Jude Rogers tours Denton with its hottest property, Midlake, and takes in a gig - or six

Deep in Texas lies a town where everyone is a musician. So what's its secret? Jude Rogers tours Denton with its hottest property, Midlake, and takes in a gig - or six

'Why the hell d'ya wanna go to Denton?" The taxi driver is incredulous. "There's nothin' there - nothin'!" We head north-east up Route 35, a cloggy artery of Texas full of listless malls and high-rises, Sack'n'Saves and Sud Things, aiming for a small, strange city in the state's north-eastern corner, miles away from Dallas and Houston, the state's corporate lungs. For Denton, like Nashville, Memphis, Seattle or Portland before it, is fast becoming an American musical heartland where something is happening.

The big buzz around Denton today is all about Midlake. Their second album, The Trials of Van Occupanther, came out in the UK last June, graced the upper rungs of many end-of-year polls, and is currently shifting 1,000 copies a week in the US - the same number of records the Arcade Fire were selling when the hype about them started to heat up. It's one of those records you feel like you've known for ever; a dreamy concoction of Neil Young, Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty and The Yardbirds, mixing together 1970s MOR, harmonies dripping with honey, and lyrics about young brides, stonecutters and mountaineers. It's music that seems to have emerged fully formed from another time and another place.

Which is fitting, says Simon Raymonde, former Cocteau Twin and boss of British label, Bella Union, who has signed five Denton bands since 2000. "Denton is a very curious place. It's a place where music, for some reason, is the lifeblood of these people, their main form of expression." He should know. The cult band Lift to Experience were his first signing, their only album, The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads, being a concept LP about the end of the world with Texas as the promised land. Punky blues band Jetscreamer and the experimental Mandarin followed, before Midlake inked their initials in 2005. New signing Robert Gomez, a soft, wistful singer-songwriter and a friend of the Midlake boys, joined the label's ranks late last year.

"Denton's a little like how Brighton used to be," Raymonde says. "Everyone knows everyone's business, but not in an intrusive way. Perhaps because Texas is so huge, there's a real sense of small-town togetherness within this huge expanse of land. And, for some reason, everyone I keep getting recommendations about from there is talented, gracious and good company."

And so this bears out. The weekend before they embark on their first American tour, Midlake have planned a full itinerary that shows their town at its best. Admittedly, this isn't difficult to arrange: most of Denton's hangouts sit around or just off its central square, a quiet, tranquil place overwhelmed by the recently restored Denton County courthouse, "the kind of building you imagine horses and carts and civil-war cavalry swarming around", says the band's soft-faced, bearded guitarist Eric Pulido. A few doors down from two shops selling chain mail and ceremonial swords squats a sprawling second-hand store, Recycled, where books and records are browsed by bookish young locals. Its local-band section boasts CDs from breaking acts like Centro-matic, long-loved local concerns like Brave Combo, and local oddities like Mulched Losenge and Sleezus Fist, as well as Bowling For Soup and Deep Blue Something.

"But it still looks like it's a building in the wild west, doesn't it?" laughs drummer McKenzie Smith, as we leave with our purchases. The venues nearby, from the outside, also look dusty and genteel, like relics from another century.

But at night they're transformed, full to the brim with people ready to party. Our Friday evening is a hazy spin through The Secret Headquarters - a reconfigured office space with a beer keg in the corner and a deer skull on the wall - and Hailey's, a sizeable venue on the other side of the road named after the proprietor's daughter, where Midlake played their first gig in 2000. We watch Night Game Cult, a performance-art duo in military fatigues and black face paint in the first; and Grass Fight, a Joy Division-influenced three-piece in the second. They couldn't be more different. "But that's how it works here," Pulido says. "Everyone's always eager to see and hear whatever's going on."

Perhaps this is because Denton is, essentially, a town brimming with music students. Midlake all studied jazz musicianship at the University of North Texas Music College, which has its home here. It boasts seven buildings, 300 practice rooms, eight performance halls and more than 100 ensembles; its alumni include classical soloists, as well as Meat Loaf, Don Henley and Norah Jones, who used to go out with Robert Gomez's room-mate. Given that Jones has taken time out of her multi-million-selling schedule to preside over a campaign to save Fry Street, a university area that hosts a music festival every April, the city's warmth and influence, even for ex-students, is pervasive.

