Maximo Park front man, successful solo artist and all round dynamic pop auteur, Paul Smith is back with a new album ‘Contradictions’ performed with his band The Intimations. Creating a more hi-fi progression from his last solo feat, the new album is packed with summery catchy pop hooks combined with those trademark thought provoking lyrics. With a handful of UK shows, at some of the countries most intimate venues, scheduled in for September, we caught up with Paul to discuss the new record.
Hi Paul. So you have a new album out ‘Contradictions’ with your band The Intimations. What has the recording process been like for the new album? How long has it been in the works for?
When I was out on tour last we started to work on some ideas that I had with the musicians that I was with at the time; songs that hadn’t really worked with Maximo Park. Along the way we were just playing around in rehearsals, adding basslines, and then after the tour finished we just continued with the recordings. I have a few more tracks to play around with and I wanted to continue writing.
Fortunately for Maximo Park we ended up making a couple of records in quick succession, and we were almost immediately asked to tour around the world with them, playing gigs and festivals all over. So this is why this record (Contradictions) took so long. When we did want to record this album, it was a lot of travelling and trying to find the time. It’s been a labour of love really over the past four years to complete the whole record. We ended up doing a few bits with Wendy Smith too, so she has provided some of our backing vocals. She was there in my front room, and I was thinking ‘I can’t believe this’ and Rachel from Silver Fox who played live with me last time, she does some backing vocals and guitar bits too. So it turned into this collaboration, even though its me singing the lyrics, I decided to just go with the old Buddy Holly and the Crickets kind of thing and call it Paul Smith and the Intimations.
Did you go into the whole process with a set idea with how you wanted to album to sound initially, or did it end up a case of development as it went along over the past four years?
Yeah, I think your tastes are always evolving, even very slightly sometimes. After making the first record I felt like it was a statement of its own, it turned out to be quite a melancholy record looking back at it, really low-fi. We recorded that one in Andy’s bedroom. So, this time around I definitely wanted it to reflect the fact that both myself, and Andy as a producer, have moved on a little bit. The first couple of songs that were written on the road seemed to me very dream-pop in their own way, really up beat and catchy songs, with an almost softer side to them. The layering of the guitars we have on this record just makes it sound a lot more produced. I think it just reflects the things that I was listening to really. It’s summery, and it reflects the types of things that I was listening to in the summer, like 16 Lovers Lane by the Go Betweens or It’s a Shame About Ray by the Lemonheads and I suppose most of is upbeat, but there are songs like ‘Fill In The Blanks’ on the record that is a little slower. I’ll never stop having that melancholy undertone to songs I guess.
So you say that you were thinking about your own inspirations at the time of writing the record, is there anyone band wise that you took a lot of influence from when you were writing the record?
I was listening to a lot of Felt, the ’80s band, and the vocal delivery from Lawrence the frontman, that influenced the last song on the record. It’s a funny little song and I didn’t know how to deliver the lyrics, because they’re tongue in cheek a little bit. Lawrence’s vocal style is kind of a bit weird really, so I thought I would try and go for that on that track. Then on track ‘Cony Island’ we were looking for an 80’s drum sound really, a bit David Bowie Lets Dance drum sound, without it sounding too cheesy! The song itself goes round a few tricks and turns in terms of the chords, so I wanted something quite simple on the top, and Andy who produced it, plays the drums, and in essence he transformed the song. He slowed it down and made it into this funkier version, with this softer vocal sound that is more of a falsetto. I didn’t expect it to turn out like that. When you’re in the middle of the recording process it’s nice when things can change a little bit. Then you’ve got tracks like ‘Before the Perspiration Falls’ that I wanted to sound something like a Pretenders song crossed between a Nirvana song, and to just see what would come out of the end of it. Unusual hybrids I guess.
The new single ‘Break Me Down’ musically is quite a pop record, really upbeat. You’ve said that you can’t seem to get away from this underlying melancholic sound, which I think is actually reflected in the lyrics that have are quite thought provoking. Is it always a conscious decision to create this juxtaposed marriage of upbeat music with a more serious tone?
Yeah, overtime its what I’ve realised I’m best at really. If something sounds good and feels good, I’ve learned to just go with it, rather than thinking “right, I need to write a political song now” because the state of the country is a disgrace. I mean I love rap music, but it doesn’t necessarily mean I would be very good at it.
For me though it is a good marriage, it’s quite a fun record, a pleasurable experience. Tracks like ‘Break Me Down’ was probably the simplest song I could have written. It’s verse, chorus, verse, and middle eight, chorus again. There is something about that 50’s rock and roll stuff that is still really powerful to me. When I listen to pop music walking down the street, it gave me a spring in my step. I’m still affected by music like that, and even though music has moved on, and technology has moved on, that spirit and the simplicity of a feeling expressed in a new and fresh way, but with a classic melody and structure. I wanted to work within quite traditional song structures within this record. The last album comparatively really was focused on the lyrics, and there really weren’t any structures on that record. I love choruses; I love builds and traditional pop dynamics. Although I want to make different kinds of music that is probably a bit experimental, I still love just knocking out a great pop song if I possibly can. Playing with a band, and having people replicate what you have made in your bedroom, once it comes to life playing live in rehearsals its just really exciting to have that moment in time experience with the songs.
