MIDLAKE REFLECTS ON ‘TRIALS OF VAN OCCUPANTHER’ AS PIVOTAL ALBUM TURNS 10

MIDLAKE REFLECTS ON ‘TRIALS OF VAN OCCUPANTHER’ AS PIVOTAL ALBUM TURNS 10

With the benefit of a perspective that can only come with the passage of time, we can safely declare the mid-aughts a transitional era for indie rock, when artists with sharp-edged approaches such as Interpol and Bloc Party began to cede their real estate to breezier, more restrained sounds. A trove of albums, including Midlake’s “The Trials of Van Occupanther” and Band of Horses’ “Everything All The Time,” both released in 2006, as well as Fleet Foxes’ self-titled debut and Blitzen Trapper’s “Furr,” both from 2008, ushered in a sub-genre noted for 1970s vocal harmonies, woodsy motifs, vintage keyboards and, yes, beards.

Midlake, coming off its 2004 debut, “Bamnan and Silvercork,” hunkered down in its hometown of Denton, TX, to craft its sophomore effort, “The Trials of Van Occupanther.” The results were a record as steeped in the 1870s as the 1970s, with references to mountaineers and stonecutters blanketed with sun-dappled Laurel Canyon laid-back splendor ala Crosby Stills Nash & Young.

Midlake has since recorded 2010’s “The Courage of Others” and 2013’s “Antiphon.” The latter was the group’s first since the exit of Tim Smith, who served as the band’s lead singer. In the wake of his departure, guitarist and singer Eric Pulido, who has been with the band since the recording of its full-length debut, has handled lead vocalist duties.

Late last month, Bella Union released a 10th-anniversary edition of “Van Occupanther,” complete with a gorgeously updated album cover and two previously unreleased tracks. We dialed up the Wayback Machine and chatted with Pulido over email about the heady, somewhat difficult times that yielded “Van Occupanther.”

What was the band’s mindset going into the making of “The Trials of Van Occupanther,” coming off “Bamnan and Silvercork”?

We were really excited to switch gears into making “Van Occupanther.” “Bamnan” was a great experience and brought a lot of firsts for us (ie. Worldwide release, Euro tour, magazine review, video, etc), but it flew a bit under the radar. We knew we had something more inside us so we were eager to get back in the studio and start the process of a new statement. Our influences were evolving and we were growing in many ways so it set things up nicely.

Who came up with the concept?

Tim. I’ve always said that he was the visionary that invited us into that world to help dress it up together. Tim was always great with taking a simple concept and, through imagery and a story, taking you to a fantastical place.

Did the concept (the setting and the era of the story, mostly) influence the instrumentation?

We always had classic vinyl albums and some art around as a visual litmus tests of sorts. We’d ask, “Does it sound like that!?” Maybe it was a Bruegel painting or Allman Brothers Album cover, who knows, but it was always a bit subjective and relative at best! I think musical influences were more poignant for us, but we definitely wanted it to reflect the lyrical imagery as well. “Van Occupanther” was really the only song that was connected with the cover and album name, but there was an overall pastoral image and concept of escapism to a more romantic place or time throughout.

The cover artwork of "Tales of Van Occupanther" has been reimagined by Brian Lotti for the album's 10th anniversary edition.

The cover artwork of “The Trials of Van Occupanther” has been reimagined by Brian Lotti for the album’s 10th anniversary edition.

It took a while to record the album, and reportedly some re-recording was done. Was it a difficult album to make? 

I think with time, any pain or strife tends to fade in the background. We definitely were diligent in turning every stone to achieve what we felt was best, or at least “as good as it gets.” This was the Midlake way and in some ways a process that plagued us through the years. We often found that the genesis of an idea was the best time to try and capture it in recording. The law of diminishing returns seemed to always be lurking. Many times a “redo” was necessary (I think “Roscoe” was the third attempt), but other times we beat the dead horse. All in all, “Van Occupanther” was a decent balance of us trying to find our voice and capturing where we were all at once.

