Robert Smith, generalissimo of The Cure would normally rather not have his hair ruffled. He has, however, just eaten a hearty meal in one of Lisbon's finest eateries, washed down by lashings of demeanor-altering Portuguese wine and bottled beer. Oh, all right then, go on...
On top, as you'd imagine, it feels like standard hair, heavy on the lacquer and spray, quite stiff and sticky. Close your eyes and it could be JoBrand under there. Towards his skull, though, the landscape changes. The hair becomes knotted, full of lumps too long-standing to straighten out. The odds of a family of distressed rodents living under there must be fair. It's not dirty, but it has the consistency of swarf. That combing-it-out option isn't a goer.
It's turned into natural dreads now, he shrugs. "Even when I swim, or go scuba diving, as I did when we were in Greece recently, I can't comb it back. There's nothing anybody can do."
The Cure are in fine fettle. Tonight, they are headlining Portugal's SUPER BOCK SUPER ROCK FESTIVAL as part of a distinctly unarduous European summer festival tour which sees them playing a couple of shows a week in front of huge crowds. It's a stress-free way of blooding yet another version of the Cure, testing out a few new songs and generally behaving like a major international rock act between albums.
I wanted to play with the new line-up. explains Smith, practical to the last. When we embark on an eight month tour next year, I've got know who's going to go mad and who isn't. The alternative was to do our own summer tour. We have to set it up ourselves and take our own lights, PA and crew. This way, we arrive, everything's set up, we play, we fuck off. It's much more interesting than doing your own tour, because we get to see other bands like Polly Harvey and Supergrass, whom I otherwise wouldn't have seen. Two real high points in the last month.
Thus, the Cure have found themselves sharing bills recently with R.E.M.
They said we were co-headlining, as we were in the same size type on the posters, but we supported them because they went on last. They're a bigger band than us and it honestly doesn't bother me. When they said, "How do you feel about supporting Faith No More?" though, we said, We're not playing. I'd wake up with such a bad taste in my mouth. Not that I say anything bad about anyone, apart from Simple Minds. Faith No More are alright, but I don't see us as a support band to them. It's not big-headed but there aren't that many bands who are better than us really.
Smith's troupe play their two hour 25 minutes set in Lisbon's dockland, underneath the Ponte 25 De Abril, the largest suspension bridge in Europe. Car headlights flicker across the magnificent structure, while wealthy Portuguese park their yachts in the River Tagus to watch and listen for free. That the dock cranes which surround the venue have rubber hands where once they had hooks seems to trouble no one.
They play songs from Disintegration and Wish, most of the hits except the Lovecats and the Caterpillar, plus a brace of new songs, of which Jupiter Crash is most intriguing with its vaguely rockabilly air. It's all good humored as Smith tries out a few Portuguese phrases, while the others pull Cure-like shapes. New drummer Jason Cooper (ex-My Life Story) looks about 10 years old but adds a manly rock edge. He'll do fine.
The lighting, all jazzy and psychedelic, makes the Cure look more than ever like Pink Floyd, circa Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun. In many ways, the two bands are soul brothers: low profile, huge sales, distinct sound, cultish appeal, little stage movement, no input from black music, drugs taken at some time, deep suspicion of media, self-sufficient organization coupled with seeming disdain for established music industry, etc. etc.
Yes, Sounds said that in 1980, smirks Smith, flaunting a David Gilmour-esque recollection of 15 year old press. Anyway, they're much more corporate than us.
The audience know all the words and that there are hundreds of them fast asleep is more a reflection of the 3:30 a.m. finishing time than anything music-related. If only everything in life was as reliable as a Cure concert...
Wish was the Cure's most successful album (Number 1 in Britain, Number 2 in America in 1992). After the subsequent tour, Smith went straight back to work. There was a tour-film to be finished.
I don't remember the director's name, he lies, but he was supposed to present us with the finished version. Instead he was already working on Paul McCartney's next project, so we had this severely bastardized version of what was a good concert.
There was but one man capable of completing this seemingly impossible task.
Rather than treating it like something to be done in a hurry, I thought I'd learn about film editing, states our tousle-haired renaissance man, so the whole exercise was like a three-month-film-editing night school. I wanted that film made for posterity because I thought that it could well be the end, although I'd said that before.
Guitarist Porl Thompson had already decided to jack it in.
The strangest thing about editing the film was that I really hated the group. I hated myself more than anyone else, so doing these festivals has had a weird effect on me. I'm aware of doing the same movements I'd done on the film, so for the first time I was consciously evaluating what I was doing on the stage and it's very uncomfortable.
Film duly completed, Smith spent spring 1993 preparing two live CDs, Show and Paris (I did it on my own; I always do). Then the Cure played a benefit for their XFM radio station to help fund the ultimately unsuccessful license application, although they're gamely having another try this year.
Then, declares Smith grandly, I took a few months off. I re-acquainted myself with the nephews and nieces. I tried to be normal. No, I didn't try to be normal because I am, but I tried to have a normal existence. Me and my wife had bought a new house in 1988 and I hadn't spent more than three months there. I realized that I didn't know my own home. I caught up on reading, listening to music, watching the television, all the things that people take for granted. I enjoyed myself.
He also took up gardening and is a canny enough tiller of the land to know that roses grow better with alkaline-based urine, handily complementing his fetish for weeing outdoors. By the end of 1993 he thought about writing some new tunes.
I bought a piano for the first time in my life and started writing songs. I got to grade 3 when I was young so I thought I'd pick it up again. I picked it up at grade 1, got to grade2 and gave up.
