Visiting the Cure in its present home is like entering another age. Like the girl in its song, "Charlotte sometimes," the group appears to have been whisked back through time, not just by four years to its last studio album, but by a far greater leap across the centuries. The house is so old you expect to see ghosts. Upstairs there's even a ballroom. With Bath, home to Jane Austen, a mere taxi ride away, you could ever dream you were floating through the pages of one of her novels, except that this country manor belongs to a very different Jane: British actress Jane Seymour. and while she flits across TV screens in her own kind of time warp, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, members of the Cure are only too happy to house-sit.
Not that you'd guess a band is in residence. Despite the fact the cure has been here for over six months, there are very few signs of its presence-just a few empties in a kitchen corner and some telltale power cords on the stairs. given the luxurious surroundings, it's easy to see why this album has taken so long to complete, but there have been other distractions, too.
When Robert Smith, singer and founding member of the cure arrives, the interview has already begun. looking healthy but tired after a long drive up from London, he takes a while to collect himself, listening to his band colleagues chew the fat, before finally joining in. Unraveling the long tangle of obstacles that have slowed the recording process, he talks about many things-about live projects that proved harder to complete than anticipated, and touring commitments that consumed over a year; about lyric problems, legal wrangles and a series of lineup disruptions that nearly destroyed the band.
"I felt the Wish album had a real note of finality-ending with a track called "The End," he says of the band's last studio record, released in 1992. "And then when that lineup fell apart, not so much when Porl [Thompson, guitarist and keyboardist] went, but when Boris [Williams, drummer] left and then for a few days Simon [Gallup, bassist] was thinking of going, too... I just thought this is how it's going to end, not with a band but with a whimper."
Luckily for Cure fans, such fears soon proved unfounded. Simon Gallup decided to stay, remaining with Perry Bamonte, the one Cure member who never showed any sign of defecting. Roger O'Donnell, who played keyboards on Disintegration, was persuaded to return and, after a long auditioning process, Jason Cooper (a drummer who previously worked with members of the Stranglers) was recruited to finish the lineup. to pull together an album against so many odds is already quite an achievement, but when you've been away from the spotlight for four years and you've already made 14 albums (18 counting the live ones!), drumming up interest is a difficult task. To say something new after all this time is a fairly uphill struggle. (Unless you can borrow Brian Eno, perhaps.) And yet the just-released Wild Mood Swings (Elektra) should certainly raise its fair share of eyebrows. Although Wish and Disintegration (1989) played off moments of laughter and shade, pitting MTV-oriented singles against darker, more melancholy fare, the new album fractures in a score of new directions, the most audible involving a string quartet.
"The first few songs I wrote for the LP were very acoustic," Smith says, "I had a little keyboard at home that played very bad string sounds, but I was imagining a real string quartet-something that sounded incredibly simple but also really beautiful. Originally the whole thrust of the record was going to be strings, piano, acoustic instruments recorded very quickly in one take over one weekend." He pauses and smiles. "That was the plan anyway, but when Boris left I had a rethink."
With the Cure on hold, Smith had plenty of time to reflect. He says that he realized that not only would the melancholy set of songs he had in mind make for a dismal touring experience, but that to decide to do a purely acoustic album before he'd even entered the studio was to constrain things for no good reason. So the guitars remained and although the string quartet, led and scored by Audrey Riley, figures on many of the new album's tracks, it is rarely the up-front presence you might expect: instead there's a real sense of harmony. On songs such as "Bare"-apparently the catalyst for the tone of the entire album-and "Jupiter Crash, " it's the light-fingered guitars that build the mellow, airy spaces, shaded and stroked by the strings.
The process of auditioning drummers involved bringing a select group, one at a time, to the Seymour household to try out a few times. And though ultimately only Jason Cooper plays drums on Wild Mood Swings, each of the subsequent prospective players stamped the album's evolution with their own personalities, causing Smith's ideas to stretch and mutate. Then there was the impact of keyboardist Roger O'Donnell.
"Robert knew I could play in any style he chose," says the cheery ex-member of Psychedelic Furs, "so when the material was all but finished he brought me in and asked me to add anything I felt needed adding. There were a lot of places where I'd play something and I'd say to the engineer, 'That has a bat in hell's chance of staying on the record.' But then Robert would come in and say, 'I really like that,' which was really rewarding."
Although O'Donnell only appears on approximately four of the tracks, his presence is highly visible. Ask people what sounds they expect from the Cure and the Hammond run on a new track called "Trap" certainly isn't among them. Such surprises continue throughout. For every open-strung acoustic song, there's one that sounds harder and heavier. Passing through the poppier tunes, tracks that hark back to the sugary glory of "Friday I'm in love" or "Close to Me," there's also a fair spread of rockier moments. On the dense and claustrophobic "Want," bassy, electronic shudders vibrate over baying guitars for an almost "industrial" feel. And yet any suggestion this might be due to the presence of new producer Steve Lyon (Depeche Mode) is met with a dose of skepticism. Deciding the upheavals of his band were as good a time as any for a few more changes, Smith opted to dispense with the services of David Allen, ending a partnership of more than 10 years. But ask Smith about the impact of Allen's successor and the answers are mixed.
