A stroll down the labyrinthine corridors of Robert Smith's mind probably isn't the healthiest way to spend an evening. Most songwriters have a brain. But Smith has Room 101, the Orwellian edifice in which your greatest terrors await you, where you're locked in a closet with flesh-eating spiders, caterpillars that flicker, and there's a head on the door. Over the past eighteen years, Robert Smith has unearthed-or unveiled-more nocturnal horrors than most human minds could dream of, and set them to a soundtrack that's both draining and demanding.
But who is it draining? And what is it demanding? Whose psyche is psyching out whom? And what is Robert Smith himself so scared of? "Jarvis Cocker's bottom"
Six Years ago, the British music industry conferred upon the Cure the greatest award in it's arsenal, a best-band Brit. Robert Smith went on-stage and condemned the ceremony as a farce. This year, the British music industry didn't give Pulp anything at all, so singer Jarvis Cocker walked on stage and interrupted Michael Jackson's performance, intending to condemn the ceremony by letting his personal moon bathe the audience in it's glow .The country was all abuzz with the news, and the Cure can't disguise their disdain. Or at least, guitarist Simon Gallup can't.
Jarvis Cocker. What a plank. Right attitude, but the wrong person to do it. He got himself serious worldwide attention, and Jarvis Cocker is a wanker.
Robert Smith looks perturbed. You can't say that. The Cure have a long, long history of never slagging off their peers in print, a history which Gallup seems determined to rewrite.
I can say that, Gallup replies. Wanker-wanker-wanker-Jarvis Cocker. Less a band, more a commune, the Cure have undergone two major line-up shifts since last we saw them. Complementing the now solid nucleus of Gallup, Smith, and guitarist Perry Bamonte, we have keyboard player Roger O'Donnell, who returned from Disintegration days to replace the Zeppelin-bound Porl Thompson, and and an unknown drummer named Jason Cooper, who slipped into Boris Williams' recently vacated seat. They found him through a Melody Maker ad.
Famous band needs drummer, it read. No metalheads. They brought him in two years ago, midway through a half decade stretch during which the Cure's silence was broken only by the now habitual sequence of live albums and videos. The band members themselves were too busy not being busy to do anything else.
We've just been being us, explains Gallup. Once we finished the Wish tour, we all went away and realized we all had personal lives to get on with, and a lot of things to sort out. When you're in your early 20's, it's like, 'Fuck everything'. When you're in your 30's, you kind of think-what's going on?
And when you're zooming 40, as most of the band members now are, that becomes an even greater consideration. Slippers by the fire, a blanket on your lap, a nice mug of Ovaltine, and an away-from-it-all retreat in the country.
A retreat like St. Catherine's,a tiny hamlet on the outskirts of Bath, deep in England's pastoral west country. The house itself is a generic medieval manor, the type of centuries-old pile which litters the British countryside and only really draws attention a)if you're a tourist, or b)if you're rich and the house is for sale.
From the outside, the mind fills the place with priceless antiques, secret passages, at least a couple of ghosts, and generations of ancestral paintings, lining the walls of winding paneled corridors. Walk in and the first thing you see is a photograph of actress Jane Seymour.
Explore deeper into the bowels of the servants' quarters which are the Cure's operational nerve center, and the plot thickens. Jane on this wall, Jane on that wall, for wall after wall after wall. Here with a co-star, there in a costume, Jane,Jane,Jane. It's like a shrine or something. Who did you say owns this place? Jane Seymour.
Only the rudiments of furniture are here. The rest has obviously been packed away someplace until the rock 'n' rollers clear out. Instead, there's a roomful of guitars, a serpent's nest of cables, and on a window ledge in the upstairs living room lies a Robert Smith rag doll, straight out of the Close to Me video. The real thing, the non rag doll Robert, sits a few feet away, telling a joke about the old lady in the wheelchair who's complaining she's never been fucked.
So this guy walks by, listens to her and says 'that's terrible'. Then he lifts her from her chair, throws her to the ground, kicks the wheelchair down the street and says, 'Now you're fucked.'
Well, it was funny at the time.
And if you print that I'll say it wasn't me, Smith retorts. My joke was about a horse.
