Rob Fitzpatrick goes on the road with Robert Smith and The Cure

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Robert Smith, Cure keyboard-player Roger O’Donnell and I are in a black van – the sort of multi-seat box soccer “moms” ferry their offspring around in – rolling down a motorway somewhere between Zurich and the small southern German town of Singen. It is early evening and the sun warms the lush green hills that surround us.

Smith and I are having a beer while O’Donnell tells us about touring America with The Thompson Twins in support to The Police somewhere in the long-lost mid-’80s. We’re pulling up to a junction when Smith tells me how The Cure were playing in Moscow a week or so ago and everywhere they went there were posters for an upcoming show by Sting. “Unfortunately they’d written his name in Cyrillic script,” he says, chucking a peanut in his mouth. “And that’s how I know Sting in Russian is spelled C, U, M, T.” We laugh out loud and take another drink and let the light play on our sunglasses, and I think to myself, could there be any nicer way to spend Saturday evening?

The night before I meet The Cure I get an email from Smith – which, like all his others, IS ENTIRELY IN CAPITALS – informing me that as they have a show in Hamburg the night before he might be quiet and “a touch grumpy” when we first meet at baggage reclaim. However, I shouldn’t worry as he guarantees he’ll be “open and effusive” come midnight. What actually happens is he, like the rest of the band, is open and effusive and friendly and funny from the very first second we meet. There they are, getting eyed nervously at Belt 39, a gaggle of fully grown men who appear to quite like each other despite having had three hours’ fitful sleep and being told their hand luggage was removed from the flight. Some band members panic about having to wear blue jeans on stage. Others worry about their in-ear monitors and boots. Bass-player Simon Gallup (tatts, quiff, sunglasses, motorcycle boots, looks about 30) worries about his shaving kit. But Smith, over six foot in massive goth boots, dressed from head to toe in well-worn black, with remnants of last night’s lipstick still on his face and a thick, wiry explosion of hair, just smiles. “I have everything I need in this bag,” he says, clutching a voluminous rucksack, his eyes hidden behind wraparound shades. You can’t lead one of the world’s finest bands for 35 years without learning a thing or two.

What is there to say about Robert Smith and The Cure? A band who set out to be “the punk Beatles” but became so much more. There isn’t one of us reading this who couldn’t whistle at least ten of their songs off the top of our heads – and, honestly, who else could you say that about? The Cure created their own corner of pop, a place that ran on humour and mystery and transgression; a place with enough danger to be exciting, but somewhere always anchored in something real and admirable and ambitious. Smith has never been the wraith-like child-man he’s been painted as. He checks us in to the hotel; he has the print-outs of what he wants tonight’s set to look like; he does the contract negotiations in the dressing-room and, long past 4am, it’s he who wades into the chaotic scenes going on at our hotel reception when their entry-key system breaks down and the crew can’t get into their rooms. This is someone who had a relentless drive to succeed. And he did in spades. Now they are grand elder statesmen rightly enjoying an Indian summer of long, invigorating shows across Europe’s biggest festivals, but in the late 1980s The Cure were being lined up as the next U2 and that enormo-dome world was theirs for the taking.

“We tasted that for a year,” Smith says. “But it wasn’t what I wanted. We did two stadium tours across America, had a number-one album (with Wish), and I was congratulated and told I was amazing wherever we went.”

A kind soul puts two fresh drinks on our table.

“And that,” he smiles, “was the most miserable year I had ever had.”

What music was the first music you heard that made you think, “Wow!”?

That’s going back! My earliest memories are of 1963, 1964 and 1965. I’ve got an older brother who’s 12 or 13 years older than me, and a sister who’s 10 years older. My mum wasn’t supposed to have any more kids, and suddenly she had me, and then she had my younger sister, so there were two of us versus the two of them! They looked after us, and they taught us stuff, so we learned Beatles songs, me and my little sister, in 1963, ’64. My older brother gave me a guitar and we learnt together, which sounds really tacky, but it was a bonding experience. But the moment when I could play G minor and he couldn’t grasp what G minor was, I knew I had passed him. He was into The Rolling Stones and then there was Captain Beefheart and then Pink Floyd. Meanwhile, my older sister was always more pop-orientated.

So you had the best of both worlds?
Yes, it was a strange environment, me knowing the words to quite trippy stuff. I had no idea what it meant, but I had early memories of singing really dumb but glorious pop songs, likeDream, by the Everly Brothers. If that came on the radio now, I would still sing along. That put the idea of melody into my head. My mum and dad were much more into Gilbert and Sullivan, which in their own way are fantastic songs – brilliantly written with great melodies. Meanwhile my brother would smoke dope in the garage and listen to Eric Clapton with his mates. They’d play the Blues Breakers record all the time, really loud: I loved it. And Crossroads is fantastic, that’s one of the first things I tried to learn on the acoustic guitar.

