I did a face to face interview with Paul before the recent Sunderland gig and took a few pics at the show. My live review and a couple of pics were printed in Sunderland Echo and a shorter version of the interview attached is about to be printed in Collective magazine. It's a shame to waste the rest of the interview, so here you go - to use as you wish. I have larger versions of the pics...
In Person: Paul Smith - lead singer and songwriter of the highly acclaimed Maximo Park.
When did you first discover an interest in music?
I'd never really considered playing anything until I was about 12, when I heard a guy called Nick Drake. I loved the way he played the guitar and it encouraged me into going upstairs into the loft where my dad had a Spanish guitar, which he couldn't really play either. We used to get it out and clang away. It didn't really make any nice sounds (then), but I've still got the same guitar now and it sounds really beautiful. I just kept putting it back in the loft and ignoring it, as I didn't really feel I had any aptitude towards it.
There was a second point, when I was 17, when I picked it up (again) and started playing with other people and making an effort to get better at it. I was at Hartlepool Art College and I met identical twins called Rachel and Laura. We used to call ourselves Me and The Twins. We played a couple of times last year at The Cluny and at Morden Tower as well - all acoustic - just to 50 people on the City Walls at Newcastle. I've never stopped being in a band with them. Whenever I've got time, I'll always play, because I don't get to play in Maximo Park. Which is good in a way because (with Maximo Park) I get to jump around and perform instead. The twins are also now in a band without me, playing a similar sort of music. They are called Chippewa Falls and they live in Newcastle.
I just realised that playing guitar with other people, you come up with stuff you would have never thought of. One person plays a rhythmic part and someone else will do something melodic. I learned how to have fun making music. Up until then, when you are struggling away with a guitar in your bedroom it just sounds amateurish. But when you are playing with other people, you can record stuff onto tapes. Then you can play it to yourself and think "Oh, those were the best bits and those were the parts where we were improvising and didn't sound very good at all". That's what got me into music really and got me into playing the guitar.
Tell me about how you got started with Maximo Park
Maximo Park saw me playing guitar with Rachel and Laura. The guys were looking for a performer and they knew that I used to jump around with my guitar in the louder bits of this instrumental music that I was making with the twins.
They also thought I might be able to sing, because someone had heard me in a nightclub, singing along to a song. I was in World Headquarters (the nightclub), standing next to our drummer Tom's girlfriend at the time and she heard me singing along to Stevie Wonder's Superstition. I was just belting it out to myself. I didn't know if I could sing or not. I certainly didn't have the guts to do karaoke before that.
Tom approached me and said "We know you like performing" and he told me his girlfriend had said, "Paul might be able to sing as well". So they just put two and two together and luckily enough. Those guys were a tight band. They wanted to concentrate on their instruments. They found it a lot easier to play the guitar and the bass really well once I'd come in and freed them up. They wanted someone who would get involved with the crowd and stuff. With them having been together a year or so and knowing each other and their history - it was easy for someone like me, an amateur, to just come in and express myself and let it out. And it came across as very natural.
Even when we played our first concert, I didn't realise that over the last three months, when we'd been practising, I'd been singing in my own accent. People suddenly were saying "That's a bit weird - you are singing like you talk". And I said, "but that's the most natural thing in the world". The first two or three rehearsals, I was in a room with these four guys just trying to do something that was natural, and not feel really awkward. Of course, some of the more natural things you do, like singing about personal things or just trying to free yourself up ARE the most awkward things. It's a funny time, the first couple of practices. I was singing really quietly, like I'm doing on some of our new b-sides. Now that I've got a bit more control over my voice, I can do that a bit more.
But, it was (also) a rock'n'roll group so the only thing that seemed natural was to sing my heart out. I never wanted to be a singer in a band actually. A lot of the people in local bands, they want to be stars more than they want to be singers, the music comes second, which is daft to me. I've learnt to put on a show and entertain, because I believe that that is a strong part of music, but that's got to always be peripheral or secondary to the music. A lot of singers don't have anything to say, you know, they are not singing about anything - they are just repeating a cliché, over and over again, and you know I didn't really want to do that. It had never struck me up until this point. I thought - what do I feel strongly about, what does the music I like sound like? And it's just people enjoying making music in the end. So out of all those little beginnings.
Who is your favourite singer of all time and why?