It is into this atmosphere of juvenilia, jollity and Jane that the Cure have injected their latest poisonous brew, an album which they call Wild Mood Swings, because basically, that's what it is. Sometimes wild, sometimes moody, and if you enjoyed Hot Hot Hot, there's a swingy part as well. I have this theory that ever since the group got back together following their post Pornography breakup, every other Cure album has been one too many: The Top was trivial, Head on the Door indispensible; Kiss Me was cursed, Disintegration was dynamite; and Wish we wish wasn't.
By that token alone, Wild Mood Swings should be great, and it is. Want sets the scene; it's vast, symphonic sweep has already been established as the band's set-opener. Responding to a 20,000 strong petition from their Brazilian fan club, the Cure played Rio early this year, and Want filled the stadium even faster than their name.
And then another finger shoots out, jabs a nearby play button, and now what is it where hearing? The dolorous Pornography sigh of Siamese Twins?
Or a cold-American accent exhorting us to visit Club America? Hands up if you'd call it a novelty song: I ride into a town on a big white Trojan horse, I'm looking to have some fun.... Fun? On a Cure record? Oh sorry, I forgot; they don't make albums like Faith anymore.
But wait, there's more! 13th is a mock Mexican percussion routine and the new album's other divisive Friday, I'm in Love-shaped moment. Gallup prepares for business.
13th was a funny song really, because it was only a half realized idea when we started recording. But then Jason joined, and he started doing certain percussion bits to it ,and we thought, "well, we'll add more bits to it', and now it's really good fun."
It's also fun imagining people's faces the first time the 13th Latin-lopes out of the speaker. What's this? Sergio Mendes? But mention that the Cure are possibly the only band around who could step so far away from their style and still get away with it, and the band reply that they're not trying to get away with anything.
Doing things as a departure makes it sound like it's contrived, Gallup curses from his perch by a roaring fire. If I looked at the 13th and wasn't involved in it, I would say 'Oh look, it's got a Latin beat in it, it's got all this stuff. 'But Because we've all been involved, we all think it's a good song. And to be thoroughly honest, we're not trying to break new ground with it, because it's actually quite a sleazy song. But if we went out tonight and heard that song, we'd dance to it.
I think we lost our belligerence years ago, Smith continues, looking squishy on the sofa, though he's no longer the Fat Boy of fond critic-cliché memory. I think people have become used to the fact we'll do what we do. We're not trying to upset or shock or amuse anyone, we just want people to think it's fun.
Then why is it the new single? Because I wanted to marry a transvestite on video, says Smith. That's the only reason. I don't think anything on this album is going to be a hit. The 13th might be remembered if the video's good, but it won't be a hit.
And why's that? Because in a world awash with Britpop and Blur, where Jarvis Cocker's bottom is as famous as Cocker himself, the Cure themselves are now regarded as a vestige of yesterday that won't go away, lipstick-smeared,crimp-haired troglodytes who grow more repulsive with each passing year, as football-women-music English magazine Loaded recently put it. And Smith, surprisingly, doesn't disagree.
I don't have any delusions about our standing in the market, he admits. So what if Wish hit the US charts at number two? That guarantees nothing. Our record companies love us when we're selling records, but they hate us when we're not. And while we've got a history of having good videos, if it's not a good video they won't flog us, which disturbs me because they will flog other people's videos which are shit.
Clothes maketh man and videos maketh band. But who maketh video? The 13th will mark the first occasion bar one that the Cure have worked apart from director Tim Pope since the pair joined forces in 1982. And it's impossible to tell if the parting was amicable.
The whole point of me saying 'I can't work with Tim Pope anymore' insists Smith, is that I can't be Why Can't I Be You-Man again. I'm not that person and I won't be. The advantage we had we first started doing things with Tim Pope was that in the world of video, anything you thought of was new. And now....
You mean we were writing our own cliché? O'Donnell flinches, which awakens Gallup, still roasting quietly by the fire. Roger and I were talking about how Tim Pope always makes these really weird videos. But the ideas that he's come up with without the group have been pap.
Smith won't disagree. Some of the videos he's done with other people have been boring. And Gallup insists Lovesong was a bloody travesty.
Please, Smith reasons, let's not harp on about how he's failed us. He's also made some good videos.
He took two days to make those stalactites.
