Robert Smith in his own words, July 5, 2007
Here is a transcript of the bulk of my recent interview with Robert Smith, which led to stories in the South China Morning Post (under a pseudonym) and the New Zealand Herald. It’s close to 3,000 words, so I’ve put most of it after the jump. I’ve interjected throughout the interview with notes or questions, to put his quotes in context.
It was 4:15am in England when Robert Smith called from a London studio, where he was working on the Cure’s 13th album. Smith is a nocturnal creature, usually starting work at 2pm and heading to bed around 5am.
“I’m trying to wrap up the new album before we set off on our trip around the world. It’s looking a bit bleak at the moment because it’s a strangely evolving project that we’re involved in and it’s a huge, sprawling mass of songs. There’s like more than 30 songs and I’m trying to put them all together, which I’ve been postponing for as long as I can. It’s proving to be much harder than I thought. It’s good fun, it’s interesting. We’ve been re-recording stuff and I’ve been re-singing stuff…
I wanted it to be a 26-track double album from the moment we started making it, but I’ve kept it kind of quiet. I think what will happen is there’ll be a single album, and a double album — I think I’ll have a limited edition double album that I’ll do, and there’ll be a single album for the less hard-core fans…
It’s just taken up so much time to get the whole thing to work together.
Smith and the band have been working on the album in stages since April last year, when they first recorded the songs. This project is the first time in more than 20 years they didn’t do demos — they learned all the songs as they went along. The album has been delayed because Smith got distracted by the Festival 2005 DVD, for which he had to do a lot of the work. It turned into a three-hour, 30-song epic. “When I came to, it was Christmas,” he said. When he returned the songs a year later, he re-thought what the band was doing and they started re-recording some songs, and he started working on the lyrics.
“There’s a fantastic amount of spontaneity in all of this stuff. I felt particularly on the last album, I thought we got some great performances, but when I compared the finished album to the very first demos that we did three months prior to that — I just thought some of the demos as they always have this rawness and energy that you’ll often lose along the way when you finesse everything and everything has to fall on the beat and everything has to be just so, and you rule out mistakes. So I wanted an album that was a bit more edgy, I suppose, so I kept in the things that normally would be airbrushed out — particularly nowadays when you can pretty much do anything; you can make a tuba sound like a banjo. We’ve just stuck mikes up in the studio — the one thing we did the same as the last album, we recorded it as a band. We recorded it in the same room, all at the same time.
With this line-up, I really enjoy the way we play music with each other…
The mixing’s a piss of piece. They mix themselves, because they were played with dynamics. The hardest thing for me is actually tailoring the words to not only suit the songs but also to make me feel good about what I’m singing. With each album project, the lyric writing gets increasingly more difficult.”
Smith was enthusiastic about the new album.
“I think a Cure fan is going to love this album…
I think it’s brilliant, I really do. The thing is, the last album was the most fraught album I’ve ever been involved in — the one we did with Ross Robinson. Not because of Ross — quite the opposite, I really enjoyed my part, the part I played, he was the producer and I was really just the singer and guitarist, I took a step back from the whole thing. I like Ross and have a great relationship with Ross, but the band as a whole, and the way it was done and the way everyone responded to it, and the people around the band, who were close to the band, it became incredibly fraught. Almost like a communal mid-life crisis, looking back at it.”
Do you mean the recording sessions?
“Yeah. The recording sessions were about three months, and they were the most intense and difficult three months that I have spent with other people who I thought I knew. And at the end of it — the real reason why the band changed line-up, the seeds were sown in the making of that album. This album, by contrast, has been without question the most pleasurable experience I’ve ever had in a recording studio. Which sort of worries me in a way, because I’d forgotten what it was like to play music and have fun whilst you’re doing it. Even when you’re playing music that’s actually inherently — a lot of it’s quite sad. And quite a lot of what we’ve been playing is quite dark, but the actual atmosphere when we’ve done something good is celebratory. It’s really weird to think how long it’s been since the band felt that. And it’s been years, really. We’ve played great shows and the last album had some great songs on it and was a good album, but I forgot what it was like to actually come off stage feeling like I was part of something bigger than me.”
What’s the difference?
