Frontman Paul Smith talks his empathetic world view, the connection music affords & his work inside Wilco’s Loft studio for the new record
Maximo Park’s Paul Smith is a humble and warm-hearted man whose energized stage antics have been electrifying stages as he delivers sharply barbed lyrics of social awareness and personal reflection. His band’s new album Risk To Exist is perhaps their most forthright release in years. Political bullying, the odd validation of fear, and a struggle for peace and empathy are the key elements here. Smith bring some of the sharpest penmanship of his career on an album that was recorded all live in Wilco’s Loft studio in Chicago.
Speaking ahead of album release ARTISTdirect’s Christopher Friedmann caught up with Paul Smith just after rehearsals for a summer of live dates and touring the new material. Talk turned to the influence of American sounds, the importance of making connections with the creative process, and just why it’s important to reach out and touch the crowd.
Christopher Friedmann: We’re speaking today because you’re about to release “Risk To Exist”. You’ve been creating this album for some time, you’re about to share it with the world – you’re now doing press and making yourself vulnerable. How’s the mood in the camp?
Paul Smith: I’ve just finished rehearsals with the band. The mood is good – we’re feeling pretty good about things. It is that very nervy moment when you’re about to reveal the album to everybody, and you obviously think it’s really good (Laughs) or you wouldn’t bother! I’m not sure if some bands go through that process, if I’m honest with you. We’ve always been of the opinion that you’re adding something to the world, and there’s enough rubbish in the world as it is, so if you’re going to give something and ask people to pay money for it, and invest their time, then it should be worth their time.
Obviously not everybody can like what you can do, for sure. It’s going to appeal to some people more than others. But at this point in time nobody has told is it’s rubbish yet, so we’re excited! (Laughs) It feels like a fresh chapter for the band, as it does for each record that we make. I think that’s the most important thing, but if lots of people like it you can be confident enough to play to those festival audiences of thousands. If nobody really likes it you can play it to thirty people down the pub and still feel the same sense of excitement with the song.
CF: This is your sixth studio album – can you speak a little on the difference between any nerves that you feel now, as opposed to the nerves that you experience in the days before “A Certain Trigger” was released?
PS: Well, we certainly didn’t know that a large amount of people would get into our music as they did with our first record. There’s a similar feeling with each record; you don’t know what people are going to make of it, because you weren’t sure of that initial response either. We certainly don’t take anything for granted.
I think I probably got more nervous putting out my own record because it was quite different from Maximo Park records – then I put out another one that I felt more confidence in. Then I put out a record with my friends – Peter – and I was really confident because I wasn’t by myself (Laughs) but it was still a different kind of music so I wasn’t really sure what people would make of it – that gives you more nerves. The first one – we didn’t have any nerves because we didn’t know what would come in terms of attention. Then, after that we also felt… well, I personally felt very confident because I was being buffered by the rest of the guys. When you’re in a band there is that sort of ‘us against the world’ mentality.
We’re not like the Ramones or anything like that, we’re not all dressed the same, or have the same kinds of opinions on things – we’re a pretty diverse bunch within the band. When it comes to our music, when you have a few people around you that you’ve spent a couple of years making the music with, it toughens you up and it helps you take any knocks that you might get. I suppose I’m the more sensitive one (Laughs) out of the band – which is perhaps why I’m the lyricist. But, yes – we have a thing, if anyone says anything bad about the rest of the band, the other guys are like “Come on!” Whereas I’m the one that’s more like to be upset! (Laughs)
CF: The title track of the album is significantly charged, and addresses the crisis of dislocated people. Can you speak a little about why this issue is so important to you?
PS: I’d seen an article in a newspaper in the UK. It was a longread article and so it went a little bit further than just a news story. It gave a little background into what was going on in the Mediterranean and the plight of the refugees, and of economic migrants as well – who find themselves in a very perilous situation when they’re cut adrift when they’re in the middle of the sea – when the people who have got them there, the smugglers and traffickers, who don’t care about the end results of what happens – it’s a desperate situation.
The article was also speaking about an organization called MOAS which stands for Migrant Offshore Aid Station. I was just really impressed by their work – they go out and put boats into the sea and rescue people and take them to safety. Obviously that doesn’t always go to plan, and I’ve also seen footage on the news of these rescues that were going on, and it brings it home to you – and it really brought it home to me, more than a little bit of ticker-tape going on along the bottom of a newsfeed – “Boat People Being Killed” – all that kind of, very brief and bulletpoint-esque.
