Robert Smith was checking out some National Guitars and decided to buy the RED one on the night The Cure was inducted into Hollywood’s RockWalk.
Robert Smith was checking out some National Guitars and decided to buy the RED one on the night The Cure was inducted into Hollywood’s RockWalk.
For nearly 30 years, Robert Smith of the British rock band the Cure has been identified with his spidery hairdo, his heavy eyeliner and lipstick, and his yelp. That stifled sob gives Mr. Smith’s lyrics an enviable urgency, whether as a sigh of ecstasy or an anguished lament. Throughout the 80’s the Cure built a cult following with bouncy MTV hits like ”Let’s Go to Bed” and the prom-night smash ”Just Like Heaven” as well as dark albums of goth drone like ”Pornography” and ”Disintegration.”
But despite Mr. Smith’s punchy guitar patterns, pleading melodies and melancholy grandeur, he was considered a dreamy lightweight compared to serious-minded contemporaries like Michael Stipe of R.E.M and Bono of U2. And though Mr. Smith remained a black-clad pied piper of adolescent depressives around the world, no one had him figured as a major rock influence. But now, Mr. Smith’s yelp is everywhere.
Neo-80’s bands like New York’s Interpol and the Rapture (whose Luke Jenner is the most pronounced yelper of the lot) write darkly reflective songs that hark back to the Cure’s early albums, weaving sharp guitar or keyboards over anxious, danceable beats. But the emo-folk singer Conor Oberst, of Bright Eyes, owes a debt as well — his own yelp approximates Mr. Smith’s public displays of heartache. And even bands that don’t yelp at all, from the arty hard-rockers the Deftones to the pop-punkers Blink-182 (who featured Mr. Smith on its last record), credit Mr. Smith for giving them license to express feelings of vulnerability that might be frowned upon in their own genres.
The Cure will releases its impressive, self-titled new album (I Am/Geffen) on Tuesday. The video for the first single, ”The End of the World,” is playing on MTV. And later this summer, the band will headline its own Curiosa tour, with help from its younger progeny the Rapture, Interpol, Cursive, Mogwai and Thursday. The question arises: how did Robert Smith, this sobbing wraith, become the godfather of woe?
In the 80’s, the Cure wooed arty fans who wore a vaguely defined sadness as a badge of significance. While his mopey British rival Morrissey attracted a snide intellectual set with complaints about class and sexual politics in a conservative society, Mr. Smith offered self-pitying lyrics like these from ”Homesick”: ”Oh it was sweet, it was wild, and oh how I trembled stuck in honey/ honey, cling to me so just one more, just one more go inspire in me the desire in me to never go home.” With his yelp lending petulance to the entreaty of ”In Between Days” or futility to the crumpled gratitude of ”Lovesong,” Mr. Smith’s over-the-top-displays of vulnerability turned navel-gazing self-pity into a kind of liberation. And lonely brooders found community within the band’s growing cult. Detractors criticized Mr. Smith’s preoccupation with duplicitous fairies and hanging gardens as absurd, a kind of campy catharsis, but the young fans gladly identified with his ”me’s” and ”you’s.”
This epic self-involvement is something the emo rockers have inherited. In the sense that emo ”privileges private drama,” as Andy Greenwald writes in his recent book, ”Nothing Feels Good,” Mr. Smith is a forefather of the genre. On Web sites where teenage emo fans congregate, like livejournal.com (and the decidedly more goth deadjournal.com), the Cure is often listed in the company of newer bands like Thursday and Bright Eyes.
What these bands share with the Cure is a willingness to make personal weakness central to their aesthetic. But where Mr. Smith cloaks his intimate feelings in romantic symbols like angels and spiders, the others ground theirs in details drawn from their own lives: the circumstances of a friend’s nervous breakdown or a death in a car crash.
Though his music often suggests a constant state of collapse, Mr. Smith, 45, is hardly an emotional wreck. Drugs influenced his darkest 80’s records, but his life is no ”Behind the Music” cautionary tale. He lives in suburban London, has been married for years to his high school sweetheart and takes an active hand in the management of his business affairs.
Mr. Smith has said that his musical idols are Jimi Hendrix and David Bowie, a pairing that provides a clue to the balance he strikes between sad-clown artifice and authentic catharsis. Where Mr. Bowie has freely moved between personas, Mr. Smith has chosen his own lipsticked character to express that part of himself that is crippled with doubt, wracked by lust, fear and regret.
It’s easy to see how Mr. Smith’s theatricality would be more appealing to today’s young bands than the macho posturing of grunge and rap metal they grew up with. Mr. Smith’s makeup recalls the playful visual experimentation that characterized much of early 80’s pop culture. New bands like the the Faint, Interpol and Hot Hot Heat pick up on Mr. Smith’s more stylized transgressions. They adopt 80’s sounds and, to a lesser extent, looks in a quest for what they imagine was a heyday for artistic expression. For bands that don’t write confessional lyrics, the imitation of Mr. Smith’s yelp can simply be a way to convey urgency, even if its just an urgent need for bodies on the dance floor.
The Cure’s previous album, ”Bloodflowers,” from 2000, was supposed to be the band’s swan song. After its release, Mr. Smith left his longtime label, Fiction/Elektra, and pondered a solo career. It was Ross Robinson, the producer of bands like Limp Bizkit and Slipknot and a Cure fan, who convinced Mr. Smith that he should capitalize on this groundswell of young imitators. Mr. Robinson urged the band to record together live, which Mr. Smith had not done with any of his band’s many lineups since his first album. The approach, while not compromising the sound of the Cure, resulted in stretches that recall the aggression of Mr. Robinson’s harder-edged clients.
”The Cure” begins, though, with ”Lost,” a song the emo crowd would appreciate. Backing himself with spare guitar strumming, Mr. Smith admits, ”I can’t find myself.” The song swirls into a rabbit-hole of doubt. Similarly, the midtempo ”The End of the World” finds Mr. Smith singing, ”I can’t remember how to be all you wanted,” before he crashes into a chorus of ”I couldn’t ever love you more.” The exuberant chords of ”Before Three” contrast with the more doomy, metal-sounding ”Labyrinth,” which makes a horror movie out of aging, lamenting the changing face of a familiar companion: ”It’s not the same you/ It never really is.”
In the album’s final song, ”The Promise,” Mr. Smith yelps recriminations to a loved one long gone, showing goth fans he hasn’t strayed from a preoccupation with death. Of course, what ”The Cure” really demonstrates is death’s opposite. As he releases the new album and takes the stage with young admirers, Mr. Smith has succeeded in making overblown sadness a key to survival.
© Laura Sinagra
Robert Smith sat down with us for an interview back in 2004. we enlisted Frankie DiVita to conduct this rare interview
Mike Hedges made his debut as a producer with one of the Cure’s most enduring singles. ‘A Forest’ and the accompanying Seventeen Seconds album used his and the band’s creativity in the studio to the full.
As famous for their depressing dirges as for singer-guitarist Robert Smith’s deathly visage, the Cure rode the post-punk wave during the late 1970s and early 1980s as leading architects of goth rock. By the time the genre hit its stride in the mid-’80s, the band had moved on to more mainstream pastures; but their second album Seventeen Seconds, and especially the single ‘A Forest’, were the definitive goth recordings. Hey, even co-producer/engineer Mike Hedges sported eyeliner back in the spring of 1980…
Around the time that the Seventeen Seconds sessions began in late 1979, bassist Greg Dempsey left to join the Associates and was replaced by Simon Gallup, while keyboard player Matthieu Hartley was added to a line-up that also included Smith and drummer Laurence ‘Lol’ Tolhurst, fleshing out the group’s sound and enabling it to be more experimental and… well, downright gloomy. This, after all, is what lyricist Robert Smith was after: creating a consistently dark and evocative mood by way of sparse musical arrangements and plaintive vocals buried deep within the reverb-laden mix.
