Robert Smith Rewound
Losing and finding the Cure
In May 1996 I had the good fortune to interview Cure frontman Robert Smith. And then, with the interview still untranscribed, I lost the tape. It took me 23 years to find out what on earth I had done with it.
It is almost exactly forty years since the release of the Cure’s debut album Three Imaginary Boys in May 1979. It was one of the first real glimmerings of post-punk: debut albums by Gang of Four and Joy Division weren’t released until a couple of months later. In a way, The Cure’s appearances at this year’s INmusic and Exit festivals serve as an appropriate summing-up of an epoch of which they are one of the few true survivors.
In May 1996 I had the good fortune to interview Cure frontman Robert Smith. His PR people let it be known that he didn’t talk to the press that often. “He chooses the interviewers himself”, they said, keen to emphasize just how lucky I should be feeling. And then, with the interview still untranscribed, I lost the tape. It took me 23 years to find out what on earth I had done with it.
The interview came about when I was the rock critic of the European, a weekly newspaper that wasn’t all that good, and which ceased publication entirely in 1998.
When I met the Cure they were just about to release their tenth studio album, Wild Mood Swings, launching a mini come-back that followed a long period of inactivity; one that almost saw the band disappear. They were living and rehearsing in Haremere Hall, a rambling seventeenth-century country house stuffed with artworks and antiques. I arrived when Cure and entourage were indulging in an extended mid-morning breakfast that seemed to go on for ever as more and more band members kept emerging from their slumbers. Smith was the last to come own, wearing a smudge of his familiar make-up but not too much – as if to let me know that although he was in performance mode he was still an approachable human being.
The day after doing the interview I got into a big argument with my editors. They said that the next edition of the paper was already rather full and they only had space for 400 words. I said that if they didn’t give the interview two whole pages, they weren’t going to get it at all. I made a desultory attempt to pitch the interview to other newspapers but either the relevant editor wasn’t in, or they promised to think about it and ring me later. And then I put the interview tape aside. And I didn’t see it again until I was clearing out my storage unit in southeast London earlier this year. It was in a cassette box labelled ‘Tori Amos’, the last person I had interviewed before meeting Smith.
Listening to the recording for the first time was quite a thrill, although I wasn’t sure whether this came from the rediscovery of Robert Smith or the reinvestigation of my former self. At least it helped me come to terms with the fact that while I was never that great at being a rock journalist, I wasn’t that bad at it either. It was the editors who didn’t have a clue what they were doing.
When I heard the clunk of stop button at the end of the interview, the tape was taken over by a female voice. A voice which I soon realized belonged to Tori Amos. I had recorded over my earlier conversation with the American singer-songwriter because I hadn’t had time to go out and buy a new tape for Smith.
What follows isn’t going to radically change our picture of Robert Smith, a man who has been endlessly written about by journalists and biographers over the last four decades. However it does represent a fascinating portrait of a mid-career rock musician reflecting coherently, and in good humour, on the person he had become, and why he so nearly broke up the band in 1993.
As we sat down beneath full-length portraits of 17th-century aristocrats, Smith began by telling me about the house we were in, and how nervous the band had been about setting up their gear in such a historic property.
“When we first came here the owner [Lady Killearn] packed everything away, so we were faced with a bare house, with marks on the walls where the paintings had been. The second time we came her grandchildren had probably told her who we were, so suddenly she was taking us arm in arm and showing us the rose garden. We ended up packing some of her stuff in boxes because it’s really difficult staggering from room to room watching out for rare vases. We haven’t recorded anything in a non-residential studio for well over ten years now. The last time was in London in around 1985 where the Head on the Door album was done. Since then we’ve always used residential studios. We invested in a very basic home recording set-up which means we can go wherever we want.
So we’ve been using Haremere Hall as our rehearsal space, and the actress Jane Seymour’s house near Bath for the actual recording. That’s a real Tudor mansion set in acres of grounds and it’s got room for about thirty people – which we needed because we had a lot of different musicians playing on the new album. So it was sort of like an upmarket hippy commune really. “
Does hanging around in a country house add something extra to the creative process?
