Tim Smith has always been drawn to the fabulous and the fantastical. On his final album with his group Midlake, the cult indie musician paid dreamy homage to 1970s folk revivalists such as Steeleye Span and The Incredible String Band. Seeking to approximate their higher state of folk consciousness, he sported cult-leader robes on the record sleeve while his intricate songs went full prog rock. Even the flute solos had flute solos.
Smith has gone further into the mystical realm with his much-anticipated new project, Harp. A collaboration with his wife, the award-winning puppet designer Kathi Zung, it celebrates, among other things, his passion for 1980s swords-and-sorcery movies. Harp’s debut, Albion, might be the first in the history of alternative pop to owe more to John Boorman’s Excalibur than to Lou Reed’s Velvet Underground.
“Excalibur is amazing,” the Texan enthuses over the phone. (Smith’s love for all things medieval extends to an aversion to Zoom.) “That was one of the movies, along with Dragonslayer, Beastmaster, Legend, Krull. That’s when I started, when I was a kid, watching those films. There’s a strong sense of Britain in them — of King Arthur. I guess the way my inclinations towards the sound that this album has all stems from various things from what I was into as a child.”
He wanted to capture the graininess of those decades, in both the melodies and the more general texture of the music. “The look of late 1970s film,” he says. “The actual film stock.”
Smith pours all these influences and yearnings into Albion. The album is upfront about what it’s about in tone and outlook. The cover shot is of Smith outfitted like a minor character from Game of Thrones — robes, beard, grimace — standing against a Middle-Earth-style backdrop of forest and low-hanging fog. In other images, Smith and Zung dress as if on the way to a Wheel of Time fan convention. He wears a tunic and an introspective frown, she a frock you might associate with strange women lying in ponds distributing swords.
It’s a striking vision of far-off kingdoms, misty mountains gleaming on the horizon and knights searching for secret grails. That iconography spoke to Smith as a child when he inhaled Krull and Beastmaster. It’s a distinctive ambience, where the fantastical is close by but just out of reach. He replicates that feeling in wonderful new songs such as The Fountain (“In the evening I ride/ Through the field unkind”) and Herstmonceux, a valentine to the 15th-century castle of the name in Sussex.
“I romanticise that stuff. For instance, I went to Herstmonceux while I was making this album. That’s how it ended up on the record. I distinctly remember standing there, imagining, ‘Oh I’m here, at this really cool castle’. But if a knight rides by right now, it wouldn’t be that impressive.”
His point is that fantasy is always more impactful when it feels as if the magic is happening just around the next bend, or over that hill. You’d be horrified if Gollum or a Black Rider appeared at your doorstep. Only when framed by our imagination do they take on the gloss of mystery and wonder — the aura radiated by Harp’s Albion.
“When you put that layer over it, that film quality, you get some distance from it. It becomes romanticised,” Smith says. “It’s better than real life somehow. That’s how I approached the album — I wanted that [fantastical] feel for it.”
Smith has been out of sight for quite some time. He left Midlake in 2013, during the peak of their popularity. All those flute solos notwithstanding, The Courage of Others had proved a critical and commercial hit. Its predecessor, the Fleetwood Mac-influenced The Trials of Van Occupanther, had been even more successful, earning wall-to-wall raves.
Relationships within the band frayed during the making of what was to be their fourth LP, Seven Long Suns, in 2013. (A track of the name features on Albion.) Smith went off and formed Harp; Midlake reassembled, with the guitarist and backing vocalist Eric Pulido taking over as frontman. (It helped the transition that both artists sported backwoods beards.) Midlake have since released two well-received records, Antiphon, in 2013, and For the Sake of Bethel Woods, in 2022.
Smith wishes them well. He never regretted pursuing a different path. At the same time, he wasn’t trying to disavow Van Occupanther and its impact. In leaving behind that 1970s classic rock sound, he was following his musical instincts. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?
“It never occurred to me that we were doing something different,” he says about Courage of Others. “I knew I was being heavily influenced by the British folk-rock stuff. I know that was changing the songwriting — the way we wanted it to feel. I didn’t see that as a bad thing.”
He didn’t have a chip on his shoulder about Van Occupanther and its big hit, Roscoe (think Suicide Is Painless, from Robert Altman’s Mash, crossed with the banjos scene in Deliverance). “It was never a thing in my head: ‘Oh we’ve got to top Van Occupanther.’ I didn’t think that would be too hard. I guess in retrospect it was. I’ve got some compliments from fans about Courage of Others, over Van Occupanther. It didn’t displease everyone.”
There were further tensions around Midlake’s ambitions to win a larger audience. “Tim was pretty open that he didn’t love touring and performing,” Pulido told me in 2022. “There was some anxiety there that, if you get bigger, well, in some ways it can be more daunting.”
Smith understands that Midlake were riding a wave. Those dizzying highs weren’t for him. He’s more a dizzying lows guy.
“We were doing well at the time,” he says. “I still love all those guys. We’re still good friends. I always wish them the best. We spent two years trying to make Seven Long Suns, which was to be the next album. We had different musical sensibilities. I’m not a great musician. I didn’t really play the instruments too much at all on those records. It’s the other guys that are playing. I’m sitting back in the control room. I’m the filter saying yay or nay. I think after two years of me saying nay, some of the guys in the band were feeling I was sort of in the way. Why are we listening to this guy? We can move on. We can get playing live again.”
Midlake played Ireland in early 2022. Smith and Harp will not be heading our way for a while, however. He never enjoyed touring, and the older he got the more of a trial it became. He’s happy for fans to discover Harp and share his fantastical visions. That’s the limit of his commitment, however. He won’t be touring for the foreseeable future.
“That part of my life is over, sadly. I never enjoyed it the way a person on stage should. Even with stage fright that I experienced, I should enjoy it more. A lot of people have stage fright, but they get that rush from being in front of an audience. I don’t. I don’t enjoy travelling, I don’t like being on stage.”
He has some guilt around that. He knows his audience would love to see him play. Smith would ask that they look to the positive. Not touring means more time to work on a new Harp LP. “I feel a little bad for people who would love to see us live. I’m just saying sorry right now for that. On the other side, it means we get to start the next album a year sooner. So that’s a plus.”
Albion is released through Bella Union