Goodbye Van Occupanther: Tim Smith and life after Midlake

tim smithIn the fall of 2007 I read an article in Spin Magazine about this band named Midlake. Denton, Texas boys with a penchant for dark, folksy songs that had the feel of both Fairport Convention, Fleetwood Mac, and a Ray Brandbury story. It was a review of a live show and the journalist put them into the same category as Wilco as far as pulling amazing things off on the stage. Well, I’d seen Wilco probably 10 times in a live setting by that point and this peaked my interest, just a little. Searching, surfing, stalking my way through the interweb I found Midlake’s website and proceeded to play the track “Roscoe” more times than I’d like to admit. I really couldn’t get enough of it. It was a mix of something old, something new, and something completely unlike anything else I had heard up to that point. I immediately loaded up on Midlake and bought both of their proper full-length records and was floored at what I heard. Bamnan and Slivercork was this lo-fi futuristic record of oddball songs mixed with an Alan Parsons-esque quality, while The Trials of Van Occupanther was a 70s loaded record with Fleetwood Mac-like bass lines and a dark, folksy vibe that was only enhanced by the great production.

Then, nothing.

The Trials of Van Occupanther came out in 2006. I discovered Midlake in 2007. I’d hit their website often, checking for updates but they were few and far between. Then in 2008 there were hints of activity in the band. Songs were being written and tracks were being recorded. Finally, in January of 2010 The Courage of Others was released to mixed reviews. For me, I was a bit let down at the overall dire mood of the album. There wasn’t anything showcasing this amazing band’s ability to lay down a heavy rhythm. It was a very low key affair that after waiting three years for new music, it was a hard one to get into. But after repeated listening the album grew on me, becoming more than it first appeared to be. And then the waiting game began again.

Earlier in the year the band started posting messages saying they were in the studio hard at work on another album. A photo here, some artwork there. But before an album name was released news came out that lead singer and main songwriter Tim Smith had left the band…in November of 2012. I, like I’m sure many, many other fans of the band, was floored and saddened to hear this. How could they continue as Midlake without that voice? Tim Smith was, whether this was truly the case or not, the heart of the band. Midlake continued with guitarist Eric Pudillo taking over vocal duties and after releasing the single “Antiphon” proved that they indeed could continue on. Musically it was the strongest the band has sounded since 2006, and Pudillo’s voice, while not as distinct as Smith’s, fit just right in the Midlake mood and feel. Midlake were continuing on in great fashion.

But what about Tim Smith?

It was rather vague as to why he had left the band. Stories from inter-band turmoil, to Smith leaving to pursue a career in ornithology were running rampant on the internet, but never anything directly from the band or Tim Smith. Then a website appeared for a band called Harp. This was what Tim Smith was doing. His own band, working on his own songs. And how are the songs? Well, there aren’t any to hear yet. Yet. I emailed Tim Smith and he responded back, thanking me for the good wishes and support. I asked if he’d consider answering some questions, which he said he gladly would.

So what happened with Midlake?

Tim Smith: “The main reason I left the band was that musically we didn’t see things the same way.  It comes down to me thinking the feel of a song isn’t quite there yet and most of the others thinking it already sounds great.  To keep saying “No, not quite” everyday was an awful position for me to be in.  I hated that. I just wanted to make great music with those guys and have fun doing it.  But if the guys you work with think the music is already great (which is fine, their opinion is valid), then how can they record it any better than great on the next try?  There was no battle of different musical directions like wanting the music to be heavier or faster, though we were working on a few that were.  I think they were all willing to go with my vision.  But as you can hear from their new album, our tastes and sensibilities are quite different and always have been.  I would try my best to steer the sound which got more difficult with every album.  That doesn’t mean telling them what notes to play, it just means I let them play whatever they wanted but I had the final say.  Now that I’m gone they’re able to play the way they hear it.  That is what that group of guys sounds like naturally, which is great, but it just wasn’t working for the songs I was writing and wanting to hear.  After many months of this cycle some of them started to resent me I think, which felt awful.  When you don’t feel on the same side anymore then it’s over.  I’m sure it was for the best, if not for me then definitely for them.  I didn’t leave thinking I could do better without them, I only felt I would enjoy making music more.  I was also very aware that I would sell a lot less albums.”

Are you too hard on yourself? Are you a perfectionist?

TS: “As far as me being a perfectionist, some of that is true, though not in the way that every note has to be played perfect and precise. That is the opposite of what I wanted.  I wanted us to be more raw with more mess ups, and most importantly play with greater feeling.  Not this bland generic version of a song I had spent hours writing.  The feeling came across many times (though there were great moments) as stale.  When other people don’t hear it as stale and you say let’s try it again, then you’re labeled a perfectionist.  But the standard was set years ago by the great bands and I can’t ignore that.  I’m well aware that I’ll never achieve that but I must try, cause what else is the point?  To make whatever and collect some money, I guess?  We don’t really need more music in this world, it’s already sickening and I’m just as guilty by adding to it.  I’d better do my best or not at all.”