Weren’t you an Alex Harvey fan?
Yeah, a lot later. I discovered my own music around 13 and went to concerts on my own.

What was your first gig?
Rory Gallagher, he was a genius. That was the Brighton Dome and I bought a ticket on a whim. I got my dad to phone up, he knew someone who knew someone who knew someone. I went down on the train, stopped in the pub, had two pints…

Aged 13?
Yeah! I wore big glam shoes when I wanted to get served in the pub. In those days you got served in the pub if you were ten, to be honest.

Simpler times…
Exactly! You’d give someone an extra 15p and they’d buy you a pint while you sat outside. But I came away from that gig thinking it was so fucking excellent that I went on a series of Brighton jaunts for the next few years to see whoever was playing. I saw Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers and Alex Harvey because I’d seen him on a BBC2 arts show doing Next with a string quartet, and that was another hugely formative moment because it was so fucking good. He was, essentially, the first punk. I mean it’s a trite thing to say, but he really had that attitude of confusing people and his background was so theatrical. Alex was in tandem with Bowie. Just like everyone else my age, I remember seeing Starman on Top Of The Pops in the summer of 1972. That year I went on holiday with my family and throughout it all I had these images of him doing Starman in my head. He lived the life that you dreamed about. I thought it must beso good to be David Bowie.

Did you see him live at that time?
I did, he played in London at the horrible, soulless Earls Court, and he played for less than an hour. Now, that ticket cost me an awful lot of money. My friends and I had saved up our dinner money! In a funny way, that was the biggest legacy I ever got from Bowie. It taught me to never underestimate how much this means to the people that come to see you.

So he disappointed you?
Not as such, what he was doing was genius, but there wasn’t enough of it! He had a million songs he could have done, but he didn’t. He went home. And so we left feeling rubbish. To this day, I remember that feeling of somebody who’s very young, who’s looked forward to something so much…

You don’t want to be left wanting more; you want to be filled up to the brim?
Yes! I want the lights to come up and think, “Fuck!”

Backstage at a modern rock festival is a lot like being at work. Most people are on laptops or phones, tapping away while drinking mineral water and looking a wee bit earnest. When you look around, you realise that almost everyone, whether in a band or not, looks sort of the same – Ray-Bans, tatts, beard/hat, raggedy T-shirt, skinny jeans. No one looks anything like The Cure at all, which is sort of brilliant. When Smith walks through the backstage area, even the people in bands you recognise (hello, matey from Mars Volta; hello, lady from Katzenjammer) can’t help themselves gawping just a little. The Cure’s dressing room is at the end of a corridor next to tonight’s headliners, New Order. For most of the evening the door is tight shut, but at one point that other blond singer of the Sumner clan, Bernard, pops out and hollers, “Hello, Robert!” and the two have an enormously cheery chat; grizzled veterans still in the trenches, still topping the bills. It is an utterly disarming moment.

We jump back in the van and are whisked to the rear of the stage just in time to see The xx say, “Thangeweverymatch, g’night!” When Smith goes to say hello, they beam at him. Not one of them looks a day over 16. Unlike pretty much every person I’ve ever spoken to in a band, Smith actually says he’d like to go back to being at their stage of life, for it not to be all done yet, for the story still to be written. Back in the dressing room, Gallup and guitarist Reeves Gabrels – he of Tin Machine and Rubber Rodeo – walk around with their instruments around their necks absent-mindedly strumming. It reminds me a little of a description I once read of a porn-film set where the male actors would wander about nude, forever tugging at themselves to stay in, well, shape.

Tonight The Cure will play a “short” set – two hours, only about 100 hits – and just seconds before they go on, Smith will call his wife, Mary, to make sure she’s OK (they’re childhood sweethearts and met when Robert was 14 and Mary 15, and married in 1988).

From my vantage point from the side of the stage I can see the crowd going back for miles, and the next day I find my phone is full of blurry (half-drunk) shots taken through the endless dry ice. Inside info: at the very back of the stage is a little tent full of towels and booze. That’s where the band stands before the encore. Next to it is a private portaloo. After they come off stage we drink champagne in the dressing room and someone passes around sandwiches. Smith, Gallup and I head back to see New Order, who are very good but we all agree they’re missing something without Hooky.

“Surely they’re old enough to get over it,” Smith says. “Fucking hell! Me and him have!” he adds, indicating his bass-player stood next to him.

