"I view pop songs as these sacred things"
“Guitar music as a term is quite conservative,” says Paul Smith. “So I always try to make my songs as interesting lyrically and structurally as possible because I’m aware the guitar is a tried and tested instrument. And that’s how I square things when I think ‘Ah I wish I could do something like Aphex Twin!”.
As he prepares to release his fourth extracurricular outing, ‘Diagrams’ on October 26, NME caught up with the Maxïmo Park frontman for a quick chat.
What inspired your new solo record ‘Diagrams’?
“It was written over many years. In some ways, it’s the songs that have never fit in before. For example, the first song that people have heard off the record – ‘Silver Rabbit’ – is an aggressive short, sharp punky song that certainly didn’t fit on any of my previous three albums. What ties these songs together is probably an overdriven guitar, grungy sound. Those sounds are like candy to me. That’s probably to do with the music I grew up listening to as a teenager. It’s never gone away but I haven’t had the chance to indulge that to any great extent. Maxïmo Park has a slightly different sound that’s influenced by all five of us in the same room. When I’m coming to do my solo records, it’s things that I’ve loved personally that I haven’t managed to cram into my music yet. I always want to keep moving on from what I did last time, and I wanted the songs on this record to be like vignettes and evoking a particular moment rather than it being too personal angsty. Which I think my first record [2010’s ‘Margins’] was quite like that, and you move away from those things as time goes by. There’s a lot of personal moments, but I’ve tried to flesh them out into short stories. I was influenced by a book written in the 1970s by Denis Johnson called Jesus’ Son. Pop songs are quite short so I was trying to make these more like short stories that draw on aspects of my life and then go somewhere else and talk about something different.”
Lyrically, it seems a very 2018 album. The first track ‘The Public Eye’ tackles the Home Office’s “hostile environment” towards immigration that led to the Windrush scandal…
“That was written about four years ago, but it remains relevant and it’s the perfect way to open the record because it’s punchy. I wrote the song after I’d seen those horrible anti-migration posters that Nigel Farage and his party had put up. I’d heard about Theresa May when she was Home Secretary sending out vans with messages on the side saying ‘Go home’ essentially, which is a rhetoric we hadn’t seen in our country since the ‘70s. And unfortunately, it seems to appeal to quite a lot of people. It’s ludicrous and unreal to think that we’d accept these kind of adverts and the kind of hostile environment which recently came home to roost with the revelations about the Windrush generation being harassed and illegally deported from their own country. It’s not a judgmental song. It starts off saying ‘I go to check the news and the number of views’. I’m the same. (Laughs) I’m part of the problem! We’re all trapped a little bit by social media. I did wonder if people would accept a pop song that’s about hate! Similarly, there’s a song called ‘Syrian Plains’ which I wrote in 2010 and I was playing on the tour for‘Margins’ – before the war in Syria that’s going on – but it still felt relevant.”
‘Around And Around’ is about the 24-hour news cycle and touches on Brexit…
“That was written very recently and casts a vague, cryptic view on the Brexit conundrum. There’s a moment in the song that says ‘We turned our back on the European way’. It’s that question which kept cropping up – probably more on social media – saying: ‘Do you feel European or not? Do you feel British?’, and it’s something people thought about when voting in the referendum. Growing up, I always felt like Europe was this exciting aspect to life. You could get off the island and freedom of movement allowed you to be exposed to German cinema or French pop songs. I studied painting and fine art and art history and a lot of things I really like are not confined to this country. The idea of Europe being a collective and people coming together after World War 2 to come up with a solution together rather than being divided – that to me is more of a utopian idea than being this empire or coloniser. In some ways, that song is a hangover from the last Maxïmo Park album which was more of an explicit political entity. It’s a strange song. It’s about growing up, but in the background is how things are in our country.”
There’s a growing demand for a second referendum. Would you like to see that?
“It’s a good question because I feel there was a lot of misinformation flying around, so yeah, personally I would. Whether I think that’s realistic or worth people putting their energy into demanding that vote is a different matter. I’d like us remain in the European Union and try to reform it somehow from within but continue to have all the benefits. It’s interesting because the referendum was not about how Europe benefits us. Everything was negative – if we come out of the European, there’s going to be a massive recession immediately, etc. And other people saying ‘We’ll stop all the immigrants coming in, don’t worry about it’, but both sides were saying that rather than focussing on the benefits of immigration and reforming the things that might need reforming about the system we’re currently in, instead of just getting out of it completely and ending up in a diplomatic, economic void. Nobody – regardless of political party – seems to have a plan about to what to do afterwards, which suggests we need more time to think about this. People didn’t necessarily know what they were voting for. Not because they’re stupid – but some people might have voted for Brexit because they wanted to reform immigration; others might have thought there would be economic benefits; and some might just hate foreigners. (Laughs dryly). So I think to have another vote on what the vote is is rational, but I also think it’s something that will leave us with more division. The same arguments will get run out again and the re-emergence of somebody with absolutely no political power who hasn’t been voted for, like Nigel Farage, will become the loudest voice again, because he’s good TV. I’d like to happen, but inevitably it’s going to cause more confusion.”
The previous Maxïmo Park album also berated Nigel Farage. Did you receive any feedback from him or his supporters?
“Not really, but a few Labour MPs tweeted that they liked it. The last Maxïmo Park record was pro helping refugees – people deliberately confuse migrants with refugees all the time as a political position – so we faced a backlash when we gave the proceeds from the ‘Risk To Exist’ single to MOAS [Migrant Offshore Aid Station], with the vocal minority making themselves heard the loudest. It shows how much division there is. We find ourselves in an age when discussion is sidelined in favour of just pure polemic.”
Have you started work on the next Maxïmo Park record yet?
“Not really. We’ve had a little chat and there are one or two songs floating about but I think this year we wanted to just make sure we did something different. It helps keep us fresh as a band. Everyone wants to do different things in order to keep what we do with Maxïmo Park vital because you see lots of bands that are sick of each other, just making music that’s boring and the same old stuff. We’ve tried to evolve with each record and people expect that from us. I view pop songs as these sacred things. So we’re having a self-imposed break to recharge the batteries and listen to new things to inspire us. It takes time to come up with something fresh after you’ve put all of your effort into it, toured it, and tried to reinvigorate those songs every night. I mean, I love singing with other people. On the last album, I sang with Wendy Smith from Prefab Sprout and on this record, I’ve got Marry Waterson who saw I was making a record and reached out over social media and said: ‘If you need backing vocals, let me know’. Doing these things outside of Maxïmo Park gives me extra information the next time we make a record – or maybe I’ll just want to do something different and go: ‘Right, I’ve had this grungy phase, let’s do something dreamy now”.