What’s your process as a songwriter and in the studio?

TS: “For me, recording a song is pretty much what it’s going to be during it’s earliest stages.  So unless the vibe is good at that point I won’t bother tinkering around with it.  My time is spent getting the right vibe early on which is what I struggle with the most and causes all the problems.  After that’s laid down in a satisfactory way the rest should be much easier to get and at that point I wouldn’t have trouble letting the song go.”

Can you talk about your new music project, Harp?

TS: “Harp was something I’d been wanting to do for awhile now even while I was in the band.  It was born I suppose from my dissatisfaction of the process and cycles of being in Midlake.  I originally thought I’d make exactly the kind of music I want to make. Without having to tour it I wouldn’t be tied to thinking “well, now I need a song that will sound good at a festival, etc”, which I’ve always tried to be conscious of.  I could use many of the elements I love like classical music, ECM, more instrumental passages, perhaps softer, more peaceful elements, but the more I work on it the more I see it as a continuation of where I was with Midlake, at least for this first album.   I would think that anyone that enjoyed “Van Occupanther” and “The Courage of Others” will enjoy this just as much and probably more.  It’s still pretty early for me to be saying what it will sound like.

I’ll be honest, the process is extremely slow, painfully slow right now and I’m hoping to eventually get into some sort of working rhythm.  There are a handful of songs that I feel are really strong.  There’s also about five handfuls of songs that didn’t make the cut.  I know there’s quite a few people very eager to hear another album from me but I can’t really give a date as to when it will be finished.  Somedays I’m just not sure I’ll ever finish it, but I keep trying, knowing that I don’t want to do anything else.”

Is Harp just you working alone, or are their other musicians involved?

TS: “Harp at this time is just me, writing and recording.  I’ll definitely call in some guys to play on the record when the time comes.  I’m not sure it will be a band in the traditional sense though.  I’m not sure that I’ll play live anymore.  I’ll have to see how I feel once the album is finished.  Touring and performing were never my thing.  Some musicians get a rush on stage but I never felt that.  I was very thankful that people were there to see us and that they knew the words, that was great, but I just never felt at home on stage.  I just really enjoy being in the studio.”

So how are things overall, now that you are on your own as a solo artist?

TS:” Well, my life has changed drastically since leaving Midlake.  Two months after I left the band my wife and I sadly got a divorce after 11 years of marriage. it’s not something I’m proud of.  It turns out we were just better friends than lovers.  We still talk. She really is my best friend.  So for a couple of months I was trying to sell the house and most everything we owned.  I then, embarrassed to say, moved back in with the folks who live in Kerrville, TX to save money because I have much less than people might think.  That’s where I’m living now, in a fairly good sized spare bedroom with all my recording gear set up.  My days consist of hours and hours spent trying to write and record (usually mornings and evenings with afternoons off).  Really just trying to figure things out musically.  I try to help around the house, walk my dog Gretchen, and I’m trying to start enjoying what life I have left.  I’m also taking fiddle lessons, that’s definitely the toughest and most insane instrument ever.  Thankfully I haven’t had to get a day job yet but I’m sure that day will come.  There’s a bit more to my day but I’m pretty sure I’m already boring people.”

No one is bored, just waiting. We’ll be here when you’re ready. Follow Tim and Harp at http://harpband.com/ and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Fans-of-Harp/534897239893499.

9 thoughts on “Goodbye Van Occupanther: Tim Smith and life after Midlake

  1. What he says about playing more raw and not over-correcting or obsessing about accuracy, that’s the kind of perfection that appeals to me. The human kind. I’m interested in what he’ll do next.

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    1. Exactly. I just hope something comes out before I forget why I like him so much.

      I hope he can find a group of guys that have the patience he requires, because I think what he does will be worth the wait.

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  2. This comment doesn’t really have anything to do with this post, but I wanted to let you and your readers know that I have posted my latest Halloween mix on my blog Eclectic Grooves.

    While my previous halloween mixes have been a mix of fun, campy and scary, this one is pretty much stacked from beginning to end with scary tunes. I would love to hear what you think of the mix, so if you get a chance please stop by the blog and leave a comment.

    http://eclectic-grooves/blogspot.com

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  3. Welp, and I am off listening to “Roscoe” more often than I’d like to admit…it’s a darn good song. Tim Smith’s vocals on the song remind me of early Qotsa-Josh Homme.

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  4. Hi all, I’m a Portuguese filmmaker developing a fiction film project that was hugely influenced by Tim Smith’s work. And you know what? He confirmed he will collab in the original soundtrack of the film: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/57589634/squatter-man/posts/685697
    If you can help spreading these exciting news and also promoting the film’s crowdfunding campaign we (Tim Smith’s musical genius admirers) will all be highly appreciated. You can find more info at: http://www.squattermanfilm.com
    Thank you so very much!

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