The difference is that it isn’t really a studio. We’re just living together in a house. Just after Christmas 1994 we decided that we would spend a year together as a band. What I actually wanted was to spend a whole year in a creative environment and to do other things as well as an album. For example we used the time to come up with a couple of hours’ worth of incidental music in various keys – so when we got commissioned to write some film soundtrack music we already had something ready. People thought we were some kind of spontaneous geniuses! I also tried sculpture and things, I just wanted us to have a year doing things we’d never done it before.
Prior to this I’d taken a year away from the group, reestablished family ties and got into a much more domestic lifestyle. Which is weird in itself. But I missed something about the group so I tried to think what it was I liked about it and what we needed to get rid of. One of the things I didn’t like was that sense of deadline, playing music because there had to be some end product.
When you first start a band you dream of playing music and being with a group of people, so the social side and the musical side just blur into one, and it's a really good experience. I just thought that we’d lost that. After the last tour I felt really fed up and I thought that was it. So it was good that we had this gap.
This last year has cemented our friendship and it’s now based on much more than just being thrown together in the studio. We’ve actually done other things together as friends, we’ve gone out and done things that have nothing to do with the group.
So what was it that made being in The Cure so difficult in 1992?
Because of the Disintegration album [1989; a dark masterpiece said to have been born of Smith’s drug-taking and despondency at the time] I was on a slide really. Although Disintegration is really good and I think [the next album] Wish  is the best thing we’ve ever done. There were various factors that contributed to my increasing isolation from not only the group but from everything really. We did a world tour, we were constantly playing those songs, and I just got into a mindset that I found it very hard to break out of. So I had this kind of dark persona and looking back I realize that there were always people living vicariously through me. I was very easily seduced into playing a role, people were nudging me along and I ended up becoming something other people wanted me to be and getting gratification from the fact that other people were enjoying themselves because of it. It just became a vicious circle.
And the makeup of the group didn't really help. Porl [multi-instrumentalist Porl Thompson] left; and he’s my brother in law, so there was a lot of weird tension going on. It led to arguments with my mum who wanted to know what exactly I had been doing to him! With Porl and Boris [Williams, the drummer] leaving it was pretty traumatic, although I didn’t see what that lineup could do anymore.
So the Cure kind of stopped for a while. And I just thought well, maybe that's it. And I went off and I thought if I enjoy doing other stuff I won’t bother going back. Simon [Gallup, bassist and longest-serving member apart from Smith) was in a similar frame of mind. Perry [Bamonte, keyboards] was just left waiting to see whether we would bother coming back.
Primarily I came back because of the music. It was the creative side that I missed and wanted to get back. Prior to that the group had become too much like a job really. Although actually I shouldn't really be moaning...
Isn’t it inevitable that it will start to feel like a job again, especially once you get back on the road?
I don't think so because I’ve delegated a lot more this time. That's another way in which I’ve changed because I never delegated that much before; I was scared of losing control. It’s in the nature of any group that someone takes the lead and gets away with it, and there’s an innate laziness in the others. But now everyone in the group has got a very specific role. We each have our own jobs and have weekly meetings – although they’re more like house meetings than board meetings.
Although let’s face it by next Christmas we might have all fallen out again. Usually what happens on tour is that everyone ends up hating each other!
But at the moment I don't care because I’ve had a really excellent year and I think the album’s good too.
Is there a always a danger that when bands make the transition from playing in clubs to playing in stadiums the egos of the musicians grow in order to fit the size of the auditorium?
I often wonder how I’ve done some of the things that I’ve done, a lot of it is drink fuelled, I’ve never been on stage without a drink. Otherwise I would just freeze. I’m not really a very natural performer. However there is something about being on the big stage that is very attractive, and I can see how people can develop the idea that they are more than human, because that's the way you’re treated. But I still have people around me that I have known from since before The Cure started, who do regular jobs and live in what you might call the real world, and they are not taken in by it. The act.
I also think that there’s never been too much bombast and showmanship in what we do. When we played a stadium for the first time in Texas we said “what are we gonna do in front of 70,000 people? We can’t just stand there!” Everyone feels obliged to put on a huge spectacular, and I think what we’ve done by default is to draw people into something more intimate.
