“Is your magazine technically slanted?” inquires Robert Smith in a tone that hovers between suspicion and bemusement. The Cure, it seems, have never been interviewed by a guitar magaizine, despite having generated 13 years of consistently creative and often brilliant guitar-based pop.
That, too, depends on who you talk to. To their gargantuan worldwide following, the Cure combine sublime pop and heartfelt expressivity; to a large segment of the music press, they’re self-obsessed gloom merchants, purveyors of pessimism to suburban America’s petulant teens. But many of the band’s detractors have probably let Smith’s personal flamboyance divert their attention from the band’s phenomenal pop craftsmanship and stylistic range.
The Cure have been called “the world’s biggest cult band.” While most stadium-circuit musicians trad in easily digested attitudes and images, the Cure have attained those heights without fist-in-the-air anthems or a down-home, populist stance.
Robert, the Cure’s only constant member, has graced each of the band’s 12 albums with moody, multicolored guitar textures. He has largely defined the group’s guitar voice, even though he often appears guitarless in videos and delegates parts that he played in the studio to other players when performing. His lines tend not to stand up and announce themselves, but merge with other instruments into deep, evocative atmospheres. The casual listener might not realize that beneath that hooky vocal melody lurks a rat’s nest of complex, intersecting figures. Here, Robert discusses some of his 6-string strategies…
On Guitar Solos
It has taken me a long time to come to terms with having guitar solos in our songs—I used to abhor them. I didn’t like the whole wanky idea of stepping to the front and saying, “Look at me!” But now it doesn’t bother me, because it suits what we’re now doing musically. It would have been dumb in the past to put in a guitar solo just because someone felt like playing one, but it would be equally dumb now to stop someone from doing one if that’s what the song needs to make it more exciting.
Even people who are quite close to the band are surprised to learn that I played the solo on “From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea.” Everyone would immediately assume it’s Porl [Thompson, Cure guitarist]. But why should it be important who played what part? When I’m in the studio, I have a picture of the overall song, as opposed to what I’m going to play in it.
We never fine-tune things at the demo stage. A lot of the fun of being in the studio is adding that element of improvisation.
I’m drawn to Boss pedals because of the colors [laughs]. I really miss the old pedals like the Fuzz Face. Everything used to be a different shape, as well. It was really easy to know what you were going to hit.
Actually, the key to my current sound is the new Gibson Chet Atkins semi-acoustic—it’s brilliant! It’s the first guitar since my very first Jazzmaster to sound exactly how I want it to. The extra pickup on that Jazzmaster is from a Woolworth’s Top 20 guitar—my very first electric. I took it in to record our first album, along with a little WEM combo amp. [Manager/producer] Chris Parry, who was paying for the record, said, “You can’t use that!” We went out and bought a Fender Jazzmaster, and I immediately had the Top 20 pickup installed int it, which really upset Chris. I played the entire Three Imaginary Boys album through a Top 20 pickup. It’s a brilliant guitar, though I actually bought it because of how it looked. Same with the map-shaped Nationals I used on the last tour. For mt onstage nylon-string, I use a Gibson Chet Atkins. I stared on classical guitar. I had lessons from age nine with a student of John Williams, a really excellent guitarist. My sister was a piano prodigy, so sibling rivalry made me take up guitar because she couldn’t get her fingers around the neck. I learned a lot, but got to the point where I was losing the sense of fun. I wish I’d stuck with it. I still read music, but it takes me too long to work through a piece.
A lot of the things on our record that sound like heavy chorusing are actually just detuned instruments. The only drawback to that is that onstage it’s very confusing sometimes, especially with a lot of phasing going on. It turns into this overwhelming pulsing sound, and you can’t hear anything.
When you leave holes, you can peer through and hear things—even things that aren’t actually there. I tend towards the “less is more” ethic. It’s really exciting to go mental for a few minutes on a song like “Cut,”but if the whole set was like that, it wouldn’t have any dynamic. That’s what’s wrong with a lot of grunge metal: It’s uniformly in your face, and it doesn’t have any shading or impact.
His Favorite Songs