Midlake’s Tim Smith is hunched over the small sink beside his Bristol dressing room. Possibly because an overnight trip from Belgium has left him bereft of sleep, the task at hand is causing him more consternation than it otherwise might have done. He wants to wash his face, but presented with a choice between cold and scaldingly hot water, he foregoes both. Instead, the Texas quintet’s rangy 35 year-old frontman turns to the nearest available European and proffers a suggestion. “Do you know what this continent could use? Mixer taps. People here seem to wake up in the morning and ask themselves, ‘What shall I do this morning? Shall I burn my hands or freeze them?’ On paper, the words may carry a faint aroma of prima donna. In fact, mild bewilderment is closer to the mark. That the group’s entire rider seems to have been decanted from two supermarket carrier bags doesn’t elicit the merest murmur of disapproval. Smith has the air of a man who would swap all the Sainsbury’s Deep Fill sandwiches in the world for a receptacle of lukewarm water.
Somehow it all fits rather neatly with what we already know about Midlake – a group whose word-of-mouth 2006 hit Roscoe waxed dreamily about the lives of 19th century stonecutters, using notes and chords ploughed a dreamy furrow somewhere between The Theme from M.A.S.H. and Fleetwood Mac’s Rhiannon. Months after its parent album The Trials of Van Occupanther was released, Midlake’s plaid-shirted FM pop struck a chord with an ever-growing fanbase – sitting near the apex of several end-of-year polls. In the interim, all Midlake needed to do was go away and write another album with a couple more Roscoes on it. Then, surely their big crossover moment would arrive.
With the benefit of hindsight, you can hear Van Occupanther and realise where Midlake would be headed when they finally returned earlier this year. Back in 2006, Smith described his musical safe place – “something very pastoral, rainy at times… You know, sometimes if I hear really good music, I just visualize English scenes… those great old paintings.” It turns out that when he uttered those words to The Times, the nearest the singer had heard to English folk-rock of the 1970s – an entire genre built on Smith’s musical safe place – was a Jethro Tull album. Needless to say, when he finally stumbled upon the genre’s core exponents – Fairport Convention, Pentangle, Fotheringay – Smith fell in love. Arrestingly beautiful modal reveries like Winter Dies and Core of Nature poured out and didn’t stop until Midlake had finally completed their third album, The Courage of Others. The more Smith talks about his life, the clearer it becomes that moderation is an alien concept when it comes to music. It’s a trait he wears like a hair shirt at times. Talking to Mojo about the new songs, Smith only just stopped short of issuing a full-blown apology, “We didn’t really want this to happen.”
Through the smoked windows of Midlake’s tour bus, the only English scene visible is the rain-sodden student union where – ahead of next week’s Glastonbury appearance – the group are playing. Fifteen years have elapsed since Smith first picked up a guitar. Watch him on stage, however, and he still looks down at his instrument seemingly confused as to how it got there. Given how it did get there, perhaps that’s not so surprising. Had you told the teenage Smith that he would end up making his living as the singer and guitarist in a rock band, he would have suggested you were out of your mind. Having taken up the saxophone at the age of ten, Smith already had a degree in jazz performance by the age of 19. Moving 200 miles north of San Antonio to enrol at the North Texas School of Music, his ultimate aim was to make a living from the saxophone. “Believe it or not,” recalls Smith, “Rock’n’roll had pretty much passed me by until this point.”
Is it really possible for any child in post-MTV America to get to adulthood without being exposed to some contemporary music? A call to Billy Gene’s, the Texas restaurant owned and run by Smith’s parents seals the matter. Billie Gene Smith paints a vivid picture of a child seemingly endowed with values from a distant era. “He would break a stick of chewing gum in four, and it would take him the best part of a week to get through it,” recalls his father. “Even now, he only buys his clothes from the thriftstore.” With disarming bluntness, Billy Gene adds that his son “wasn’t much fun to be around as a child, but that all changed with the saxophone. You had really never seen anything like it. He used to rehearse from 8am and allow himself a break at 11. He literally played for ten hours a day. In the summer, all the other kids would go out and play baseball or go swimming – and Tim would be indoors playing on his saxophone.”
