A few days after we talk to Maxïmo Park’s Duncan Lloyd the band find themselves in an incredible position; hopefully set to follow in Mogwai’s footsteps (opens in new tab) with their first number one album in the UK charts. If it comes, the spotlight that comes with that position is long, long overdue. After two decades together, nobody can say the Newcastle band haven’t put the work in on an incredibly consistent career and new album Nature Always Wins finds them still sounding vital and righteous ambassadors for UK guitar music.
Duncan Lloyd has been the band’s principal musical writer throughout their history, so while we talked to him about the albums that have impacted his life it made sense to go deeper and talk Nature Always Wins and the mindset of a player we think is an unsung hero of British rock.
You worked long distance on the album with producer Ben H Allen, something that has become the new reality for musicians. But does it present any distinct advantages to work this way?
"I think it does to some degree, the freedom of being able to work from home at any time of day or night gave more room for musical experimentation and spontaneity. When you are working in a studio, time can be both tight and pressured as you often have to get your ideas and musical performance down without a lot of reflection.
"Working in isolation also allowed me more time to work on songs written on the keyboard such as, Meeting Up, it has a very 2am in morning feel which may not have happened otherwise."
What challenges did lockdown present to the way the band operates and communicates? Did this period teach you anything about yourselves?
"It was challenging in a few ways as we couldn’t play & record in the same space so we had to adapt. Tom’s [English] drums were recorded in Liverpool, Paul [Smith, vocal] and myself recorded at our own places in Newcastle then all parts were sent across to our producer, Ben H Allen in Atlanta. I set up amps & keyboards at home and recorded guitars, bass and keys etc there.
"We’d create a plan every few days over a video chat and then got to work. Ben would put things together, developing the production, then send the songs round for us to fine tune.
"It has been eye-opening knowing that it is possible to make an album under these circumstances & the result feels like a cohesive record."
A lot of musicians are confined to their home environments, and this can sometimes feel like the enemy of inspiration– what’s that experience been like for you and do you have any tips to share on the subject?
"If I’m honest I am naturally a bit of loner, so working at home by myself isn’t unusual. It means I get to work and experiment on things that interest me, it is a bit like painting I suppose. Collaborating & sharing ideas is great too so when that happens the responses from other people can add or create new inspiration.
"If I find I’m procrastinating or can’t get into writing, I go out and get to the park, walk amongst the trees and maybe sit somewhere quiet. When I was stuck at home I’d do something different for an hour, like hanging out with my family, reading or painting in bursts. If you can change your mindset for a while it feels fresh returning to writing again."
You’ve worked with producers including Paul Epworth, Gil Norton, Tom Schick – have those been learning experiences and have there been any particularly valuable guitar tips you’ve picked up from them?
"It’s actually the engineering and producing side that sparks my interest first, being the main sound recordist for the band I tend to pick the brains of the producers, their gear, mic’ing & mixing techniques etc.
"On this record I geeked out with Ben H Allen about how to get the best bass performance & recording sound after it was decided we’d be sharing most of the bass duties this time around.
"I’ve been lucky enough to work with producers with varying styles and they have all influenced the way I record in some way. It’s more guitar pedals and sounds than playing techniques that I’ve discovered through producers. One thing I do remember is that Gil Norton would make me fine tune my guitar before every take, but then you would get his super clear wall of production in the sound, there’s method in the madness."
Would you ever consider producing an album yourselves or do you prefer that outside perspective and input?
"Risk To Exist was more of a self produced album with Tom Schick doing a great job of engineering. We made the big arrangement & sonic decisions ourselves and Tom helped us get there with Cenzo Townshend mixing.
"On the new record we really wanted someone to take the production reins and potentially joining us as a player, almost like a new band member adding another fresh angle to the sound. So it depends on the situation and also label support.
"More recently I’ve been working in a producer role with a few younger acts that have caught my attention in the North East, helping them record their music and sharing recording tips that maybe useful for them."
You've always been the principal music writer in Maximo Park, but how do ideas in the band tend to be developed these days? For example, songs like Baby, Sleep and Placeholder sound like they came from your guitar first while something like Feelings I’m Supposed To Feel seems much more beat driven.
"Sometimes I’ll start a song with a beat or a keyboard, sometimes on a guitar, this way I keep the music sounding varied for the band.
"Feelings I’m Supposed To Feel did start with a beat, well spotted. I wrote on top of a loop sampled from a disco record but I wanted to create the opposite feel with the music, a little sombre, reflective and atmospheric. Tom replaced my loop with real drums & Paul added his words.
"For another method, I came up with the music for’ Meeting Up’ on a small Yamaha synth after getting Tom to drum along to The Velvet Underground on his headphones.
"Child of the Flatlands was written on the piano in conjunction with a restless bass part, I’d dart between the two set ups in my house to get the recording off the ground which gave a different song feel again. So mixing up the songwriting method helps a lot.
"You can tell the guitar led songs as the riffs are immediately more defined, certainly for the ones I write for Maximo Park."
