Into the Deep End: Midlake

Midlake, a Denton, TX band, plays dark guitar-driven Southern rock. There’s an urgency to their music—a brooding gothic quality that made them one of the most compelling acts at Austin’s South By Southwest festival, where they may have also had the most guitars and beards onstage of any band 4 and 5, respectively). I spoke with Tim Smith, the songwriter and singer, and bassist Paul Alexander outside the Texas State History Museum last month. The band plays New York’s Bowery Ballroom on April 7th and 8th.
DAVID COGGINS: As a young band, do you feel that you have to take advantage of all platforms available today, whether it’s a festival like South by Southwest, or developing a presence online? 

PAUL ALEXANDER: I think it’s going to be a part of your experience whether you set out to do that or not.

TIM SMITH: You’d like to think that if you just made a great album that you’d be able to pay the bills and travel and play.  But it’s a combination of a lot of things.     

ALEXANDER: Are there really rock stars anymore?  Sometimes I think with the internet everybody is a rock star.  What we do is clichéd.

COGGINS: But Midlake seems less concerned with some of these things. You haven’t done a viral video or placed your songs in ads.

SMITH: We would if we got the call. 

ALEXANDER: We’re not a cool band.

SMITH: We’re lazy in that we don’t make videos.  That’s our fault.

COGGINS: There is a dark intensity to the music.

ALEXANDER: It’s sort of serious.

SMITH: The music is no joke.

ALEXANDER: In our band there’s no laughing.  It’s not funny.

COGGINS: What about being in a band for a long time—what’s the key to your endurance?

ALEXANDER: It’s like being married to four dudes.  After a while the good doesn’t seem so good and their bad gets worse.  And touring is just very intense and is naturally stressful. 

COGGINS: Is the hardest part recording or touring?

TS: I think it’s different for everyone.  I really like recording and I don’t like touring.  So it’s hard to stay positive on the road.  For the other guys it can be hard to stay positive during recording.  Recording—I could do that non-stop.

ALEXANDER: I just take it day by day.  It doesn’t matter where I am.

SMITH: We just learn what to say—and what not to say—to each other.

ALEXANDER: We know what each other’s buttons are. 

COGGINS: And the songwriting process—does everybody have very defined role?

SMITH: I’ll just bring in a song and say here it is, and we’ll play through it and try a lot of different things. 

ALEXANDER: It always begins with Tim coming in with a song, and in his mind there’s an ideal version of the song, but four other guys have to play it, so we have to do our best to get into this world that his music will be in.

SMITH: I’m never satisfied.

ALEXANDER: He probably wouldn’t be satisfied unless he did it himself and even then he wouldn’t be satisfied.

SMITH: That’s true.

ALEXANDER: He’s a perfectionist.

SMITH: After a certain point if you don’t have it then you’ve missed it and you go onto something else.  And that happens.  It’s also true that I know something can be better but I don’t know how to do it.   You learn that when an album comes out after a couple months you notice all the flaws.  It’s never satisfying.  You think you’ve done a really good job and then you realize it could be better.

COGGINS: Didn’t Borges put his short stories in a drawer for six months and then go back and look at them?  You don’t necessarily have that luxury.

ALEXANDER: We do take our sweet ass time.

COGGINS: You’re going to tour in Europe.

SMITH: Right.  We’ve played there already but we’re going back. 

ALEXANDER: We did a month earlier this year.

COGGINS: You must be received differently there.

SMITH: We’re more exotic.

ALEXANDER: But over the years we’ve toured more in Europe.  You get a lot further—it’s just a geographical thing, you hit a lot more big cities in a month there.  You have to play small towns in America. 

COGGINS: Do they understand the lyrics or are they responding to the music, in Portugal, for instance?

ALEXANDER: We’re actually going to Portugal for the first time.

SMITH: We’ve never really asked them.

COGGINS: Is it true that bass players are quiet?

ALEXANDER: I’m on and off.  I’m either really quiet or you want to get rid of me.