The morning after his father’s funeral in upstate New York, Midlake keyboardist Jesse Chandler rose early and made a “pilgrimage” to the great, wind-swept pasture that decades earlier had hosted Woodstock. As he walked the springing turf, he thought about his father de el, imagining how 16-year-old Dave Chandler must have felt as he arrived at the music festival in August 1969. How he watched the hippy dream catalyze over the course of an evening of epoch-defining rock ‘n’ roll. He wanted to cry, but he found himself smiling, too.
“He must have gotten pretty close to the stage, because he’s in quite a few of the shots in the film [a 1970s Woodstock concert movie],” says Chandler, from Midlake’s base in Denton, Texas, as the vintage-rock six-piece prepare to release a long-awaited fifth album, For The Sake of Bethel Woods. “He used to talk about how he and his friend of him were boxed in because there were so many people.”
Chandler’s father, who was 65, died in October 2018 when a Grand Cherokee jeep slammed into him in a Walmart car park near Bethel, the upstate New York town that had hosted Woodstock, and to where he had returned to work, live and raise his Familia. Eighteen months later, with Jesse still deep in the trenches of grief, his father appeared in a dream and expressed to him the hope that Midlake re-emerged from the hiatus they’d been on since 2014.
“We were in my old house that I grew up in Woodstock. He was just sort of there. The pandemic had started. I was talking to him about it. And he said something along the lines of, ‘You guys are all still there [in Denton]…why aren’t you playing music together?’”
Midlake, who knocked on the door of success with their dark, dreamy and very Fleetwood Mac-like 2006 hit The Trials Of Van Occupanther, had never officially broken up and remained on friendly terms. But they had yet to recover entirely from the exhausting experience of making their 2013 LP. Antiphon. The November prior to its release, original frontman Tim Smith suddenly and without explanation quit (he would later tell journalists the rest of the group could not accommodate his zeal for perfectionism). Shortly afterwards, Smith and his wife divorced and he moved back in with his parents. For everyone in his orbit, it was a challenging time.
Blind-sided by the departure, his now ex-bandmates scrapped the songs they’d sketched out with Smith. Instead, over the space of a few months, they assembled Antiphon from scratch. It was well received (the independent praised its “luminosity” and “spirit of open possibility”). Nonetheless, the drama had left the musicians spiritually and physically drained. They were happy to take time away. Until Chandler shared his vision of his father with him. It was the impetus they needed to return to the studio.
For The Sake of Bethel Woods was recorded with St Vincent producer John Congleton at his Elmwood Studio complex in Dallas. Forged in grief and brimming with the wintry Americana and 1970s-style soft rock that are Midlake signatures, it’s a fitting tribute to Dave Chandler – that’s his image on the sleeve, taken at Woodstock in 1969. It is, in addition, a statement of defiance by an outfit that once appeared poised for Arcade Fire-scale hugeness – and whose esoteric indie-folk arguably blazed a trail for fellow alt-folkies Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver.
Bethel Woods Chandler takes as its starting point the pain felt following his father’s death. From there it expands, says Eric Pulido, the Midlake guitarist who stepped in as lead singer in the wake of Smith’s departure, into a meditation on the suffering the entire world went through during the pandemic. You can hear that ache in the gilded melancholia of “Meanwhile” (“I fell to my knees/Crying don’t еver leave…). And in the baroque “Feast Of Carrion”, with its Wicker Man-like folk-horror views (“on we’ll go to the feast of Carrion”) against a wall of catchy Neil Young-esque folk-rock.
“There was a big, overarching theme of loss and of finding purpose or creating purpose. That was something that was very palpable to the band and, obviously, to people around the world,” says Pulido. “Those were the things that lyrically drove a lot of the songs.”
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As the new album took shape, Midlake marked a significant anniversary. Summer 2021 was the 15th “birthday” of The Trials of Van Occupanthera low-key masterpiece with autumn in its bones and with the bittersweet shimmer of Seventies classic rock dripping from its pores.
Tapping influences such as Crosby, Stills and Nash and rumors-was Fleetwood Mac – long before the Mac revival made it fashionable to do so – the record had an irresistible vintage vinyl glimmer. It was also deeply mysterious. Who was Van Occupanther? And what about those two enigmatic masked figures on the sleeve?
