He forgot gloomy and morbid, but you get the picture. Despite a public image that's half overgrown teacher, half abandoned sofa, Robert Smith has piloted the Cure from gothic backwaters to the Superstar sea. Here he tells Stuart Maconie the secrets of success, longevity and back-combing.
Oh, nothing, he replies and sips thoughtfully at his Becks. When we think of the habituees of the bookie's world, we think of Andy Capp, of James Bolan as Terry Collier, of men in pork pie hats and sheepskins and that irritating twerp on channel 4 in the deerstalker. We do not think of men with birds' nests of back-combed hair, eye shadow, voluminous loose-knit pullovers and characteristically enormous trainers. In short, we do not think of Robert Smith, king of the twilight world of gloom rock.
It's just that I've heard that William Hill's were taking bets on what the first record on Virgin 1215 would be. And, er, well, do you think it would be a bit suspicious if I were to put a substantial bet on The Cure?
No. Get down there. Do it. They needn't know it was you, offers Cure guitarist Perry Bamonte encouragingly. We look again at Robert, the birds' nest of back-combed hair, the eye-shadow, the voluminous etc. etc.
Oh yeah, sorry, says Perry a little sheepishly.
Someone here is a party to inside information. Coy allusions are made. Virgin 1215's joint director of programming, Richard Skinner, is a long-time champion of the band. There are cagey references to getting the tapes to them by Thursday night. Natural journalistic curiosity is given a peculiar frisson by the fact that, if it were possible to pop into the bookies tomorrow and risk, oh, shall we say, a pony, then the drinks might be on me come the weekend.
It's patently a thought that's occurred, however light-heartedly, to Robert Smith. Not that Robert is short of a bob or two. For the truth is that with the modicum of fuss, with a complete absence of South Bank Show specials, with but one celebrity awards bash hand-over with Roger Daltrey to their credit (I'm glad I'm giving this award to a real rock'n'roll band. I thought I'd be giving it to a drum machine or samfink; the Brits 1990) and without ever standing next to Bonnie Raitt in a wing-collared shirt, the Cure are on the cusp of becoming one of the world's biggest pop groups.
They have done this without calling for global unity, without discovering their blues roots, without breaking down musical frontiers. They have done it by singing memorably downbeat songs about girls, God and the ultimate absurdity of it all. The public have taken to these records, the odd toe-tapper but mainly bleakly morose and morbidly introspective, as if they were cakes of an extremely high temperature. As if they were going out of fashion, in fact, which they have always threatened to do.
True, they have done an Unplugged. But a very odd one it was too, involving kazoos, harpsichords, toy pianos, joss sticks, and indian scatter cushions. Without ever showing the slightest inclination to meet and greet, press the flesh, glom, schmooze, or network, they've sold getting on 20 million albums worldwide. In this sense, their true peers are probably Depeche Mode, a group who've had similar, enormous success amoungst American youth but remain an alternative act essentially dark and European. That very something that U2 have been recently keen to discover or recover, depending on your point of view. The Cure, it is said, are awkward, gloomy, miserable, self-obsessed, and faintly ludicrous. They can always be relied upon to say the wrong thing, if anything at all. After their hugely successful Unplugged session, Simon Gallup remarked: It's a great pity only satellite dish owners over here will get to see it. I don't know anyone who has a satellite dish and I don't know anyone who would want one.
What baffles many of rock's actuarial types is how the Cure have become so popular given the music they play. Ten proper albums and a host of compilations, tasters, grab-bags and live albums that run the gamut of human emotion from A to B, from thinking that life is vaguely meaningless and likely to end in death to feeling that, erm, existence is but a fleeting, pointless thing and, well, yes, likely to end in death since you ask. Somehow, cynics allege, they have made saleable a canon of unreconstructed teenage angst.
I think that's such a glib, conceited thing to say, bristles Smith. To dismiss a whole range of feelings and emotions as teenage angst. It's this notion that once you're past 30, you should somehow know everything. Even when you die, you still don't know anything. I think that closing down is a process whereby you refuse to question things is dreadful. I'm not embarrassed to say that I still feel completely at a loss sometimes, at a loss to know what any of this is about. If that's teenage angst, then I'm delighted I've got it.
