The Trials Of Van Occupanther left critics everywhere smitten. A year on from its release, Midlake played the refurbished Royal Festival Hall, before which Barnaby Smith caught up with frontman Tim Smith
“Give me a day full of honest work/And a roof that never leaks/And I’ll be satisfied,” goes the line from ‘Head Home’, the third track of Midlake’s quite excellent 2006 album, The Trials of Van Occupanther, proving Henry David Thoreau is alive and kicking in the small town of Denton, Texas.
Such an album of pastoral imagery and lamentations for a Romanticised past (that, granted, probably never existed in the first place) might jar a little alongside the urban soul of Amy Winehouse or, the kids’ favourites, Arctic Monkeys. But it was these two acts, among others, that Van Occupanther took on for Best Album at the MOJO Awards in June. The Good, The Bad and The Queen took the honours.
When I spoke to Tim Smith, Midlake lead vocalist and songwriter, he seemed a little vague on the details.
“I heard about this the other day and that you’d be calling. I have no idea what that is. Is it voted for by MOJO listeners?”
I explain about the magazine and the awards.
“Oh. Err, well that’s very wonderful I guess. It’s a great honour.” We both chuckle.
But seriously, since the release of Van Occupanther, Midlake have enjoyed a year that most rock bands would kill for, yet the reserved and humble Smith is adamant success hasn’t gone to their heads, and is even conscious of the imperfections of that album, a rustic, Neil Young-esque portrait of a fictional 19th century misanthrope.
“I’m not completely satisfied with it,” he says. “There are a lot of little things wrong, but I don’t really want to mention them. I have my own vision of what a great album sounds like, and it wasn’t exactly there. I want to keep trying.
“But we have to move on. There are songs on Van Occupanther that I wouldn’t write again, I’d write them once then move on, and they’re not really worth singing anymore. And that’s a good thing.”
Smith also admits that the acclaim their second album received was a shock - they never thought it would be heralded as one of the best albums of last year. But it’s not so strange when you consider that Smith and his band wrote a collection of wonderful melodies with vivid lyrics of a bucolic world that is a bit alien to we Londoners.
It’s enough to make us all pack our bags and head for the woods. Musically, Van Occupanther clocked in somewhere between modern folk artists like Sufjan Stevens or the Pinetop Seven, 70s behemoths Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles, and the electronic rock of Grandaddy and Radiohead: “I listened to OK Computer for years, everyday,” Smith explains.
But perhaps the most interesting influence on Smith is an obscure 70s songwriter called Jimmie Spheeris, whose lost masterpiece Isle Of View Smith picked up in a bargain bin in a record store. It is quite lovely to hear a ‘rock star’ (Smith very tenuously qualifies as this) speak with such fan-boy passion for one of his inspirations.
“I haven’t heard anything like it,” he enthuses. “There’s a feeling on that album that you can only get from that album. It’s a very soft album, which I love. There are acoustic guitars, pianos, flutes – it’s totally my thing, and it’s coming from a different world to, say, Nick Drake or other songwriters. It’s a very magical album and he was quite a genius. It’s been my favourite for four years now.”
Smith’s veneration of others is unique – he also enthusiastically sings the praises of the Flaming Lips, British Sea Power, Rufus Wainwright, countless classical composers and, unfortunately, Travis. When it comes to Midlake’s place among them, he is disarmingly frank.
“I don’t have anything new to say, I think all the best stuff has been said,” he says. “I just wanted to create something that sounded beautiful.”
And sound beautiful it does. But that’s gone now, as Smith had emphasised. The slow process of producing new material is beginning to gather momentum. The band previewed one new track at their Shepherd’s Bush Empire show in April, with perhaps another to be included in forthcoming sets. Smith sees the new album, which is, apparently, at least a year away from release, as being “darker, but still with the 70s feel to it.”
Smith started out as a jazz musician before the epiphany of OK Computer veered his course to the current Midlake sound, which has brought them all their current adoration. But it was hard-earned. Label after label turned the band down, until the UK’s own Bella Union heard them, fell head over heels, and as Smith says, “wanted to have our babies”.
Debut album Banman and Silvercork ensued, an offering more in common with The Flaming Lips or Mercury Rev than the 70s folk-rock that defined Van Occupanther. Banman caused a ripple on the rock ocean and no more, before their sophomore effort undoubtedly plugged into a mood of ‘getting back to the garden’, ie, ‘new folk’. A sustained and organised marketing campaign helped too - June 2006 saw Van Occupanther fawned over in papers, magazines and on websites worldwide.
But again, let’s not forget that that is gone now. Of more immediate interest is Midlake’s return to London – on 11 July they played the refurbished Royal Festival Hall to a rapturous reception from their many UK fans.
This show, and when they were here in April at Shepherd’s Bush Empire, confirmed their considerable stature in the UK by packing out these venues- a far cry from their early days here, which Smith meditates on still.
“Shepherd’s Bush was quite huge, and that’s always wonderful,” he says, “but on several occasions we played the Luminaire when no one was there. It’s a very small place and I could see everyone’s faces, and this one girl gave me a very disapproving look as if she didn’t like our songs. So I said to her ‘oh, you don’t like this song?’ and she said ‘no way’.
“We’re still the same band, but now more people are coming out to see us. Wherever we play, its nice now.”
All in a day’s honest work. And the roof at the re-vamped Festival Hall didn’t leak. Smith will be satisfied.