food talk is a candid snapshot of Midlake in their element: relaxed, spontaneous, with an excess of freewheeling energy. The band is gearing up to release For the Sake of Bethel Woods, their first LP in nine years, on March 18.

Midlake became woven into the fabric of the then-burgeoning folk-rock revival with the release of their 2006 breakthrough album The Trials of Van Occupanther and its hit single “Roscoe.” Soon, tours with the likes of Band of Horses, The Flaming Lips, Cold War Kids, and festival slots alongside Daft Punk and at Coachella in between fellow indie-rock trailblazers Arcade Fire and future EDM titan Diplo became Midlake’s home away from Denton.

The band then found their most ardent following in Europe (where they earned a fan in Ricky Gervais partially because of their 2010 follow-up album The Courage of Others and its incorporation of sounds by the likes of Pentagle, Fairport Convention and Jethro Tull.

Chandler says that, particularly in the U.K., people often come up to the band and tell tales of Midlake’s music being passed between generations. “Someone once told us after a show, ‘I named my son Roscoe,’” he says.

“Roscoe” was later was named the 90th best song of the 2000s by Rolling Stone magazine.

So, what have the men of Midlake been up to for this near-decade? “Two master’s degrees,” jokes Pulido. “Side projects, solo stuff. We stayed active, stayed friends and did stuff together like [the band] BNQT. I just think it was a conscious decision to do other things because we were so immersed in doing Midlake. I think it was healthy to branch off and do other musical things, play with other folks and be with friends and family.”

click to enlarge Midlake will release their latest album, For the Sake of Bethel Woods, this month. - BARBARA FG
Midlake will release their latest album, For the Sake of Bethel Woods, this month.
Barbara FG
“I never stopped,” says guitarist Eric Nichelson. “We were always working, and when we took a break, I still did that, but with my own things. When we came together and said ‘Hey, let’s make a record,’ it wasn’t hard at all. We just shifted our focus.”

The last time Midlake was on the radar, they had just undergone a sea change with the departure of the band’s longtime singer and sole songwriter Tim Smith (no relation to drummer McKenzie Smith) in the midst of preparing for their fourth album.

Undeterred, Pulido took up vocal duties and the band started over with a new, collectivist approach to songwriting, resulting in a new album, 2013’s Antiphon, that was written and recorded in six months.

“It was daunting when Tim left, because he had such a pivotal songwriting role,” Pulido says. “Whether it was because of our own stubbornness or willingness, we really wanted to do what we said we were gonna do. Not only to our fans, but to our label, and to ourselves.”

Midlake decided that the songwriting duties would be shared by the band’s six members, a decision that continues with For the Sake of Bethel Woods. If anything, according to Pulido, the band’s collectivist writing identity has only improved on the new record.

“Even McKenzie got into that side of things as well,” he says. “Obviously, his rhythms have been huge to the band for so long, but even just writing ‘Gone’ was one where McKenzie was the core of that idea. I felt like it was easier, more natural, and enjoyable.”

“You would think that situation could be a ‘too many cooks in the kitchen’ kind of vibe,” Chandler says. “But I think we figured out a way, especially on this album, to just move things a lot quicker. Part of it is just perspective from waiting so long and working on a lot of other projects. We got a lot of perspective that didn’t come during the first incarnation and ended with touring Antiphon. It seemed like it was sort of a frenzy from the beginning of the band all the way to the time to pause and reflect. Everybody went and had kids, among other things.

"The perspective you get from that time off, you’re able to get the essence of some of the ideas quicker as a band than before rather than waiting for one guy to come up with stuff. You’re sometimes twiddling your thumbs not knowing what to do.”

Guitarist Joseph McClellan agrees. After working on his own solo project under the moniker Joseph M, it was easier for him to bring his own songs to the table for Midlake.

“I feel like I’m definitely growing as a songwriter, learning things about myself and how I create,” he says. “It’s a lost opportunity if these people aren’t able to have their voices heard in this situation, as opposed to being directed, ‘This is what I want you to play.’ There’s creativity and information that is lost if you don’t utilize it.”

Pulido compares Midlake’s newfound communal attitude to that of his all-time favorite band, The Band. “There’s a comfort where you’re not the star, you’re just the sideman. It takes the pretense away,” he says.

