Since 1976, the Cure has made a career out of manic depression. From the bleak dirge of "Faith" to the hyperactive "Why Can't I Be You?," depression and bliss have walked hand-in-hand. When founding member Robert Smith set out to write the band's latest album, Bloodflowers [Elektra], he meant to sum up the Cure's 23-year career in one cohesive package, and then retire the band for good. For inspiration, he revisited 1982's Pornography,1989's Disintegration, and 1992's Wish, but studying the Cure's past didn't produce the desired effect of focusing his writing, as guitar hooks spring from Smith like wildflowers.
"I found I was rambling," he admits. Needing to restrict his creative choices, Smith committed to a narrow range of tempos and keys, wrote only on an acoustic guitar, and limited his fiddling with knobs and setups. In addition to keeping his ideas in check, the excercise also revived Smith's interest in the Cure.
"I had every intention that Bloodflowers would be the last Cure album, because I felt like it was a natural end for the group," he says. "But making this record has rekindled my enthusiasm. I think it's such a good record, that it would be foolish not to make another."
Bloodflowers is the most guitar-driven Cure album in quite a while.
Usually, I write a number of different ways. In the course of a week, I might write one song on the acoustic guitar, one on piano or keyboards, and one song using loops and Steinberg's Cubase. But for this album, I limited myself to the guitar, and that decision was driven by hearing the Scottish band Mogwai. I thought their first album was fantastic, and I loved all the power and noises of their different guitar sounds. That band fired me up to make Bloodflowers very guitar driven.
Did any other artists inspire your writing for the album?
I didn't want anyone else's influence on Bloodflowers, because I wanted to have all the best elements of the Cure together on one album. I also knew the album was going to be nostalgic and wistful, because I was writing words that summed up how I was feeling heading towards becoming a 40-year-old. That set the tone for what I wanted to do musically, but I wasn't sure how I was going to achieve it. I thought if I got everything down on acoustic guitar, everything we recorded would be led by that initial sequence of guitar chords.
I also wanted to impose a few restrictions on myself. I didn't want anything over 120 bpm or anything under 80, but a song I cowrote with Simon [Gallup, bassist] slipped through the net at 75. It really upset me for a while [laughs], but I got over it. With this album, I did a bit of a Brian Eno number - I was imposing structure. I imposed what keys I could write in, what tempos I could have, and the number of times I could repeat certain phrases - which was no more than twice. It sounds clinical, but actually it was very natural, because I found that I instinctively write that way. One good thing about working in complementary keys and tempos is that I could swap parts from song to song.
Unlike other Cure albums, you played most of the guitar parts yourself. Why?
Well, this is the first album I've written on guitar in years. I'd kind of turned myself into a singer over the last couple of albums, so it was like rediscovering the joys of playing the guitar. Porl [Thompson, ex-Cure guitarist] used to take over a lot of guitar parts because he has a very distinctive style of his own, and I knew he would come up with parts that would be totally different from anything I could think of. But Perry [Bamonte, current Cure guitarist] plays much more like me, so when we made Bloodflowers there was no point in telling Perry how I wanted something played. I just played it myself.
Have you learned anything from other guitarists?
I like guitarists that have a very distinctive style. I think Bowie is an underrated guitarist. I loved the rhythm guitar on early Bowie albums, like Hunky Dory. When I was really, really young I listened to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and I liked the rhythm guitar on their early-60s singles. Then my older brother played Hendrix for me when I was eight or nine years old, and he became my favorite. The other kids at school were always learning Hendrix's solos, but I was much more interested in learning the way he put chords together. I thought the way he left notes ringing was really weird and sounded really good. Hendrix set the tone for everything I do.
You do play solos, however. Are they typically worked out or improvised?
This is the first album on which I've improvised solos. I'd never felt confident enough about my guitar playing to be interested in improvising - I've always thought what I did sounded really hackneyed. Generally, I'd play various things and then piece them together very carefully. For example, a couple of the 6-string bass solos on Bloodflowers were comped together because I wanted them to work as melodic pieces. I didn't really care if they sounded like agonizingly good solos - I just wanted them to bear repeated listening. I still don't think I'm good enough to come up with something on the spur of the moment that is going to stand the test of time. It's an acceptance of my limitations.
How did you approach the album's guitar sounds?
