Drowning, dying, being eaten by spiders: The music of the Cure covers all the daily concerns of today's teens. On the band's latest album, Disintegration [Elektra], they frame these themes in appropriate musical settings, as dark booming drums, steely bass, spooky guitar, and ululating synth reflect singer Robert Smith's fatalistic lyrics.
"I feel it all fading and paling," Smith wails. "I suffocate, I breathe in dirt....You strangle me, entangle me in hopelessness....Mouth and eyes and heart all bleed and run in thickening streams of greed....Hopelessly fighting the devil. Futility feeling the monster climb deeper..."
So with all this gloom and doom stuff, why is keyboardist Roger O'Donnell so ...cheerful?
"You have to understand," he chuckles. "We're not the heavy, dark monsters that people think we are. Half the time, when Robert was out there singing these pained vocals, Simon [Gallup, bassist] and I were rolling about on the floor in the control room, laughing. We're really just a bunch of idiots."
And successful idiots at that. The success of Disintegration, the Cure's first album in two years, and the follow-up U.S. tour in August, remind us of the band's enduring popularity. They've been dishing out doomsday tunes since 1979, when they released their first LP, Three Imaginary Boys, and tucked it behind a cover photo of a lamp, a refrigerator, and a vacuum cleaner.
From that enigmatic debut through eleven subsequent albums, Smith's lyrics have provided the dark beacon that guides the Cure. But the music itself has evolved, particularly since O'Donnell's arrival in 1987. Though initially inspired by Herbie Hancock and other jazz fusionists, this London-born performer built his reputation as a rock sideman with the Thompson Twins, and put in time with the Psychedelic Furs before signing on with the Cure.
"The others may shout me down for this, but I think the Cure does a very keyboard-based show," O'Donnell points out. "When I joined, it was the first time that the band had an actual dedicated keyboard player who didn't do anything but play keyboards. It opened up the arrangements, and allowed keyboards to play their proper role. Before, they held more of a secondary role. Now they're an equal part of the group. In fact, everything seems to be hinged on the keyboards. This allows Paul [Thompson] to play guitar all of the time, and Robert to concentrate only on singing. It makes the band more whole."
On Disintegration, O'Donnell plays with a sparseness appropriate to the band's post-techno sensibilities. His synths spin delicate counter-melodies around Smith's vocals, in spectral electronic hues. Not a trace of his jazz and funk infatuation insinuates into these minimal lines. And that's just how O'Donnell wants it.
"Well, I do try and sneak in the odd minor ninth, but Robert always tells me to stop," he admits. "Although we take great pains that everything is played perfectly, he actually steers away from musicianship. But he did take great delight in describing my playing in another magazine as 'grandiose.'"
Much of that effect derives from the sounds O'Donnell conjures. "We took a great deal of time choosing the right sounds for this album," he notes. "They did not suggest themselves immediately. I think there's a general overall feel to them, based on getting the right sound for each song individually, rather than starting with the flavor-of-the-month sounds and deciding which songs you're going to put them on."
This concern for sounds that are appropriate, rather than trendy, reflects in O'Donnell's stage setup. One of his two onstage keyboards is a vintage Roland JX-8P. "It wasn't really my choice to play the Roland," O'Donnell admits. "But it has a lot of sounds from the old albums, so it made sense to use them, rather then to go through a lot of new stuff. We used it on the album as well. And now I'm quite happy with it. The high string patch is especially nice."
Other venerable units lend an eerie timelessness to the textures on Disintegration. "The characteristic sound of the album is the orchestral string sample I got from Doctor Sounds in New York for my [Sequential] Prophet 2000," O'Donnell reports. "But we often mixed it with a classic instrument from the Cure's old days--a Solina String Ensemble, which is still in the Cure cave. Robert actually likes to try to get it into every song. I sampled that into the 2000 for our tour."
