The alt-rock band’s founder, guitarist and songwriter talks of his continuing solo projects and occasional detours into the avant-garde
As a founding member and early songwriter for Maxïmo Park, Duncan Lloyd was, and continues to be, a key component in their success. Creating tracks such as Graffiti and Going Missing before frontman Paul Smith took over the lyrical reigns, the guitarist helped establish them as one of the most vibrant and energetic groups to emerge from the buoyant British music scene of the mid-90s.
Lloyd’s creative output doesn’t end there, in 2008 he released his first solo album Seeing Double and his work under the name Decade In Exile provides a chance for him to exorcise his more avant-garde streak. His superb new album, I O U O M E, mixes some of Maxïmo Park’s vitality with the occasional experimental flourish and an overarching personal narrative, its release gave us the perfect excuse to speak with him about his songwriting and career in music…
We read that this album was mostly written whilst travelling at night, are you able to expand on how that came to be?
“I certainly think it came together lyrically while I was a travelling. Just the nature of what I do, you’re always heading out somewhere or going somewhere to play. A lot of times there’ll be long drives and so there were nights where there’s time to think about lyrics and reflect on stuff. Probably that moment which is almost like a twilight thing, where it’s the early hours of the morning and you’ve been awake so long and you’ve got that post-gig adrenalin which drains away very slowly and the mind keeps working and asking a lot of good questions, clarity forms at those times.
“Even when I’m at home as well, they’re just good hours to write lyrics. The songs themselves were starting to form and make sense as a record. It was the most natural thing to do, to start putting the whole thing together and it just felt like something that needed to be done differently. So it happened organically but at the same time I was aware that there was something in the back of my mind, thinking I’ve got to try to branch out with these ideas.”
How did that process happen?
“A lot of time I would write lyrics into my phone or little notebooks. It would often be reels of thoughts, something would trigger it and eight or nine lines in succession would come out and I’d follow them. Sometimes if it was during the day or I’d started something the night before, then it’s almost like you start in a subconscious way and would then make more sense of it and make a bit of an arrangement and put music to it to give it some sort of sense.
“Whenever I work with a recording on my phone I tend to do it with a guitar rather than just speak into it, I’d take a riff and then work on a melody with some of the lyrics. Sometimes it would just be if I was at home or travelling or in a soundcheck and I would have a few minutes to myself to put together some new riffs for the songs.”
Did you then work them up to demos or go straight into the studio with what you had?
“I tended to get home and do demos and then I would get a feel for them. The songs ended up a lot different to how they started. Songs like Really and Tomorrow’s Fires were fuller with lots more going on and I actually decided not to do that and really strip them back and just go in and record it. I wanted to get a bit of rawness in and I didn’t really want to produce it too heavily. I wanted it to be that you could still feel the live element and the just written element, hopefully that comes across.”
To us they sit somewhere between the sound of Maxïmo Park and Decade in Exile…
“I can totally get that. I guess if people go and look for that then they’ll certainly see it. Decade In Exile, there are some pop songs in there, but when I did the album release it was more experimental with drones and warped tapes and that is always exciting.”
Are you able to work on all of those things simultaneously or do you have to focus on one thing at a time?
“I can work across a number of tracks and sometimes it’s healthy to do that because when you’re working on something loads and loads you can get a bit lost. Or if I’m really onto something I’ll be like ‘I definitely feel like this is the right way to go’ but you can easily overwork stuff, so jumping to a completely different track or project helps, I find that works really well. I might have three or four tracks on the go and jump between them and then have a really fresh take on each thing. If I’ve got loads of things up for more experimental work, if I’ve got a tape machine and getting all that going on in the studio then I might just do a whole session and then pull a song out of that and there might be a whole load of other stuff that happens that I don’t use, but most of the time I’m jumping around different ideas to keep each one fresh.”
Do you ever become aware that something you’re writing for a solo project sounds too much like a Maxïmo Park song?
“I think it’s a bit of a mindset thing. If it’s a solo thing a lot of it starts on the acoustic, or sometimes a keyboard, and will be based on a lyrical idea that’s happening which I want to follow, and so I will follow that and it almost tells me that this is going to be a solo thing. I think with Maxïmo Park I’m conscious of writing something that would work with Paul, for him to sing, and to create space for the bass and the keys and I guess I’m almost hyper-aware when I’m writing for them because I’m writing for the band. Whereas on my own it’s following instinct, it just feels like the most natural thing to do is tot write songs as and when they come.”
Does that mean you feel slightly more exposed with the solo stuff?
“I guess. Decade In Exile is a more experimental project whereas I’ve never really gone out to go ‘hey I want to be a big solo singer,’ it’s more of wanting to do it out of exploration and curiosity. As a songwriter I’m wanting to develop, it’s more about the piece itself and trying to finish the album and if I can get that to work then that means I‘ve succeeded in some way. That’s what it is about for me, rather than having lots of people hearing about it. It’s great when people discover it, but going back to the question I think it probably is a bit more exposed. Something like Maxïmo Park, I’m not involved in the lyrics as much so I can focus on melody and structures and I’m more of an arranger and a composer. The solo stuff is a bit more heart on sleeve.
