Features - Interviews

Interview: Paul Smith


Maximo Park frontman Paul Smith talks to Shannon Delores O’Neill about his new, forward-thinking collaboration with Peter Brewis (Field Music) for their Frozen by Sight album, released today.

Frozen by Sight has been described as a “playful departure from [both Peter’s and your] previous groups”. Do you agree?

Peter and I have known each other for over a decade but we never got to formally work with each other; we’d watched each other’s bands, shared the same musical ideas and always just thought, “Will we ever get to do something?” We were then lucky enough to get commissioned work by the Festival of the North which allowed us to work together. When we first decided to collaborate, we came up with a plan of me writing words that were to do with places that I’d been, and travel writing that I’d done, and that both of us would write the music. I would do stuff on the guitar and Peter would compose more string-based things and then he would arrange the whole thing for string quartet.

In my writing I had been messing around with words, not just to describe but to see the impact of putting a funny word into it or an interesting metaphor or simile that could disrupt peoples listening process – so in that way the words are quite playful. I think the music is as well – [Frozen by Sight] is not your average ‘rock band with a string quartet’ thing because we were already in rock bands and it wouldn’t be a change from the norm. So in that respect the string parts are really self contained; they’re not just beefing up what’s already there. On songs like ‘L.A. Street Cleaner’ it has quite a light string melody and the last one on the album, ‘St Peter’s’, the strings play a weird, almost out of tune kind of lullaby – quite different from more traditional moments where bands would use strings.

Was the use of ‘travel writing’ ever something you’d wanted to do before in Maximo Park or your solo work?

When Maximo Park first started out I would write about the places that we had been and put them on our website but, as time went on they got more abstract, and I suppose they weren’t necessarily what people wanted to see on a bands website, so I stopped them and just saved them up.  Maximo Park lyrics are descriptive but in more of an emotional way where the places are just a setting for what happens emotionally – for example ‘Books From Boxes’ (from Our Earthly Pleasures) begins with the line “Night falls and towns become circuit boards, we can beat the sun as long as we keep moving”. The lyrics are mostly about the emotional impact but they still use the everyday, mundane description of moving house, so it helps people to understand the over arching sentiment.

With the Frozen by Sight songs, there’s hardly any of that – the only use of ‘I’ or ‘you’ on this record is on the track ‘Mount Wellington Rises’ when I say ‘all I think of is you’. The lyrics on the record are very observational but not in a ‘guy in a band on tour!’ sort of way – some of the songs were written at home in Newcastle about seeing part of a town being left to decay for economic reasons, so the words have an almost social theme that runs through them too. For me, this project was about trying to push my writing a bit further – different band, different manifesto, but it does definitely relate back to what I’ve done before; capturing the magic of everyday moments.

What do you feel are the benefits of collaboration?

With any collaboration you need a parameter or a blueprint or it might become chaotic or you could end up doing things that neither of you are into, so you need to lay something down. We allowed the words to drive the structure and I was thinking things like ‘how should I sing this word, what qualities does it have, when is it time to move on to another melodic idea, what does the text suggest?’ and so on. Peter would send me bits of his music and I would add my words and wouldn’t change them much actually even if they stood out – he accepted them as they were, there was no creative friction, we appreciated each other’s ideas. A good example of words perhaps standing out is on ‘Mount Wellington Rises’ where the music had an almost full stop and the word ‘humped’ falls just after that stop – it probably leaps out at the listener as sounding a bit daft but hopefully in an endearing way! It’s just one of those things that maybe I would have taken out if it was a different project. Another, ‘Barcelona (At Eye Level)’ has a guitar solo I wrote, which I don’t usually get to do as I’m a singer in a band, but Peter incorporated the solo into the piece and that was the first time someone paid attention to my guitar playing.

I mostly find through collaboration that the results are something that you wouldn’t necessarily have gotten by yourself – it’s rewarding to listen to and I’m glad to say it’s one of the easiest things I’ve done.

Peter had mentioned recently about an emphasis on improvisation in Frozen by Sight project – why was this such an important element of the process?

It’s part of music that we both like – our impulses are driven by our influences really, so the likes of Talk Talk and Scott Walker where the music comes from people just playing, improvising but again having a blueprint within which to work. So for instance when Peter came up with the drum track to ‘Perth to Bunbury’ I got it and would sing in my bedroom to come up with something and it felt right, not thinking too much about it. Similarly, ‘Exiting Hyde Park Towers’ has a section that allowed the ensemble to work freely within it and there’s something satisfying about going somewhere in the music, not knowing where but you’re always able to come back – a push and pull effect, different from totally free improvisation. I’m certainly driven more by melody, I don’t mind being challenged when listening to something but for us we’re coming from a place where a song can be a suite but it’s still quite pop orientated.

You’ve touched on the musical influences but were there any non-musical influences, other than travelling?

In Maximo Park I usually like to explore the places we play and I often head out a day early if we’re flying somewhere to see the area. ‘Travone’ off the album is about a holiday in Cornwall I went on and an image that stuck with me was the wind going through the reeds on the top of a cliff – the lyrics ‘the fields above are the icing on the cliff, they flow with their own invisible current’ came from that. I love films and go to the cinema a lot so that particular sight reminded me of scenes from the Bruno Du Mont film La Vie de Jésus and also in Ratcatcher by Lynne Ramsay. Things I like in poems are those that can have a highly descriptive content too – Frank O’Hara for example, fits every day emotions and experiences into his work. I just like the idea of ‘I like the image but how do I put them into my own words?’.


La Vie de Jésus

Do you have any favourite tracks from the record and why?

It’s always difficult to answer that question. ‘Travone’ sticks out in particular, I think because it has a number of stages and it develops over time with more of the sparser ideas we dabbled with. It also uses a thumb piano I got in Berlin and I had always wanted to know when I was going to be able to use it. It’s quite an atmospheric thing despite having a regular melody and note structure and it blossoms into a full on, string led, triumphant ending. The song in the way that it journeys, works almost as a metaphor for the writing of the album – a constant search for something beautiful or worth looking at or in this case worth listening to.

How does the live performance of Frozen by Sight differ from say, a Maximo Park or Field Music gig?

We’ve got three dates booked for December but we did do one performance last year for the Festival of the North in Sage Gateshead. We played the music without anyone having heard it before – no Soundcloud pre-release streams etc – and it felt like an old fashioned event, like the opening of a new composition where word of mouth would decide the success of the music; it was really refreshing. I like to engage with each part of the audience during performance, thinking about the size of the room and so on; when I perform with Maximo Park, we have a lot of energy but these songs are more restrained. I suppose I had a sort of preview of how it would be through doing my solo tour last year (see solo album Margins) and this served as a sort of breaking the ice moment so I knew I could give it a go again. The songs themselves have a certain, individual way of being treated live and some of the music is quite intimate but now that people know more of what to expect and know what we’re going for, hopefully it’ll work out for three nice evenings.

Are there any plans for this project to be more long term?

I think we’ll definitely do stuff in the future having now worked together on a project – we’re lucky enough to be able to do these things at the same time as working on our own bands records. I’m always travelling around so my writing will always have that aspect within it, say if Peter wanted to do a Frozen by Sight part 2 or something. I don’t see any reason why we wouldn’t work together again but it’s what we would do that will be the interesting thing. Shannon D O’Neill

Go here to purchase Frozen by Sight. Stream the album in full via Spotify below.

is a performing musician and roller derby skater for Belfast Roller Derby. She should have been born in the late 70s.