I dug out all my guitars for this album - which I hadn't done before. I had them all lined up along the wall, which caused great amusement for everyone. I actually wanted to play every one of them - which was pretty ridiculous, because there are more than 50 - but I ended up using two guitars on 90% of the album. One was a limited edition Gibson Chet Atkins semi-acoustic. It was a prototype, and it's incredibly heavy. You can plug it into anything, and it sounds brilliant straight away. The other guitar was a Gretsch Silver Falcon. It's a beautiful guitar to play, but it's really cheesy because it has red rhinestones in the volume and tone control knobs. It's really me [laughs].
I used the Falcon for solos and the Chet Atkins semi-acoustic for most of the rhythm stuff. The acoustics on the album are various Takamines. I'd double the parts using a 12-string and a 6-string. Each guitar was recorded with a mic and a direct line from the onboard pickup. At the mix down, I'd pan the 12-string's miked sounds hard left and the direct sound hard right, and then pan the 6-string the other way around.
I ended up playing most of the acoustic parts because Perry and I have different picking styles, and when we tried playing the tracks together, it sounded messy. If I do a take and follow it up with another within a few minutes, I can pretty much duplicate what I've just done - right down to the strum. It sounds like one guitar is triggering another - with some nice chorusing going on due to the interplay between the two guitars - and, that way, I get a dense, rich acoustic sound without using heavy effects.
What other guitars were used?
Some of the heavier rhythm-guitar sounds were cut with Perry's Les Paul, and I used an old Mosrite for some leads because it has a really cutting sound. I also used a '60s Fender 6-string bass a lot. I bought one of the new ones when they started remaking them, but they're really middle-y sounding. They weight about half as much, so obviously they're not going to sound the same. I don't know what they've left out, but the original '60s models are really solid, heavy guitars. If I ever break mine, I don't know what I'm going to do. Give up, I suppose!
How do you get your signature 6-string bass sound?
It has always gone through the same three Boss pedals - a digital delay and a chorus, with a touch of noise gate to cut off the delay. And I always play through the same early-'80s Peavey Ultra head and 4x12 cabinet. The 6-string bass sound is the one thing that has stayed the same since the Faith album in 1981. I've never changed the setup, because I always thought it sounded really good. It's like a cello for me - a really perfect sound.
On the Peavy, the middle is rolled off completely, the bass is half up, the treble is full up, and the presence is set at about half. This really reflects my character, but things are invariably set to 0, 5, or 10 on my amps. I never go for anything inbetween, because that's fussing about, and it never gets you anywhere.
The pedals are always set so that they look right. That sounds a bit stupid, but, in a strange way, it works. There are four knobs on the delay, and they're all set at 12 o'clock - apart from the knob on the far right, which is set slightly off from 12 o'clock at 800 milliseconds. That's an unfortunate design - Boss obviously didn't have me in mind when they made that pedal [laughs]. On the chorus, the left hand knob is at ten o'clock, and the right knob is at two o'clock. It's symmetrical. This isn't insane you know! If you've played enough, you sort of know what something is going to sound like by looking at it.
The distorted, reverb-drenched melody line on "Where the Birds Always Sing" is another signature Cure sound.
That another guitar that I've used throughout the years - a 1963 Coral sitar guitar. It sounds less like a sitar than an egg, which is a misleading description of a guitar, but it's a very peculiar sound - albeit an archetypal Cure sound. It gives an Eastern flavor without being dilettante-ish or sounding like world music.
What amps did you use?
All the guitar stuff was recorded as it came out of the amp. We didn't use any Pro Tools plug-ins because I wanted this album to sound really live. I tended to have an Ampeg VL503 and a Line 6 Flextone Plus running at the same time. I would mic both up, and have the option of mixing the two sounds. The Flextone would usually be distorted, and the Ampeg was usually kept very clean. The two tones from the amps had great clarity, as well as a certain sense of air moving. I don't like direct sounds - they're characterless and dead.
Do you still use your old pedalboard?
Yes. It's currently loaded with Boss pedals: a phaser, a flanger, a digital delay, an overdrive, a Blues Driver, and a line driver. I don't actually have a chorus in my pedalboard anymore. If I use the Flextone, I use its built-in chorus, and if I use the Ampeg, I tape the Boss chorus pedal to the top of the amp.
