In a rare solo interview, Cure leader Robert Smith dissects his cult, defines his own punk, and pursues his Wish
Robert Smith sits alone at the office of Fiction, the U.K. label of the Cure, the band he formed at age 17 and has led for a decade and a half since. It's a rare opportunity to meet one-on-one with the group's vocalist, songwriter and sometimes-guitarist; determined to promote the idea that "The Cure Is A Band," all of Smith 's recent encounters have seen him flanked by his cohorts:drummer Boris Williams , guitarists Porl Thompson and Perry Bamonte , and longest serving Cure member, bassist Simon Gallup . Tonight the ageless Smith , who's wearing eyeliner but no trace of lipstick, looks somewhat drained after a five hour session with his accountant, doubtless administering the lucre generated by the Stateside success of the Disintegration album and the "best of" compilation Standing on a Beach/Staring at the Sea. After years as a cult icon, the Cure is now a big band, but without the coarsening and adherence to formula that such mass popularity usually requires.
The Cure began in 1976 as the Easy Cure, then a trio, spurred into being by punk's do it yourself fervor. The groups 1979 debut, Three Imaginary Boys, lay somewhere between power pop and the edgy, art-punk-minimalism of Wire and Siouxsie and the Banshees, the latter of whom Chris Parry signed to Polydor before starting his Fiction label, with the Cure as its flagship. (With a few early singles tagged on, the debut is titled Boys Don't Cry in the US, where the groups albums are available on Elektra/Fiction, unless otherwise noted.) With Seventeen Seconds (1980) and Faith (1981), the Cure's tormented angst-rock garnered an intensely devout cult following. By Pornography (1982), the group's music had reached a peak of morbid introspection that many found impenetrable. After this high-point of alienation Smith veered toward pop with the vaguely dance-oriented Lets Go To Bed and The Walk singles. But it was only with 1983's Lovecats that the Cure really got a handle on the joie de vivre of pure pop. A singles collection, Japanese Whispers (Fiction/Sire in the US), marked the breakthrough.
Thereafter, the Cure's albums - The Top (1984), The Head on the Door (1985) and Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me (1987) - explored both life's dark side and its light-hearted aspects; stylistically, the group shed the oppressively homogenous sound of its angst era for a kaleidoscope of psychedelic, art-rock and mutant pop textures. Disintegration(1989) was a slight return to the morose Cure of the early 80's, but that didn't prevent the first single Love Song, from reaching number two on the US charts. By the end of the decade the Cure had sold over eight million records worldwide without ever having settled into a predictable career trajectory or losing its innate combustibility. As Smith once put it, If I didn't feel the Cure could fall apart any minute, it would be completely worthless.
Despite Smith and his group's contrary nature, much of the new album Wish , is surprisingly in sync with the British alternative state-of-art - not that Robert Smith 's ever been afraid to be affected by the pop climate (remember the New Order tribute.pastiche of Inbetween Days from Head On The Door ?). But on Wish it sounds like he's been listening closely to the British movement of "shoegazers" or "The Scene That Celebrates Itself", and in particular to Ride and My Bloody Valentine (both bands for which he professed admiration). You can hear it in the super saturated Husker Du meets Hendrix maelstrom of End, in the oceanic iridescence of From The Edge Of The Deep Green Sea, and in the gilded, glazed guitar mosaics of High and To Wish Impossible Things, all of which vaguely resemble shoegazers like Slowdive and Lush. The Cure has made these kinds of noises before (indeed, a number of shoegazers have been influenced by Smith 's group and Siouxsie and The Banshees). But it hasn't made them for a while, and never in such a timely fashion.
I definitely think it would have been a totally different record if we'd had the same songs but recorded them at the time of Disintegration, Robert Smith agrees. But he says it was actually recording the wah-wah tempest of Never Enough (the only new song on the group's 1990 remix album, Mixed Up) that made the Cure want to be a guitar band again.
According to Smith , when keyboard player Roger O'Donnell slipped out of the group after the Disintegration tour, the Cure decided to replace him with another guitarist, Perry Bamonte . Porl Thompson 's always been very guitar oriented, he's got loads of old guitars and amps and he's always very worried about his sound. In the past he's probably been restrained by the group and by the way I've always liked things to be very minimal. But this times everyone's played out a bit more. Because we didn't have a keyboard player, no one was really bothered with working out keyboard parts. On Disintegration there were all these lush synthesizer arrangements, but this time we tried to do it mostly with guitars. We also had in mind the way it feels live, to play as a guitar band; its so much more exciting.
The new album is a stylistic mixed bag, whereas Disintegration was a more uniform, emotionally and musically: a steady wash of somber sound and mood. Wish spans a spectrum of feelings from giddy euphoria to deep melancholy, from bewilderment to idyllic nonchalance.
