What do you get when five American jazz musicians lock themselves in the studio with a collection of Steeleye Span albums? Through a series of reinventions, Midlake have won critical applause for their music and plaudits for their self‑production skills.
Folk‑rock is in the throes of a major revival at present, but few bands have come to it by as roundabout a route as Midlake. Tim Smith and his cohorts met as students of jazz at the University of North Texas, in the small town of Denton. Giving up saxophone to play guitar and sing, Smith led them first in a modern rock direction. However, it was their 2006 album The Trials Of Von Occupanther that made the world sit up and take notice. Gone were the first album's Radioheadisms and psychedelic leanings: in their place, the band had steeped themselves in the West Coast AOR of the '70s, creating an album as remarkable for its lush production as for its delicate harmonies and obscure conceptual lyrics. (We'll come to the folk‑rock in a minute...)
Van Occupanther was mostly recorded and mixed by bassist Paul Alexander, and its production values seem even more impressive when one considers the circumstances in which it was made. "Our approach to recording has been based on what we could afford to buy,” he says. "We discovered early on that it was better to invest our money in recording equipment than going to studios, just because we knew how deliberate we are with things. Sometimes we like to work out arrangements during recording, instead of playing. You need time in the studio, and that's just too expensive if you're paying for it.
"You'd probably just laugh if you knew some of the backwards ways we got around to getting some of those sounds on Von Occupanther. We weren't using terrific mics and we weren't in a great room, and we were using a Roland VS2480 as our workstation, so it was not ideal, but our frame of reference was definitely old albums. We set out to make the best‑sounding thing we could, and the best‑sounding thing we could think of was '70s music. We really feel close to the way those records sound. I don't know a whole lot about how they were recorded because I wasn't there, and it's kind of hard for us when we can't afford to get our hands on the equipment, so all we use is just what it sounds like. Our decision making was based on 'Do our ears like it?'
"There was a lot of layering of sounds at times. Like the piano sound at the beginning of [album opener] 'Roscoe': we had an upright piano that was a little out of tune, its timbre just wasn't very good, it was a little too honky‑tonk. It was an OK piano but we just couldn't get the right feeling playing that piano riff on it, so we couldn't use it. The other option was a Kurzweil digital piano, and that was just too sterile and didn't feel right, so what we wound up doing was, we have a Korg MS2000 analogue modelling keyboard; we made a sort of electric piano sound with that, and then we blended it with the Kurzweil digital piano. So that piano riff sounds a bit like a real electric piano, but it's really a Korg MS2000 and a digital piano blended. And there's that kind of stuff happening all over Van Occupanther, where we just didn't have the means to make the sounds we wanted. Like lots of the wind sections and stuff — there's a real flute and a real bassoon, and there might even be a real double bass, bowed, but so much of that other stuff is made with keyboards behind it. The blend of a few real instruments and a couple of fake ones kind of tricks the ear.”
The Midlake studio, then based in a domestic house, was formed of affordable gear the band had slowly accumulated. "The very first thing we bought was a Roland VS2480, because that was all we could afford. We made our first album on that, Bamnan & Slivercork, and we didn't even have studio monitors until the latter half of recording that album. We got some Mackie HR824s, and we've been using those ever since. Our first mic was an AKG C1000, and I think we started out pretty much with that. We've slowly picked up mics and preamps and compressors, and by the time Van Occupanther rolled around we had some [Neve] 1272 mic pres, a pair of those, and a Distressor and a Fatso, and we had an Otari eight‑track tape machine, and we had a Mackie 16:8 console. Van Occupanther we recorded with all of that stuff, I mean, the final was still the Roland VS2480, but we used all of those things, and we had more mics. We picked up an AKG 414, and a 421, some Shure 57s and 58s, and we've got an Earthworks omni.”
Rather than cash in on the success of Van Occupanther with an immediate follow‑up album in the same vein, Midlake disappeared from public view to plot their next move. The band finally resurfaced this year with The Courage Of Others, another substantial change of direction — inspired this time by Tim Smith's growing interest in the British folk‑rock of the '70s. As Paul Alexander explains, the band's long absence was mainly down to the amount of work involved in putting the band on a new path.
"It was a slow process. I think it was one part having a lot of new equipment and a new place, and the other part of it was that we were ready to move in a new direction as a band, but we hadn't moved in a new direction yet. So it took a little bit of time. When you start listening to new music, you might immediately like it, but you don't immediately internalise it. It doesn't immediately become a part of you. So it took a long time of listening to new music, playing songs, recording them, throwing a lot of them away. We needed to develop as a band, and you can't just flip a switch. We toured Van Occupanther, and a lot of touring of Van Occupanther was built around trying to have a good recreation of that album live. But when it was time to make a new album, that wasn't where we really wanted to be. We're quite a deliberate band, so it just takes time.”
"We weren't the same band back then as we are now,” agrees Tim Smith. "We started little by little listening to what was new to us — British folk stuff — and bringing in those influences and showing everyone else. It wasn't like one day I just hit them over the head with it and said 'This is the new sound.' It was little by little, and month by month after we started recording we were realising we had to throw away a lot of the material and write new songs.”
Smith is at pains to point out that all this work has not been directed towards pastiching their influences: The Courage Of Others is recognisably the work of Midlake, not a lost Fairport Convention album. "We don't sound like any of the bands we reference. There still is that Midlake sound, which we can't get away from... and I guess that's good. One of the first songs that I'd written after trying to change directions was 'Bring Down', and that's not a British folk thing. If anything it's the same progression as [Radiohead's] 'Exit Music To A Film', which is a classical progression anyway. But certainly, there are [folk‑derived] things that you try to keep in there or use, like the beginning of the title track has that kind of medieval quality to it that I was very conscious of. That song changed a lot since it was written. The original was totally different, there were a lot more chord changes and things, so we did strip that song down a lot so that it did have more of that British folk, medieval vibe to it.”
