Photo: Steve Gullick

Make What You Can: An Interview With Maximo Park

In a change of pace, UK guitar-rock giants Maximo Park tackle both the political and the personal on their latest effort.
Maximo Park
Risk to Exist

Maximo Park is a band who have always worn their hearts firmly on the sleeves, over five albums the band has honed their ability to write hook-filled, alternative pop songs that address the universal human truths of everyday life. After releasing the more introspective Too Much Information album in 2014, the band have re-focused their attentions on the current state of the world to produce an urgent, pertinent, politically charged album in Risk to Exist.

While the band, particularly frontman Paul Smith, has never shied away from addressing the state of contemporary society, Risk to Exist is patently a political album. Throughout the course of the album, Smith pleads for empathy, tolerance, and understanding for those affected by the migrant crisis in Europe as well as addressing the elitist attitudes of those with the power to make the decisions in society. Impressively, Maximo Park has managed to frame these social commentaries around animated, soulful and often downright funky songs that exhibit the band’s commitment to pushing themselves forward musically.

From the very beginning of the record, it’s evident that the band is keen to address the inequalities in society, particularly in English society, which is still dominated by the notion of class. The opening song on Risk to Exist, “What Did We Do to You to Deserve This?”, features the line, “You look out for your mates and yourself and that’s natural, I’d say / But then you trample over the less well-off and downtrodden they stay.”

Smith goes on to explain that it’s the reaction to the elitist, pitiless air of superiority that provided the backbone of the album, “Even if you did come from an upper-class background, we are still in the same boat,” he tells PopMatters. “You can divorce yourself from it if you want but that’s not what life is. These people are supposed to be our betters, but their behavior is shocking. The conservative government is very much an old boys clubs.” The song is also a barbed attack on the rose-tinted, nostalgic view of the past which is another theme of the album, with the line, “What’s that look upon your face / This is not the good old days.” Smith explains further: “People have this idea of this golden age that they can get back to but that golden age probably wasn’t that golden. We’ve got to move on but some people want to stay trapped in the past.”

The vibrant and spiky title song on the new record further encapsulates what the band was trying to achieve when writing the album as it deals with an issue that dominated the political narrative during the making of the album; the refugee crisis. There’s a distinct and definite message to the song as Smith appeals for compassion and understanding for those refugees trying to flee from conflicts over the Mediterranean.

Even though the message is overt in many of the songs, there’s a much deeper, common, more ubiquitous message to the lyrics on the album; Smith notes “I think people can tap into the deeper levels of the songs. People need to be saved. Sometimes we need to rely on other people, and that can be a broader lesson from this quite specific song.” Like many of the songs on the record, “Risk to Exist” is targeted at the people in government who have the power to do something tangible to avert this humanitarian catastrophe, “On the other level the song is addressing politicians and saying ‘show some responsibility.’ It’s not finger wagging at the people listening. There are people better placed to help.” This is a common theme throughout the record as Smith admits, “A lot of the record asks why can’t we be better at doing that in terms of the people who are more powerful than us?”

For Smith it’s clear that the democratic ideal in the UK is deeply flawed, and remains adamant that there must be some way to engender societal change, “I always think that there must be a way out of it, and I don’t know whether we’ll reach a place of universal understanding on complex issues but you’ve got to try and hope for those things. You’ve got to try to progress as people. One of the ways is to help those who have less.” While Smith stops short of offering an alternative, he is certain of what needs to change for a fairer society, “I don’t want to say that our country (England) is terrible because clearly, this is a good place to live which is why you have to ask if we can make it better? Can we make it more representative of what we’ve become? We are a diverse country. Lots of people’s views need to be represented. There should be more people from working class backgrounds, from minority backgrounds and more women. It should be roughly equal.”

Despite the conspicuously political nature of the record, the band was mindful of the subject matter marginalizing existing fans or the casual listener. “The record talks about broader issues, but I’d like to think that there is something for everyone in each of the songs,” Smith continues. “Ultimately, even if you are going to talk about something that is more wide-ranging. I’d prefer it not to descend into sloganeering and simplicity. I’d like it to have a universal quality.”

Most importantly a record with such a strong message lives or dies by the quality of its songs, “I think if you come up with a question that you can dance to but is also thought provoking then for us, that’s our band’s ideal scenario.” Nevertheless, as Smith intended, the songs are still open to interpretation and retain their ambiguity: “The songs are personal responses and have their own mysteries. I don’t want to be too explicit about things.”

That the album manages to succeed is down to band’s ability to write relatable songs that provoke an emotional response but never feel overly pessimistic. As Smith attests, the band want you to think not to cry, “It’s good to aim for the objectivity. We aim to make music with a sense of vitality to it and sometimes that can wear you out, so that’s why we do other things as well. There’s a will to do something good and make something exciting.” It would be unnatural for the band to make a downbeat, defeatist album and Smith remains optimistic for the future, noting how the album “taps into feelings I’ve had for a long, but they come into sharper focus especially when you think about the future. When you think about the future of mankind and humanity and hoping that we can progress rather go backward.”

Musically, the album saw the band record as a full band which resulted in a more organic, funkier and more soulful sound. It is a very different sound from 2012’s The National Health and Too Much Information which saw the band explore the use of electronic beats and synths. For fans of the band, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the band have chosen to push the boundaries and change things on this new release: “The people who have followed us can hear the development of the band. It’s not a shock if you release something like ‘Brain Cells’ or ‘Leave This Island’. They still feel like a Maximo Park song somehow even though they are quite different. It’s the same on the new record. We’ve tried to move on again both lyrically and musically.”

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To that end, the album is a rousing success, replete with memorable hooks, trademark sing-a-long choruses and the band’s keen ear for melody. Being such a political record, it was crucial for Smith that the band never lost sight of what they are, “We are a very alternative pop band, but by that virtue, we write pop songs.”

While it might make for more interesting reading to learn that this was a difficult album to make that tested the band’s relationship to the limit, the truth is that it wasn’t. This is mainly because the band has always striven for one thing: “I think we have aimed for, and it’s a very unsexy thing, and that’s consistency.” Smith believes that the mind-set going into the making of every Maximo Park album should always be the same, “Every record could be our last. You shouldn’t be making records because there’s a contract there or whatever. We want to put everything into our record as if it’s our last. You’ve got to assess whether the world needs another Maximo Park Album or not. Whatever your band name, you have to justify what you do. You should do everything you can, give everything you’ve got. Not water it down.”

This drive to produce something of value defines the band, something that Smith has never lost sight of: “It may sound big-headed or matter of fact to say that I think all of our albums are good but if you are putting out a record you should think that it’s good and should have faith in it.”

With that in mind Smith sums up the motivation of the band perfectly: “It’s about celebrating everyday life. Finding the magical in the everyday. Something I think we are good at.” With this new album, Maximo Park has done just that, but they are also asking apposite questions about the world we live in today along with a call for a bit more understanding and a plea to consider the plight of those less fortunate than us. All through songs you can dance to.