THE SMITH

Here we revisit Bob Gordon’s chat with the one-and-only Robert Smith. This interview was first published in X-Press Magazine on Thursday, September 28, 2000, with Part II running one week later... 
 

'I've got to let it go and leave it gone; Just walk away, stop it going on; Get too scared to jump if I wait too long'. — Maybe Someday, from Bloodflowers.

It's not as though Robert Smith hasn't previously hinted that he thought The Cure might be coming to an end, it's just that this time he seems a little more definite about it being the case.

Well, possibly. Having this year released Bloodflowers, a return to the more melancholic form of such previous classic Cure albums as Pornography and Disintegration, and receiving acclaim all 'round for the band's Dreamtour — which has thus far taken in the US and Europe — Smith sagely points out that it would be a perfect moment for The Cure to finally break up after more than 20 years.

Having recently hit 40 (a scenario addressed in full on Bloodflowers) Smith these days seems more comfortable thinking of himself outside the comfort and confines of The Cure. But there's a nagging doubt. He hasn't been this happy with how the band are playing in years. And then there's the fans, those ever-growing, unpigeonholable masses of people who possibly can't imagine life without the gloom and musical whimsy of The Cure. This week's X-Press Interview was conducted early last week, with Robert Smith up and about at home in London, as chipper as can be at 2.30am. The Cure perform at Perth Entertainment Centre on Tuesday, October 10, 2000, presented by X-press magazine.

You've been on the road for Bloodflowers for most of this year, what's it been like taking that album and that music out on the road?

It's been fantastic, actually. It's been the most enjoyable Cure tour I've ever done. Which has surprised me. Hugely (laughs). I think that's probably because we've been playing songs that I really like, the side of The Cure that I really prefer live, which is the darker side. We've kind of extended songs and the shows have been really long and I've just really got into it. I think, also, that the audiences have been fantastic as well. Which is probably to do with what we're playing, because we're creating an atmosphere, and they're just great.

I mean there's a holy grail for Cure fans which has always been the Disintegration tour of 1989 and I was quite shocked to find that as we were going along this year the internet reviews were getting more and more glowing. They've reached the giddy heights of 'as-good-as-or-if-not-better-than-the-Disintegration-tour'. There's no higher accolade from Cure fans than that. It's been great. The band has now clicked. This line-up has a fantastic sound now. It's kind of got its own identity which has taken a few years for it to happen. But it's great. It's been a really good year so far.

Bloodflowers was originally due in mid '98. We spoke in November '97 and I'm pretty sure you were working on it then. Was there something of a delay?

(Pauses) God, it was so long ago (laughs). Yes there was actually, it took longer than I thought. We went into the studio at around the time of Galore, actually, that was '97 wasn't it? We did about six songs in a few weeks and I suddenly had a blinding realisation that what we were doing was rubbish. We were about halfway through the project and I just abandoned it 'cause I thought it was just stale, it didn't sound right. I took a break from everything for a few months and then came back to it in '98.

I don't know, it was just instinct. I thought we were heading in the wrong direction. I'm really glad I did, 'cause Bloodflowers turned out to be a really good album and what we were originally working on wasn't. Then it was just a question of getting things right. I kind of obsessed a little bit about Bloodflowers. We did endless demos and rewrites and stuff, 'cause I wanted to get everything just so before I went into the studio.

It's been noted that Bloodflowers exists as part of a trilogy that includes Pornography (1982) and Disintegration (1989). Are they also unified by an obsession in their creation?

Yeah, it was slightly disingenuous of me saying that. I was doing it just to let Cure fans know in advance that what we were working on was something in that kind of area. The Pornography/Disintegration side rather than another Wild Mood Swings (1996) or a Japanese Whispers (1984 mini-album) style ... or a Mixed Up (1990 remixes collection) album, God forbid. That it was just gonna be the more introspective side of The Cure. It was also the best way to describe to the others that what I wanted was this imaginary trilogy of Pornography and Disintegration with Bloodflowers as the third part.

For me, lyrically, it was like 10 years on from Disintegration. I wanted to pick up from where I left off and see how much further I'd got ... which wasn't that much further really (laughs). I found myself obsessed pretty much by the same things. I wanted to pull elements out of what The Cure have done in the past musically and out them into Bloodflowers. I wanted to make the archetypical Cure album, really. I wanted it to be the sound of The Cure that I really like, which that melancholy sound rather than the more upbeat pop stuff.