Despite Midlake’s freewheeling Big Pink-like approach to summoning music from the ether, the recording of For the Sake of the Bethel Woods marks the first time the band has worked with an outside producer, in this case DFW studio stalwart John Congleton (St. Vincent, Swans, Angel Olsen, Guster). So, while one person wasn’t calling the shots when it came to songwriting, the band says it was helpful to have somebody else doing so when it came to laying down tape.

“Absolutely,” Pulido and McClellan say simultaneously. “There’s no overthinking things or overanalyzing,” McClellan says. “You can come up with a million different ideas, so you have to have somebody say, ‘That’s the one.’ The famous quote from John during the sessions was ‘Could do …’”

“Part of recording in general is getting in a psychological state where there’s this balance between being self-conscious enough that you can sort of edit as you go along but not too self-conscious that you think everything’s just shit,” Chandler says. “John was really able to help us with that in a way that nobody’s feelings were hurt, and nobody has to be controlling or tell people what to play. It was really helpful to have someone there that we all trust.”

Nichelson says: “At first, you don’t know what to expect, because it was different from how we had ever done things, but it was fine. Everyone let go of that really fast. It was a positive experience. I hope we get another chance to do something like that because it was a fresh thing.”

Pulido says that on prior records the band produced themselves, it was difficult to settle on a certain take or idea since there was so much overthinking being done by everyone in the room.

“Like Jesse and Joey were saying, there’s just an interpersonal relationship with each other that at this point that someone in the band is liable to become ‘the filter.’ It’s like, no, John’s that guy," Pulido says laughing. "We’re going to let him be that guy and trust him, lean on him. I just think there’s no going back now. It was such a great experience.”

“I think, for all of us, a lot of the time we work better when first or second takes end up staying,” Chandler says. “Sometimes in the past without a producer, it’s been like, ‘Well, let’s just try that again, and maybe the next one will be better. Maybe the next time we’ll get it.’ Then 4½ hours later everyone hates the song at that point. But with John there …” “Did you say 4½ hours later?” Smith interjects. “I think you mean 4½ months later.”

Everyone laughs with the exception of Chandler, who knows the feeling Smith’s talking about all too well. “Everybody has the music in them already,” Chandler continues. “The drum takes especially. Those first one or two takes have the most magic, and having someone like John say ‘Let’s just stay’ and everybody just goes ‘OK’ without discussing it amongst ourselves was really helpful.”

“There’s the extremes,” Nichelson says. “I think I’m somewhere in the middle. In between liking to work on things and just sort of letting it rip. Tim is one extreme, but the process on this record with John Congleton was the other extreme of ‘We’re not going to mess with it too much, we’re just going to play and let it rip.' First takes, etc. There is a balance, and I probably wouldn’t go as far as Tim would, but that’s why I hope we get another chance to do this. We’ve just scratched the potential of what we can do together.”

Drummer Smith, who up until this point has been relatively silent, takes the reins. “I don’t like tinkering. I’m anti-tinkerer. Even starting with Antiphon, the previous albums were made in such a different way; there’s an art to the process in which those albums were made. Writing individual drum parts, crafting it and being so meticulous with everything. Some drummers know every fill they’re going to play on every section of every song before they go into the studio and record, whereas I’m just the opposite at this point. I don’t enjoy that at all. I like knowing very little information about the song other than kind of the structure. …”

“It’s because you’re a ‘jazzer’ at heart,” Chandler interjects.

“Kind of, but I also feel that’s how John Bonham would approach a song, too, or a lot of other drummers,” Smith says. “There was a freedom. Like they knew the song, but when they went in to record it, it was more about the energy of the performance. Drum fills might change, but it’s about being reactive to the performance, being in the moment of creating something. I don’t look at it like ‘Here’s an opportunity for a drum fill, watch me go!’ I try to play the drum set as part of the song and react off the vocal lines, react off what’s happening around me. Most of that happens in its most pure and raw form in the very early takes. There’s a different part of your brain that’s working when you don’t know something very well.”

Smith, who describes himself as an “unabashed Rush fan,” says that the mindset of writing an extraordinarily intricate piece a la Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” that is reproduced every night on-stage exactly as it’s done on the record is admirable, but it’s not the mindset he or the rest of Midlake have when going in to make the magic happen.

“I love that feeling of being in the room, no one knows what’s gonna happen, and the producer says, ‘Hey, just go do your thing, I’m not even going to give you much information at all,’ and I’m like 'Cool.” I think that’s the best way to do it,” he says.

“Sometimes your gut instinct might be wrong, and after working through some stuff you might end up in a totally different place. I feel like I do my thing, and I like my thing, which is why I think in this band it works well. It’s changing from where we were initially.”