The video for ‘Break Me Down’ is great. You collaborated with Gemma Yin Taylor on this, what was the approach for the visuals; did you approach with a set idea?
I’m really pleased with it. Sometimes with videos you hand the reigns over to other people and of course I’m not a video maker. I had seen some of Gemma’s work, which I thought, was brilliant, and it really fitted it with the album cover, which was a photograph that I took of a torn billboard. It was nice because it kind of has this rough quality to it, although its colourful. I’ve actually done the album on yellow vinyl too. It was too fit in with the summery feeling of the album, but also this yearning quality, and the intimate things the lyrics are talking about. Having somebody hand animate something, it already has fragility about it. Then the colours that she uses are bold sometimes, and uplifting with the music, but then those pastels are a bit more nostalgic. On the record there’s a track called ‘All the things you’d like to be’, which is a song about growing up with my grandparents and being on the quayside, going to look at the bridges and having an ice lolly. It all just fitted into the aesthetic I wanted to go for. I’ve also done a video for ‘Cony Island’ with Gemma, and we just concentrated on the lyrics, because in that song, the words to me are really important, and I wanted people to understand what the song was about, as well as just enjoy it. I think they’ve come out really well. It’s just a shame it’s got me in, but never mind.
I know it’s always a hard one to ask, but have you got a personal favourite track on the new album?
It’s always tough. As I say I wanted to make an upbeat record and most of it is, but I still have this soft spot for the slower songs on the album. There is a song called ‘Quick’ that has some beautiful piano playing on and Wendy Smith doing these beautiful backing vocals, and it has still got one of my original guitars on that we just couldn’t replicate the sound and make it more hi-fi. It feels buzzy and it just sounds unique. That track too, the sentiment of it was about being around somebody everyday but not appreciating them as much as you should. The idea that it’s impossible to appreciate somebody as much as you should. I like those tender moments on the album.
There’s another track ‘Fill in the Blanks’ which is quite an ambiguous song really, the listener can take it one of two ways. “I look at you and it’s getting harder to fill in the blanks” It’s about silences in conversation. It could be a positive thing, as when you get to a point in a relationship where you are not talking all the time and just being with each other, experiencing the normality of a relationship that can be really satisfying and a real watershed moment. Or it can also mean, you get to a point where you can’t figure out what a person is feeling when they’re not talking anymore and there’s a point in an argument where things are about to go wrong. I like the song because it describes walking through Jesmond, in Newcastle, and it has this sweet imagery of just the day-to-day things. Its just about these small moments within a relationship, and it was important for me to have those slower moments on there, otherwise it wouldn’t have felt true to me as a songwriter.
You have 8 live dates coming up in September with this album, at smaller, more intimate, venues. Do you look forward to playing those more melancholic, slower songs the most live or is it the more up beat pop tracks?
Live, it all depends on the audience. If you’re playing one of the slower songs and you can see someone talking in the crowd or whatever, especially in smaller venues, you can get a sense of what is happening in the crowd straight away. If people are really silent and into a slower song, it does make you feel good that people are paying that attention to something you have worked hard at. With ‘Fill In the Blanks’ I have tried to cover all bases with that one to be performed live really. It does have those fuzzy guitar sounds and with long guitar solos in which are quite rare for me, I’m normally quite concise. So live, it could go on for 5 minutes rather than 4, it will be nice to have those live moments where we can just play as a band and expand things out. I will definitely look forward to that, as I don’t get to play the guitar very often.
Do you prefer those more intimate venues, in which you can, like you say, get a feel of the crowd quite quickly as opposed to a larger stage?
Yeah its easier to communicate with people too. There’s always the challenge at the bigger venue of trying to reach the person at the back of the venue. When I’m performing with Maximo park I really enjoy that challenge, I’m a frontman, I’ve got no instruments, I’m trying to reach out to people. Whereas on this tour the music takes much more of the spotlight rather than my actual performance style. I put everything into every performance that I do but it will be nice to play the guitar, and having those songs with a softer delivery. I think the more intimate rooms will really benefit the songs. I like to talk to people too, not just banging out the songs, I want each night to be unique and memorable, and I want the crowd to feel like I’m engaged with what I’m doing. It’s going to be really special to be out there, I’m looking forward to doing it, it will be very different for me. Having that variation in your life is really good, and I’m happy that I get to do that.
In contrast, you’re playing at Newcastle City Hall in November, for Maximo Park’s 10th anniversary for the debut album. Which is also all sold out. How are you feeling ahead of it? It must feel like a real highlight.
Yeah, I’ve been to the City Hall quite a few times myself and it has such a history to it. It makes total sense to us to just go there and make it an occasion; to have this birthday party. We didn’t really know that there would be such an amazing response too, so much so we’ve had to put on a few extra shows. It will be nice to celebrate with the rest of the guys and say ‘wow we made it’. In the music industry there is a lot against bands to be around for that long. It’s a very fickle industry, they’re always looking for what is next and pressure from other bands, but we have always been independent and done our own thing. I’m pretty proud that we have managed to get to this point as a result of that.