I always use the pedalboard onstage, but for a prosaic reason. It's because I can see the different pedal colors and I don't have to think - if it's blue, it's a chorus. In the studio, if something doesn't sound right, you can stop and fiddle with it. But you don't have that option onstage when you've got smoke swirling around, the strobe light going, and you're trying to remember the third verse!
What was the basic recording process?
We just had the rhythm section - myself, Simon and Jason [Cooper, drummer] - play everything live. Perry and Roger [O'Donnell, keyboardist] did overdubs. A lot of the recording was very traditional, with a reliance on inexpensive mics like Shure SM57s and SM58s. There's so much rubbish talked about expensive mics. If you've got a decent cable, a short run, and a good mic preamp, you can use any basic mix. To record the guitars, we'd stick a Shure mic close to the cabinet and one 12" away, slightly off center. It's just old-fashioned miking. There wasn't much room for experimentation, because I wanted to get everything done fast. If something sounded right, I didn't see the point in spending another half-hour tuning the tone, because that's when you lose it.
Could you detail the writing and recording process of one song?
When I did the demo for "Watching Me Fall" it was incerdibly quiet - just an acoustic guitar and a simple drum loop. But then I built it up until I thought it was like a Meatloaf classic, and I thought, "This isn't really what I want." So I streamlined it until I had about five sections that worked together. When we recorded the song, Simon and I were sitting in the studio with Jason and his drum kit, but our amps were placed outside the room. I played 6-string acoustic, miked through a clean amp, but I had an A/B box so I could click on a Marshall for the big bits. That was just so we could have some sense of the song's dynamics. I did the scratch vocal live with my mouth pressed hard against an SM57.
We did about seven or eight takes in two nights, always at the same tempo, but varying the structure and dynamics slightly. Then Perry and I sat in the control room playing to backing tracks while drinking red wine and thinking up riffs and hooks. I spent another two days listening to all the different bits. Some of them were rubbish, because when you think you're playing well when you're drunk, you're actually playing like an idiot. I picked the parts that worked, and we went back in and overdubbed them "live" so the performances didn't sound out of place or clinical. A couple of weeks later, I came in and did the guitar solos and the vocal in a weekend.
How elaborate were the song demos for the album?
I would tell Jason what tempo I wanted stuff in - and what sort of feel I wanted - and he would record a half-hour of drum patterns into a DAT recorder, and then mail the tape to me. I'd sample four bars and use the loop to construct the song, playing everything else myself. So when I showed a song to the others, I was almost finished. This was the fastest we've made an album in about 15 years. I knew the keys, the tempos, and even the album's running order before we went into the studio.
There are so many intricate, interwoven parts happening on this album. How did you avoid cluttering the mix?
It's so difficult to get a sense of the power of the guitars really rampaging and at the same time not having the voice completely swamped. There's a sound in my head, and I suppose I'm just trying to get to that point where I think, "Yeah, this is how I imagine it should sound." I would say to Paul [Corkett, Bloodflowers co-producer], "That guitar doesn't work there. Now that the 6-string bass part is on, that guitar is one too many." I was very dictatorial when it came to what went where. In fact, the others left before the final mixes, because they got so fed up with me telling them to shut up.
Smith's Garden Tools
Guitars: '99 Gretsche Silver Flason 6136SL, '90s prototype Gibson Chet Atkins semi-acoustic, '60s Fender Jazzmaster, '60s Fender Bass VI, '60s Mosrite Ventures, '60s Coral Sitar, Takamine EN28C acoustic, Takamine 12-string acoustic, Aria Sandpiper acoustic, Ovation L756 12-string acoustic.
Amps: Line 6 Flextone Plus 2x12 combo (with additional Line 6 2x12 cab), Ampeg VL503 combo, Marshall Bluesbreaker, Vox AC30, Fender Twin Reverb, Peavey Ultra 120 head and 412S cab.
Effects: Dunlap CryBaby, Korg Tone Works 411FX, Mesa/Boogie V-Twin, Tech 21 SansAmp Classic, Sherman Filter Bank, t.c. electronic Fireworx and 2290, Eventide H-3500 Ultra-Harmonizer, Yamaha SPX900 and SPX10000, Lexicon PCM 70 and PCM 80, Roland DEP-5, Zoom 505, Studio 1204, and 9050, and "pretty much every Boss pedal ever made," Smith says.