In a graffiti-lined alley round the back of London’s Astoria a small yet excitable crowd has gathered, whispering feverishly and taking camera-phone shots of what they’re witnessing. Despite an aroma that suggests that this particular passageway has been recently used as a tramp’s toilet (not just wees) and despite The Astoria’s doors remaining shut for the next three hours, a hardy bunch of Maxïmo Park fans stare transfixed as the magical ritual of a photo shoot unfurls before them. For the kids, it’s an unforgettable experience. For the band, fresh from a promotional trip that’s taken them around the world in anticipation of their second album, Our Earthly Pleasures, it’s business as usual. Getting out the cold is their number one priority.
“We were in Russia when Europe finally decided it was going to be winter,” recalls keyboard player Lukas Wooller once the band are back in the warmth of The Astoria. “It had been mild everywhere and suddenly it was minus 18. It was painful.”
“I generally don’t trust a man in a fleece,” adds drummer Tom English. “But you need one when you’re in Russia.”
This sort of wisdom comes easily to the five members of Maxïmo Park. Since they finished recording Album Two their feet have barely had time to touch the ground.
“The album was finished at the end of November, and we went to Spain to do a little run of shows,” explains down-to-earth singer Paul Smith, whose sole eccentricity is a bowler hat that seemingly stays put for the entire day. “Then we came back to England, and then we went to China. We did one show in Beijing and one in Shanghai. The gulf between rich and poor there is incredible. We ran out of luggage at one point so we went to this market. People were just grabbing our hands and wanting to help us and carry our bags. It’s quite distressing when you see something like that. We got to see a different culture and hopefully break down a few small boundaries. We did a press conference and people were asking, ‘Do you think rock music’s going to take off?’ The Black Eyed Peas and the Scissor Sisters had gone out there, but they’re mainstream pop. We’re very much a leftfield pop band. We spoke to China’s only real rock star. The guy’s been in jail because the music he made was potentially inflammable. To play the sort of music that we take for granted has cost him.”
“China was amazing,” reckons Tom. “But the atmosphere was very weird. Not at the gigs. The cities. It’s really dry and polluted. I’ve been ill ever since we started doing this trip.”
It’s been a long trip too. After coming back from China for Christmas it was off the Moscow, back home for a day, then off again to Istanbul, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Berlin, Paris, Madrid, Milan, Amsterdam (again), Brussels and then straight into warm-up gigs for tonight’s big show at The Astoria. It’s quite the journey for a band who have only had a singer since Tom’s girlfriend discovered Paul belting out Stevie Wonder’s Superstition in a Newcastle pub in Spring 2003. Today Tyne and Wear, tomorrow the world.
“A lot of these people are asking us to go,” explains guitarist Duncan Lloyd. “We did Thailand at the start of last year and off the back of that we went to China. As a live band we’ve built up a reputation when we travelled. The word of mouth spreads and people are asking us. If you just stick to certain places and you don’t get out so much the word won’t spread.”
“It was a good show in Istanbul,” notes Tom. “They’re pretty casual there. Not that attentive.”
“Whereas in Russia they went absolutely mental and fights broke out,” interrupts Lukas. “In Istanbul people were generally dressed cool.”
“People were on a night out, rather than at a gig,” agrees Tom. “Sometimes you have to work harder at a gig like that. You want to rev them up and make them change their mind. Make them sweat a bit.”
“In Turkey there are loads of kebab shops everywhere and they’re incredible,” announces Lukas, getting stuck into the always-popular Maxïmo Park theme of international cuisine. “I had one before I got on the plane and it was unbelievable. I’d been up pretty much all night and it was like, ‘This is the nicest thing ever’.”
“There were grubs offered to us at one point in China,” points out Paul. “They were encased in a nice crispy case.”
“Crisp on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside,” smiles Duncan. “I think Archis [Tiku – bass] tried one. You’ve got to try these things.”
If Maxïmo Park sound like they’re having a terrific time, they’ve earned it. They’ve forged a deserved reputation as one of Britain’s most exciting live bands and that hasn’t come easily. Last winter they were the headline act on the NME tour, going on directly after Arctic Monkeys who, after the tour had been booked, emerged in a tsunami of hype as the undisputed band of the hour. When we visited the tour in Cambridge we witnessed roughly a quarter of the crowd disappearing before Maxïmo Park even took the stage. It was their loss, naturally, but it also served to reinvigorate the band. Who just happened to play one of the most brilliantly vitriolic shows we’ve ever experienced.