Our audience gets caricatured as these tortured teenagers in their bedroom asking, Why am I here? Well, what's so wrong with asking that? Kafka never stopped asking that. That sense of alienation doesn't go away. It didn't for him. Perhaps it is more grown up to worry about losing your job than the meaning of life, but I wouldn't want to lose that sense of wonder.
In 1979, Robert Smith was 20 and turning a healthy, young man's fixation with existentialist thought into elliptical, queer little songs like Killing an Arab and Meathook. In 1993, he's just turned 34, is (as every interview is apparently legally obliged to point out) happily married to his childhood sweetheart Mary and at the top of his profession. Yet his last album, Wish, perhaps the band's most upbeat in years, still has its moments of unrepentant melancholy. Cheer up. It might indeed, never happen.
I am sometimes overwhelmed by a sense of futility and purposelessness, he says, cheerily, and at that point, you have to do something to affirm your existence. I write songs. I write very infrequently but when I do, it's because I have to. When I'm writing songs, I am in the emotional state described. I'm in the state that you people assume I'm in when they listen to them. But you can't be like that all the time. I'm like that maybe 10 percent of the time, maybe. The rest of the time I'm normal. Fans get very upset. They think I should be more tragic and Bohemian than I am.
Robert Smith was born in Blackpool on April 21, 1959. Though from the northwest originally, he grew up in Crawley where his broad Northern tones, later deliberately dropped, made him something of an outsider. Amateur psychologists will relish the fact the Cure's first single, Killing an Arab, takes its plot from Albert Camus' classic study of alienation L'Etranger or The Outsider. One of the first people he met at St. Francis' Primary School was Laurence Tolhurst, who lived in the next street to Smith. They traveled to school on the same coach, the first of many coach journeys the pair were destined to share during their time together in the Cure before Tolhurst's departure from the band in early 1989.
As a group, the Cure have always been, shall we say, volatile. Around the central personality of Smith, Matthieu Hartley, Michael Dempsey, Phil Thornalley, Roger O'Donnell and Simon Gallup have come and gone - in Gallup's case come and gone and come back again. But it was Tolhurst's departure that has come to symbolise the Cure's precarious internal state. A member since the days of schoolhalls and Bowie the Sensational Alex Harvey Band covers, he was asked to leave in 1988, Smith's patience having been exhausted by Tolhurst's decline into alleged alcoholic stupor and the status of a laughing stock. From the point of their own fluid history, the current line-up (Smith, Gallup, ex- roadie Perry Bamonte, and ex-Thompson Twins Boris Williams) is beginning to assume some veteran status.
But the Cure's history is Robert Smith's history. His personality runs though the band like the letters through his home town's rock. When people dismiss the Cure as laughable, dull, unattractive, lacking charisma, doleful, po-faced, pretentious and badly-attired, they're usually referring to Smithy. Smudged of lipstick and unruly of barnet, with his trainers, baggy Oxfam clothes and his references to Camus and Cocteau, he has often appeared, particularly to his detractors, as a suburban adolescent's image of consumptive, gloomed glamour. This might well account for his popularity amoungst suburban adolescents.
Our fans are supposed to be waifs dressed in black who read Baudelaire and only come out at night. Some are like that, but to a lot more we're just a group whose songs, and words they like on some level. There are fans and there are fanatics. I'm not snobbish about them. Some fans believe every lyrics about every song is about them. Some of them bought Wish and will listen to it three times a year and might come out to see us if we play near where they live. But these are still fans. I understand that. I'm not fanatical about anyone. There isn't a group in the world that I'd cross a field barefoot to see.
On the last British tour, a woman presented Smith with a bouquet of flowers and announced that she had watched the band on their first British tour in 1978. With he was her 11 year old daughter, a fan via the Friday I'm In Love single. Asked how this makes him feel, Smith replies boldly, old. But not all of the early fans who pored over the oblique lampshade, fridge and hoover arrangement on the cover of Three Imaginary Boys have grown, married and reproduced to the sound of the Cure.
We've shed an awful of fans along the way. Well, obviously we have, otherwise we'd be the biggest group on the planet by now.
Nevertheless, the Cure are now fully fledged members of the rock aristocracy, a fact that Smith remains resolutely ambivalent about. On the one hand, naturally, he's delighted with the material comforts that it brings and the fact that his songs enjoy magical status in the lives of millions. He happily describes the sensation of walking out on stage at Giants Stadium, New York in front of 50,000 people on the opening night of the Disintegration tour as one of the weirdest and best of my life. But on the other hand, he prickles at the suggestion that his group, that were once the epitome of titchy introversion and unchumminess, might well have become what they once set out to destroy.
