Lawry-Joseph Tilbury (A.K.A Birdengine) got the chance to speak to Ex-Midlake frontman and songwriter Tim Smith, currently in Texas, on life after Midlake, what we can expect from his new project Harp and singing dogs.
Hello Tim, where are you right now?
Two months after I left the band, sadly my wife and I got divorced after 11 years of marriage. So I sold our house and most everything we owned. She moved to another state, I moved back in with my parents in Kerrville, Texas (which is about a 6 hour drive from where I was living in Denton, Texas) in order to save money or live as cheaply as possible while trying to make this album. So that’s where I’m at, in the spare bedroom of my parent’s house with a bunch of recording gear and my dog.
A bunch of recording gear and a dog sounds pretty great to me.
So the album you’re working on is under the name HARP right? What can we expect musically?
Yes, Harp. Musically, I think Harp for the first album will sound very much the same as old Midlake. I won’t be breaking any new ground; I doubt I ever will, it’s not what I strive for. There will probably be subtle changes from the old Midlake stuff but for the most part if you enjoyed “Occupanther” and “Courage” then you’ll enjoy this.
Has your approach to writing changed given the changes in your life recently?
The approach to writing is exactly the same, it’s the recording process that’s pretty different. When working alone it takes much longer to try out an idea. You have to record one instrument then another and another, then listen back to see how they’re fitting, if there’s a vibe there. With a band it’s immediate; you hear all the parts at once and can change things very quickly.
What was the last song you listened to and what did you think of it?
Well to be honest, I just got back from my daily walk with my dog, I’d been listening to “The Church”. I don’t listen to much 80’s music (mostly 70’s) but while getting lost in youtube the other day I found their album called “The Blurred Crusade” and thought it was good, but still wasn’t sure I wanted to buy it. So I did what I usually do when I’m unsure about buying an album is first I find it for free from a blog site. Then listen to it a couple of times. Then the rule is if I find myself listening to it more than a couple of times I must buy it. But instead of buying that particular album I buy a different album by the same band. That way the band gets paid and I get to check out more of their stuff. But the same rule applies that if I enjoy that album I must buy another one. This way I don’t get burned and the artist gets paid. I’m a firm believer in that. Listen to my music for free, but if you find yourself listening to it more than a few times then buy the darn thing. It has to bring you more pleasure than a meal for two at BurgerKing. I’ve gotten off track. The last song I listened to I guess was “Tantalized” by The Church from their album “Heyday”. It’s still growing on me. It seems a bit more slick than “Blurred Crusade” which I’m not digging as much but it’s still really too early to give an opinion. Their worst stuff is still probably better than my best stuff.
I like your music buying ethos.
In terms of the three Midlake LP’s you released, which do you most identify with now?
Well, “The Courage Of Others” is my favourite, though I haven’t heard it in years and don’t intend to. There are many bad memories associated with those albums for me, so I’m not sure I identify with them. I feel there are some good songs on each album. Many people love those records, for which I’m very grateful, but I’ll never hear it the way they do.
Have you heard Antiphon and what do you think of it?
To be fair I really haven’t listened to Antiphon all the way through, just bits and pieces of it, so I can’t really say much about it.
Would you agree that your songs have a very nostalgic feel?
Yeah, I’d agree with that. I’m not really sure why. I guess I’m drawn to that sound in other bands and it comes naturally, though I wish some other things came naturally too, like singing and playing the guitar.
As a musician I think of music in three terms: writing, recording and performing. Which is your favourite and least favourite part?
Writing without a doubt is my favourite part. I think because nothing is set yet, the song is still taking shape and very open, the possibilities seem the greatest at that time. The vision of what it could be is very enjoyable. But then comes the dreaded recording of that vision which hardly ever lives up to my imagination. It’s something I really strive to get better at so I can enjoy the process more. Performing live has never been a great thrill for me. I’ve never really felt comfortable doing it. Some guys get a rush on stage but I haven’t really felt that way. I’m always very grateful that people show up to see us and sing along and I wish I had more to offer but it’s definitely not one of my strengths.
