Record Overplayed
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Paul Smith interview | 20/12/14

Frozen by Sight

Interview by Dawn | Photos by Rich

Northern music men Peter Brewis and Paul Smith are most widely known for their roles in Field Music and Maxїmo Park respectively. This evening, however, they have stopped off to perform songs from their new, joint venture at the Sage in Gateshead – which is where I caught up with my fellow Teessider, Paul, to find out more.

With its string quartet and laconic lyrics, their Frozen by Sight album is a world away from the sublime, spiky guitars and barked Billingham vowels we've come to know and love from Paul's other band. It's also stirring, intriguing and absolutely beautiful – a whimsical alternative travelogue within which Peter's string scores transform Paul's everyday observations into an album full of musical photographs. And if you think that sounds a little pretentious, rest assured that the pair didn't take themselves too seriously whilst making the record. Similarly, their live performance is peppered with glimpses of Paul's self-deprecating humour, references to the 'Crude Tarmac Trio' on backing harmonies during Perth to Bunbury, and entertaining anecdotes from him and the brothers Brewis. Far from being dry or inaccessible, Frozen by Sight is the sound of two accomplished musicians simply doing what they love and making the music which comes naturally to them – and, both on record and onstage, it's glorious.

The album begins and ends in the pair's native North East, starting in Newcastle (Old Odeon) and finishing in Sunderland (St Peter's) – a deliberate move, says Paul:

'When you come to decide the track order there's always a lot of musical ideas that come to the forefront.  You don't want it to sound jarring from one moment to the next. And Old Odeon felt like the right way to open the record anyway. So once it started in Newcastle then I thought, well, St Peter's is a good ending. But it also felt like a good musical end. So in a way, yes it's kind of designed but also if the songs hadn't fitted they would have probably been in a different order. So it worked out quite nicely. Sometimes you think to yourself, "well, I've written these words that are to do with lots of far off places; I don't want people to think that it's somebody swanning around and bragging about where they've been" or some nonsense like that, and it's not. It's certainly not "wish you were here" travel writing. It's more just, I happened to be in those places, and maybe because I was in those places I was aware of my environment a little bit more. You know, people doing their job, or the things that you see on the road out of the window in something like Perth to Bunbury - "wow, there's a Welsh flag and we're in the west of Australia", and just little things that pop out at you.

'But it's nice to have the record start and finish in the North East because it was made here and the places that are mentioned are equally valid as subjects for a song. It's always been my intention to describe the world that I see and my emotional world - in Maxїmo Park more so than this. In some ways you think to yourself when you're listening to a Lou Reed record, "oh New York's cool", or Patti Smith and you're like, "oh yeah right, that's cool". People describe other places in the world and you think, "well where I live's nice and strange things happen there" and there are interesting landscapes and interesting relationships that you have. So it was always my intention to represent what I knew, and sometimes that extends to further afield things because I've managed to tour the world with Maxїmo Park. I feel lucky to have seen those places, so I always go a little bit beforehand to some of the further flung places just to have a few days by myself and absorb myself in a different place - but I try and do that here as well.'

There's an amusing contrast between the concise, staccato lyrics on Frozen by Sight and Paul's endearing ability to talk passionately on almost any subject whilst barely stopping to take a breath. Mentioning the track Trevone, for instance, leads him to enthuse about the beauty of Cornwall and, indeed, Britain in general.

'I was driving back from Bristol to Manchester the other day and was looking at the Cotswolds,' he says. 'I stayed at a hotel in Tewkesbury and I thought, "wow, it would be cool to come here for a little holiday and go to little towns and go for walks in the hills". I'm a city person really – a city dweller - and I'm interested in spaces where the city and the countryside meet, but I also think maybe one day I'll get into kind of rambling - not necessarily in a Countryfile way!' he laughs. 'One day I'll do that but I'm just kind of drawn to other places. I was thinking, "oh this is beautiful" and yeah it's true, that's how I felt about Cornwall. I've only been once and I think I was there for a week, stayed in a little cottage and it was really nice and it was sunny some days and some days it was pouring down. Wimbledon was on, and Glastonbury, so I remember watching those. But yeah, it's a beautiful place and it does feel like you're in another world.
And the North East has its own charms and its own rugged coastline and industrial aspects to it that pepper the landscape, and that's a very different kind of vibe, but going somewhere like St Ives and looking at Barbara Hepworth's house… going to the Tate in St Ives and knowing there's an artistic community that's been there is really interesting to me and obviously you feel inspired in those places. I have that same inspiration when I walk around Newcastle, or when I go to the Hatton Gallery and I'm like "Bryan Ferry used to come here" or "Richard Hamilton used to teach at this place" – the kind of godfather of pop art in Britain. And you think to yourself, "well I'm inspired now" and so you can find those moments of inspiration in so many different places.

'I went to Sydney for a week before my birthday – it was my birthday when we played in Melbourne – and we played in a place where the Go-Betweens had played. And I love the Go-Betweens and I've got this DVD of them playing the same place and it was really cool just to be playing in this venue that I'd seen on my DVD. And I spent a few days just wandering around Sydney and looking at different things and… I just walk really and don't really think too much about maps, you know? I like to keep an eye on where I am in case I die, falling off a cliff or going into the wrong neighbourhood – anything like that,' he laughs. 'You know, you try and keep an eye on where you are and if there's some things that you feel you must see then I don't dismiss those as tourist attractions. It's like I wanna go to those places too, but I like the idea of finding your own way around a city and being drawn in by kind of your own markers and symbols when you're on the road -just going, "yeah that's the street I'm going to walk down, it looks really interesting". And sometimes it's not very interesting, but following your own nose is a very important part of travelling really.'

Bringing our conversation back to the North East, tonight is the third and final show of a small tour to test the water with songs from a project which, fittingly, first came about for the Sage's Festival of the North East back in 2013 – and Paul is both a big supporter and frequent visitor of the prestigious Gateshead venue which is now celebrating its tenth birthday.

'It's an amazing building,' he says. 'It attracts some of the best musicians from around the world, both classical and contemporary. Two of my favourite gigs of this year have been Bill Callahan here in Hall Two – one of my musical heroes – and Television - reformed and playing face-melting guitar solos in Hall One. And for me to play on the same stage as people I admire and come to see all the time, it's quite nice. Maxїmo Park played here on the first weekend. We kind of opened the place with 'acoustic testing gigs', so it was full audience but it wasn't open officially - people had free tickets to come - so we played in Hall One and Hall Two on the same day. So we've been part of it since the very beginning and that was great to be included before we had an album out. Since then we've just had links with the place. I played here on my solo tour and we played Frozen by Sight for the first time here last year, so we're back and we'll hopefully be better than we were last time because we've played it two times more.' He smiles. 'We'll see about that.'

Huge thanks to Paul. Thanks also to Matthew, John, David and Rebecca. For more details on Frozen by Sight visit www.frozenbysight.co.uk.

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