Are you equally at home with both approaches as a writer?
"Yes but it’s a very different approach writing on a drum machine to say a guitar. The guitar is very natural whereas the keyboards are more trial and error for me. I’m not musically trained so I find I discover chords that I don’t really know the names of and then go with what the song needs or what sounds fresh to me."
Do you feel the way you approach your role in the sound as a guitarist has changed in Maximo Park over the years?
"On stage I’m the guitarist but behind the scenes I’ve always played a more varied role in the writing and recording process. The guitar is a big part of my writing but I will sometimes be involved with writing vocal melodies, like on Baby Sleep for example.
"Bass lines too, one of my favourite bass lines is on The Coast is Always Changing as I remember it being a real breakthrough in my songwriting, creating more of a conversation between the guitar and bass. The bass is the lead and guiding instrument on that song but unless you analyse it, you don’t necessarily hear that."
Songs like The Acid Remark and I Don’t Know What I’m Doing have big riffs and they’re obviously a core part of the band’s sound – will you ever approach Paul with just a riff before you develop it and take it from there together or do your own musical song ideas tend to be fully formed before you take them to the other members of the band?
"For the most part I develop an idea for the whole song shortly after I’ve come up with the riff, part of the excitement is to follow where it goes.
"We do develop arrangements together but it tends to be with the parts already written, but new things come along all the time when we play them as a band so it can be a mixture. I don’t treat any riff or part as sacred as I’m not precious about them.
"I remember a song called, The Unshockable where I had a riff I wasn’t sure about and it was actually Lukas [Wooller, former keyboard player] who kept bugging me to use it so we wrote the music together in the end as he had the vision for it."
Placeholder definitely sounds like something more in the latter camp, was that the case?
"Placeholder was written as one piece yes. I sent the demo and then went round to Paul’s with the idea of playing it together but he’d already come up with lyrics and a vocal melody by the time I’d got there so it was very spontaneous from both sides."
Do you and Paul ever discuss the themes of the songs in the writing stage or do you tend to hand that side over to him completely?
"Before recording an album Paul tends to have a rough concept and runs it by both Tom and myself first. It’s good to give him space to develop his ideas and not be judgemental of him because good writing can take time and a few draft demos. We’ll write a few demo songs in a row then get our heads together to see what’s working and what’s not, both lyrically & musically.
"Not since the first album have I added lyrically to a Maximo Park record apart from the odd suggestion because by our second record Paul had cemented his place and role which was an important thing for him to do personally.
"During the demo stages there can be a strong debate on certain things but ultimately it’s good to get that out into the open, first to question if what we are doing is right and second so we can all stand behind the songs that make the cut."
Do you tend to come up with riffs acoustically or are you more inspired to write when plugged in?
"Both, depending on the idea that’s coming. I write a lot of riffs and songs on the acoustic as it’s quick to pick up and play. Sometimes I’ll head to our rehearsal space and turn the amps right up, it feels good to generate that kind of energy for songs to flow from."
Any particular gear that has really stood the test of time during your years with the band and any gear you discovered during the recording process for Nature Always Wins?
"I originally played mainly Fender Telecasters and a Rickenbacker for either a choppy punkier tone or a jangley melodic tone. Now I mostly play a Japanese guitar called a Westone Rainbow, it’s from the 80s and made at the Matsumoku factory where they made all the golden era Epiphones. It’s Matsumoku’s own cheaper and arguably better version of that. It’s a very versatile guitar, from intricate quieter songs to big epic ones.
"Visiting Wilco’s studio on the last album was a real privilege as I got to play guitars and amps from every era. It was also there that I discovered a little Martin parlour guitar from the 1930s which was full of songs, I recorded them on my phone & have since written a batch of songs based on those voice memos for my own stuff which should see the light of day at some point.
"As the new album was recorded in lockdown I was using gear I already have, I did get a [Gamechanger Audio]Plus pedal & a ZVEX Lo-Fi junky pedal to add to the sonics though.
"One guitar that has stood the test of time is my first electric guitar which is a Japanese 90s telecaster squire – it’s still the vibeyist guitar I’ve ever owned."
Have your influences changed over the years or are there still players you were drawn to in your younger years that are still there now? Did you still listen to a lot of guitar music?
"I love finding new music or albums that I can immerse myself in. I’ve been doing that recently, find an album and listen to only that for a few weeks.
"My tastes are pretty broad and I listen to records from different genres and countries, not just guitar music. I need melody though so that’s key for me, along with good rhythms and lyrics. Guitar wise I do like more sparser stuff now, Matt Kinsey, the guitarist on Bill Callahan’s records is a great player. I still like the odd noisy record though.
Duncan Lloyd: 10 albums that changed my life
1. Bob Dylan - Bringing It All Back Home, 1965
"This was one of my Dads records that I discovered around age 14 , Mr Tambourine Man and Love Minus Zero / No Limit had melody that flowed effortlessly and lyric writing, otherworldly. It changed my world view and made me want to learn to write songs."
