Interview: Maxïmo Park

Interview with Maxïmo Park

Maxïmo Park

Introduction

Newcastle’s premiere art-pop outfit are back with their fourth studio album. We spoke to Maxïmo Park keyboardist Lukas Wooller about the “marmite” effect, parting ways with Warp Records and why he thinks The National Health is their finest effort to date.

Questions and answers

It’s been three years since Quicken The Heart, was it a conscious decision to take time out between records?

Yeah. We’d done six years of writing, recording and touring and we realised that if we carried on into another record at the same pace then we were basically gonna burn out and get really pissed off with ourselves and jaded with everything else. Basically, we knew we needed to take a bit more time on this record.

How did you get back into writing together?

The first thing we did was record a soundtrack for a silent film called ‘The Man Who Laughed’. It was quite intense: we shut ourselves away in the studio for a month and had to watch this film over and over, and co-ordinate what we were doing over two hours. But because it was all instrumental with no song structure, and we didn’t have to think about playing it to lots of people, it was a really good way for us to break the song writing mode that we felt we were in.

I think once we’d done that it was a matter of, “Do we wanna write another record? And if so, why?” It involved a bit of soul-searching… We just wanted to write this record feeling we were all in it for the right reasons, with a united vision. And it took a bit of time for us to feel like we were going in the same direction but we’ve ended up writing a record that’s really coherent and really “us”.

What motivates you to make music nowadays? Do you have the same hunger that you had when you started out?

Yeah we do, that’s the thing: we wouldn’t have done this record if we didn’t feel we had places to go. I mean, I think we still feel like we’ve got a long way to go really.

When we first appeared we were associated with lots of different bands and that frustrated us because we always felt like we had something that no-one else had. I mean, where other bands seemed more guarded and considered, Paul wrote lyrics that were very direct and passionate. Also, musically we felt like we sounded different: every part had a catchy hook and none of the songs hung around too long. So that drove us and still drives us a bit.

There are a lot of people out there who, if they haven’t heard of us, perhaps still don’t quite understand what we’re about. And I think what we do live is a large part of what we’re about, because there’s a real sense of abandonment and a lack of control, and a sort of emotional engagement. I think people are quite surprised by how aggressive we are live. (Laughs) So there’s a lot of people who like us but there’s a lot of people who we would still like to like us.

Presumably, a lot of those bands aren’t about any more. Why do you think Maxïmo Park have prevailed?

It’s hard to say. I mean, some of those bands are still around and some of them have sold a lot more records than us. I don’t know what effect that has in terms of your ambition: whether that means that you want to do something a bit weirder. But on this record, we really wanted to make it clear exactly what Maxïmo Park are about so there was no room for error. I mean, you either like us because we’re Maxïmo Park or you don’t like us because we’re Maxïmo Park. Because it’s such a marmite thing, there’s probably more of a passionate love for our music than other bands that we’ve been associated with.

So, The National Health was produced by Gil Norton: why did you choose to work with him again?

It was an interesting decision because prior to this we’d always said, “This record’s different: let’s wipe the slate clean and work with someone different.” But we seemed to have a rapport with Gil that we haven’t had with anyone else on quite the same level since. He understands the odd elements that make us what we are: the emotional side, the fact we’re quite poppy but at times quite heavy, almost going into “Rock” with a capital R.

And because we’d been writing this record for two years, we had so many ideas when we got in the studio that it could have gone horribly, horribly wrong. But listening back to the record, he achieved this amazing balance where you can hear all the ideas but it just sounds so direct and clear.

It must be good to get an objective view point…

Yeah, and that was another good thing: because he’d already worked with us, he didn’t have to pussyfoot around. I think if we’d have worked with someone new, they would have had two or three days of being polite, whereas Gil was like “Alright guys? Right, this bit’s crap, we need to change this...” And all of sudden you go, “Oh yeah, why didn’t we think of that?! It’s so obvious...” (Laughs)

What were your musical reference points for this record?

Well, all five of us get excited by different things in music, but I think we all appreciate melody. One of our mantras is that everything has to be catchy. Y’know, we spent a long time really trying to understand what it is that makes us sound like us, and I think the record’s like a very condensed version of the Maxïmo Park that you’ve heard over the past three records. And it’s possibly our best record for that very reason.

