Foundations: Maxïmo Park

Frontman Paul Smith on Cat Power and Joni Mitchell...

Clash speaks to Maxïmo Park frontman Paul Smith about five hugely influential records, ones that have shaped how he both hears and writes music.

Maxïmo Park’s fifth album, ‘Too Much Information’ (review), is released on February 3rd. The band’s cover of Mazzy Star’s ‘Fade Into You’ was featured as our Track Of The Day just a wee while ago – listen here – and the video for the band’s new single ‘Leave This Island’ is below, ahead of Smith’s Foundations selections.

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Maxïmo Park, ‘Leave This Island’

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Life Without Buildings – ‘Any Other City’ (2001)

“Around the time this came out, I’d seen a few things in the press, mentioning the band’s name, and I thought that they sounded interesting. And then the girl I was dating at the time had a single of theirs, and we’d listen to it in her room. I was a little nonplussed the first time I heard it – I didn’t really know what to make of it, mostly because of the unique vocal stylings of Sue Tompkins.

“But the more I listened to it, the more beguiled I became, and the rest is history, as this has become pretty much my favourite record. It’s one that I go back to, over and over, to feel something, to feel that variation of emotions contained within it. There’s a lot to it, even though it’s just a band made up of guitar, bass, drums and vocals.

“This is a touchstone for Maxïmo Park, too, as it’s one of only a few records that we can agree on, as we all have quite different tastes. When you make music, you should always question the type of music you’re making, but this record has always been one where I’ve thought: being in a band is simply one of the best things you can do. Being with these people, who you’ve managed to find some sort of rapport with, is a very special thing.

“We really appreciate this combination of people, the people who make our band, who all get excited about the music they’re making. And that’s what I hear, too, on ‘Any Other City’ – it’s an exuberant record, so full of life.

“I think, though, it would have been difficult for Life Without Buildings to make another record – this being their only album – which really moved away from what they’d managed here. It’s kind of basic, and what Sue Tompkins does really colours the band the way it is. Which is brilliant – but this is it, for them. And this is the challenge for all bands – moving forwards without losing the qualities that made you good in the first place.

“That said, you have bands like The Go-Betweens, who didn’t really evolve between records, but you had that great songwriting from the start. They never went too far from that first point, but they’re a legendary band.”

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Cat Power – ‘Moon Pix’ (1998)

“I got into this album at the time it came out. My local music shop in Newcastle had a postcard of the cover up, and I thought it looked pretty interesting – this interesting face on the cover, peeking out at you. I’d read some things about Cat Power, too, which made me want to listen to the record – and it surpassed any expectations that I had.

“This came at a time in my life where I’d just gone to university, and I was listening to the albums I did buy a lot more, as I didn’t have the money to buy too many. I’d listen to this record a lot, and initially I actually only had it taped off a friend of mine. It was only recently that I bought the album on vinyl, in a nice reissue. But I’d listen to the tape over and over again.

“There are all sorts of stories that go around this record – like the hauntings going on in the house she wrote it in, and then the recording of it out in Australia, which lends it a different feel to what she’d done before. The guitar playing of Mick Turner and the restless drums of Jim White stand out for me – these are key components of this record. And Chan’s playing is great, too, but that’s her thing – she has this really interesting, sprawling guitar style, and she’s one of these singers who could sing anything. Her covers records have shown how flexible she is.

“To me, this is soul music. It’s total… it’s alternative music, but with an added, despairing howl. There’s a sense of rejuvenation in a lot of her music after this record, of coming in from out of the darkness. After I got ‘Moon Pix’, I went back to her earlier records, and some of those are harder to listen to – not just because of the emotional content, but also because I don’t think she’d found her voice, until ‘Moon Pix’.

“If anyone was looking to get into Cat Power now, I’d definitely say this is the place to start. And, perhaps, to end, too – go further if you want, but I think she hit the nail on the head with this album.