2. Bjork - Debut, 1993
"One morning my friend Dave came into art college waving a CD taken from his bag. He slammed the lid of the CD player shut and Debut started. What else sounded like that before? Nothing.
"The album played through, each song bursting with a new kind of expression. She sang it how she saw and felt it, upfront and real with no fear. Hearing Björk when she first appeared as a solo artist in the U.K. was a big moment."
3. Neil Young - Decade, 1977
"I discovered Neil Young through the grunge bands naming him as an influence in copies of the NME and Melody Maker I read as a teenager.
"I got Decade on double cassette for Christmas when I was 18 and disappeared to my room for three days whilst my mind altered again. Vivid and colourful tones and song craft with unconventional vocals was teaching me what was possible. Sugar Mountain connected in a big way, especially at that age."
4. Smashing Pumpkins - Gish, 1991
"Me and Ben H. Allen, the producer on our new record, bonded over this record when we met last year. I’d finally found a fellow Gish appreciator.
"I remember buying this album from Wayahead Records in Derby when it existed. I’d seen the video for Today but Siamese Dream, the album it was off, wasn’t out at that point but instead I found the album before, Gish. I gathered my handful of coins, took the plunge and bought it.
"Lying between two speakers was the best way for my 15 year old self to experience it. Heavy yet endlessly melodic the album seeped headlong into my system. It’s safe to say I learned the power of a melodic bass line from my favourite song on the album Rhinoceros, and also the winding, Crush.
5. Roberta Flack - First Take, 1969
"First Take took over my head in around 2003. It was played at least a few times a week and always late at night. It was at first a way to ease all the madness that was happening with the band but it was the level of depth and meaning that the album holds that hit home.
"Her own talent is clear and unique, soul, jazz and folk combine throughout her debut record. The song choices taken from a regularly performed Washington D.C. jazz club set with a top notch band, and the unsettling backdrop of race riots and the Vietnam war of the late 60s always present.
The whole album should be listened to in it’s entirety but, Our Ages or Our Hearts and Ballad of the Sad Young Men would be my picks for today.
6. Nirvana - Incesticide
I had a cassette with Bleach on one side & Insecticide on the other, my two favourite Nirvana records. Incesticide was special though, Nirvana minus the production; John Peel sessions , outtakes & B-sides. It contains some of Kurt’s favourite songs of the time.
Son of A Gun, The Vaselines cover is golden and life affirming, as is Molly Lips. Sliver shows off his own incredible ability to hook you with a melody , weirdo visuals & blood curdling screams. There’s something celebratory here too though, before it got too much. Kurt was and still is one of America’s greatest songwriters.
7. Dervish - Harmony Hill, 1993
"Dervish are an Irish folk band from County Sligo. This album was the first to really connect me with my Irish roots. My mum had told me the stories of her and her mum and dad cycling around Ireland when she was young and of our roots going back to Galway.
"I first heard Dervish playing a live session on the radio and it affected me elementally. It’s one of the few music forms that makes me feel something deep rooted with a sense of belonging. I also found out my Dad had family going back to County Clare so I guess there must be something in it."
8. Julia Holter - Tragedy, 2011
"I remember getting into a lot more electronic and experimental music around 2011 and came across Julia Holter on Leaving Records.
"It was shortly after my Dad had passed away and I was searching for something completely new. Although the album is called Tragedy, inspired by the Greek play, Hippolytus, it’s an uplifting and beautifully crafted piece of work. Goddess Eyes was my way in and the album helped me through that difficult time."
9. Roots Manuva - Brand New Second Hand, 1999
“It’s about to get splendid...” One of the best British records in history to my ears. It’s still fresh now, space, rhythm, vitality and stories from Rodney Smith’s life and experiences.
"I had two CDs with me when I briefly moved back up to Newcastle around the time of 1999-2000 and it lived in my CD Walkman for months, my main fear was the batteries would run out before reaching the end each time I played it.
My favourite track was, Baptism as I love the combination of Wildflower and Roots Manuva’s vocals. I’d always hope Wildflower would do her own record, maybe she has, I should investigate…
10. Smog - Supper, 2003
"This was the first album I heard from Bill Callahan and I’ve been a fully paid up member of the Bill Callahan cult ever since. It was the other CD I would play over many evenings in 2003, along with Roberta Flack’s, First Take.
"Some songwriters transcend the genre they are put into and I firmly believe Bill Callahan is one. You almost forget what you are listening to as you’re hanging on the next line, like that one will be the punch line or contain the answer. His insights, timing and delivery seem to age in the best way a writer could ask for. It’s nice to be on the planet at the same time as this gentleman."
Maxïmo Park’s new album Nature Always Wins is out now via Prolifica Inc. Stream / purchase the album here: https://maximopark.tmstor.es/ (opens in new tab)
Maxïmo Park also play a special online live-streamed show on Saturday 6th March at 20:30pm GMT. Details here: https://maximopark.tmstor.es/