Some of our best songs are ones where you can hear a mixture of all our influences. ‘Hips and Lips’ was a track that I wrote with Paul about a year and a half ago. I’d discovered Factory Floor and there’s this really repetitive riff on ‘Wooden Box’ that I kinda copied in my own style and then gave to Paul. He did a great lyric over the top and I put chords underneath it and it became something else entirely. And there’s a song called ‘Banlieue’ on the record which Duncan wrote, but there’s a very strong keyboard riff I put in which sort of references Nitzer Ebb.

Thematically, would you describe The National Health as a political record?

Not really. I mean, I think any of our records could have had a title referencing social observations, or political (with a small p) comments, because Paul’s lyrics are often about the individual trying to make their way in the world, or an emotional transcendence or a change in daily life.

But at the moment it feels like there’s a kind of doom in the air, where nobody really knows what’s happening and the future seems quite insecure, and this record is bookended by ‘The National Health’ and ‘Waves of Fear’, which both allude to the world feeling in a very odd place. And then ‘Banlieue’ (which is a French word for ghetto) is about that threatened feeling you get in a city where society doesn’t feel very in control.

Having said that, there are certain songs on the record that aren’t very political at all. ‘Take Me Home’ has a very self-descriptive title. (Laughs)

Would you say it’s a hopeful record?

Yeah. I think all our music’s hopeful. It’s an acknowledgement that things are not great at the moment and people are struggling to find their way in the world, as much on a personal level as in terms of where they are in society. But Paul’s attitude to life comes through the songs: he has a real faith in the individual having an effect on a much wider scale. If one person can change their attitude then another person can and then it becomes a domino effect.

If you had to pick out your current favourite track, which would it be and why?

Now we’ve played the songs live, I’d probably say ‘Take Me Home’. I always knew it was a catchy song – it kind of reminds me of ‘Kiss You Better’ – but people just get it straight away and literally by the end of the song everyone’s singing the chorus. I love Paul’s lyrics in that song; they’re very tongue-in-cheek and witty.

What was behind your decision to leave Warp Records?

Well, we had a four album deal so we’d come to the end of our obligation. And we’re still on good terms with them. I think when we signed with Warp, they really saw something in us that they felt responded to what they were about early on, with bands like Broadcast and their involvement with Fire Records, who had Pulp. Obviously they’ve got bands like Battles now, but I don’t think we really fit in with their identity anymore.

When we sat down to sign with Co-Operative Music, they had these gold discs on the wall of their office from Phoenix and Two Door Cinema Club. And I hadn’t really thought about it until that point but I was like, “This label do other bands like us!” I think three albums in you become more aware of where you fit in and the way you wanna do things and being with a label like Co-Op, who work with bands who have very particular visions but are still pop, feels like the right decision.

What’s been your career highlight so far? And what would you still like to achieve?

I think the highlight was when we got nominated for the Mercury Prize. It was totally unexpected and it just felt really exciting to be associated with something that we’d always had a lot of respect for as musicians.

In terms of ambitions, we’ve never really said, “Oh yeah, we should sell X amount of records” – I think you’d set yourself up for a fall doing that. We take it an album at a time, thinking about what we want to communicate with the songs. I think we’ll stop when we feel that we’ve done enough and we definitely feel like we’ve got at least one more record in us.

What’s the plan for the rest of 2012?

We’ve got lots of festivals planned because we just want to play to as many people as possible. I mean, there’s still a lot of people who either haven’t heard us or don’t get us and maybe we’ve been dismissed a little bit, or pigeonholed. But we’re always keen to disprove the doubters and we’re really excited to play the album to people.

And it just feels quite timely in a way: there aren’t a lot of bands doing the same things that we are, in terms of something that’s quite poppy and song-based, but still has a real, heart-on-sleeve directness. Y’know, it’s quite emotional and kind of uncool as well? We’re not trying to fit in and we never have done: it’s nice to be the underdog.

Finally, can you tell us your favourite record of the past 12 months please?

Well I’m sat next to my vinyl collection so I’m looking at The Field, Looping State of Mind. Why? Because it’s amazing… (Laughs) I think the bass lines are insanely good and it’s dance music that induces this trance-like state in your mind. I can listen to that album endlessly.