But hang on, that song was number two in America. And the video made me look glamorous, and it's the only one to ever do that. It was a poor video, but it made the song.
Gallup won't let go. We all looked like what we don't look like. "But Smith misses that barb. "So now we're making a video that doesn't rely on the stuff we used to rely on. And the planned transvestite wedding is only part of the thrill.
If you haven't got the ability to step outside of what you're supposed to be and do something that's really dumb, Smith exclaims, you're fucked. It's like you're saying ooh, we can't go near that. Our idea is to go Nick Cave style, where I'm just reinforcing endlessly my idea of a Goth God.
The Cure are old hands at the interview game, and talking to them is like wrestling with a hydra. Just when you think you have one head pinned down, the others all start yakking, and there's no way you can respond to them all at once, so you let go and they slip away. At the time, you think they're just lively, but later you realize it's self defense, too. Loose lips sink ships and all that, so they stick together like glue, and no one can get a jab in through the cracks. Not even each other.
For instance, a decade ago, cassette versions of the Cure's first greatest hits album, Standing on a Beach, were released with a bonus selection of out-of-print b-sides unavailable elsewhere anymore. More recently, a bootleg appeared, bringing the story up to date, and when the unmixed tape of Wild Mood Swings finishes, it does so with It Used To Be Me, an epic piece of classic Cure which builds the suspense like a piece of Pornography, and has already been earmarked for the flip of The 13th.
We are the sort of group that people do look for the b-sides; we have a tradition, Smith muses. Siouxsie and the Banshees were one of the first groups where I'd buy all their singles because the b-sides were usually better. But it's a lost art now. People just use inane mixes as an excuse for not doing anything different.
We've been talking about doing a collection of b-sides, says O'Donnell, because there's been some demand for it.
At the end of this year, there'll be something, Smith agrees. It'll probably just be fan-based, stuff that's been missing. And there's a lot of it to play with as well, like Curiosity, the live and demos collection which accompanied the mid 80's Concert live album; the booming instrumental Carnage Visors; the soundtrack to the movie which supported the Cure on the Faith tour; 1992's Lost Wishes Wish-outtakes ep...
It's nice....no, it's not nice in some ways because people will pay a lot of money to get it, but a lot of stuff in the past was released with the idea of it being just of the moment, disposable. If you make everything available for posterity, it's a bit precious, really. Some things are best left obscure.
Since the mid-1980's, it's been impossible for us to do something and believe that it was going to remain obscure. Before that, there were a lot of odd b-sides...No one bought the a-sides, no one bought the albums; we weren't trying to be obscure, it's like we were lucky to sell 50,000 worldwide of the album!
The thing now is, O'Donnell says, if you don't do something about the rare stuff, someone else will, and they won't do it as well as we would. Do it very cheap. A bootleg of Cure b-sides would cost 25 quid.
So we could put it out for 30. But Smith looks wary. The Cure are just two years away from their 20th anniversary, and any retrospective which appears between now and then, will inevitably be tarred with the birthday brush. Besides, he's already seen other groups that have done it, iconic 80's groups who get towards the end of their career, so they package everything together and make very saleable.
Hmm. Perhaps this b-sides collection isn't such a good idea after all. Maybe we should wait until we've stopped. Do a three-CD box set, and then bury it.
What, the b-sides? even O'Donnell is aghast. So we've come full circle. We were going to do it a minute ago. See? A hydra.
And that's not all. Smith himself is almost disarmingly pleasant, a far cry from the ogre of legend; an even further yell from the old misery-guts of yore. No, that Smith was filed away years ago, around the same time the Cure lost that belligerence he mentioned. But once, just for a moment, his gleaming geniality shatters, and Robby whirls around. And all I did was ask if he'll ever feel to old to carry on.
Come on. Why did you ask that? beams back the 37-year old Smith. We were in Holland recently and met up with a journalist who talked to us when we were there in 1981, and he asked us why we were still going? I asked him why he was. This whole thing about how we've remained successful over a long period of time, the answer's so simple. The songs. If the songs weren't good, we could have the best look, the best attitude, but it would mean nothing.