I read an interesting article about bands that carry on without their lead singer, which references the ‘new’ midlake and said ‘the songs just aren’t as moving or memorable’ which I have to say I completely agree with, it’s a different beast I guess. How do you feel about your songs being sung by someone else now? Is that a strange feeling? And when you inevitably play again as Harp do you think you will play some of your back catalogue?
When I left the band I told them feel free to keep playing all those songs but that I’d appreciate getting compensated in some way. Still haven’t seen a cent. But as far as someone else singing the songs, I don’t mind at all. I highly doubt that I’ll perform live again (reasons I’ve already mentioned) but if I do I can definitely see playing some oldies but goodies.
Is your creativity limited to just music? Or does it realize itself in other art forms?
I was really into drawing and painting when I was younger before music took over. I don’t really paint anymore, but there’s still a strong sense of aesthetics. Designing the “Midlake bar” in Denton was something I had a hand in and really enjoyed doing. I’ve always thought getting into interior design or architecture would be great. Also designing the album covers for the three I was involved with was enjoyable. Excluding the first one, I was proud of the way “Occupanther” and “Courage” came out.
What drives you to make music? Why do do you do it? Do you feel like you always will?
I’ve thought about the question “why” so many times and I still don’t have a good answer. I feel that music, if not the most powerful art form than certainly close to being it, is something I want to be a part of. I’m not sure why though. The world doesn’t need any more music. If the world isn’t in a better place by now with so many decades of music at our fingertips that have supposedly changed our lives then it’s not going to get better, music is not the answer. There are things I know I could do that would be more beneficial to the world than playing music. So I guess some of it comes down to selfishness, wanting my voice to be heard, thinking I can add something to the already over polluted musical landscape. The other part of why, is the enjoyment or thrill of making something that didn’t exist before. Something that has the potential to make a grown man weep. I suppose I’ll try to continue making music for as long as it comes to me. There is certainly the thought that it must dry up someday though, but I feel I still haven’t hit my potential.
Do you think your new album will be a step closer to the noise in your head?
What can we expect in terms of instrumentation?
And the question on everyone’s lips, will your dog be singing on it?
It’ll definitely be a step closer to what’s in my head, though other people may not hear a difference. Originally I had wanted Harp to be a bit more medieval sounding, more intimate sounding, more synthesizers, less dark, and over all just more enjoyable to listen to. I wanted it to be okay to have every track sound very mellow with flute solos, wind chimes, and oboes because that was something that couldn’t be truly explored in Midlake because of the need to have a decently exciting live show. At first there was this sense of freedom to do exactly what I wanted, but the more I work on it, I see that while I can steer it a little more in that direction I can’t truly escape that Midlake sound, at least not yet. Maybe albums after this one will have a much different sound but I think this first one (if I can ever finish it) will sound very much like a long lost Midlake album. And yes, my dog will be doing all the lead vocals. She’s been taking lessons and seems to be ready to give it a go.
I know a lot of people (myself included) are excited to hear new material from you, recorded and hopefully live too.
Thank you for taking the time to talk to me Tim and however long it takes, I’m sure it’ll be well worth the wait. Cheers Mr.
Interview by: Lawry-Joseph Tilbury
You can follow the progress of Tim Smith here: http://harpband.com/
About Lawry-Joseph Tilbury (Interviewer)
Birdengine is the musical project of Lawry Joseph Tilbury, whose unique music has been described by The Independent as ‘beautiful, backwards weirdness‘ and by WARP Records as ‘an unknown supernatural force‘.
More here: http://birdengine.com
Lawry is also hosting a night under the title of Thee Evil Twin on Tues 25th March at Komedia, Brighton which will feat. Krstin McClement, Lutine & Embla Quickbeam. Details here