“It wasn’t something to elate you, it was something to really make you think,” says Hedges, who would withdraw from the Cure fold after co-producing and engineering the band’s third album, Faith, because, by his own admission, “it was so introspective and so depressing, it did us all in. It was a dark, dark, dark record, and when you work on something like that you’re not laughing and smiling the whole time. You get heavily affected by the music, and by the time we finished it I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. God, was I depressed. I mean, we didn’t fight or anything in the studio. It was just bloody miserable. You know, we’d have a drink and relax between sessions, but we took the recordings themselves very seriously. Robert had a cathartic outpouring of emotions on that album, and because of that it affected all of us.”
That was in 1981, yet the previous year a little commercialism also wasn’t out of the question, as demonstrated by the slightly more pop-edged Seventeen Seconds album and its breakout single, ‘A Forest’. Although the Cure’s first UK hit only peaked at number 31, it would go on to have a lasting influence, becoming almost a signature tune for the band. An exercise in minimalist entrancement, the song actually earned the Cure an appearance on BBC1’s Top Of The Pops, while Seventeen Seconds made it to number 20 on the British album charts.
Mike Hedges was largely responsible for this record’s innovative yet clean-cut production sound, having initially worked with the Cure on his first engineering project a few years earlier. Until then a tea boy, tape-op and assistant at Morgan Studios in Willesden, North London, he had jumped at the opportunity to work with the new band — at that time consisting of just Smith, Dempsey and Tolhurst — when other in-house staff declined the offer. Indeed, the fact that many of his elders considered punk both destructive and beneath them paved the way for Mike Hedges to carve out his own niche by way of a musical form that truly inspired him.
‘Killing An Arab’ was the debut single that resulted from his first collaboration with the Cure, and after leaving Morgan in 1981 to open his own facility, the Playground, in nearby Camden Town, Hedges continued working with the Cure as well as the Associates and Siouxsie and the Banshees. His subsequent credits have included U2, Dido, the Manic Street Preachers, Travis, Texas and the Beautiful South, while in 2002-2003 he took over the legendary Wessex Studios before property developers sadly created an apartment block out of it. While he is currently involved with 2kHz, Hedges’ main domain is now Westside Studios, which houses some of his classic analogue gear including the 60-input EMI TG MkII valve console on which Pink Floyd recorded Dark Side Of The Moon in Abbey Road’s Studio Two.
It was on a 32-channel Harrison 24 series desk inside Morgan’s Studio One that he recorded the Cure during the late ’70s and early ’80s, alongside a 24-track Studer A80 and Urei 813 monitors.
“It was a very large studio, high and rectangular,” he now recalls. “The control room was up some stairs at one end, with the desk to the left of a window that looked down on the main room. For the backing tracks on Seventeen Seconds, the band essentially played in there as a live unit, with the drums in the centre of the back wall, bass to the left, guitar to the right and the keyboards immediately in front of us, under the window.”
Keen To Experiment
While Mike Hedges had engineered the band’s first album Three Imaginary Boys, it was produced by former Polydor A&R man Chris Parry, who had signed the Cure to his own Fiction record label. The Seventeen Seconds project marked Hedges’ debut as a producer, albeit in conjunction with Robert Smith.
“Robert said to me he thought he and I could actually produce the record more to his liking than if a third party did it, and he wanted the freedom that afforded,” Hedges explains. “At the same time, I wanted to get a more unusual sound than that on the first album, something different to the standard recording. As an engineer I was very, very keen to experiment, and Robert encouraged me to do this, so as co-producers he was in charge of the musical direction while I took care of the sonic direction. The band members were very individual, so I wanted a really individual sound, and this led to quite a bit of experimenting and equipment changes. Robert got a better guitar amp and a better guitar — I think he changed to a Fender Jazzmaster — and he also had the Woolworths Top Twenty guitar that he’d used on the first album. You didn’t want to lean on that thing too heavily.
“It really was the drum sound that largely defined the album’s sonic direction,” continues Hedges, whose assistant Mike Dutton was credited as co-engineer. “The C-ducer contact mic had just arrived on the scene at that time, and after testing it in another studio I decided to mic the entire drum kit with C-ducers. I had initially tested the mic on other instruments, not drums, but then when I briefly tested it on drums I thought ‘God, they sound fantastic like that.’ There’s absolutely no spill between the different drums when you use a C-ducer — each drum is completely separate. Every part of the kit was therefore miked with C-ducers — kick, snare, hi-hat, three or four Rototoms and two crash cymbals — and this gave us a very, very contained drum sound with no space at all. Everything is right up close, there’s no ambience whatsoever, and we then used reverbs and delays to give us the shapes and the sizes. I think the fact that the drums had such little ambience and were so sterile and cold really set up the mood we loved.
“Having recorded the cymbals this way, we also did cymbal overdubs because we wanted a very, very heavily compressed sound that had total sustain. You can hear that on a couple of songs, including ‘Play For Today’ — when the cymbals crash there’s a click followed by a long, long sustaining cymbal, which is three 1176 compressors in a row. It hisses for about 20 seconds.”
Three Notes Is A Crowd
Mike Hedges doesn’t recall hearing any demos for Seventeen Seconds — having already routined and possibly played it live, the band would just run through a number in the studio and then dive straight in. Still, although the original plan was to lay down all the backing tracks before recording overdubs, this wasn’t strictly adhered to: once a backing track was deemed satisfactory, there was a tendency to take it a little further and do some overdubs.
“I remember the guitar parts being very easy,” Hedges says. “Robert had most of them worked out and the overdubs were simple — they were double-tracks, guitars with more effects or embellishments here and there. However, there were very few over-overdubs. They were mainly just single overdubs, and there was very, very little comping on that album. In terms of the vocals, which Robert performed into a Neumann FET 47, we’d do just one track and if it wasn’t right we’d redo it, and if it still wasn’t right we’d maybe drop in one or two bits, but generally there was very little comping. We didn’t really have the time. There might have been two guitar tracks comped into one and there might have been two vocal tracks comped into one, but generally everything was as played or as sung.
“The backing tracks weren’t easy to record. To actually get the bass and drums very tight with each other was difficult, but again this was down to time. We were spending something like an hour on each backing track, not much more, and the time pressure didn’t help. Saying, ‘Right, this is it, we have to get the track down now,’ obviously doesn’t make for a relaxed session, and recording some of those backing tracks was like death by mid-tempo. There’s nothing worse than doing a mid-tempo track that’s got a lot of space in it. To get the feel right is really difficult to do.”
Whereas Simon Gallup’s bass was hooked up to an Ampeg SVT, Robert Smith’s guitar went through a Roland JC120, close-miked with a Shure SM57 while a Neumann U47 was positioned about three feet away. Matthieu Hartley played a DI’d synth.
“He had single-note parts, and this became a bone of contention during recording,” Hedges recalls. “Robert was very keen — and I was totally happy to back him up on this — for the keyboard parts to be single-note lines and not chords. Occasionally there were two-note chords, but these were a rarity, because the single-note approach was a rule to keep it simple. Well, Matthieu put up with this, but he eventually became less and less enamoured with it, especially once the band embarked on its first world tour following the album’s release. I mean, standing on stage and using one finger to play the keyboard lines had to be frustrating. He had another nine fingers to play with! And it also didn’t help that he only had a cheap little Roland analogue keyboard.” In light of all this, it’s probably not surprising that Hartley quit the band following the Australian leg of the tour, after which the Cure continued without him.