At the time of Galore there was the potential for Wrong Number to be seen as an indicator of what the next Cure LP would be like, but it obviously didn't follow suit...

No, I saw that just like Never Enough from the Mixed Up album. It was just like an aberration. I mean it was good fun, but it was a one-off. We did it with Reeves Gabrels and he had a huge influence on the sound of it. I pretty much did that with just him and Jason (Cooper, drums). It just arose out of a jam, really. It turned into a nice, heavy pop song. In some ways, like I said earlier, we did actually start to go down that road. That's when I thought 'this isn't really what we do best'. It was a weird hybrid of rock, dance and something else. It just wasn't working because without Reeves it just didn't sound good. I've kind of accepted over the years that there's a certain type of music that The Cure play really well and that's what I wanted to concentrate on.

In the past I think we've tended to pretend to be another band from time to time. It's probably when I'm least convinced of what we do.

Was it also possibly a reaction to bringing out an album such as Galore? You've never claimed to be a singles writer, but that LP was a celebration of that. Was the focus on singles something you may kicked against?

I s'pose, slightly. I mean there's always a part of me that's reactionary. Bringing Galore out though was a pretty pragmatic decision. My heart wasn't in it when we did Galore. I got disenchanted really because the record company wanted a greatest hits and I wanted Standing On A Beach Part 2, a documented CD of 'these are the last 10 years of singles by this band'. I would never claim it to be a greatest hits or best of or anything. They quickly saw that this wasn't the big TV-advertised Cure album they were hoping for and they just pushed it out very gently. So I think with that whole year I got into a bit of a strop really, with The Cure and all it stood for. It wasn't going in the right direction for me.

Bloodflowers also appears to echo Disintegration because both mark you moving into a new decade of existence. On Bloodflowers there's songs such as 39 and The Last Day of Summer that things can be read into, is that the case?

Yeah, it was a very conscious decision. I knew that when I was heading towards 40 that I wanted to document it in some way. I thought what better way than to write a collection of songs? I wrote all the songs in quite a short space of time actually, the ones that made it onto the album. I just wanted to reflect how I felt at that time.

In a funny way I was quite morose before we made the album, heading towards 40. The process of making it and what we ended up with and turning 40 and realising I hadn't had any major breakdown, I felt very much better. The old cathartic chestnut, which hadn't happened to me since Disintegration, that was the last time I felt anything like that from making a record. Usually, it's far less Road To Damascus than that.

At the time of Disintegration you threw out your collection of personal photos and cine-films, an incident that later inspired the song, Pictures of You. Are you tackling change and the passing of time better these days?

Yeah, this time I read a lot of old books that I knew had influenced me when I was young. I kind of re-absorbed a lot of my favourite things to see how I felt about them. I kind of discarded them. In a way I sort of did the same thing but not literally. I didn't bother throwing away video tapes and films and throwing books out the window, but I discarded mentally some of the crutches I still had and I thought I didn't really need anymore. Some passed the test and others didn't.

Once every 10 years I kind of allow myself to get nostalgic. I'm running out of time, otherwise, to look back on things. I did a lot of thinking about what I'd done particularly over the last 10 years ... I don't mark my life by Cure albums, except when I'm making Cure albums. So I sort of though 'since Disintegration what have I done artistically and creatively with this band?' and that kind of led into Bloodflowers, because I felt I knew what I wanted to do with this marking me hitting 40 and this possibly being the last thing that we do, it being the end of a particular part of my life and all that. It all conspired to become the sort of nostalgic, melancholy album that Bloodflowers turned into.

Okay, you've just alluded to it and the song Maybe Someday suggests as much, as have some recent interviews... but it seems a little in the air. Is it really going to be the end of The Cure?

Well... I really struggle to imagine this band playing any more shows after this year. I really don't think we will. I think the others know that, they've taken me seriously. Certainly the way that everyone's played this year and the general mood of the tour has been such that I'm led to believe that everyone is kind of convinced that this is going to be it. And I'm happy if it is, because I feel it's such a natural way to end.

