Midlake return with a new front man and a new attitude on their fourth album Antiphon. On the eve of their appearance at this year’s Sligo Live festival the band’s Eric Pulido talks to Alan Corr about moving on and finding a new sound
A year ago Midlake were the band most likely to. They were warmly embraced by critics for the way they’d married the golden folksiness of CSN&Y and the soft focus confections of Bread, rapturously received at music festivals, and had won the gratitude of a certain kind of music geek for coaxing John Grant out of retirement to record his magnificent debut solo album Queen of Denmark.
However, all was not well for the six-piece Texan act. They had began life in 1999 as improvisational jazzers and morphed into a six-piece Jethro Tull meets Radiohead proposition and they were two years into recording their fourth album when lead singer Tim Smith announced he was quitting.
Those protracted recording sessions certainly seemed to suggest growing tensions but as splits go, it was never going to be blood on the studio floor, drunken brawls, and legal wrangling for these southern gents.
Smith wished the band well (despite some choice announcements about Midlake, the band he has formed, becoming “stale” and “lifeless”), and Midlake (despite saying they felt “suppressed” and “battered” by their singer’s attitude), wished Smith well too.
However, fans, and Midlake fans tend to be a very dedicated bunch, were aghast. Just as their new favourite act were about to truly break into into the Grizzly Bear/Dirty Projectors league, a key player had upped and left.
Remaining players McKenzie Smith, Eric Pulido, Eric Nichelson, Evan Jacobs and Paul Alexander paused briefly to consider their options and as students of music history to a man, they took heart from the experiences of Fleetwood Mac and Genesis, both acts who had soldiered on to massive success after their lead singers walked out.
Almost immediately they scraped the work they’d done on their new album and began again with what they’ve called “a perfect combination of being terrified and exhilarated.” Now a year after that upheaval, Midlake return with Antiphon. They’ve got a new front man in the shape of long-standing member Pulido and, as they say, a new feeling of freedom.
An antiphon is a call-and-response style of singing, from Gregorian chants to sea shanties, and the choice of that title seems to suggest a new sense of communication within the ranks. However, being both "terrified and exhilarated" in the studio must have made it an interesting recording experience.
“Each record presents its own challenges,” says Pulido diplomatically. “There’s no doubt that this record had its challenges. It wasn’t like it was all roses every day considering the challenges that came with the transition. There were growing pains that we definitely went through to get to where we were. I think the biggest difference was that there is more of a freedom and energy and communal input on this record.”
The situation with Smith was causing considerable strain within the band. They felt that they just couldn’t gel with his vision anymore. “I think there was a great deal of well wishes from us to Tim and from Tim to us. How we moved forward and what we did was some sort of a freedom for both of us. You get so used to the merry-go-round or the hamster wheel of what you’re doing sometimes you have to shake things up.
"We didn’t ask for it, it wasn’t what I wanted but you just kinda take the hand you’re dealt and you play it, you play it the best you can. That’s what we did. We wanted to carry on and we did that the best we knew how and also being honest in how we expressed ourselves musically.”
So as music fans, I take it you made the Syd Barrett/Peter Green comparisons? “Well of course we are aware of bands that have carried on whether it be Fleetwood Mac or Pink Floyd or Genesis or bands who redefined what they were doing,” Pulido says.
“There were examples that made it work and we’re very aware of that and in some way, shape of form you want to emulate that. you want to be able to pull up your boots straps and say, `hey these guys did it, we can do it too!'
“Ok we may not have had the success that those bands had before their splits but regardless, you can’t really dwell on that and get too dissective of it. You just think, we can do it if there’s a desire there. We can carry on and it does help for people to know those things about those other bands because we might know about them but other people might have to think Phil Collins, Genesis, 80s! Hopefully new people will be introduced to our old stuff and new stuff.”
You can tell the differences almost immediately. The Old And The Young, for example, sounds like a driving song which is not something you’d normally associate with the downbeat Texans. “There was a sense with this record of, as I said, freedom but also a chance to go down some roads that maybe had been blocked off,” Pulido says. “That song has a little more buoyancy to it. It’s a little lighter and that’s something we like and we were able to bring it to the table in a way that this record can be dynamic."
Milkmaid Grand Army EP, Bamnan and Slivercork, The Trails of Van The Occupanther and now Antiphon – is it always necessary for Midlake to have sublimely esoteric album titles? “No. The art of album titles is something that has been done for some time. There are all kinds of avenues you can go – small or large, you can name a place . . .
"For us it’s always been what at that particular time captures the meaning of the album or where the band is at and I think with this one it’s one word, Antiphon and it basically meant a response and that’s that this record was for us – a response so I felt it tied it in a nice little bow.”
Antiphon is released on Bella Union on November 1st. Midlake play Sligo Live on October 25th Knocknarea Arena Sligo IT and Vicar Street, Dublin on February 23rd 2014