In person he's not the mopey fop of gloom rock, the sometime pudge-o cruelly referred to by some as "fat Bob," or even the psychedelic toad stool who recently squatted on the stage of MTV Unplugged to blurt out his unaccountably lovely songs. He's just Robert Smith, a nice bloke really, some strong opinions, mind you, but assuming as hell, little glamour about him. He and his five bandmates are sprawled - unassumingly to a man - in one of the living rooms of Virgin honcho Richard Branson's lovely studio-cum-mansion, Shipton Manor, a few miles north of Oxford, England. Besides the sprayed haircut here (Smith's trademark rat's nest is shorn enough not to qualify), the touch of eye makeup there, not a thing gives away the group's secret identity as the Cure, the biggest unknown band in the world. So unknown, in fact, that the group's new album, Wish could sell its expected two or three million copies, the band could embark on their biggest tour, dropping in on arenas and stadiums in cities and sprawling suburbia near you, and most people will still be a little unclear about them.
On one level, Smith doesn't really care about this: "None of us read those American magazines," he sniffs. ("Except for - what was the name of your magazine?" impishly inquires bassist Simon Gallup.) When pressed, however, he concedes, "Well, we're sort of aware of that whole thing, that they've kind of snubbed us, but we think, so what? We're overlooked in certain ways, but there's a good part of it: we're still outside of everything. We're stil not quite right, which is as it should be."
But the Cure have not survived through close to 15 years of line-up changes and ever-increasing fame without some steel beneath the soft exterior. Scratch out Robert just a bit in the subject, and you can see that he does keep track of what the magazines say after all.
"From time to time," he muses, "it can get very disappointing. You happen to pick up a newspaper, and there's an article about Ian McCulloch, and it says that he's managed to retain blah blah blah, 'as opposed to the other people that came from the same era, Simple Minds and U2'. And that bloke that wrote it, I mean, to me, that's really fucking askew. Simple Minds and U2 - they came late. McCulloch's only contemporaries are us, and the Banshees."
This all may strike some as minutiae about the British music scene in the later years of the Seventies. But Smith has a point. No one pays attention to the Cure. Name another band that plays stadiums and doesn't get their picture on the cover of the major magazines.
Robert's on a roll: "It's always U2 and Simple Minds and the others. It's fitting in a way that we're never lumped in with that lot, but still, what do you have to do to get that recognition? With Rolling Stone, they decided quite a while ago that we don't mean that much. And in England there are a lot of people who wrote terrible things about us when we were all quite young and are now editors and such and desperately want us to go away, and actively hate us for the fact that we get better and better and more popular."
And it is the Cure's particular Zen that he is in fact right on both counts. Wish is problematic in certain ways. There is no breakthrough here, no new path. There is not even a Cure classic of the likes of the plangent and emotional "Just Like Heaven," the driving "Inbetween Days," the giddy "Why Can't I Be You?," nothing as moody and sweeping as "Pictures of You." But listen: It is still the Cure's best album. The mope-rock weirdness of Faith and Pornography is still alive, and the post-punk sensibility that has kept the Cure mildly "alternative" can still be discerned. But Smith's Ur-pop instincts - the ones that produced the Cure's classic first singles but have been too closely held in check through many of the years since - are back firmly in control, and the Cure are now simply as heavy a pop band as you can imagine.
The band now stands assured and polished: there's a mature and forceful control of dynamics that was absent from the band over it's first eight or 10 years, and, most of all, that valuable Cure Sound - part pulsing bass, part tasteful keyboards, that schoolboy Smith's squawky but somehow sexy voice - now comes out as natural and somehow meaningful. Those long, languid intros mark stately ballads like "Trust" and "To Wish Impossible Things" indeliby, and the rockers - songs which as late as '86's Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me seemed a bit out of control - are not harnessed and blasting, all wah-wah guitars, driving bass and tumultuous drumming. "End" is as wild a song as the Cure has ever recorded, and the first single, "High," complete with a visit from a lovecat, is an atmospheric tour de force.
Of course, the Cure are not the only band favored by upper middle-class teens that don't get their druthers Stateside. There's New order, too.
"But they had the benifit of Ian Curtis killing himself," responds Robert sharply, plainly aggrieved. "They've always had that."
