WE have been starved of most meaningful live music now for over a year. But there is, now, at least light at the end of the tunnel as bands tentatively pencil in dates for later this year.

They include one of the country’s best live acts: Maxïmo Park, who have announced a show at the O2 Academy Oxford on September 2 – and a new album out this weekend.

The Geordie indie-rockers are no strangers to Oxford, having raucously played the Academy and, famously, the debating hall of the Oxford Union back in 2007.

“I remember a great, sweaty night when we last played at Oxford Academy!” laughs frontman Paul Smith.

“I love visiting Oxford because, as well as the enthusiastic crowds, we get to look around one of the country’s most beautiful cities. And we always pop into Truck Records for a look at the vinyl, obviously!”

In the run up to making their seventh album, Maxïmo Park had a lot to chew on.

From the very first song on their very first album, 2005’s A Certain Trigger – their multi-platinum selling, Mercury-nominated breakthrough – Smith pinned his socio-political colours to the mast and their activism continued through their subsequent albums.

For Maxïmo Park – Smith, Duncan Lloyd (guitar, keyboards), Tom English (drums) – it’s always been about being “conscious of your own voice, empowering people, sharing with people, communicating with people,” expands the frontman. “

But around the time of [album] Risk To Exist, we felt we had to be overt. We were clear as we could be, without being preachy.”

With an accompanying zine titled Inspiration Information, which included essays on the ruinous impact of the Department of Work and Pensions’ austerity policies and a contribution from political commentator Owen Jones, not to mention a declaration of support – vocally and financially – for refugee charity Migrant Offshore Aid Station, for Maxïmo Park it was mission accomplished.

Well, they acknowledge, as much as any musical activism can be “accomplished” in a time when such IRL challenges remain stubbornly ongoing and, for many, deepening and worsening.

But when thoughts turned to their seventh album, the world – close to home and at large – shifted again.

Firstly, founding member and keyboard player Lukas Wooller decided to emigrate to Australia. While ruing the personal loss of a good friend and bandmate, Smith, English and Lloyd quickly and smartly pivoted to the musical opportunities this could afford them.

Maxïmo Park by Em Cole

Maxïmo Park by Em Cole

“When Lukas left there was the challenge of doing a whole new thing – there was a space there,” says Lloyd. “And we decided to think of that space as more freedom. A fresh canvas. I could write something on piano, or guitar, or bass, and that would begin something different.”

Writing began last summer, with Smith and Lloyd in Newcastle, English in Liverpool. They sought, too, a different kind of new fourth member: a producer who was also a musician. Maxïmo Park wanted the freedom to play, in every sense. Ben Allen, Atlanta-based, Grammy-winning producer of Animal Collective, Deerhunter and Gnarls Barkley was a quick and easy choice.

From the off, he challenged the trio, asking them to write 40-odd songs.

“The good thing about that,” begins Lloyd, “was that we did everything from Why Must A Building Burn, which was acoustic-based, through to Meeting Up, which was synth-based. We could go electronic, we could go avant garde. And that helped us get to the tracks we eventually settled on.”

Allen travelled to Newcastle at the start of 2020, a place he’d never been, and the band showed him round town (curry, castle walls, quayside, boom) and started working on ideas in the studio, with the American joining in jam sessions. The plan was to go to Atlanta in the coming weeks and begin the recording process in earnest.

And then… Well, we all know what happened then.

When international lockdown bit, producer and band were stuck on opposite sides of the Atlantic. The band, too, were scattered in their individual homes, as were the other new players and guests who ended up contributing: recently recruited keyboardist Jemma Freese, who also sings backing vocals; live bassist Paul Rafferty; and proper “Northeast legend” Pauline Murray from Penetration, who sings on Ardour.

Fortunately, Maxïmo Park have always been a self-sustaining, self-sufficient unit. So, again, they deftly jumped to it, each member working on their musical and lyrical contributions at home, then bouncing the audio files to Allen 4000 miles away in Georgia.

“I was the only one who went to a real studio,” says English, “but that’s because you need about 500 mics on the drumkit. It was odd driving into town every day, when Liverpool was like a ghost town, me in one room, the engineer in another, hashing it out over a few days with Ben on FaceTime on a laptop next to me while I tracked everything. It made it quite intense,” he says, grinning, “but it also made it quite efficient.”

Maximo Park performing at the Great Exhibition of the North opening event on the Newcastle Gateshead Quayside

Maximo Park performing at the Great Exhibition of the North opening event on the Newcastle Gateshead Quayside

In April and May, in the teeth of lockdown, Maxïmo Park cracked on. I Don’t Know What I’m Doing was an early stand-out. Furiously energetic and driven on by a pounding beat and angular riff, it’s nakedly honest about the reality of being a dad – Smith and his wife had a daughter, now four, in the midst of the Risk To Exist period.

