That first step into Midlake's new studio is a tricky one -- especially at night. The entry way is actually a sectioned-off sitting room, and it's pitch black, forcing one to step lightly to avoid knocking over anything of value. The blackness is fitting, representing the blank slate a new album affords. Then again, maybe it's the shadow of their previous effort hanging over their recording. Maybe it just depends on who you ask.
My first peek in to the studio's control room is met by blank stares and surprise. Due to a mix-up, I'm two hours early. Turns out this was a good thing, though.
"I'm glad you got here early," a tired-looking Eric Nichelson confessed. "I'm beat." His bandmates agree, saying they had just about reached a good stopping point for the day, anyway.
The weight now off my shoulders, they even offered to play a new song, called "Procession," whose mixing I interrupted. The song's plodding, trudging sound indicates a departure from their previous album, The Courage of Others. Yet it's still unmistakably Midlake.
During my visit, I asked the band what else they're doing differently this time around as they record their new album. See our conversation in full after the jump.
How is the recording process different for you guys this time out?
Eric Pulido: This time, for us, has been a different approach. In the past, that's how it's been for us. We record, and we don't do other stuff, and when it's done then we tour the record. Then you play those new songs mostly. As we've grown, and we've had more songs to pick from, you can mix those in and it gets a little easier. I think the last album, because we took so long making it, we didn't want to do that again. We can't afford to do that again. We're no Radiohead, y'know. It's nice to be able to do things when inspired or motivated or whenever, and hopefully we're always motivated because this is our livelihood and we don't want people to forget about us. And we're not above doing other jobs to... subsidize our incomes. [Laughs.] But it would be nice to not have to do those things. If we could be a little quicker with the new record, and play a few shows in the interim, that would be great because it keeps you out there and helps the finances. And, you don't want to forget how to play live. After the last record, we thought, "OK, we haven't played a live show in a couple years!"
You guys seemed to reach a certain level as a performing unit the past year or so. Is there also a desire to keep the momentum going in looking for shows to play while you're recording the new album?
Pulido: Yeah. We're not going to go seek out every festival or possible show, but if something cool comes up, we wanted to consider it. We did tour throughout all of last year, and we played most of those big festivals, and it's hard to play them again the very next year with nothing new. But there are always some other festivals. And that's what we're doing in August and September, playing some of those festivals. And we hope to have the album done, or almost completely done. And that's how the Band of Horses thing came about. They contacted us, and they'll be in our backyard, so we thought "Why not?" It gives us a chance to play a few new songs we've been working on, and we never played in Dallas for the last album. We did a show in Denton, but that was it. So, it'll be fun.
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How did it feel to win the Mojo magazine award for Best Live Act?
McKenzie Smith: "Whoa!" They have to give that award out to a different band every year, and we're aware of all the other great bands that won that award before us. We won't win it again next year, even if we're a much better live band than we were last year! I guess something clicked, something worked right. It's an honor, especially considering the other bands we were grouped with. Do we really think we're a better live act than Radiohead? No, I don't feel like we're on their level, but it's an honor nonetheless. But what can we do? Hopefully we can live up to that.
Pulido: The chief editor (of Mojo) was at one of our shows with John Grant at SXSW this year. He's a good guy, his name is Phil Alexander. He's been real supportive of us and of John, and he kept telling us, "Oh, man, this is the gig of the festival!" It feels good when an editor says something like that...
Smith: And no one from Rolling Stone or Spin is coming around. But at least we have Mojo magazine! [Laughs.]
How's the recording experience for this record compared to The Courage of Others?
Eric Nichelson: Oh, man... [At this point, Nichelson starts biting his thumbnail, visibly struggling to come up with the right words.] Well, we're three months in, and this one's been probably the most positive thing we've ever done. I was actually thinking about that earlier this evening -- thinking back to the process with older albums, successes and failures, and just trying to get a feel of where we're at in this process. So far, this one is by far the most positive. We don't have a lot to show for it, but we're further along at this point than we have been. We have more ideas recorded, and more things to pull from than before. With the last album, we just worked on a song for an endless amount of time. We learned a lot last time, so we're just doing it differently.
What did you learn?
Smith: Don't do it that way! [Laughs.]
Pulido: Don't kill songs...
Nichelson: I guess you can work to a point on one song, and then you have to move on. Maybe come back to it later. We just worked too hard, or got too focused, on one thing and allowed ourselves to get tired of it. Anything goes now. Whatever happens, whatever comes out of us individually is accepted as part of who we are, and we're identifying with that and shining the best light on it. We're not trying to go after something.
Pulido: With any record, there's always a level of ambiguity for what you're going for. You can't always spell it out: "Well, this album will consist of this, and this, with this, and it will all equal this." You don't know. So, you just start recording, playing together, throwing all sorts of ideas around, and hopefully as you're doing that, the image gets clearer and you do get an idea of what is working. The last album was this amoeba that kept moving around and took forever to take shape. When you do that, you lose that freshness. We had to hang on to that. We pulled through last time, but this time we wanted to keep that element of excitement and freshness. We didn't want to beat up the songs. We would move on and think, "Well, we let that one down, or we failed on that song". And good ideas were dumped, and some songs were lost because of that. A lot of what we've done here [for the new album] has been a lot of jamming. There have been maybe a couple of full songs that we fleshed out, but the rest has been just ideas. Tim [Smith, songwriter and lead singer] has been writing a lot, and after about three months, we're ready to sit down and start refining them and get them sounding good.