Interview: Paul Smith
Ahead of the release of his latest album, Maximo Park’s singer talks about his new songs and career to date
aul Smith is best known as the lead singer of Maximo Park, the band he has fronted since 2003. In 2014 they released their fifth album Too Much Information and it is incredible to think that this year marks the 10th anniversary of their debut album A Certain Trigger. The last few years have also seen Smith branch out as a solo musician, as well as collaborate with Field Music’s Peter Brewis to record an album of chamber songs called Frozen By Sight. His latest offering is Contradictions, assisted by Andrew Hodson and Claire Adams (The Intimations), an eclectic collection which showcases Smith’s versatility as a writer.
Songwriting caught up with him ahead of the record’s release to talk about its creation and how it fits in with his body of work as a whole…….
The album took four years to write and record – how come it took so long and can you tell me about the process?
“In terms of hours spent on it, it wasn’t as long-winded as it seems. The last few years have been very busy with Maximo Park, we made two records in fairly quick succession and toured them round the world. In the meantime, when I had a spare day, I would go and get on the train to Manchester to work with my friend Andrew Hudson, who co-produced and plays drums on this record with me. I had to wait until he was free and I was free, there were all sorts of diary issues. We actually began the record on the tour bus and in hotel rooms when we were touring my last album Margins. Peter Brewis from Field Music played bass on that album but wasn’t available to play live so we ended up with Claire Adams on bass who is in quite a few different DIY bands in Leeds and is a very versatile musician.
“She slotted in straight away and we started messing around songs that I had lying about that I wanted to do on my own. Every now and then we’d be in soundcheck or a rehearsal and Claire would play something on the bass. A couple of the songs came out of those basslines and I wrote choruses and vocal melodies and started playing my guitar along to them. Then over the next few years it became a little bit more problematic, just trying to find the time. In the last year I finally had managed to put the musical icing on the cake.”
It’s a very eclectic record, was that a conscience decision or a result of the recording process taking so long?
“I think taking four years did lead to that because there’s another album worth of material that we didn’t get round to finishing. The time gave us the chance to select different songs for the record and to make it a cohesive listen. We really focussed on things that we felt complemented each other but in the end went under the banner of contradictory songs.”
Is that where the title Contradictions came from?
“One of the lyrics in the first song says “all my dreams are contradictions” and I felt like that word summed up this record and where it falls in my catalogue. Frozen By Sight was a bit more leftfield, though if you looked at my record collection it wouldn’t come as so much of a surprise ,but people saw it as a diversion away from pop music. Maximo Park has developed over the years into quite a specific mission statement but it is still a combination of us five guys in the band. We always try and evolve but within our own context, whereas making another record by myself I just wanted to do something that was simple and fun but I still wanted it to have depth. In my mind it’s dream pop. I knew that coming after Frozen By Sight a few people would be scratching their heads so I thought Contradictions sums it all up. I think the album title is a little warning to people approaching my music at this stage in the game, it’s going to keep veering from one thing to the next. There’ll hopefully always be some sort of mark of quality to all my work but eclecticism rules in my brain.”
Do you think of you work in that sense, as one body?
“It’s best not to get too bogged down in these things as you could start to think of yourself in loftier terms than necessary, but I think it’s good to have an idea of what you do just so that you don’t repeat yourself. You can try to chase commercial success if you want and some bands are successful at it like U2, bands who clearly care about the music but they’ll almost do almost anything to get people to buy their new records, like put them on your phone. I suppose once you get to a certain level you can probably still do what you want and people will buy it. REM were a great example of that where they were still making interesting music and selling to millions of people. But there’s a kind of level in the middle where you need to earn money and you’ve got to a certain point and you can just keep making records and coast along but I’d rather not make music than be in that position.
“There is a Maximo Park song called Questing Not Coasting and it sums up my attitude to life. I don’t want to be a passenger just blindly taking things in and letting them wash over me without getting something from them. I try and take notice of my environment and think about what I’m doing in the grand scheme of things. There are lots of things that I’d still like to do. I’d like to make music that was more electronic in some way and I’d quite like to make a record where it’s just me and a guitar and just record it in my bedroom because I think it sounds good. Obviously some things won’t work and if you’ve got the wherewithal they don’t need to come out, there’s plenty of stuff that I’ve written in my notebooks that aren’t up to scratch.”
