Call and response: How Midlake came back from the edge

What did Midlake do when their frontman walked out last year? They picked themselves up and made a stunning new album in just six months. Eric Pulido discusses the Texan band’s shake-up with Lauren Murphy


What do you do when the lead singer and main songwriter of your band just ups and walks out? That’s the situation that Midlake found themselves in last year. The quintet from Denton, Texas, who have forged a reputation as purveyors of considered folk-rock with generous helpings of psychedelica and Seventies AOR, broke through with their second album The Trials of Van Occupanther in 2006.

After following it with The Courage of Others in 2010 – an album that guitarist Eric Pulido admits was somewhat difficult to make – it was clear that cracks were beginning to show, most notably with frontman Tim Smith.

“It was no secret that Tim struggled to be satisfied with the music we were making,” says the affable Pulido, who found himself the de facto frontman after Smith’s departure. “Also, he did not enjoy touring – so there was a big part of the band’s existence that he wasn’t happy about. In that regard, he was quite vocal about that – although of course, knowing that doesn’t mean that you expect him to walk out.

“It meant that it wasn’t the biggest shock in the world, but the timing was the thing that was the most difficult.”

Smith’s decision came while the band were knee-deep into making their fourth album, having spent almost two years working on it.

“I was very optimistic, even during the times that were more tumultuous or difficult,” says Pulido of the initial recording sessions. “I felt like we always did: that if we work 12 hours one day, we’ll work 14 the next. Just keep pushing. But I think we got to a place where the law of diminishing returns came into play, and we had lost a lot of life in the music. We tried it a lot of different ways: recording with different producers in different places.

“Everybody was feeling drained and a bit frustrated, but Tim anti-climactically decided that he didn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, he didn’t see hope any more, any purpose, so he decided to leave.

“At that time it hurt, because I’d invested a lot of time – everybody did – and a lot of trust and a lot of diligence, so it was a bit daunting for that big of a shake-up to happen. The flipside of it was that it created a new challenge, a new chapter, a new opportunity. Long story short, we decided that we were gonna take hold of it; move forward, redefine things and obviously write and record a whole new record to make a clean break from what was.”

The band decided that they were going to continue without Smith quite quickly.

“I never thought we would quit,” he says adamantly. “I felt like I’d made a promise to the guys, and to our label and management and our fans, that that wasn’t how I wanted it to end. I felt inspired, I didn’t feel like that that was where we wanted it to end. So within 24 hours we got together and we said ‘okay, let’s figure out ‘how’ we do it – not ‘if’.”

After regrouping, the band set about scrapping the initial sessions and started with a clean slate. Written and recorded in six months – “an amazing timeframe for this band”, he laughs – Antiphon (the term for the ‘call-and-response’ style of singing, usually in a religious context) is a rich, measured album that shares more musical DNA with Van Occupanther than the Brit-folk influence of their last record, with songs like Provider and I’m Going Down laden with dark, propulsive grooves and stunning harmonies.

Lyrically, songs like Aurora Gone and The Weight seem to hint at the break-up of relationships and asserting their newfound independence. “When we embarked on this record, there wasn’t necessarily a template that we were following – no certain sound or band or era that we were specifically into,” nods Pulido. “Instead, we were pulling, as we needed to, from a broad scope of music that we had all loved since we were kids, and some of that included the music that inspired Van Occupanther, because it’s still music that we know and love.

“And it also included our own past discography, because obviously that’s the music that we made together. So we weren’t being as narrow, or specific, I think, as some of our past records have been. I’m not knocking them, and I’m not saying that they’re better or worse – but when everybody in the band gets a say, you get a lot of different influences. I think it was a healthier environment. A more communal record was made, where everybody felt more ownership and more of their voice was heard.”

After years of a somewhat autocratic songwriting system, steering that communal voice into a productive working arrangement initially proved a little difficult.

“There were some growing pains at first,” he admits. “I think we started to hit a stride, but I won’t lie – there were some times that were much more difficult in how we wrote and recorded. But we had to step up and say ‘Look guys, we’ve been in this band for what, 12, 13, 14 years? We’ve made records with folks like John Grant, collaborated with other artists both live and on record, we’ve jammed, for lack of a better term, for hours on end – we can do this. We know how to play together.’

“And when you kind of get over that insecurity of asking questions, it was just like ‘Let’s just play. Let’s just get in a room together and play, no pressure. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, we’re not making any commitment – we’re just trying to give it a go’.”

It certainly sounds like the band have made peace with their new situation and are arguably the better band for Smith’s departure – but have they spoken to their former ally over the last year? Pulido is characteristically diplomatic about how the land lies between both parties.

“There has been a little bit of contact,” he admits. “I’ll be honest: during this whole time, and especially earlier on, it was quite difficult to have the task that we had before us – to make an album - and still remain chummy, as far as our conversations went. Tim actually moved away from the town that we all live in, so we didn’t see him any more, either. I think he needed and wanted there to be a break. I think we will have a better relationship and be healthier as friends in the future, and I’m sure we’ll reconnect in the future.

“In no way do we have any ill will – we hope the best for him and I know he hopes the best for us, too, but our focus now is on this album and the future. We didn’t want any of it to be contrived or seem like we were trying too hard, and I think we succeeded on that front, y’know? This is the music we’re into, this is the music we’re making, this is the voices we have, and here you go. That was kind of it.”

Antiphon is out on Bella Union. Midlake play Vicar St, Dublin, on February 23rd, 2014