The masterpieces of the British folk-rock movement — Fairport Convention's Unhalfbricking, Steeleye Span's Parcel of Rogues and Pentangle's Basket of Light — have much in common beyond their revision of tradition and seductive accents. Instrumental virtuosity was the key to the movement, whether it was Richard Thompson's guitar pyrotechnics or Nick Drake's esoteric tunings. The Brits of the '70s didn't just deconstruct folk structures; they embraced timeless melodies and stories and sent them sailing.
Enter Midlake, a Denton, Texas, band that's fallen under the spell of British folk music, in its plugged and unplugged forms, but shows little interest in traditional ideologies or aesthetics. The band's core group — Tim Smith, Eric Pulido, McKenzie Smith, Paul Alexander and Eric Nichelson — is steeped in jazz by training and inclination; that instrumental dexterity makes Midlake's 2010 album, The Courage of Others, a beguiling and bewildering listen. Fatalistic, intricate and obsessive, Others creates a brooding world where the ghosts of folk forms past are chased by the jamming of jazz heads on a dark, minor-key trip. Ultimately, Midlake sounds like no band out of Texas or anywhere else. Guitarist Eric Pulido explains how it all happened.
Roy Kasten: There was a four-year gap between your previous album, The Trials of Van Occupanther, and the new album, The Courage of Others. Explain.
Eric Pulido: We toured that record through October 2007. We didn't switch gears well from recording and playing live. So we started at the end of 2007, beginning recording for The Courage of Others. We got right to work at a studio in Denton. We put some wallpaper up, carpet and curtains, lit the incense and got down to work. We didn't know what we were going for, I guess, as far as the sound. It was trial and error. We'd spend a month on a song and then throw it away. We were no strangers to the drawing board. And we were listening to a lot of the British folk artists at that point, but we weren't there as a band yet, to interpret what we wanted to say. We needed time to find new ideas because we'd beaten up the old ones. That took about a year. It wasn't on purpose, and it wasn't for lack of trying. We'd be in the studio all day and night, and on weekends, too. It was a beating. It was tough on us personally, financially, musically. We were glad to be done and have an album we were proud of.
You spent two years recording? Did you tour at the same time?
There was not one show.
I'm surprised you all didn't quit.
I'm surprised, too.
Midlake is a rock band that comes from a jazz background. Jazz musicians aren't known for spending years on records.
There's no right way, no exact equation. For us it was just keep trying till you get it right. If you don't get it right, you don't exist. You just hang it up. That was the option. We didn't want to stop. Now that we're done and starting to tour, we don't feel like this is the last album. We're just getting started in some ways. Next time we hope we'll be quicker about it.
Can we talk about the flutes?
Sure. I don't play the flutes.
Flutes show up in progressive rock and folk. That can be a good thing, but not always.
For Tim, who sings and plays the flute, it's his favorite instrument, as far as the sound. He feels like it's really beautiful. We had incorporated that sound in sly ways, mixing it in with keyboards, but it's more prominent now. When we leaned on the keyboards, it could be synthetic feeling. You're trying to recreate something you can't do orchestrally. There's also a little bit of bassoon and violin. Some people cite Jethro Tull, but that album was probably more of an influence on Van Occupanther than on this one.
If someone had just given me The Courage of Others, and said, "Check out this band," Denton, Texas, might be the last place I would picture. Is it weird being from Denton?
It doesn't feel weird to us. People will ask, "Why do you play this music if you're from Texas?" The easy answer is, "Why not?" In this day and age you're not limited to just the music from your geographic region. The Internet and the radio open up a whole can of worms.
How much do you and Tim talk about the songs before you get to work as a band?
It was different on this album. We tried so many different things. Tim would bring in a song, and we'd just try to play parts. Sometimes it was very much together, trying to find the harmonies to the melodies. Sometimes it was just jamming together and Tim writing a melody over that.
Did Tim ever bring in songs where you thought, "I don't know what the fuck this is about"?
Honestly, we're fans of his writing. We give him the position of holding the trump card, in a way. For better or worse, we never had a butting of heads — "This song sucks," or where we said, "You're taking us down a road we don't want to go down." More often, we'd say, "Don't throw this away! We want to make it work." That's not to say we don't have differences. We just try to make the song as best as we can make it.
I don't know if you pay attention to critics, but there's been criticism of the tempo of the record. One writer called it a "no-tempo" album.
We knew that there was a benchmark that we set with Van Occupanther, or at least a comparison. People would say, "Do I get this? Do I like this album better?" I know this record has a slower pace, and the songs are darker because they're in a minor key. So, if that's not something people dig, they're not going to like it. And that's fine. When I look at albums by artists I like, I think each is its own thing, has its own place. This one is an album from beginning to end, with a vibe, a feeling. You want people to listen from front to back and get into that place. Maybe you wonder what people are going to think, but you can't be controlled by that. No. Here's the album we're making, we hope people like it and stay with us and see where we're going next.