“We just get on. The dynamic in the group, the personalities in the group — there’s four of us and we just get on. It’s difficult, when you’re in a young band, you can throw tantrums and act your age. It’s very difficult to do that and take it seriously when you’re at the age we’re at. You’re investing huge amounts of time and energy into something, you want other people to feel the same, and with these four people I get that, I feel we’re all pulling I the same direction, and it’s been a long, long time since I’ve felt that in the band…”
He realises he’s getting older.
“I honestly wouldn’t have believed that I’d still be doing this — if you told me at 17 that I’d still be doing it now, at 48, I don’t think I would have believed that I would have been able to, either mentally or physically, or actually been allowed to, I wouldn’t have thought I’d have the audience more than anything else…
Our audience renews itself, it’s really quite weird. We’re one of the few bands that does that…
Acknowledging your age is a difficult part of the process. I remember passing 30 and thinking, ‘Oh no, it’s all going to change’. But the fact is I do now kind of acknowledge where I am and who I am within what I do. I don’t pretend that I’m 18, so I think it’s that acknowledgment that a younger audience appreciates. It’d be pretty awful if I pretended that I was younger than I am. I wish I wasn’t as old as I am…
The reasons why I do it have never changed. I never wanted to be in a band to be famous. I wanted to be in a band because I wanted to make good music.”
Smith once interviewed David Bowie on-air for a London radio station. By his own admission, Smith was drunk and obnoxious.
It was basically just one hour of him fielding my increasingly belligerent questions, rather gracefully actually, with hindsight. He didn’t take it badly, though, funnily enough. He actually enjoyed the to-and-fro of it because he invited me to perform with him at his birthday show a few years after that in NY. So it didn’t do me any harm. But afterwards I was mortified. I listened back to the tape the following day with a headache and I thought ‘How could I have done this? I love this man, and I just gone in there like an idiot’. It shows you the evil of drink, and I’ve learnt my lesson. Nearly.”
Smith talked about the band’s recent gigs for charity and his attitude towards ‘social awareness’.
“We’ve always been involved with the same charities down the years but we’ve never tried to make any capital out of it…
This is an opportunity for these people to come out and talk to people about what they do. These are people whose basic ideas I agree with…
I still stand by the nihilism, by the way, that’s involved in the Cure’s lyrics — essentially, my position has remained unchanged. I find it very, very difficult to see a real point in existence. Having said that, I think the morality stems from other things than an external, all-seeing, all-powerful being, and I think if that message come across — I think people should be treated fairly, I think that justice is fantastically important, all the things Amnesty stands for, if they had their way the world would be a better place, and I would have a more enjoyable life, I wouldn’t have to sit through all the shit that I have to look at on the television, I wouldn’t have go out and walk down the streets of my own country with people telling me I should be in fear of my life all the time.
The modern world is becoming increasingly more fraught for all the wrong reasons. So it’s ridiculous, I think, as an artist to get to a certain age and think, ‘Well, I’m still gonna be cocooned and I don’t care what’s going on around me’. At 18, I think it’s fine to be like that, actually, I think there’s nothing wrong with it, but at 48 you’d have to be insane to be alive and think, ‘I can just keep doing what I’m doing without taking any notice of what’s going on around me’. You’d be morally bankrupt actually if you didn’t pay attention.
You become socially aware — it’s slightly pejorative of me to put it in that way; individually members of the Cure have always been socially aware. I’ve always been very reluctant for the band to get involved, or politicised, because I think it gets in the way of what we try and do creatively. It’s also been the case that there have been disagreements within the band down the years about certain aspects of becoming — I mean, politicised is probably a bit too strong, but you do run the risk of starting to preach to people rather than singing to them. And I’ve never really enjoyed — there have been very few bands I’ve fallen in love with, or artists I’ve fallen in love with, who have tried to tell me what I already know. I find it kind of patronising. And it’s a very fine line, all this, slipping over into telling someone, ‘Haven’t you seen what’s going on?’ Because I credit our audience with a certain degree of intelligence — in fact, there’s a lot of intelligence — so for me to start pointing out the blindingly obvious is perhaps not the best way to get things done.
