An Interview with Robert Smith


Robert Smith is late. Seems that the mercurial Band leader has spent the previous evening getting soused with Curemates Simon Gallup, Lol Tolhurst and Boris Williams – fifth member Porl Thompson is back home in England – and is now sleeping it off, incommunicado, in his hotel room. This does not sit particularly well with the staff of Manhattan’s $300-a-night St. Regis hotel, who can be forgiven for worrying that an exotic-looking British pop star who’s got his door double-locked and his phone off the hook may be floating face down in the bathtub.

Once a hotel security man is reassured that Smith is indeed still breathing, the now-awakened singer decides he can’t do this interview in his room, because he “decimated” it last night. Once another room has been secured and Smith has checked to make sure that Tolhurst hasn’t sustained any major injuries from last night’s barroom, brawl with Gallup, we can get on with the business of alerting the public to the charms of The Cure’s new double album Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me.

So The Cure’s reputation for boys-night-out mayhem is accurate, eh Robert? Yeah, but it’s a very strange boys’ night out. More like a six-year- olds’ night out than a sixteen-year-olds.

There’ve been plenty of nights out – and personnel changes – since Smith formed The Cure (Easy Cure in its early days) over a decade ago in the middle-class London suburb of Crawley. The astringent three-minute pop songs of the first Cure LP, 1979’s Three Imaginary Boys (released here in altered form as Boys Don’t Cry), ran against the era’s prevailing punk winds, as did the darker visions of the subsequent Seventeen Seconds and Faith (paired here as a two-LP set entitled Happily Ever After). Smith’s obsessions reached a critical mass on 1982’s Pornography, which depressingly but compellingly chronicled what the artist now calls an extremely stressful, self-destructive period in my life.

With The Cure’s Pornography lineup having fallen apart under the weight of that album’s overpowering gloom, Smith joined Siouxsie and the Banshees as guitarist, contributing to that group’s albums Nocturne and Hyaena, and recording an album with Banshees bassist Steve Severin as The Glove. With The Cure reduced to a part time studio entity, Smith and faithful drum- mer-cum-keyboardist Tolhurst recorded a trio of uncharacteristically bright singles (Let’s Go To Bed, The Walk and the prophetically playful The Lovecats) and the distracted-sounding album The Top. In 1984, Smith quit the Banshees and refocused his attention on The Cure, assem- bling the five-piece lineup – including guitarist Thompson, who’d played in an unrecorded early Cure incarnation – that appears on the live disc Concert.

The current Cure – Smith, Tolhurst, Thompson, bassist Gallup (who’d replaced original member Michael Dempsey in 1979 and left after Porno- Graphy) drummer Williams – first appeared on 1985’s Tbe Head On The Door, which proved to be a commercial breakthrough for the band in the U.S., where the giddy pop tracks like “Inbetween Days” and “Close To Me” (and the accompanying Tim Pope-directed videos) helped win the refur- bished quintet on enthusiastic young audience.

The group’s American popularity was solidified by last year’s compilation album Standing On A Beach: The Singles.

Standing On A Beach also landed The Cure in a heap of controversy, when the leadoff track, 1978’s “Killing An Arab” – an antiviolence vignette based on a scene from Albert Camus’ book The Strang- er – was misinterpreted and adopted as a racist anthem by certain American djs. After the Ameri- can-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee raised official objections, Smith and Elektra, the band’s U.S. label, drew up a cover sticker explaining the song’s intent, and requested that radio stations discontinue airing the song.

“It was a compromise, really, but one that was forced on us,” says Smith. “There were other ways out of it, but they all would have been more painful for us. We could have insisted that everything stay as it was, but I had to make a gesture that people would understand. I just despaired, really, that I had to step in and explain, and I got very annoyed at Elektra’s initial suggestion that they delete the song but keep selling the album, which we refused to do. I said that they could delete the album if they wanted to, but they couldn’t take the song off.

“The song was written in 1976, when I was 16. We used to play it in a pub in Crawley and it didn’t seem that earth shattering at the time, and it seemed quite ludicrous to me that it suddenly became an issue last year. It was only when someone suggested that it was somehow some sort of publicity stunt that I thought, ‘This has really gotten out of hand,’ and that’s when I asked for it to be withdrawn from airplay, just to make it obvious that we had no interest in perpetuating it as an onrunning issue. It was just unfortunate that the real world intruded.”

Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, The Cure’s first collection of new music since The Head On The Door, shows the band both at its most manically poppy (“Why Can’t I Be You?,” “Catch”) and its most angst-ridden (“Fight,” “Snake Pit”). Since this album seems likely to play a pivotal role in The Cure’s career in the American music industry, and since nobody makes double albums anymore, Smith’s insistence on releasing it in its complete four-sided state might not have struck The Cure’s corporate keepers as the most expedient move.