It just all triggered something in me, and I was very empathetic toward people in trouble, as most people are, but also because at the time it was so topical, and it’s still going on today – and will continue to go along, as a real-life situation away from the news headlines – at that point in time our government was on the TV saying “We shouldn’t go and rescue these people because it will just encourage them!” and I just thought it was one of the most callous things I’d ever heard. For whatever reason, these people are there and essentially the people who are in our government are actually the people who can do something about this issue – especially as part of an international community. The fact that they wanted to turn people away who were drowning, it made me angry – and there’s a bit of that in the album.
We’ve tried to find a balance between the more political stuff and the human response to things. I think a lot of people can relate to needing help at some point in their life or needing to be saved at some point – and I was just trying to patch that to a more specific narrative and hopefully people can join the dots between their own experiences and the experiences of the people that you might see on the news. I think that’s the essence of empathy – to be able to put yourself in somebody else’s situation and help them if that’s what they need.
CF: This album has a sense of broad empathy. Do you feel that compassion is lacking in the world at the moment?
PS: I think there’s definitely, especially in mainstream discourse – you just have to look at the U.S. Election. We were in the U.S at the time of the running and the debates and I was… I suppose the songs are about what goes on in our country, and things that are close to home and easily observable or next direct experience are going on. However, being out in America when those crazy statements were being made about building walls, and calling Mexicans rapists criminals – just all of these inflammatory statements in every context and yet they were like “Well, we should listen to what this person has to say” – the rule of the presidential election, and it was almost as if these things were validated, and I think across the record there’s words “The language is violent, we live in a violent age, entitlement triumphs over shame” and it’s all around us.
There are people who can change things – we vote for them – it’s their job, really to protect and to make life better for everyone, rather than just a very small percentage, and yet if feels like that’s the thing winning… there’s a predominance of this kind of cruel, right-wing rhetoric. If you believe in the opposite of that – you should probably speak out about it because there are people whose voices can’t be heard and you have a voice and you have to use it for other people’s benefits. I don’t mean that in a kind of ‘celebrities speaking out’ way or ‘artists’, it’s just… if you see someone being mistreated out on the street – now is the time to speak out. There’s a lot in the world that we can’t do much about but on a local level, on a mental level we can change our thinking.
In our country especially, if you hear the word “benefits” I guess in America it would be “social security” or “Obamacare”… it’s a thing that’s being vilified to help vulnerable people, and in our country you hear “benefits” and people use terms like “benefit scroungers” or “benefit cheats” and you see that, printed a lot in the mainstream, biggest selling and quite right-wing newspapers and it just becomes second nature for people to think of it that way. I think of it that way, I don’t agree… but if I hear a word a bunch of other words will just associate in your mind and you go “What?! How has it got to this stage?!?”
Meanwhile, it feels like other people – the western world are turning a profit everywhere. Yet the cost of living goes up – people are using food banks to go and get free food that’s been donated, and yet we feel like ‘everything’s cool – it can’t be that bad’ but there are fringes of society that aren’t really connected to the supposedly profitable, healthy financial situation. It’s a hard thing to talk about because people feel like they’re under attack from certain places. You hear about immigrants coming to take certain people’s jobs instead of the real causes being addressed, like that people don’t pay their taxes – whether it’s Donald Trump bragging about it in one of the debates… the night I got there the guy was like “Well, that makes me smart” talking about evading tax. And yet you’re told he’s a man of the people. In our country we have Nigel Farage – a man of the people – supposedly against the establishment, but his parents paid for his education for him, and now he’s a banker and he tries to come and talk to the people by preying on their worst fears and their worst prejudices. I guess we could talk about this for quite some time, but there are plenty of examples of this cruel attitude.
There’s a lyric on the album “There’s enough to go around, there must be a different way” and I think… it’s not even for me to propose this, I’m just a singer in a band, but I do think that pop music has to engage the world around it. And that’s definitely what I see in the world at the moment.
CF: Well, let’s step away from politics a little, and go to your time in America. You recorded the album in Wilco’s famous Loft Studio in Chicago. I believe you recorded all of the tracks live… it seems like you were clearly interested in the dynamic and making it all momentary, and to preserve a sense of occasion. What inspired that decision – were you purposefully trying to break with something of habit?