It's difficult to choose just one - I've got three or four in each category. As far as male singers go, it would be soul singers like Marvin Gaye and Otis Reading. Those two voices for me, you know, they are just raw. The sound that's coming out is pretty direct. Marvin Gaye was probably more likely to have been thinking about his elocution when he was singing, but then the notes just come out and they hit you and put the shiver up your spine, as all good music should.
But then there is this more obscure guy, who sings in a totally different way - quite untutored and fragile. A guy called Arthur Russell. He was around in New York City in the mid to late 70s and early 80s. He's made disco records; he's played the cello as well. Some of the later records he made, after 1980, were just him and a cello and an echo unit. He would loop his cello playing, so you would have a rhythm going on in the background. It is very intimate music, even though there is quite a lot of rhythm going on. He influences a lot of dance music people, like the guys who produce The Rapture, The DFA, who were involved with them originally. James Murphy of LCD Sound System has just recently re-mixed an Arthur Russell song as well. There is a CD called The World Of Arthur Russell, which has mostly disco stuff on, but it's got two songs that are just him and a cello. Jennifer Warnes is on one of them actually, as a backing vocalist. He just had a pool of musicians. He worked with David Byrne and Phillip Glass - just this melting pot of musicians and artists from New York.
Female voices are the ones that I always think of as my favourite singers. Chan Marshall from Cat Power - her last record, The Greatest, seems to have got to a lot more people and shows a different side to her. For me, it's all about her voice. The songs are sometimes very simple, as with many great singers, like Aretha Franklin. It just feels very natural and there's a depth to it. Again, it's just kind of soul music.
Do these favourites have an influence on your own music making?
I think you take something from these singers and put it into your own music. I think what I do as a singer is more and more just soul music, but not in the genre way. I'm singing about things that matter to me, quite personal things. (I mention that there is a lot of sadness and melancholy in his songs). I would say there's a lot of melancholy in life obviously. We try and turn it on its head really, especially with the tunes - we love melody.
I feel that as time goes on, the more records we make, the more people will see us as a quite eclectic and diverse band. Even on our new record, Our Earthly Pleasures, there are songs like Karaoke Plays, with big grand choruses, and the same with Sandblasted And Set Free. I think people will take a few listens to really get their heads round the fact that we can do different things.
I have no idea what kind of music we make sometimes. It's not indie, it's not rock although there are rock moments on our record, and it's not pop either. It's funny, people always try to put you into categories, of course, it's natural, but the records that we make will kind of come from different places.
Who/What are you listening to at the moment?
I'm listening to Electrelanes new album. They are supporting us in London, we've managed to get them on, and they played The Cumberland Arms in Byker the other week. They are four girls from Brighton - I think they live in Berlin now - and their record, No Shouts No Calls, is really good.
There is also a guy called Peter Wolf. My mate gave me one of his albums for my birthday and I'd never heard it before. I was on a sleeper train from London to Glasgow a couple of days ago, and there's a song called Midnight Train, and I just thought "What a coincidence". I put it on in my headphones while I was trying to get to sleep, and I felt like I was on a little adventure.
What is your favourite place to play live?
Another tough one, but I think one of the best audiences is the Glaswegian audience, and we had that experience the other night at Glasgow Barrowlands. It's amazing. All the Scottish people on the crew will be saying "Its gonna be a good un tonight". The first time we played there was just! It's hot, it's got a history about it, it's in the market area - it's part of the markets.
I think it's nice when there is a history to a venue. I really liked being around Middlesbrough Town Hall when we played there, especially because I'm from Billingham, so it was great to be in there as a band. It's incredibly beautiful. There are stained glass windows, a wooden stage underneath you. You really feel like you are part of some theatrical tradition and some sort of musical tradition, with people like Yehudi Menuhin ingrained into the stained glass. Just there is something about the place.
The Southampton Guildhall has a similar feel and Aberdeen Music Hall, where we were last night, was another. It had paintings in the wall, really old paintings in the balcony area, and a big pipe organ. I like wandering around them (places like that), I like being in them.
We've just played Nottingham Rock City and it is quite an ugly building, I think, but it's all geared towards having a great atmosphere. The stage is a bit smaller and even though you are playing to two and a half thousand people, that makes it more intimate visually. It also has three tiers as well as a big pit full of people; so all the people are closer to you. Big halls are very grand on great occasions, but there are people at the back who aren't seeing as much as they could be.
