In Conversation: Maxïmo Park
Even after two decades Maxïmo Park remain frustratingly difficult to pin down. Sure, the hits speak for themselves – few bands pulled off that art-rock chutzpah so successfully in the Noughties – but they’ve retained an admirable awkward streak that has enabled the North East group to remain firmly ensconced in their own universe, come hell or high water.
2017’s ‘Risk To Exist’ saw the band pin their political colours to the mast, a blood-red polemic about a country that seemed increasingly divided. Written in the aftermath of the Brexit vote – almost all areas in the North East thumbed their nose against EU membership – it was nonetheless short through with their unifying songcraft, with that arena-filling charisma.
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New album ‘Nature Always Wins’ finds Maxïmo Park spinning the creative dials once more, working in a landscape – musically, politically, and personally – that has been enormously changed in the past few years. The departure of Lukas Wooller – married, emigrated to Australia – saw the band reduced to three core members, constructing a challenging and highly personal new album against the shadow of the pandemic. The scale of the task isn’t lost on frontman Paul Smith. “It’s a strange time to be putting a record out,” he tells Clash over the phone. “It’s a strange time for everything, obviously!”
A subtle yet dynamic move forwards, ‘Nature Always Wins’ emphasises the creativity that has always existed in Maxïmo Park, while also opening up new space in their music. Produced remotely by Ben Allen – whose credits range from underground hip-hop through to Deerhunter – the material moves from post-punk odes to fatherhood through to oblique synth work via a full frontal charge of Dischord style punk.
Guitarist Duncan Lloyd explains that the record’s vitality is indebted to the initial, wholly honest conversations the band had with each other.”We put our heads together and thought: what do we want to do? For us, the challenge of making it – as the three of us – can we still make a record that has the DNA of Maxïmo Park?”
“For us, it was very much a new thing,” he adds. “We had to think about how each song had its own atmosphere, how it came across musically and lyrically. Once the basic demo is there, we could work around the meaning, work around the lyrics, we could work around the style. It was pretty fluid, in a way.”
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Fans were allowed into its universe earlier this year, when the floating, psych-speckled ‘Child Of The Flatlands’ emerged online. Chatting to Clash, both parties name-check Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois’ production work as a key point of inspiration, and it’s certainly there in the band’s use of texture and tone – and also their Oblique Strategies-style approach to evading what they’d achieved before.
“It’s trying to find ways of not being cliched,” says Paul Smith. “We love rock music, we love pop music, and they’re both genres filled with cliches at every turn. Sometimes you can use some of those little cliches to your advantage. Again, there’s some very emotional lyrics in the songs, but hopefully we’d side-stepped the cliches and keyed into the true feelings of those things.”
The explicitly political polemic previous album ‘Risk To Exist’ has been dialled down, but that doesn’t mean it’s entirely absent. Maxïmo Park are – after all – a group of musicians who live not too far away from Barnard Castle, and are keenly aware of the gulfs that have been opened up in British society during this lockdown year.
“I’ve been to Barnard Castle as a youth… and what whole incident hit home pretty hard,” admits Paul.
Was the frontman en route to test his eyesight, Clash wonders…
“I wasn’t! I was riding a bike on country roads, scared of the four-wheel drives of elitists going past me.”
“We wanted to be explicit on the last record,” he continues. “Some people thought we went over the line, but other people thought it wasn’t far enough… Maybe we’re Centrist Dads! But you put yourselves out there, and you can’t please everybody. We’ve always done what we felt was best. We follow our own path. This is who we are and you can either like it or lump it! We live in a divided country, and we sit on the Left side of that divide. We don’t apologise for that. But we’re less extreme, more conciliatory, and we’re trying to find points of connection with our audience in all of the songs. Whether they’re more emotional or more cerebral. It’s about trying to find common ground.”
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That urge towards common ground has resulted in some of Maxïmo Park’s finest songwriting for some time. Take the ultra-catchy 6Music favourite ‘Baby, Sleep’, opening in wisps of synthetic sound before moving into a gleefully angular post-punk workout, while lyrically Paul discusses the travails and learnings fatherhood has offered.
“I’ve always tried to write about what interests me, what I’m going through,” he says. “I don’t pretend to know lots of things about everybody else. I don’t have an imagination, basically! I feel like with all of the songs that we’ve written there’s an element of elevating the everyday and finding the magic of the everyday and celebrating everyday life as being an extreme experience. Trying to find the romanticism in very mundane things.”
2020 has – above all else – been very mundane. It’s a year of lockdown and quarantine, a year of becoming well adept at relishing your own company. “There’s been a lot of time by ourselves,” says Duncan Lloyd, “so everything from louder bird-song to having to work out how to survive each other in our little bubbles… all those elements are in there. It’s a different way of doing things. In some ways it can actually aid creativity – a new situation brings you a different mindset.”
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Throughout our conversation, Maxïmo Park are glowing in their praise for Ben Allen. The producer’s creativity became a key part of the project, and his own ambitions helped boost their own. Meeting only once – for a curry in London – he challenged the band to write 40 songs, a torrent of music that was distilled down into something remarkably potent.
“Ultimately, we wanted to make a pop record,” says Duncan. “It’s ultra-melodic, and there’s a smoothness to working with Ben, which comes up against our awkwardness, and it creates an interesting hybrid for people to listen to.”
“We’ve always found ways to look at what we’ve done, and take it a step forwards,” adds the frontman. “If you look at our albums, each one was very different in some ways, but not in others. It’s a slow evolution. To make a new record, you know you can draw on all of those things, but how do you make it new? There’s where Ben gives us a different perspective.”
The sharp, punk-edged onslaught ‘I Don’t Know What I’m Doing’ is the latest single to emerge from the album, and it’s one of the most immediate moments on the entire record. Condensing a slew of ideas down to a pin-head, it offers a snapshot which explodes into a motion picture.
“It’s the idea of all that self-doubt in your life crippling you,” Paul explains. “Or in my case, trying to bring up a four year old daughter! Thinking, I have no idea what I’m doing here, but wanting to find out. We’ve all just got to deal with it. The idea of realising that your parents don’t know what they’re doing – which comes quite late in life! When you’re a child you think they know everything. It’s about this expectation of how things are, and then you realise your parents are human.”
“It’s a song about being human and making mistakes and realising that your life has changed. It’s over and done with very quick but it contains a lot of emotional energy!”
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'Nature Always Wins' is out on February 26th. Catch Maximo Park at the following shows:
26 Kingston Pryzm - with Banquet (socially distanced)
27 Newcastle Tyne Theatre (socially distanced)
24 Dundee Fat Sam's with Assai Records
25 Edinburgh The Liquid Room – with Assai Records
28 Leeds Brudenell Social Club - with Crash Records
29 Preston Blitz with Action Records
30 Liverpool The Arts Club - with Jacaranda Records
1 Coventry The Empire - with HMV
2 Oxford O2 Academy2 Oxford - with Truck Store
3 Southampton The Brook - with Vinilo
5 Bexhill De Lar Warr Pavilion - with Music's Not Dead
6 Norwich The Waterfront - with HMV
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