I’ve got a Facebook page,” says Robert Smith, “but I’ve never put anything on it. I’ve got a presence on all the social networks, in fact, but I’ve never once sent a message. I’m there because otherwise, someone’s going to pretend to be me. The idea of doing an interview nowadays … I have no interest or desire in having a conversation with anyone other than the people that I know. I’m in the strange position of the world drifting away from me, but you know what? I’m actually quite content with that. It doesn’t bother me in the slightest. I don’t feel like, ‘Oh God, I’m being left behind.'”
Like a pan-sticked Peter Pan, there is something eternally teenage about Robert Smith. He is an excellent interviewee: forthcoming, erudite – even slightly mischievous. Any such levity, however, is leavened by the tacit acknowledgment that existence is futile, and we are all just bags of flesh and bones whiling away the days before death and putrefaction sets in.
“Your paper’s got the most respect, though, hasn’t it?” says the crown prince of 80s gloom. “Particularly with all the recent stuff that’s gone on, the phone hacking.” Given his moping, introspective image, it is something of a surprise to find Smith is politicised, a proud Guardianista and, he says, “a liberal kind of guy”. He no longer lives in London, but followed the recent riots on TV. “I’m old enough to remember the Brixton riots – I remember the police and the miners’ strike and how very brutal that was, and it was a very different thing, it felt very political. This sort of is – but it also isn’t, because people are breaking into stores just to steal stuff. That’s where it all breaks down. It’s wanton destruction in many ways. It’s really sad. You can sort of understand, because a million people go on a march to try to stop a war and nobody takes any notice. But you don’t respond to it by stealing trainers and burning down fucking doughnut shops.”
He ponders the negative effects of our 24-hour news culture. “They keep showing the same images over and over, and it gives the impression it’s happening everywhere, all the time. Perspective has been lost. Suddenly you’ve got these polls saying, ‘Give the police live ammunition.’ And I’m like, ‘Hold on! It’s not that bad, really’!” It is, he thinks, “a dream come true for Theresa May … it just paves the way for the police to be armed, curfews to be put in. It’s like we’re all sliding inexorably towards this fucking police state, populated with roaming gangs, like a 2000AD comic.”
‘In the west, we see people being rewarded for doing nothing; it wouldn’t matter if they died, but we see them being rewarded with massive sums of money’
So what broke Britain? Inequality, thinks Smith. “The top 1% is hundreds of times richer than the bottom 30, and it’s got worse – it’s got worse under Labour, and why is nothing being done about it? In the west, we see people being rewarded for doing nothing; they create nothing, it wouldn’t matter if they died, but we see them being rewarded massive sums of money … even I get angry.”
It’s been well over two years since the Cure – the band that a teenage Smith formed with a few schoolmates at a Sussex comprehensive way back in 1978 – have played a show in the UK. In the run-up to the release of their last album, 2008’s 4:13 Dream, the band embarked on a year-long world tour. Shows drew on songs from throughout the Cure’s catalogue, some sets breaking the three-hour mark, and Smith returned to the UK to be showered in plaudits including NME’s Godlike Genius award, plus a different sort of landmark – his 50th birthday. For a while, though, he says, he was unsure if the Cure would ever play live again. “I hated the idea of sliding into the twilight zone, going through the motions,” he says. “My whole life I’ve played music for my own personal enjoyment and the idea of it becoming a machine or a business is just horrible.”
For 18 months, then, Robert Smith all but disappeared. He listened to music he hadn’t listened to for years, old blues and jazz records, and read voraciously. He recorded a handful of guest vocals, for Crystal Castles and the Japanese Popstars. The world turned awhile. Then, in early 2011, the Cure’s management got a call from Bestival, who wondered if the Cure might want to headline this year’s event. They did, although the idea that this is a fully fledged return comes with some qualification. He’s only speaking to the Guardian today, Smith says, because [organiser] “Rob da Bank said, ‘Will you do one interview for us?’ And I said yes. So this is for them. Dunno why Björk’s not doing it; she’s playing, isn’t she?”
Rising out of the murky post-punk ferment, the Cure came to characterise a distinct moment in UK music, as the urgent energy of punk hollowed out into something beautiful and bleak. Throughout the early-80s, they crafted a string of peerlessly gloomy records – dark ink-blots of despair like 1981’s Faith and 1982’s Pornography – before changing direction and guiding their sound into poppier realms. Songs such as The Lovecats and Friday I’m In Love, says Smith, didn’t grow out of any commercial ambition, but because they just, well, seemed right. “Faith was the sound of extreme desolation because that’s how we felt at the time,” he says. “But we didn’t continue doing that because that’s what we thought our fans wanted. Five years later we were on all sorts of stupid pop shows taking the piss out of ourselves. Down the years, we’ve done primarily what I feel, and to a great extent what the people around me feel; when people cease to feel the same way they slip out of that inner circle.”
Even today, Smith bristles slightly at the term “goth”, not because he dislikes the term, but because “it’s only people that aren’t goths that think the Cure are a goth band … we were like a raincoat, shoegazing band when goth was picking up.” The tag has stuck, probably, because of Smith’s signature look – the backcombed hair, the messily applied lipstick. “It’s an identifying process I’ve kept down the years. I wear black – I’m wearing black now, I always have. I don’t do it because I’m making a statement, I do it because it’s … I don’t know, slimming? You don’t have to wash so often? Probably the main reason is that all my clothes are black. I often ask, ‘Does it come in white?’ and people just stare at me.”
‘As a character, a public persona, I’m not perceived as politicised; I don’t think I have the gravitas, the way I look, to pull it off’
In the last decade or so, he says, he’s tried to write more songs that engage with the real world. “But very few of them make it on to the final album,” he says. “It has always seemed slightly uncomfortable, the idea of politicised musicians. Very few of them are clever enough to do it; if they’re good at the political side, the music side suffers, and vice versa. As a character, a public persona, I’m not perceived in that way; I don’t think I have the gravitas, the way I look, to pull it off.”
Instead, he continues to return to more personal, introspective themes. There’s a live version of a Cure song called A Boy I Never Knew floating around online, a song that’s not yet made it to a studio album. Smith’s lyric is heartfelt, tender – “I’d love to watch him dream/ Love to see him sleep/ To have his arms around me,” he sings – and fans have speculated it is a song about fatherhood, or the lack of (Smith and his wife, Mary, have chosen to remain childless).
Smith admits the song is personal, partly inspired by friends that have lost children, but reveals its initial seed was the story of Turkana Boy, a fossil discovered by the paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey. “He was a million years old, so he was not quite one of us, but close enough. I read a very moving article that pieced together his last day: he fell in mud by a riverbank, died, and was fossilised. The bond between parent and child is something I’ll only experience one way, and it seems to transcend pretty much everything. Every animal would rather die themselves than lose their offspring. But it’s just genes, isn’t it? All of our existence is spent worrying about the next generation, but we don’t actually seem to get anywhere. It’s me worrying about that, really.”
So he’s never wanted to pass on his own genes? “I’ve never regretted not having children. My mindset in that regard has been constant. I objected to being born, and I refuse to impose life on someone else. Living, it’s awful for me. I can’t on one hand argue the futility of life and the pointlessness of existence and have a family. It doesn’t sit comfortably.
“I enjoy myself hugely,” he says, with a laugh, “but you know, it’s despite myself, really.”
© Louis Pattison & The Guardian