Elec­tric Pic­nic head­liner Robert Smith talks to Tony Clay­ton-Lea

Emerg­ing from the late-1970s mael­strom of punk and new wave, Robert Smith was al­ways de­ter­mined to suc­ceed on his own terms, an at­ti­tude that pro­pelled The Cure to the very top – and on to a very big come­down, he tells Tony Clay­ton-Lea

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Front Page -

DARK, DE­MENTED, tor­mented, tor­rid and tetchy? Oh, I don’t think so. The Cure’s Robert Smith might have gained some­thing of a rep­u­ta­tion in his 35-year-plus ten­ure as the leader of one of the most en­dur­ing of al­ter­na­tive post-punk bands, but these days you will find him bask­ing in the glow of sun shin­ing throughout The Cure’s In­dian sum­mer. Yes, Smith was once per­ceived as the epit­ome (and, in­deed, the spokesper­son) of teenage sulk­ing, but now in his 50s, he has what he didn’t have at 17: per­spec­tive, in­sight, his­tory, in­tel­lec­tual depth, a sense of irony.

“Good mu­sic – emo­tion­ally con­nect­ing mu­sic, in par­tic­u­lar – tran­scends a lot of the tra­di­tional pop mu­sic age bar­ri­ers, and if you’re more into im­age and be­ing of the zeit­geist, so to speak, then you’re much more con­cerned about be­ing young, and quite rightly in my opin­ion. Ev­ery gen­er­a­tion needs their own bands and their own spokes­peo­ple. I wouldn’t dream that what I write or what we play rep­re­sents a younger gen­er­a­tion, but I think emo­tion­ally it con­nects. What The Cure has, I hope, is some­thing of a time­less qual­ity to it. It isn’t re­ally to do with how old we are.

“Hav­ing said that, yes, of course I’m aware of us grow­ing older, and it feels very strange be­cause in my head I don’t feel as old as I am. Cer­tainly, when I’m singing there are times when I come to the end of a song and think, good grief, it’s been a long time since I wrote that one!”

Formed in 1976 in West Sus­sex, Smith’s early teenage mu­sic tastes were steered from the likes of Eric Clap­ton and Rory Gal­lagher (“he was the very first mu­sic act I saw. I went on my own to the Brighton Dome in 1974, and I was com­pletely en­tranced . . . ”) to the yearzero moods and modes of punk rock. The Cure’s 1979 de­but al­bum, Three Imag­i­nary Boys, set out the kind of stall that should by rights have buck­led, yet within a few years the band mor­phed from trem­bling, mo­rose teenagers into a fixed unit who ef­fec­tively cre­ated their own genre of pop mu­sic.

By the mid-1980s, al­bums such as Faith (1981), Pornog­ra­phy (1982), The Top (1985) and The Head on the Door (1985) brought The Cure mod­er­ate world­wide fame, not only as a band that de­fined (un­wit­tingly or not) a som­bre, of­ten ni­hilis­tic world­view (“it doesn’t mat­ter if we all die” sings Smith on Pornog­ra­phy) but also one that could con­jure up a tune you could whis­tle on your way to work.

By the early 1990s, how­ever – with the band even more suc­cess­ful via the global smash al­bum, Wish, and hit sin­gles such as Fri­day I’m in Love – mod­er­ate fame had turned into mas­sive adu­la­tion. Cue enor­mod­omes. Cue a mis­er­able two years. Cue melt­down.

“Yes, that’s when I took a break for a few years,” re­calls Smith wist­fully. “Wish was num­ber one in pretty much ev­ery chart in the world, and we were play­ing gi­ant football sta­dia. Our suc­cess had es­ca­lated to the point where I just couldn’t cope with it any more, and so I had my own ver­sion of a break­down.”

The way Smith tells it (and he re­lates it, by the way, with elo­quence, re­flec­tion and hu­mour), he had be­come a hugely suc­cess­ful and very recog­nis­able celebrity, who had no idea how it had hap­pened.

“The band be­came enor­mous – back then, we were on an up­wards tra­jec­tory, and we were pre­sented with this idea that we could

“A lot of what is dis­mis­sively re­ferred to as ‘teenage angst’ has ac­tu­ally never gone away for me. In fact, I’ve never been able to get rid of that, never found any­thing to re­place it”

be­come the big­gest group in the world and stay there. What that re­quires is an ego­driven de­sire that I just didn’t – and don’t – have. But how The Cure got to that point was al­most far­ci­cal.”

