Interview Our Earthly Pleasure: Maximo Park’s Paul Smith Goes Solo

We sit down with the lovable North-Easterner.

Paul Smith. He’s either known as the guy that designs frocks, or that bouncy hat-wearing dude from that funny Geordie group. But with the new album ‘Margins’, be prepared to see a more fragile dimension to the musician Paul Smith and his music. DIY sits down with the lovable North-Easterner to discuss the new album, his new-found confidence and his new photographic project… Oh, and his other band.

Hi Paul. First off, congratulations on the album. It’s a great listen and we’ve got quite a few tracks going on loop. Though, the first question that springs to mind about it is, why make a solo record in the first place? Why not make another Maximo Park record?
The main thing is we’re a democratic band. I suppose from the outside nobody really knows who does what, but it’s a five way thing. With other bands, there’s often a lead singer who writes the songs and brings them in, and the rest of the band add a little to it. You wonder why they would do it because they’re obviously in complete control anyway, whereas I write many different songs outside Maximo Park that don’t really fit in with it. It made sense to just keep ploughing away and document what I was doing. Because I was playing guitar, I didn’t want to say to Dunc’ [Lloyd, Maximo Park], ‘This is how I want you to play the guitar!’ Even though I’m not very good at it, I was happy with my playing because I was expressing myself, even with my rudimentary finger style. Because my mate was playing the drums also, it felt like we had a finished song at the end of the day. I didn’t think that the guys from Maximo Park would have anything to do really!

‘Contemporary expression’, you could say?
Yeah! Obviously, I’d go back and have a debate about the mix, but because the technology in the studio isn’t so far removed from what people have in their homes nowadays, it sounded quite slick surprisingly. I asked my friend David Brewis from Field Music to play bass on it, and once he did, it sounded like a record. That’s when I decided that it was good enough to put out and that it was as good as any Maximo Park record. Once you have that self-belief in your mind, the next step is to put it out.

Who then are we hearing on the record then?
I play the guitar. My friend, Andrew Hodgson, who co-produced it with me, played the drums and he’s in a band called One Digits. I was quite confident that he’d be good for recording it and David played bass.

It’s amazing to think that you’ve made a solo record, in the sense that pre-Maximo Park, you didn’t even realise your singing or songwriting abilities. Do you wonder how you got here sometimes?
Every day! Usually when I think about what I’m doing, it strikes me that I’m in quite a weird position - to go from the lads from Maximo Park asking me to join them to then releasing my own record. I didn’t really have the intentions of being a rock star flaunting himself on stage, though obviously, part of me does that now. I was excited to make music to try something different. I’d been playing instrumental music with my other band - Me and the Twins - and I was dressing up on stage to draw attention to what we were doing and being a bit more extroverted. Maximo Park then asked for a singer and I didn’t really know what was going to come out. But then five years later, I’ve recorded songs on Margins like Improvement-Denouement and Pinball, where I’m singing in a very fragile way that I’ve never really tried out with Maximo Park. It shows the confidence that I’ve got now, whereas five years ago, I would’ve been thinking, ‘I’m not sure whether anyone would like this record’. Now, I don’t care so much, so you end up putting it out.

So, is confidence all it took, or have you been doing anything else to help you get this more mellow tone and almost croon-like vocal style on this record?
The funny thing is that when you become a little bit successful in a band like Maximo Park, people think, ‘I’ve got that guy down… I know what he’s all about! He’s the one that jumps around and sings full blast and it’s all quite aggressive and energetic’. Most people are fairly 3-dimensional creatures. The stuff I listen to tends to be more alternative and folky. For instance, I’m listening to a guy called Julian Lynch at the moment, and he’s mumbling into a tape recorder and playing this beautiful psychedelic guitar stuff, so I wanted to do something like this for myself. I’d be writing songs in my room on an acoustic guitar, so it felt very natural to do this and the confidence issue comes in when, half-way through, you play it to your mates, and they say, ‘Are you going to put this out or what? It sounds really good!’ That gives you the extra confidence you need to release it to your public.

The album is certainly a lot harder to catapult around the stage to! You’ve definitely captured that fragility to the lyrics in your voice. My particular favourites are ‘Strange Friction’ and ‘Improvement / Denouement’. Then you have a reference to ‘The History Boys’ on ‘Dare Not Dive’, so I started noticing a literary-artistic motif flowing through the record. Is art where you mainly take your inspiration from?
It’s one big continuum. I try to absorb as much as I can at all times. I try to visualise it a little bit more with a blog that I’m doing at the moment. I’ve set up my own website as a stream of consciousness of what I’m interested in at the moment - whether it’s lo-fi pop like ‘Frankie Rose and The Outs’ or a painting by a fine artist or some poems - like I posted some stuff by Robin Robertson, a a really great Scottish poet. I don’t see any boundaries. If you like being creative, then it’s one big stream. The History Boys reference says ‘You were wrong about ‘The History Boys’, but you were right about The Departed’. It could be a conversation that you’ve had and you think, ‘That could be a cool line of a song!’ I love The Departed, but I saw five minutes of The History Boys, and I thought, ‘This isn’t very good!’ I like Alan Bennett a lot, but I saw the first five minutes and I thought it felt like a play, but I was thinking that ‘It’s a film! So you don’t have to project and be dramatic!’ The drama should be a bit more subtle.