Disintegration was less obviously varied as this album," says Smith , "but there were songs like Lullaby, Love Song, Fascination Street, that were nothing to do with the rest of the album. But overall there was a mood slightly...downered. Even on Lullaby there was a somber side to it. Whereas on this album there are some out-and-out jump in the air type songs.
Some of Wish's songs are fairly legible, like the poignant Apart, which deals with the desolation that comes when a gulf inexplicably opens up between lovers. Others are harder to fathom. End beseeches,please stop loving me, I am none of these things, but it's not clear if the plea's addressed to the Cure fans, Smith 's wife, to a friend...
It's kind of a mixture, says Smith . In one sense, its me addressing myself. It's about the persona I sometimes fall into. On another level, it's addressed to people who expect me to know things and have answers - fans, and on a personal level, certain individuals. And it has a broader idea, to do with the way you fall into a way of acting that isn't really true, but because it's the easy path, it just becomes habitual even though it's not really the way you want to be. Sometimes whole relationships are based on these habits. It goes beyond my circumstances as a star, because I think a lot of people put on an act. I think I had it at the back of my mind when I wrote the song that when it came to performing it live, it would remind me that I'm not reducible to what I am doing. I do need reminding, because it's got to the scale where I could quite happily fall into the rock star trip. It might seem like its quite late in the day for it to all go to my head, since we've been going so long, but the success has reached the magnitude where it's insistent and insidious.
On End, Smith also bemoans the fact that all my wishes have come true. It must be something that he's felt at several points in his career: been there, done that..so what now? .
Any desires I have left unfulfilled, says Smith , are so extreme that there's no chance of them ever happening. I would really love to go into space, I always have since I was little, but as I get older, it's less and less likely that I'd pass the medical! The only things that I wish for are the unattainable things. Apart from that, I don't really have strong desires, except on behalf of other people. Generally, peace and plenty. My wishes are more on a global level. To Wish Impossible Things Is specifically about realationships. The notion of Three Wishes, all though history, has this aspect where if you wish for selfish things, it backfires on the third wish. But wishes never seem to take in the notion of wishing for other people, general wishes, or wishes about interacting with other people. In all relationships, there's always aching holes, and that's where the impossible wishes come into it
Doing the Unstuck seems to be about disconnecting from the hectic schedules from productive life, and drifting in innocent blissful indolence. It's something Smith wishes he could do more often.
I was going to say that my biggest wish was not to have to get up in the morning, and that's not strictly true, but there are days when I feel like that. It's like watching models saying that they've got a glamorous life, and then you find out that they can't eat what they want, they can't drink, they have to get up at five in the morning and get to bed by nine at night, and the truth is that they don't do anything glamorous at all except walk up and down the catwalk and wander about in front of cameras. It's one of those myths that modeling is glamorous, because it looks like glamour. And sometimes I think to myself,'I'm free, I don't have to get up', but that's not the case cos I'm always doing something. Sometimes there are days where I refuse to do my duties. And I think there should be moments in everyone's lives where they take that risk and say 'Oh fuck it, I'm not prepared to carry on functioning'. I suppose that's a feeling you would associate with being in the Cure. Unstuck is about throwing your hands in the air and saying, 'I'm off'. But then again there is a thread running through the Cure that's all about escapism.
In fact, a lot of what the Cure is about is a refusal, or at least a reluctance, to grow up, to desire to avoid all the things (responsibility, compromise, sobriety) that come with adulthood. Despite being a very big business, at the heart of the Cure is a spirit of play.
I met some people recently, says Smith , and I guessed really wildly and innacurately about their age. I thought they were in their forties, but they were only two years older than me, in their mid-30's. They'd passed across the great divide. Some of it's to do with having children. I don't see why they can't continue being like a kid. Obviously you change as you grow old, you become more cynical, but there are people that manage to avoid that. I know a couple people that are still quite a bit older than me, but are still genuinely excited by things; they do things and really get caught up in them. Children can do that, get caught up in non-productive activity, but its harder and harder to do that as you get older. At least, not unless you take mind- altering substances, of course!
Robert Smith grew up in Crawley, a quintessentially English suburb. And the Cures following has always consisted of that handful of lost dreamers in every suburban small town, that together make up a vast legion of the unaffiliated and disillusioned, who dream of a vague "something more" from life but secretly deep down inside know they will probably never get it. The Cure has always had an escapist, magical mystery side to their music, but the other half of its repertoire has been mope rock, forlorn and mournful for the lost innocence of childhood, and the prematurely foregone possibilities of adolescence.
