Michael Alexander speaks to Maximo Park frontman Paul Smith about the release of the band’s new album Nature Always Wins, the challenges brought by lockdown and the “nightmare” of Brexit for musicians.
When Scottish post-rock band Mogwai scored their first No 1 album in February, 25 years after the release of their first single, frontman Stuart Braithwaite described it as “totally surreal” after a social media campaign helped them reach the top of the charts.
But for Maximo Park frontman Paul Smith, it was “even more surreal” when, just a week later, in a Twitter post ahead of Maxïmo Park’s Twitter Listening Party with Tim Burgess, Braithwaite was the first to tweet and rally people around the hashtag #MaximoPark4Number1 – effectively urging people to knock his own band Mogwai off the top spot.
— NME (@NME) March 1, 2021
In the end Maximo Park’s new album Nature Always Wins ‘only’ made it to number two in the Official UK Albums Chart having sat at the number one spot midweek ahead of Alice Cooper and The White Stripes.
For Paul Smith, however, it marks something of a revolution in the way indie artists are embracing an ‘all-in-this-together’ spirit, as they battle the twin forces of the pandemic and Brexit.
“One of the people who was actually at number one and we were trying to knock them off the top was getting in touch and telling me about what’s going on with the charts and being really encouraging and starting the hashtag #MaximoPark4Number1.
“They had a #Mogwai4Number1 hashtag on Twitter the week before.
“I felt someone like Stuart reaching out and being kind and sending little messages – I felt part of a community of independently minded bands.
“For this to be coming from somebody that you have admired and enjoyed growing up – that made it even more touching for me!”
Mercury Prize nominated band
Formed in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 2000, Maximo Park’s debut studio album
A Certain Trigger was nominated for the Mercury Prize in 2005, and, by the time their second album Our Earthly Pleasures, which also went gold, was released in 2007, they had a fan-base around the world.
Nature Always Wins – the band’s seventh studio album which is their first new album in almost four years, scored them two BBC 6 Music A-listed singles (Baby, Sleep and All Of Me), as well as an Album Of The Day slot.
Due to the practicalities of the Covid pandemic, however, Paul says the album is also testimony to what can be achieved remotely during lockdown following a period which has seen the band “think outside usual procedures” with live streamed gigs and live signing events while planning for a potential post-Covid (they hope!) autumn tour.
But this was not necessarily a bad thing.
“We’d been in talks with Ben Allen at the tail end of 2019 saying we’d love you to work on this record – sending him songs and him sending ideas back,” Paul tells The Courier.
“It was kind of him like throwing the gauntlet down to us to write more songs, so we did.
“One of the songs we wrote in that end period was Versions of You – the second song on the record – which so many people have come back and said they love.
“He was over here doing something at the start of last year in London. We said ‘we’ll pay for a train for you to come up and meet us. We can go through some of the songs’. We did that.
“I think it’s important to have a kind of rapport with your producer.
“Then of course when Covid happened, that came in really handy.
“We were due to fly out to Atlanta last April where he’s based and suddenly we had to have a real quick re-think. Do you think we can do it remotely?”
Creation of a sonic thread
Having built up a rapport with Ben Allen during that pre-Covid period, the band, working remotely in their own homes, were able to record their own sections and email it to Ben in the USA. They’d then have regular What’s App catch-ups to discuss and develop further.
“We tried to replicate what we would normally do the best we could,” says Paul.
“I wasn’t really sure if it was going to work. I wasn’t sure if it would sound a little bit fractured, but it’s ended up sounding like one of our most seamless records.
“I would say that’s probably what happens when you get involved with a Grammy Award winning producer! It doesn’t harm things that’s for sure!”
With some songs on the album sounding punky, the latest single All of Me sounding anthemic, other material more electronic, and with a psychedelic song called
Child of the Flatlands sounding very different to the material they’ve produced before, Paul is grateful for the way Ben has managed to “find a kind of sonic thread that locks it all together”.
From Grenfell to Bataclan – lyrically informed inspirations
When it comes to the subjects of the songs themselves, however, Paul’s writing is lyrically informed by everything from Grenfell and the Bataclan to the effects of Tory austerity and Paul’s experiences as a father.
“I’m inspired by loads of different things all around us,” he says.
“My job is to do that when we’re writing – find things I’m interested in and passionate about. That ends up coming out in the songs.
“I never intended to write about something as serious as the Grenfell fire but one of our old merchandise sellers Nick (Alexander) had been killed in the Bataclan incident.
“Just seeing his face crop up on the news and seeing this thing from afar and being beamed into your front room when you are watching the news – when the Grenfell fire occurred, it felt very similar watching the aftermath and seeing all of these faces come up on the screen and thinking these are all individual lives – it’s not just a statistic.”
Other material was influenced by the birth of his daughter, who’s nearly five.
“Becoming a dad is a big thing. It’s part of my life and it’s part of a lot of peoples’ lives,” he adds.
“I thought ‘right I’ll try and write about this but I don’t want it to be sentimental. I don’t want it to be clichéd’.
“I realised there’s so many intense feelings you go through when you are a parent.
“The highs are really high and the lows are quite low because you want to do your best by this little child that you’ve got.
