“I want to continue to evolve, and that evolution is not a regular graph, which makes it very difficult to establish my stuff under any sort of brand, which I don’t mind. Peter and I could have both made similar-sounding records by ourselves for eternity and have quite a hefty bank balance, but it was never of interest to us, and I suppose that’s why you find yourself in a pub talking to me and Peter now: because collaboration so often feels like the next thing to do.” – Paul Smith of Maximo Park
The artist collaboration is more prevalent now than at any time in pop’s 60-odd year history. Each weekly scan of the top forty shows up a greater number of “featurings” and ampersands, and even away from the charts, interband cross-pollination is no longer the rarity it was twenty years ago, fetishised like some indie equivalent of Fantasy Football. Of course, the modern digital world has allowed ideas to be shared at speeds and across distances that make time and geography virtually irrelevant, but is there something other than convenience that feeds into successful, interesting collaboration? Does it keep individual musicians on their toes, keep bands more harmonious and the average listener playlist a more interesting place? I sat around a table with Paul Smith from Maximo Park and Field Music’s Peter Brewis, themselves collaborators on the wonderful curio ‘Frozen By Sight’, which pairs Smith’s travel writing with Brewis’ idiosyncratic arrangements, to discuss what makes collaborations fun, fruitful and fundamental to artistic progress.
Sam Walton: What do you both think makes for a successful or satisfying collaboration?
Paul Smith: Well, setting out quite strict parameters helped us, and I think that’s important. I asked Peter initially, ‘I’ve got these words – have you got any music that you want to use for something? Are you happy with me putting these funny words on top?’ And then he sent me things that instantly I was drawn to – really interesting, challenging pieces of music, but still distinctive Peter Brewis compositions – and I just fitted words to it.
Peter Brewis: That sounds about right. It was commissioned to be a live performance, though, so we had to decide on the performance parameters too. So I basically went round to your house one day, didn’t I, and by the end of that day we’d decided on tuned percussion, strings, a guitar and that’s it, and that on each song we’d try and give each element of the ensemble a feature.
PS: … And that structure was important. It was important also to have the opportunity to do something different. Like, another parameter from the start here was that we weren’t going to change the words, because when I’m in Maximo Park the words are fluid – they have to change to the structure of the song, and rhyming and being catchy is part of what we do. But with this, it was quite a different challenge: it was how to fit the music around the words a lot of the time…
PB: … Which worked because I didn’t have anything really at that stage. As I remember it, the process went, ‘shall we do something?’ Then, ‘yes, we should do something.’ And one of the satisfying things was that we could agree what we were going for from the start because we’ve known each other for a long time and know each other’s tastes…
PS: …Which overlap quite well, which was good.
PB: Yeah they overlap in various places. It was either the semi-orchestral chamber folk pop thing that we do or it was just going to be a straight-up blues band.
PS: Oh yeah, I forgot about that idea. Thing is, we have talked about doing that – in jest, but also, ‘actually, let’s make a blues record’…
[There follows an earnest and amusing discussion in praise of Free’s ‘Fire & Water’ album]
SW: How does collaborating individually, with another individual, differ from being in a band? Do you feel a bit like you’re cheating on your bandmates?
PS: Well, in Maximo Park we have a very open relationship! You hear of bands splitting up and I can’t really see the point unless there’s some ego problem, especially when there’s a prime opportunity to collaborate with somebody who you respect, who you think could enhance what you’re doing. And in terms of how it differed from working with the band – it was easier, because there’s only one other person!
PB: It’s slightly different for me, because when me and Dave [Peter’s brother] do Field Music, we try and change each other’s songs to suit what we want to do with the records, so there’s always a slight tension there. But with this, because we didn’t know what we were doing, it was an easier collaboration. It was definitely seen as an experiment: we took your lyrics and used them to dictate the structure of everything…
PS: …Which again is quite different for me – I’m very used to constant refining until you feel like you’ve got this recognisable pop song.
SW: Do you think collaborations will affect how you make future music with your parent bands?
PB: I hope so. Even if it’s just a reaction against it, there will be things that we’ve done during ‘Frozen By Sight’ that you can’t unlearn, things that we’ve tried and have worked. Musically there are lots of things that I’ll pick up and take to a new environment.