“I’ll tend to meander and write with a couple of chords or I might have a bit of a riff and I’ll let the words come out. There’ll be a line or two and then more seem to come. It’s the same when I pick up an acoustic, it’s almost like you’re jamming with yourself as a lot of it is very improvised. I don’t pick up a guitar and go ‘I want to write a song like The Velvet Underground,’ I’ll just play the chords without thinking about them, they just tend to happen as I’m thinking about words. I might even be on a couple of chords just to get the initial lyrical flow going and then turn that into something which is maybe more interesting melodically. It’s the most natural thing, just to sit and work something out.”
Is it a different type of pressure?
“I do feel like I don’t have that sort of pressure on me, whereas I do feel a degree of that with the band as everything has got to work for everybody in the group. Working alone, that pressure doesn’t really enter your mind, it’s more of an exploration and going off on a journey. That’s what this album has ended up being, this journey over a period of time and a collection of thoughts and reflections and little experiments that happened during that period.”
Did you always have plans for solo work?
“I think it was always there, I started writing more seriously for myself after about 2010. My dad passed away and that was a big thing and it led to a lot of writing and thinking about life and how fragile things are. I suddenly realised that it’s better getting it onto a bit of paper or onto a phone and then it’s a cathartic thing in a way, a weird form of therapy on a number of levels. It just seemed to me the most sense to follow this path, it’s something I feel I need to do.”
How ambitious were you when you were first starting out?
“When I was in Derby I was in a band that would play experimental stuff and just being in a band was great. When you’re younger being in a band is the best thing and I didn’t really think much beyond that. I had a four-track at home and was always experimenting and trying to write songs and work out how to write songs, so I thought I’d be doing something with music. Then going to art school I thought I’d do either art or music and hope that one of them works out. I didn’t think I wanted to be in a massive band and really break the charts, it was just something that was part of my existence, waking up and wanting to make music.
“It was only really when Maxïmo Park got going that it suddenly felt like we’re getting somewhere and it felt like we were a little bit different from everything else that was around at that point. Then a bit more ambition and drive kicked in and things started happening.”
We remember seeing you play a Brixton show at that time and there was a huge buzz around you…
“I do remember those times. It was very exciting around that period, you could still do the whole 7” thing and it was only just creeping online. There was a lot of gig going and people going to watch bands and that culture was very strong. It felt like a very intense time. That feeling of dead-end jobs and wanting to escape from washing pots or being in call centres, we really felt like something was happening and suddenly that whole drive kicks in and you want to write more. Once you trust each other in a group it becomes one unit with a vision for what we wanted to do. You never know how people are going to take it but within the first few gigs it was great seeing people respond in the way they did.
“I think we got signed in 2003 or 2004, that’s when things really started happening and when we started getting out of Newcastle and going to Scotland and Manchester and selling out these venues. We’d connected in the way we wanted to.”
Do you think changes in the industry have made it harder for young artists/bands to break through?
“I can definitely see that, you have to pretty much do it all yourself now. I found with this project, from doing the recording myself to doing the artwork and then the photography and even making the videos on my iPhone, you end up doing the whole thing. In a way it goes back to when Maxïmo Park started, we were very DIY. Everything was recorded at home and the first 7” was done in our flat and even the artwork on the red 7” was done by us, so that has always been there. I totally understand doing it online because when you start out you don’t really have the money to press records or a way of shifting them. I know a lot of bands who get 1000 records pressed and will sell maybe 50 at best, everyone putting their money into something now seems much harder unless you get a bit of luck with a blog or radio play.
“If something is really good then it will come through eventually but there’s more of a focus on individual tracks. Although everyone still makes albums it’s less of an album world and more of a playlist world. That has changed but there’s still a culture of people wanting to make music, it’s just changed and I guess Maxïmo Park saw that last wave before everything was online.”
How has that altered your own approach?
“I think I’ve realised that if you don’t go out with really high expectations and instead think ‘I’m making this because it’s something I want to do.’ Some people will discover it but others will click right passed it. It has changed a lot but I still think it can happen for people. It will probably change again but at the moment it’s all so open.”
Final thoughts now that the album is out in the world?
“I feel happy with it because it ended up how I set out, getting the ideas out of my head onto a record. I feel good about this, it makes sense as a record. Hopefully it will grow on the listener. I can imagine you hearing some of the songs once or twice and going ‘oh that’s okay’ but they’re meant to grow and there are layers of thinking and musical layers that will become more apparent on further listening. The records I’ve always liked are ones that take a bit of time to get into, so I feel it has achieved what I wanted it to. I’ve already started work on a follow up to it, which is probably more of a sprawling thing. It feels like a really good stepping stone onto the next thing and I feel even more free now as I’ve got the confidence from doing this.”
Interview: Duncan Haskell