Interview: Tom English of Maximo Park

By on Thursday, 22nd May 2014 at 11:00 am
 

Header photo by new TGTF friend Francis D

Tuesday night, indie rock legends of the North East Maximo Park held court in front of a DC crowd eager to see them play in our city since their last visit almost 2 years ago. After their blinding set that left their fans cheering for more, I had the opportunity to be sat on the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hotel’s stage next to Maximo’s drummer Tom English to chat with him about their current North American campaign to promote their most recent release, the ‘Too Much Information’ LP, the making of that album and what’s up ahead next for the band.

This was the first time they’d played this venue in Northeast Washington, so I asked Tom how he felt the show went that night. “It was excellent. Very good atmosphere. I don’t know if you came to the last show…” I inform him that sadly, I wasn’t able to, though Cheryl substituted for me on the night they played the U Street Music Hall in September 2012. “I think we improved from the last show [here], I remember thinking we could have done better last time. I think we had quite a few technical difficulties, I can’t remember what, but it was quite a hectic night in 2012. So yeah, it felt good tonight.”

By the time I’ve caught up with Tom for this interview, Maximo Park have been in the States for a week, and the DC date is gig #6 of nine on this side of the pond. He shares with me their rather circuitous travel plan in getting to our city: “yesterday was quite a long travel day. We flew via Atlanta. We didn’t have a date in the South. So it was nice that we went through an airport in the South.” Tom says they’ve never played in Atlanta (“never, one day!”), so you know the drill, Atlanta. Sort this out for their next tour.

Inevitably since an Englishman is involved in the conversation, talk shifts to the weather. During the band’s set, frontman Paul Smith told the audience that they had gone out to see the Lincoln Memorial and the weather was just about perfect for their visit. So I ask Tom if he’s enjoying the temporary warmth we’re experiencing in a very strange Washington spring that seems unable to make up its mind if it wants to be hot or not. “The weather’s been amazing! I think you’re having a heat wave, though it sounds like there is a heat wave back at home as well. But it’s a hotter heat wave here…When we were over in Portland last week, it was 33 degrees…what is that in Fahrenheit, 100 degrees? Yeah, well, we weren’t quite prepared and a few of us had to buy some shorts last minute.” (33 degrees C is about 91.5 degrees F, for those of you who really wanted to know.)

The making of their fifth ‘Too Much Information’ album, or at least the initial stages, involved another band we’ve also written about here quite a bit on TGTF: Peter and David Brewis, aka the geniuses behind Field Music. Recording of the LP began in the brothers’ studio in Sunderland, and Tom had nothing but compliments to pay them. “It was funny. We had worked with them before a long time ago. In fact, I used to play in their band before we all got signed, I’d played with them. But obviously they have grown in stature as artists, especially as recording artists.

“Over that time, we’d been signed and released albums as well, but we’ve always admired what they do, so we’re quite in awe of them these days, even though we’re old friends. When we made the arrangement to work with them, it was really exciting! And yeah, at first I was sort of nervous. But once we got in the studio, we realised that it was as per usual, like old mates chatting, and getting on with the work we were doing with them. The business of the recording, it was really laidback, fun. Things really flowed and we worked really quickly. And I mean, it was almost too easy!”

Tom laughs thinking back on the experience with the Brewises but looks upon it as an important moment for the band’s evolution, for which he believes their mates deserve a lot of credit for. “It was just so relaxed. And we just really enjoyed it, because we’ve always worked with professional producers in proper hired studios and quite expensive studios sometimes, and I think doing that was really a professional stepping stone for us, because it basically gave us the confidence to self-produce because we know they’ve (the Brewis brothers) been doing it all the time. They’re very uncompromising, they wouldn’t work with a producer even if they were asked to, whereas we’ve always relied on producers before now. But we’ve picked up a lot of equipment and know-how along the way while our own studio was being finished in Newcastle and so we finished the first four or five songs with Peter and David, and then we just carried on in our own place, and I guess we have them to thank for that, that we eventually, finally got around to self-producing an album and not relying on anyone else.”

I ask Tom if working without the restrictions of a an outside producer was freeing or did it actually induce more anxiety from the pressure of trying to produce something of equal or greater quality as they had in the past with outside producers. “Suddenly, we weren’t on anyone else’s clock, you know? And you can do things one thing at a time. When you work with a producer, the way it is, you have 10 or so songs and you go in, ready, and that’s it. The clock ticks, and you’ve got to get them down, one track a day. Three tracks a week, or whatever the budget demands. If you’re in your own place, you can work at your own pace, write one song, record it, stop. Write another. You don’t have to have everything prepared in a batch.”

