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Jump In: Talking To Midlake Before Its Great American Show

After seeing Midlake open for the Flaming Lips at Noise Pop a few years back, I would have never suspected that the way-quiet, almost lo-fi indie rockers would produce one of the finest, most ambitious albums of 2010 thus far. Yet that’s just what you have with the release of the Denton, Texas, band’s new The Courage of Others (Bella Union), a tribute to and continuation of the legacy of rusticated folk-rock forebears like early Fleetwood Mac, as well as the deep drink from the ever-yielding wellspring created by ‘60s English folk revivalists like Fairport Convention. I spoke to guitarist Eric Pulido not long before the group’s headlining date at Great American Music Hall on Thursday, March 4.

Q: I’ve been enjoying the new album, and I hear it involved a lot more production than your previous records?

Eric Pulido: Well, we spent more time in the studio for sure, but most of the time was spent on trying to create something more organic and emotional. A lot of it was us spending time together and playing.

We do try to capture something -- you don’t want it to be lifeless.

Q: Why title it Courage of Others, after that particular song?

EP: That song was actually a song Tim [Smith, vocals, guitars, keyboards] had written for first album -- we were going to use it as a B-side, but we just thought it was too strong and thought we should save it for the next album. Between then and now we decided there was a lot of strength in that title. Especially considering our past titles [2004’s Bamnan and Silvercork and 2006’s The Trials of Van Occupanther]! We thought the record label would appreciate it if we had something that wasn't a made-up word.

As far as the lyrical content goes, Tim is the lyricist, so it’s something coming from him, but something I can relate to -- you look to other people and think, man, I wish I had the courage of that person. You know, the grass is always greener.

Q: Are there other musicians you feel that way about?

EP: Sure, it’s quite  natural, I think, for people to look to a guitarist or singer and say, “Man, I wish I could do that.”

Q: Are we talking about Prince here?

EP: [Chuckles] Courage-wise, not necessarily -- musically, yeah. John Renbourn and Bert Jansch in Pentangle. I wish I could play like that -- or Robbie Robertson from the Band. Or you look at your own family, like my dad, and think of how good of a father or husband he might be ...



Q: Going back to the album, how did the band develop the songs?

EP: We did do some songs where we just got around in a room, just playing something together, and Tim would kind of take that and create a song out of it. But most of the time he would kind of come up with a progression and melody -- he does the lyrics last, so there would be some mumbling or another song or a poem would be the lyrical content at that point. He would say, “Here’s the basic song so let’s jam over this.” And we sit around and maybe have a mic up, so if you do something cool he can say, “Let’s do that every time.” It’s varied. You felt like you always go back to the drawing board and try everything for each song to come together. We tried everything to reach that intangible emotion or sound.

Q: What’s slated for the upcoming show?

EP: The setup’s changed a little bit -- we used to be more keyboard-heavy, and we traded that in for a guitar focus. We added a couple guys to the fold who played a little more on the record -- one guy is playing keyboards and flute. I think it’s the strongest we’ve ever been live and the songs feel more powerful.

Q: And British folk revival bands had a huge impact on that album?

EP: Of course, especially bands like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span and Pentangle -- the ones at that epitome of British folk. It was really new to us -- I knew Fairport and Richard Thompson and some of the bigger bands that touched on British folk like Led Zeppelin. And then you go down these side projects like Sandy Denny’s bands, like Fotheringay, so it was like being a kid in a candy store for us. All this stuff at one time! We’d just listen to it in heavy rotation and listen to it all the time -- it was something we were inspired by. But we weren’t trying to make the same album in a pastiche way -- you try to interpret it in whatever voice you have.

Q: What’s it like in Denton, Texas? It seems a far way from England.

EP: It’s just north of Dallas-Fort Worth area -- it’s 120,000 in population, but it’s a very artistic type of community. University of North Texas has a great music program that all the Midlake guys went through. It just creates lends itself to a lot of people staying in Denton if they went to the school and want to continue making music. It’s a community with a small-town vibe, but it’s not like you’re in the middle of nowhere.



Q: What are your thoughts on the current folk revival of sorts going on in the indie scene?

EP: We get asked about it with bands like Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver and Grizzly Bear and if we feel akin to that in that music. We never thought about it that way. A lot of bands think about it the same way -- the thing is a lot of us are pulling from the similar era of music, and if you’re going to pull from the greatest era of music of all time, it’s probably going to be similar. It’s always an era that people go back to and look for influence.

Q: What are you listening to now?

EP: I really love a band called Amazing Blondel -- it’s from the same [British folk revival] era. My favorite album is Mulgrave Street [DJM, 1974].

I love Cat Stevens.

Bert Jansch -- a lot of his solo guitar stuff. I’ve been trying to poorly learn how to play it but that stuff sounds great.

The Band -- I could listen to their first two record a million times.

Let’s see ... Lady Gaga -- no, hah! I’d like to say, John Grant -- he has a record, Queen of Denmark, coming out on Bella Union and he did it in Denton, our hometown. It’s a great album -- it’s all him but we play on it. We’re kind of his backing band though we didn’t write the album.

Midlake performs Thursday, March 4, 9 p.m., at Great American Music Hall, 859 O’Farrell, SF. Matthew and the Arrogant Sea open. $16-$18. (415) 885-0750, www.gamh.com