Smith himself, however, is not so sure that the Cure represents lost dreams for lost dreamers; he's reluctant to reduce Cure fans to a type. I think our audience has now got so diverse where it seems weird to talk in general terms about what we represent to them. The Cure is liked by some people that I don't even like! There's people who like us just because we do good pop singles like High. There's other people who'd die for the group. When it gets to that level, people who are really caught up in the band,it's frightening to be a part of it, because I know that we don't understand anything better than those people. We represent different things to different things to different people, even from country to country. Even to different sexes and to different age groups. Polygram commissioned a survey of Cure fans, because I've had this long running argument with record companies about what constitutes our audience. The companies believe the media representations of the Cure audience as all dressed in black, sitting alone in their bedrooms, being miserable. And they were shocked at the actual breadth of the Cure audience. I don't know what we represent to them. I don't even know what the Cure represents to me! If we hadn't had the good songs throughout our history, to back up our attitude, we wouldn't have gotten this far. All that stuff about what we mean to our fans is too muddled to unravel really. We are a very selfish group. We don't worry about what we represent.
But perhaps its this very self-indulgence that is part of the Cure's appeal. Most people are obliged to forego following their whims and fancies, are forced to be responsible and regular. Perhaps the Cure represents a life based on exploring your own thoughts, exploring sounds, being playful. Smith thinks this might be true of its hardcore audience, the people who like us past a certain age. But at heart, he's wary of dissecting the what is exactly it is that the Cure's following get out of the group, or why they're so devoutly loyal.
Maybe too much emphasis is placed on our hardcore fans. I feel sometimes like I'm crusading on behalf of something, and that this is going to pin me down to something that I'd ultimately resent. I've been through that with Faith and Pornography, people wanting me and the Cure to stand for something. Smith 's referring to his early-80's status as Messiah for the overcoat-clad tribe of gloom and doomers. All that nearly drove me round the bend and I don't need any encouragement.
Part of Robert Smith 's appeal, at least to the female half of the Cure following, has always been his little lost boy aura. Bright girls dream of a boy who does cry, who's vulnerable, sensitive, even though few find one. Even now he still seems more like a "boy" than a "man". (Smith has just turned 33, Wish was released on his birthday, April 21)
I was faced by this dilemma with the lyrics of Wendy Time on the album. It's the first time I've used the word 'man' in relationship to myself in a song. So it is seeping through into music. Five years ago, the line in question would have been 'the last boy on earth.' I've always been worried about doing music past the age of 30, about how to retain a certain dignity. The vulnerable, lost little boy side of my image is gradually disappearing, if it isn't gone already. But the emotional side of the group will never disappear, I'm in the unusual position of having four very close male friends around me in this group; I don't feel the slightest bit of inhibition around them. I've got more intimate as I've got older."
Around the time of Disintegration, Robert Smith declared, I think we're still a punk band. It's an attitude more than anything. The history of the last 15 years of British rock has been a series of disagreements about what exactly that attitude was. Groups have gone on wildly different trajectories-from ABC to the Style Council to the Pogues to the KLF- in pursuit of their cherished version of what punk was all about.
Living in Crawley, travelling up to London to see punk gigs in 1977, reminisces Smith , what inspired me was the notion that you could do it yourself. The bands were so awful I really didn't think, 'if they're doin it, I can do it'. It was loud and fast and noisy, and I was at the right age for that. Because of not living in London or other big punk centers, it wasn't a stylistic thing for me. If you walked around Crawley with safety pins, you'd get beaten up. The risked involved didn't seem to make sense. So luckily there aren't any photos of me in bondage trousers. I thought punk was more a mental state.
The very first time we played at our school hall, we bluffed our way in by saying we were gonna play jazz-fusion, then stared playin loud fast music. And that made us a punk band, so everyone hated us and walked out, but we didn't care cuz we were doin what we wanted. I suppose that all punk means to me is: not compromising and not doing things that you don't want to do. And anyone who follows that is a punk, I guess. But then, that could make Phil Collins punk, if he's genuinely into what he does!
The Cure was never a threat; its particular effect was more on the level of mischief or mystery. Groups who start out making grand confrontational gestures tend to buckle rather quickly and turn into transvestites. But the Cure has endured by being elusive, indeterminate, unpredictable. It's sold a lot of records but it has never pandered.
We've never really been bothered with confronting people. We've gradually become more accepted, just 'cos we've been around for so long. We've upset a lot of people in the business 'cos we've shown that you can do things exactly how you wantand be successful. Most confrontational gestures are so shallow that they're laughable. The KLF carrying machine guns at the British record industry awards - you just have to look at the front page of any newspaper to put that kind of gesture in proper perspective. There should be confrontation in pop, but I think the people doing it often believe they are achieving a lot more than they actually are. The premeditated, Malcolm McLaren idea of confrontation is lamentable. Things are only really threatening if someone does something for it's own sake and it happens to upset people. The only time we've come close to that is the Killing an Arab debacle.