There were other string sound recipes on Disintegration as well. On "Prayers For Rain," for example, O'Donnell added a bit of Ensoniq Mirage cello/violin to the Prophet/Solina recipe, then further darkened the timbre with what sounds like some reversed piano samples. "It's actually reversed tape," he says. "I played one piano solo of the entire song normally, going forward. When Robert heard it, he said, 'Why don't you play some random piano notes instead?' What he meant was, 'Do a solo, but don't be too musical.' It's a cross between soloing and not being too aware of what you're doing when you're soloing. At first, though, I was just playing random notes; it probably sounded ridiculous."
After deciphering Smith's instructions, O'Donnell completed a solo pass that he thought worked rather well for the song. "But Robert thought it worked too well," he laughs. "So we took the tape of the solo section, threaded it through the machine upside down, and then I played to the sound of the tape going backward. That's difficult in the best of times, but when you've come back from dinner, and it's about two o'clock in the morning, and your head is spinning from drinking too much wine, it's an even more interesting experience." Fortunately, they seem to have stumbled across the right mix of bleariness and inspiration; this time, the solo worked.
Mostly, however, O'Donnell avoids playing solos in Cure arrangements. Instead, he spends much of his time tinkering with their trademark string patches, or creating timbres that broaden the bands textural range without diluting or distracting from their sound. On "Lovesong" and "Untitled," both from Disintegration, several organ-type programs prove especially effective. "To me, 'Lovesong' had a real '60s feel," he explains. "So we used an [E-mu] Emulator II Vox organ sample from the [OMI] Universe Of Sounds CD. We ran it out into the studio through an amp to make it sound distorted, as if it was recorded in the '60s. And the organ sound on 'Untitled' is the harmonium sample from the same CD. At first we were going to use one of the church organ sounds, but that felt two pompous, too grand. The harmonium brings it down because it's a bit out of tune; it actually sounds as if it's being pumped with your feet. Somehow 'Untitled' creates an atmosphere of the Wild West."
There's also some real piano, a Bosendorfer, on another Disintegration cut, "Homesick"--apparently thanks to a typical bit of Cure-style inspiration. "Simon and I had just spent about three hours eating dinner and drinking a lot of wine," O'Donnell remembers. "When we got back to the studio, we were both slightly inebriated. We started playing 'Homesick,' and it sounded about as good as it does on the album. That's how it happened; it was very much an improvised thing. When it came time to reproduce it in the studio, in fact, we were a bit nervous, because it had been such a thing of the moment. It did work out quite well, though."
With no Bosendorfer in sight at most concerts, O'Donnell works closely with the band's house engineer, Robert Colby, to find the best possible alternative. "Robert really likes the [Roland] MKS-20 piano module, so I've stuck with that. I've got some Prophet and Ell piano samples, but piano samples never seem to work live. I do actually use a piano sample for one of the old Cure songs, 'All Cats Are Gray' [from Faith], which has this really heavy single-note piano line at the end. For that part, I use a Prophet sample, which is quite powerful in the low range. The problem, of course, is that it's so difficult to get a piano sample that sounds real across the keyboard."
The band seldom performs "All Cats Are Gray," because its basic arrangement-- keyboards, bass, and drums, with no guitar--proves a deceptively difficult format to work with. Often, though, older Cure material is especially hard for O'Donnell to cover, since many of the keyboard parts were formerly played by two or even three members of the band doubling on synths. Since two full hours of their marathon shows are devoted to pre-Disintegration songs, he has to be on his toes--literally--to get the job done.
"We used to be a two-keyboardist band," O'Donnell explains,"so now there are quite a few parts that I have to play with my feet on my Fast Forward Designs MIDI Step pedals. They're just one octave, but they're very easy. Unfortunately, they don't have a program memory, so you can't transpose MIDI channels, for example, with one button. But I can step through my parts very easily. I was falling all over myself at first, but I've got them down now. The solo violin part for 'Homesick,' which is actually the sound that boots up on the Emulator II, I have to play with my feet. It's not quite as lyrical as it could be, but it's quite fun. I much prefer to play all the way through a song than to just stand there and wait for my part to come up. With both hands and my feet going, I really feel a part of the song."
