Dear Bella Union and readers,
Thank you for this honor of letting us put our words and thoughts on your blog. As we’re writing, we are in our black tour van, on the highway a little outside of Hamburg on our way to a gig in Cologne. The sun is burning from a clear sky and it seems summer has decided to do a quick return before finally giving in to the fall. We’ve just played Frank Ocean’s new Blond album through twice, and now on to Leonard Cohen’s Ten New Songs.
We’ve decided to give this article the focus songs we wish we’d written. You know, songs, that when you hear them you are hit with that ambiguous feeling of extreme excitement and frustration. The excitement of discovering (or rediscovering) what music can do and how it can keep on renewing its language, and then there’s the frustration of not feeling like a competent artist: Why didn’t I think of that phrase? Why didn’t I pick that noise sample? How can she sing something that simple and cut straight through my heart like that? That frustration is however what somehow keeps us on the constant search for originality in what we do.
(The stereo is now playing By Your Side by Sade, btw)
As a band we often get questions like “who are your musical inspirations?” or “who is your favorite artist?”. Basically we get questions that are often targeted as if we were one organism and very often we have to have a fairly long negotiation session before being able to answer them. We come from different backgrounds and have been shaped musically in very different ways, so it is impossible for us to answer like one organism. Or the answer if truthful would be a good fusion…
Anyways, back to our quest of making this list of songs we’d like to have written. We decided to pick two songs each (not that it made it a lot easier, we had internal negotiations for weeks) and describe them individually. We’ve come to the conclusion, though, that it has to be an ongoing list that we will update regularly, otherwise it was simply too hard to boil it down.
(we’ve just passed a sign to Heide Park resort, the A/C is on full power and PJ Harvey and Thom Yorke are chanting “aaahhh this mess we’re in”.)
Tim Buckley: Song To The Siren, sung by Elizabeth Fraser This Mortal Coil [listen]
When I heard this song the first time, I literally had to sit down for it and comprehend what was going on in my ears. I found Tim Buckley’s version, which aurally didn’t really speak to me, and I am in awe of the way Fraser took on the song and changed it. Her tone and insisting tails on each phrase is so original and inspiring. To me, it balances on the verge of something uncomfortable because it is so intrusive on the soul.
Also kudos to Buckley for these lyrics. I would have liked to have come up with the adjective shipless to describe an empty ocean, or the references to the Oddyse, the riddled tide.. yeah, all just really gracefully written.
Etheridge Knight: Feeling fucked up. [listen]
My next thing I would have liked to have written is a poem by Etheridge Knight. it was hard to pick just one of his poems, they’re all sick. The way he describes love as something clumsy and inelegant but yet completely essential for his existence is very relatable and freeing I think. His poems are often a tribute to women, which is great. He is able to level big existential thoughts and metaphors next to something completely banal, which makes his poems extremely relatable and strong. Go look for recordings of him, the way he recites his poems is music.
Lord she’s gone done left me done packed / up and split
and I with no way to make her
come back and everywhere the world is bare
bright bone white crystal sand glistens
dope death dead dying and jiving drove
her away made her take her laughter and her smiles
and her softness and her midnight sighs—
Fuck Coltrane and music and clouds drifting in the sky
fuck the sea and trees and the sky and birds
and alligators and all the animals that roam the earth
fuck marx and mao fuck fidel and nkrumah and
democracy and communism fuck smack and pot
and red ripe tomatoes fuck joseph fuck mary fuck
god jesus and all the disciples fuck fanon nixon
and malcolm fuck the revolution fuck freedom fuck
the whole muthafucking thing
all i want now is my woman back
so my soul can sing
Asha Bhosle: Dil Cheez Kya Hai [listen]
This hauntingly beautiful Bollywood tune truly is a song that I could never have written, because of my scandinavian heritage… Asha Bhosle is an Indian playback singer, whose voice is featured in over a thousand movies. I’m stunned by the way Indian music, both folk, popular and classical, deals with melody and rhythm. I love everything about this song. The vocal sound and delay effect (I don’t know, but I guess it’s from the sixties), the uplifting melody, her phrasings, the string themes that are different every time they appear. A story (whose words I don’t understand) told in a calm, continuously floating musical universe.
Radiohead: Pyramid Song [listen]
This song has meant a lot to me, musically and emotionally. In my world, Radiohead has always been the main contemporary source of inspiration; a curious, humble, avantgardistic yet historically anchored unit. The chord progressions give the simple melody so much character. The string arrangement is just out of this world, both the clustery flashiolettes in the beginning and the grandiose unisons later in the song. The dreamy lyrics melt together with the instrumental landshapes. It’s sensitive and fragile music that’s still iconic and monumental, a balance i think Radiohead keeps being very good at finding on every album since Amnesiac.