“I got heavily into choruses and flangers on the album,” continues Mike Hedges. “I basically collected every single flanger and chorus I could find anywhere in the studio and borrowed them from people with new units, and for ‘A Forest’ I think we had as many as seven flangers running on ‘envelope’, flanging on the shape of the sound coming in rather than as a constant. Aside from bass and guitars, you can particularly hear it on the cymbal crashes, which dive away immediately following the hits. You see, Robert was heavily into choruses — he had a JC120, and so if you had a U47 on one speaker of the amp and a 57 on the other, you then had a stereo chorus, which was great. We loved the chorus, and because of that I originally started playing flangers to do choruses until I realised that flangers were fantastic as well, at which point we actually started using the flangers as flangers. These made the overall sound slightly warped — nothing was quite natural, adding to the underlying atmosphere.”
Then there was the tape delay, and plenty of it. “Oh, we were really into that,” Hedges agrees. “With the machine you’d go into the left, out of the left, and out of the left into the right. The left would then go to the desk and the right would go to the desk, so you’d have two different delays on a stereo machine, and obviously when you spun it you could either have one delay working or both delays or fade between the two. That gave you the effect of it going jang-jang, jang-jang-jang-jang-jang-jang-jang — you could actually have a half-speed delay and then the double-speed one would come through it as you switched the other fader on. I also remember us experimenting with sound on sound on tape delays. There’d be a big rush, a big build-up of sound on top of itself, getting really messy, and that was great, kind of like a reggae thing. Reggae used that quite a lot.
“There were very few effects at the time. You did have things like Harmonizers just coming in, flangers were quite unusual and there were all the old analogue tape delays, but they all did pretty much the same thing. Chorus, delays, reverbs, flangers — there wasn’t very much else. These days, since it’s very easy to get unusual sounds, you have to be a bit more selective with what you actually use. There was less in the drawer when you opened it back then, whereas now it’s completely full of stuff and you have to decide ‘Well, I want this,’ or ‘I want that.’ Also, because it was all analogue, there’d be very unusual sounds that you wouldn’t expect, whereas a lot of digital effects these days tend to be surprisingly ordinary for what they do. In the old days we’d use delays on delays, tap the tape delays that went through so that it did wow and flutter to get really unusual sounds happening, and also use lots of backwards reverb and other backwards things on the tape machine.
“When you record on a tape machine you have the sync [record] head and the safe head [ie. the playback head in safe mode, where recording was disabled]. You record in sync and turn back to safe for slightly higher quality when mixing, but while Mike Dutton was switching through them he left the hi-hat track in sync, so it was earlier than everything else. I can’t remember which track we used that on, but I know it sounded fantastic.”
Looping The Loop
It should be taken into account that, thanks to budgetary constraints, the entire Seventeen Seconds album took a total of seven days to record and mix, which, although about 40 percent longer than the time accorded the preceding Three Imaginary Boys, still speaks volumes for the ingenuity, craft and rapid-fire innovation of the musicians and technicians.
“When you’re taught to do a job in a specific way, it’s not necessarily frowned upon if you do it differently, but it’s also not technically correct, so it was kind of exciting to push the envelope back then,” Mike Hedges remarks. “These days, with all the equipment we have, it’s far more difficult to do something unusual. In fact, the strange thing is, during the last 25 years people have got safer and safer in a funny sort of way. Given the way we’ve come through the different styles of music, songs have to sound a certain way to fit in with the genre. It seems like a particular rock band has to have a certain snare sound while a particular R&B band has to have a certain stripped-out bass drum, and it’s quite odd how people seem to have to fit in more and more with a niche. They angle everything towards that and they don’t really experiment — they experiment within that niche but not really outside it. That’s just the way the music business has gone, whereas during the late ’70s and early ’80s the niches weren’t there. We weren’t trying to make the Cure’s sound fit in with anything else. We were just making the sound of the band. This was them, this was how they sounded and it didn’t matter what anyone else sounded like. It was their own individual thing.”
Among the last songs to be recorded for the album was ‘A Forest’ which, according to Hedges, he and Smith knew was going to be the most difficult. “We wanted it to be quite ornate,” he says, “and it ended up being the most produced track on the album. To me it always sounded like a single. We all thought it was an amazing song — I loved the guitar line — but we also figured it would take a bit more work than the others. The other songs immediately sounded more complete, whereas ‘A Forest’ sounded like it did need several overdubs.”
After the backing track had been recorded live, individual parts were replaced as necessary, Robert Smith laid down his vocal, and then it was on to the mix. “Practically the whole album was mixed on the second-to-last day, and then the mix for ‘A Forest’ took up a good part of the final day,” Hedges recalls. “All things considered, that was very, very extravagant.”
The track would, in fact, be subjected to several subsequent remixes, although not until much later, not with Mike Hedges’ involvement and not even from the original recording. “For some reason the original multitracks of that particular song were stored for a while in the Fiction Records offices and at some point they were lost,” he states. “The band therefore had to re-record the song.”
So much for all the effort. Still, among Hedges’ abiding memories of the Seventeen Seconds sessions was “a lot of drinking by all apart from the engineer/co-producer. I learned very, very early on in my career that I can’t drink alcohol or take any recreational drugs while I’m working,” he comments. “I’m just not physically or mentally able to hold everything together.”
So, what was it like to be only the sober guy at the party? “It was actually quite good,” comes the reply. “Robert knew his limit and he stuck to it, and it was within his limit to be able to work and actually do a really good job of it. The others, meanwhile, would finish their parts and get so off their faces that they’d sort of fade out of the way because they couldn’t stand up. Once they were told ‘You’ve finished your bits for today,’ they’d really, really go for it, and if their drinking ever encroached on the recording itself we’d just stop that particular part and carry on the next day. You see, they were virtually living in the studio — they slept on the floor of the studio — because with such a limited time we’d be working 16 or 17 hours a day.
“Things are very different now. They’re so strict. If the band or producer mess up these days it could spell the end of the band’s career, so people don’t take risks any more. It’s like a military exercise. Obviously, you want to have as much fun in the studio as you possibly can, but you’ve got to get it right. Not only are the budgets much bigger — Seventeen Seconds probably cost between £2,000 and £3,000 to produce — but the pressure’s also much more than it used to be. With all of the recordings in those days there was very little A&R input; almost none. You were pretty much left to it, and when A&R did turn up you’d sort of down tools and look around until they went away. In fact, Chris Parry did once say to me that he thought the Cure should be working with a more athletic producer, because every time he came to the studio I was messing about. What I would have liked to say to him was ‘Well, actually we were messing about because you were in the studio. We just wanted you to go away!’
“As it happens, Chris Parry was very, very relaxed. We said we wanted to do it on our own and he pretty much left us to it. He came in once or twice. Generally, in those days, when it came to recording the Cure, the Associates and Siouxsie and the Banshees, we just did it. We recorded it and we delivered it. We didn’t actually know what the budget was, we were just told ‘Right, you’ve got five days to do it,’ or three weeks sometimes, and without the pressure of having to do a certain style of record we just did what felt right at the time.”
Motivated by this interview, Mike Hedges sat and listened to ‘A Forest’ for the first time in about 15 years and was pleasantly surprised by what he heard. “It actually sounds pretty good,” he says. “We recorded very quick so I think we could have got a better sound, but it’s certainly got a character. The album itself was very, very individual and it still stands out after all this time. I don’t think it sounds dated, and I can’t say that about certain other albums with which I was involved back in the 1980s…”
© Sound On Sound & Mike Hedges
At the recent Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, SPIN sat down for an exclusive tete-à-tete with Robert Smith, frontman for concert headliner the Cure. As the spokesman for a generation of lipstick smearing, hair-teasing goth-romantics, an older, wiser Smith chatted about his band’s upcoming album, the pressures of growing up, and the aural delights of Blink-182.
Robert: I’ve decided to call our [new] record The Cure for a good reason, because I think it’s the best thing we’ve done.
SPIN: That’s the first time you’ve made a self-titled album, right? After thirteen albums?