There's more to a dinosaur than playing stadiums, he begins, clearly having pondered this himself. All the old dinosaurs are still there. We may have reached their level of success but their attitude is different. We're not Simple Minds. People feel they know us. Groups have a personality. It's a difficult thing to verbalize but we have no affinity with the major stadium rock bands. But unless you try very hard to be unsuccessful, it's something that creeps up on you. Or it creeps up on your record company. You can see the lightbulb go on in their head. They know you've made it. And if you don't watch out, you've become some terrible unwieldy economic concern. I sometimes really want to do something to break the mold.
And what would that be?
Well, make a terrible record, I suppose.
Smith is still quaintly proud of the fact that the band's recent Grammy nomination cites them in the alternative section. He's perversely delighted that the band don't get invited to business ligs or on to talk shows. You'll never see me standing with my arm around Mr. X at some celebrity bash, he asserts with something of the old punk's haughty inverted snobbery.
I hate my so-called peers, my peers in terms of status anyway. Why does Robert hate them? I hate them because they don't mean anything and they're shit at writing songs. A good enough reason, it has to be said.
In return, the Cure seem to have inspired little affection from some of their contemporaries. New Order's Peter Hook once remarked: I think a lot of groups have nicked ideas off us. It's no big deal Although the Cure have just been taking the piss sometimes. With similar good graces, Siouxsie Sioux described Smith's contribution to The Banshees Hyena as: Fatboy Smith has nothing to do with the new album, except that he plays on it.
Part of the problem may have been that the Cure have never been cool in any accepted sense. Or at least, probably not since Seventeen Seconds. A quick glance through the archives shows, painfully, that they have looked more ridiculous on more occasions that possibly any other group since Dexy's Midnight Runner, though, obviously, not in as many different ways. Cure fans are routinely belittled for not having grown out of the group's claustrophobic maudliness. When the Cure put out the Mixed Up album - Cure classics remixed by various happening names from the world of dance music - in 1990, some years before many of their contemporaries had cottoned on to the catchet of such ventures, the Cure were hammered for it. People said we were mad. Then 18 months later, they're all at it.
Smith himself has often been similarly castigated, for his songs, for his fluctuating weight, for his freeform approach to the application of mascara and lip gloss. Bamonte refers to this quite explicitly by pointing at his effective boss and announcing: He couldn't walk down the street like that if he wasn't him, Smith concurs. Most of the places I stay in, they'd tell me to fuck off if they weren't convinced I was going to spend a lot of money there.
They are, the state, totally uncool. Pushed to define cool, they offer Dick Bogarde and Marcello Mastroianni and, with a few seconds thought, Nirvana and J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr.
They're pretty cool. That "couldn't give a fuck" thing. But, really, nothing is more uncool than studied cool. Nothing is more tragic than going to the shops in aviator shades. It's the mark of an idiot.
So how do the Cure occupy their leisure hours. Smith gives a hefty chortle. You should have seen us last week. You'd had have a field day. We've been fishing, flying model airplanes, playing pitch and putt. Pitch and putt's a great game. But I hit a small child the other day with the one confident gold strike I've ever played, so pitch and putt is out until I can get over the trauma.
More seriously, Smith revels in the fact that 90 percent of the time I'm completely normal. The worst thing that I ever read about me was in some French magazine. They complained about the fact that I read books and liked football. They said that my entire image was false. I could have bloody told them that 10 years ago. It isn't some dreadful disappointment the fact that I go to Tesco's. It's tragic and boring to be Bohemian all the time.
The shadows lengthen across the plush lawns of Hook End Manor recording studios where the Cure have installed themselves for a brief stay. Essentials are delivered. An enormous amount of beer sits chilling in sundry fridges. The band are here to record some Hendrix covers for a projected celebrity charity album (and as we shall see, for another reason) and to put the final touches to the mixing of live tracks that will accompany the release of a new full-length feature film later this month. The Cure can effectively tour the country with this film without ever leaving their beds. Ostensibly, this is the reason why they are giving a select number of interviews. The film, Show, (We wanted to call it Concert but someone had beaten us to it.) is a straightforward visual account of the band's Detroit show from last years epic North American tour. Given a) the fact that a Cure live movie already exists, Tim Pope's The Cure In Orange, and b) that rock movies tend statistically toward the rubbish, why bother?