This mindset isn’t limited to the drums; Smith says that improvisational excitement is present in everyone in the room.

“I’m around other musicians that are great, and I think that’s what makes this band great, everyone has their own unique, individual personality,” he says. “It’s been very freeing to support one another. There isn’t this pressure like, ‘Jesse I want you to be something that you’re not.’ ‘Joey, I need you to play guitar in this way that you don’t normally play, I want you to do this for me.’

“Instead, you just say ‘Joey, what do you feel like doing? Play something.’ When you allow musicians to just be themselves within a certain context and have an outside ear like John say ‘Yeah, this vibe’s not working’ or ‘You guys are on to something,’ that really is helpful, and that’s kind of how the whole album was done. I wasn’t joking when I said 4½ months later. We spent months on ridiculous things in the past that in the end ever made anything better. In fact, I think we have historically ruined lots of good music by beating it to death. Allowing your mind and heart to be open, by going into a room and letting it happen, and then walking away is really freeing.”

All this “freewheeling” talk of “freedom” reminds Chandler of For the Sake of Bethel Woods’ initial inspiration: the 1969 Woodstock Festival, which Chandler’s late father attended. A painting based on an image of him in the massive, mud-logged audience, captured in the Woodstock documentary, is the album’s artwork.

“That event obviously was just a moment in time over a weekend,” Chandler says. “Even though they recorded it, it was just a fleeting moment in time where all this music just passed through the air.”

Before Midlake’s reformation, Chandler had a dream in which his father appeared to him and instructed him to continue making music. That moment marked the beginning of the return of Midlake. However, one conspicuously absent component from Midlake’s journey this time around is founding bassist Paul Alexander, who decided not to rejoin the band after their hiatus.

click to enlarge Midlake was formed in Denton, and has helped build the culture in the music town. - BARBARA FG
Midlake was formed in Denton, and has helped build the culture in the music town.
Barbara FG
“We met at the end of 2019, before we started the process,” Pulido says. “I don’t want to put words into Paul’s mouth, but I just felt like he was in a different place.”

During that meeting, the band went around the table and asked, “Who’s in?” Smith recalls that while he, McClellan, Pulido, Chandler, and Nichelson all agreed that the time was right, Alexander politely opted out.

“When we got to Paul, he was like, ‘I’m not going to do it. You have my blessings to keep going, please keep doing it, I’m just in a different place now. A healthy, different direction. It was a great ride, love you guys.’ Sad in some ways, but it’s just a chapter that’s closing.”

It was especially bittersweet for Smith, as he and Alexander’s meeting was the impetus of Midlake back in the halls of University of North Texas in 1997.

“Love the guy,” Smith says. “But it was just his time to move on.”

“Just like we learned a lot from Tim, we learned from Paul as well,” Chandler says. “All of the sonic things he could do.”

Holding down the low end on For the Sake of Bethel Woods is bassist Scott Lee of fellow DFW roots-rockers The Texas Gentlemen. Lee has been a part of the extended Midlake family for a number of years now, having played on the BNQT album and on the members of Midlake’s various solo projects.

“Scott’s great,” Nichelson says. “He and McKenzie have played on a lot of records together. They’re a great rhythm section.”

One of the reasons Midlake decided to reform when they did was their relationship to the Denton community that birthed them.

“The band’s been around so long, and we’re all still in this little town,” Chandler says. “I think that a lot of bands that have stood the test of time sort of scatter like how families scatter. To me it was a no-brainer, we’re all still in this town, none of us have moved to L.A.”

“Yet,” Smith says with a laughing scowl.

“Yet,” Chandler agrees bittersweetly.

Pulido says that while he may not keep in touch with the North Texas music/art scene as much as he should (other than a select few musicians like Jonathan Tyler and Sarah Jaffe) the reason he and the rest of Midlake have remained in Denton is more of a practical one.

“It’s pretty cheap living,” he says. “To start a business like a bar or a studio like Joey and McKenzie did, or to even own a home, it’s a difficult thing to do, and it’s even become progressively more difficult thing to do in this town as prices rise, but Denton has historically had all of the things that we would want or need and be affordable to do so. Grow your family, put your flag in the ground, and say ‘I want to invest in more than just what I’m doing. I want to be a part of what the town is doing.’ It really has become that place because of that.

"It’s really difficult to move from that and change that scenery, especially as we grow older, have kids and such. There have been a lot of music and arts — because of the university — that has grown and stayed, but I’m curious how that’s going to change over the next five, 10 years.”

