Ahead of a performance at Wakestock Abu Dhabi, the band's frontman Paul Smith speaks about his band's creative reinvention.
Maximo Park: A new wave of indie pop
Maximo Park's live performances are the stuff of legend. In the early days, the frontman Paul Smith would slick his hair into a combover and read lyrics theatrically from a book. As fans of the English indie band increased tenfold, so did the vigour of the show, the energy of their pop songs matched by a besuited Smith's frantic jumps and scissor kicks across the stage. For the crowds at Abu Dhabi Wakestock, the band's gig tomorrow is likely to be memorable for a more creative reason. It will probably be the last time Maximo Park will be the buzzy indie pop band of popular acclaim.
"We've reached the end of the line in terms of what we're doing," says Smith. "I had time to look back at our three records at the end of last year and I realised they're quite closely linked. A trilogy, in a way, where we gradually explored different aspects of pop music but kept a thread through them. Now it's time to reinvent ourselves." This reinvention is almost certainly born of age and experience. Smith, and Maximo Park essentially grew up in the charts: the spiky debut single The Coast Is Always Changing was released in 2004, when Smith was 25, and the band has been going in some form for 10 years. Its hit-packed and Mercury-nominated parent album, A Certain Trigger, recalled The Wire, The Fall and even Pulp in Smith's demeanour, and it paved the way for the follow-up Our Earthy Pleasures in 2007. Reaching No 2 in the UK, the album was a huge success - due in no small part to the clamour around the eccentric and entertaining live show.
Last year's Quicken the Heart was less successful, and though Smith won't admit it directly - "we were dipping our toes into the water," he says - there was a sense that they were ready to move their sound on but didn't quite have the confidence to fully go for it. This time, there will be no such qualms. "These days, I find myself more inclined to the abstract than the obvious," confirms Smith. But he's keen not to suggest that Maximo Park are about to veer off into an unpenetrable experimental phase. "Take the new Joanna Newsom album, which people have have been saying is quite a difficult listening proposition," he says. "Ultimately, they're songs. You can pick out the hooks after a few listens, and she's talking about affairs of the heart, which is an eternal subject.
"It reminds me of Joni Mitchell and Kate Bush at their best, but, most importantly, it reassures me about the format of the song. Because when I worry about going further 'out there' with our music, I take comfort from the fact I bought the Joanna Newsom album and connected with it, despite having only listened to it once. I want to listen to it more and more, and that gives me faith in what we're going to do."
Smith isn't so much a worrier as someone who takes Maximo Park and the music they make very seriously. What keeps the band fresh and interesting is Smith's lyrics: you'd expect the first album to have a defined sense of place (the north-east of England, where the band lives), but despite living out of tour buses ever since, this thoughtful frontman hasn't fallen into the trap of writing about fame or life on the road. Such dedication to his craft is what makes Maximo Park stand apart from the likes of the Kaiser Chiefs.
"Being on tour can be a hermetic experience, but I've always tried to get out and see stuff as soon as possible," he says. "I've got box sets on my laptop to inspire me, books I can read. The world is such a rich place, and everyday life is so varied that there's always something to write about." In the past, Smith's reading list has included Cormac McCarthy, so I wonder whether the books he's reading at the moment might point to where Maximo Park go next.
"At the moment it's We by Yevgeny Zamyatin," he says animatedly. "It was written in 1927 but was way ahead of its time, and a precursor to George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. What's really interesting to me is the conflict the main character has between obeying the rules and being a member of society, but also falling in love and feeling desire. I'd like to tie that in to the way I write about things, maybe make the writing a little bit more extreme but more personal. I think that's the way the band would like the music to go, too."
With those ambitions, it's lucky for Smith that Maximo Park are on the independent Warp Records label. It seemed a strange fit when Maximo Park were having huge hits, but it is perhaps the keenest of all imprints to encourage artists to be creative rather than simply popular. Smith points out that Maximo Park are probably the only successful alt-pop band not linked to a major record label - but if they wanted to make a hard-core punk record, Warp would probably indulge them.
They're not about to test that theory in 2010, although the fourth record is likely to be a more organic, less hurried process than previously. And in the meantime, they still have reams of sharp, focused indie pop to entertain crowds with. "One of the best things about playing live is knowing that you have all these pop songs that are tightly written and crafted," he says. "You write them to elicit a response from yourself in the studio to start with, and then at a gig. We're just like anyone who goes to a gig, so we assume that other people will respond to them in the same way we do."
Which is, of course, manically. And even if the scissor kicks are on the way out, the music will still remain fast and furious. "I hope I'm not blowing my own trumpet, but it's a genuine pleasure to play our songs over and over again," laughs Smith. "When you go and see a band, you can tell if they're not into it, and I never, ever, want to give that impression, whatever we do next. We've only made three records you know; for me, we're still in our infancy."
Maximo Park plays tomorrow at Wakestock Abu Dhabi on Al Sahil Beach www.wakestock.ae