R: Everyone’s been bugging me for the title, but yesterday I decided I would call it The Cure.
S: Well, there’s a long tradition of albums that are named after the band.
R: Yeah, everyone’s [done it].
S: I think it’s funny that you’re choosing to at this point in your career.
R: Yes, thirteen albums in. I had a very long conversation with [producer] Ross Robinson about this record before we started it. His dream was that the twenty-five years the Cure has been going culminate in this moment, this record. And every time I’ve tried to come up with a title and stuck it on the wall of the studio, it just didn’t seem to capture what we were trying to do. We were trying to distill the essence of everything we’ve trying to do [as a band] up to this point. I was joking with him today, because I told him that if we’re going to call it The Cure, that’s going to pose a problem if we do another album. [Then] what are we going to call it?
S: The Cure II.
R: Excellent, yeah. Can I use that? Naw, I mean I suppose bands call albums after themselves because it means [people who’d heard their name] were going to go to shops and ask for the album by that band.
S: Like the Pretenders’ The Pretenders.
R: Yeah, so people buy it. Or I think bands get to a point, strangely enough [where they make all their albums eponymous]. Blink have done it. Their [recent] album was called Blink-182.
S: Yes, after they’ve already [made it].
R: Which is a bit early on, I feel, for them to be doing that.
S: It was supposed to be called Use Your Erection.
R: Yeah, I’ve read that. When we did Pornography, I thought I could have called it The Cure, because I felt, “This is us.” But with the benefit of the years that have gone by, I kind of grew up. We’re coming to America and there’s a generation of people that grew up with the Cure.
S: I lost my virginity to “Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me.” So I want to thank you for that.
R: I’ve heard similar tales. It’s strange, because the Cure has always been there. When we did the trilogy thing a couple of years back, we did Pornography, Disintegration, Blood Flowers, and we [performed all three] live in one night. That, for me, I felt was a celebration of what I felt represented the Cure for the first 25 years. This new [album] is-I thought it was going to be a complete break with the past. I actually wanted to walk into this and do something completely different. But we’ve ended up doing something that I think sounds more like us than anything we’ve ever done before, so it seemed natural to call it The Cure.?If someone was to have asked me last year what the Cure is, I would have said the trilogy album, like the trilogy DVD, because I felt that like this line up had finally [reached its pinnacle].
S: But that event that gives short shrift to some of the great poppier stuff, like “The Love Cats,” or–
R: I never really dissed the pop side. I used to when I was a bit younger, because I thought it would somehow interfere with me being able to be an artist. And I realized, probably when were doing the Wild Mood Swings album, it got such a kind of terrible press when it came out, and yet a lot of went into the making of the record was really genuine, was really heartfelt. I felt so disturbed after that. I felt, “Well this is sort of what I want to be doing.” I took a step away from worrying what other people thought about the band, and I started to think, “Why am I still doing this after all of these records?” and Blood Flowers was really a translation of that, because I didn’t fucking care what anyone thought about Blood Flowers. The fact that it was our first Grammy-nominated album really amused me at the time, because it was designed to be, in my mind, a totally inaccessible album, it was just [for] Cure fans. I was going right back to the days of Faith and Pornography.
S: You [seem to differentiate] the general public audience and…Cure fans, and it seems to be implicit that they filter you’re your music differently.
R: I think they invest a lot more in what we do than the average casual listener. I’ve never been of a mind to dismiss people. When we first came over here in a real sense in the mid-eighties, [we were] playing songs like, “Just Like Heaven” and “Close to Me.” I didn’t think, “This is going to compromise everything we’ve done to this point.” I thought it was fucking great that we were being played on the radio. Why would we have ever made those songs, if I didn’t think they were good songs? I’ve always felt that way. “Love Cats” is the only song that I really I used rail against, because I didn’t want it to become a milestone. And same with “Boys Don’t Cry” early on. But the pop side of the band informs the other side of the band. The two things aren’t divorced in my mind. But for whatever reason, that Cure fan wants something from the band. It’s not just a nice cheap and catchy bit at the end. They want something invested in the making of the record. And this [new] record, even the pop songs on this record have that invested in them. You’ll sense that even the pop songs have something about them that in the past that Cure songs haven’t had, and Ross is responsible for that, because he refused to let me just sing a song. If I would just sing the upbeat once, he would say, “Naw, naw naw.”
S: What’s it like working with a producer with an identity that comes to the table based on the records that he’s produced in the past?
R: On the first day we were in the studio, we set up and started playing a song, and he let us play through it for an hour or so, and then he came out and he just started kicking things over, and he went absolutely mental.
S: He literally started kicking things over?
R: Yeah, saying like, “Don’t you know who you are?”
R: Yeah, he’s talking like, “You’re the Cure, what the fuck are you doing?” And suddenly, at that moment, everyone in the room thought, “Oh my god, he’s saying really obvious things,” things that, in a funny way, I always think when I’m in the studio. Like, “This is the biggest audience that you’ll ever play to.” There’s no one in the room, but more people will hear what you’re doing now than will ever hear you on stage. This is it. This is the real thing. The band as a band is never usually confronted, because it’s usually just me saying to them, “This is the last album, try to pull something out.” And suddenly we had this bloke running around, kicking thing over, going, “For fuck’s sake, don’t any of you realize?” And it was so incredible having something like that.
S: How did you react to that when that happened?
R: How did I? I loved it. I was like almost crying with happiness. And I knew at that moment that it was going to work, because I knew that I could stay in the recording environment and just play, and that Ross would just take care of what [everything.] He would know if we were doing it [right]. And most of the time we were recording, he was out with us in the room. He didn’t want to sit in the control room. Steve Evitts also worked on the album. He’s also done a lot of things with Ross- lot of heavy rock stuff. Got a great sound, but his sensibility [is very different from ours] and yet, he also grew up with the Cure. I mean, it’s a weird thing in America-it doesn’t really happen anywhere else. People grow up with the Cure, but like other kinds of music. But back in England if you listen to the Cure, you can’t like any other kind of music.
S: You’re a goth.
R: Yeah, so here we were confronted. Ross Roberts is known for [working with] Slipknot, Korn, At the Drive-In. Incredibly heavy, heavy music. I mean sonically heavy and yet, he’s the sweetest bloke you’ll ever meet. He was actually standing in front of me, and I was singing at him, and he was like, “Make me cry.” [He’d do] stuff like that, and I’ve never had that before. How can I translate the experience into something that doesn’t sound completely drippy? When you’re onstage and you play and the audience is there, and everything clicks, it’s like, that’s why you do it. To get that in the studio is such a rare thing. Even the best records we’ve made, they weren’t made in the way like this one’s being made.
S: So he’s like a one-man audience.
R: He has been like the crowd. He comes in and demands.
S: That’s almost his talent?
R: We’d say, “That’s a good take,” and he’d come in and go, “That’s the worst fucking thing that I’ve ever heard. What are you all thinking about?”
S: He’s a fan?
R: Yeah, he wants, he want something from the music that we make-he doesn’t care that he’s making it. He wants something that he can go away with and be the best thing he’s ever done. And I’m sure he does that with everything he’s ever worked on. He’s that kind of person.
S: But like, ten years ago, there wouldn’t have been someone able to do that.
R: There would have been. Mike Hedges worked with us in the early years. At one point, he was going to come back and work with us again, and he’s a quite abrasive, a big character in the studio.
S: But he didn’t grow up with you like Ross did.
R: Yeah, you’re right. It’s a huge difference. [Mike] grew up with us as contemporaries and would push us in a different way. He would think, “Well, I know what you can do.” But [to hone in on] the emotional side of what we do, you need to have grown up with those records like Kiss Me and Disintegration, and matured with that sound too.
