You wouldn’t know about Midlake; no one does. Just ask anyone around their hometown of Denton, Texas—where the four members went to college and eventually settled—if they’ve heard of the band, and you’re likely to get more dumb stares than you’d get from a dozen Texas Stadiums packed to capacity with Paris Hilton clones. You’d be better off asking if anyone, cold off the street, could give you the atomic mass of Rhodium. Might as well give a guy a chance.
Here’s what makes the story tragic: They wrote one of the best records of the year, a lush and scenic pop masterpiece that opens the blinds to a different landscape, but it somehow blended into the ether like a mustard stain on a Pittsburgh Steelers road jersey.
One of the pleasures that I take every year around this time is when I gather up all of the year-in-review issues of music publications and run through their lists of “Top 10 Records You Never Heard,” just so I can call them liars. I like being able to say, “You’re wrong! I’ve heard that one! But you’re right; it’s great. Thank you for doing The Thermals justice, Spin,” or “How in holy hell did you forget to include the insanely awesome contributions from Tilly and the Wall or The Mountain Goats? Your list is flawed; therefore, I will believe none of it.”
But Midlake has its reasons for being invisibles with a sufferance for the converse.
It took lead singer Tim Smith, drummer Mckenzie Smith, and guitarists Paul Alexander, Eric Nichelson, and Eric Pulido a year to write and record Bamnan and Slivercork, but before they’d completed the record, a rough copy of a demo tape got into the hands of former Cocteau Twins bassist Simon Raymonde. He liked the record and signed the band to Bella Union Records, his U.K.-based label. Prior to its summer release, the two Smiths visited Europe to do press interviews in hope of generating a buzz for a record that is grander than anything Radiohead’s done in the last five years and is—barring any drastic changes in Jeff Magnum’s mental capacity—an uncontested harbinger to what would be an extension of the Neutral Milk Hotel’s creative tome. They did all of the groundwork necessary to ensure that the album would take off once released. While they were there, playing Belgium, Scotland, and Ireland, they played a show with a very pre–Saturday Night Live–appearing Scissor Sisters. They then left to let everything simmer on its own.
“After the first week or two, our label told us that we’d sold 1,000 albums and we were pretty excited about that,” Tim Smith said. “We went back and played one show in Paris—in a Chinese sailing vessel that was actually a pretty cool club—where there were, seriously, eight people there to see us and it was really sad. There were other people there, but I’m pretty sure they were there for the other bands.
“We came home and realized that we couldn’t really tour here because it cost a lot of money. We thought it best to just get started on the new album. We didn’t tour here at all.”
The band rarely plays out. They recently got mentioned in a Dallas newspaper, which was a big deal. Singer Smith and Alexander quit their jobs at a music store fixing equipment and now have even more menial jobs as sources of income to fund the sophomore album.
“I stuff remote controls and batteries in boxes and Paul does, too. We’re not really striving for any greatness there,” Smith said. “Mackenzie’s a teacher, so he’s got the serious job in the band. But this is pretty much that main thing in everybody’s life.”
Smith’s slightly-off little dramas about balloon makers and the delicately convoluted process of making a kingfish pie give us aerial views of a kind of world that could only exist beyond the closed doors of imagination, the ones that creak when used if only for the simple reason that they’re never opened anymore. Midlake’s sky and clouds, land and salty sea are the stuff of pristine innocence and mannerisms left to languish in the bygone.
“I can’t do something abstract, like, ‘Ooh, baby, I love you.’ I guess I can if I have an image in my head. It’s just easier if I make up some stuff for other people and put them in a different world. Not a whole lot happens in my life,” Smith said. “The 19th-century view of how things were, or at least how I think they were, probably plays into it. It was a very moral and very proper society. But that might just be the picture I get from things I read. It’s very frustrating how people are today. Even right now, driving, there are truckers on our rear and I hate that kind of thing.
“I want to create something beautiful, something other than that dark alleyway that a lot of other bands go for.”
Over the years, the band’s become friends with the extraordinary singer-songwriter John Vanderslice who’s encouraged them to keep going. Smith looks at Vanderslice’s own struggle to be recognized outside of a certain sphere and thinks, “What do you have to do?” with a near desperation. Vanderslice identifies with the nature of the battle.
“We played in Denton and Mackenzie came up to me and gave me a CD-R of the EP. I have a lot of people hand me CDs at shows and I listen to them. I got really into this one. I was like, ‘Who in the hell is this?’ I think they’re total geniuses.” Vanderslice said. “It took me forever to get on a label. I tried really hard to get them on Barsuk, but their release schedule is so packed right now. It’s a tough road rising above the fray. It’s tough, man, because it’s all touring. It’s hard telling someone, ‘You need to tour for a couple of years and then…you’ll still be indie rock.’”
It’s hard seeing a good record ignored. Midlake are still nobodies, but that’s got to change. Otherwise, justice is the bastard cousin of the unicorn—unreal but desired.