As the band's singer and main songwriter, Smith is in many ways the driving force behind their music, but if he exercises ultimate control over their productions, he does so with a light touch. "I kind of act as the final filter. The guys would say it has to pass Tim's final test of liking it. But I think most of the guys know the direction, what's good and what's not. It was two years making it, so it's hard to remember, and there were a lot of different ways we went about it. Sometimes I would even work with two of the guys in the morning and then the other two in the afternoon, just to break it up and try something different. I guess, ultimately, it was in my head what we were going to try to do, but within that everyone was able to [contribute]. Ultimately, the album wouldn't have sounded the way it sounds if it was just me. I didn't tell them what to play. I might have said 'Yeah, I like this; I don't like this; this feels a little bit too Dan Fogelberg, let's get it a bit more like this.'”
Although the band's core line‑up was unchanged, there were several significant differences in the way the new album was recorded. "The first two albums were made in a living room, but for this album we rented a commercial space,” explains Paul Alexander. "There's a studio a couple of doors down and they own the whole building. They had a smaller space that they helped us convert into a tracking room and a control room, there's nothing else. It was great because that was the first time we actually had any isolation at all! Recording in our living room we never had isolation, so we always had to monitor with headphones, which is tricky. With this one at least we could get some drums and some bass done completely isolated, and monitor from a control room, which was cool. That was good for us, that was a big step, but obviously you can go further! I think we want to get into a little bit bigger tracking room, especially with a higher ceiling, so we can do a little more stuff with more people in the one room, and maybe another iso booth. I do a lot of bass direct, so that's not a big deal, but if we could just get some vocal separated at the same time we did other stuff in a big room, that'd be pretty cool.
"When we started recording The Courage Of Others we ditched the Roland and got an [Otari] RADAR 24. It works just like a tape machine, so we had to get a console for it, and we got a Soundcraft GS12, which is a 24:12 console. The RADAR works just like a tape machine, so it's just 24 ins and outs, and there's not a ton of editing. We didn't even use a monitor for it until the very end of tracking, we didn't even look at anything but each other or the console.”
Another development was that the band shared the engineering load more equally. "Everyone in the band can get a good sound out of their instrument, they know how to mic themselves. Everyone records themselves. On Van Occupanther, I did the majority of it and also mixed it, but on The Courage Of Others it was a fairly equal effort from everyone. Everyone knows how to run the equipment and they know how to mic things, and we all listen to music and all have a similar discerning ear, so we all know whether we're in the ballpark or not. That's the good thing of a band recording themselves for the last seven or eight years.”
Compared with its predecessor, The Courage Of Others leans less on keyboards and more on acoustic guitars, often featuring three or four acoustic parts tracked up within a song. "We have a few different ways [of recording them],” explains Alexander. "When we want a slightly roomier sound, we use that Earthworks a lot, and we also like the Soundelux U99 in figure‑eight. And for a closer sound, we haven't ever done any real stereo acoustic miking, but we'll use the Neumann KM84, or other times we'll use the AKG 414. We use the 414 a lot, some people don't like them a lot, but for some reason we're usually happy with how they sound.
"A lot of the time they were tracked two at a time in a room, and then other acoustic guitars might be multitracked after that. A lot of times it's just how the arrangement developed, and then other times it's just the limitations of the studio — we couldn't always get a tremendous sound with the group playing in our tracking room, so we had to multitrack.”
The album also has quite a distinctive, dark drum sound, which Alexander explains is simply a faithful recording of the sound of drummer McKenzie Smith's kit. "He's quite adept at tuning his drums, and he has a good feel for getting a good sound from them, and he likes to play Istanbul cymbals, which are pretty dark cymbals, so he's definitely got his own sound happening, and he's pretty meticulous with it. A lot of things on Van Occupanther were just a couple of mics. There's a couple of songs on The Courage Of Others with just a couple of drum mics, but for the most part we're using probably five to seven mics.”
Live, the band's pinpoint harmonies are sung by Smith and guitarist Eric Pulido, but on recordings, they are usually overdubbed, and sometimes all performed by Smith for the sake of a tighter fit with his original delivery.
After two years in the studio, the band wanted to get a fresh perspective at the mixing stage. The idea was mooted of hiring British folk‑rock legend John Wood to man the desk, but as Paul Alexander explains, the project ended up rather closer to home. "We'd kind of gone off the idea of mixing this one ourselves, partly because we're not professional mixers and there's a lot we don't know. We'll definitely set up the tracks and play around until we like it, which can be endearing, but there'll still be some fundamental mixing weaknesses just because of what we don't know about mixing, so we wanted to get someone professional. Also, we were realising how long it was taking, and we knew we'd be too tired of the album to mix it ourselves. In the end we went with a guy in Denton called Matt Pence. A lot of it is based on being able to work with someone intimately and have him close by — because we are so particular about everything, it has to be a special person that can be patient with us! He's got a studio called the Echo Lab just outside Denton.
"There's definitely things that he was able to get out of it that we hadn't heard as clearly, but at the end of the day, you're dealing with what we recorded. We're not the kind of band that allows a lot of editing. We're not going to chop it up and put it all into Beat Detective. So in that sense, he's not allowed to transform our music! When we pulled up the faders and set it to sound nice to us, we were getting the sound of the album, so when we gave it to Matt it was just 'OK, your brain is going to deal with all these particulars now, and we're just going to listen to it!'”