So we’re very subtle in the way that we do things, and we underplay it a lot, but there are times when we have to go out and say, ‘Well, look, this is what we think is right, and we think you should get involved’…
It would be churlish of me to say, no, no, we don’t do those kind of things…
The Cure’s never been known as a particularly socially aware band, but we quietly have been, actually. In monetary terms we’ve given a fantastic amount of money away down the years, but we just haven’t tried to get anything out of it, whereas a lot of people do, they try and trade off one thing against the other, and say, ‘Hey, look at us, we’re doing this for charity’. And that’s where a lot of cynicism creeps in and you see a lot of people doing charity and think, ‘I wonder why they’re doing it’…
I don’t think what I do now is going to affect how people listen to Disintegration in the next 20 or 30 years.
Smith is well-practiced when it comes to interviews.
“I’ve been asked probably everything that I can imagine — particularly at this time in the morning. I haven’t answered everything I’ve been asked — that would be ludicrous. I’ve always shied away from answering questions about what I do outside of the band, not through any great desire to remain mysterious… I’ve always enjoyed the idea that I’m visible in the band and what the band do, but outside of that I do live a very, very quiet life, and it’s always been the case.”
He’s gone quiet in the media.
“This is only the second interview I’ve done, in, I think, probably this year. I’ve given up doing them.”
“I thought I’d just take a break from doing them, because you end up just going into autopilot and reeling off the same old shit, basically… I told the label I would do no interviews at all this year. They will now, that’s the problem. The floodgates will open now… Can you phone up when we’ve finished and say I never phoned?”
The Cure were lured to add New Zealand to their tour itinerary by of a petition started by a couple of guys from New Plymouth.
“They’ve happened in the past and they’ve worked, and it does make a difference, particularly with the advent of the internet — it does make it easier. From time to time I’m in direct contact with people through the website, and I occasionally join in and post stuff. It’s a good way of keeping tabs. It’s slightly skewed because you do get a lot of more extreme fan-postings, so I don’t take it too much of it as gospel, but you get a general feeling of what’s going on and when the petitions arrive — it’d be awful not to take note.
We went to Australia in 2000 and we didn’t go to New Zealand and that wasn’t our fault, actually, because we had a New Zealand date pencilled in, and for reasons which I still don’t quite understand and at the time infuriated me, we didn’t do the show, it was never confirmed. So this time around — well there was a lot of consternation, because we weren’t allowed to announce the Auckland show until after the Australian shows for a number of stupid reasons.
The weird thing was our manager, actually, the record label boss — Chris Parry, ran Fiction records for 20 years, we were signed to him — came from just outside Wellington, so we used to go to New Zealand all the time so he would get a free trip home. I mean, we went to New Zealand in 1980, 1981, 1984, 1985 [note: the Cure didn’t tour New Zealand in
1984 1985] — we were always going to New Zealand. We were number one in New Zealand — I think that’s the first country in the world we ever hit number one. We had very close ties with New Zealand for a long, long time. We used to spend our family holidays with him. So what I don’t Rotorua and all that kind of shit. We played Dunedin and Christchurch and everywhere.”
Yeah, I’m from Dunedin as well, actually, it’s where I studied.
“Are you? I had a very memorable night in a farm in Dunedin with some Scottish people, maybe you even know them.”
Yeah, because you guys would have been quite in-synch with the Dunedin Sound — you know the Dunedin Sound?
“Yeah, there was a thriving New Zealand scene, actually, through the ’80s, when we went there were some great bands. We’d end up in rehearsal spaces after the shows playing with people, it was really good. I loved it, I really did. It’s a fantastic country. It’s breathtakingly beautiful, as everyone now knows, with the films that have been made there.
We used to go and play all these places around the world and no one would ever know where we’d been. We’d arrive back in England nine months later and people would go like, ‘Oh, we thought you’d given up’, and we’d just played like 150 shows around the world. It is a different place, the world now, you can’t do anything without everybody fucking knowing, which is a little bit irritating at times.
But the idea of the petition — it coincided happily with our intention to play New Zealand anyway, so we could be the good guys without really trying too hard… There was a lot of pressure actually for us to do more Australian shows than go to New Zealand because it’s a bigger market and blah blah blah, but I couldn’t really have ignored the petition. And they seemed very sweet lads as well, so I thought it’s only fair really. If people get motivated like that, you have to respond because otherwise you feel really bad about yourself.”
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