“Yeah, we heard mutterings of commercial suicide’ and all the rest of it,” says Smith. “They wanted to use an American mix engineer, like Bob Clearmountain, who would have made it sound more acceptable to an American ear, or what they imagine is an American ear. But we’ve always heard that kind of thing from our American record companies – this is our fourth – and we’ve never paid attention to any of it. Everything we’ve ever done has been very selfishly motivated, and obviously it works for enough other people to make it possible for us to continue.

“We never imagined we’d do a double album until we’d actually come to a logical finish in the studio. We actually finished 35 tracks, and we had animated disagreement about choosing 18 for the album. Cutting it down further would have made it either too pop or too weighted towards the longer, more atmospheric pieces – neither of which would have given the album a real balance. Or we could have released it as two single albums, but I prefer the idea of putting it all out now and moving on to the next thing.”

Smith feels that the album’s stylistic diversity has a lot to do with the fact that the rest of the band members contributed during the writing stages, rather than just interpreting and embellishing Smith’s completed composition. “They’d been really lazy on The Head On The Door, and I told them that on the next record we made, I would expect them to come in with ideas, otherwise I would humiliate them in public or something. I insisted that they bring cassettes of their own stuff, and we sat down and listened to the tapes and gave them marks, and the ones that got the highest marks were the ones we used. Very much 1ike the Eurovision Song Contest, really.”

Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me was made after a period in which Smith immersed himself in The Cure’s past, assembling Standing On A Beach’s companion-piece home video Staring At The Sea and writing a soon-to-be-published book documenting the band’s first decade. “When I was working on the book, I surrounded myself with a few beers and listened to everything The Cure have ever done. I sat there for a day and a night and wrote down what I thought of each song, and I was quite surprised at what I’d always thought I liked and what I’d always thought I didn’t like.

“So I reimmersed myself in certain moods and certain styles that we’d been involved with, that I didn’t think I’d carried through as far as I could. I sort of made mental notes of those, and we used some of them on the new record. So in some way, the new record is almost a resume of everything we’ve done over the years. Half of it’s looking forward, and half of it’s trying to sum up what the group’s done in the past.

“It was very peculiar, going through all the old film footage and reading transcriptions of every- one’s interviews. I got very time-warped, and it overwhelmed me at one point. I had not really been conscious of how much I’d actually done. I was quite horrified, particularly when I reached the point from Pornography through to The Top, reading what I’d said in interviews from that time. It was like a completely different person.”

The release of Standing On A Beach gave the band some helpful breathing space between al- bums, according to Smith. “The Head On The Door pushed us into the next level of public consciousness, and it was nice to step away from that and not have to worry about following it up right away. It gave us an enormous amount of time to think about the next record, and it made us very itchy to get back into the studio and do something.

“It would have been stupid to try to force something that would have consolidated The Head On The Door by concentrating on the more pop aspect of The Cure. I think this record leaves the slate really clean for what we could do next. I’m sure that when we do the next thing, it will present itself very naturally and very obviously, and it will probably be something that’s completely removed from what we’ve been doing.”

Smith describes the making of Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me as “the most enjoyable period of time I’ve had in the past 10 years. It was in Provence, in the South of France, in an old country mansion with its own vineyard. We recorded it in complete isola- tion, we didn’t allow anyone to hear anything until we’d finished it – no one at all, not even our families. It was a very incestuous, very secretive kind of thing, because we were having so much fun that we didn’t want anyone to come and break the spell.

“It was a very unreal situation – 10 weeks of being completely cut off from the world, with no outside stimulus at all. We had no television, we had no transport to get to the nearest town which was five miles away, and all the food was sent in a van in the morning.

“About halfway through, all the girls came down to join us. I asked Mary (Smith’s girlfriend of 13 years) to sit in the studio when I was singing some of the songs, and it was very strange actually singing to her, which I’d never done before. The only other time she’d been in the studio was on Pornography – she sat in a chair and stared at me when I was singing ‘Siamese Twins,’ I think. “It’s strange, I find it very difficult to sing to people when they’re very close. I’ve always found it much easier to sing in a theater than in a club. So it was very weird to have Mary sitting there watching me. And the rest of the group came in and stared at me when I was singing ‘Shiver And Shake,’ to make me feel uncomfortable so I could sing with an edge. We tried lots of funny things like that.”