Because I hated the thought of The Cure In Orange being the only visual live document of the Cure. That implies a certain arrogance. I know, it implies that I think there is something worth preserving there. But I do. I find The Cure In Orange upsetting. It doesn't look or sound right. I did want to film the Disintegration tour and to that end we quite a lot of hand-held stuff, weird stuff, crap stuff really. Just blurred shapes. It could be anybody really.
The record company says it might broaden our fanbase and all that. But, of course, that's rubbish. I mean, would you go and sit through a concert film of a band you didn't like? It'll appeal to Cure fans, obviously.
It might not just appeal to those fans if you get great reviews. You know the kind of thing. A genuine contribution to the culture of our age. A landmark piece of cinema.
Hmmm, ponders Smith. It's not though.
Fair enough. Smith hopes that it will be at least as successful as Led Zeppelin's The Song Remains The Same or Pink Floyd's Live At Pompeii, to films he remembers shelling our for at the Crawley fleapit. But I was quite sure I wanted it to be just us playing. I hate it when you watch some old Hendrix footage and it's him with some woman in the back seat or him backstage smoking a joint. I want to see him playing. Let's see his hands!
As time passes, the truth begins to dawn. That Robert Smith, boringly perhaps, is a thoroughly nice chap. Over dinner he is funny and entertaining and surprising; the tape on his ghetto blaster is, of all things, a collection of '40s U.S. jazz. It becomes apparent that a lot of those sneery putdowns have stood one in good stead in saloon bars all these years will have to be stowed away. And Cure fans, perhaps, they're not so bad after all. What's wrong with those haircuts anyway? They're different, they're exciting...
Pull yourself together. Why are the Cure so miserable?
We're not! Sometimes we're positively jolly. Lovecats, Boys Don't Cry, what jolly songs! People complain that we're too jolly! After Wish they used to come up and say (adopts halting English of what we must take to be the typical Cure fan) "Why is it that you are not playing anything from Pornography anymore?" If you notice, every two or three years we have a jolly phase. It's when we discover a new drug. We're happy for awhile. And then, sadly, back into the morass.
Right now, one assumes, the current drugs have not palled, for Smith appears (dread word!) happy!
I am. When we were at the Manor recording Disintegration, I was absolutely desolately miserable for the full three months. I don't know why. Time of life. And you could hear it on the record. During Wish I was quite jolly. And you can hear that on record as well. It all depends on who is in the group. This is one of the best versions of the Cure there's ever been. The Cure has been a very heavy group to be in lots of times during the past five years. At the moment, it feels more like a hobby. It's fun. I've watched the film. I've seen what they get up to behind my back. Sickening. Like the Keystone Cops. We've got a van. You have to get the balance right. Sometimes intensity, sometimes you get the old red nose out.
Smith pushes away the remains of his chocolate crumble and pours out the last of the Jacob's Creek 1978. A long night of covering Jimi Hendrix awaits. Would you excuse me? It's time to don the purple headband.
Though they've tried hard to be coy about it, the Cure were, in fact, off to record Purple Haze in order for it to be played as the first record for Virgin 1215. It'll always be coming up on quiz machines. Like Flowers In The Rain. It'll be a useful thing to know. We played on a quiz machine once and it asked what was the Cure's first Top 10 album. We got it wrong.
He got this one wrong as well. The first record played on Virgin 1215 at 12.15 p.m. on Friday, April 23, 1993 was Born To Be Wild, as covered by INXS. The second record to be played was the Cure's version of Purple Haze. To compound things, it was announced as Hey Joe. There is something for sociologists of rock to ponder here. The Cure, passed over for INXS, symbol of stadium braggadocio. The Cure - still not quite accepted. Robert Smith - still the Outsider.
But there is something more important yet. Anyone who was foolish enough to take the Cure frontman up on his far-fetched, ultimately inaccurate, dog's backside of a tip, anyone who had, in good faith, repaired to a bookmaker's and risked hard-earned pay on such a hare-brained wager, would now find himself, to one degree or other, well out of pocket.
Robert Smith. What a bastard.