I'm less sure about Bloodflowers being the last Cure album, because part of me feels it'd be a bit of a waste having got this band to perform so well. We actually sound really good together. It seems pretty stupid to decide to knock it on the head now. So I kind of figure we could go and record a few songs and see what it sounds like. But if it doesn’t work then I won't because I think Bloodflowers is a fantastic way to end. I would hate to compromise that.

I suppose part of me says things to motivate the others. I think if we just approached this as another tour and another album it would have been dismal, really, 'cause I knew that that's what was wrong with the band. There was a complete lack of passion. I think that telling everyone 'this is it, you can believe it or not' that they have believed it and I actually believe it as well. It is sad, actually, it's very sad. When it comes to the end of the year I know that I'll miss it but I think I've got to make a break really 'cause otherwise I'll never do anything else.

You said before your life is not marked by Cure albums, but from the outside people would contend that the band has defined you for 20 years. Either way, would it be hard to walk away, would you feel disconnected?

Not really, because I thought of myself much more as someone who sang and who was in The Cure 10 years ago than I do now. Quite naturally the emphasis has sort of shifted in my life. When I'm doing it it's the most important thing I do, but it no longer takes up all my time. So therefore it is no longer the one and only important thing in my life.

In that sense I don't think I'll miss it anywhere near now as I would have before. If 10 years ago someone had said to me 'you've got to stop now' I would have been 'uhh? What do I do now?'. I'm not gonna stop writing music, ‘cause I do that anyway. I love playing and writing music, I think it's great. Lots of people want us to carry on, I know. It's a stability that people crave, but for me it just feels like the natural time to stop being in a live performing band. But I think if we were to make another album and it was really good, there'd be a point to it. If we're making music that people want to hear I don't really have a problem with that.

It sounds as though the tour's setlists are very strong on Bloodflowers songs, but also a mix of past material that you've been keen to do. Does doing such a tour bring back what most songs mean to you?

Yeah, we had a competition on the website before we started the tour where we asked people what songs they wanted us to play that they hadn't heard us do for years. In fact eight out of the top 10 responses we had already included in our pre-rehearsal setlist. So that was very reassuring, actually, to know that what we had decided to play was pretty much what people wished we were playing anyway. I realised then that it was going to be a good tour, because I thought we were gonna get up on stage and play half the stuff and no one was gonna know that the hell we were doing.

 But most of the audience is really happy that we're playing old stuff from Faith and Kiss Me... It's fantastic doing some of that stuff again. Some of those older songs, we've added little bits to them and tried to slightly model more into how we would do them if we played them now, but the character's still there. Some of the old songs that have that character are really good, they're a pleasure to play.

Is it gratifying or surprising that after all this time the audience is so in tune with the band?

Well the strange this with us is that with the audience we've retained a small percentage of our own age group - there's a few diehards that have been there since day one - but the audience is constantly rejuvenated by younger people. We attract a new generation of Cure fans with everything we do, which is great. It keeps me feeling young. Or it keeps me pretending that I'm young and there's a huge difference (laughs). But what we do I think attracts a certain type of person. I don't think age has much to do with it, you either get into it or you don't. You could be 16 or 60 and you're either gonna like us or not like us depending on your sensibilities.

Whether or not this is the last album tour, how would you like The Cure to be remembered?

(Pauses) As an almost pop group. I don't know, really. Just as being a band of integrity. Apart from wanting to be remembered for making good albums, the fact that we've done things on our own terms all the way through and that if I had my time over again I wouldn't do anything differently, I think that's been the most important part of it.

 

PART II...

The Cure perform at the Perth Entertainment Centre next Tuesday, October 10, 2000, presented by X-Press Magazine. In part two of our interview Robert Smith tells Bob Gordon of his songwriting future and beyond.

While most indications seem to point to the break-up of The Cure by the end of this year, Robert Smith hasn’t been sitting around despondently, even when on break from the band’s Dreamtour, staged in support of their most recent album Bloodflowers.

On the contrary, Smith has been busy writing a new batch of songs, in an approach that embraces the future while paying heed to his past.