S: You must have been witness to the gamut of devotion over the years from fans basically pledging themselves to you. Through all the albums, all the sort of changes in style, the creative evolution, what is the constant that holds people to your music?
R: I think it’s that people believe I’m not going to say yes to something I really think I should say no to. It’s as simple as that.
S: So it’s a matter of personal integrity?
R: That’s why I agonized about the Hewlett-Packard ad that used “Pictures of You.” I was backed into a corner with that and I still feel really bad about it.
S: I heard the [Cult Hero song] “I Dig You” song in an ad.
R: That’s not my song.
S: But the old fans know that you played on it. Somebody licensed it to somebody to sell something.
R: I agreed to that, fuck yeah, because I still know Frank The Postman, and he’s running a garage, so it’s like pay day money. But it’s different. There’s no real emotional investment in Cult Hero. That was me at like nineteen, but it’s not the Cure. “Pictures of You” is a huge song in the Cure cannon. It means a lot.
S: That whole record?
R: Yeah, and it means a lot to a lot of people. I mean I despair at the use of Hendrix, in particular, to sell cars in the UK.
S: To sell everything.
R: It’s fucking awful. [When I licensed the song] I was out of contract I had nothing left as leverage, except to basically give Universal an advert in exchange for remastering the albums. Otherwise they wouldn’t do it.
S: What was it like being on the market again at this point in you career? Did you know that you wanted to be on Geffen? I figure you can just upload something on the web and sell like a hundred thousand.
R: Yeah, but the downside of that is that there are sort of a large enclave of Cure fans around the world who don’t have broadband. I’m one of them. When I live in England I don’t have broadband. Same with the South American fans. There’s still this brave new world that’s [not really accessible] yet. The idea of doing stuff only for the internet seems cool, but it’s not [realistic yet]. We signed to Artist Direct a year ago in order to do this through the internet, and the whole thing just came apart at the hinges, because they had a whole different idea of what I wanted to do. So we just let it go. We signed to Geffen, because Ross signed to Geffen. Simple as that. He knows Jordan Shore who runs Geffen. [In the 80s] Jordan came to see us doing the Kiss Me shows. It’s a great thing that someone who can wield that amount of power can also go back to being a seventeen-year-old fan and talk to me about the lyrics of “Catch.” I had that with [the Cure’s former label] Fiction through the 80s, and it was a joy to work in an environment where people would be [excited] about what you were going to do next.
S: The Cure are important to many millions of people and have been massively influential over the years. I just did an interview with Interpol. They’re finishing their new record, but they’re actually going in a more upbeat, pop direction, as if they’re moving fromWild Mood Swings to “Let’s Go To Bed.” I was talking to Carlos, the bass player, and he said, “Well, if the Cure did it.” There’s this span of three decades of listeners influenced by your music. Does that affect you?
R: I enjoy the idea that other people and groups like what the Cure do. And through the years, people do come up to me. When we played with people like the Pixies in the late 80s, or Dinosaur Jr. who did a cover-
R: Yeah, it was really cool. I thought they were fantastic. I was worried about being blown off stage by the Pixies because they were so good. And just walking up to Frank or J, I’ve thought, “We have a connection.” Like when you meet a [rock] writer, it’s like you kind of share an unsaid thing. It’s really nice having people in other groups who like what you do. Since the Grammy nomination, a paradigm shift hit London. Last year, suddenly, we were given a Q award, which I wasn’t going to accept. I thought, “How petty will that be?” [It seemed like] they were jumping on the bandwagon. The Rapture and Interpol say [the Cure’s] the coolest thing ever, while Q Magazine had not done an interview with the Cure in ten years. I thought, I can be cynical and say “Fuck off,” or I can accept the [award] and it will probably be quite a good thing. It was probably the first awards ceremony I’ve been to in more than a decade?The whole thing was so bizarre, and suddenly the whole room is giving me a standing ovation. At that moment I actually realized what had occurred in the previous like eighteen months. The award that we were getting wasn’t for what we had done. Because a whole lot of bands out there suddenly say they like what we’ve done, the media has to take notice. It reached a kind of critical mass point. But we’re not doing anything different.
S: It’s not like the Cure was obscure. You’ve always had fans who would lay down and die for you.
R: Yeah, when we did the Wish album in 1992, it went number one around the world. In America it was held off the number one spot-it might have been number two because of Janet Jackson, at that point. We were playing stadiums and stuff, but I knew that that wasn’t going to last. We were kind of “there,” I knew.
S: Was that the peak?
R: No, I think there have been a number of those moments throughout the years. I mean if that was it, I wouldn’t be sitting here right now. Blood Flowers did that for a new generation of people. The reason why I still do it is the same. [I have] a desire to create something, and it’s as simple as that. I fucking hate the idea of the Cure that’s going to embarrass me. I defend it passionately, because I’ve invested my adult life in the band.
S: Blood Flowers seems like the perfect swan song.
R: It was, it was.
S: Because it’s completing the trilogy, so you know, you even framed it?
R: Honestly, if I hadn’t met Ross, I wouldn’t be doing this record.
S: When I read that you guys were doing a new record, I was surprised. I’ve been a fan for twenty years-it’s great, so I’m happy.
R: See, I thought that the idea that we were doing it was kind of perceived as, “Oh, they’re getting kind of known again, so they’re going to put out an album.” I’m hoping this isn’t going to be swamped by that, because I actually think this is the best thing we’ve ever done. If I hadn’t met Ross, we wouldn’t have made this record. If I hadn’t met someone with the kind of passion he’s got, I would have let it slide by. Blood Flowers was a great way to end for me.
S: I remember vividly, sitting in my bedroom, downtown on Bleeker St., listening to Blood Flowers and saying, “Well, this is how it ends. It’s over. This is the last Cure record I’ll ever hear.”Do you think it’s just a serendipitous thing that Ross came into the picture?
R: There was a short interview in some magazine with Ross Robinson, about great guitar sounds, and one of the ones he discused was mine. And I was like, that’s weird.
S: For what song?
R: “A Forest,” I think. I started to investigate who he was and what he’d done. I had the first Korn album, and hadn’t played it for a few years, and I put it on my hi-fi. And when I saw what he was doing, I was thinking, “God, you know, that’s really weird that he actually likes us, because he doesn’t seem to be doing music [like ours]. I bought Vex Red after I’d kind of started to find out about him, without knowing that he had produced it. When I saw it was him [I knew I had] to get in touch with him. His enthusiasm for the idea of the Cure was what reinfected me with the idea of doing a Cure album. I did ask him if he wanted to a solo album, and he told me, “No.”
S: Is there something about you as a personality that you think keeps these people riveted? I mean, as we all get older, everyone wonders if you look the same as we remember.
R: Believe me, I would have loved to shave my head [again], but my wife?
S: When you did shave your head it was a scandal. Do you remember?
R: I did have a number three cut for the Wish album. It was like twelve years ago.
S: Yeah, so like everyone on the radio was saying, “Robert Smith has got a short haircut!”
R: I haven’t changed fundamentally. For me, the idea of growing up is this idiot idea, because I was more grown up when I was thirteen than I am now. I had aspirations and an absolute idea of the world, as I’m sure that all thirteen year olds have. I’ve kept my life absurd. That’s how I managed to do what I do. I think that being grown up is fucking awful, if being grownup translates into looking down on someone like me and what I do. Yet, I think I’m more emotionally mature than anyone I know. I’ve been married to the same person for years and years and years.
S: Do you have any advice on that by the way?
R: Looking forward to getting up in the morning? Well, actually the late afternoon, but that comes with the job. I really enjoy what I do, it’s as simple as that. If I could have been told at thirteen, don’t worry too much, because in a few years time you’ll still be playing music, still be writing songs, I would have been a different person, because I wouldn’t have agonized so much. I was like, “What the hell am I going to do when I grow up?” To me, grownups [were] people that kind of sighed a lot and had worry lines and looked forward to the weekend. I don’t look forward to the weekend at all. When we’re in the studio, I have no idea whether it’s Monday or Saturday.