One of your new songs is called ‘I Drew You Sleeping’. You were an art teacher. Do you still produce artwork? Is this also quite a natural process for you?
It is, but it’s something that’s been put on the backburner because of writing songs. For a time in my life, my focus was on making drawings and paintings as the output of the creative side of my brain. Now, I’m writing so many songs and writing lyrics, but I still have a sketchbook, which is a bit empty unfortunately.

Is sketching and painting your specialism?
I like so many different things in art, as with music. Like with Maximo Park and this project, you can say the same about my art. Sometimes I just throw the paint at the canvas with the brush, as I’m not Jackson Pollock, or anything! I like expression through brushstrokes and seeing somebody putting something into a painting, but I also like detailed drawing. I flit between the two. The lecturer was saying that you should pick between one or the other. But you tend to do a detailed life drawing one day, and the next day, you do something based on blurry photographs of industrial landscapes, and that would say so much. That eclectisism is something that you can’t really escape.

‘Our Lady at Lourdes’ is the lead single, and it could evoke the rich religious symbolism in the same way some paintings do. Are you toying with the beauty of this symbolism or would you describe yourself at all as a man of faith?
Not really!

[We both laugh]

That’s the easy answer!
Shorter than most of my answers, I know! That song discusses all sorts of things, but it’s respectful of other people’s faith. I like to have faith in people and I am respectful of things on this Earth rather than things that I have no conception of. The lyric is, ‘Who doesn’t need solace before a week’s worth of strife?’ You get people coming together on Sunday, which is also partly about finding some sort of community. I personally don’t have anything to draw me to a Church, but I see it from afar, and say ‘Wow!’ It seems positive, before the working week. There are a number of negative things in the world. Religion is one of those things you wonder about. There is so much evil done in its name, but then, who am I to have a pop at someone else’s belief system?

Religion is always linked with how people perceive ‘death’ and on that theme, I read somewhere that you wanted to use obituaries as a source of inspiration. Have you managed this at all, on this record?
I did that in early 2007 for the B sides for Our Earthly Pleasures. If people look at those, I would name the song after the obituary. They were a celebration of people’s lives. The thing I loved about obituaries is that it’s a little story of someone’s life. So I wrote about Robert Altman, the film director, and he’d been conned out of all of his money in the 60s and he’d flown a plane in the war, and I really admired that. You don’t necessarily think of that. I tried to write songs that encompassed all of these things.

‘Margins’ is out on your own label, Billingham Records. Are you going to be developing the label and having a roster of artists?
I don’t really know. I was quite selfish, and thought about how I was going to get the record out and retain all the control that I want. The name Billingham Records was used on Maximo Park’s first single - a red 7-inch of Graffiti and Going Missing. We just put it into record shops ourselves and that’s how our label got hold of us. So I thought I would resurrect the name, and if any of the other lads want to use it for their record and license it to anybody, I’d like to think that they could use Billingham Records as well. But no idea for the future! It’s just a way of keeping control. I’m based in Newcastle and live in Newcastle, but I’m from Billingham, so I thought I’d give a little shout out to my

HOMETOWN! You’re still Paul from the Block.
Yep! [Laughs]

So with a solo tour coming up, will there be a new hairstyle or hat to celebrate the sonic departure for you?
I might wear a white hat. Because people know me as the man with the hat, it might make it easier for them to recognise me, otherwise, I’ll just be another face in the crowd.

And you might not get let into your own gig! And alongside this release and the new tour, your first photographic book, ‘Thinking In Pictures’, is also coming out. Could you talk us through it?
With the death of the Polaroid, which I’m hoping will be resurrected at some point, I thought it was good to take stock of some of things that I have done. I’ve whittled down thousands of photographs to 74 pictures and paired them up in mini-thematic pages. They’re not a travelogue of a touring musician. I don’t want to come across as too pretentious, but they’re just images I like and after showing them to friends, they liked them. That’s how I work. If they think it’s good, I usually trust their opinion. There are shapes, and texts that you see on the street. Some of them are funny, some work on their own.

Is this going to be on Amazon soon?
It’s on right now! I got a tweet this morning that it was out of stock. My brother helped me design the book and he designed a nice pink bookmark, and I signed a thousand of those the other day. They’re going to come with the first thousand of the book, plus a copy of the album, without the lyrics - just as a CD. So, if you stumble across one of these books, you get the album!

Nice! Thank so much for the chat, Paul. It’s been lovely!
To end, however, in true journalistic style: Maximo Park - is this the end? Confirm or deny?
Definitely not! I’m walking to our studio now to work on new songs!

Read More

Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Your subscription has been successful.

Stay Updated!

Get the best of DIY to your inbox each week.

Latest Issue

March 2024

Featuring Green Day, English Teacher, Everything Everything, Caity Baser and more!

Read Now Buy Now Subscribe to DIY