Confessions Of A Pop Mastermind

Guitar Player
September 1992
Joe Gore

Is your magazine technically slanted? inquires Robert Smith in a tone that hovers between suspicion and bemusement. The Cure, it seems, have never been interviewed by a guitar magazine, despite having generated 13 years of consistently creative and often brilliant guitar-based pop.

"Depends on the artist," I fudge.

"What's us?

That, too, depends on who you talk to. To their gargantuan worldwide following, the Cure combine sublime pop and heartfelt expressivity; to a large segment of the music press, they're self-obesessed gloom merchants, purveyors of pessimism to suburban America's petulant teens. But many of the band's detractors have probably let Smith 's personal flamboyance divert their attention from the band's phenomenal pop craftsmanship and stylistic range.

The Cure have been called, "the world's biggest cult band." While most stadium-circuit musicians trade in easily digested attitudes and images, the Cure have attained those heights without fist-in-the-air anthems or a down-home, populist stance. Smith 's persona, like his music, remains as oblique as ever.

Robert, the Cure's only constant member, has graced each of the band's 12 albums with moody, multicoloured guitar textures. He has largely defined the group's guitar voice, even though he often appears guitarless in videos and delegates parts that he played in the studio to other players when performing. His lines tend not to stand up and announce themselves, but merge with the other instruments into deep, evocative atmospheres. The casual listener might not realize that beneath that hooky vocal melody lurks a rat's nest of complex, intersecting figures.

Smith and his co-guitarists--Porl Thompson, who worked with Robert in the band's earliest days, left before they started recording in '79, and then rejoined in '85, and Perry Bamonte , longtime guitar roadie newly elevated to co-conspirator-- emphasize that the Cure's latest album Wish is the result of an unprecedented degree of band democracy, Smith having loosened his sometimes dictatorial production stance. But Robert is still responsible for the lion's share of the studio guitar work.

Wish the Cure's most guitar-driven record, roams from delicate balladry to manic psychedelia, from perfect little pop tunes to violent feedback assaults, but repeated listening reveals quirky guitar delights--strange open tunings, near- subliminal overdubs, unlikely collisions of soft picking and amp- frying feedback. The band's current live show runs the same fey- to-ferocious gamut, the new three-guitar lineup (Bamonte switches to keyboards for the older material) capturing the depth and detail of the record and raising a deliciously overpowering din on the feedback-laden, howl-and-burn material. "I thought a third guitar would allow me to become a singer and not play very much onstage," claims Smith , "but I'm actually playing more than ever."

After a hectic day in the Manhattan media circus-- interviews, an MTV appearance, a record company testimonial, a phone-in radio broadcast--Robert, Porl, Perry, and bassist Simon Gallup sat down to talk guitar over an ongoing parade of beers. All are in their early thirties; each is warm, well-spoken, and funny.

Guitar Player (GP): Never before has the Cure had such a muscular guitar presence. There's certainly more solo space than in the past.

Robert: It's taken me a long time to come to terms with having guitar solos in our songs--I used to abhor them. I didn't like the whole wanky idea of stepping to the front and saying, "look at me!" But now it doesn't bother me, because it suits what we're now doing musically. It would have been dumb in the past to put in a guitar solo just because someone felt like playing one, but it would be equally dumb now to stop someone from doing one if that's what the song needs to make it more exciting.

GP: The solos on Wish run to two extremes: composed parts like on Friday I'm In Love and total anarchy like on Cut.

Porl: Friday I'm In Love is one of Robert's songs. I've loosely studied it, and I try to play his solo live. I generally work best in the studio with the things like Cut while most of the worked-out things are Robert.

Robert: Porl prefers to play things that aren't very tied down.

Porl: A lot of it stems from my early involvement with things like Jimmy Page, the energy side of his playing. In the past, that type of playing was always frowned upon in the group. It was a joke--Boris and I would be doing Zeppelin covers at sound check, and we'd stop when everyone else showed up. But actually, we used to do Zeppelin covers like "In My Time Of Dying" in the very early days.

Robert: There's been a heavy side to the group since the Faith album, but it's relied on other instrumentation. Pornography had quite a bit of loud guitar, but generally just one instrument playing a rhythmic sort of thing.

GP: That album has some of your strangest playing.

Robert: I must confess that I don't remember making a lot of Pornography We probably drank and took more drugs than we should have--an interesting process, but one that would kill me now. In the period between 1982 and 1984 I was looking for something. I went a bit weird for awhile, but in quite a positive way. I did a lot: I played with Siouxsie & The Banshees, and I recorded Pornography and the Glove album [_Blue Sunshine_ a collaboration with Banshee Steve Severin] But Pornography reminds me of things I'd rather not be reminded of. I was quite out of sync, a bit disturbed. I knew then that Mary [Smith 's wife was the girl for me, because she had stuck by me. But everyone I know reaches a point where they throw out their arms and go berserk for a while; otherwise you never know what your limits are. I was just trying to find mine.