The Cure are a little like that - you're never sure when you're going to step on a political toe, so to speak, vis a vis the band's heritage. They are proud, you see, these talented and somehow unloved rockers. On paper their comments might sound snippy, and someone whose lyrics can be as weepy as our Robert's sounds a little ungracious when he takes a peck at Morrissey's writing, which he will in a moment. But in person the remarks seem somehow honest and forthright; having done what they would for 15 years, the band holds little truck with the sort of hypocritical niceties of the press interview. Plainly, Smith viewed his entry in the world of rock & roll so many years ago to have been the start of a commitment to some indescribable truism; he's disappointed - and caustic - about those contemporaries that in his view haven't measured up.
"Think about Simple Minds," he marvels. "That they've been taken seriously for the past seven years is quite incredible to me. Jim Kerr is just a plump Scottish git. And he does these awful things, like marry Chrissie Hynde. He marries these hideous women and still people like him!"
So the net effect, as the Cure slouch down in couch and chair, is less personal then intellectual. They're part of an elite, but they gossip about their peers like lovable bratty schoolchildren. The band has never photographed well - even until very recently they tended to look like bargain-basement goth-rockers - but in real life they're all quite handsome, friendly and witty. Besides the loyal Simon Gallup, the last vestige of the several original proto Cures, the band is of relatively recent vintage, solidifying around 1986. It includes: Porl Thompson, a member long ago and far away, Smith's brother-in-law, and now back in the fold; Perry Bamonte, a long-time roadie who joined the band as keyboardist after the forced departure of Smith's childhood friend and former drummer Lol Tolhurt; and drummer Boris Williams. They're all quite fine players, but it's the powerful name who finally made the Cure sound like less than the Pain when it came to rocking out.
"I take responsibility for it," says Smith forthrightly. "In the past, before Boris, when Lol was drumming, we were limited at what we could do, because he couldn't play drums, basically. Since Boris has been in the band drumming, we could do whatever we want, rhythmwise."
It is wrong, however, to underestimate the power of the rest of the band. While the Cure are indubitably Smith's group (and he does write the lyrics), music is credited to the band as a whole, and it's worth noting that the striking songwriting process the Cure has made over the last five years has come only as aggregation has jelled.
The band started as Malice, and then the Easy Cure, in London, in 1976, with members including Smith, pal Tolhurst, Michael Dempsey, and others. In 1977, amid the noise being made by the Ramones, the Vibrators, the Sex Pistols and every other group of American and British kids with access to guitars and drums, the band scored a thousand-pound demo deal, which produced among other things a song called "Killing an Arab." The deal fell through, but they recorded other songs - including one called "Boys Don't Cry" - before they met up with a renegade A&R man from Polydor, Chris Parry, who wanted to start his own label, Fiction. The band, Parry and Fiction remain together to this day.
The first album is Three Imaginary Boys (Boys Don't Cry in the U.S.), and over the next five years the band produced an against-the-grain string of British singles, including the self-consciously, almost bizarrely intellectual "Killing an Arab," a sparse and eerie tribute to Camus; the wide-eyed pop confection "Boys Don't Cry"; and the trendie-bashing "Jumping Someone Else's Train." Each of these exhibited the Cure's adoption of the philosophical, if not the musical, beliefs of the punk period: articulating a vision and being extremely wary of the pulls of commercial success.
"We started out doing pop," says Smith, "but it wasn't acceptable pop at the time: It was completely warped. And it was lucky for us that it was, because if it had been picked up on, that would have been it, and we wouldn't be sitting here now, because it would have done us in. We were already established as a weird group; and when we came back to doing pop stuff, we could say, well, we've already done it, you missed it."
The wariness includes dealing with their U.S. label, Elektra. "They deal with Chris Parry," says Smith. "We don't talk to them. This [mid-February, with Wish going through final mixing] is the first time they're going to hear it.
"At the time we signed with them, a lot of people genuinely wanted the band. But Elektra saw what it was we did and were willing to let us do it on their terms, whereas with some of the other labels, they just saw us as an opportunity to make money. In fact, Elektra has realized that potential just by leaving us alone."
At this point, Bob Krasnow can be forgiven for rolling his eyes, because real money from the Cure was a long time coming. The band's second, third, and fourth albums - 17 Seconds, Faith and Pornography - are as far from pop as you can imagine; they're basically album-length downers, all mood, atmosphere, depression and pain. But while they're not recorded particularly well, and played with something less than virtuosity, the records even today are rather compelling.
By this time, Smith had gained a reputation as a total eccentric. He was spending a lot of time playing with Siouxsie and the Banshees, with whom the Cure had developed a close relationship. He nearly disbanded the group in 1982, but instead returned with the dizzying deconstructive pop hit, "Let's Go To Bed," an almost indolently constructed sell-out song. From there on in, the band's sound began to open up: the 1985 Head on the Door album included both the breathy "Close to Me"and the coursing "In Between Days," minor U.S. radio hits helped along by a continuing string or fantastical and gorgeous videos by director Tim Pope.