Do you feel like the album was a turning point for Midlake? What impact did it have on the band’s approach going forward?

Most definite. It can be a double-edged sword when folks become aware of who you are. You want to be received well and known, but that makes way for expectations. We were (and are) grateful for how well that album (and specifically “Roscoe”) did. You never know how/if a song or album will strike a chord with an audience so we were humbled to see audiences grow for us while we toured the record for around a year and a half. We had to take the leap and quit our day jobs to help give our little band the best chance to reach another level. It really drove us to do everything we could to be successful. We were always aware of fending off compromise or pandering to expectations created from [“Van Occupanther”] and staying true to what was influencing us at the time. It’s kind of the nature of the beast when you’re continually being influenced by new things and creating new music. Our hope was to never forget where we’d been but always striving for what’s ahead.

What are your favorite songs from the album to perform live?

I’m a sucker for a crowd pleaser so the three singles “Roscoe,” “Young Bride” and “Head Home” are always fun to play. I think “Head Home” was always most fun as we always try and have an epic ending to the tune live!

Have these songs changed in the live setting since Tim left the band?

Other than me singing lead!? 😉 We tried to breathe new life into the older tunes while still preserving the original album version. I think that was always the desire, even with Tim, but I’m sure it’s taken on a slight new life now.

Do you hear the influence of Midlake, and this album especially, in bands like Fleet Foxes and Band of Horses?

I think we all have dabbled in the same palette of influence so it makes sense we’d get references together. I know we’re all mutual fans, but I’d have to think Dylan, Neil, CSNY and the likes had more to do with it!

Those bands are from the Pacific Northwest and that sound is also associated with the West Coast in general. How did a band like Midlake emerge from Denton, Texas?

I don’t think sound is as synonymous with place as it once was maybe. Not to say that it can’t be, but these days especially, we’re exposed to any and everything so the ease of influence knows no state lines. We have had a smorgasbord of influence and I’m not sure if the stereotypical Texas blues has ever been at the top of that list. Denton, TX is really a melting pot of styles and genre, and it’s another reason which makes the artist community here so great.

During this era, circa 2006, what artists did you consider to be your peers or kindred spirits?

We went on tour with the Flaming Lips that year and it was a huge thing for us. They were and are amazing guys, and their fans were so great to us. We always loved the bands that were left of center but finding an audience…The Shins, Belle and Sebastian, Grandaddy, Elliott Smith, Travis, Radiohead and more paved a path. Bands like Arcade Fire, Band of Horses, Frank Ferdinand, Grizzly Bear, The National, etc. were all coming up around the same time and pulling from a similar fan base I think.

How involved were you and the band with the 10th anniversary re-release?

Everyone was involved in recording the two bonus tracks but I mostly helped coordinate the package itself with our label. The guys all weighed in but I am often the defacto band secretary 😉

What can you tell us about the bonus tracks?

“Festival” was originally recorded during the sessions for “Seven Long Suns” with Tim in 2012. We always felt good about that one so it was nice to let us see the light of day. “The Fairest Way” was also a tune from that time, but we actually got back together December of last year to re-record it. It was nice for all seven of us to get in the studio together to record after some time had passed.

The idea of redoing the album cover is pretty unique. How did that idea come about? Did you know Brian the artist Lotti?

I’ve been a fan of Brian’s for some time now and I just pitched it as a cool way to still utilize the original artwork with an artistic spin. We all really loved how it turned out!

Are there any live shows planned for the re-release?

There are not any at this time.

What’s next for Midlake? Are you currently writing/recording? 

We’re all working on side projects at the moment. Mine is called BNQT (pronounced Banquet) and the album will be out next spring. The album/band features some of us Midlakers along with an amazing lineup of guys: Fran Healy (Travis), Alex Kapranos (Franz Ferdinand), Ben Bridwell (Band of Horses), Jason Lytle (Grandaddy). Should be a fun one and can’t wait to get it out there!

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