GP: The Cure seems to have an overall guitar sound opposed to three distinct styles.

Robert: Even people who are quite close to the band are surprised to learn that I played the solo on "The Edge Of The Deep Green Sea"; everyone would immediately assume it's Porl. But why should it be important who played what part? When I'm in the studio, I have a picture of the overall song, as opposed to what I'm going to play in it.

GP: How did you get those incredible swirling sounds?

Robert: A straight signal, a distorted signal without effects, and a distorted signal with phasing, all mixed together. That solo was one of me key moments in making Wish After dinner one night I said I was going to record it. Everyone had thought that Porl was going to do it, but I was really drawn to the idea. I figured if I couldn't get it right away, I wouldn't bother. I spent about 15 minutes getting the sound, and then got it on the first take. Actually, all the guitars on that song are me. Porl didn't see the point in playing because he couldn't think of anything, and why have gratuitous parts?

GP: The solo Porl plays live on Cut is very similar in character to your playing on the long, chaotic wah-wah solo on "The Kiss" [Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me] Both recall Neil Young's playing--sloppy, but delivered with enough emotion to make technique seem irrelevant. Are you secret Neil admirers?

Robert: It's no secret--he's so brilliant! He proves that you can get past a certain age and retain that certain something, and that flies in the face of the accepted idea that after thirty you're fucked. People like Neil Young and Tom Waits had it, kept it and never lost it. Some of the older rock generation are boring old farts because they were fucking hideous even when they were young.

GP: Comparing the Cure to Neil Young would probably alienate both your fans and his.

Robert: Why, though?

GP: I imagine a lot of his audience would consider you an effeminate haircut band, and a lot of your fans probably think he's a boring old hippie.

Robert: Well, having read what he's said over the years, he seems like a very sound bloke. The guitar sounds on the live version of "Hey Hey, My My" on _Rust Never Sleeps_ are the best anywhere.

Calling Mr. Chaos

GP: It sounds as if many songs start as bass lines.

Simon: That's how Robert and I write, starting with drum beats and bass lines.

Robert: Simon thinks up brilliant melodies. A lot of the pop stuff we've done, like "Head On The Door" are more him than me.

Simon: We all do separate demos at home on our Portastudios, and then things get changed along the way.

Robert: We never fine-tune things at the demo stage. A lot of the fun of being in the studio is adding that element of improvisation.

GP: How does the tracking process work?

Perry: After the bass line and the drum tracks are recorded, Robert likes to get loads of instrumental tracks down, and then he writes words. As he starts to hear certain lyrics, it might mean that the song has to be adapted. We must have done four versions of "Doing The Unstuck" [Wish] not counting the various demos.

Porl: I try to play as little as possible until it feels right to do something. Nearly everything I play on Wish was done after we'd been in the studio for four months. I redid almost everything I'd done previously. I rarely do more than two guitar tracks per song, but Robert tends to layer things a lot. Wish was done on 48 tracks and almost everything was used.

Perry: Our recording process is quite democratic; anyone can record any idea, so long as there's a spare track. But towards the end, there's a point where someone has to take a guiding hand, and it's usually Robert. You can't all be there saying, "I want my bit louder."

Porl: I often leave at that point. I might have gotten used to something I'd done, and then miss it if it's not there. I prefer to play, forget what I've played and see where it ends up.

GP: Do you experiment much with mike placement?

Porl: A lot of stuff I do is done with mikes in different rooms, even in rooms I'm not playing in. My amps were recorded in a carpeted room, but quite often we'd open the doors to the live drum room and mike them from in there, in the next room. There are some of those distant sounds on "Apart."

GP: Many parts on Wish are mixed so low, they're almost subliminal.

Robert: A lot of the "offstage" noise on the album is Porl. He'd decide he wanted to do something, so he'd put it on tape. Quite often I didn't even know he'd done that until I'd overdub something three or four days later. When I heard the wall of feedback on "Cut," I thought, "what the fuck is this?"

GP: But it's wonderful!

Robert: Porl generally loves feedback. I'd wake up in the morning hearing feedback coming from his room above the studio.

Perry: Feedback lets you add sound without adding on a whole new part.

Robert: But real gut-moving feedback requires high volume, so I prefer it in small doses. The short spell I had with Siouxsie & The Banshees warned me about what high volume can do--they're deaf! The Cure's stage volume has always been based on the acoustic volume of the drum kit.

GP: But Porl plays pretty loudly. I was sitting by his side of the stage...

Porl: Note the blood coming out of his ears.

