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by Dan Grunebaum

Maximo Park

Why are all these young UK bands suddenly dressing and playing sharp? The Gallagher brothers have something to do with it, says Maximo Park

From left: Duncan Lloyd (g), Tom English (dr), Paul Smith (vo), Lukas Wooller (key) and Archis Tiku (b)
courtesy of Beatink

An email arrives in mid-March from Beatink, the Japan-based promoter and label. It announces breathlessly that UK electronica imprint Warp, which Beat Records distributes in Japan, is about to release its first rock album. The band will play a showcase in Tokyo the following week.

Unaware that Maximo Park’s single, “Apply Some Pressure,” from the forthcoming A Certain Trigger has entered the UK top 20, I attend their show at Unit. Five guys in dapper outfits, neckties even, are moving frenetically about the stage, pumping out a propulsive, angular guitar rock that vaguely recalls post-punk bands like XTC or the Buzzcocks. Fronting them is singer Paul Smith, who’s winning the crowd over with a valiant performance, willed out through a vicious case of laryngitis.

Two days later, at the band’s Shibuya hotel, Smith’s voice sounds much restored as he, guitarist Duncan Lloyd and I sit down to a cuppa. “We never give less than 100 percent, but with the vocals, nature has its way. We just kept the energy up and tried to get the messages of the songs across,” says Smith.
A linguistics major in college and until recently an art teacher, Smith’s lyrics manage to be simultaneously arty and from the gut. “I write constantly about my environment and what I’m feeling—not necessarily about my life, but if it’s all filtered through your opinion, then it will come out as an honest pronouncement. I try and keep the lyrics as interesting as possible without making them overly thought out.”

Smith seems so at home in front of a microphone, it’s easy to forget that he only debuted as a vocalist two years ago. “We were a four-piece, and me and Archis [bass player Archis Tiku] used to do the singing,” says guitarist Lloyd. “We were doing all right, but we wanted to focus more on making the songs direct. Neither of us wanted to become the frontman, so we decided to look for one. Paul was the first choice, because he had something about him. He’d wear his suits onstage, and also he reacted to the music when he was playing his guitar.”

Adds Smith: “Being a singer had never really appealed to me because they’re full of egos and clichés generally, and I would have never thought that I could be successful. I just wanted to do it for myself, and to impress my friends. But the stuff we made, it instantly had something, a quality to it that I was fond of and grew close to immediately.”

Not only was it clear to the five that they were doing something creative, it soon became apparent that they were part of something larger. “When we started performing, our songs were quite jerky and edgy at the start, and I was wearing a suit, and this was two years ago when it was not necessarily a done thing,” recalls Smith. “We were reacting against this sort of Liam Gallagher swagger. Bands made direct music at a time when we felt things weren’t as direct as they should be. Newcastle wasn’t alone in having that.”

With no music industry to speak of in their hometown, they ended up releasing their own single on vinyl. This DIY approach would prove a blessing. “Rough Trade in London heard about it and picked it up and put it in their shop, and that’s how Warp heard about us,” recalls Lloyd.

“You can send your demos all day, but we’re not stupid enough to think anyone will listen to them,” adds Smith. “A piece of vinyl shows you’ve got intent, and it operates outside the usual mechanisms to get signed.”

Maximo Park, named for a park in Havana, had already generated enough of a buzz by last summer that they were entertaining big money offers from the major labels. But the enthusiasm of Warp won them over, despite initial misgivings about signing with an electronica imprint.

“The majors saw the potential and put the money on the table, but I don’t think they had the commitment to what we were doing. While the deal was on the table, people were already saying, well maybe we can change the song structures slightly here and here,” says Smith. “There were a lot of tried and tested formulas that were being hinted at. It set the alarm bells ringing… So you look at a situation and you say, I want to make music the rest of my life, so let’s work with a label that believes in music first and foremost.”

The happy results have allowed the Maximo lads to give up their day jobs and devote themselves exclusively to music. They’ve got a packed schedule that will see them returning to Japan to play this summer’s Fuji Rock Festival, in addition to hitting the big European festivals. But their recent success hasn’t gotten to their heads so far. “We’re pretty pragmatic and down-to-earth people,” says Smith. “We appreciate what we’ve got.”

A Certain Trigger is available this week on Warp Records, distributed in Japan by Beat Records.

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