Robert Smith sits curled up in the dark, in front of the fireplace. "The problem is, people want me to be a certain way," he says matter of factly. "They perceive me as this character that lives in this enviroment, "as he gestures around the candlelit room, "and doesn't really doe anything else. And I'm not like that."
Not at all. Slimmed down and clad in a non-descript sweater and trousers, his face is free of lipstick or kohl; this evening, only his modestly teased hair hints at the Robert Smith of stage and screen. Exchanging quips with band members Simon Gallup and Perry Bamonte (as additional Cure alumni Roger O'Donnell and new drummer Jason Cooper prepare for a photo shoot),Smith is relaxed and funny, and certainly not morose.
Squirreled away at a Tudor Elizabethan mansion in England's Bath Spa, the band are putting the finishing touches on their new recording. Entitled Wild Mood Swings(Elektra),the album is their first studio release since 1992's Wish. With well over a dozen albums to their credit in their 17-year career, and an international profile that continues to rise, they have produced what may be their most ambitious release to date.
"It's completely different from any other record we've made," admits Smith. "I don't know what the Cure represent to people, anymore. It's been so long since the last record that it's difficult for anyone to have a clue. If we were trading on our name, I'd be worried. But we're not, we're trading on the album. If people will listen to it, they'll like it."
The band have been living here together, rehearsing and working on new tracks, off and on since December of 1994. Oddly enough, the house they've rented, which Smith credits with fostering a genial atmosphere that engendered the artistic process, belongs to miniseries queen Jane Seymour; it seems Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman has been trying to unload the beast for years. No, they haven't met her.
"She Communicates via flowers and messages," says Smith. But you feel like you've met her, regardless, as the entire place is decorated with photos of the actress. "She's never here. That's just to remind you that you're in her house. The eyes actually move in a lot of them as you move around."
"It's like on Scooby Doo," chuckles Bamonte. He tosses a cushion at Smith, surprising him. For one moment, the singer acts as though he might hurl it into the flames, but instead he slides it beneath him. The mistress of the house has taken pains to insure the band will be on their best behavior; they can't even rearrange the rooms. "That was a stipulation this time around," says Smith. "Because when we went away and came back, somebody claimed that we'd busted a chair. I had to sign a thing saying 'You will not move any furniture, at all, without professional help'."
Although the title Wild Mood Swings might imply an air of mania, the Cure's latest doesn't suffer from bipolar disorders, but rather multiple personalities. "This record reflects the personality of the group," Smith explains.
"It isn't specifically about me, much less so than any other record has been." A string section supports "Home" and "This is a Lie", while "Return" bustles with a frenzy of horns. "Jealousy" hints at the harder side of the Cure's sound, but with Smith singing in a lower register that suggests the detachment of Berlin-era Bowie and Iggy, while "Mint Car" jumps and frolics like the summer radio hit it promises to be.
"It works differently than anything we've done before," says Smith of the juxtaposition between tracks. Instead of being conceived as a set of songs for a specific album, a la 1989's Disintegration, each new tune was composed to stand alone. "Each song's been approached on it's own merits, and it lives or dies on it's own. It doesn't matter what it's surrounded by. In my mind, they could all be singles."
That said, the quintet have daringly decided to release the most unconventional one in the lot, a stop-start Latin number, complete with mariachi horns, entitled "The 13th", to herald the record's release. "The first single off an album says something," Smith explains. "And the album is so diverse and weird, it's difficult. Whatever you put out, people think that's the best song that you've got on the record. So it's better to put something weird out, so people think, What is going on?"
Ultimately, the diversity of the album should force detractors of the band to acknowledge their stylistic breadth. "You're that optimistic ?" asks Smith. "We're not. I thought that about the Wish album, and they didn't. They still said we're 'quintessentially a goth band', to quote NME. Wish was dismissed out of hand as just another Cure album, and it wasn't at all."
"It's different in America," he amends. "There's a different perspective on the group. I suppose we shouldn't be talking from an English perspective, because it is very negative at times, in how things are done. "He complains that the British press have traditionally done an excellent job of divorcing the songs on Cure albums from their intended meanings, deliberately overlooking their array of sounds and moods.
But couldn't the same criticism at many of the band's dedicated legion of followers in black? "People identify with certain things," suggests Bamonte of the way certain fans dwell on Smith's darker topics. "They don't feel so alone in the world if someone else feels the same, and they'll always look for that. When the new record comes out, they'll pick those tracks out for that same reason. That is the very thing that perpetuates the myth about the Cure being gloomy".