Eric Nichelsen, Midlake's apple-cheeked pianist, expands upon this as we all drive round the campus. None of Midlake are from Denton, it transpires, but apart from Nichelsen, born in Louisiana, they're all from other Texan towns such as Houston and San Antonio. "People come here to study, and then they stay. It's a nice town, cheap, and with enough musicians to keep things going." He smiles. "Even musicians like us who didn't finish our degrees." Only Tim Smith, Midlake's quiet singer and songwriter, got his honours. "I still could finish my degree if I wanted to," Nichelsen continues, "but I got disillusioned. We all did. But it doesn't matter... there are so many people like us. Denton's a town of pretty happy music school dropouts."

We stop off briefly at the old Midlake house, a plantation-style bungalow shared, until recently, by some of the band. Here they recorded 2004's Bamnan and Slivercork, and created the highly glossed studio sheen of Van Occupanther - which some critics thought was the work of Fleetwood Mac's Lindsay Buckingham. Then we pick up Robert Gomez, all curly mop and gangly limbs, still recovering from a 2am jazz set the previous night, one of his many musical projects.

As Gomez whips up a mean guacamole, Paul Alexander, Midlake's flinty-eyed bassist, drinks a beer and talks about the band's jazz backgrounds. "To play jazz properly, you've got to immerse yourself in it. I used to listen to jazz two or three times a day, and for hours. Now I listen to it two or three times a year." So what happened? "Studying jazz just becomes pointless after a while. Nothing really extraordinary, to me anyway, has been made in jazz since the 70s, and realising that became a huge point of frustration."

When Midlake started, they were also hugely keen to play music which really affected people. "And sadly," Alexander says, "not a lot of people listen to jazz in that way." In the band's early days, they got into progressive pop musicians like Björk and Radiohead, artists who experiment, while still remaining accessible.

And then came the sucker punch: the friends fell in love with 70s soft rock. Jethro Tull and America LPs fill the band members' record racks, sleeves of albums like Neil Young's Harvest and Jethro Tull's Heavy Horses are tacked to the walls, and in Eric Pulido's car, an early Bee Gees compilation is permanently on play. Have they softened, perhaps, with age? "No, I don't think so," says Tim Smith. "How we play and produce is still very important to us. We're all concerned about the arrangements, and the musical balance." Smith is also a fan of grand Romantic composers such as Tchaikovsky and Wagner, with whom these bands, he suggests, share an emotional resonance. "Music like that just gets me. It's music that stays with you."

The plates and bottles empty, the fun starts again: Gomez taking a convoy to see local band Tre Orsi, a Fugazi-like trio recently returned from a European tour, at the Secret Headquarters, passing round earplugs like a professional for the feedback. Then it's Dan's Bar, just off the square, to see Wayne "the Train" Hancock playing hillbilly swing - a rollicking sort of country full of double-bass fingerpicks and lap steel virtuosity. Younger audience members whoop alongside chain-smoking grandmas and old fellers in cowboy hats. And although this is the sort of Texan music you'd conjure up in cliche, there's no irony present in the younger listeners' enjoyment. The joy is for all.

The night ends in the early hours, at a house show, for much-loved local band, The Baptist Generals. Cars are double-parked all down the highway, and the house is wall-to-wall with fans. In the corner loll the two musical legends of Denton - Paul Slevens, from Ten Hands, a rock band (much loved by REM) who split up in 1995, and Lift to Experience's Andy Young. "It's fucking crazy here tonight," slurs Young, helping himself to someone else's beer. "It's been fucking crazy here for ages." But has it always been this way? "Uh-uh. But in the last few years it's all gone like this." He gestures at the rammed room with his hands, his voice buried in the noise of the hordes.

Soon after, the Baptist Generals play a moving, sweaty, acoustic set. A drunk teenager keeps shouting "Denton's the shit!" and cops with flashlights eventually arrive to break up the chaos. By 2.30am, Gomez is tired, but reflective, as we slowly ride home.

"There's only one thing," he says, "that you need to know about Denton. People come here because they're compelled to make music, not because they're compelled to make it." By "making it" he means fame and commercial success. We pass the silver university dome, that symbol of so much of the city's potential and potency, and head back up the freeway.

· Midlake and Robert Gomez play Liverpool Academy (0870 771 2000) on April 8, then tour.

The GuardianTramp

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