The Texas folk-rock ensemble’s frontman on new album For The Sake Of Bethel Woods, being inspired by the theme of family, band dynamics and finding purpose in loss
If the last few years have taught us anything it’s not to take anything for granted and to appreciate all that life has to offer. During the course of our conversation with Eric Pulido of Midlake it feels like a theme that has strong relevance to the re-emergence of the band. We last heard from them in 2013 with the release of Antiphon, their fourth album but also one that effectively marked the second incarnation of Midlake, after original lead singer Tim Smith had left the band during the earlier sessions.
In the intervening years Pulido busied himself with other projects. In 2015 he headed up BNQT, an indie supergroup of sorts consisting of Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos, Ben Bridwell of Band Of Horses, Fran Healy of Travis, and Jason Lytle of Grandaddy and later in 2019 released a solo album under the name of EB The Younger.
The band reconvened in 2019 and over the next year finalised most of the songs that appear on new album For The Sake Of Bethel Woods. As Pulido explains, it feels like an album that the band have invested in on a greater personal level to before, whether it be the role of keyboardist/flautist Jesse Chandler’s father in inspiring aspects of the album, or how they wrote the song Noble about drummer McKenzie Smith’s young son. It sees them draw on certain sounds and styles that have served them well in the past, while also introducing new approaches and ideas. Overall, it’s hard not to view it as a successful return, a band re-energised and happy to be back together making music, making the most of opportunities.
How does it feel to be back after a relatively long period away? You must be excited to release the album and get back to engaging with people?
“Yeah, we recorded it a little over a year ago and obviously with everything backed up we’ve had to be patient in waiting. It’s exciting for it to get out there but cool to also hear people’s take on it. We’ve played some shows also, it’s been fun to do them. We did keep busy during this hiatus with other things. I had the solo record and did the BNQT record and started a family but it’s been cool to come back to Midlake and be more comfortable in our own skin. Interacting again with folks, notwithstanding the odd two years we’ve had, has been great and I’m hoping that returning coincides with things being more open and healthy for everyone.”
Have some of these songs existed in some form for a while or are they more recent creations?
“In the purest sense, they’re quite new in terms of lyrics and melody. There were some progressions which were floating around from before which were used. Sometimes, when doing other projects you find something that I decide is maybe more appropriate for a Midlake album so they get held back.”
It’s been almost 10 years since Antiphon was released. Has your way of writing and playing together evolved?
“There were some similarities with the way we did Antiphon but that album actually had more ideas that had already been fully written by various members of the band. On this album there are some songs that I had written and others that were based on progressions that one of the other guys had come up with and together we fleshed it out. On top of that we had an external producer for the first time, John Congleton, and he helped bring our music to another place sonically. So there were some differences but also some kinship to the past.”
How would you describe the dynamics of the band? Do you take more of a leading role or are things more collaborative?
“I definitely feel like the de facto leader and obviously in some ways I have been that for a while now but it is a very democratic process in terms of what works and what doesn’t. I think we all have distinct roles musically. We approached everything in a really balanced way on this record. Everyone in the band had a desire to reconnect and start working together again.”
Your keyboardist/flautist Jesse Chandler’s father plays quite a big role in the development of the album, both in terms of his presence at Woodstock but also in inspiring the band to get back together. Are you able to expand on that?
“Yes, Dave Chandler, he was an amazing guy. The image of him on the album cover comes from Woodstock, the 1970 documentary film. He went to the festival as a 16-year-old and the image was something we have been aware of for a while. We definitely romanticised the sense of nostalgia around that, regarding him being at Woodstock. That is such a magical, paradisal place, obviously the festival itself but also in things like how The Band wrote Music From Big Pink there. Levon Helm lived down the road from where Jesse grew up so there were other connections also. Dave sadly died a few years ago and I was moved to write the song Bethel Woods from his point of view, around the narrative of him going back to that place and imagining that he would meet again with those that he loved.”