Playing in New York is never hard; it's never a task. It's so vibrant. We've played a number of times in New York. Los Angeles is a strange place - we've had good times and bad times there. But New York - if you can't have a good time in New York, there is something wrong with you. We sold out The Bowery Ballroom and that was one of the great nights of our lives.
What's best, life on tour or recording in the studio?
It's nice to be back on the road. Once you've made a record, people buy it and they make their own opinion of it, and then if you go out and play it live, people's opinion will alter and change. When people see us tonight, they'll think of some of the new songs differently after seeing us live. It feels like it's a real purpose for us to be out there playing. When we are not playing - you wonder what you are supposed to be doing (laughs).
I also love making records. The last record that we made - I had such a great time, because we were living above the studio in London. As a result, you know, you can just pop off and do your own thing. Get a book out, listen to some music and then go down (to the studio) inspired, and lay down a vocal. Then go and watch somebody else doing their part for the songs. And you just feel like you are creating and I think there is something about being on the road that isn't as creative, clearly it's a performance, but there is also something nice about reaching people and making a very physical connection.
You know, you can't value one above the other, because the live shows are all about the moment and that's what you are trying to get into your music - this momentary thing - and that's kind of a struggle, but it's an enjoyable one to have. Sometimes when we're on tour we end up writing songs anyway - it doesn't go away. You feel like that's what you've got to do. There's an element where if you can't see people enjoying your music, then it becomes very abstract. You know, there's lots of people seem to have bought our new record, but I can't imagine that. I need to go out and see that people like it, and then enhance what they already know about us.
How is the current tour going?
It's kind of like starting again for us right now. It was the same when the first record came out. All the people who came to the shows had got the album and heard a couple of songs on it, and their responses were quite similar to what we are getting now. People are excited but they haven't been listening to the songs forever and it's not their favourite record.
The shows we were playing towards the end of touring the last album, were just such celebratory moments, where it felt like everybody just loved this record that we'd made. Again, I'm looking forward to watching this little scale where people are excited at the shows now and we get a great reception every night but give it another year and some of these songs will be people's favourite of all time, or their favourite Maximo Park songs instead of Apply Some Pressure.
There are so many different possibilities and each night is quite different. (For example) Parisian Skies will go down really well in Cardiff and Your Urge will go down really well in maybe Sunderland tonight - you don't know what's going to happen and it helps you define each gig as something different rather than feeling like you are going through the motions. That's something that we've always battled against. The audiences kind of make it very different for us. If the audience isn't responding you give it some more, and if they are responding really well then you give it some more as well. I think people have never got anything less than the best we could offer each night and I think if we keep that up then life will be interesting for us and the people who like us.
The internet - friend or foe?
It's a way of life. We live in the present and it's very hard to condemn something that allows people access to information. But it is to be taken with a pinch of salt in many respects. It's a double-edged sword. Our album was leaked onto the internet two or three weeks before it came out. I want people to read the lyrics and look at the artwork and think about what the title means and what track is coming next. That's how I (personally) love listening to music. We put a lot of effort into those things and even the tracklisting. People are downloading individual tracks and I want to say - "Ah, no, this is supposed to flow like a classic record". On the other hand (the downloaders) may not have heard our music (at all) in any other way. You've got to say fair enough. This music is not just here to sell records - its here to for people to enjoy and have as part of their lives. I'd rather it was part of their lives than not.
Describe yourself in three words? And the band?
The Band: Life-affirming, energetic, pop
Me: (We were short of time and Paul didn't answer this last question, so I'll do the honours):
Talented, Kind-hearted, Genuine
Our Earthly Pleasures is out now and Maximo Park are currently touring the world.
Karen Dawson 2007
25th May 2007, 11:23
the cities eats slow up
from nothing create
a good taste
the fear it at us robbed
the Animal we kept at home
the golden skin
their hearts made of cash
the country is still free. sold truth as conviction
i feel stupid
i like wrong sentence
trains of trought
The correct way to hide the opinion
speech not with your friends
cut the hair. make some noise. artist life. big legs
the pretty melody.
the Joy of life- people show to much
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21st May 2007, 22:32