But the watershed event for the Cure, at least Stateside, was the greatest hits LP, Standing on a Beach, a virtuosic display of pop sensibility by a band that, probably alone among those if its generation, steadily got better. Around this time, the lineup solidified, and the band focused on putting out a great rock & roll studio album. Kiss Me is a mite overlong, but it was reinforced with long rock workouts, the bouncy and bizarre "Why Can't I Be You?" and the dazzling "Just Like Heaven," a plangent meld of lilting guitar, washes of synths, and some of Smith's best lyrics. ("Daylight licked me into shape.") The follow-up, Disintegration became an unlikely smash, providing a bevy of MTV, dance, and AOR hits, including "Fascination Street," "Pictures of You" and "Lullaby." Cynics will note that the record's strongest songs are clustered on the first half of the record, but it's still a striking album. Mixed Up, a somewhat pointless collection of remixes of latter-day hits, was a waiting move before Smith and the boys collected themselves for their new album, with all of its concurrent artistic and financial pressures.
It's a long way from the Cure's frigid days as gloomy post-punk lifers. The band, for some reason, has always seemed so comfortable. Was our Robert ever poor?
He provides a satisfying look of horror. "We recorded 17 Seconds in 12 days, because it was all we could afford," he says. "We know what it's like to load our own gear. We were just like any other band who starts out at 17. You just do it because you have no choice. You'd love to be driven; it's fucking horrendous, the thought of doing in when you're in your late twenties and early thirties. You'd just have to be insane to think that you could sustain that sort of life, purely from the long term physical point of view."
The upcoming shows, by contrast, will have all the comforts of the modern rock & roll megastar tours and will include some of the biggest shows the band has ever played. The Cure have thus far done two stadium shows, one, the band says, quite good, the other not so hot. "We had just gotten off the boat at eight in the morning," says Smith, "and we were off to Giants Stadium, playing in front of 60,000 people. Everyone seemed to think it was really excellent, but I don't know, it just seemed a bit flat. But when we played Dodger Stadium, it was just hysterical."
Stadium shows faze him not at all. "As a group, we're better than most other groups live, but then we always have been. We wouldn't go out and play unless it was going to be excellent. Now the MTV Unplugged, that was very difficult. I found that the most difficult thing we've ever done: I never get nervous, but I was dripping before that one. What we were relying on then was like, the songs and our ability to play them, and nothing else."
But the band would rather talk music. Their opinions aren't always negative. They think the new wave of pop bands somewhat influenced by the Cure - Ride, Curve, the Nymphs, Lush ("to a certain degree") - are all right, and even give absolution to some American up and comers, like Dinosaur Jr and Nirvana.
Does Smith like rap?
"Well, yes, it you mean rap as a culture," he says, "disregarding the fact that the actual entertainment value of rap, I think, is incredibly limited; that if you don't like the duh dih dih dih dih then you don't like rap. Having said that, within that context, there are people that are able to come up with something good, something that sounds different. But too much of the time it's generally the same sound, the same voice, and it's generally the same voice, and it's generally singing about the same thing as well."
The Cure, it is observed, have always been into songs.
"I guess it comes down to that it has to have a melody. In the group, we all like different things, but there must be some common ground. I mean, no one really likes the stuff that doesn't have melodies - we don't really listen to the new Einsturzende Neubauten - but even Led Zeppelin has times, doesn't it? It's very hard for us to decide what to listen to, unless it's something entirely outside of popular music - classical, jazz, or weirder ethnic music. I think it would be hard for us to agree on a current popular artist.
"Apart from us!"
"Apart from us," agrees Smith.
Still, it's more fun dissing. Bring up an act - the Pet Shop Boys, say - and you get a quick answer. ("My most hated group in the world," says Smith). Whaddaya think of Morrissey?
There are some embarrassed coughs all around.
"He seems to have become a pastiche," ventures newest member Perry Bamonte. "He's sort of overdone it. It sort of worked when he was first around in the Smiths. But he now is a bit of a cosmic figure, really. Some diehards still think he's the second coming, but the second coming of what?"
Smith goes back to our original subject - being ignored by the press isn't that bad of a thing. "If people started writing good things about us it would probably undermine what the group's about," he says. "So to be commended as a 'top lyricist' in the same breath as Morrissey would be a sort of condemnation. If someone said Morrissey's a really great songwriter and you're not far behind I'd probably hit him. If someone said Morrissey's shit and you are too, well, that's fair enough."