How many other bands have so many good albums over the last 20 years? Very few bands who started when we did had any fucking idea of what they were doing. A few bands started in the early 80's, who still manage to do it - New Order, who are nominally still going. But if you haven't got good songs, it doesn't matter at all what you do. You cannot fool an audience. Gallup looks gleeful. I always wanted to play clubs again.
Why don't you, then? The Cure have always nursed, even nurtured, a reputation for stubbornness, grimly encouraging the trans-industry belief that they've done absolutely everything to afford easy self-destruction. They already shattered once after Pornography. And Roger O'Donnell, veteran of both the Thompson Twins and the Psychedelic Furs, acknowledges, I've been in other bands that were running parallel to the Cure, and they pulled their hair out and beat the shit out their manager, wanting to know why the Cure was doing it and they weren't. But you can't pin it down.
They just are, they just do, and they just won't give up whatsoever. See, stubbornness. But Smith still shrugs the evidence off. I haven't been stubborn in the slightest. Year after year, I do exactly what I want That's why it's taken four years to make this album, because I haven't really been bothered.
If anything, Robert is stubborn not to do it anymore, O'Donnell encourages. He would never go on tour. Robert makes records despite himself, and it's the same for the Cure--successful despite itself.
If it was my choice we would have ended ten years ago. Smith sighs. But they've got too many things they can hold over me which I can't afford to come out. Hmm, I wondered whose girdle that was in the bathroom...
When it comes down to it, it's 'What do we like?' The five of us sit down, listen to music, "That's really good, why do you like it?' The whole thing is instinct, and that's the only thing which Smith believes even transcends songs.
But when the instinct goes, the songs will too, and now and now do you think you'll reach a point when you'll feel you're too old?
Yes. But I'll still play music. Right now, though, I don't feel any different from when I started the group. I love the same way, I hate the same way. And presumably, he eats the same way, because the dinner's just arrived, a veritable smorgasbord of Chinese, Indian and fish 'n' chips.
It's a Cure tradition at the end of each day, seated around a massive wood table in a dining room straight out of Blackadder II, crew and Cure alike. Smith sits at one end; far away at the other is their tour security guard, a massive man-mountain with a lusty repertoire of tales of on-the-road mishaps: Cure fans have a reputation for being gentle, dark and quiet; come across one pumped up with Angel Dust, though, and it took four of us just to hold her down.
Conversation tonight is on the forthcoming Cure tour, a race around Britain in may; a month of to watch the European soccer championships; then the States through the summer, with all that entails. All told, the next eighteen months of these peoples' lives are already mapped out, which must be a fairly scary proposition. Maybe we'll try that question again. Hey Simon, what are you so afraid of? Michael Jackson And Robert? The Mission
Mission singer Wayne Hussey recently credited the Cure with giving him the courage to carry on, and one gets the distinct impression that the blame does not sit well on any of them. I think it's the G word which does it.
Smith is unequivocal. We're not a true Goth band. We fail the audience in too many ways.
The NME called us 'quintessentially goth with pop overtones, Gallup seethes. Why say that? What is Goth? We've never done weird...Well, we have, but... His voice trails off, unable to escape from the essential conundrum that as the gloom of Goth gathered, the Cure were indisputably one of the founding fathers, tracking through a wonderful sequence of albums which began with 1980's Seventeen Seconds, peaked a year later with Faith, and culminated on Pornography in 1982.
But that was all a long time ago, and arguably, nothing the Cure have done since then has had a smidgen of the meaning which that triptych tackled. And they know that as well. Or at least Gallup does.
The bracket of Goth, certain bands went into it--the Mission, God bless 'em, the Sisters, Fields of the Nephilim. But you couldn't say Faith sounds like [Sisters of Mercy's] First and Last and Always, although it is true that the audience always divides up at gigs: the half who are 'typical' Cure fans who dress a bit gothy and got into us for the early stuff: the half who got into us with the new stuff, who you can't pin down with their clothes, or their expectations, or anything; and the half who.. Three halves? They couldn't get in so they're selling bootlegs of our b-sides in the car-park.
Which half does Smith most consciously address when he sits down to write a song? None of them, apparently. I can't write a song in a calculating manner. I have done it, but the songs are very flat, like Let's Go to Bed or Why Can't I Be You. They're good on a certain level, but they don't resonate.
