Midlake, the pride of Denton, Texas, is a band that proudly wears its influences on its sleeve. The band’s breakthrough album, The Trials of Van Occupanther, paid sincere homage to the harmonies of Neil Young, Fleetwood Mac and Elton John, but added layered narratives about the harsh lives of pioneers in an unforgiving landscape. Midlake found itself navigating some dangerous territory of a totally different type when the time came to record the follow-up to Occupanther. Untold amounts of goodwill have been burned in pursuit of the elusive second success. On one side of a very narrow path is the abyss of pandering to fans and critics; on the other is the equally treacherous chance of going too far in the opposite direction, ending up on scrap heap of unemployed indulgent rock musicians. Midlake emerged from the struggle with The Courage of Others, which ditched the ’70s Americana in favor of the flute stylings and pagan dread of English folk. Here, guitarist Eric Pulido discusses the perils of success, hiring the right woodwind player, and the Oregon Trail meme.
Was your band at all prepared for the success of The Trials of Van Occupanther?
You can’t really plan out how things are going to go when you make a record. Obviously it was better than anticipated and a level of success that the band hadn’t yet reached. We knew that Van Occupanther was a good record, but it was a huge leap from our first record. The fact that it was a gradual grower was very helpful, though; not everything happened at once.
When the whole Oregon Trail thing happened, were you pleased or pissed?
What are you talking about?
The entire Internet blew up with the fact that your album was a soundtrack for Oregon Trail.
Oh, that. It’s just kind of funny. It’s definitely not anything that [frontman Tim Smith] put into the record. I didn’t play the game, so I really didn’t know what the big deal was about it. If people had fun with it, that’s not a bad thing.
Did the album’s success have any lasting effect on the band?
The biggest thing is that it helped us to do the band full time. We could quit our second jobs and become musicians. It really forced our hands, to be truthful. With the amount of touring we needed to do to support the album, we needed to be devoted to the band on a full-time basis. There were other benefits too; maybe the best was playing a show and having people know the album. It was a totally different vibe in our live show. We’ve also been able to build a studio in Denton, which was the realization of one our long-term goals as a band.
How do you follow up something like Trials of Van Occupanther?
Any time we go into the studio, we try to make a better record than the last one. Any pressure we feel, though, is what we put on ourselves. The label doesn’t want us to make a certain type of record; they’ve been very good about letting us go wherever we need to musically. We can’t try to guess what the fans want, because that’s a losing proposition. I don’t want to sound cavalier, but the only way to do it is to go into the studio and let things fall where they will.
Tell me about the new album.
After Van Occupanther, Tim was introduced to the era of great British folk music. All the bigger acts that you’ve heard of take you down a branching trail. There are so many different sounds and emotions associated with that particular time in musical history, and we really wanted to explore that. There’s not really anything new under the sun, and we’re not going to try and reinvent the wheel. On the other hand, we don’t want to just copy or make a tribute to those records. We want to translate and interpret those sounds. The result is an album that evokes English folk music, but it is also very much Midlake.
You started out as a lo-fi electronic band. Your last album was a throwback to the ’70s California sound, and The Courage of Others reworks the British folk sound. Who is Midlake, then? Do you worry about being too defined by your influences?
The influences are definitely there front and center. Each album is its own genre. In the early days it was Grandaddy and Flaming Lips. Then it was Neil Young on Occupanther. The albums are a snapshot of who we are at a very specific point, and what type of music we’ve been listening to. e get asked who we are a lot, about what sound and genre we fit into, and I don’t have an answer for that. When the time comes to make an album, we digest all of the influences that we’ve taken in since the last one and try to put out a record that reflects the band as it exists at that point. Hopefully, though, when people put on one of our records, no matter what influenced it, they will be able to hear Midlake, and a thread that connects all of the albums. In that way, The Courage of Others isn’t “the British folk album,” it’s the natural progression of the band. It is hard to be objective, though; we love listening to music, and it is definitely going to have an effect on the music the band produces.
On the topic of influences, an article written about your studio noted that many of your influences’ albums are hanging on the wall. The Jethro Tull connection is obvious, but where is Edgar Winter on this record? What inspiration is the band drawing from one of rock’s most singular images?
That record is in the bathroom, actually. I’m also not sure we really want to do anything influenced by that particular cover. That would be bad. The albums hanging on the wall have more to do with the sheer size of the band space. We moved into what was essentially a thousand square feet of empty space. We just started putting up records. If we actually had thought about it at the time we moved in, there would probably be a lot more Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young and Elton John on the wall. Honestly, though, we took what we could get.
What is something you’re particularly proud of on The Courage of Others?
I’m proud that we actually did it. The time after Occupanther was tough for the band from a personal, financial, and musical standpoint. We went through a period after Occupanther where there wasn’t a lot of progress. It was just trial and error, and we didn’t have a lot to show for it. There were moments where it seemed that things were falling apart. The tough times ended up being worth it, though; The Courage of Others is the most communal record that we’ve ever done. The struggle was something that was beneficial, because we were able to hash out our ideas and get to a place that set us up better in the end. After going through all of the struggles, it’s especially gratifying to be out playing the new material live.
Was there something you wanted to do but didn’t really work out?
It’s hard to think of something specific, but there are always those little nagging questions. You wonder if it’s really done, or if there’s something that could have been better. At a certain point, you do have to put it away and move forward. I’d say that’s definitely the next direction we’re heading as a band. We’ve always had a tendency to be too analytical. We want the recording process to be more reflective of the way we play live.
I’m going to ask this once and drop it forever: Are you sure there are no hidden meanings you’d care to share with your lazier fans?
I’m not sure, you know. I’ve heard rumors that some people have found some pretty interesting images on the cover. I’m not going to say that it was drug induced, but I haven’t seen anything yet.
What’s up next for Midlake?
We’re touring for the next year solid. In the interim, we want to do a better job of being productive during the breaks. Touring gets tiring, and it’s nice to be at home with your wife and kids. There’s a tendency to just exist, but we want to be intentional about getting more things done. Generally we’re not ones to sit idle, but the playing live does take a toll.
What can someone seeing you on this tour expect?
I think we’ve developed a lot more of a layered sound. We used to be very keyboard heavy, but we’re working in more of a guitar sound. We’re seven strong on this tour. We actually had to hire a flute player for this tour too. Tim can play flute, but it would be impossible for him to do it while he’s trying to sing.
How does one go about procuring a flute player?
He’s a friend of ours and just an amazing musician. We asked him if he was interested in going out on tour with us, and then we told him that he needed to learn to play flute. He was still into it. He said that he’d practice every day, and three months later he was ready to go. It’s been excellent to have that dimension at the shows.
Now that you’ve got a flute player and have blown up the Internet, what’s your ultimate goal for Midlake?
Well, I guess I’d look at bands like Radiohead and Wilco being able to grow their career and not feeling pressured to be selling the next album. Working on the live show is also a part of it. We want to be at the point that people trust us when we want to take them to a new place.