What do you remember of being a very new band?
When we started doing this, I was still at school. When we did Three Imaginary Boys it was spiky, it wasn’t really me. I remember bending Lol’s ear to be a bit more like XTC. I played with the Banshees [after their guitarist John McGeoch suddenly left] through our first tour, and it allowed me to think beyond what we were doing. I wanted to have a band that does what Steve Severin and Budgie do, where they just get a bassline and the drum part and Siouxsie wails.

Who were you listening to then?
Nick Drake and Van Morrison were my touchstones. And funnily enough, Space Oddity. But I also listened to the Gayane Ballet Suite by Khachaturian, which sounds terribly pretentious, but if anyone listens to it, they’ll discover the most brilliant sound. I wanted to incorporate all that into an album, and that was what Seventeen Seconds was all about. My dream was to be someone who could go anywhere and play music: in some ways that’s still my dream. As with everyone that’s young, I exuded confidence, but I wasn’t a confident person, just better at bull-shitting than everyone else.

Were you a control freak?
Totally. If anyone ever touched what I was trying to do, I would literally fire them. The record company were never allowed near us and I drove for the Seventeen Seconds and Faith tours rather than have anyone near us who was an outsider. I was obsessed, but it all ended in tears with Pornography.

Why?
Because I was mental. I remember being number one in New Zealand. I was about 20 and these two guys gave me acid and it was fucking excellent. I loved it, and for quite a few years afterwards I took a lot of acid. It allowed me to see other people’s point of view. It’s funny looking back, because I opened the Doors Of Perception but I didn’t quite walk through.

Did you want to be a pop star?
No! I just wanted to not regret anything. That was my driving force. It sounds really old-fashioned and naive, but integrity was paramount. That’s why I liked Alex Harvey and Nick Drake and Jimi Hendrix, because they had integrity.

“I saw Rory Gallagher – genius. And Tom Petty. And Alex Harvey doing Next with a string quartet, another hugely formative moment”

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Recently I interviewed Damon Albarn, and he was saying how his approach to creativity is to get up every day, take his daughter to school, go to the studio, smoke a spliff and go, “Right, here we go then…”

Nick Cave does the same thing, doesn’t he? OK, I’ll have to think very seriously about what I’m going to say. I hate… (long pause) No, I don’t hate anything. (Pause) Right, I feel that there’s a great desire from a certain hardcore part of our audience for new Cure stuff constantly. But as I grow older, I feel that would sully what we have done before. I have an overwhelming urge to do stuff, from time to time, but it’s less frequent as I grow older. And I don’t ever agonise about it. If I don’t write words, I’ve got nothing to say, it’s that simple. We’ve made 13 albums and I’d love to do a 14th – in fact we’ve almost finished a 14th – but there’s no rush for it.

Is that about age?
Simon was saying to me today, you don’t feel age on stage. That’s true, and our songs transcend age. For a brief moment. I’m never going to do a Madonna and go on stage in suspenders and tights and pretend I’m 20. We’re not a young band any more, but in our heads, particularly with me and Simon, that punk idea is still there. We know when it’s shit, and we know when it’s really good. Like tonight was really good. I could sing! I don’t want to be the responsible adult on stage, that’s why I still drink. If I can’t do this in the way I did it when I was 15, I won’t do it.

Do you still get the same thrill?
I do, but the other side of it is, now that we’re older I realise that we’re coming close to the end of what we’re doing. So I’m determined to milk every moment of what I do on stage.

You’re contemplating the end of The Cure?
Well, we are a lot closer to the end! We couldn’t tour in the same way as we used to. It would be physically impossible for me to tour, because I refuse to not do this (lifts drink). I’m not going to go on and just sing the songs, but I also know I’m heading towards my mid-fifties, so there’s no fucking way I’m going to do a hundred shows in four months and they’ll all be great shows.

So the last tour was the last tour?
Yes. I haven’t said this for 20 years, but the last tour was the last world tour that I will ever do with The Cure. That tour taxed me so phenomenally. It’s a sad admission, but actually I’ve never, ever performed without taking some kind of stimulant: I can’t do it. My natural state is not one of a performer, it’s like something I’ve been saddled with. I love writing songs, I love writing words, I love singing at home, I love doing demos. We go in the studio, and then we go on stage, and I have to be this performer. I fucking love doing it, but I have to be able to do it my way.

Have you ever had a real job?
Are you saying this isn’t a real job?

Well, it’s not really. Have you ever done a day’s work in your life?
When I left school I was a postman for a brief period: about a week. And I was a gardener for an equally brief period. Slightly longer, actually: two weeks. Then I went back on the dole. A huge part of my drive to succeed has been the idea of not having to get up in the morning.