"What we lost was Dace's knowledge of our limitations," the singer says, "but in some ways it helped working with someone we didn't know. In the past when I've been singing no one's known what to expect, not even me. I've done it, listened to it and worked on it. This time I've had to think a lot more about what I'm going to do and I've really tried not to make so many mistakes so that it doesn't come out sounding horrendous and embarrass me.
But far from inhibiting Smith, such coyness would seem to have spurred him on. from the comically growled tales of rock'n'roll excess that make up "Club America" to the sweeping melisma of "Mint Car," he finds a vocal performance that is one of his strongest in years, one to match the effort he apparently put into his lyrics.
"I had to discard most of the initial words I'd written," Smith says with a chuckle, running a hand through his wild brushwood hair. "If the words had been ready I'd have started singing last April and we'd have finished the record before the summer, but the words just weren't good enough."
By this he means they raked over familiar themes, and the time had come to move on. Although the targets of Wild Mood Swings are still love and life-from their floating, swooning highs to the darkest, emptiest lows-it's an album that finds Smith beginning to step into other people's shoes, where once he'd only sing about himself.
Of the 25 songs I've written while I've been down here, around 15 can't be traced back to things I've sung about before, and that I'm really proud of. I never used to be interested in things outside of my own life, but there are actually two or three songs on this LP where I'm observing things, so I suppose I must have changed.
New though such altruism might seem to Smith, for the listener stranger things beckon, like the way the album juggles jazz and so-called "world music" influences, finding new and unusual tactics of integration.
"When you hear world music," new drummer Cooper explains, "it's usually some brilliant musician who has been whisked away from their home and shut up in a studio in front of some wonderful microphone, so it has lost all its atmosphere. These songs explore the sides that move you emotionally, the kind of gritty passion rather than the novelty factor."
"When we were touring in Brazil," chips in guitarist Perry Bamonte," these beggars used to come round to this cafe outside the hotel and play music on really fucked guitars and drums made out of oil cans. The were excellent, but you can't emulate that sound; it's in the blood."
Though the band are no stranger to exotic ideas-"The Blood," on The Head on the Door, boasted some amazing flamenco guitar, while their breakthrough single "Love Cats," collected on Japanese Whispers, was a ragtime ball-past efforts have always stayed true to the four-four rhythms of pop. If the new album's "The 13th" sends muso academics swooning, blame it on the complex chop and change of the beats, the acrobatic leaps the song takes between the languid coaxing verses and the chorus' aggressive bossa nova. Although Wild Mood Swings contains its fair share of light, and sometimes trite, pop songs, this track was selected, somewhat bravely, for the first single.
"The record companies aren't particularly happy with 'The 13th,'" confesses Smith. "But I wanted to release it because it's more memorable and people might hear it and think, "Oh, that's good. I'd like to hear some more.' If we'd released 'Mint Car' as the pickup from 'Friday I'm in Love' a lot of people would have immediately pigeonholed the new lineup and maybe thought, 'I didn't like "Friday"-this is what the Cure sounds like. -I don't like them.' 'The 13th' might sell well, it might not, but that doesn't bother me. It's what the group represents that matters."
Although other bands might quake in their boots at the prospect of delivering a new album after a four-year gap, the Cure just views it as a golden opportunity to realign and confound our expectations. Unfortunately, certain parties have yet to catch on. Notorious for its dogged fixation on labels, certain quarters of the British music press have already dubbed Mood Swings as "quintessentially goth," and one clumsy stroke consigning the band to a bin marked 'late '80s history." It's the kind of remark that confounds the band, as bassist Simon Gallup explains. "We were listening to a playback the other day and were wondering just what we have to do not to be thought of as goth."
Whether the music press can't see the changes or just doesn't want to acknowledge them, it seems clear they'd rather the band went away. During the interim on the Cure's relative absence, a whole new generation of readers has come through, and the "alternative" scene in Britain is not what it used to be. The days when the scene, as such, could be mapped out in angst-ridden, mournful outsiders have now been superseded. A whole string of fads have passed though the door and at a time when the new beats of jungle and trip-hop are setting the cutting edge, the fate of Wild Mood Swings is hard to predict. the loyal Cure fan base will go out and but the record and that, alas, will be that. In America, where life moves more slowly, the disc should have more chance of making an impact, but the band is taking no chances. Dispensing with the habit of a lifetime, Smith and company have decided to appear on Saturday Night Live, believing that if people can see and hear the band they can make up their own minds. However, Smith is quick to point out that this is not the start of some media frenzy.
"A lot of groups we used to respect have now reached the point where they'll go anywhere and talk to anyone to sell records, and it just gets tot the point where that feels wrong. What a lot of people find really inspiring about this band is that we've shown that you can be successful on your own terms. sometimes we've arrived at a point where the media level has reached such a level that I've thought I'd go mad. I've just felt I've been photographed, written about, scrutinized and stared at to the point where I'm just not interested anymore."
