The Bella Union boss recounts the story of how the back-in-the-studio Texans, Midlake, became a valued and best-selling member of his label’s family…
Releasing four albums in 16 years might seem a little… well leisurely, compared to say the Ramones, who released (wait for it…) six albums in their first THREE years, or even Talking Heads, who put out four of the greatest albums of all time from 1977-1980, but it ain’t always about the quantity.
Having a band and planning on releasing music is not so unlike getting together and deciding to have a baby. Sometimes people knock out six kids in three years, and some folks never have any. The analogy is more pertinent with the Texas band Midlake than you can imagine because in 2003, after receiving their demos courtesy of drummer Andy Young of fellow Texans Lift To Experience, I apparently sent them a message saying, “I want to have Midlake’s babies”.
Our familial relationship thankfully continues to this day, and despite the future of the band seemingly in grave doubt following the departure of original singer and main songwriter Tim Smith after the band’s now-legendary performance at End Of The Road festival in 2012, I can confirm the strong rumours that Midlake are indeed back in the saddle, or more accurately, the studio.
What will come out is anyone’s guess and whether Tim will be involved no-one really knows, but even those who expected little of 2013’s Smith-free zone Antiphon (far, far better than some gave it credit for), will surely be excited at the prospect of any new music from this vastly underrated yet highly influential group from Denton.
My own championing of bands from this small college town just 25 miles Northwest of Dallas began after signing Lift To Experience backstage at Paco’s Taco Shack near Austin in March 2000. That particular adventure lasted less than a year; the band were like a brilliant meteor that momentarily flashed brightly across the night sky, crossed into earth’s atmosphere, and then vaporised. But out of the cinders of that unexpected explosion, came my introduction to Midlake and soon after their peculiar yet beguiling debut album Bamnan & Slivercork. As obsessed with their sound as I was, both the LP title and the sleeve worried me a bit, as I disliked both. But I figured it wasn’t cool to rock the boat so early in our nascent relationship, so I explained my reticence but said it was their choice not mine.
‘As the song began, time stood still and I was transported into this ancient world’
The album didn’t sell well, but there were a few hugely important fans on board from the start, one being Jean-Daniel Beauvallet from Les Inrockuptibles, a wonderful cultural paper in France, one in the shape of distinguished-looking Parisien radio host Bernard Lenoir, lazily dubbed ‘the French John Peel’, and the other Claes Olsen from Oya Festival in Oslo.
Their early support meant we had something to cling to despite the lukewarm reception to the debut, and the subsequent arrival of album two wouldn’t feel like just starting over again. Way before they finished the second album, Tim first sent me a rough mix of a song called Roscoe, prefaced with words I have heard more times than I care to remember from bands unsure of where they were in the whole process: “don’t pay any attention to the mix, and it’s totally not finished yet and I am really not sure why I am sending this to you…” but I can still remember the moment I pressed play like it was yesterday.
As the song began, time stood still and I was transported off into this ancient world of stonecutters, where foraging for food and building a home for your family was your sole purpose in life. So beautiful and simple, yet so unlike anything anyone else was writing songs about. I must have played the song five more times without pausing until everyone started asking what it was.
The Trials Of Van Occupanther soon became the label’s most successful release up to that point. It was fantastic from start to finish and by the time their third album was about to come out (The Courage Of Others) there was a big audience waiting, with radio and TV lined up in most countries. Tim had always expressed his dislike of performing live and up to this point had usually refused point blank to do any live radio or TV sessions.
The LP reviews were mixed. Some adored the dark, melancholic, almost monotone feel and admired the move away from the West Coast sounds to the more Anglo-folk feel, but some just found it too much of a change. It took me a minute to adjust but I loved it, and to this day I adore listening to it on my daily cliff dog walks as the sea crashes violently on the rocks below. But things weren’t right within the band, and when your singer hates doing most of the stuff that bands are expected to do, it’s natural that there will be some conflict. Ultimately, that was the reason for the parting of the ways in 2012. Tim didn’t want to tour and the rest of the band did. Their sound clearly influenced artists like Fleet Foxes, The National and Grizzly Bear, and yet they rarely get the plaudits their music deserves. The news that work has begun on a brand new Midlake album has all of us dreaming that maybe this time their moment will come.