S: So you don’t feel 45 at all?
R: I feel 145 at times.
S: At the same time, you feel like fifteen sometimes, right?
R: I’ve always felt old in a funny way. But I’ve always felt young too; I always get on more with the young generation of my nephews and nieces, because I like music. Essentially it’s that. I really love music still, and when I’m at home on my own, and I drink, I listen to really loud music, as I’m sure grownups do as well, but they have to get up in the morning.
S: I was wondering, when I knew I was going to interview you, does he still wear lipstick? Is he still teasing his hair out?
R: It will stop one day, I’m sure.
S: You think? Maybe not, right?
S: Are you doomed to be the Phyliss Diller of like rock and roll?I mean, not to underrate you as a musician, because you’re an amazing musician, but there is something iconic and physical that goes hand in hand with it.
R: It doesn’t. It would be disingenuous for me to believe or say in all truth that [my career] would have happened without me looking like I look. I always used to say, if I had a big shock of ginger hair and freckles, life probably would have been different. But I don’t know how different. If I was singing “Pictures of You” the way I sang it, and made “Disintegration,” I don’t know who [would listen to that coming from] ginger hair and freckles.
S: No, the song is a beautiful song.
R: I apologize to all of the ginger, freckled people.
S: But there’s a physical archetype that people latch onto as well as the music.
R: Yeah, but I’ve never really played up to it other than the fact that I’ve got like pale skin, black hair, and I have a propensity to wear makeup. It’s not something that I used in a way to get around the fact that I couldn’t write songs or I couldn’t play guitar. I mean, I’ve always had the choice of how to look, going back to shaving my head. I shaved my head as joke because [music video director] Tim Pope had based so much of what he was going to film on silhouetting my hair against the backdrop. It shows how demented I was at the time, because I had no idea that it would impact on anyone other than myself. I just wanted to see Tim Pope’s face when I walked out that day. I went, “Ha.” And then he said, “Everyone else is gonna fucking beat you, you idiot.”
S: What do you think is the best song you’ve ever written?
R: Well I think “Faith” probably will never be dislodged from the place it occupies in my heart. For what it meant at the time.
S: Was it a turning point?
R: Yeah, I felt that it was the first song I ever wrote where I felt I had done something that would stand the test of time. I also sort of felt that with “Forest.” But “Just Like Heaven” is the other side of the coin. I knew when we did that, that that would be played on the radio in like twenty years time.
S: It’s sort of a standard now.
R: Yeah, it’s funny. I sort of felt that way when we did “Boys Don’t Cry” right at the start, I though I’m going to be the new Beatles. And lo and behold, I was.
S: If you’ve got like thirteen albums, twenty-five, thirty years of material, how do you make a set list?
R: For only an hour and a half show.
S: That must be a task. Are there certain songs like, “Just Like Heaven” that you can’t get away from?
R: We will do “Just Like Heaven.” There are certain factions in the band [about that].
S: There are certain Cure standards now that you guys have to play.
R: [My bandmates] feel that we should be confrontational, but I’m pragmatic. It’s a festival audience, really.
S: Yeah, you’ve got like sixty, seventy thousand people.
R: People are there for other bands as well. It would be nice for every other song draw people back in. Throw in a song that they haven’t heard before then throw in-
S: “I Dig You.”
R: Yeah. You know we haven’t got that in the set. It was an oversight. The idea of doing a setlist now has become kind of an in-joke, because there is no way that I can please anyone, actually, other than myself. We’ll definitely do “A Hundred Years” on Sunday no matter what anyone else in the band says. I’m going to sing it even if they don’t play it.
S: When you’re not writing or sort of involved or obsessed with the process of release a new album, how are you plugged in musically? Do you monitor or follow contemporary music?
R: I have no option. I’ve got like twenty-five nephews and nieces and I see them all the time, so when I wanna go driving or something, I take them places, or when they come ’round I’m subjected to some of the most awful bloody music.
S: Do you ever hear any?
R: I got a message saying, “[Blink-182] wants to talk to you about doing something on their new album.” I went to my teen nephews and nieces and asked, “What do you think it would be like if I sang with Blink?” And they told me, “That would be so fucking cool.” So I borrowed some albums of them and I started listening to them and I actually thought they had some really, really good songs.
S: I haven’t even listened to those albums.
R: I thought some of it was awful, and some of the songs were really sort of crass. I can’t explain to you in what context I listened to those albums, because it was too personal. It was like a family tragedy-the whole family was together and to kind of alleviate the atmosphere, one of my nieces put on a Blink album, and it really kind of did the trick. I was listening to it, because I was still feeling pretty miserable and I thought, “They’re actually really good.” Mogwai are the only band in the last five years that I’ve been so blown away by that I’ve gone out and bought everything they’ve ever done, [all the] bootlegs. I’m kind of obsessed with them. They’re one of the best bands I’ve heard in my life, and I can’t believe that, because they’re never going to have a hit single, obviously. I’m hoping people will connect with them [when they tour with us] this summer.
S: How will the Cure end?
R: Um, naturally I think. The same way everything we’ve ever done has happened.
S: Heart attack on stage?
R: Yeah. I think it would be painful to keep banging out our albums. It would be utterly insincere, and like I don’t think any artist in the history of creative art has ever managed to do it, unless they die early.
S: Bowie, he’s gonna do it until he’s a hundred. He’ll be like the guy in “The Hunger.”
R: I’m not be being pompous, but any band can knock out an album a year. I think Bowie’s attained a certain status where it doesn’t really make much difference what he bangs out year after year. You’re hoping that he does something really good, and if he doesn’t, you kind of think, “Well maybe the next one will be it.” He’s kind reached that plateau, where he’s allowed to just [go on], which I suppose is fair enough. With someone like Bowie, his back catalogue pre-1981 is the best back catalogue in pop I think.
S: It’s pretty seamless.
R: Yeah, and he’s made some pretty good records since then, but the more records you make, the great records will be fewer and further between. I wasn’t going to make two hours between Blood Flowers and the new album in order to keep profile. It’s fucking nonsense. I want to make a record that means something. My sense of being in the band reflects how I am in my life. And of course I’m slowing down. It’s completely natural. I’m not the same as I was when I doing the Kiss Me album. The ego that’s actually involved in making records actually sits quite uncomfortably with how I think I am, which is the whole point of this record-the need to tell people how I’m not. It’s a weird kind of concept.
S: How so?
R: Well, that [it takes so little to make me] feel content now than ever before. I want so much less now than I ever did before. Yet I still feel an overriding need to make a record that with lyrics that proclaim the fact.I’m aware of the paradox that involves. When we did this record, there was no outside life. I didn’t go home for like two months. I didn’t see anyone. I didn’t see my mum and dad my family friends or anyone for two months. Ross agreed to the same thing. It was exactly the same as when we did Seventeen Seconds, or Faith or Pornography. We’ve done all albums in the same way, but there was a four-year gap between Blood Flowers and this. If I was to [hole myself up like that] every year, I would be a fucking idiot, because I would have nothing else. People say, “All I need is my art,” but it’s nonsense, because where would [that art] come from? Who would you be playing it to if you don’t meet anyone? You have to evolve and live in the real world.
S: What do you do when you’re in the world? Do you come up with ideas when you’re going about your daily life that you have to run and scribble down?