“The challenge of that track, because we couldn’t do it together, was that we had to pick the tempo felt most exciting,” notes English. “In the end I just had to play it as steadily as possible, and get everything else on top to make it as exciting possible, including a really weird guitar solo in the middle which Ben spent some time making as dynamic-sounding as possible. And then there’s Paul’s frantic vocal delivery…”

“I’m not actually singing at the end!” laughs Smith. “I’m like a dog barking. It’s a song about self-doubt, child-rearing and those existential questions about parenthood – have I passed down the worst aspects of my personality, or am I just raising you wrong? The old nature or nurture thing, which you’re always trying to work out.”

Baby, Sleep, pegged as the first single and one of the catchiest songs Maxïmo Park have ever made, explores parenthood from another angle, shackling those lyrics to a “harsh” riff from Lloyd and a “bubblegum pop chorus”, as Smith describes in it.

“Being a father became the main topic I wanted to write about, but finding interesting ways to do that. So here it was the idea of sleep deprivation making everything take on a surreal tint – like watching basketball live from America at two in the morning. Or pushing a child round Eldon Square shopping centre in Newcastle in a daze. But then, I always seem to gravitate towards shopping centres…

“Again, it was about trying to find anchors to the real world. One of the key lines is: ‘What are all these balloons doing in my front room?’ It’s that idea of: how on earth do these things creep up on you?”

Smith also grapples with the onward march of time in the album’s big, emphatic, declamatory opener, Partly Of My Making. “As you can clearly see,” begins Smith’s huge, yearning vocal, “I’ve lost some luminosity.”

“Musically it’s got that in-your-face quality,” the singer observes by way of explaining the song’s position at the album’s starting gates. “There’s something monumental about it, in terms of the drumming. When I first heard what Tom had done I was amazed – he transformed the demo into something much more direct, faster, escalating. It gave it a lot more ballast. And the music gives a lot more weight to what I’m saying.

“The song is about accepting the ageing process, which isn’t really often done in pop songs – it might be done by a singer-songwriter. But it’s important for me when I’m writing lyrics to evolve. Pop music can be frozen in time, or be about recapturing youth. We’ve always tried not to do that.

“Yes, it’s about getting old... but it is really powerful and full of beans. And when we play it live, that’ll be evident.”

An inevitable standout of their Oxford show will be All Of Me.

“That was the one track we collaborated in the writing with Ben on,” Lloyd says. “And that synth line came from Ben. So it’s the first co-write with a producer we’ve ever done.”

Smith’s lyrics and vocal performance fit the brief, too, of a song “that has that anthemic quality to it. They’re all pop songs, but they need to have an edge to them, too. Something gnarly in the mix, some dose of reality.”

“We woke up in London the morning after the Grenfell fire,” remembers Smith, “about to do a radio session. Being in the city at that time, it couldn’t help but burrow its way into our writing. Then, one of our old merch guys, Nick Alexander, was killed in the Bataclan attacks. I remember very clearly seeing his face come up on TV.

“Those things really affected me, and I never thought I’d put them in a song. But I wanted to set down how powerful people often wait until something bad has happened before they decide to do something about it. So that’s the line: ‘Why must a building burn before the lesson is learned?’ And it colours the rest of the song. It’s about, again, solidarity and connection.”

Maxïmo Park describe the track as “a snapshot song”. There’s another like that, one which is being released as the first taste of music from their new album – one chosen because it’s “an artistic choice, a more crafted song” as the first taste of what’s to come.

Kaiser Chiefs at Bingley Music Live 2017

Kaiser Chiefs at Bingley Music Live 2017

Child of the Flatlands is a song that re-amplifies both Maxïmo Park’s wide musical horizons and Smith’s acute lyrical observational touch. It’s an epic song with both space and reach, as Smith mines down through the sedimentary rock of his and his peers’ background, geographically and psychologically.

“That was one where I was really conscious of Lukas leaving,” admits Lloyd, “so I wanted to write a piano song – obviously a lot simpler one than he could do! And I wanted to give the basic chord pattern this walking pace, because with Paul’s lyrics, you are walking through this landscape of Paul’s life. There is a melancholy to it, and something that suggests memory, and keeps changing, So I wanted to have the chorus be the quietest thing, to underpin that very reflective feel.”

Empathy, engagement, anger, ambition, anti-cliché, maturity, reflection, big tunes, big ideas... Maxïmo Park’s seventh album combines all of the above, with (occasional) strings on.

The album is called Nature Always Wins.

“It’s the reality of our situation on earth!” says Smith. “You can’t fight against nature, whether it’s human nature or the environment. And to call back to the domestic situation: whatever happens is down to the nature of who we are. When you give birth to anything, whether it’s a child or an album, you betray who you are in that process.

“Even just making this record the way we have and the way it sounds now – that’s the nature of the band. It wins out. We’re a pop band. They’re songs you can understand, yes, influenced by lots of different genres. But what it comes down to is: we still want every song to be hooky, melodic, memorable – to be loved. It’s not a vanity project - we want people to get into it.

“That is the nature of Maxïmo Park.”

  • They play the O2 Academy Oxford, Cowley Road on Thursday, September 2