Soul Man – Paul Smith

As Teesside success stories go, they don’t get much better than Paul Smith’s. Lead singer of much-lauded band Maximo Park, the Billingham-born musician has stayed true to his northern roots…

WORDS: JULIE BURNISTON
PICTURES: CHRIS BOOTH

For those who don’t know him or his music, Paul Smith is the frontman and mouthpiece (his words) of rock band Maximo Park, a massively successful indie group whose six albums have all graced the top 20.

Their debut, A Certain Trigger, was nominated for a Mercury Prize and this, along with their follow-up, Our Earthly Pleasures, went Gold. Paul has also found considerable success as a solo artist.

Not that this has changed the down-to-earth Billingham boy one bit. His parents still live on Teesside, and though Paul now has his base in Newcastle, he’s a Teessider through and through.

A massive Boro fan, he’s known to wear his red socks with pride.

When I ask, during our phone chat, if he’s wearing his Boro socks, he laughs and says: “No, but I have my Boro shirt on under my coat!

Everyone says it’s cold up north, but I’m not afraid to put my hat and scarf on and don’t mind having a big coat!”

Unlike the vast majority of successful North-East musicians, Paul has never felt the urge to move away.

“Why not the North-East?’ is his response when I ask why he’s never been tempted by the bright lights of London.

“I’ve never moved away, it’s never even been discussed. I feel comfortable here. I love the pace of life and can just sort of disappear a bit, stay out of the spotlight.

“There’s no stress, no financial pressure the way there would be down south, just time to be creative and that’s the most important thing to me – to be a good songwriter and to be able to come up with things, not be swayed by trends.

“I do what I want to do and I have a bit more time. I’m not looking over my shoulder worrying about paying a huge mortgage.”

He admits: “Just by remaining in the North-East, I’m defined as an outsider in my industry. Local musicians like Sting, Bryan Ferry and The Pet Shop Boys have all moved away but I wasn’t going to let being northern-based hold me back from success.

“I’m not disputing the fact that London is a wealth of inspiration and culture, but it’s also full-on and hectic, and quite frankly it’s just as stimulating up here.

“Look at Middlesbrough. Places like Baker Street with its pop-up bars; the pubs that are full of gigging bands and there’s even mima – a major modern art gallery. Brilliant!”

So what did the young Paul do to occupy his time as a kid in Billingham? “I’d get £10 a week pocket money which I used to buy CDs from Woolworths and cassettes when they were on sale in Debenhams – they had this little outlet called Foreplay,” he laughs. “For cooler stuff I’d end up at Alan Fearnley’s in Middlesbrough or Playback.”

Paul studied at Cleveland College of Art and Design in Middlesbrough and later went on to briefly teach drawing and painting at Stockton Riverside.

“Yeah, I’d definitely be involved in the arts if I hadn’t fallen into music,” he reflects. “Either that or I’d be a librarian because I love books.”

Since Maximo Park’s first release in 2005, they’ve enjoyed the kind of cool, in-the-know cult success that has led to longevity in a very fickle industry.

I ask Paul about the time Maximo Park covered The Fall’s Edinburgh Man, renaming the track Middlesbrough Man (I don’t mind being by myself, don’t wanna be anywhere else, just wanna be in Middlesbrough). “The band are massively into The Fall and Edinburgh Man was our favourite track so we thought we’d cover it and have a bit of a laugh with it.

Edinburgh sounds pretty much like Middlesbrough so we got away with that one!”

People from the early Maximo gigs have stood steadfastly by the band’s side. When I ask about this loyalty, Paul acknowledges that: “We always give 100% on stage.

“When I was at art college Oasis were massive, so lots of the Teesside bands would come on stage in jeans with their hands in their pockets. I didn’t get it. Why did they all want to be Liam Gallagher? Why be like someone else? I was baffled by it. With Maximo Park I insisted on being different and sounding as good live as on record, otherwise there was no point.”

Different Maximo Park certainly are, with Paul a recognisable and charismatic front man in his trilby style hats and sharp suits.

Two people who have been by Paul’s side since his years at Northfield Primary School are his best mates Neil and Ben.

“They still live on Teesside and I see them all the time,” he says. “We still go to Boro matches and reminisce about playing footie at the end of the street. We have our in jokes and it’s a great reference for me. We all have families now and it doesn’t matter what I do. They know I’m just lucky and grateful that I can earn a living from music.”

These days, as dad to a three-year-old daughter, parenthood is as big a passion for Paul as music.

“Like all parents, my priority is putting food on the table. Life changes, of course it does. Having someone so totally dependent on you is massive and of course your priorities alter, but we do still do things together like going to ‘bring your baby’ films at the cinema.”

The freedom that success brought enabled Paul to branch out into a solo career in 2010, launching at Uncle Albert’s pub on Albert Road, Middlesbrough. His venues of choice can be intimate, to say the least.

“I once played to a handful of people in the back of a veggie restaurant – the Waiting Room in Eaglescliffe. It was fun. People understand my accent, understand me. I like to chat between songs, give my opinions on life and have a laugh.”

On September 7, Paul plays a one-off gig with a backing band at Middlesbrough Town Hall, duetting with musicians such as Kathryn Williams.

“The Town Hall really is the jewel in Middlesbrough’s crown, what a great building!” he smiles.

“I played there with a string quartet to celebrate its 130th anniversary and when I was doing my research I was amazed to learn that people such as Ella Fitzgerald had performed there. Just look at that for heritage! The legends come to Middlesbrough – let’s get them back! It’s a great impetus for new things.”

So how does Paul think that the region has changed over the years? “I think on a political level the North-East is marginalised. Even the planned high-speed rail scheme stops at York, so where does that leave us?

“Yes, we need more investment. But look, people want to work and they want to do well. A friend of mine who is head of a college on Teesside said it’s all about changing the mindset of people and telling them you can do this!

“It’s the key to stopping the creative drain from our area. We’ve got to make sure our youth don’t look for creative jobs in London or Manchester.

“There will be stumbling blocks, but they have to be ambitious and not put up self-imposed barriers. I suppose you can look at our band as an example of what can be achieved.”

We second that, Paul!