‘I feel in some way responsible as an artist to reflect the world I live in,’ says Maxïmo Park frontman Paul Smith. Back with a brand new album, he promises a politically explicit record with plenty of groove.
From the opening riff of the first track What Did We Do to You to Deserve This?, it’s clear the latest instalment from the Geordie four-piece intends to intertwine politics with funk, soul and big riffs.
Risk to Exist, their sixth album, was produced in Wilco’s Chicago studio by Tom Schich and features the inimitable vocal talents of Low’s Mimi Parker.
We caught up with Paul to learn about the inner workings of the record and how it became a fully-charged mix of the political and the personal…
What can we expect from the new album?
I suppose there’s a bit more space in it. This time we’re still catchy but there’s a groove to a lot of the songs and not everyone is playing at the same time. There’s more room for the vocals and the rhythm section to breathe so I guess in that respect it was more influenced by soul and funk records.
Although we’ve dealt with more political things in the past, the lyrics are more explicit on this record as we touch on different social issues in the songs. But hopefully it’s been a light touch. The messages are in there but there are also a lot of questions, and it’s not particularly slogan-y in its political context. If there is a political deepness to the record it’s all from a very personal prism.
Why did you feel it was important to reflect the political and social issues of today in the LP?
I feel in some way responsible as an artist to reflect the world I live in. I wouldn’t say that because we live in a politically explosive time I think people should be writing about politics. But you should have an opinion, you should have a stance. That stance might be to create an escapist album, but it’s important not to stick your head in the sand to what’s going on in the world around you. I think it’s kind of inevitable that it would come into our songs.
Mimi Parker features on five tracks on the new album. What was it like working with her?
We recorded the album in Chicago in Wilco’s studio with Tom Schich, and as a vocalist I’ll often do the falsetto backing vocals and add lots of layered vocals in the mix. But during the demo process there was a song called I’ll Be Around and the vocals just reminded me of the same tone and range that Mimi Parker’s got.
We were in Chicago not too far away from Duluth, where Mimi and the guys from Low live. We know that Tom made a record with them in the same studio so we just asked. We sent her the song, told her what the record was about – unity and solidarity. She said yes and on the day we asked her to do a few more songs and she just made our day. It’s something that I’ll remember forever.
Is it good to get away from the UK when recording?
We made our third album in Los Angeles. Having had that experience before out in America we thought we may never get this chance again. Pop music is a very fickle thing and people might not want to pay us to go and record in America again so it was a good opportunity for us. We know that Tom Schich is one of the guys who can capture the sound you want and Wilco’s studio is a very artist-friendly place. There’s lots of Jeff Tweedy’s vintage gear around and it’s a bit of an Aladdin’s cave for musicians.
It was also a very tumultuous time in politics out there. The anti-elitism that runs through the record made us see things from a different perspective. You see the songs with a little bit of distance, where you’ve been and how you’ve demoed them.
Why did you choose to record the album completely live?
We thought we sounded pretty tight and these songs lend themselves to this more traditional approach, so for us it was nice to go in just as the band sounds like. When you’ve got lyrics that you care about and that you want people to understand, it’s good to have that room for things to breathe. It all made sense to go out and do it live.
This is the sixth album. Does it get more difficult over time to come up with new material?
The more you do it, the more it comes naturally. The funny thing is a lot of people seem to get worse in bands, and it always disappoints me. I don’t know if that’s because sometimes people get a bit blasé about it, especially the more successful they get.
You should get better, in theory, not worse. You’re always searching, that’s the beauty of it. It’s exciting and frustrating but when you get there it’s like mining for gold or something. When you finally see the glint in the distance, you go for it and love that process.
You’re off on a UK tour in May. Are there any venues or cities you’re most looking forward to playing?
We’re looking forward to playing further flung places, especially with a lot of the songs on the record surrounding ideas of solidarity. It would’ve been easy to go to a lot of the same venues again. We haven’t played the Princess Pavilion in Falmouth before.
How many people go to Falmouth on their rock and roll tours? The one I’m looking forward to the most is the Royal Festival Hall because I’m a big fan of the brutalist architecture of the Southbank. It’s an absolute dream to be on the same stage as some of the artists you admire, in that beautiful venue.
You’re playing a lot of festivals this summer, including Beyond the Tracks Festival in Birmingham. How did you get involved in that?
Somebody said, ‘Do you wanna play?’ and we’ll play if people ask us. We’re just excited to get the new record out to as many people. One of the best ways of doing that is at a festival where a lot of the time you’re playing to other people’s fans. Somebody who was wondering around at the back of a festival or come to watch you on your stage or waiting for someone else that your music might touch them or move them in some way.
Risk to Exist is released today (21 April) via Daylighting/Cooking Vinyl. Catch them on tour, starting at O2 Institute in Birmingham on 5 May. For more info, and dates, see http://maximopark.com/
Words: Hannah Kane