PS: We’ve always gone into the studio thinking “Right, well we better catch some energy!” Y’know – the stuff that makes us, hopefully, a good live band. People have commented on it over the years “Oh I loved that track when you played it, it came alive” So we wanted to try and tap into that, and so to record to the first time, properly live – so we did. We added Mimi Parker from Low – she came in and did a day of vocals on five of the songs, which was amazing for us. We also had a horn section come in and play on a few songs as well. We felt that there was a more moody, brooding aspect of the music, and it was also because there was a bit more space in the songs than we’ve allowed in the past. We used to tried to cram in as many hooks as possible – we felt that one of the things that made us Maximo Park and different from other bands. There are still plenty of hooks on the new record, but not everything has to be going hammer and tongs all the time.
The music that we demoed was pretty groovy, and we felt it would benefit from working with someone like Tom Schick in a studio like the Loft because we knew we could get a great live sound. We all know Wilco records and they can go from pretty experimental to pretty traditional – just having the sound of a band playing in a room. I think we felt like the songs were strong enough to carry that – we’d worked on them for a couple of years on and off. I’d done a couple of solo records, and we did some shows to celebrate our tenth anniversary which then means you spend a couple of months rehearsing and getting everything right, so on and off we’d worked on the songs long enough to feel really confident and playing them live.
We’d been spending the last couple of years with a guy called Paul Rafferty playing the bass, who was in a band called Hot Club de Paris – he was a friend of ours and he slotted in seamlessly when we played live. On the last record Too Much Information we’d recorded it a piecemeal, because our old bass player was in India and he couldn’t play on all of the tracks so we kind of pieced it together. It was more of a kind of studio thing, even though it has some of that live energy, it was still pretty electronic. I think with this record we could have gone further in that direction as well.
There are a couple of songs that leant themselves to that more modern sounding production style. “What Equals Love” or “The Hero” could have sounded very different, but instead they still have that funkier, dance style. We were pretty inspired by Motown or more James Brown-style records and so it made sense for us to finally, after five records, to let that influence seep in a little more. We were in the place of those musical styles, and we definitely thought ‘we’re in America – let’s get close to the source and find our influence from American musicians’ so when we got the horns on there it warmed things up a little.
I feel like The Loft is very much a musician’s space you’re always engaged with what’s going on – it’s all open plan there’s no division, it’s more like when you rehearse. So for us it was a nice excuse to get out of the country and go somewhere and to something totally fresh. When you’re doing something away from home and your mind is focused and you’re in a studio that you’ve seen on DVDs (Laughs) you’re pretty excited and it generally rubs off on the recording.
CF: Through the years of your career, you’d have had a number of ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ experiences – but is there one thing that stands out in your mind – a more human level event – that reminds you why you continue to not only make music, but put in the hard yard of touring, and taking part in interviews?
PS: Well, I can’t even remember where it was now. But we came over to America and we played some shows. We were due to play an instore in a record somewhere in a mall. We drove forty five minutes or an hour to get to the mall, and I don’t know what had happened but there was only two people there… (Laughs) which is kind of embarrassing, obviously. The man there was all apologetic and that kind of thing. And that’s one of the moments when you question exactly why it is you’re doing what you do, y’know? “Why are we here? We spent a lot of money on visas?!” and we’re more of a cult band in America – we don’t have the financial fire power… we don’t have a big label. We have to hope that word of mouth does it’s thing.
Most of the time we play our shows in a little theater or in a bar, wherever we play in North America – the people there make it worth our while. But this was one of those moment when we thought “Oh god! This is hardcore!” (Laughs) and we spoke to the two people that had turned up and they said “We can’t get into your show tonight because it’s over 21’s and we’re only 19” and they looked pretty young, I can’t even remember.. But they looked about 15, I had no idea… they were closer to the record store than to the gig, they couldn’t go to the gig – they were really happy that we’d turned up.
We played a couple of songs and this young lad started crying during one of the songs – I can’t remember which one now – but I just thought “This is why we’re doing this” It’s for people to have that kind of reaction, to have that kind of connection with the songs. It blew me away. If you’re just in a record shop and feeling awkward and then you get into the song, that’s all that’s required… every night on stage that’s what I go through. I could have played the song three hundred times before, but you have to find that place to get into because it’s special to the people in the room, or they’ve paid money for it.
Just doing this little show, I felt like crying! (Laughs) I felt like ‘wow – this is the kind of influence, the kind of power that music has over me, and how it inspires somebody else – it made me realize that we were doing a good thing. However many pitfalls there might be in making this music, or trying to get it out to people. However hard it is to get it out there, it made it truly memorable… I can still picture the record store and the mall. It was was a pretty strange experience but totally fulfilling in a really weird way.
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