I sat down and wrote Want as quickly as any song I've written in my life. I literally sat down outside my house two summers ago. I was dissatisfied, so I made a list of everything I've ever wanted and as I went on, it made me laugh, and with very few changes...
Some songs are very particular to particular moments, others are very general, which is why I write about the things I write about, which goes on year after year after year. On the [new] songs, lyrically you couldn't say what they're about..They range from things that happened to me, things that I've experienced, things I've observed, and other people's points of view altogether.
That's the difference between now and then--whenever then was. Then was all pure autobiography, taken exclusively from things that had worked me up to the point where I'd write a song. Now I can take situations which don't really upset my equilibrium. I can hear something we could do musically, and I'll write a song to complement it. In the old days I had no interest in it; I just wanted to put my own view across and say this is how I feel about something, and the music was just a backdrop.
On Wild Mood Swings, I've tried to enhance the music that will push into thinking a certain way. It devalues the song a little for me personally, but in other ways it enhances it immeasurably as a member of the group."
When we first started, we weren't selling records, we were only playing to a few people, and we had to shout because it was the only way to be noticed. Now I don't because there's enough people I've met who do understand.
And what is it they understand? That Robert Smith is honest to a point, fair-minded to a degree, and about as open as a deeply buried box full of b-sides and rarities? Or that he can talk the back end off a beetle, and when you try to pin him down, he goes all slippery-wippery, calling in reinforcements to baffle you with badinage, and still without answering your question.
One more time Robert, what are you so scared of? I'm afraid it's still Jarvis Cocker's bottom.
Lawrence Tolhurst (drums,keyboards) : Founder member sacked loudly, and litigiously, in March 1989. His lawsuit launched against the Cure, arguing that his role in the band was considerably greater than his contract allowed, was defeated in September 1993. His own band, Presence, released Inside in 1993; at the time, it was actually a vast improvement over what the Cure were doing.
Michael Dempsey(bass): Founder member who quit in November 1979 after the first album, to join the Associates. Replaced by Simon Gallup. Dempsey returned briefly to shoot the Boy's Don't Cry video in 1986
Matthieu Hartley(keyboards): Joined in late 1979, in time to make Seventeen Seconds, and quit in August 1980. When the Cure split in 1982, Simon Gallup briefly joined him in a new band, Cry, which in turn became Fool's Dance, which in turn broke up.
Steve Severin(bass): Prior to their collaboration on the Glove's Blue Sunshine(1983),Banshee Severin and a lone Robert Smith united to recorded Lament in the summer of 1982. He also made a BBC TV appearance alongside Smith and Tolhurst in March 1983. He was never a member of the Cure, but he was never not a member either. Still a Banshee, though.
Steve Goulding(drums): Ex of Wreckless Eric's band, Goulding joined Tolhurst and Smith to record Let's Go To Bed in 1982. Last sighted with the Mekons.
Phil Thornalley(bass): The engineer on Pornography replaced Goulding in mid-1983; he quit in February 1985, to be replaced by a returning Simon Gallup.
Derek Thompson(keyboards): Member of influential industrial band SPK drafted in for a few moments in 1983 to help promote The Walk single.
Porl Thompson(guitar): A member of the pre-Cure Easy Cure in 1977, who returned for a Top of The Pops performance in July 1983, then joined full time in the spring of 1984. Departed in 1993 to join Robert Plant and Jimmy Page.
Andy Anderson(drums): Ex-member of Killing Joke bassist Youth's band Brilliant who took over on drums from Tolhurst, now on keyboards only. Sacked due to a drinking problem in October 1984, while touring Japan, and later joined Jeffrey Lee Pierce.
Vince Ely(drums): Psychedelic Furs member who replaced Anderson for eleven live shows in the U.S. in October/November 1984
Boris Williams(drums): Ex-Thompson Twins member who replaced Ely in November 1984. He quit following the Wish tour in 1992 to be replaced by Jason Cooper.
Roger O'Donnell(keyboards): Ex-Psychedelic Furs/Thompson Twins member who joined in 1988, quit after Disintegration, then returned once Wish was out of the way.
Perry Bamonte(keyboards): Longtime Cure crew member who replaced O'Donnell in 1991, claiming he'd never played keyboards before in his life. Switched to guitar when O'Donnell returned.