Though sections of Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me recall Pornography period Cure, Smith’s new lyrics I generally have a more upbeat feel. “A lot of the words were influenced by where I was when I wrote them,” he says. “I was staying in a little two-room house with a lot of trees around, and it was really conducive to reverie. I thought a lot about how fortunate I am, rather than how unfortunate I am – that’s probably the biggest difference on the whole record. It’s new for me to accept that feeling publicly, I suppose. I don’t know, I just felt very content and lived at the time. But there have been times when the same environment has brought on enormous fits of obsessive depression – the two go hand-in-hand with me, unfortunately.

“There’s no logic to it, and I still don’t know why or how I do it,” Smith says of his much-analyzed songwriting. “I woke up this afternoon surrounded by sheets of paper covered with writing, and I’ll dutifully tuck them away and try to make some sense of them in a few months. I’m absorbing things all the time. I won’t do anything creatively for months at a time, and it all sort of bottles up inside until I just feel the urge to explode.”

Smith has always maintained that he draws a a good deal of his lyrical inspiration from dreaming. But, he says, “It’s a bit like the drinking thing, it’s become mythological. I don’t think I dream any more than anybody else – I can’t, because I sleep less than the average person. It’s just that I’m blessed, or cursed, with the ability to remember what I’ve dreamed. When I was 11 or 12, I used to write them down as soon as I woke up, and after doing that for about two years I found that I didn’t have to. It’s good and it’s bad – it’s awful waking up and remembering you’ve just axed to death a family of 15. I’m not a repressed person at all, and I’m not overly self-conscious, so my dreams tend to be very flamboyant.”

The intimate nature of his lyrics, combined with Smith’s appealingly odd public persona, has won the singer his share of obsessively ardent and/or unstable fans. “Yeah, we do have some strange admirers” he admits. “I don’t really mind, I quite enjoy a lot of it. The others make a joke of it and try to worry me about it, whispering ‘John Lennon, John Lennon.’ But it’s not something I dwell on. “There have been a couple of people that have worried me over the years. A girl once killed herself, and her sister sent me the girl’s diary – she believed that she knew me, and that everything I was writing was for her. And there was someone else who was a bit rude…But it’s actually less evident now that we’ve become more popular. ‘Now, they usually just send one letter saying ‘Why have you become popular?’ and then they sort of drift off”

While fewer Cure fans may be looking to him as a spiritual advisor, Smith’s visibility as an inter- national teen idol is higher than ever. Thousands moaned last year when, just prior to a major U.S. tour, Smith eighty-sixed his trademark spidery tresses (he’s since grown it back to its slightly less flamboyant Pornography-era length).

“It actually made a national paper in France, the fact that I had cut my hair,” he marvels. ‘The day after I did it, I walked into the Fiction (the band’s U.K. label) office, and there was dead silence. They said, ‘But you’re on stage in America in less than a . week!’ I said, ‘I haven’t broken my arms or anything, I’m still here.’ ‘But you’ve cut your hair off.’ And I realized that even the people who have been around me for years had grown so used to the idea that my hair was important.

I did it very late at night, under the influence of drink, although I’d been wanting to cut it off for a month and didn’t have the courage. I was looking in the mirror, going ‘Even I’m worried about my fucking hair,’ so I just hacked it off. It was a gesture, I suppose, but there was also a very boring reason for it – I just got fed up with making it stick up. Beyond that, I realized that it had become such a feature, and I wanted to present myself as some- thing a little more stark and a bit more real. I read a particular review saying how cuddly I was, and I didn’t want to he known as cuddly.

“People assume that I look the way I look because I’m in a group, because a lot of people in groups – particularly heavy metal bands – look one way when they’re in public and look another way in their off-hours. But I would look this way even if I was just going shopping.”

But although his visual image has inspired legions of fans to emulate his hairstyle and dress sense, Smith shows little interest in his status as fashion trendsetter. “Actually, I’m very scruffy and lazy about it,” he says. “I mean, I was wearing this jumper and these jeans on the cover of Seventeen Seconds I don’t ever worry ahout that sort of thing – when I find something I like, I just wear it until it falls apart.

“Actually, I’m very distraught about these trousers,” he confesses, gazing ruefully at his jeans right knee. “For several months, Simon and Porl have been rubbing their fingers on my knee whenever they get next to me, and it’s turned into this hole. Bastards! Now I’ll have to get new trousers.”

Smith’s tolerance of his bandmates’ assaults on his wardrobe attests to his satisfaction with the current Cure, at three years the band’s longest- standing lineup yet. “I think everyone is starting to feel more confident and secure within the group,” says Smith. “I think everybody realizes that I’ve been aspiring to this particular way of working. It’s become a real group.

“I think the reason for a lot of the lineup changes in the past has been that we wouldn’t acknowledge that there were,tensions. Whereas now, there’s still, tensions, but everyone knows when to back off. We’ve already gone through a crisis which sort of destroyed the group, so we can see it coming now. Now, the people in the group would rather just disappear to their rooms than see the argument through to its bloody climax.”