Thelonious Monk: ‘Round Midnight [listen]
I’ve always had a more or less secret wish to be a jazz pianist. And if it could take place in the fifties or sixties, the wish would be complete. Monk was – in my opinion – probably the best, and I think ‘Round Midnight is fantastic. Especially in a shady, dusty solo version, and there are new things to discover with every listen.
Gilbert O’Sullivan: Alone Again (Naturally) [listen]
This song is one of the all time greats for me. Imagine rainy Sunday afternoon and this would be the perfect soundtrack. It’s kind of a mixture between Beach Boys, Beatles and Burt Bacharach both harmonically and melodically, and I it’s one of those songs, that sound incredibly simple, but where you keep discovering small, amazing details every time you hear it.
Bright Eyes: Gold Mine Gutted [listen]
Second song on the album Digital Ash In A Digital Urn released along with the album I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning – a truly schizophrenic release, the two albums being each others counterparts in sound and songwriting. The whole album just makes me cry over and over again. So filled with emotion and, like with much of Conor Oberst’s music, it’s almost too much. In a really good way. So many beautiful fragmented thoughts and emotions.
The War On Drugs: Red Eyes [listen]
From the album Lost In The Dream, this song has been following me since it was released in 2013. I remember listening it to it for the first time and just being completely blown away by Adam Granduciel’s ability to write such a beautiful melody on top of a really straight forward beat. It made me wanna go write new songs immediately. And at the same time it made me wanna go buy a motorcycle and cruise down the west coast of Jutland. BTW check out Alice Boman’s beautiful cover of this song on Soundcloud. Wow.
Xiu Xiu: I luv the valley OH! [listen]
This song has the perfect portion of anarchy. Honestly it was very hard for me to choose which Xiu Xiu song to put on the list, because the sound of the band and their embrace of noise provides an extra element to the songs, this is what convinces me that the music is made by human beings and that is why I love it.
When Saints Go Machine: Yard Heads [listen]
There is something about this song that makes me both happy and sad at the same time, the arrangement is awesomely simple and as much as I hate myself for not being the one who came up with that chorus, I always take in an extra scoop of air when it comes on.
You can find the list on spotify (link), please subscribe so you’ll get to hear all the future songs we wish we’d written. It never ends.
This Autumn Midlake will celebrate the 10th anniversary of The Trials of Van Occupanther with a deluxe reissue via Bella Union on 180g gold vinyl, complete with a B2 pull-out poster, handwritten lyrics and previously unseen photos. The cover artwork has been reimagined in a fittingly flushed, hallucinatory painting by neo-impressionist (and pavement-scorching skateboarder) Brian Lotti. The original album will be accompanied by a special bonus 7” featuring two previously unreleased tracks, the plaintive rolling lament of “The Fairest Way” and the revelatory psychedelic swirl of “Festival”, two tracks recorded before original vocalist Tim Smith departed the band.
In 2006, Van Occupanther was hailed as an instant classic and over the course of the next year proved to be the band’s commercial breakthrough. While their debut, 2004’s Bamnan and Slivercork, had drawn acclaim alongside comparisons to Grandaddy and Radiohead, Midlake looked further afield and deeper within for the follow-up. Suffused with a romantic yearning for the simpler life, this was a record pitched between 1871, 1971 and somewhere out of time: between Henry David Thoreau and Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush, between 1970s Laurel Canyon thinking and a longing for something more mysterious. Rich reserves of wistful melody, dreamy horns, rolling guitars and plaintive pianos reflect its elusive, idiosyncratic narratives: a couple long to be robbed by bandits so they can start anew, an outcast scientist ponders his pariah status, a woman chases a frisky deer, a river leads who knows where yet leaves you little choice but to follow…
Famous admirers included Thom Yorke, Beck, The Flaming Lips, Paul Weller, James Dean Bradfield, St Vincent, actor/skateboarder Jason Lee and The Chemical Brothers, and the album went on to secure high placings in the end-of-year polls. Since then, their influence has perhaps been felt in the breakthrough of many a band or singer at one with the stuff of beards, bucolic yearning and blissful West Coast harmonies, from Fleet Foxes to Band of Horses, The Low Anthem, Jonathan Wilson, Matthew E White and beyond.
Not that Midlake stood still to lap up the praise: a band acutely attuned to nature’s shifts, they embraced change. In 2010 they ventured into darker psych-folk thickets for The Courage of Others and backed John Grant on his celebrated breakthrough album, Queen of Denmark. When Tim Smith subsequently departed, guitarist/singer Eric Pulido stepped up to the lead vocal role for 2013’s freshly exploratory Antiphon. Since then, Pulido and various Midlake members have embarked on a new musical project with a cast of all-stars including members of Grandaddy, Franz Ferdinand, Band of Horses and Travis, for an album due for release next year. All of this serves to reminds us what fertile seeds were sown with The Trials of Van Occupanther: a modern classic, made of vintage craft and timeless magic.
The Trials of Van Occupanther (10th Anniversary Deluxe Reissue) will be released 28th October via Bella Union.