I was touched by seeing you phone Mary just before you went on stage.
Well, Mary lives on my hours, so she’ll have been waiting up. I’ll phone her again in about an hour’s time [about 4am]. She’s on her own at home and I like to hear her say, “I hope it’s good.” She always says, “Sing well!”

You played Just Like Heaven tonight and there’s that lyric, “Why are you so far away, she said”, which always sounds so real. Like you love this person so much, but they’re always pissing off somewhere.

That’s why throughout the tours of 1987, 1989 and 1992 we took all the wives, all the girlfriends, all the family. We had three buses full of entourage, but we could afford it. We would have entire hotels sometimes. It was insane, the money we spent. But what else would we do with it? The whole point was then you didn’t go home and have to explain what you’d done. Of course, all that tailed off after Wish, because I went a bit mental.

In what way?
Because I couldn’t take the attention any more. When you’re U2, what do you do? It wasn’t us, it wasn’t me.

Didn’t you ever want to be the biggest band in the world?
No! I wanted to be the band that I would love, going to my grave. That has always been my dream. There’s a price to be paid for being U2 and it’s not a price I want to pay. So many people earn so much money out of a band when they’re on that trajectory. You are surrounded by fucking arseholes. You end up with people you would have pissed on when you were 17.

He still phones his wife before going on stage. “I like to hear her say, ‘I hope it’s good’. She always says, ‘Sing well!’”

Would you rather be at home with your feet up watching the telly?
I would love to be at home but I can’t be. I can cancel if I want. Or not book it in the first place. Or just not turn up.

But you don’t.
No, of course I don’t, because I’d rather do this! There is never any question of that.

You only ever do what you want, when you want to do it?
Yes. We would do more if I didn’t have such a happy home life. But we will never do another world tour. I have loved pretty much all of my life and there have been other times when I’ve wished myself on Mars rather than do this, but that’s entirely my own fault.

Bands love to moan, don’t they?
Oh God they do, and when bands bleat it’s because they’re just doing too much. They’re tired! My entire extended family do normal jobs, they’re policeman and ambulance-drivers. You wouldn’t expect them to drink twelve pints and take four lines of coke and moan about getting up.

My theory about you was always that you had freed yourself of all responsibility, but I’m not sure that’s true now.

I don’t have responsibilities of my own, but I’m keenly aware of other people’s, so I try not to bleat about how my life is so fucking hard, because it isn’t. Mary always says to me, “You could be here…” She teases me, like your wife does. I’m sure both of them would rather be here than sat at home. She’s tired of this life. She needs to know I’m doing this for a good reason, that there’s a new experience there. For example, playing Wrong Number with Reeves, that’s an experience that I’ve never had before and it’s a great feeling. That’s what it’s about, we certainly don’t need the money. Nowadays I like to think we’re an irritant. We’ve been written out of history in one sense, like we’re just not important. Do I sound bitter?

No. I’m just surprised to hear it, because my experience is that everyone has at least some emotional connection with The Cure.
I walked into this one. But the thing that keeps me sane is that every band likes The Cure. That matters. But media-wise, in Britain we’re not liked because… I haven’t played the game.

That’s not true!
Of course it fucking is! People like us again now, but that’s down to our Bestival resurgence. And it wasn’t even that good. They were a fucking great audience, and they wanted us to be good, and we played some good songs, but in a weird four-piece way. I sang my heart out, and the ripples went out and suddenly, “Fucking hell, it’s The Cure, they’re still going!” If I had thinner skin, I would be weeping!

Do you feel like you’ve not been properly appreciated?
Of course I do, how many covers have I been on! Millions! Look, I apologise. I’m griping and I don’t actually feel it at all. Have I come across as angry?

No, I’m just surprised that you think like that.
The band would like me to engage more, really. And the reason why I don’t is because I don’t want to. But, can I say this, and this is like the dumbest thing anyone can ever say in an interview, but as I get older I find myself being honest, and it’s boring as fuck! I hate myself, I really do. Why can’t I just make stuff up any more? Then I think, what’s the point? I no longer want people to be “intrigued” by me. Anyway, I thought we were excellent tonight, I really did. I still want a crowd to think, “Fuck, I want to be in The Cure!” It’s dumb, but that’s pop music. It’s like you were saying earlier – in the cold light of day it’s fucking stupid, but at the time, when you’re just drawn into it, it’s everything, it’s still absolutely everything.

With that, Smith jumps up to try and sort the key problem at the check-in desk. It’s 4.30 in the morning and he has to be up in a few hours to fly home for a family football party (he’s already put in his pizza order), but he wades in regardless – still wearing his stage makeup, still all in black, still that bloke from The Cure.

Still the very best we have.

© Rob Fitzpatrick.

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