GP: Well, your feedback passages on Primary and Fascination Street were pretty apocalyptic.

Porl: My good old Gibson 345! Feedback just seems to have more depth and a nicer tone on a semi-acoustic. Also you can get nice things by strumming behind the bridge on the long tailpiece. I do that live on From The Edge Of The Deep Green Sea and Fascination Street.

GP: How do you get that pulsed, rhythmic feedback?

Porl: Sometimes it's just damping the strings to stop vibration, but on Cut [Wish] I was flipping the toggle on a Les Paul.

GP: That chaotic element is an important part of the band's chemistry. Is Porl Mr. Chaos?

Perry: Now that you've said it, he will be!

GP: Why do you prefer analog stomp boxes to rack-mounted effects?

Perry: We've tried more expensive rack-mounted digital effects, but they're less convenient, and there's so much you have to relearn. I've been with the band for eight years, hundreds of concerts, and there were maybe two occasions where a pedal caused a fault in the sound.

Porl: There's a lot of difference in the sound too.

Perry: We had a Zoom box in the studio. It was fun to muck about with, but the sounds were all to stylized. It's the same with a lot of digital effects: they add more than just the effect you want, and they have an overbearing identity. They're either too subtle, or they add a weird edge.

Robert: I'm drawn to Boss pedals because of the colours. [laughs] I really miss the old pedals like the Fuzz Face; everything used to be a different shape as well. It was really easy to know what you were going to hit.

GP: You all seem to favour vintage guitars.

Robert: Actually, they key to my current sound is the new Gibson Chet Atkins semi-acoustic--it's brilliant! It's the first guitar since my very first Jazzmaster to sound exactly how I want it to.

GP: The white Jazzmaster with the extra pickup that you play in your early videos?

Robert: Yeah. The third pickup is from a Woolworth's Top 20 guitar, my very first electric. I took it in to record our first album, along with a little WEM combo amp. [Manager/producer] Chris Parry, who was paying for the record, said," you can't use that!" We went out and bought a Fender Jazzmaster, and I immediately had the Top 20 pickup installed in it, which really upset Chris. I played the entire Three Imaginary Boys album [reissued as Boy's Don't Cry] through a Top 20 pickup. It's a brilliant guitar, though I actually bought it because of how it looked. Same with the map-shaped Nationals I used on the last tour.

GP: What nylon-string do you use?

Robert: An old Spanish guitar, though on stage I use a Gibson Chet Atkins electric nylon string. I started on classical guitar, actually. I had lessons from age nine with a student of John Williams, a really excellent guitarist. My sister was a piano prodigy, so sibling rivalry made me take up guitar because she couldn't get her fingers around the neck. I learned a lot, but got to the point where I was losing the sense of fun. I wish I'd stuck with it. I still read music, but it takes me too long to work through a piece.

GP: When did you start using 6-string bass?

Robert: The whole Faith album has 6-string bass. I think when people talk about the "Cure sound," they mean songs based on 6- string bass, acoustic guitar and my voice, plus the string sound from the Solina [known as the ARP String Ensemble in the U.S.] Joy Division/New Order and the Cure both got into the sound at the same time.

The Brain Steps Backwards

GP: You detune your high-E strings by a few cents.

Robert: Yeah, using the tuner. I don't know what it adds, but the guitar just doesn't sound quite right to me normally. In the studio, I often defy the tuners, particularly with keyboard overdubs. I even change the speed of the tape to detune some parts. I think a lot of players presented with the same guitar and told to tune it themselves would come up with something drastically different. And the way you play affects the perceived tuning. If Porl and I tune together and play the same thing, but he plays hard and I play soft, it will sound completely off.

GP: Friday I'm In Love is a quarter-tone sharp on the record, halfway between D and E-flat. Was the tape sped up?

Robert: Yeah, though that was an accident. I was playing with the vari-speed and forgot to turn it off. But the whole feel changed, and the fact that it's the only song on Wish that's not in concert pitch really lifts it out and makes it sound different. After working on the record for months, hearing something a quarter-tone off makes your brain take a step backwards.

GP: A big part of your sonic signature is that slightly detuned shimmer, whether it comes from tuning, phasing effects, or overdubs.

Robert: A lot of things on our record that sound like heavy chorusing are actually just detuned instruments. The only drawback to that is onstage it's very confusing sometimes, especially with lots of phasing effects going on. It turns into this overwhelming pulsing sound, and you can't hear anything.

GP: The My Bloody Valentine syndrome.

Robert: If you *want* that effect, it's a really nice feeling. But if you're actually trying to sing a song to it, it's fucking horrible.

GP: Many of your songs consist of a large collection of guitar phrases that all fit together over the same groove and bass line.