That song was grossly misconstrued as racist by sections of the US media. In fact, it was inspired by Camus' novel The Stranger, the story of a nihilistic young man in French colonial Algeria, who, involved in an altercation with a native, chooses to pull the trigger out of sheer fatalistic indifference. Embroiled in unwanted controversy, Smith was obliged to defend himself, denouncing his accusers as Philistine bigots. "for a couple of days we made the national news in America. And it was the last thing in the world I wanted to get caught up in. Debating Camus on US cable television was totally surreal."
The Cure hasn't been subversive so much as topsy-turvy: by cultivating its capacity for caprice and perversity, its managed to remain indefinable.
It's very difficult, having been around so long; a persona builds up around you that's continually reinforced despite your attempts to break away from it. It's like trying to fight your way out of papier-mache; There's always people sticking bits of wet newspaper to you all the time. I conjure up in my mind figures like Jim Kerr [of Simple Minds] or Bono, and I always have an image of what they represent. It might be really far away from the truth, but they're trapped in it. I often hear people say or read things about me and the group and they are completely at odds with how I think about us. We do things from time to time that are mischievous, and in the videos we play around with caricatures of ourselves. But at other times, we're not really mischievous: That implies that we're doing things for nuisance value, and we never have. We can't win really: we're either considered a really doomy group that inspires suicides or a we're a bunch of whimsical wackos. We've never really been championed or considered hip, and so we've never been treated as a group that stands for something, like, say Neil Young or the Fall have. Which I'm glad about, but the downside is that we're dismissed as either suicidal or whimsical.
For all Smith 's belief that the "attitude" has been a constant, the Cure didn't really draw much from the punk, apart from the initial impetus to do-it-themselves. Punk's main influence on the Cure was minimalism, a distaste for sonic excess. Hence, the clipped crisp power pop of Boys Don't Cry, the terse, translucent, bleakly oblique Seventeen Seconds. When the Cure tried to develop musically, while still inhibited by punks less-is-more aesthetic, the result was the grey draze of Faith and the angst - ridden entropy of Pornography - some of the most dispirited and ehydrated music ever put to vinyl. but once the Cure stepped out of the fog of post-punk production and into the glossy light of Love Cats, it wasn't long before the group became what it always essentially was, an art-rock group, maximalist rather than minimalist, indulgent rather than austere. And then cam the over-rip, highly strung textures of The Top and Head on the Door, the sprawling art-pop explorations of Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, the lush luxurious desolation of Disintegration.
The truth is that punk rock was just a blip, a brief interruption, in the perennial tradition of English art-rock. Robert Smith was once described by the Aquarian Weekly as "the male Kate Bush", which is probably going way too far, but it does highlight the way the Cure enjoys the English art- rock blessing/curses of eccentricity, self-consciousness, stylization, preciousness. Above all, the Cure has always been a literate band. Smith is a voracious reader. Recent input includes Stendhal ("very trying"), Blaise Cendrars ("very peculiar"), the poems of Cattulus ("very ribald"). And Nietzche
I just read Ecce Homo, which he wrote at the end of his life, when he was going mad. It's Nietzche summing up his life and his work, and it's pretty disturbing, by the end he's majestically deluded. I also read a book about Nietzche and that era. I didn't realize that his sister founded New Germania in Paraguay. She took 82 perfect Aryan specimens and attempted to found the new super race. The colony is now virtually extinct, because there was so much inter-breeding over four generations.
I try and combat this feeling that I'm missing out on something very fundamental to life that I should have by now realized, by reading ferociously. And I still come to books that ave been recommended to me by people I consider wise, and I always wonder "have I missed the point, or is this something I knew anyway". I think it's really worrying, getting older and not really knowing anything more intellectually. I don't think I know any more than when I was 15 , except on an experiential level. I only things that I wish I didn't know. But I never really craved wisdom. I enjoy the discussions we have in the group. Everyone's well read. The discussions can soar sometimes.
Which leads on to another set of polarities that Robert Smith oscillates between. On one hand, he's arty and literate; on the other, he's very much 'an ordinary bloke', partial to beer, soccer, Indian food, soap operas.
I don't think its two sides to my character; its all me. In the group we have quite intense emotional conversations about things. At the same time, we can go to the pub and get so drunk that I don't remember how I got home, but I don't feel bad about it later; I don't think it doesn't fit with how I'm supposed to be. Equally, I wouldn't feel embarrassed if someone asked me what I was reading at the studio, and I said Love by Stendhal. I never feel guilty about either end of the spectrum. I object to people who only exist to go down to the pub, or people who think 'oh no, you can't watch football, its just a pack of men kicking a ball 'round a field.' I would feel weird excluding one aspect 'cos I felt it wasn't appropriate. It's all me.