“I did like ‘Sun’ (review), and when you trust an artist you rather pin your colours to their mast, so you can appreciate when they try different things. Maybe not all of that record is for you, but it has so many bright spots, so it’s worth getting into. So I liked ‘Sun’ quite a lot. A couple of its songs aren’t for me, but it’s important that someone who’s a strong, positive female artist is out there on her own, taking risks with each record.

“I liked ‘You Are Free’, too, where she was working with Eddie Vedder and Dave Grohl, but to some hardcore, like, Drag City kinda fans, I expect that was really off-putting. ‘The Greatest’ features some of her best songs – it’s great that every time she takes a little risk, and that’s really appealing to me.”

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Joni Mitchell – ‘The Hissing Of Summer Lawns’ (1975)

“It was tough to choose just five records for this, as everyone says, I’m sure. I love the Laurel Canyon sound, but Joni Mitchell just transcended it, without caring what circumstances that would lead to. And, of course, her taking those chances has resulted in her being revered.

“She moved into jazz, into different tunings. Even after ‘Blue’, which was so big, she didn’t just keep doing that – she moved onto a record like ‘Court And Spark’. For me, this album is endlessly listenable, because there is so much subtext to it. The music is so rich. Everything about ‘The Hissing…’ is beautiful, I think.

“Anyone who’s a music fan, I’d recommend this album to. This one, for me, is where she really goes out there. I think the first time I heard it was probably Stockton Library, as I used to take CDs out and record them. I know you’re not meant to do that, but I think we all did. That’s how I educated myself, in my local library. I’d take out albums of folk and blues, records that perhaps I otherwise would not have taken a risk on, if I was spending my teenage pocket money. I used those trips to create soundtracks for my Walkman.

“This is quite a weird record – definitely not played straight. You’ve got a track on it like ‘The Jungle Line’, which is almost electronic, y’know? It seems many years ahead of its time. Mitchell, like someone like Arthur Russell, just kept on trying new things, and seemed to have a real knack for it. She could always put real soul into her work, too – they weren’t just isolated experiments. Her lyrics make it really stand out, too.

“Whatever happens to the album format in the coming years – and I’m sure its appeal will dwindle – you’ll always have some people, some aficionados, who remain interested. It’s like vinyl – people in my generation see it as something that they’re holding onto, as a dying format of choice perhaps, but now 15- or 16-year-olds who are really into their music, using the social media of right now, they’re now starting to buy vinyl, too. Fans on Twitter tell me that they’re waiting for the vinyl version of an album, y’know? So there is that desire to get involved in a record, to get immersed.

“And there are still artists who wanna take listeners on that journey, and present all these different aspects. If people keep that desire to make records like they were made in the ‘70s, on a trip comparable to the one Joni Mitchell takes you on here, through this weird Californian world, and make it interesting to people from a working-class background in the north east, then that’ll attract followers. That’s how albums will live on. But you can definitely say that, if I were 15 again, I’d be downloading like crazy. I do try to buy records and soak them up.”

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Cocteau Twins – ‘Heaven Or Las Vegas’ (1990)

“The first Cocteau Twins album that I got into was ‘Four-Calendar Café’, in 1993. That’s the one that came out after this one. I’d seen the band on TV, on Jools Holland, and I couldn’t believe there was a singer with a voice like this. After that I bought ‘Treasure’ from a second-hand jumble sale at a local school, and that record kind of scared me. That’s some genuinely spooky music, like this voice was coming from a different world. Liz Fraser sounds really haunted at times.

“This album, ‘Heaven Of Las Vegas’, I’d read a bit about – it seemed like every critic was saying that this was the one to get. And once I’d added it to my collection, I guess I realised that every one of its songs is as good as it gets. I’m sure that you can argue the case for other albums – ‘Blue Bell Knoll’ is brilliant, too. But this felt like an album to listen to all the way through.

“For getting into the output of 4AD, this is a very important release for me. It opened the door to other things, like This Mortal Coil. That’s the thing when you’re first getting obsessed by music – there’s so much out there to discover. And one artist will always lead you onto another. It’s a little treasure trove. 4AD had a very strong house style, a bit like Warp I suppose – not only in terms of the music, but also the designs. The Designers Republic’s work for Warp was very important in establishing its identity, to make that label stand out.

