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Remembering The Trials of Van Occupanther


Remembering The Trials of Van Occupanther

One of the big drives in what we do as a shop is discovering new music and spreading the gospel.

Once we’ve evangelised for a while we tend to get bowled over by something else, we are after all always listening. This happens week to week, month to month and in that way for the last decade or so. It takes something pretty special to get revisited with any sort of regularity. Midlake’s 2006 album The Trials of Van Occupanther is one of those very few records, songs that most likely unbeknownst to the band, we hold as dear friends and know intimately.

Last weekend we were delighted to hear that a short number were again available on vinyl and it is another opportunity for us to introduce this old friend to a whole bunch more new friends. To celebrate we naturally set it spinning in the shop and dropped our friends at Bella Union (the bands label) a line to get their take on it. Simon Raymonde was kind enough to find a few moments to take us back to the start.

Drift: Do you remember the first time you heard The Trials of Van Occupanther? What was the story of that album coming to Bella Union?

Simon: Oh yes, I remember it like it was yesterday! The signing of Midlake to Bella Union will always be special and dear to my heart, and in many ways, and I mean no disrespect to any of the artists who came before and after this, it was the catalyst for everything good that has happened to the label since.

Curiously, I didn't even 'discover' Midlake, I have Andy Young, the incredible drummer from fellow-Denton band Lift to Experience, another pivotal Bella signing [another story for another day], to thank for the recommendation. He was friends with Mckenzie, Midlake’s drummer and connected us. The band then sent me some demos of their debut Bamnan and Slivercork, and I fell in love with them immediately. They played a show for me and we had a strong bond from the off, which continues I am delighted to say, to this very day.
Despite average sales of B and S, I had huge belief in the band and soon after their touring was done in support of the debut, we gave them a little money which they invested in some recording gear and set about creating their own studio. It would be churlish to suggest that Midlake were in any way lazy but with four lp’s in 10 years one might quite easily make that assumption. In fact quite the opposite was true! They worked SO hard, and were painstaking in their recording, so demanding of each other and individually that progress was probably quite slow but I just let them get on with it. I guess some musicians thrive on pressure and being pushed to create to a deadline but to me that is kinda alien to the creative processes I have always enjoyed. Even with Cocteau Twins, we had our slow period I guess, and despite cranking out a lot of music in the first six or so years, we inevitably slowed down, but that was more to do with shitty life stuff accompanying the fun music stuff. Robin and I, in the good days anyway, used to come in and jam around about lunchtime for an hour or so but if it wasn’t "happening" we went to a ten pin bowling alley and spent the afternoon there, then tried again the next day.

I don’t imagine Midlake did this even remotely but to return to the point I was trying long windedly to make, I was of the opinion that if they wanted to take five years to make an album, who was I to judge!? Well it didn’t take anywhere near that long and I sensed from a batch of recent emails from Eric Pulido and Mckenzie Smith, who were the two main communicators in the band, that things were getting close. Tim Smith, frontman and at the time, the key songwriter in the band, finally let me hear Roscoe which was the first tune from the record that I heard.

I think I played it 200 times in a row so excited was I about it. Eventually more tracks arrived, Young Bride, Bandits, Branches, all instant classics and we had a good feeling about the reception it might receive. I had become friendly with Jean-Daniel Beauvallet from Les Inrocks in Paris who i’d sent the original LP to and he obsessed about it just like me, so we had an immediate connection with The Trials album and I think we both knew this could be special. And in time this record became one of the best-selling albums on the label and to this day still sells really well. Every vinyl pressing we do sells out immediately. (laughing) It’s like the indie Dark Side Of The Moon!

Drift: Reading back, the critical acclaim at the time wasn’t exactly evangelical... what is it about that album that got people so engrossed?

Simon: I don’t really remember the press at all, which is (a) remarkable because I have photographic memory for bad reviews and (b) because I can’t remember a time when press wasn’t THE most important thing on launching a new LP, but I think you have a point! There is a classic west coast feel to it, that your ear automatically will be attracted to if you grew up with that kind music, CSNY, Jimmie Spheeris, etc mixed with Tim’s remarkable lyrics of building a whole new world, and yes, LITERALLY building it!

I look back and see this as one if not the first folk/rock crossover records to have broken out of the underground. The future success of Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, Beirut, etc I believe began when Midlake had managed to get a toe in the door and this LP to my mind shaped the beginnings of a new & steadily increasing audience that seemed to embrace it! What is also significant is the long lasting support of the fabulous folks at BBC6Music who took the band to their hearts from pretty much day one. As 6music grew so did Midlake and their audiences seemed to love the same music. In an age of very little loyalty it is even more remarkable that both 6Music and Midlake's audience have stayed so true to the band. It's heartening!
We are delighted to have The Trials of Van Occupanther in stock, something that we’d very much like to commit to do for the rest of our days.

This feature originally was published in the September 2014 to coincide with the album’s reissue.