Critics tripped over themselves to hail the project an instant classic. rolling stone named single “Roscoe” one of the 100 greatest songs of the 2000s; the NME declared that, simply by existing, The Trials of Von Occupanther “makes the world seem a better place”. In the UK alone it somehow sold 60,000 copies at a time when album sales were in free-fall due to file sharing.
But if Midlake sounded like a band ready to conquer the world, behind the scenes the story was more complex. Smith, who had formed the group while studying jazz at the University of North Texas in Denton in 1999, was an outsider cut from the same idiosyncratic cloth as Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett and The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson (minus the self-destructive drug use ). Shifting millions of units and headlining festivals was not on his to-do list.
“Tim was pretty open that he didn’t love touring and performing,” says Pulido. “There was some anxiety there that, if you get bigger, well, in some ways, it can be more daunting. So whether that was something that he was totally transparent about, it’s true, that existed to some degree.”
As is often the case with visionaries, Smith was a complicated character. After the breakthrough of Van Occupantherand, by design or accident, he chucked a spanner in the works with 2010’s The Courage of Others. Slamming the door on the mainstream, the new LP was a quirky love letter to British folk revivalists such as Steeleye Span.
It’s quite a pivot from Fleetwood Mac to Steeleye Span. Then, Smith had always been ambivalent about the soft-rock aesthetic that had delivered so much success. “When I first brought in ‘Roscoe’ to the band, we were thinking, ‘Is it a bit TOO much like Fleetwood Mac, too ‘classic rock?’” he told me in 2010, ahead of The Courage of Others. “We knew what we were doing. That’s totally fair to say. It was a Fleetwood Mac thing.”
Yet if Smith had been keen to move on from the gilded sound of Van Occupanther, Pulido wants to be clear the decision to pursue a more doctrinaire folk direction wasn’t his alone. The rest of Midlake were with him all the way.
“If we approached albums, in a way that was purely, ‘What’s the best business decision?’ it would be, ‘OK, follow up with something that’s more akin to Van Occupanther.’ Now, for better or worse, we’ve never been driven in that way. If we’re going to do this, it needs to be on our own terms. And you gotta know that’s a double-edged sword.”
On the subject of following your own path, Midlake were not surprised at Neil Young’s recent spat with Spotify over the streaming service’s championing of right-wing podcaster Joe Rogan. The stand-off culminated in Young yanking his music from the service. “Historically Neil Young has always been a figure to say, “Damn the man – I’m going to use my platform and my music for a bigger cause,’” says Pulido. “More power to him.”
Midlake came through at an interesting time for rock music with folk underpinnings. As they were whipping out their flutes and the white robes they sported for the Courage of Others tour, across the Atlantic, the “nu folk” scene was gathering pace. Midlake received an up-close look at the competition when Mumford & Sons supported the Texans on a short UK jaunt in 2010.
“I remember vividly when, on Courage of Others, we were asked by the powers-that-be: ‘Hey, there’s this folk band that’s coming up. Would you guys want to have them open for these specific shows?’ It was so crazy. It was during their rise. And we had a different demographic of audiences,” says Pulido. “We’re of a different sub-genre. I hate [inaccurate comparisons]. It tries to put you in a corner of what you are or what you’re not.”
More than a decade on, comparisons between Mumford & Sons and Midlake feel fatuous. The former have been controversially pictured with men’s rights guru/neckbeard godhead Jordan Peterson and have moved towards U2-style tub-thumping. With Bethel WoodsMidlake have meanwhile returned to the glossy rustic pop perfected on Van Occupanther (and bridges were mended with Smith, though there are no plans to work together again).
Haunted by the spirits of the past yet shot through with a sense of brotherhood, Bethel Woods is a stirring comeback. Tellingly, and in contrast to the frazzled gestation of Antiphon, the experience of making it wasn’t hugely fraught. There was no rushing to meet a looming deadline. Just friends in a studio, creating a vibe.
“The whole process was a lot easier. You realize, it doesn’t have to be that hard,” says Chandler. “Every band is different. They work in different ways. We’ve finally arrived on something that works for us, after many years of getting there.”
For The Sake of Bethel Woods is released on 18 March. Midlake tour the UK in April.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.