Strong stuff. Does the Cure, fabulously successful now, ever worry about getting the same treatment from their heirs? Do they ever worry about, say, Manic Street Preachers strong-arming the band in print?
"But they don't," says Smith smartly. "That's the difference. Of all these groups, we're the only one that's still held up as an example. If you ask a good percentage of the new bands - Ride, Curve - they'll cite the Cure as an example, not purely musical, but for the attitude. Those groups would heap scorn on the same people we do. We despise people for the same reasons: Pomposity, pretenstions to greatness. It's just bollocks, basically."
Silence. "Unfortunately," centures Robert, "I think we do. Well, I think the others do, but I don't think I do."
There is general laughter.
Indignantly. "I don't!"
"That," says Simon Gallup, "is the sort of thing you say after you've had a few drinks."
The Cure won't be doing any anti-drug commercials, either.
"I think certain drugs are alright," says Smith. "The milder drugs are fine, the hallucinogenics are fine. I don't think that it's much good taking speed or coke or heroin. But I don't see how you can be jailed for minor drugs. You're more likely in this country to be jailed for possession of LSD than if you go out and rape someone, kill your mother as well. I think that aspect of it, all these moral majority types holding up their arms in horror - there's far more pressing issues. More people are killed in a month in drinking-related accidents than there are in 10 years of drugs."
"That's why we drink," says Gallup.
A. Of course.
That, however, was then. How are the relations with Siouxsie?
"Nonexistant," Smith says. "I think she was bitter that I left. To Siouxsie, particularly, Siouxsie and the Banshees was the most important band in the world. But it wasn't a difficult choice because I just gravitated naturally back to the Cure, and writing for the Cure. I felt stifled by the Banshees; they had very set ideas about what they should be doing, and at that time with the Cure I was doing things like 'Lovecats.' I felt like I wanted to be involved in a more varied musical world than the Banshees were offering me.
"Since then, they've reneged on virtually everything that they've ever stood for, and now they've gone to America to salvage what's left of their career. All the scorn that was heaped on me, my attitude toward things, really personal things, have really been on their head. When you look at the Banshees now, everything they used to stand against - never playing a support tour, not relying on their back catalogue, looking forward - that's all gone out the window. Their last album was completely done by computers by this guy they gave over a lot of control to. And they've done it basically because their last three albums haven't sold anything, and they've grown accustomed to a lifestyle based on record sales."
This is said to general laughter.
"Why are we slaggin' the Banshees?" someone asks.
"I don't mean to, I haven't even thought of them in so long," Smith protests.
Did you have a fight?
"Not really," he responds, "but I was always sort of an outsider in the Banshees, and I think that she wanted to subjugate me to her will, and it never really worked. I think that I was the first male that she'd come across, certainly of the people that have been in the Banshees, that told her to fuck off, basically, and wouldn't do everything she said. Everyone else fawns over her 24 hours a day.
"And now she's gone to America, where people believe that Siouxsie's the ice maiden all over again, the queen of the night, when in fact she's just like crabby old Susie Dallion."
"It was just before the band went onstage. Everything was curtained off, but we could hear this screaming," says Smith.
An eyewitness report, from Perry Bamonte, who was on stage roadying at the time:
"You couldn't see at first, because the lights were down," he says. "But there was a guy, jumping around from seat to seat, and the crowd would just disperse wherever he went. He was running about, and took his top off, plunged a knife into his stomach. Then the security surrounded him and threw things down around him, like ropes."
"He wasn't a crazed fan or anything," Bamonte concludes. He turns to Smith. "He wasn't after you."
Smith defensively: "He was just using the event."
Bamonte agrees. "He was just using the spectacle. He didn't want to just have himself in the bathroom..."
Robert: "Can we please change the..."
"...Like a real Cure fan would do."
Responds Smith, with asperity: "We tend to think that it's the other way around. Of the record releases that are supposed to be similar you'll find that ours generally preceded New Order's. And a lot of it is by chance. We were using an Oberheim setup with a sequencer and a drum machine at the same time New Order was. They happen to be around at the same time. It was new technology at the time."
And that, um, bass sound, say on "In Between Days"?
"Another component is the six-string bass that we've used throughout the years, quite regularly, and New Order has as well, from time to time. But we used it first. We used it on 'Primary' in 1980."
"Anyway, what Bernard Albrecht's done in Electronic is just... I'd be humiliated if I was in a group that one of us came out with an album like that."