Paul Smith

Maximo Park's Paul Smith spills the beans on Frozen by Sight - his innovative collaboration with Peter Brewis.

Anita Awbi
  • By Anita Awbi
  • 16 Jan 2015
  • min read
Indie stalwarts Paul Smith and Peter Brewis have been expanding the boundaries of melodic indie for over a decade in their respective bands Maximo Park and Field Music - so their first official collaboration was bound to be unusual.

Their debut album together, Frozen by Sight, draws inspiration from their collective experiences in the North East's tight knit post-millennial music scene - but also digs deeper into the recesses of their musical brains to pull on melodic memories and forgotten aural experiments.

For the work, the two Mercury Prize nominees chose to concentrate on the text from Paul’s travel journals, combining its natural rhythms with chamber band arrangements for guitar and string quartet.

They first performed it at the inaugural Festival of the North East in spring 2013, before recording the album at the Field Music studio in Sunderland with David Brewis, Peter's brother, as co-producer.

The finished result, released late last year, is an elegiac musical essay that combines their familiar indie templates with a modern classical aesthetic.

Here, we chat to Paul to find out more about its creation…

You’ve known Peter for a while – how did the Frozen by Sight project come about?
We met each other about 12 years ago when both of our bands were playing in pubs in Newcastle. We actually shared a drummer – Tom from Maximo Park played with Field Music and played on a couple of tracks on their debut album. At that point the North East had a cross-pollinating music scene. We’ve chatted about wanting to do something together for a while, but it had only ever been pub conversations because both of our bands took up so much time.

We were commissioned by Festival of the North East, which crossed the whole region and tried to get different types of creativities into the public eye. I was an artistic director, advising about pop music aspects, and they asked if there was anything I wanted to do that I haven’t been able to before.

I understand it was based around your travel writing – can you tell me more?
I like to be engaged by my surroundings. Because I’m in a band that tours worldwide, I have a constantly shifting landscape to deal with. Sometimes I see people in touring bands sleeping a lot and staying out all night. I do that a bit, but I always get up in the mornings to see the places I’m in. It’s been my routine since day one in the band. So, I’d be doing little notes and diary entries for the Maximo Park website since the early days, and they were getting increasingly abstract. I didn’t know what to do with them, or what they were, but I wanted to see if Peter would be up for arranged something for a string ensemble to see if maybe that would fit.
I love the sound of the string quartets on my favourite sixties’ records – like Nico doing Jackson Browne’s These Days on her Chelsea Girls album...

Why the string quartet?
We’d been given a budget, so I thought to myself, ‘What have I been wanting to do for a while that’s perhaps out of my budget’ – and working with classical string players was one of those things. Peter wanted to do it as well – we were keen to move away from the traditional rock ‘n’ roll format for this commission.

What has it been like working with them?
It was a very different sonic approach and it felt like new territory. It was a fresh start to making music. We had this whole new palette to work with and there were endless possibilities. I love the sound of the string quartets on my favourite sixties’ records – like Nico doing Jackson Browne’s These Days on her Chelsea Girls album. The chamber arrangement was very tightly done, not too grand and orchestral, but still touching on a different world. Obviously there are the string arrangements by Robert Kirby on Nick Drake’s stuff. As I was growing up, those songs provided a very accessible entry point to more classical arrangements. It’s a different musical vocabulary.

I very quickly put together some music on guitar to go with my travel words. We decided that each piece of music would reflect a place or a scene from each particular place. Peter came round my house and we played each other a few records to get us in the mood.

Who did what?
We started sending bits of music back and forth – it was a fruitful time. Peter would arrange strings and eventually a small ensemble including tuned percussion, his brother David on drums, John Pope on double bass. We let the words drive the music, hoping for some unconventional song structures, rather than the odd pop format we were both used to.

How do you think Frozen by Sight differs from your other musical exploits?
With the band there’s a lot of descriptive stuff within our songs, which provides a link to Frozen by Sight, but what I’m doing now is more detached. It’s me observing rather than getting emotionally involved. Maximo Park songs are definitely more emotionally driven. We have a loose ethos that we take from album to album and evolve, but it’s part of the band. Outside the band, you can’t help but develop new blueprints for working. Myself and Peter both decided with this project that we wouldn’t be bound by any conventional or familiar structures. Anything goes.

How was it recorded?
I’m very limited in what I can do musically – I don’t play guitar to a high standard, I just have my own way of doing things. I really wasn’t sure how it would work. I would send something over that was very fragile and minimal, and he would enhance it. Peter would essentially arrange strings for the music and sometimes bookend the songs with a new compositional element. And the process would work vice versa.

Main photo: Andy Martin