[cc_blockquote_right] I LIKE THE JUXTAPOSITION OF A VERY HAPPY MELODY AND SADDER LYRICS… [/cc_blockquote_right] Where do you think Contradictions fits in?
“This record adds a little bit more. It’s a very upbeat and soft record, whereas the last one I made was downbeat and melancholy. This one is still personal and intimate and has melancholy moments on there but it’s got a different rhythm section and it’s more hi-fi than the last one I made by myself. I can compare and contrast which helps me move on and make decisions about what goes on a record and maybe what is too derivative of something you’ve done yourself, never mind another band.”
Are your songwriting methods influenced by the style of music you’re writing?
“I think it’s similar and I’ll take Frozen By Sight for example. It was still me going into my bedroom, and getting my guitar out, having words in front of me and coming up with melodies. With that one it was a little bit different as we’d set ourselves a task of writing to the lyrics and so the words stayed the same, it was a style of travel writing that looked good to me on the page. I didn’t really want to bend them into a song, which is sometimes what I do with descriptive things. For example, the opening line to the song Undercurrent on Maximo Park’s National Health album goes “Town moor trail / It made my day / The heavens squeezed their final rays”. This trail might be something you’d find in some of my travel writing, then you’d put a little segment in there that relates to the person you were with in that particular instance and then it’s more human and less descriptive and it becomes a Maximo Park song.
You mentioned having your notebook with you, do you often find inspiration from what you’ve written down?
“Yeah definitely. Sometimes when you’re writing you want to try and focus on the melody and a song doesn’t always need lyrics at that point. But I find that if you’ve got the lyrics there it spurs you on and sometimes a mood presents itself from the lyric which fits with the mood of the chords. A lot of the time I like the juxtaposition of a very happy melody and sadder lyrics, or being angry but being tongue in cheek about it. I like to think that I end up covering quite a few bases within the space of one song, going from really angry to mocking or from being very sad to having a bit of hope. I think that’s the case with a lot of my songs and those on Contradictions are no different, especially Reintroducing The Red Kite.”
It’s obvious from the first line that it’s not a song about twitching?
“This is it, again the subject matter is quite grim but it’s a pretty bouncy song. It’s almost like a poppy Krautrock song when the motoric rhythm kicks in. I had the title first of all, it had been in my notebook for years and I wondered if I could use it for a Maximo Park song but I felt it didn’t quite fit in. Claire wrote the original bassline and I decided that I’d write an extra refrain which seemed to come into my mind when I was listening to her. I was reading my lyric book and trying to find a starting point for finishing the song. When I thought of Reintroducing The Red Kite it chimed with some of the other things in there about people with eating disorders, people who are struck by hay fever and the idea of being stuck in a place or stuck with a disease and being at home all the time watching the weather channels and not actually doing anything. It’s sending a message to people that I’ve known in my life that you’ve got to try and release yourself from your burdens. The idea of releasing a bird into the wild after nurturing a whole species back to life somehow tallied, it’s probably the most complex metaphor in any of my songs. I want to be writing about things that don’t get written about.”
Coney Island is another song on the new album with a song structure that is very different to what people might expect from you?
“That song has been around for quite a long time and in fact Maximo Park had a go at it for Our Earthly Pleasures but it didn’t make it. It was a bit too unwieldy and wasn’t working. I wrote some new lyrics last year and it suddenly made more sense. Andy the producer suggested slowing it down and making it funkier and I went away on the train back up to Newcastle thinking ‘what’s he up to here’ and then I realised that it sounded fresher. David Bowie’s Let’s Dance had been mentioned and so I was thinking along those lines, what would an art-rock superstar like David Byrne or Brian Ferry do? I suppose the structure of the song reminds me of American alternative rock like Dirty Projectors where the songs have a light touch but they’re also more complicated than your average song. It throws curveballs at you and the words themselves are quite complicated.”
We read that it was inspired by an F.Scott Fitzgerald line?