“For a while, it felt you could always rely on a label – you could like one artist and buy another from the same stable and feel confident you’d like it. It’ll be in the same ballpark. That made it very easy to find new things, by association. I don’t think it exists in quite the same way anymore – you look at how 4AD has had to grow. And besides, staying the same isn’t healthy for anybody, be that a person, a label or a band. You have to evolve.

“I suppose when we signed to Warp, that’s when they were starting to diversify – you had us, you had Gravenhurst, and then Grizzly Bear. These acts, with guitars as a prominent part of their sound, were a new step for the label – but being on Warp really helped us. It says to people who don’t know us that perhaps we’re not just an ordinary indie band, perhaps there’s something different about us. It helped people break down the perceptions of what Warp, the label, was like. Hopefully it’s a mark of quality, being on a label like Warp, or like 4AD.”

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The Go-Betweens – ‘Liberty Belle And The Black Diamond Express’ (1986)

“Robert Forster and Grant McLennan are big influences on my songwriting, you guessed that right. They’re okay, those guys. I love the fact that they’re these two very different personalities – it’s a bit like hearing The Beatles for the first time, when you hear The Go-Betweens, because you wonder who wrote which songs. Which is a Paul song, which is a John song? And here, you’ve got the flamboyant, literary edge of Forster, and the plain-speaking poeticism of McLennan.

“Of course, that’s not all. You’ve also got the fantastic drumming of Lindy Morrison. Some of the drumming on this album is mind-blowing – really simple, but you’re not quite sure how it came to be like that. As I was saying earlier, the focus of The Go-Betweens is on their songs, rather than really pushing their music forwards. It’s about having three or four minutes of a story, of an emotion.

“On this record, one of my favourites is ‘The Wrong Road’, which is just a beautiful piece of music. McLennan spins this brilliant tale, with lines like: “When the rain hit the roof / With the sound of a finished kiss / Like a lip lifted from a lip / I took the wrong road ‘round.” It’s just outrageously good – and me knowing the lyrics off by heart emphasises, to me, just how beautiful this album is to immerse yourself in.

“I think it’s interesting, too, that this comes from the other side of the world. There’s something offbeat about it, something that I can still hear in other bands from Australia and New Zealand. Like, bands on Flying Nun, the label from New Zealand, and there’s a band I really like right now from Melbourne, called Dick Diver. When we’ve been on tour, we’ve been to Brisbane and went over the Grant McLennan Bridge (actually the Go Between Bridge – Wikipedia), because we’re geeks like that. It’s a privilege to tour the world playing music anyway, but to go to the places where your heroes trod is amazing, and it makes you realise that you’ve got to step up to the plate.

“I don’t know whether it’s possible to emulate the great lyric writing of McLennan and Forster, but you have to try, and that’s what I’m all about as a lyricist. You have to try to find your own means of expression, and that’s what they definitely had on their records, especially this one. It’s tune after tune, and each one contains a little world that nobody else could have written about, while also expressing all of these quite universal things. I suppose that’s the power of song.

“I think a lot of great Australian music does go unrecognised here, perhaps because our main cultural experience of the place is through Neighbours and Home And Away. But you’ve got someone like Nick Cave, and he’s very Australian but also mining the wider blues, that sort of tradition, and taking it into different realms. But to hear someone sing a song like The Go-Betweens’ ‘Cattle And Cane’, from ‘Before Hollywood’, which talks about a young lad passing through this barren landscape… And there’s this Triffids song, ‘Wide Open Road’… There’s something off-kilter about these songs.

“There’s a febrile period at the end of punk, where people wanted to make these sort of songs, but where the singing is quite Tom Verlaine-like, with these amateur guitar noodles. There’s a real post-punk attitude, but from bands that really wanted to write songs. These come from a very interesting point of view.”

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As told to Mike Diver
Maxïmo Park photography: Steve Gullick

Find more Foundations features here.
Find Maxïmo Park online here. 'Too Much Information' is reviewed here.

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