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Be inspired every day with Living North
Maximo Park
March 2017
Reading time 5 minutes
Paul Smith of Maxïmo Park talks about parmos, being discovered singing Stevie Wonder and the band’s new album Risk to Exist

What was growing up in Billingham like?
It was a very pleasant place. When I was at art college, I used to like to paint the industrial works – the old ICI building. There’s a contrast with the rural outskirts of the place and the industry. I find it quite inspirational – Ridley Scott said Blade Runner was inspired by the landscape and at night, if you’re driving past, it’s a totally alien environment and I like that blend.

Where are some of your favourite spots?
I like to go to mima and then watch the football. It’s a good way to keep in touch with my mates: I go down there, go to the gallery and then go to the Riverside.

Where sells the best parmo?
There are a few places, but I don’t want to get into favouritism. I will say though, that they’ve started doing a parmo in a bun at the Riverside and they’re good – it’s a nice piece of chicken.

How did you join the band?
I’d finished university, done a Masters and was working in a call centre. It was just the right time. The band were already an entity – Duncan, our guitarist, and Archis, our original bass player, were swapping vocal duties on whichever song they’d written. Neither were particularly comfortable in the limelight though, and I knew the drummer Tom from my course at Newcastle University – he knew that I was playing guitar in an instrumental band called Me and the Twins (we played instrumental music in front of films that we’d made or found) and I used to dress up and put on a bit of a show. Tom and Duncan came along and watched us, and before I knew it they asked if I’d like to play in the band. Tom’s now wife had heard me singing along to Stevie Wonder in World Headquarters – I was in a loud club, I didn’t think anyone could hear me! 

Who are the band’s main influences?
We all like different things. We’ve got fans of The Smiths, The Cure, The Fall, as well as a lot of soul music and Lucas, our keyboard player likes a lot of techno and dance. But when you make your own music you try and work out what your band sounds like and what it can do that’s a bit different. You end up coalescing around something that feels right – you don’t want to be too close to your influences so you end up being a bit different from them all.

What are some of your fondest memories from your time in the band?
There have been ups and downs in all periods of the band, but I’m fond of them all. I remember selling the Metro Radio Arena out in 2007 – that was a great experience. Some other ones are meeting Bryan Ferry, doing the Culture Show on the BBC – there are lots of things I’m really proud of.

We’ve all heard talk of bands moving down south to ‘make it.’ Was that something Maxïmo Park had to do?
Being part of an age when the internet was just getting going made it easier to get our music out there. When we were starting out, we made a record ourselves on red vinyl – we made 300 copies, I drew the middle and it came in a white sleeve. We sold it at gigs and put it into record shops. Lucas moved down to London as he had a job down there and was our point of contact which was quite handy so we gave him some of the records to put in the Rough Trade Shop. Somebody from Warp picked it up, emailed the address listed on it and that was it. We’ve always been proud of where we come from so it made sense for us to try and enrich and represent the region, if possible. Lucas moved back up to Newcastle when we got signed, but he’s moved back down to London now, and Tom lives in Liverpool, but myself and Duncan are still up here – as is our studio and rehearsal room – so we always come back to rehearse and write up here. It’s good to maintain our links to the North East.

Back in 2010, you released a solo album – Margins – and toured on the back of it. What did you feel you could do in a solo project that you perhaps couldn’t with Maxïmo Park?
The simple answer is play the guitar. A lot of the demos I was making were just made using a guitar so I just started recording things myself and it felt like the right thing to do – there are lot of things I like that are a bit more lo-fi, so this was recorded in a bedroom and I was able to make something a bit more loose and a bit more personal. I was playing with my friend Andy from Warm Digits on drums, and then asked my friend David from Field Music to play bass. I actually made another one a couple of years ago with the band that I played with on the Margins tour. It was called Contradictions and Wendy Smith from Prefab Sprout sang on it. It was nice to expand on that, and hopefully in the future I’ll be able to do more – it keeps everything fresh so when I go back to the band, I’m itching to get back with the lads to do something different from what I’ve been doing solo. I think a lot of bands split up because they don’t have that kind of freedom.

You’ve had a few other artistic interests during your career too. Care to tell us about them?
Being creative is a very important part of life – you don’t have to draw like Picasso to express yourself. It’s a way of letting off steam and enjoying yourself. I went to Cleveland College of Art and Design in Hartlepool, then went on to study Art History and English Linguistics at Newcastle University so that early arts education really opened my eyes to what you can do and when we went around the world touring I used to buy Polaroid film and take photos. I was interested in shapes, colours, anything that interested me. I don’t want to be pigeon-holed – you’ve got to try and do things out of your comfort zone: I’m one of the new Penguin Podcasts hosts – there’s me, David Baddiel and Konnie Huq. We’re a revolving cast and we’ll review whichever author has a book out over the next couple of weeks. Different things keep your mind ticking over – while there are repetitive aspects of being in a band, we try and keep things fresh by doing solo albums or playing different venues. We played the Newcastle City Hall for our 10th anniversary – it was great to be in such an historic venue where Bowie, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles had all played –  but this tour we’re playing the O2 Academy.

If you weren’t a musician, what would you do?
If the band hadn’t kicked off in the way that it did, I would have pursued teaching. I taught Art and Design and there’s an element of teaching that’s very fulfilling – to know that people are progressing in a subject and that you’re part of it. It kept a pen and paintbrush in my hand so it was a good way to earn a living.

What can we expect from Risk to Exist?
We recorded it in Chicago and rehearsed hard before we went out there so it’s pretty live – we just pressed play and got the live sound of the band. The single and title track is a bit of a red herring – it’s a bridge between what we’ve done before and the new album. There’s a bit more space in the songs, rather than some of our older stuff which has been quite frantic – it’s not as fast, but you can still dance to it. On this one, the bass and the drums do a lot of the work so it’s quite groovy. Lyrically, it’s a bit more politically aligned – it has social issues to the fore, but it’s still heart-on-sleeve stuff that we care about. We’re writing about the world we live in, but we’re trying not to preach to people. We’re not pretending we have any answers, but we’re asking a few questions. 

Maxïmo Park’s Risk to Exist is released on 21 April.

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