INTERVIEW: Maximo Park | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Picture, if you will, a fast-paced travel montage as Paul Smith races home from Manchester to save his wife from a lockdown-imposed juggle of work and homeschooling. Leaving behind filming a video for their new single, the frenetic front-person of alt. indie rockers Maxïmo Park lands back home in the North East as snow sweeps in and a flurry of armed insurrectionists lays siege to the United States Capitol building.

“I just couldn’t sleep without watching American democracy under threat, and now I’ve spent all morning searching for 3D shapes around the house with my daughter, our maths task for the day!”

With nary a moment between family, work and the collapse of Western democracy, if Paul Smith’s last twenty-four hours don’t encapsulate the early 2021 mood, nothing does. Yet the local lad is nothing if not adaptable – acting as a herald for live culture in the face of near-total adversity last year, Maxïmo Park delivered an unforgettable show at the UK’s first socially distanced music venue.

“It was a moment of release. The people we tour with have had to look at different ways of being employed, so it was such a celebratory event. These are people’s livelihoods, and our fans are passionate about the music. People used to gigs have been starved, so I knew people would be up for it. I put on a show, and if it’s a big stage, I’ll fill it and reach people without a doubt. Being back and giving people the pleasure they get from our music was amazing.”

Over twenty years before this gig, you’d have found the band recording their first single in a Fenham flat. The passing of time looms large on new album Nature Always Wins, and with the songs more affectionate towards the past than ever, are the band chasing down nostalgia or facing down melancholia?

“Nostalgia has so many negative connotations. We’re all susceptible to it. Melancholia links me to W. G. Sebald’s writing, that idea of looking at the past to assess it, to look at its poetry, rather than wallowing. There are songs throughout our catalogue that wallow in a feeling, so that melancholy aspect has been there from the start.”

The inevitability of time and the power of nature underscore the new album, and the idea of facing who we are looms large. “We have lots of different intentions in life, yet we can’t quell our true nature. That extends into the idea of nature and what we do to our planet. We build on it, we pave over it, and it’ll come back to haunt us, this short-termism of our society and our whole way of being. Nature tends to have the last laugh.”

We have lots of different intentions in life, yet we can’t quell our true nature. That extends into the idea of nature and what we do to our planet. Nature tends to have the last laugh

Nature brings new life too, and when Smith’s child arrived in 2016, nascent parenthood compelled a reflection on songwriting, and a desire to avoid pat sentimentality. “I don’t want to start writing loads of soppy songs, but my way of writing is quite specific. It has universal qualities because it discusses being a parent – the constraints, the joy, the love, this kind of overwhelming power you get – and questions that. You’re given prescribed feelings to feel about lots of things, and parenthood is no different. What if you don’t? What if you feel conflicted?”

As child-rearing brings fresh fuel to Smith’s fire, Nature Always Wins finds the lyricist in rude form, expertly bottling that rush of feeling that makes Maxïmo Park so perennial and emotionally-driven.

“We deal with pop art in our band, and whatever that feeling is you want it to be unleashed every time somebody listens to the song. With the live music, it’s my job to tap into what the song is about and put it out for people in the moment. Rather than looking backwards or looking forwards too far, it’s about the moment.”

The story of our time looms over the album too, whether in the political sting of Child Of The Flatlands – an assuredly post-Brexit song – or ever-changing Covid restrictions forcing the band to learn new means of production.

“We were going to Atlanta to record in April, and it became apparent in February that that wasn’t going to happen. We were with producer Ben H. Allen because of his work with Deerhunter and Animal Collective, and he’d worked through a couple of songs with us, so we were excited and raring to go.”

With the album written before the pandemic hit, lockdown precipitated a head-first dive into telerecording. A bracing deviation from the norm, Smith initially wondered if it was even worth having such a prestigious producer, yet recalls when the new album – and new process – truly came together. Ardour came back with strings and a beat Tom had worked out with Ben that transformed it. That was a point in this long process where I thought it’s clicking, it’s going to be alright, the intimate moments are intimate, and it’s going to rock out when it needs to.”

An outstanding achievement born from the still-warm ashes of 2020, Nature Always Wins is sweeping yet comfortingly familiar, a deft fusion of nostalgia, yearning and giddy rock. Late-night synth-fueled road trip Meeting Up and bitingly acerbic bopper The Acid Remark are about processing the past, looking back at former friends, lovers and even selves, asking have we changed, and should we? The St. Elmo’s Fire-tinged opening and panoramic nostalgia of Versions Of You transported me back in time to hazy, sweaty memories of seeing the early Maxïmo Park at legendary venue Bulletproof and listening to the tunes down by the Tyne on a crisp winter’s day, the sense of place conjured through Smith’s accent and lyricism still shine brightly through all these years on.

The imminent release leaves Smith with a surprising amount still in the tank. Writing constantly for Maxïmo Park, new projects and the sheer joy of it, a record with Rachel Unthank is on the horizon as the local icon faces 2021 with his own brand of positive pragmatism.

“Me and Rachel love singing together. I love folk music, and we’ve made this fairly darker version of it, so I’m hoping to get it out sooner rather than later. There’s light at the end of the tunnel with the pandemic. The progress will be incremental compared to what was promised by politicians who want to play politics with it, who want people to feel good, so I suppose the best way to feel good is to listen to Nature Always Wins!”

Maxïmo Park release Nature Always Wins on 26th February via PIAS. The band will be doing a livestreamed performance from Riverside, Newcastle on Saturday 6th March, tickets (including album and merch bundles) available here. The band’s live socially-distanced shows at Tyne Theatre & Opera House, Newcastle have been rescheduled for Saturday 24th April, tickets are available here


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