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Finding The 'Courage' Of Midlake

Midlake has been compared to acts such as Fleetwood Mac or Jethro Tull. But its harshest critics have also called it a rip-off band. Midlake's members say their music is different, and they want to prove it with their new album, The Courage of Others, which was released earlier this year.

Creating an original sound is not easy. Like virtually every band, Midlake has struggled to come up with its own. Those struggles have not gone unnoticed.

"They wear their influences on their sleeves," says Pete Freedman, music editor for the Dallas Observer. "They are really just talented mimics."

Midlake's members do not disagree.

"It's all been done before," drummer McKenzie Smith says. "More bluesy, more heavy, more weird, more classical -- it's all been done over and over again. But it's not like you are going to ask somebody who they sound like, and they say, 'Like nothing you have ever heard before... You've never even heard of it.' Maybe people haven't heard the mix of what we are doing."

Musicians aren't the only ones who fall back on well-worn riffs. Singer Tim Smith and guitarist Eric Pulido point to music critics.

"The goal is to figure it out -- to write out the equation," Pulido says. " 'Laying on the foundations of melodic jazz on top of whimsical flute progressions, and a pastiche of sound from the '70s British folk era.' Oh, he figured it out."

Something New

To keep listeners guessing, Midlake's musicians spent three years working in their Denton, Texas, studio to try and come up with something new.

"We don't have a massive studio here," McKenzie Smith says. "It's just two or three rooms; it's the home base. We rehearse here and we do record here. We rehearsed, and that was sculpting our new sound. I think there is a shift from our albums, but it didn't happen overnight, somebody saying, 'You want to change our sound? OK, let's just do it.'"

The five members of Midlake are all from Texas, so to find inspiration, they looked around them.

"Lyrically, 'Small Mountain,' it was about Polly Peak in Bandero, Texas," Tim Smith says. "I went out there to visit my parents from college and work at my dad's restaurant for the summer. It was about living a summer or two on that hill, and I picture that and those memories. It's a nice feeling for me."

Midlake kept some of its Texas influences, but still had to work to sculpt a sound that would make it stand out from the nearby Austin music scene.

"In a perfect world, you hit record and you are making magic. That wasn't the case," McKenzie Smith says. "It was fighting through a lot of layers of 'That didn't sound good' and 'We aren't jelling as a band" that we came up with [the song] 'Acts of Man.' And we thought, 'Now we have a standard. Now we can get to work.'"

A Way To Be Understood

So what did they come up with after three years?

"One long track or 11 different attempts at the same song," critic Freedman says. "Its lyrics will latch onto you. They are depressing -- they make you feel. But when you let yourself give in, they will blow you away."

That's what the members of Midlake were hoping to hear. Singer Tim Smith acknowledges that their music is a representation of their influences or whatever they're listening to, but he says it's also something that comes from them.

"It is very personal to me," Smith says. "It's great if people enjoy it, but I don't always use it as a way to communicate. Sometimes I feel misunderstood and I want to be understood. I do feel alone sometimes. Not like a guy who is going to off himself, but I do sometimes feel alone in this world."

Midlake is currently on tour for its new album. And although its message may be personal, Midlake's members still want to share it -- no matter what it sounds like.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Nate Plutzik