“Well I’d written the lyrics on the basis of seeing some really amazing Robert Frank’s photographs of people on Coney Island on the 4th July 1958. I started writing this stuff out as I was reading The Crack-Up by F. Scott Fitzgerald. He’s talking about the “gaunt scaffolding” and that’s exactly the description I see in a fairground when it’s closed, a remnant, a skeletal thing. I’d also read an article from around 1910 by Maxim Gorky, an immigrant and a great writer who was seeing Coney Island from a different point of view, from a socialist one versus a capitalist one. Coney Island is this big celebrations, it’s kind of tacky, especially on 4 July. It’s just a big throng of people and this article was quite critical but it also seemed like he was a bit won over. I love that, these dry academic people trying to analyse fun and in the end probably having some themselves and being dazzled by the lights.
“I’ve been in winter time when nothing’s happening. I enjoy that sort of bleakness, it has an austerity that’s visually pleasing, an atmosphere that’s like a ghost of what is possible. You can almost hear the rollercoasters echoing and the cries of children getting lost. There were a few lyrics that just felt too descriptive which ended up getting dropped about the rust on all of the iron girders. It is the other side of The American Dream where you see people asleep on a beach in a blanket after everything’s over. It somehow mirrors the contradictions in the title.”
It feels like there are also parallels with the remnants of industry in Northern England?
“That’s something which really interests me and I discuss it in a bit more detail on All The Things You’d Like To Be. I come from a town called Billingham which expanded from a very small village to support the chemical company ICI, which started there in the 20’s. The song itself is looking back on my grandfather. He used to take me to the river to see the bridges. There’s a brilliant bridge called the Transporter Bridge which carries cars. They’re suspended on a weird trolley underneath the cables and there are all these very interesting mechanisms. You can see it from miles around and it’s a cool blue bridge. I did a lot of drawing of these industrial landscapes when I was at Art College and the lyrics reference charcoal and local steel as there’s a lot of steel industry around there as well. My grandfather never got to see me grow up as he died when I was young, the song goes into that and talking to my nana about what he was like. I’m sure he would have asked me what I wanted to be.”
Would you have told him you wanted to be a songwriter?
“Absolutely not. I never really knew how I would sing. I’d been making post-rock instrumental music in a band at art college. We were just people who didn’t know how to play the guitar very well but we knew what kind of music we wanted to make and we sort of found a way to make it. Then Maximo Park asked me to join and I thought I’d give it a go. After only two practises something felt right and I ended up doing something that I’d never have dreamed of doing.”
[cc_blockquote_right] THE IDEA OF COMING UP WITH SOMETHING NEW IS STILL SUCH A THRILL… [/cc_blockquote_right] So some of the songs on A Certain Trigger pre-dated your time with Maximo Park?
“Yes that’s right, songs like Graffiti, Going Missing and Limasol. I was allowed to do what I wanted, to keep bits or rewrite whole songs. Going Missing was one where I completely rewrote the vocal melody and lyrics whereas with Limasol, which Archis our bassist wrote, I kept the title because I thought it was pretty weird and I built the rest of the lyric around that. That was my way into the band really, with four or five songs and we then started writing the rest of the material that ended up on the first album and as B-sides. They bring back a lot of memories of being in a very small room between the bathroom and landing in Tom and Dunc’s house with egg boxes on the wall and just playing music and doing something completely new.”
Do you miss that feeling or do you still have it?
“Well I’m in Berlin doing a bit of writing at the moment. A friend of mine has a studio over here and he’s got all the gear in there to do some songwriting. I was just singing along to a very new Maximo Park song and I don’t mind admitting that I was pumping my fists! I was just excited and getting hyped up as it’s a fast song. I was thinking ‘this is great’, the idea of coming up with something new is still such a thrill and I hope I don’t lose that because if you do then you’ve got to reassess things.”
Maybe having your different outlets means that you don’t get jaded.
“This is true. I think of everything equally and go ‘right, that’s what I’m doing now’. I don’t see any kind of hierarchy, I’m aware that some things are going to reach more people and I’m aware that Maximo Park’s name will get some attention from our fan base whereas some of the other stuff I do I’ve got to work a bit harder to get people to hear. But I think that Frozen By Sight is as good as A Certain Trigger and Contradictions is as good as Margins. Other people might judge them differently but I have faith in what I’m doing.”
What is your biggest ambition left as a songwriter?
“I don’t have any commercial ambitions that’s for sure, not at this stage in the game. My ambition is to stay good at what I’m doing and not lapse into something clichéd or jaded.”
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Contradictions is released on 21 August via Billingham Records. For more information check out Paul’s website: www.paulsmithmusic.eu