Blind alley negotiated, the Cure reconvened.
You have to know why you're doing it. Since I was young I've thought I never wanted to end up being like those who're older than me, looking foolish and doing it for the wrong reasons, either because that's their job or because they can't think of anything else. You lose all dignity, or whatever dignity you've got. I had to feel right about starting the group again. We did demos and started talking about what we wanted to do. Then Boris left, so we were down to me Simon, and Perry.
This was of use to neither man nor beast. Thompson, Smith's brother-in-law, had been in the original Easy Cure, while Boris Williams, once drummer for The Thompson Twins and Kim Wilde, had been aboard since 1984.
It really makes me laugh, says Smith, not laughing at all, when people say the Cure always chop and change. Towards the end, Porl was fed up being constrained by my musical ideas, as a certain kind of fascism exists in this group. He left to be an artist and did so for about two years and was shown in galleries. He's now out on tour with Page & Plant, but I can understand that, as Jimmy Page has always been his idol. They've played with us three times this summer and I got on with Porl much more than I did when he was in the group.
I'm still not sure why Boris left and I don't think he is. He's come to see us recording over the last three months and he actually played with Jason. We did a Gary Glitter jam with two drum kits, which was dead good, so there's no ill feeling. I admire them both for stepping away. It's really unusual; most of the time I've had to kick people out. I've got a reputation for being really horrible but I hate being around people who don't want to do the same things that I do. I've always believed there is a natural life span for a group. At the end of the Wish tour we'd been together for so long, we'd run out - not of things to say - but of ways to talk to each other.
The thought of going on stage and singing is still really exciting, he smiles. This afternoon I phoned Mary and she couldn't believe we were going on at one in the morning. She said we'd all be too drunk to stand up but I told her everyone's going to be really professional. She didn't believe that of course.
A wise woman is Mary. Anyway, Smith recruited young Cooper, while old boy Roger O'Donnell returned on keyboards to free Perry Bamonte, the roadie who joined the band proper in 1990 to play guitar. Remaining unshiftable on bass is Simon Gallup, best man at Smith's 1988 wedding to the aforementioned one-time Mary Poole. (I rely on her a lot, says Smith, because I have known her for so long. She sets me straight. Wives don't take any nonsense; they see you in the morning more often than most people, looking like shit when the facade drops. It's my happiest times when I'm really grumpy in the morning and I get no sympathy.)
Frankly though, it doesn't matter one iota who's in the Cure, apart from Robert Smith.
To me it matters immeasurably, Smith stutters, hurt. I've talked to the others about this. On Friday we did this mini press conference and I asked the others to sit with me. They were going, Why? They'll ask you all the questions. And of course that's what happened, but I said to them, it's good if you're all up there, so you can hear what I've got to say. But, yes, to a much greater degree than I'm comfortable with, people don't really care who else is in the group.
New line-up safe and secure, the Cure bought some equipment (Because we can afford), rented Jayne Seymour's house in Bath for six months and set to work. Only they didn't.
We went out, played tennis, and went to Wookey Hole. It's all part of making a record.
He's probably right. Anyway, he's currently contemplating calling it Dynarod to help clear a blockage in his creative pipes.
Vocally and lyrically on this record I'm struggling. Lyrically, I'm finding it difficult to surpass Disintegration and Wish. It's finding subject matter that I can be bothered to write a song about. I know it sounds naive, but it has to motivate me to sit down and take time and trouble to put my ideas down on paper and then sing them in a way that communicates something to someone else.
But to get back to Smith's horrible hair: do people laugh at him in the street?
People just stop and look at me, he admits. The only time I've reacted the whole summer was checking into the hotel here yesterday. There were two blokes, one pointing and one laughing. I actually had to walk up to them and ask why they were laughing. They went dead silent, put their heads down and said, We weren't laughing at you. I just said, Why don't you have the courage of your fucking convictions? If you're gonna laugh, laugh. Normally, it doesn't bother me at all.
In the past, I've resorted to staying in my hotel room. I went through a period where it was the easiest option and I was not bothering, just doing the concert, but it makes you go mad; you seriously go mental. The whole life passes you by and you're watching it from a 10th floor window. It's not that bad people laughing. I'll wake up tomorrow and I'll still be me and you'll be you. It's a fair exchange.
There's always the wearing-a-hat, looking like a normal 36 year-old option.
But I wouldn't do that, he scowls. That's one thing Mary's always said to me: if I got to Do It All to buy a screwdriver, people will know who I am and it's a weird thing to pretend that I'm not me. Most of the time in England, I really don't get bothered. In 1993 I shaved my head: my next door neighbor part owns a racehorse, and he took me to the races. I was completely anonymous and it was a really good feeling. I don't really like shopping so I don't feel to aggrieved that I can't go into Tesco without being bothered.
The fires of ambition are still glowing in Smith's firm yet diffident manner.
I've always had incredible amounts of self-confidence, he declares. It's based not on how good we are, but on how bad most other people are. As a songwriter, I'm genuinely horrified about what people sing about, although my new attitude is borne out of the idea that those that do anything are better than people who don't. Through the history of any popular art form, people sit back on their laurels. Groups at our level get away with so much; they really are taking the piss, but I appreciate there may come a point where that's it, I've run out of ideas, I can't do it.
Would he ever go solo?
No, it would be horrible, he shivers. I really like the group mentality. If you've got the right people around you, everything's a hundred times better. When we finished doing the Glitter song I mentioned, everyone looked at each other: I can't imagine anything better than this. It's really stupid, but it's true.