“He came to Jesse in a dream encouraging him to get the band back together. That gave us cause just to simply embrace the gift of each other and the gift of making music together. We all have these realisations and desires and I found that quite poetic. The album and that song in particular comes from a place of loss but is also about finding and creating purpose in that. We wanted to put a positive, optimistic spin on that.”
There have been references around the theme of family and human relationships on Midlake albums in the past. Is that something you find you’re naturally attracted to writing about?
“I do think we have used that imagery in the past but I think we were a little bit more personal and literal on this album. It’s obviously there in the song about Jesse’s dad and also in the song Noble, about McKenzie’s son who unfortunately was born with a rare brain disorder. I hope people are able to connect to that concept. There are translations and meanings that someone else might hopefully find in those songs also.”
The press release talks of how “a longing to reconnect with that which seems lost sits at the record’s core”. A lot of the songs do have a warm, nostalgic feel. Where do you think that came from?
“I think there definitely has been a narrative of that nostalgia and that romantic idea of another place, looking back and the history of our band. I think that’s a natural and very human expression. It’s not to say that I don’t appreciate what I have here but I think it can be a very strong way of connecting with others.”
Tracks like Glistening and Gone, certainly the outro on the former, seem to hint at new directions. Did you do anything differently on those?
“We were trying to let the songs go where they needed to go on this album. In the past, and especially on The Courage Of Others, we had an intentionally consistent sound from song to song whereas with this record we did not want to be held back by thoughts of something ‘not being a Midlake thing to do’. With Glistening I do think with that song it went to a place that made us think ‘can we make this our own’? We actually used a drum machine on that but it felt comfortable and having played it live it takes on a spirit of its own.”
Do you have any personal favourites on the album?
“I can usually judge it by just seeing which songs are fun to play live. Listening to the album while running has helped to get it in my system rather than just rehearsing them all of the time. I’ve heard people say that Feast Of Carrion reminds people of Midlake past a little and that’s cool knowing that something new can harken back to that. The title track and Noble are for me right now the songs I feel are most poignant. We’ve been a little more transparent about those things than we have in the past. It’s important people connect with the human side of the band as well as the music”.
The reputation of your second album The Trials Of Van Occupanther seems to just grow and grow. One of the highlights of last year for me was joining in with the Listening Party on Twitter for that album. When you’re writing new music do you ever feel any pressure to live up to that album? How do you look back on it?
“That was a really cool experience to get the original five guys back together on Twitter and talk about the album. We’re all still friends. Our original singer Tim (Smith) moved to North Carolina but we still talk. Our first record, Bamnan And Slivercork, was a little under the radar so there really wasn’t a lot of pretense to make The Trials Of Van Occupanther. Of course, after the fact, you can’t help but be aware of what you’ve done but also how that could possibly confine you going forward. It’s almost like a litmus test. Sometimes an artist can be like ‘I’ve moved on’ and don’t want to think about previous albums but I have this other thing where you can have both, previous and current. I hear stories about how people have named their child Roscoe and I think ‘if you love the song Roscoe so much that you named your child after it I think that’s awesome and we’re still going to celebrate it by playing the song live’. Sixteen years later it feels like it has found its place in folklore and it’s a really special feeling.”
Finally, I just wanted to ask about your recent interaction with Ricky Gervais on Twitter. He’s a fan of the band, right? What is the background to that?
“He posted something online around the time of The Courage Of Others, maybe in response to our appearance on Later… with Jools Holland or a certain song, but I thought that was pretty cool. All these years later, he mentioned something in one of his TV programmes about Midlake. We were being playful not knowing if he was actually making a reference to us but it was fun to go back to ask him if we wanted to sing a song in one of the upcoming shows but he graciously declined. We have a lot of respect for him and think he’s a funny guy.
For The Sake Of Bethel Woods is out now on Bella Union. More information can be found at midlakeband.com