For this reason alone, O'Donnell considers the Cure a much more rewarding gig that his first major position, as sideman to the Thompson Twins. "They were totally sequenced," he says, "with two 16-track decks playing pre-recorded tapes. If [Thomspon Twins leader] Tom Bailey could have played every instrument onstage, he would have. By using tapes of his albums, he was virtually playing them all anyway; we more or less just doubled. Tom always used to say, 'Because of using tapes, we never have a bad night.' Now, with the Cure, everything is live, so we can have a bad night--but we also have brilliant nights. We go into 12" mixes on some songs, like 'Why Can't I Be You,' and it's totally unarranged. Two nights of three, it's perfect. On the third night, we come offstage and say,'It didn't work tonight. Oh, well.' As far as I'm concerned, that's what real life is all about."
Working with the Psychedelic Furs contrasted with the Cure experience in another sense. "The Cure tours because we love to play," O'Donnell insists. "We play for three hours a night, and we argue about what songs we want to play because we want to play them all. We actually spend thousands of pounds in overtime for curfew fines because we just want to play. We're not on any kind of ego trip. The Furs played for their own reasons. They chased commerciality. They wanted to become more successful. They thought they could crack the American market by chasing the styles that were successful there. And it didn't work. On the other hand, as Robert always says, the Cure are famous in spite of themselves. I know that a lot of bands--especially the Psychedelic Furs--are pulling their hair out, trying to work out how we do it."
The secret may lie in the band's method, which involves democratic demoing tempered by Smith's artistic authority. Before an album project, each member of the Cure prepares demos of original tunes. These tapes are brought in for collective listening and discussion. Eventually, Smith gives his yea or nay, and when enough material is compiled, the group hammers out arrangements, and Smith comes up with a vocal line and lyrics.
According to O'Donnell, there's no way to predict which tunes will pass the Smith test. "If I could predict it, I would have probably gotten more songs on the album," he laughs. "When I sit down in my studio and start playing or writing, I will sometimes deliberately put on my Cure wig and try to think in that direction--being minimal, leaving things out, not making as many changes as I would if I were writing for my own use. But the songs that I thought were the most Cure-like didn't even get a looking for Disintegration, so maybe I don't know what I'm doing."
When a song does make it onto the band's list, it might still be reworked almost beyond recognition. "One of my songs,'Out Of Mind,' the B side to 'Fascination Street,' was completely and radically changed," O'Donnell says. "It's hard to believe it's the same song I had on my demo; now it sounds like heavy metal to me, because I can't get that raw guitar sound with sampling. But another one of my songs,'The Fear Of Ghosts,' which we released as the B side to 'Lovesong,' survived virtually intact, even though it's more in my style. I played grand piano on that, with voices drifting in and out, and a little sequenced marimba part--the only sequence on the album, by the way."
Some of the distinctive keyboard sounds on Disintegration also made it into the final mix with only minimal adjustment. For instance, Simon Gallup used the Universe Of Sounds organ sample on his demo for 'Lovesong'; it worked so well that O'Donnell kept it in the arrangement. And the massive textured synth on the opening cut,'Plainsong,' was originally created by Smith on his demo. "We worked together on that, but it's mainly Robert," O'Donnell acknowledges. "I played the guide keyboard, with Boris [Williams, drummer] in the studio, because it's difficult to play to a click. For the guide keyboard part, I played a solo violin line. Then I added the bass keyboard line, which was a very heavy MIDIed texture with about four sounds, including a Minimoog, which I was determined to get onto the album somewhere, a very deep cello, and lots of Solina. Robert held down one chord all the way through--a kind of block C thing that he's fond of, with all five fingers very close together. It always works, which constantly amazes me. There's also a single high C held down all the way through, which we brought in and out of the mix."
Though the current Cure tour is preoccupying O'Donnell these days, he does look forward to time off on his own, when he can vent some of his other musical interests and write tunes on his Mac in perhaps a more upbeat vein than allowed by the band. Not that he doesn't try expanding their horizons a bit on occasion. "In fact, I'm trying to convince Robert to make the next album a dance project," he reveals.
In other words, might sequencers actually scatter the gloom from an upcoming Smith project? O'Donnell cackles conspiratorially. "They just might rear their ugly heads."