Any parents who had elected to subsidize their son’s ambition to make it as a jazz musician, would be anything but thrilled by the news that their offspring had suddenly renounced their instrument. And yet, when Tim Smith had heard Radiohead’s OK Computer for the first time, that was what happened. At a stroke, he decided that he would learn to play guitar instead. To his immense credit, Billy Gene Smith reacted by giving him a guitar he had played as a young man. “We just wanted him to be happy and find his way,” he says.
For all of that though, the ensuing years suggested that, in his early 20s, Smith was further from “finding his way” than he ever had been. He supplemented a sideline fixing instruments with a series of short-lived jobs. “I worked at various ice-cream and yoghurt establishments. The nadir was a place called Marble Slab. You have this slab and you place a ball of ice-cream and then you mix M&M’s and gummy bears – that kind of thing – into it. But it took me so long to mix it in that it just melted.”
In the meantime, embryonic versions of Midlake made slow progress. The falling-apart psych-pop of 2004’s Bamnan and Slivercork was a breakthrough of sorts – but it sold negligibly. Smith’s hitherto supportive parents finally ventured a suggestion. Billy Gene remembers that after his son “wrote the music for their first album, his mother told him to write something she could hum to.” Within a few months, Smith had written the songs that would go on to comprise The Trials of Van Occupanther. No need to ask what his parents thought of the result. Written in 2006, one of the two reviews sitting beneath the Amazon listing for the album, credited to a certain Billy Gene Smith, declares that “the songwriting, arrangements, musicianship and harmonies are head and shoulders above anything I’ve heard so far this year.”
It didn’t take long for more impartial judges to concur. The Chemical Brothers got Smith to supply vocals for The Pills Won’t Help You Now, from their 2007 album We Are The Night. Paul Weller contacted the group to ask them if he could sing Young Bride with them next time they played London. “We were told he was a legend,” remembers Smith, “although I didn’t know who he was.” It’s rare for a group to find favour with fans, critics and peers all at the same time. From such a charmed vantage point, Midlake should be experiencing the best of times. Their bassist Eric Pulido certainly thinks so. “If we’re going to be away from our partners and loved ones for weeks at a time, then the least we can do is try and enjoy the moment.”
You might think that the almost Amish simplicity with which Tim Smith – himself married for seven years – views the world would lead him to concur. In fact, it’s precisely that trait which leads him to worry that being in Midlake has already been as much fun as it can possibly be. “Don’t get me wrong,” he says, “I like the tour bus, but until recently, we used to have this 15 passenger van,” he says, “It didn’t have a TV, so we used to duck-tape one to the table and attach it to the battery. I’m not talking about a flat-screen thing, you understand, but a big square old thing. We would turn it on and we would have movie time. And now… I guess it’s nice having the extra space, but everyone just does their own thing. They listen to their iPods or check their emails.”
For someone who spent his childhood bereft of any ambition to be in a rock group, there’s something touching about Smith’s view of what such a band should be. With the saxophone, it was ten hours a day or nothing. His obsession with English folk-rock left him unable to write a song in any other idiom. Dabbling doesn’t come nearly as naturally to him as total immersion. “It’s never enough for me, I guess. I guess I’d love to live out in a place where we’re borrowing sugar from one another and we’re really close. It’s fine and we’re really good friends. I can wake up at 8am, but the other guys can’t do it. It’s a shame. Inevitably, there’s always some sort of drama going on in someone’s life. We very rarely all feel good about making music at the same time.”
Apart, perhaps, from the show itself. On stage, two hours later, Smith’s wish to get lost in a communal experience finds its natural outlet. “When the acts of men cause the ground to break open/Oh, let me inside, let me inside,” he sings on Acts of Man – prompting one lone West Country accent to exclaim, “You guys are…” As he pauses to find the word, the room briefly falls silent, in anticipation of the incoming adjective. “…good!” finally splutters the voice. Of all the compliments directed his way, Tim Smith – self-schooled exponent in the art of austerity – seems to appreciate that one most of all.