This decision to draw back from the media carousel is just one of the ways Smith has kept a tight rein on the band's image over the years, the result being that they still enjoy a credibility contemporaries U2 and Simple Minds might envy. Another is their insistence on playing smaller live shows.
"Stadium shows are OK as one-offs," Smith concludes, "but you have to make them big events, so if you do more than a couple in a year your perspective becomes compromised and you begin to get bombastic, which is to the detriment of everything the Cure stands for. There's a lot of delicacy in our music, so when we tour our ideal venue is an arena that seats fewer than 20 thousand people rather than a stadium that has over 50. It might mean we have to spend more than one day in one place, but that's great because we get to see something if we're staying." When it comes to the running of the band it seems nothing happens without design, not the tour schedules, nor the press, nor even the videos. At the same time Smith decided to break with producer Dave Allen, he made similar decision [sic] to switch his video's direction. Instead of using Tim Pope, the video for "The 13th" will be made by Sophie Muller (who's made videos for Annie Lennox and Shakespear's Sister). It's a move that should see a more filmic approach replace Pope's obsession with slapstick and color. (Pope is currently directing the sequel to The Crow.)
But with Smith decided so many aspects of the Cure, is there a band here at all? Speak to anyone in the Cure and you'll get a confused response. They insist they're part of a band, but ask them whose band it is and there's never any doubt, Smith readily admits.
"It is a group," he says, "but they'll all tell you if there's a stand-off and the four of them want to do something and I disagree, it won't happen. It's terrible, I know, but this is my life. From the age of 15, the Cure has been the way I've expressed myself, but it is a lot looser than it was. I do actually listen to what other members of my group say now, whereas 10 years ago I didn't care what anyone else thought. If people disagreed they had the option to leave!"
And some have taken that option, though it's interesting to observer that most seem to return, leaving the Cure with the reputation of being like a large rowdy family, close knit and often fairly turbulent.
"My dream is that people come into the Cure, go away and maybe come back," continues Smith, "but that it adds something to their lives as well as mine."
One person that left in tatters by this time with the Cure was Lol Tolhurst. In `989 the man who'd played drums and then keyboards in the band was sacked by the group he'd helped to found. Magazine reports claimed heavy drinking had reduced his contribution to the band to a level of near nonexistence. In 1994, though, Tolhurst hit back, taking the band to court to contest his share of the royalties. Although he lost the case, the whole affair clearly still rankles with Smith, making a Tolhurst return to the group is rather unlikely.
"I don't feel bitter about it," insists the singer, wearily. "I actually feel quite sorry for him, but I don't think he's capable of working with anyone. When he was with us he didn't do ant work, so the idea of having him back as a vacuous human being would be completely pointless." The Tolhurst case was an episode that did neither side any favors. If Tolhursts' descent into drunken misery was exposed for all to see, so was the Cure's penchant for cruel practical jokes. In one particularly dark story the band were said to have placed the skin of a dead scorpion in Tolhurst's towel cloth. Still, with Tolhurst no longer in the lineup, the catalyst for such acts of spite appears to have gone.
"It's changed a lot," concurs Roger O'Donnell. "Everyone's older and a lot more reserved. If anyone's nasty to anyone else now they apologize, and everyone's a lot more caring."
If this really is the case then much of the credit must go to the new boys. While the longer-serving members of the band at times display a kind of world-wary cynicism, as though they've been through the publicity cycle one time too many and met one journalist too many, both O'Donnell and Jason Cooper seem keen and bright. At 29, Cooper is the baby of the band, a man who as a teenager was a massive fan of the Cure and still can't believe he's really here. Although he admits to having been fairly nervous when he first met Smith and company, he's now well and truly settled it, claiming musically he's never felt so comfortable. And the band returns the compliment.
"When we were auditioning," Smith says, "the thing that clinched it with Jason was that he wasn't just a drummer. He'd done lots of other things. He'd lived in the Far East for a while and could bring a while new dimension to the band. We've also had some really great discussions."
"It's really great fun to be on tour with Jason," remarks O'Donnell later on, "because he's seeing everything for the first time. We tend to get a bit jaded-'Oh, here we are in L.A. again'-whereas with Jason, when he's with us, he's never been to the States before so he's really excited."
Whether it's the presence of Cooper's comparative youth or just the magic of the rural surroundings, the Cure appears to be enjoying a fresh lease of life. Perry talks about how he really knows he'll look back on the past few months as a special time and Smith, too, draws a sharp distinction between the pleasures of making Mood Swings and past recording experiences.
"This has been the best year of my life as a person, and this album's something that's grown out of us being here. In the past we had to get in, record an album, leave and start the whole process over again, but with this record it's seemed inexorably linked with our lives. When we've been playing we've never known whether we've been recording or just having fun."
For some this will sound like the height of self-indulgence: a band retreating to a country house to make music with violins. Isn't this the stuff of prog rock? And yet even a few brief spins of Wild Mood Swings should be enough to silence such critics. Leaving aside the triteness of a few of the poppier numbers, there's certainly little that could be called flabby here, and nothing is overblown. What is revealed though is a band which after 18 years is still determined to take a few risks and screw with our preconceptions. The only real question is, whatever next?