“It’s what I’ve been doing this summer,” he explains, “’cause we’ve had about two months off. I’ve pretty much finished writing another album. I’ve actually gone back to how I wrote The Head On The Door album (1985). I’m using the same equipment, I dug it out of an old box in my garage that I hadn’t opened up since I moved. There’s a little four-track and various old effects pedals. I plugged them all in and thought ‘well this is how I used to do it’. “It’s really nice, actually, getting back to that incredibly simple way of just putting four things down that have to work with each other to make a song.”

It wouldn’t seem that Smith has emulated his Head On The Door approach simply because that album was so successful, but perhaps more as a reaction against what he admits was the obsessive-creative process behind Bloodflowers.

Bloodflowers was actually a really technically complicated album to write even though it ended up sounding dead simple,” he says. “I actually had a whole studio set up for the first time ever at home. I was using real drum samples that Jason (Cooper, drums) was sending me and playing everything as if I was making a ‘real album’. In a way it was bad because I did start to obsess about incredibly stupid things that I know no one else in the whole world would ever hear. The pre-delay on an echo and stuff like that. “Looking back I think ‘how do I get like that?’. It’s just part of my nature, really. So it’s quite nice to be liberated by knowing that I’ve only got four instruments and four tracks and if I want to write something that’s all I’ve got. It’s quite a nice discipline again.”

Adding to the ‘are-they-breaking-up-or-aren’t-they?’ riddle that is both tantalising and terrifying Cure fans the world over, Smith is non-committal as to whether the resultant LP would be a Cure album or a solo release.

“Either way I’d probably get the others to play on it anyway,” he says. “I’m getting on with them so well I can’t really see any point in asking anyone else to do it. In some ways it’s really whether I want to think ‘is now the time I want to be a solo artiste or do The Cure make another record?’ To me it’s more important what it sounds like. I don’t really worry about what it’s going to be called until I’ve done something else.”

In news that will please Cure completists, according to the band’s official website there’s plans to release 10 Dreamtour shows on CD. Laughing that it’s ‘a straight steal from Pearl Jam’, Smith seems to be simply fond of the idea, as opposed to any notion of taking on the bootleggers directly.

“I think that it was probably being a bit optimistic when I put that up, because having listened to some of the shows, we might be doing a composite European and composite American CD for starters and seeing if there’s any demand for anything more. It’s the same deal (as Pearl Jam), it’s not gonna be a proper commercial release. We’ll do it as cheap as we can. It’ll probably be a charity thing that we sell through the website. It’s really just that people have gotten in contact with us in their thousands asking us to do something like that just so they can have a memento. Pretty much every show we ever do is bootlegged, but it’s very rare that one is of good enough quality to be listened to buy anything other than the most fanatical people though I s’pose only fanatical people buy bootlegs. But it’s not really a commercial enterprise, I’m not really getting into that side of things. Competing with the bootleggers is a bit difficult. I think we’re in the Top 10 most bootlegged bands in history according to a web-poll (laughs). I think it’ll be just our version of events and we might put a couple of little extras on that you can’t get anywhere else, to encourage people our way.”

Quite a few people may well have been encouraged The Cure’s way when Smith made a guest appearance on South Park in 1998. It certainly swung the ever-doting uncle’s 21 nieces and nephews around...

“Yeah, that’s actually what clued most of them well, the middle lot into who I was. Up until that point they thought I was just some disturbed individual that turned up every now and again. They’re an extremely demanding bunch the older they get,” he laughs, with tongue firmly planted in cheek. “They get stroppier and louder-mouthed, I preferred it when there were fewer of them and they were quieter. They’re beginning to realise what I do, demanding to be taken to Australia and so forth.”

The Cure’s imminent Australian tour is their first in eight years, the last being part of the band’s world tour for the hugely successful Wish album. Smith is aware of the excitement of Australian fans about the visit (indeed he knew about the upcoming Cure tribute night at the Amplifier Bar as he’d read about it on the internet) and seems similarly excited himself.

“It’s been too long,” he says. “Looking back I can remember why we missed out Australia in ’96 but it was for stupid reasons, really. Everything else was too long, we spent 16 weeks in America and by the time the suggestion of Australia and the Southern Hemisphere in general came up everyone was so pissed off with each other that it didn’t happen (laughs).

“This time we’ve played far less. We’ve only had six weeks in America and six weeks around Europe, so everyone’s itching to play still. I think it’ll be really good.”

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