When given the chance to interview an artist about their literary influences, the first person that came to mind was Paul Smith of Maxïmo Park fame.
His lyrics are inventive, empathetic, and eloquent, and his stage persona is one of the most unique and impassioned likely to be witnessed. Clash got the chance to ask him about his bookish tendencies upon his return to Newcastle for Christmas in the first of our new feature, ‘The Library’.
What’s your favourite book and why?
It’s tough, but I suppose ‘Tender Is The Night’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald -we ended up using a quote from it in our second record sleeve. It feels like a big statement without somebody saying ‘this is about life’. There are tiny moments where it sums up the dissatisfaction that you have with life, especially everyday life. Things are being thrown at you from all angles and not many of them have any real worth and that’s quite confusing. There’s this questioning nature to the whole plot, and yet on a purely textual level, the words that have been put together create these beautiful sentences that are fairly unparalleled.
"We’re all swarming towards the same things like a bunch of ants"
What other authors are you into?
I like Cormac McCarthy, an American writer - ‘Blood Meridian’ had a big effect on me. It wonders whether there’s this overarching theme to life, whether it’s religious, a government in charge of what you’re doing, or whether it’s just all of Western society. We’re all swarming towards the same things like a bunch of ants. And yet it’s about cowboys on the borderline fighting each other, tremendous struggles, and everyday life is this one big desert punctuated by horrific incidents. Things just occur. On our latest record, ‘Karaoke Plays’ is one of those songs where there’s no point in trying to question when chance intervenes in your life.
Do your literary influences have a direct impact on your songwriting?
I suppose the more I read, the more I know what I don’t like and what I do like. It feels fresh and new even though people have written so many words over centuries. You can read a Samuel Beckett play, yet you don’t feel like he’s repeating himself, and the same thing with a Fitzgerald book. It’s suddenly like you’ve entered his world and there’s a pleasure to be gained from that familiar voice.
What are you reading at the moment?
At the moment I’m reading the diaries of the playwright Joe Orton, who was about in the 60s. He was bludgeoned to death by his lover, Kenneth Halliwell, and they lived together in a little flat in London. The guy uses words in a really fun way and yet he’s not hiding his intelligence. It’s got that informal quality that a diary has got, that confessional tone to it.
What was the first text you remember reading as a child?
It was probably ‘Peter and Jane’ books! I was reading quite well by the age of four. I was more of a bookworm than I am now. Now I’m too into music, and when its time to read a book I’ll put on a record instead. I’ve got loads on my shelves - I assume that one day I’ll end up in an accident or something at home in a not optimistic way!
What’s your take on libraries?
In my youth they were my salvation, my mam used to read Roald Dahl to me. I remember going to get Tin Tin and Asterix books, I used to love those. I wasn’t allowed to play football which the other lads used to do, because they used to go over the big road, so instead, my mam used to drop me off at the library and I would read things. I remember reading things like the poet Shelley, and thinking ‘this is alright but it’s a bit boring, a bit too flowery for my liking’. The shelves are full of things and it’s up to you to find your way through it, it’s an escape from the world you’re in. Even the smell of the place…it was cool, kind of musty. I suppose maybe Billingham library was slightly different to the Newcastle central library which had quite a few smelly fellas in it. Billingham library was good!
How do you think literature acquires timelessness?
I think if it says something universal in its own way. It’s got to have an individual quality but also, to even use the word timeless – it’s something that says something about its age but about other ages, like ‘The Great Gatsby’. Every crash of house prices and all the new commodities that you can buy are still totally relevant. It’s still about one man being the architect of his own downfall and whether it’s that, or Madame Bovary, stuff that was written ages ago, it still says something about the way that human beings act towards each other.
Do you read book reviews?
"Authenticity doesn’t come into it; it’s more about whether you feel something for the characters."
I tend not to. There are other ways of finding out about, be it a new record or a new book. Like there was an article about Zora Neale Hurston, an African-American writer from the 30s and 40s who had an influence on people like Toni Morrison, and it was really interesting, with poetic passages. Or if you read a first page you know what you’re going to get. I tend to use that as my test.
Would you ever re-read the same book?
Rarely. Certain things like compendiums though, I’ve got the Faber Book of Pop. I really like John Savage’s writing on music and he did an anthology called Time Travel and so things like that you tend to go back and read articles but I’m too young to have re-read.
Is there a character in a book that you’ve ever most identified with?
When I was 15, reading Albert Camus’ ‘The Outsider’, I was like, ‘that’s me’. And two years later you think ‘actually no, that’s not me at all’. You take something from each narrator. We’re all capable of disgusting thoughts and loving thoughts and there are writers that encompass all of those things and it can be quite uncomfortable when you realise you’re thinking them too. Then there’s John Updike, his writing is astounding. The guy has books with some amazing descriptive sentences and paragraphs that blow my mind. I think he feels quite disgusted at the world but you get to the end of a book by him and you go ‘blimey, it’s pretty dismal’, but at the same time he’s celebrating these things. I suppose when I read some of the Rabbit books by John Updike I get a bit alarmed by how closely we’ve got parallel minds.
Are there certain qualities that you look for which will draw you to a book?
I think empathy, or if you can think ‘this situation seems plausible’. There’s a guy called Russell Hoban, and he writes fantasies where ludicrous things happen. There’s one called ‘Amaryllis Night And Day’ – it’s about a girl who meets a guy in her dreams and then he actually appears in her dreams. I don’t need to think that it happened to believe it. Authenticity doesn’t come into it; it’s more about whether you feel something for the characters. In fact that’s the only requirement that I have. If it doesn’t move me in some way – it can be a two minute straight edged punk thrash by Minor Threat, or a long folk song by Bert Jansch, or books wise it could be something that’s really hilarious or it could be something that’s a bit more profound.
Do you read one book at a time or more than one?
More than one and its quite frustrating. I end up half finishing and I put them down because I’m like ‘ooh I want to read this now’ and it’s the same with a record but unfortunately with books you need to spend a lot more time with them to actually get anywhere with them. I end up taking four or five books on tour and then only dipping into one of them and then not really touching the other three.
You’ve mentioned Peter Guralnick once in an interview- what’s your take on his work?
I’m in the middle of reading is ‘Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke’. I’m interested in Sam Cooke because he’s an amazing singer but I knew that with Peter Guralnick he’d have the context of the time. He does what the best biographers do; he relates what the famous person was doing with the social milieu around them, though I think his writing sometimes strains into a little bit of the sentimental - you know sometimes, I wish he’d get on with it a little bit more!
What made Maxïmo Park get involved with www.walkmanproject.com?
They asked us to explain about one of our songs, how it was written and what we do as songwriters. We did the filming down in the Head of Steam pub in Newcastle, and. I was trying to explain a bit more about how ‘Books From Boxes’ was written. We put a lot of effort into each individual song as well as trying to keep that mysterious element to a song where you just go ‘that sounds good, let’s do it’, instead of thinking ‘what key is this in?’. But at the same time that song is really layered and there are loads of little features in it that we thought ‘that’d be a really cool thing to do’. Tom English thinking about the tom-toms on the middle eight, the way that Dunc’s guitar fits in with Lukas’ keyboard, and the fact that the lyrics are about time slipping away from you before you get to know someone.
Maxïmo Park are currently promoting walkmanproject.com – a new interactive site which lets you collaborate with musical talent from across the world, by mixing up different musical components to create your very own multi-instrumental track, which you can then download for free.
See more info please go to www.walkmanproject.com