“I do wish we had a good bagel place, but that’s just me,” Chandler says with a laugh. “Call it ‘Bethel Bagels,’” jokes McClellan.

The camaraderie of Midlake is a sight to see. At one point, Smith is humorously recounting one of the band’s European tours circa 2009 when Chandler nearly jumps the gun.

“Tell him who opened for us.”

“Jesse, don’t mess my story up or I’ll have to karate chop you in the neck,” Smith says calmly.

This time Chandler laughs along with everybody else, and yields the storytelling rights to Smith: “Our label was like, ‘There’s this band with a record coming out, I think it would be great if they supported you.’ We were like ‘Sure, whatever.’ So on the first night of the tour, we saw a bunch of younger women in the front area and we were like ‘What is going on here?’ We’re not used to this,’” Smith says laughing, in reference to the band’s tendency to attract an older, predominantly male crowd.

“As soon as the opening act was done, all of those young people would clear out and we would see the actual, older Midlake fans, seated back in the theater area. It’s funny in hindsight because that band was Mumford & Sons.”

The rest of the band laugh and shake their heads.

Smith shrugs and makes his point: “So, if you want to be huge, just open for Midlake.” Pulido turns to me and says, “If you ever interview Marcus Mumford, tell him he owes us 300 pounds for his liquor cabinet.”

“During that tour, we went to a pub near our hotel to meet up with Marcus Mumford,” Smith says, resuming the role of raconteur. “People started whispering, everyone spotted him, he started getting ambushed and eventually he said, ‘We gotta go.’ Over [in England] there was a service before Doordash where we had 300 pounds of booze delivered, and around the time we got back to Marcus’ flat, the party started dying down and Marcus said, ‘All right guys, thanks for coming.’ We all looked at each other and said, ‘Did we just stock Marcus Mumford’s liquor cabinet?”

With all of this camaraderie and such a no-pressure environment, what was the biggest challenge Midlake faced during the recording of the new record?

"As you mature, you’re able to realize what a finished song, album or piece of art is. You’re able to recognize that more easily than when you’re 20. You’re like ‘Woah, I can do this and this and this,’ the feeling that you don’t have to look or be cool anymore.” –Jesse Chandler

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“Deciding on where to have lunch,” McClellan says.

“The second half of the day might have been a little less productive after lunch,” Pulido says with a laugh.

“To me this has been the least challenging record that we’ve ever made,” McClellan says. “Which all comes down to trust. We all trust one another, which was hard to accept in the beginning. I have a lot of respect for these guys and their abilities. For me, that will be the process going forward.”

On whether the freedom can be excessive without the comfort of constraint, Nichelson says it’s a nonissue. “It’s a positive thing,” he says. “Tim’s vision for the songs was very specific. The whole process was trying to get into his vision, there wasn’t time to think ‘Who am I as a musician? It was always through his filter. Everyone’s such a great musician in their own right, so there’s no apprehension.”

“It’s very freeing to be trusted. I wouldn’t go back,” Chandler says. “Though there’s little things that maybe I’d want to change in past songs or past things, I wouldn’t ever go back and do a 'George Lucas special edition,’” he says. “Maybe that’s just the jazz musician in me. It’s just a fleeting thing, and it's just a snapshot of what we were doing at the time, just like this is. I’m already thinking about what we could do next to develop this method. As you mature, you’re able to realize what a finished song, album or piece of art is. You’re able to recognize that more easily than when you’re 20. You’re like ‘Woah, I can do this and this and this,’ the feeling that you don’t have to look or be cool anymore.”

“No one is really ever cool,” Smith says. “So many things in the last five years; we’ve all had children, we’ve lost our parents, we’ve been through a pandemic,” Chandler says. “Collectively, everybody has been through trauma. It puts things in perspective for sure. Makes you realize what really matters. I don’t think any of us were willing to put ourselves through any additional trauma to make a record.”

“Amen!” Smith shouts.

“There’s sort of a trance-like state you get in when you’re recording,” Chandler says. “Even when you’re just messing around. Your mind is sort of blank and it feels like you’re hypnotized. You’re trying not to overthink things. As you get older and you get more experienced, you’re able to get to that place easier.”

“Is that’s what’s going on when you space out, Jesse?” Pulido interjects.

“Either that, or I’m thinking about bagels.”
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Vincent Arrieta
Contact: Vincent Arrieta