“You want to make a good life for them and benefit them but obviously you can’t control every aspect of somebody’s life.
“Bad things will happen and when they do you feel worse because you want to do really well by them.
“I started to think about those sentiments being the building blocks of many a pop song. That idea of total love and devotion to somebody.
“The idea of being confused or being angry, being angry at yourself or the situation, and those kind of things are obviously quite universal – you don’t have to be a parent to listen to the record and enjoy it. It was the same with the most serious and political sides of our writing. How does this apply to other people?”
Support for the arts and influence of North East England
Paul, who grew up in Billingham, is no doubt North East England where the band is still based influences their perspective on life.
“There’s no way of escaping who you are and what you are surrounded by,” he adds.
But he’s also interested in “big picture” issues such as whether enough is being done to support music and the arts during Covid.
While missing touring, and having a taste of the “existential crisis” many musicians have experienced without a live audience, he feels lucky in that because they were making records through the early pandemic, they had a focus – even if they were spending a lot of money and unsure if and when they’d be able to tour the album.
He’s also conscious that because Maximo Park have been relatively successful over the years, success has given him a roof over his head and that little bit of security that a lot of people don’t have.
The band’s crew, by contrast, have had to try and find different jobs to get through this period and hopefully come out the other side.
While Covid has led to broad debate about how society values teachers and NHS workers, it also raises questions about the arts and how “impoverished” life would be without them.
While the UK government has a “roadmap” for getting out of lockdown, Paul says there’s no doubt that planning for gigs requires a “leap of faith” that science, vaccinations and public confidence will permit it to happen.
Given that the “new normal” remains unclear, however, he says capacity issues, for example, might remain an issue and are difficult to plan for.
‘Nightmare’ of Brexit
“It’s going to be challenging for everyone – people have to be as understanding as possible,” he adds.
At the time of this interview, Paul says Covid will likely lead to the cancellation of their European tour planned for later in the year.
However, another issue he feels strongly about is the impact Brexit will have on touring musicians.
“It will be a headache, there’s no denying it,” he says.
“From my own point of view it’s going to be a nightmare.
“It’s not just the visa that we’re going to have to find – although people in the north tell me there’s potential for that to be eased if particular countries have their own visa requirements.
“But we’re going to have to fill it in and make sure all the paperwork is correct and probably pay for that visa. That will put off a lot of younger bands.
“It’s like when we go to America we have to pay for a lot of visas and quite often when we do American tours we are just trying to break even because it costs a lot to go there.
“Even though we are playing to decent audiences we are paying for not just the travel but the pretty expensive visa costs as well including our crew.
“To think we’d now have to do that for going to Europe after having a career and a great fan base – especially in Germany.
“It’ not just freedom of movement that’s going to cause problems.
“It’s the idea that we can’t now take our buses over because you are only allowed two drop offs in a seven day period before the bus has to go back which means we are going to have to employ different people over there, again losing British jobs, to try and get round that.
“People who are British crew will have to lower their fees because we’ll have to trim the costs if we are even going to do it, and that’s a band at our level.
“There are some at a lower level starting out, they’ve got to deal with all of these new costs.
“And then you get to all the documentation. For tax, we won’t be able to take our t-shirts with us and earn our petrol money to the next place and pay for your bus driver.
“If you have to stop at the borders which is what’s anticipated to circulate the new documentation, you are probably not going to get to the gig on time to sound check.
“So then you are going to have to pay people extra days just to go through border control and go through all the different documentation. It is totally impractical.
“I read something on the Musicians Union website the other day which said of touring musicians, 49% of income comes from the EU when they are touring.
“It is literally half of our income that will be gone if we can’t tour in the EU, and even if we manage to do it it will be severely diminished due to all the extra costs we are going to have to deal with. So yes, there’s no way of sitting on the fence about it! It’s devastating!”
Looking forward to post-Covid tour dates in Scotland
Times may be tough all round, but Paul is looking forward to the day when the band can again return to Scotland.
The T in the Park veteran has an intimate gig planned at
“We’ve never played either of these venues so it’s exciting to be visiting after 17 years touring,” he says.
“One of our first gigs was at the Lemon Tree in Aberdeen. We were supporting Bloc Party on one of their tours.
“It was so exciting not just to be playing a gig to a new audience who knew nothing about us, but also just being out and about afterwards and having a few drinks in each place.
“It’s easy to take these things for granted due to the audiences we inspire and the energy on stage and the way I like to perform and the passion in the songs.
“But if you take a step back and look at it. I remember playing the Caird Hall in Dundee just having a great time and wandering around.
“I’m looking forward to coming back because a friend of mine
Beth Bate is in charge of DCA.
“I’m interested to go and visit there and have a touristy time as well, which we enjoy every time we come to Scotland whether it’s Aberdeen, Dundee, Glasgow, Edinburgh – we’ve always enjoyed ourselves and the audiences appreciate the kind of energy that we bring to the shows. It feels like home to us.”
On that note, Paul returns to politics.
“We’re not that far away in North East England!” he laughs.
“It feels like if things keep going the way they are in our country, that we’ll be looking to try and get Northumberland and the North East attached to Scotland to try and get away from the Conservative government we’ve got!”
*The new album from Maximo Park Nature Always Wins is out now.