“The Cambridge Corn Exchange,” nods Paul. “I remember that show distinctly. That was probably the most venomous we were on the tour. Apart from Brixton, which was taped for MTV2. Most nights you saw twenty or thirty people out of 2,000 leaving. But at Cambridge when I got out there I could see the back of the room with the door opening and shutting. I think people came back once we started. I was like, ‘What’s wrong with people? If they stick around they’re going to see the best live band in the country’. These things filter around your head, especially as the songs mean so much to us. It fuels your performance. We had to raise our game. Nobody wants to be shown up.”
“We were lesser known than the Arctic Monkeys,” agrees Duncan. “We’d got there through playing live. So every night we had to go and prove ourselves and rip it up. When it came to Brixton the top was off and it was boiling over. We just said, ‘Whoever’s here is going to be blown away’. The next tour we did so many people came up and said that tour was where they discovered us.”
“It was the last tour after a lot of touring,” recalls Lukas. “Just when we thought we might be able to coast a little more, we had to really work hard every night. There was this, ‘why are we headlining’ feeling. And we had to go, ‘This is why we’re headlining’. We had to start from scratch every night. We really had to ram it down people’s throats. Give them no excuses. And you’d still read the paper the next day and the bottom line of the review would be ‘Maxïmo Park made up the numbers’. What can you do? By that Brixton show we were drained. We just wanted to go home. I remember getting the DVD of that show a month later. Our memory of that show was pretty black. And then we watched the DVD and you could see all this aggression coming out of us. I was like, ‘God. Look at us. We’re insane’.”
If the intensity of a Maxïmo Park show even shocks Maxïmo Park, it’s no surprise that the rest of the country and, judging by the promotional schedule, the rest of the world have been taken aback too. Maybe it was Paul’s sensible hair parting on album cycle one that suggested that Maxïmo Park were more cerebral introspection than Ramones-velocity mayhem.
“It’s one of those things I think about when I sit with my pipe stroking my chin,” quips Paul. “People need to put you in a pigeonhole. Shops need to sell your records. It’s nice to be known as an odd band. Something that’s at odds with rock and roll clichés. We’ve never really engaged with that side of things. People are very disappointed sometimes after a gig when they go, ‘What are you doing now?’ ‘I’m relaxing and trying to wind down so I can play a good show for somebody tomorrow’. Then some nights people who think you have that image meet us when we’re hammered and are like ‘What are you doing!’ They’re so disappointed. The reason why people like us is we’re not a cool band. We’re not a hyped band. People like us because of our music. It’s genuine and people can get hold of it. We’re just trying to express ourselves. We’re quite an unconventional bunch. It’s not like we’re a gang. We don’t all wear the same clothes and espouse the same things.”
“We’re more like a family,” confirms Tom. “If you’re in a gang you all have to be the same. But in a family you have to co-exist and allow each other to be as different as you want to be. Sometimes functional, sometimes dysfunctional, but generally when we’re playing, it’s functional.”
The end of result of this spirited individualism is Our Earthly Pleasures, noticeably heavier than debut A Certain Trigger, but still shot through with that bolt of pop sensibility that’s undeniably Maxïmo Park. It an album that the band assure us was written with zero pressure to commercially surpass their first offering.
“That’s very much an external thing,” reckons Paul. “There’s no way you can think about that when you’re writing songs. I’m sure a lot of bands do write songs to make money and to continue their careers. It’s not like that’s alien to the rest of the world, trying to get up a certain ladder in whatever field they chose. We’ve never had that desire to tailor our music to anyone else. I suppose that’s the reason why we can’t think about stuff like commercial value and charts. You’ve got to make music for yourself and if you’re happy with it, that means that you can go out and play it every night. We work extremely hard as a band because we have so much faith in the music. People came up to me at the end of last year and were like, ‘I thought you were a different kind of band. You’re actually talking about things I could understand’. People thought we’re a bit arty. Or we’re ‘angular’. Therefore it’s put on. Yes, there’s a craft about what we do. We try to choose the road less travelled. But we love pop songs. We love rock songs. We love electronic music. It’s all in there. There’s a romance there that’s easily overlooked. And an immediacy and an incendiary visceral energy in our music that’s pretty primal. This time the guitars are heavier. Maybe next time the guitars will be folkier. We’re only onto album two. Success to us is achieving something musically.”
“With the whole pressure thing, we’re writing songs all the time,” adds Duncan. “Even by the end of the first album we’d already written two or three for this one. Some of them were forgotten and some of them were used. It was never like, ‘We’ve got a second album to do, let’s do it’.”
What is there left to day about Maxïmo Park? The unconventional, driven, intellectual, sometimes drunk, gastronaut, rock, pop, punk, commercially carefree fivesome have defied explanation since they first emerged from the North-East, spitting emotion and passionate about their music. Out of all 2007’s major contenders, no band defies pigeonholing more than Maxïmo Park. So if you think I’m just going to come up with a snappy conclusion, you’ve obviously not understood a word they’ve been talking about.