Simon: A lot of our songs are like that: "Fascination Street," "The Same Deep Water As You" [Disintegration], "A Forest" [Seventeen Seconds]

Robert: I work out parts that work all the way through a song. It can be nice to go from a chorus back to a verse, but have the same part come in on top of it. It's the Cure version of sampling, really. "High" [Wish] one of Simon's songs, has the same basic phrases all the way through--you can put any of them almost anywhere, and they'll still work. But on some songs less is more. On "Trust" [Wish] I recorded six takes of 6-string bass. I liked all of them for different reasons, but in the end I bulk-erased everything because they were too obvious. Sometimes tunes are so obvious that they're almost implicitly there--you can almost sing them to yourself. The same thing applies to deciding not to repeat a strong melody just because it sounds good once.

GP: Do you have to deliberately simplify?

Porl: I always have to think about cutting down.

Perry: I never have to think about paring it down, because I could never play anything as complicated as Porl. [laughs]

Robert: When you leave holes, you can peer through and hear things, even things that aren't actually there. I tend towards the "less is more" ethic. It's really exciting to go mental for a few minutes on a song like "Cut," but if the whole set was like that, it wouldn't have any dynamic. That's what's wrong with a lot of grunge metal: It's uniformly in your face, and it doesn't have any shading or impact.

The Model Listener

Robert: For every album we do, I assemble a bunch of songs that have something that I'm trying to capture. When we were recording Seventeen Seconds, I would listen over and over to a tape with four songs: Jimi Hendrix' "All Along The Watchtower" from "Live At The Isle of Wright", Nick Drake's "Fruit Tree," Van Morrison's "Madame George" from Astral Weeks, and the Khachaturian ballet piece that's on the _2001 Soundtrack_. I was trying to get a combination of all the things I liked about those four things, even though there were so completely disparate. When we were recording "The Top", I had Billie Holiday's "Getting Some Fun Out Of Life" and Pink Floyd's "Interstellar Overdrive." For Wish, I would listen to "Mesmerize" by Chapterhouse for its feeling of abandon and "Human" by the Human League. You couldn't spot anything sonically or structurally that would influence anything we did, but there's an indefinable something that I'm trying to capture. One night I must have played "Mesmerize" 20 times, drinking and turning it louder and louder, putting myself into a trance.

GP: Any other crucial listening?

Robert: My top five all-time favourite songs are "Are You Experienced?" by Jimi Hendrix, Tom Waits' "Tom Traubert's Blues," "Give My Compliments To The Chef" by the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, David Bowie's "Life On Mars," just because it reminds me of the first time I danced with Mary, and...hmmm..."Faith" by us. Jimi Hendrix has always been my idol, though I absolutely hate "Crash Landing, Midnight Lightening" and all that. I remember first hearing "The Cry Of Love" on a really good stereo when I was 11. I listened with headphones on maximum, just deafened by this stunning stereo picture. It was one of those moments that's stuck with me through my life. I'm also very drawn to Eastern music, though the things we've done with it, of course, are very dilettanish, quite tongue-in-cheek. "Killing An Arab" [_Boy's Don't Cry_] is obviously very dumb, though "The Blood" [_The Head On The Door_] was very fun to do. I've always loved the drone side of it, and that's probably influenced what I write more than any other kind of music.

GP: You get production credits on most of your records.

Robert: By the time of _Seventeen Seconds_ I decided that I wanted to produce because I knew how it ought to sound, and I didn't want anyone else involved in the chain. I had to know how everything worked, because there's an awful lot of bullshit flying about when you're in the studio. I know the entire process of what we do. I learned how to operate the desk, what mikes are being used, the whole technical side. It's really a very simple process if you know what you want and have the capacity to learn.

GP: So why do you always have a co-producer?

Robert: I would be wearing too many hats and imposing myself far too much on the group. Dave Allen knows what I'm trying to get, and it's good to have someone there to tell me if I'm getting it. We enjoy what do in the studio, and that entails things like drinking quite a lot, so we need someone there with a rational overview. But we'd never have a producer who actually tells us what to do. I suppose I had the courage of my convictions very early on. I'm glad I didn't give in to people who thought they knew better than I did when I was young.

Some people are torn apart because they believe that we've become successful through moaning, which makes me laugh. Your interview is based around the thrust of what we do musically, but the bulk of our interviews miss that point entirely. Not to be bigheaded, but we play good music and write good songs. If we didn't write good songs, no one would care what our attitude was. Sometimes I *do* moan and whine, but I can get away with it because it's got a good musical backdrop. A lot of work goes into making something that works, that sounds good when you listen to it over and over again. I personally spend hundreds of hours listening to what we do to make sure it works. That's my life.

Last Revised: Monday, 15-May-2006 15:00:05 CDT

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