In the States," Tim Smith confesses, "I'm still worried it'll slip through the cracks again."
Midlake's lead singer is referring to his band's most recent effort, The Trials of Van Occupanther, released last summer on Bella Union. To anyone who has heard the album, this sentiment couldn't sound more ridiculous. Last year, the Texas-based five-piece played to packed, enthusiastic houses in London, received rave reviews throughout Europe (along with countless music sites across the globe) and opened for its self-proclaimed "idols" the Flaming Lips at huge showcases on both sides of the Atlantic.
The commotion is because of Van Occupanther, an album full of unbelievable growth and warmth. Old fans have been shocked to hear the group's former synthesizer-rich sound eschewed in favor of guitars, pianos and a swell of '70s singer-songwriter influences; who would've guessed that one of last year's most beautiful and catchy records of 2006 would owe so much to Fleetwood Mac and the Band?
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But what makes the disc work isn't just its unabashed love for '70s fare. The album, above all, is a result of Midlake's modesty. The act's first (and just as oddly named) full-length, 2004's Bamnan and Slivercork, really did fall through the cracks; in spite of support from huge fans such as Jason Lee (My Name Is Earl) and Simon Raymonde (Cocteau Twins bassist and owner of Bella Union), the record had only a minor impact in Europe and never saw official American release.
So the bandmembers holed up in a house in Denton, Texas, and spent nearly a year writing and recording Van Occupanther in their living room. Unable to afford the rent on a full-sized place in Denton, Smith and his wife moved an hour north, to Pilot Point, so that he "could actually make some noise when I write music. It's kind of out in the country. I got kind of lonely out here."
No kidding. The lyrics in Van Occupanther reflect solitude and a return to nature, a huge shift from the work-obsessed paranoia of Bamnan. Nowhere is this more evident than in the pastoral rebirth of "Bandits," in which a man dreams of being robbed and starting anew: "It's not always easy/When the winter comes and the greenery goes/We will make some shelter," Smith whimpers as the song's final lilt of acoustic guitar and flute fades.
After completing Bamnan, Smith discovered '70s songwriters such as Joni Mitchell and Jimmy Spheris. "Once I fell in love with all of that, I stopped listening to a lot of modern recordings," he says, and the rest of Midlake soon followed suit -- though reluctantly at first.
"He brought some different influences here, like yacht rock or some Christopher Cross," says guitarist/keyboardist Eric Pulido. "And some of the Jethro Tull stuff -- you hear 'Aqualung,' that famous riff, and you're like, 'Is this where we're going?' But dig into the albums, and there's beautiful stuff. You really start to see these bands for more than their cliche hits that we know them as."
Smith's biggest influence, strangely, was a photograph in a fashion advertisement. He refuses to name the brand out of embarrassment, but an obsession with the photo drove Smith (who painted Bamnan's liner notes) to create an album concept that would match his newest musical tastes and the visions they inspired.
"There was this woman -- she's beautiful, and she's wearing this equestrian gear, much like the guy on the cover [of Van Occupanther]," Smith explains. "I thought if the album can sound the way this photo looks, it'd be really great.... There is this place where you hear really beautiful music. It takes you to this world inside you; you can't really go there in real life. If [a song] didn't sound like the picture looked, it was out."
The cohesion in theme and sounds is exceptional, as is Van Occupanther's warm, lush production. Though the album's genesis may have been modest, Smith's voice has never sounded more confident, especially when it holds those lovely notes in the chorus of the supremely catchy single "Roscoe." And the late-1800s world of the British countryside (and the accompanying, frustrating love story) is matched with the full band's refreshing blend of '70s sounds and modern touches of Mercury Rev-style noise, guitars and synths.
In a happy coincidence, that mix of modern and timeless found its way to an important new Midlake fan. For Van Occupanther, Bella Union found American distribution through a new company called World's Fair, which happened to be co-run by Flaming Lips manager Scott Booker. After a few recommendations and friends-of-friends' suggestions, Midlake was invited to play with the Lips at last year's South by Southwest showcase in Austin, which blossomed into eight more concerts together in the States and Europe.
"Honestly, I didn't know if they'd be that good to tour with," confides frontman Wayne Coyne. "But I figured they were cool guys, and I knew they were Lips fans, so I took a chance."
Midlake subsequently endured a grueling six-week tour. Though Smith was intimidated by the indie giants, he and his bandmates eventually bonded with Coyne and company. Smith gushes as recalls a backstage encounter he had with the singer during which the two talked about an old Midlake song, "Some of Them Were Superstitious."
"Wayne comes around to the other side of the piano," Smith recalls, "and he starts singing that song. I started playing it on the piano, just me and Wayne. It was really incredible, playing one of my songs. What the heck is going on?"
Disbelief is as close as Smith gets to appreciating his success. Not that he's oblivious to recent fortunes -- he emphasizes how "honored and blessed" he felt to play with the Lips, for example -- but Van Occupanther came from a period when the worth and importance of Bamnan was all but ignored by the rest of the world. This time Smith is already the victim of MP3 blog overhype, which he knows isn't all it's cracked up to be.
"With any band," Smith asserts, "I don't care if it's Jessica Simpson or her sister or whoever; if some band gets popular -- and we're not even popular! -- they're just doing what they either love to do or believe in. We aren't hyping ourselves. If people want to hype it and make it bigger than it is or it should be, that's up to them. I'm sure there are people who say, 'Oh, they suck, they're getting this praise, they get to play with the Flaming Lips. Screw those guys!' People see you once you get in that spotlight, and they think you're...I don't know how to describe it."
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To some extent, the rest of the band shares that apprehension. Pulido tells a long story about a Norwegian radio contest in which fans stormed the switchboard to answer an obscure Midlake question within thirty seconds. He's shocked by that, though he's also a little giddy about some aspects of the exposure. "We're getting reviewed in Playboy," he says with a laugh. "We've reached that pinnacle. Now we have an excuse to buy an issue of Playboy. Gotta read the review, right?"
Finally, the band has seen its albums in record stores, complete with listening stations and review quotes next to the kiosks. It's a huge leap ahead of where Bamnan was two years ago, a perfectly good reason to stop with the modesty and enjoy the ride. Smith, however, doesn't see things that way.
"I still feel like we're nobody," he muses. "Honest truth. Things are starting to happen. There's some words -- more and more people are interested on our MySpace -- but I still don't feel like we're even a medium-sized band. We're still starting out. But it's a good place to be."