Does a healthy intake of alcohol sometimes save people from a more serious level of indulgence?
We certainly went down a different road when we were in our early twenties, when you’re young enough to survive, and recover. When I hit thirty [in 1989] I was forced into a rethink. In a strange way I was kind of lucky that Lol was in the group at that point, because I was seeing what it was doing to him, and I was looking at what might happen to me if I continued. He just didn't have the will to resist and I thought that at some point I was just going to give up in the same way. And its pretty terrifying when you've seen someone who you've known for a long time totally disintegrating over literally a period of a year and completely coming apart at the seams.
There are people on the clubbing side of my life who I see infrequently but when I do I’m kind of shocked by how stupid they’ve become and how stuck they are, as if they’re endlessly trying to relive one particular night of their lives. I’m glad that I never became like that and was able to pull back a bit.
You’re repertoire is extraordinarily varied and your first 3-4 albums came out before the word ‘Goth’ had been invented, and yet you are still perceived as being some kind of king of the Goths.
The people who listen to the Cure know that there are lots of different facets to the band. Obviously there’s a minority who wish we’d stayed the way we were at a particular time. But I think the majority appreciate the fact that we do things because we feel like doing them and we do things on our own terms. And they identify with us because of that, and the idea that you can be who you want to be. I don’t think there’s anyone out there who seriously thinks I’m a messianic figure.
Blame it on the Banshees
The thing is we never were a Goth band. There’s not a single video, or interview, that places us in or near the Batcave [the London club that was at the centre of the Goth scene 1982-85]. I only ever went there about three times and that was when I was the guitarist in Siouxsie and the Banshees, and if you were in the Banshees you could get in for free and you’d get free drinks. I wore a certain Banshee look when I was in the band in around 82-83 because they kind of insisted I did, and they hated me for being in the Cure at the same time because they thought the Cure was a group for idiots. So the Goth label is something that stuck over the years; like “oh yeah you’re the godfather of Goth.”
We were recently asked by a British journalist how did we think we were going to fit in to the Britpop scene, and I was thinking is this a serious question? Have I ever been worried how the Cure is going to fit in to a current scene? The point has always been that we don’t fit.
In order to be so successful for so long is there a danger that you get stuck playing the eternal teenager?
I’m always accused of singing about teenage angst as if you can only have angst as a teenager. As if you hit twenty and think yep, I’ve got the meaning of life sorted out now. Let’s get on with choosing the colour of the new car. About 75% of my friends my age have got children and are really absorbed by their children, but it doesn’t stopped them from having the same kind of angst that I do. The books that I read and music I listen to is often made by people far older than me but they’re still grasping for something, searching for something, continually, I’ve never met anyone that’s arrived at a complete set of answers, and who is so centred that they live like a deep still pool.
My dad had his 70th birthday recently and the family came out here for a party. I was really trying to communicate with my dad you know, chatting about things, about life, and it’s just one of those moving days in your life that you’ll always remember. He is a wise man who has done an incredible amount of things but he doesn’t necessarily have any of the answers to all the questions. And if you gave him the choice between being 70 with all his wisdom, and being 15 again, I’m sure he’d choose 15.
The essence of being young is that sense that everything is possible, and I still have that. And I’ve held on to it for a good reason. Doing what I do there are endless opportunities to become a complete tosser, but at the age of 15 you still have a healthy disregard for things, and as long as you still have that as you grow older you cant really go wrong. But I don't pretend to myself that I’m a teenager.
When it comes to putting on makeup and pretending to be something that I’m not, it’s really theatrical and people lose sight of that performance side of it. I’ve developed a certain look and a certain character that helps me to cope with the performance side, that’s all.
We were getting ready to do Top of the Pops [the BBC’s prime-time pop show] recently so I watched it for the first time in years, thinking “how are we going to fit in to this?” And I realized that most of the people on the program were actually older than me rather than younger. I mean Tina Turner is on Top Of The Pops! David Bowie is on Top Of The Pops! When we appear on it we will look completely ridiculous I’m sure, but it won’t be because we’re too old.
© Jonathan Bousfield