Though Elektra seems confident about Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me’s chances of firmly establishing The Cure as a top-selling act in the States, Smith remains skeptical. “If I look at what’s in the Top 50 in America, I can’t believe that there’s any chance of us ever being successful here, because it’s the most depressingly bland selection of records. Our audience here increases year by year, but I personally think that there’s a ceiling on how successful we can be in America. I’m quite surprised we’ve gotten as far as we have, to be honest.

“Obviously, I would like to look at the American charts and see the Cocteau Twins at No. 1, Echo and the Bunnymen at No. 2, The Jesus and Mary Chain at No. 3, and The Cure straight in at No. 4. But it’s not very likely to happen, and it doesn’t worry me. The only thing that hugs me is that we do sell a certain amount of records here and we’re still not playing on the radio. That’s really frustrating, because you can’t really offer people a choice if people aren’t aware that the choice is there. I’ve always wanted all sorts of people to listen to what we did. There’s no element of musical snobbery in The Cure – I think it’s dreadful pretending that your music should only be listened to by a certain type of person.”

Though The Cure’s mainstream acceptance has grown steadily since The Head On The Door, Smith feels that the band is “much too odd to ever really fit in. When we went to Ireland to rehearse, we asked for 25 of the Top 50 albums to he sent over so we could listen to them in the evenings, just to see what sort of things people were buying. And all of them, apart from the Pogues album and the Kate Bush singles album and the XTC album, ended up smashed against the wall. Everything else was horrifying, really – although Simon did try to save the Madonna album.”

Nonetheless, Smith is one of Britain’s favorite pop pinups, and the band is popular enough to justify a project like the new concert movie The Cure In Orange. “I still think it’s really funny that people make postcards and posters of us. It’s embarrassing, because we stand in airports laughing at everyone else’s postcards, and then we turn around and there’s us. But I’m not really aware of it at all, unless we’re actually doing something as a group, because I live a very normal life when I’m not working with The Cure.”

Smith got an unpleasant reminder of his celebrity recently when he attempted to drive through France (where The Cure are huge) after the band finished recording the new album. “I slept in the smallest, most remote places,” he says, “and in the morning there’d always be like 30 people outside the hotel because they’d found out that I was staying there. It was a fucking nightmare, and I realized very quickly that I didn’t like that level of success. I find it really difficult to cope with, and if it existed everywhere, I would disappear and the group would stop.”

On their current tour, the quintet is accompanied by keyboardist Roger O’Donnell (nicked from the Psychedelic Furs’ road band), whom Smith says may end up sticking around for future Cure projects. That is, if there are any future Cure projects.

“Whenever we do anything,” Smith explains, “I always think it’s going to be the last time. The last time we toured America, every night I said, ‘Right, this is the last time we play Los Angeles’ or whatever. When we went on stage at the Pier last year, I said ‘This is the last time we’re gonna play New York,’ and they said ‘You said that last year.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, but this is the last time we play New York.’ I always have that feeling, and it’s a genuine feeling. Like, when we made this record, I really thought, ‘This has got to be the best Cure record, because it’s gonna be the last.”‘

Fans needn’t panic, though. “I do want to make another Cure album,” Smith asserts. “I’m already thinking of what we could do next, but I would never force it. I’m sure that I will itch to do something else with the group, and when I think it’s time for us to do something, we will. But it’s not mapped out, because the way we work is too haphazard, too illogical.

The group evolved out of my desire to do something,” continues Smith, “and it’s a fear of not doing something that drives me to do things. The group exists because it’s necessary for me to have it – even if no one listened, there would be something there, so I could have something to do. It’s not really like a career. It’s there because I still feel the need to howl at people.”

He says he’s already absorbing influences that are likely to pop up on the next Cure Lp. “I just got the most godlike guitar. It’s a sitar-guitar; there’s only a couple of hundred that were ever made and I’d been trying to find one for seven years. I finally found one; and the bloke in the shop gave it to me in exchange for one of my guitars. It was one of the happiest moments of my life – I just sat there and held it for 10 minutes before I even played it, It’s got the most brilliant sound, and I’m starting to visualize the effect that this guitar will have on the next album.”

As for Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Smith reflects, “This is the perfect record we could have made at this moment. I thought it was right for the band to make a hugely entertaining record now, because that will allow us to leave off at a certain point in the public’s awareness, and then come back with something that could be really horrid, but people will he forced to listen to it anyway because the media will have been tricked into playing The Cure. That’s always been a big part of what we do – setting people up, so we can go and do the real thing.”

July 22, 1987

Harold De Muir


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