"There's different levels in a Cure audience," adds Smith. "It's like an inverted pyramid. There's a conception of a Cure fan, which is someone like you've described, and everytime you see someone like that it reinforces that idea of a Cure fan".
Unfortunately, those same fans also champion the notion that the band are completely sullen. "In our case, there's a core fan base that has latched onto something lyrically, as well as musically, that's personal to them, and they don't like to see it abused and sullied by humor,' Smith says. "There's a certain kind of snobbery involved, actually, which I find unnecessary, really".
But as the band near the conclusion of their second decade, that fan base continues to evolve. There are listeners out there who have literally grown up with the Cure. "That hit home a few years ago for us," admits Smith. "I hit 30 and started thinking about these people who were barely conscious when I was first playing in the group. There's a particular little boy that writes to me, who calls himself 'The Young Bob', I think he's seven.
His first record that he ever bought was "Friday, I'm in Love" .And I thought, my first record was Ziggy Stardust. He's saying, 'It changed my life', and you think, He's seven years old!".
On the Wish tour, families of two generations of devotees showed up. Sometimes. "In some instances, we've had people say 'Well, I would have come along, but my son or daughter didn't want me to come in because they'd be too embarrassed,' " says Smith. And to think these fans are at best a couple of years older than the band.
"Imagine how the Rolling Stones feel," suggests Bamonte. "They've got a granny enclosure," giggles Smith, quashing an image of moshing golden-agers.
Smith chalks up the group's longevity to their very gradual rise to stardom. And although he never aspired to fame, he was brought up to feel special. "I can remember having dreams of being abducted by aliens," he says, "being chosen to be the one to be abducted to be a representative of the human race, so that was pretty grandiose. From a very early age, I was encouraged. To Americans, this is a normal concept, but to an English person, it's a really foreign concept".
But that doesn't mean he was prepared for the mantle of global popularity. "I remember the first person who ever came up and asked me for my autograph, I thought they were joking. It was really early on, when we were supporting Generation X. 'Just in case you ever become famous. 'And at that moment, I thought, that's a really weird way to think about what we do".
"It's funny, because so much that's happened to me because of the group has happened to me at the right time, at the right age," he says a few minutes later. Even when musically his life "appeared to be spiraling out of control", Smith felt young enough to be resilient ,yet old enough to recognize when to rein in the chaos.
"Probably the only time I've been seriously upset by it all was around "Let's Go To Bed" and "The Walk" and "Love Cats". Because we didn't really have a group". Longtime member Lol Tolhurst hung around the periphery, but basically the Cure circa 1983 was The Robert Smith Show; simultaneously, he was moonlighting in Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Glove, a side project with Banshee Steve Severin.
"I would have been confused anyway, and I really didn't help myself at the time," he alludes. "I spent a year getting more and more demented. At least when we were doing Faith and Pornography, we had each other. When I felt like I was doing things on my own, I didn't know where the floor was".
Which culminated in the depths of despair found on 1984's The Top ."I'm really surprised at how well that turned out," he sighs, "because I don't have a specific memory of any of the songs on that record. Not a single one. I remember doing the spinning top for the title track, spending at least six hours, on my own, with a spinning top, trying to get the right spin and the right fall. That is seriously mental".
" We lived in a pub, literally, which was a really bad move. I just ingested as much as I could of everything I could get my hands on. And a record got made. A lot of it was pure instinct".
He was shuttling back and forth between bands and studios, often driving in a complete fog of drink or drugs, pushing himself to the brink. On purpose. "I just wanted to see, once and for all, what my limits were. What it would feel like to completely disengage and disorient yourself".
In light of the fact that the new album includes "Numb", a song about heroin addiction, inspired in part by Smith's reaction to the death of Kurt Cobain, it's hard to imagine he was deliberately pushing himself to the brink of death. "But in some senses it was the most beneficial period of my life," he stresses. "I realized at one particular moment, a key night in my life, that what I was doing had that conclusion. And I thought about all that I liked about life and what I did, and it outweighed what I was doing".
"I have a generally more positive outlook anyway now," he says with a grin. "I know my own limitations. That doesn't mean I don't sometimes try and transcend it, or break through, but I'm not driven by that anymore." He now likens hedonistic outbursts to special occasions, "like birthdays or Christmas."
"It's a sad truth that most experiences are repeated experiences," says an older, wiser Robert Smith. "But some repeated experiences only have to be mildly different, or even not at all, and they can still be as enjoyable as the first time. I derive a satisfaction now from things that in the past I would've dismissed as being routine.
The more you experience, the more you realize that those simple pleasures are things that you experience with other people."