Imag­ine a band try­ing des­per­ately not to be­come pop­u­lar, yet sud­denly be­ing el­e­vated to the sta­tus of an anti-ev­ery­thing pop act that could sell out mas­sive venues. It was bizarre, re­mem­bers Smith, who read­ily ad­mits that there was no one around them – or in the band, for that mat­ter – with a plan.

“Other bands may have had a shad­owy man­ager (in some cases not so shad­owy) that pulls the strings and makes things hap­pen,” he says. “We had none of that. We were just ca­reer­ing around, do­ing what­ever we wanted and how­ever we wanted, and some­how it all just seemed to fall into place.”

Once they reached that level, Smith says,

they were then sur­rounded by hun­dreds of peo­ple mak­ing vast amounts of money out of them. “Their one goal is to get you to continue on this up­wards path, and so I just had to es­cape from it. I walked away, other band mem­bers left, and for a few years the group just ceased to be. I’d had enough. When we came back, we started down the lad­der a bit, and that suited us per­fectly. Now, it’s the ex­pe­ri­ence of play­ing, and how well we do it, not where The Cure might stand in the pan­theon of rock mu­sic. His­tory will write our name, how­ever large or not, and that’s to­tally be­yond my con­trol.”

Con­trol, it seems, is cru­cial for Smith, as is loy­alty. Is­sues of each have fil­tered throughout Smith’s life and The Cure’s ca­reer for decades, yet there’s an ap­par­ently ca­sual dis­con­nect be­tween the two. He re­calls fir­ing peo­ple on will-o-the-wisp whims (“I’m sure I was looked upon as a night­mare”), but ad­mits that per­haps the main con­stant in his life is his wife, Mary, to whom he has been mar­ried for al­most 25 years. They met when Smith was 14, and in a su­per-aah-shucks sce­nario, when­ever Smith is on tour out­side the UK, she keeps his hours so that they can phone each other rou­tinely.

An­other as­pect that Smith holds onto for dear life is the emo­tional con­nec­tion to his mu­sic. “When I’m on stage and sing a song from the early days, I can hon­estly still iden­tify with what I was think­ing, what I was feel­ing at the time I wrote it. A lot of what is dis­mis­sively re­ferred to as ‘teenage angst’ has ac­tu­ally never gone away for me. In fact, I’ve never been able to get rid of that, never found any­thing to re­place it.”

Does mid­dle-aged angst ever en­ter into things? “Ha! Well, angst is angst, isn’t it? The most dif­fi­cult thing about get­ting old is avoid­ing be­com­ing too cyn­i­cal. As the years pass, you get to know too much, so re­sist­ing the urge to give up on ev­ery­thing and ev­ery­one is my strug­gle these days.”

Angst and en­croach­ing cyn­i­cism aside, Smith seems to be en­joy­ing the kind of rude health in both life and mu­sic that many of his peers and con­tem­po­raries have been miss­ing for some years. He is at pains to point out that The Cure – mean­ing, eff­fec­tively, him­self, as mem­bers have come and gone through the decades – still cling to old-school punk tenets such as do­ing things for the right rea­sons.

“Well, here’s the thing,” he posits. “I de­spise peo­ple who do what I do and who pre­tend they’re some­how not part of the ma­chine. You are, you just are, and you can’t pos­si­bly avoid it. We were for­tu­nate back in the day in that the tra­jec­tory of The Cure was al­ways up. I al­ways knew that was a trump card – I could of­ten make an out­ra­geous de­mand and call peo­ple’s bluff. Do­ing things in the way I wanted to do them has al­ways been more im­por­tant to me than do­ing it a dif­fer­ent way, be­cause I al­ways wanted to fail – or suc­ceed – on my own terms.”

The Cure’s modus operandi, such as it is, says Smith, is quite sim­ple: just do it how you want to do it. “If it goes right, ev­ery­one is as­ton­ished, and so you do it some more. There is no great plan be­yond hav­ing self­be­lief, al­beit some­times an in­cred­i­bly ar­ro­gant self-be­lief.”

What if it had all gone wrong, though? What if dark­ness, de­men­tia, tor­ment, wretched bad tem­per and gi­nor­mous com­mer­cial suc­cess hadn’t been gen­er­ated? Smith isn’t in­ter­ested in the­o­ret­i­cal ques­tions, though, and he po­litely, blithely, swats these away.

“Oh, I’d be do­ing some­thing else, no doubt, but at least I would look back and feel proud that I’d failed on my terms. If I’d failed on some­body else’s terms, I can’t imag­ine how bit­ter I’d be as an older man.”

The Cure head­line at Elec­tric Pic­nic, Strad­bally, Co Laois, on Satur­day Sept 1st

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