Maximo Park Interview By Dave Himelfield
Like so many others, Paul Smith and his Maximo Park cohorts spent eons waiting for one modest bus, to transport his brand of popular music into the public consciousness. Then suddenly a monolithic shining coach capable of space travel, turned up with their names emblazoned along the sides. They’ve just played to a Dry Bar that was dangerously over capacity and an American tour beckons. Oh…and did I mention that they’re the first guitar band to be signed to the electro head fuck label Warp Records? As you’d expect Paul Smith is currently rather psyched.
We sit on crates in the staff roof below Dry Bar. Smith is slightly more relaxed than his electric stage persona but he’s still wide-eyed, musing on what has happened over the past few months. Unlike many other lesser men put in his situation, his diction is measured, honest and articulate.
A few years ago I lived in the North East and recall nearly weeping in music shops and venues, at the abject lack of hopeful and important music. Smith agrees but explains how local adversity and isolation became Maximo Park’s greatest stimulus.
“There are a lot of stereotypes that already exist about the place, never mind the music that comes out of it. I think it’s because it’s the furthest north you can possibly go until you’re in Scotland and that’s a different story again. That’s why we formed a band because there was nothing to inspire us. If somebody else (had) already fulfilled the criteria of being a really great pop band with lyrics that meant something and…energetic shows you’d almost feel like “what’s the point in doing it?”…But we had something else to give.”
And the snowball of progress started to roll at quite an astounding speed. The musical climate in the North East drastically changed over a mere couple of years. Tedious pub indie bands disappeared under the weight of a new wave of unique artists. The North East for the first time in recorded history is now considered a musical hotbed where record company cronies will risk a 300 mile journey to uncover potential successors to The Futureheads, This Ain’t Vegas, and Your Codename is Milo.
Smith accounts such change to a “generational thing” where “people have got sick of the music that was stale” but he is keen to put out that this is no homogenous and self-limiting scene based movement.
“It’s not like somebody said, ‘Hey, I know! Let’s create a scene’ because there still isn’t a ‘scene’. It’s funny because people like The Futureheads have arrived. It’s weird because you start a band and other people in the country seem to be having similar ideas but there’s room for everybody if they’re individual enough. The bands that are there play very different music that’s why it’s good that it isn’t a scene. A scene reeks to me, of people with the same haircuts, playing very similar music and being very pally and backslapping. I’d rather people were a little detached from each other so that they could come up with their own ideas and challenge themselves, rather than being self-satisfied with the fact that they’re part of something. That’s the danger of collectives, that people look too inward rather than outward.”
Not that the North East isn’t self-supporting. It was only a few months ago where you could arrive at a venue as small as Newcastle’s Cluny pub and find The Futureheads and Maximo Park sharing a bill with upcoming local hotties like Kubichek! and Peace Burial At Sea.
Smith explains the distinction.
“People are willing to do gigs with each other. It’s not a competitive thing. There’s no rivalry, just people who dislike other bands because they’re not very good. People are pleased to know people from the same area making good music.”
It isn’t often that a guitar band signs to a label of note let alone to one that until now exclusively dealt with futurist electronica. Smith found this “Very welcome…once you get over the disbelief.”
We talk about influences and Smith cites Life Without Buildings as their musical heroes.
“They were the band we’d aspire to be like, not sonically but creatively; something that’s emotionally resonant but seems to be pushing drums and basses and guitars and vocals a little further into fresh pastures.”
However an equally wide appeal of Maximo Park’s seems to stem from their incorporation of other art forms and most crucially from the regular but nevertheless life-affirming everyday world.
“I try to soak up everything I possibly can. The poet Frank O’Hara who used to write in the 50s and 60s about everyday life but there (was) a magic to what he did. You can be inspired by anything it doesn’t necessarily have to relate directly to what you’re doing. Like reading a great novel by Cormack McCarthy and just feeling like they have a way with words and language.”
Perhaps Maximo Park are most alluring because they shrewdly observe “life in its entirety” as Smith says making the “bad bits and good bits” into “a well rounded creature”.
In a musical world that is currently trying to bury its head in a contrived rock n roll oblivion and sycophantic cool , Maximo Park succeed by representing a fully conscious, relevant and frank alternative. Smith understandably sees all rock n roll and cool clichés under a very dim light. Asked if he is “anti-cool and anti-rock n roll” he is unequivocal.
“Without a doubt. That’s one of the things I’ve always said. Rock n roll behaviour is just buffoonery.”
He then goes on to equate “cool” with “self-obsession”.
“We try to entertain people and that’s not seen as very cool, even though Kurt Cobain and these people entertained. It doesn’t mean anything. As soon as you sign a record contract you’re in business and it’s your job to please people and it’s a very special job but still ultimately you want to sell records to people. ‘Cool’ is just myth. It’s like putting on leather jacket makes somebody cool. It’s just rubbish. I think you should be yourself and that’s the coolest thing you can possibly be.”
They’re about to embark on an American tour and few have a sound more distinctively British than Maximo Park. I ask how Smith thinks they will get on and he hopes that benevolent human instincts will win through.
“All I know is that the passion will come through. People will know that we mean every word we say. Not in a naff way but in a very honest, genuine way. People will enjoy the showmanship, hopefully because there’s less coolness around. I guess they’ll be expecting that initial cool "New York" style, but I just want to play to people and they either accept it or not.”
Maximo Park have quite a distinctive image and I ask Smith if he think accusations of being stylised are justified.
“You’ve got to stand for something and stand up for yourself even though people might say we’re stylised. I wear a suit. You can read so many different things into it, but none of them are particularly deep. It’s not for everyone , but for us I wanted to make an effort and stand out from the crowd and when everyone’s wearing jeans and trying to be authentic and look as if they’re very normal people. We’re all normal people. That’s a given. I don’t need someone to mumble in ripped jeans and say, ‘Thanks very much, man. We mean it.’ Style is part of pop music and popular culture. There’s no way of getting around that.”
At a couple of early Maximo Park gigs I remember Smith saying, “Here’s some popular music that isn’t popular yet”. While this has coincidentally been realised, Smith accounts this as more to their “intentions at the time” - but that it is “nice to be able to say, “here’s some popular music” and for it now to ring true.
Words: Dave Himlefield
Pictures: Courtesy of Maximo Park Website and (c) Deidre O’Callaghan (press shots) Andrew Kendall (live shots)
(p) (c) mbm for musicdash 2005 - all rights reserved www.manchestermusic.co.uk