The Gloom Merchants

July 12, 1992
Greg Kot
Chicago, Tribune, Arts Section, Cover Story

Popularity descends upon some of the unlikeliest characters.

Robert Smith , for example.

Smith is the leader of The Cure., a British quintet that had been a cult act for the better part of its decade-plus existence. Now its big enough to play Giants Stadium in New Jersey and the Rose Bowl in California, playgrounds reserved for rock's biggest acts, as part of a North American tour that brings it to the World Music Theater in Tinley Park on Wednesday.

Wish, the band's twelfth album, debuted at number 2 on the pop charts a few months ago and has sold more than one million copies. Its 1989 predecessor, Disintegration, went triple platinum.

All of which leaves Smith a bit bemused.

He knows he's not exactly a conventional male sex symbol. He wears lipstick and eyeliner, and sometimes looks a bit frumpy in his loose-fitting clothes and sprawling hair-do.

His interests and demeanor don't fit the profile of a 90's rock star, either. A smart witty conversationalist and a voracious reader of the literary greats from Shelley to Steinbeck (he was plowing through Travels With Charley at the time of this interview), he's a sometimes painfully shy performer.

I've worn a bit of makeup ever since I was in high school, he says, calling from Los Angeles. It started as a small rebellious act, and it just got more and more extreme. I use it as kind of a defense, a crutch. The more I put on the more I become the persona that is able to go on stage and sing songs. I couldn't do it if I were not wearing makeup. And besides, I think I look better with a bit of makeup on. I haven't got this male reserve of 'What are people going to think ?'. Mary [his wife] likes me better with makeup on, too.

Then there's the music. Smith gets mocked in the media for being a mope, a gloom- mongerer and a misery merchant. The singer pleads guilty as charged.

A lot of the lyrics I write are moody and doomy. It's not that I feel miserable all of the time, but I'm moved to write when I'm feeling miserable.

No kidding. Wish begins with Open, in which the singer collapses at a party while declaring that he's sick of it all, and staggers to a close with End, in which Smith sobs please stop loving me, please stop loving me...

No wonder hardcore Cure fans have adopted a look of perpetual mourning: black outfits, jet-black hair, black nail polish, racoon eyes.

It's quite charming in a way. A few are absurdly obsessive, but they generally will be reasonably well-read and they will be softly spoken and usually quite intelligent. Every section of society has its feathers, and its just another way of showing what you like.

A larger legion of fans that doesn't wear "feathers" has been drawn to the band lately, and coping with these newcomers threw the Cure for a loop in 1989. At the time, Smith says, he was repulsed.

I was taken by surprise, I was unprepared for the level that we'd reached and it took away a lot of the enjoyment." Open and End were inspired by a period during that tour in which he began to "hate everyone and hate everything around me.

What bothered me is that I didn't accept our audience having changed so much, getting so diverse." "I had gotten used to an audience with a particular mindset, in a concert or whenever we met them. And now, in a way, there's a kind of snobbery. I thought maybe we're losing the heart of the group if these people like us.

Smith says he worked through the problem by realizing he was a big part of it, and is enjoying himself considerably more on the current tour.

We've attracted a new peripheral audience who aren't necessarily wearing Cure t-shirts - they wouldn't 'die' for the group. But I realize there's an appeal to the group that attracts more than the hard-core fans: we put out melodic songs and good records. And I've finally realized that we are going to appeal to people who aren't that bothered about who we are or what we represent. They just like the music and they come to the concerts because they want a night out, and maybe they don't know all the words. Before I'd be offended by that.

Although Smith says he's still drawn to the slightly darker, more emotional side of the group's material, he's willing to balance it with brighter songs.

We're tempering it this time. We play a lot more upbeat stuff and the singles, because the audiences are bigger and the people paying for those tickets are expecting those things now. It's a compromise, but not in a bad way.

Smith 's earlier misgivings about entertaining the masses at the local enormo- dome aren't without foundation. The Cure don't write conventional rock anthems, but revel in plangent, doomsday rock, blending noisy guitars, thick atmospherics and introspective lyrics.

The bands one concession to playing larger venues is the use of video screens. Otherwise, Smith and guitarists Porl Thompson and Perry Bamonte , bassist Simon Gallup and drummer Boris Williams pretty much stand stock-still obscured in fog.

I don't perform on stage, I sort of flounce. If I tried to act larger than life, I'd fall flat on my face.

A lot of what we do doesn't translate in stadiums. So we treat those shows as more like big one-off events. I don't feel one hundred percent comfortable with it, I must admit. I've only been to two stadium shows [as a spectator], and I hated both of them.

Although the band is playing a handful of stadiums in America, it began the tour in Europe with more intimate concerts in 1,000 and 2,000 - seat clubs.

The optimum size for a gig is between 10,000 and 15,000 (the World seats 30,000). Anything above it, what you gain in spectacle, you lose in intimacy. And anything below that starts to worry me, because I think people can see me too clearly, or I can see them too clearly. We've found a comfortable level.

We could do the hard sell and do more stadium dates, and we've been pushed toward that, but if we just played stadiums exclusively, we wouldn't be enjoying ourselves.

It sounds strange for Smith to talk about enjoying himself, especially when he's called upon to sing lines such as All I wish is gone away and You don't feel anymore, its all gone its all gone.

He acknowledges that if he had his way, Wish would have been entirely composed of songs that were quite down, quite heavy, with a lot of wild guitars.

But when we are all together and recording for real, I realized what the atmosphere was like in the group and it seemed a bit stupid to drag the group screaming into an area where they didn't feel comfortable, he says.

Which explains why Wish contains perhaps the bands giddiest songs ever, Friday I'm in Love.

It was very slow and moody when I brought in the demo tape, with just piano and six-string bass. Once we started messin about with it, Boris and Simon started speeding it up. Simon's got a very good ear for pop, and he convinced me that it would make a good pop song.

That give-and-take approach contrasts with the sessions for the 1989 Disintegration album, a cycle of beautifully layered dirges.

A lot of the time, I was the only one in the studio because the atmosphere was so bad and no one wanted to be in there with me, Smith says.

The singer was going through a number of personal and artistic upheavals at the time: I wasn't sure if I could cope with a lot of the things going through my everyday life.

In recording Wish he says, the biggest difference is the lineup, a reference to the ouster of keyboardist Roger O'Donnell and the addition of guitarist Perry Bamonte . It was exciting and new for Perry, and that affected us, giving us a general feeling of excitement generally.

The group's ability to hang in there through the turmoil has contributed to its success.

If you're around for a certain length of time in America, artists are accorded a certain respect, which I find uncomfortable, because it goes against everything that happens in England, where it actually works in reverse. But we've come up with a lot of good songs, and I also think the attitude of the group has helped. We've always had a very punk ethic: Just do what you want, how you want. If other people like it, it's a bonus. If they don't, who cares ?

For that reason, Smith says, The Cure won't be joining the likes of Michael Jackson and Madonna in the pop pantheon anytime soon.

I don't think we've ever been embraced by the mass media in any country. I don't think we ever will be, and I certainly hope we're not. A lot of people look at us and think we're a bit weird. I like the idea when people hear that we're playing the Rose Bowl that it must be a mistake. I would like it to stay like that.

Last Revised: Monday, 15-May-2006 14:59:51 CDT

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