PS: Yeah, I agree. And a collaboration like this sets you up to do more things in this vein, as people are now prepared for it, meaning that I can scratch lots of different, weirder musical itches outside of Maximo Park instead. And you’re right about reacting against it, too: I want each record I make to be quite different from the next one, but with a group the changes are always subtle because it’s five people pulling together, finding the intersection of the Venn diagram where we all agree, asking, ‘how can we pull this along and evolve, and not destroy somebody’s idea of what the band is?’ But with collaborations like this, you can get stuff out of your system. You can go, ‘right, I’ve done that now, what next?’. I feel that doing things like this opens a lot of doors.
For example, you probably won’t be able to hear anything off ‘Frozen By Sight’ in the next Maximo Park album, because in a way, doing this was an outlet: I will always feel like a pretty emotional kind of person, and I will always be quite extroverted in some ways that I can get out by performing with the band. But I can also feel quite introverted sometimes, and want to describe the world and not necessarily be that emotional, and at those times it’s perfect that I can do something more like this.
SW: Is there any way that you feel you missed out on something else by collaborating?
PS: Well I’m sure a few people will listen to ‘Frozen By Sight’ and go, ‘oh god these guys have lost it!’. I mean, we were talking in the car on the way down here and David [Brewis, who’s playing in the ‘Frozen By Sight’ touring band] read out this French review and it said, ‘it doesn’t sound like Maximo Park, and it doesn’t sound like Field Music, so what’s the point?’ But what can we do about that? Nothing! Then again, I don’t much want to anyway.
PB: Exactly. I mean, on the one hand it’s an understandable complaint, but then again that’s why you have band names – as brands – so then when it’s just this guy and this other guy, there’s nothing to harm, and it can only be something to have a stab at. I don’t feel awkward about having a stab at things, and having a stab is one thing that’s more difficult as a collective than as an individual: it gets cumulatively harder the more people you have in your band to convince everyone else to venture away from a path.
SW: Do you think being from the same part of the world makes collaboration easier?
PS: Perhaps, but it would be hard to gauge why. I guess Peter and I come from fairly similar backgrounds – working-class parents but suburban upbringing where we’ve both been encouraged to do what we want, in terms of our temperament – and geography probably helps there.
PB: One thing I would say about where we live though is that there’s a very good support network of people who will help each other realise their visions or goals, so that you don’t have to compromise: you can do the thing that you want to do, and everyone will all help out. You always know that there are people around in Sunderland and Newcastle that might be able to help you with stuff – we’re always in debt to people doing us favours, and vice versa.
SW: Why this collaboration now? Did ‘Frozen By Sight’ feel like something that was always going to happen, given that you’ve known each other for so long?
PB: We have talked about it for about ten years, doing something…
PS: … And actually we did one little thing ages ago, didn’t we – that art exhibition in a house, where we did some harmonies and sang some songs. But in terms of a full-blown collaboration, we’ve both been very busy, and very focussed on what we were doing, and in some ways I think it’s good to establish yourself. I think that’s something that I always wanted to do – to be able to say, ‘right, well I’ve done that now, Maximo Park feels like it’s solid, and I can always come back to that’, whereas if we’d have done something earlier on, it might’ve thrown a spanner in the works.
PB: That’s true. It’s almost like the bands are our foundations and need to be solid first. I mean, I wouldn’t have been able to do anything like this ten years ago – I wouldn’t have had the knowledge or the confidence to do something musically like this. On that level, a lot of good collaboration is about timing, about getting to a point where you’ve amassed knowledge and experience and different ways of solving little problems.
SW: So now you’ve timed it right, is this going to be a one-off collaboration?
PB: It’s hard to tell – the next time we get around to doing anything together it’ll probably be another ten years or something. Or maybe not. But if we do do something else, it’ll be completely different.
PS: But it does feel like the beginning of something, maybe…
PB: … Felt like a one-night stand to me mate – we’re never going to see each other again.
PS: Oh no! I can’t believe that. I got a tattoo and everything.
PB: Scribble it out.
PS: But I know what you mean though – it does feel complete, like there doesn’t feel like anything extra to it that we want to do. So in one sense, that’s good and it puts a lid on it, and you can move on to the next thing. Having said that, I’ve discovered that I like writing like this, and writing descriptive things, and so to do another twelve songs, or two or three really long songs – I don’t rule anything out. It just comes down to whatever feels right.
PB: I think as long as we have a set of very simple rules again, like we had for this one – the words are going to stay the way they are, and we’re going to have this given set of instruments – then I feel we can do anything collaboratively.