R: In my early years, I would do that. Now I go for like a whole month without writing a song. I write music all the time, but I never write words. I’m more content to read stuff now than I am to write. I’ll get an overall urge to write and I feel like I need to say something.Then I think, “Oh no. No, no, no, no, it’s going to happen again.” That’s what it was like with this record. I was reading a book about identity and as I was reading it I thought, “I have no idea who I am.” Everyone is like at some point, of course. I’d thought it before, but this was as if someone actually punched me in the head and said, “Stop for a second and think-you have absolutely no idea who you are!”I’m writing this down thinking, “I’m going to turn this into a song and start singing it with a group,” and that was the start of this record. This record is informed with quiet, deep levels of why I’m doing it. I’m sure you what you do, what you’d like to do, what you aspire to do, what you’re content with. Everyone does. To be presented with choices and to say, “I will choose this over that,” you kind of think, “Well, why did I do that?”
S: Will you continue to make records?
R: Based on how the records have panned out, the next one’s gonna happen in like 2011. And I will most certainly not be wearing black and lipstick in 2011. That’s a guarantee.
S: I think you will.
R: I know I won’t. I might still be wearing black, but-
S: Bowie has not aged at all.
R: The thing with Bowie is he’s an incredible person because everyone of a certain generation invested huge amounts in him when he was starting out. When I actually met him, he said he never invested his own art with anything and still doesn’t. I think that he just generates stuff. He makes stuff, and you as the consumer invest it with meaning. And without the consumer, it has no meaning.
S: He’s actually Warholian like that.
R: And I take completely the opposite view. I have to have absolute meaning in what I do, before I can actually put it out in front of people. It’s a totally different. But I think it’s a much easier way of creating what you call art.
© Spin Magazine staff
The backcombed hair is still defying gravity, the red lipstick still smudged across his mouth – so it’s business as usual, then, for Robert Smith and the Cure? Not at all, he tells Zoe Williams, thanks to an American nu-metal producer who’s forced the fortysomething British bandmates to get personal for their new album
“Is he still wearing the lipstick?” is what everyone wants to know about Robert Smith. It doesn’t say exactly what it means, this question – it means “I know who you’re talking about, I can conjure up a visual, I’m sufficiently well brought up to take an interest in what you’ve been up to, but I don’t particularly want to know what you think of his new album, not because I’m not interested, just because I’ve seen your CD collection.” Robert Smith is the lipstick guy; he’s the lipstick guy, and the Lovecats guy. Lovecats is the song that would make you think “Cure”, if you didn’t particularly like the Cure, just as Creep makes you think Radiohead even if you don’t particularly like them. It is the song that 29-year-olds now snog to when they go to those theme clubs where you dress up like Britney Spears. At the same time, the Cure aren’t short of authentic, hardcore fans. Two tickets to their gig at the Barfly (a very small London venue) in March sold on eBay for two grand. Everyone familiar with its oeuvre likes a bit of this band very much indeed; but that doesn’t leave it short of fans who like all of it, extravagantly.
The Cure have been around since 1976, when Robert Smith and some other people met at some Catholic school; that said, their beginnings aren’t what you’d call the most relevant, since Smith is the band’s only remaining original member. You could say they defined the goth sound, or certainly the indie-goth sound; the good cheer of Lovecats was an aberration, really, and their highest charting albums were Pornography (1982) and Disintegration (1989), both of which were as good examples as you could get of the very great seriousness that 1980s bands were capable of (that sounds sarcastic, but isn’t).
Anyway, back to the lipstick. I’ll give you the long answer (the short answer is “kind of”). Smith still lives in Crawley, where he grew up, and arranges to meet in the Gatwick Hilton which, even given his postcode, is as strange a place to meet as it would be strange to eat a hard little roll and a poached chicken breast if you weren’t on a plane. He is drinking an orange juice, a beverage that has been name-checked in almost every interview he’s given for the past seven years. It’s been mentioned so often that I thought it must be shorthand for “he doesn’t drink any more” – the implication being that he’s had some kind of road to Damascus experience, drink-wise.
“I had a road to Damascus experience when I was 14, and it was at the bottom of a glass. And I’m still on that road. But there’s a time and place for drinking. In the past, I didn’t really give a shit about what I was saying, so I would just be drunk all the time. The only way I could get through a day of interviews was to have two drinks with every interview, so the person at the end of the day… well, I’d make sure it was someone who didn’t speak very good English. I suppose the years go by, and you have to worry more and more. But also I’m more able to defend what I do. And also, I’m driving.”
In other words, his behaviour has changed, his attitude has changed, the way he sees his work and his readiness to talk about it has changed. But his look hasn’t changed. He still wears the lipstick, but not in that shouty, overapplied way; more in a rubbed-off, I’ve-had-me-lunch-and-haven’t-reapplied way. It’s no longer a statement, it’s more just something he puts on and forgets about, like socks. And the hair… the hair is still jet-black, and back-combed, but again, it doesn’t seem rebellious, it just looks lived-in and maybe a little slept-in. All in all, he makes you realise that the people whose appearances change the most are the ones whose outward garb changes the least; the clothing-continuity makes it that much easier to spot the physical ravages of time. We wrangle about why he dresses the same, seriously, for ages. He complains, casually, about having to put up with people saying, “Does your fucking hair look like that normally?”, and I point out that he only has to put up with it because his hair does look like that, so maybe he’s looking for the attention. “That whole thing about attention-seeking isn’t really a part of it. I started growing my hair long and wearing make-up and stuff because I was at school and I wasn’t allowed to.”
“Well, then it was a rebellion against authority. But now you’re not at school. Nobody cares how you look. Why still do it?”
“But the dress is just an outward manifestation of a rebellion against authority, and it’s a lifelong rebellion against authority.”
“Sure, but the authority doesn’t exist that still cares. Why not rebel against an authority that exists?”
“Look, I get a much more extreme reaction when I have my hair really short. I look thuggish when I shave my head and wear big boots. I walk into a newsagent and people think I’m going to jump the counter. It’s a much more extreme reaction.”
“But you don’t have to have really short or really weird hair. You could have regular hair.”
“I married somebody who likes the way I look. If I changed my hair every year, and I reinvented myself in time-honoured pop fashion, I think understandably the person I’m married to would grow slightly sick of me.”
“Does she still dress the same as when you met?”
“Yes! Give or take the school uniform, yes!” Grr! How can you give or take a school uniform?
I conclude two or three things from this conversation – Smith really isn’t looking for attention. He seems entirely sincere both in his disdain for people who are attention-seekers, and in his insistence that he isn’t one. His body language is self-effacing, and he mentions later that friends have commented on the way he gravitates towards corners and walls, which for a big (and famous) guy is an optimistic way to go unnoticed. He is truly and lastingly uxorious (she was at school, he was 18 when they met; now he’s 45), which is such a warming feature when you’re used to the hollow sounds of celebrities claiming to be and then having affairs a week later.
He found what he wanted to do, and made such a success of it, so early on, and with so much control and self-determination that I don’t think he’s ever been called upon to really defend a view. He’ll defend it so far, and then, rather charmingly, go, “Well, it just is! That’s the way it is!” But most of all, he really, really doesn’t like change. He likes things the way they are. Later on, talking about his wife, Mary, he says, “I just struck lucky early on. I really enjoy what I do, and who I’m with and where I am. Having said that, I’m not really a person of habit, because what I do in my job is travel around the world and play concerts to people, and occasionally do very weird things. But my home life is full of the elements of normality that I enjoy, such as being in the same place with the same person. It’s not a habitual thing, it’s just that I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do. I could do anything I wanted at this stage, I’ve got no children, I’ve got no ties, I could go anywhere and do anything, given the physical limitations of my body. But every year, I sit down and think, what shall I do this year? And I can’t think of anything I’d rather do than what I do.”