He went on to explain just how exciting that was to them, to have this new and better way of recording. “So that meant we could experiment more, the set-up changed, all the positions of the mikes or equipment we were using. It was very liberating, both artistically and technically as well. It sounds a bit nerdy, but it opens things up because you can do what you like in your own time. You can make mistakes and you’re not all, ‘oh, we’re paying these guys by the hour, we just wasted a whole week!’ That kind of thing happens. So, yeah, this was great.”

I wondered how it felt to the band to play the new songs directly next to Maximo classics from the past, especially now that they have amassed a pretty big back catalogue from where they can choose their set lists from. I particularly enjoyed seeing the audience in Washington react positively to the new material, just as they did to the songs they know by heart. Tom says where they are right now has translated to a better live experience for the fans. “It’s great, it’s really satisfying [playing the new songs], it’s a good time, we’ve been touring this album since February, what is that, like 4 months? So it feels like the new ones are up to speed with [those], so much so that we’re comfortable playing them like the old ones, so we’re not having to concentrate as much. Because when you first start introducing new songs to the set, it’s really tiring to play a new song, and then you play an old song and it’s dead easy, because you’re not concentrating so hard. Now it’s kind of the same level, so the whole show improves. And people seem to really dig it. I think there is a lot more variety in the set now, because our sound has changed quite a lot, but it’s very nice to know it can all work together.”

Speaking of variety, I point out that ‘Too Much Information’ itself is quite a variety of songs. In November 2013, the first song from the album Maximo Park released to the wild from the then upcoming release, ‘Brain Cells’, seemed to indicate a sonic shift of the group’s sound toward dance. I describe how I was initially shocked at this change in direction, but Tom quickly dismisses this as a sudden change, saying that electronic influences had been hanging around in the background for some time. “I dunno, I think maybe the beginnings of it was on the last album. We worked with a kind of dance producer on the track ‘Hips or Lips’, with a producer named Amir Amor. He’s now in a really successful pop group in the UK (Rudimental). They’re really dancey with jungle beats. We started to use programmed beats and some more sequenced synth-types sound.

“Again, it’s kind of derived from the equipment we use. And we’ve always had an appreciation for it: we’ve been on Warp Records and we’ve listened to a lot of electronic music over the years. It’s just creeped in, and as you get older, you get more confidence to try new things out. So from your point of you, yeah, it seemed like a bit of a shock, but for us, it wasn’t such a great leap because it’s a musical language we’ve been conversant in, but not actually expressed publicly until now. And I guess we’ll continue to do that, it’s been going down really well.” He admits, “it does have its limitations. It’s harder to do live with the same dynamic. Rock songs work because it ties you down to certain tempos, and it has been a challenge to incorporate it (dance) into our style but we’ll see where it leads us.”

This summer, some of their highest profile appearances include festival turns at Germany’s Rock am Ring, T in the Park in Scotland (“we might get on telly in the UK for that”) and Split Festival in Sunderland, as well as a show in London’s Hyde Park with the Libertines and Spiritualized (“should be interesting”). But the most exciting item to Tom in the Maximo date book in the coming warmer months is “some crazy event” in Seoul, Korea, where they’ve never been. “Complete first for us. Have no idea what to expect. We’ve been out to Bangkok and Beijing before, so that was cool…It tends to be quite weird because not everyone can afford to come to the festivals there…I guess it would be some fairly snazzy, touristic event. I don’t know. Maybe not?” He says this with a hopeful smile. “Guess we’ll see when we get there! Going to new countries is always fascinating.”

I am curious how it feels to have people reacting to their music, especially if their first language is not English. The fans are singing the lyrics back them, while the band themselves are aware they might not fully understand the meaning of the songs. “It is amazing how many people speak English [all over the world]. But at the same time, we connect with people on a more musical or physical level.” So whether they’re playing in Santiago (a location name checked in new song ‘I Recognise the Night’) or on the other side of the world in Seoul as they will be this summer, the most important things to Tom and the rest of Maximo Park are how the crowd is responding to their energy and that their fans are having fun. And that’s what it’s really about, isn’t it?

After I’d stopped recording, we chatted a little while longer and I learned two very interesting things: 1) like me, Tom is a Liverpool supporter (yes!) and 2) the night I went to see David Brewis’ solo project School of Language at Manchester Deaf Institute last month, Tom was there too in the audience, with two other Maximo members in tow. That’s mental!

Many thanks to Tom for chatting with me. Big thank yous also go out to Jesse and Brian for helping arrange this interview.

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There Goes The Fear is where we tell you about the latest music, gigs, and tours we love and think you should too.

We love music that has its heart on its sleeve, tells a story, swims around our head all day or makes us dance like no-one's watching.

TGTF is edited by Mary Chang, who is based in Washington, DC. She is joined by writers in England, America and Ireland. It began as a UK music blog by Phil Singer in 2005.

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