One of the most appealing things about this stasis is the extent and youthfulness of his enthusiasms. Asked which young bands he likes, he reels off tonnes of them; Mogwai, the Cooper Temple Clause, the Rapture, Interpol, Cursive, Thursday, Bright Eyes, Elbow . . . about 17 or 18 others. A lot of bands, and furthermore, bands he wouldn’t be familiar with if he weren’t taking as keen and full-time an interest as any teenage NME reader anywhere in the country. That a musician would love music, and take it seriously, is predictable enough – but to have been at it this long, and never fallen into the trap of thinking your generation was the best, of listening for plagiarism instead of flair, of defensively finding fault or of simply getting a bit tired . . . it’s brilliant, really. It explains better than anything else why he’s just made a new album, when for each of the past four, either he or the critics have been citing it as his last.
Smith says he hates cynicism, and its sidecar of irony. A lot of artists say that; normally, they mean “I hate it when critics are mean about me, what do they know?” Smith doesn’t mean that. Which isn’t to say that he has no critical faculty. He’ll be plenty critical about his contemporaries – he still has space in his heart to say that Duran Duran epitomised everything he hated about the 1980s (although he’s fine about Simon Le Bon . . . “I wouldn’t say we were friends. But he’s all right. I can chat to him”). And he has a frankly cock and bull theory about the Smiths, and how their influence on the era is overplayed because there’s a media conspiracy, full of media people who liked them much more than anyone else did (mind, I would say that: I’m in the media, and I really like the Smiths).
There’s something else that explains the new album, The Cure (self-titled because it expresses everything about them, “and anyone who doesn’t like this just doesn’t like the Cure”) – Ross Robinson, nu-metal producer (he does Slipknot, among other things), and a very big Cure fan. Robinson made an awful lot of demands for this album – he wanted it to be recorded as though they were playing live together. Previously, the band, with its history of an ever changing line-up, had been used to Smith doing his bit, and the others doing theirs separately, finding their way through a funny little sound guy whispering “chorus” at them at predetermined moments. Robinson would have apoplectic fits at band members not putting their hearts into it. He made the whole business much more like some very young guys who had just met in a pub and decided to make beautiful music together, when for a long time, I think it would be fair to say, the albums have been made more like solo projects, with session musicians.
Smith claims he and Robinson never had a cross word about anything, apart from God. “Ross is a very firm believer in ‘other’ and I’m not. So those were the conversations where I’d get slightly exasperated.” But Robinson also had some very personal aperçus about Smith and the way he operated, and projected himself. “Ross, when he first met me, was surprised at how unaware I am of the world around me. And on a very practical level, it’s because I’m short-sighted. I don’t wear glasses because I’ve found it’s a very good defence mechanism. If I’m in public, I don’t know if people are looking at me. But I can’t actually see very well, I’m out of focus beyond my arm. And he thought I’d taken it too far, that I wasn’t noticing the leaves on the trees. So I’ve started wearing glasses a lot more since I met him.” There’s a pause. He must think I look worried, because he adds hastily, “I always wore glasses to drive.” It’s a bit like Martin Amis, spending 25 years not smiling because he didn’t want people to see his teeth; it sounds like a trivial, physical point, but you do wonder what it does to a person, to live the bulk of his adult life not seeing properly, just to evade the necessity of having to confront attention. It’s another signal of his flexibility, as well, that he could adopt that modus operandi for so long, yet allow someone to call him on it, and then think, OK, maybe you’re right, I’ll change it.
The main feature of Robinson’s way of working was that he’d have the band do one song a day, and before they started, ask Smith – the sole songwriter – to tell the others what it was about. “I thought, fucking hell, this is outrageous that I’m being asked to explain, and then I thought, no, I’m going to go along with this, the whole point of it is that it’s supposed to be a different experience.” So, he started to explain to the others, and then they’d discuss it, and they all became incredibly highly charged. There were tears and tantrums. The keyboard player, Roger O’Donnell, refused to engage with any of it, then had a screaming ab dab at Robinson, who laughed at him maniacally. Often, it would be workshopped for more than an hour before they’d even started playing. The example Smith gives is one song that is about bereavement: “I suffered a bereavement recently, and I was trying to put into a song, which I’ve never done before, the real sense of anger that I felt, rather than just the sadness and nostalgia and all that. I wanted the anger and frustration that comes with people you’re close to, when they die.” I get the impression that this is the easiest to articulate of many examples; that all the songs were a powder-keg, really, once the band started to talk about them.
Robinson is an American, and found the band’s reserve very amusing, and by the sounds of things pretty alien and ludicrous at the same time. And the members of the band were these blokes in their 40s, who’d got through their entire acquaintance not talking about anything of emotional import, who’d suddenly been flung into a group therapy experience that they never for a second signed up for when they first learned to play the guitar (or whatever). It strikes me that it would make a brilliant film, seeing all these musicians who have been through decades of stoic rock, being mercilessly prodded by a maverick American producer, and unravelling all over the place, and then reforming to record another song, only to go through the same unfamiliar turmoil the next day. “Well, yeah, we did film it, actually,” Smith recalls noncommittally, and I think he’s wondering whether I’m taking the piss, but I’m not.
The changing line-up is a bit of an issue with the Cure. It is this that has earned Smith a reputation for “shark-eyed ruthlessness”, if memory serves; kicking out members when they no longer suited him, carrying on regardless. This is almost wholly unfair, and is based on some court case brought against the band by keyboardist Lol Tolhurst after he was kicked out in 1988 – it’s tedious, really, it has none of the meat of the fabulous Smiths case where the judge called Morrissey “devious, truculent and unreliable”. Smith remains touchy about rumours of his control-freakery. “The last person I threw out of the group was in the mid-80s . . . This line-up has been together more than 10 years now. With this line-up we’ve outlived most other bands.” “But do you find it difficult to cede control?”
“That’s a very pejorative way of putting it, it assumes that control is important to me. It’s not control. I just don’t see the point of doing it someone else’s way. I do this because I really enjoy it. If I’m going to write some words, and you go, no, I don’t think that’s good, I think, well you write your way and I’ll write mine. And you’re probably the same.”
“I am. But I’m not in a band.”
“Yeah, but if you ever interview a band and they say decisions are made democratically, they’re lying. Most often, there are two characters who are abrasive and who’ll be struggling, and there’ll be two quiet ones who go along with it. Or there’ll be one person, and everyone thinks, well, we’re going to trust that person, which in this case is me, to make decisions that will be mutually beneficial. It’s not a control thing.” Oh, here we are again. It is! It doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing, but it bloody is a control thing.
When they really have made their last album (and there’s no way of knowing yet whether this is it), I think we’ll regret having underrated this band, at least for the past five or so years, maybe the past decade. Smith is very aware of this, though makes no big deal about it. In America, the Cure get much more attention and they have more cred; they play stadium gigs and headline at Glastonbury-scale festivals. Their record label is American; they haven’t been signed over here since they split with Polydor. In the UK, the very fact of their having released their first album in 1979 and not had the grace to split up yet is enough to make people suspicious . . . how can they possibly have sustained their creative flair, where other bands part company? Well, either a) Robert Smith is a control-crazed maniac who keeps it going by kicking people out (he isn’t; though he does like control); b) They’re a busted flush anyway (they’re not: they don’t have a massive amount in common with what they sounded like on the first album, but there’s just as much going on); or c) they can’t stop: it’s a compulsion, they’re like some kind of musical magic porridge pot.
Actually, it’s very unfair – they keep going because they still think they have songs to record, and a lot of people, faced with the songs themselves, agree with them, and buy them, and think they’re great. I honestly think it’s the 1980s look of the guy, coupled with the fact that he’ll never sound like anything other than himself (like Morrissey, really, a similar victim of his longevity, until recently), that rings pastiche alarm bells; it’s that, not any failure of creativity, that’s given them the faintest tang of the novelty act. And it’s a failure of imagination on the part of his compatriots. But he could also do himself a favour and stop wearing the stupid lipstick.
© Zoe Williams