Sharring the Cure with Robert Smith!
It’s not every day that you get a chance to talk to an icon. There are some things a writer looks forward to, and the day you get to talk to an individual that has changed the face of his art is a good day. The Cure lead the charge of what Robert Smith still calls alternative music. They weren’t punk, they weren’t pop, they weren’t heavy metal. The Cure were the alternative. Robert Smith is an idol who never wanted to be, a man who for a long time lived the unknown life, feeling like an animal in the zoo.
Here is my conversation with Robert Smith. Fans should find it interesting, and for those who are on the fence, I’m sure this interview will shed a lot of light on just who he is.
At this point in your life and career, do you dislike doing interviews?
I suppose that over the years I’ve been subjected to some pretty awful interviews, but over that time I’ve also done some pretty wonderful interviews as well. My problem with short interviews is that you can never really get into it. I prefer something where you spend a couple of hours or a couple of days with someone.
I know, and when they were setting up this interview and I realized that I’m not really given much time, it’s hard to figure out where to start. So I was wondering all night, ‘What hasn’t Robert Smith been asked?’ And I don’t know. (we both laugh)
Well, then, this will be a short interview.
I hope not.
Is doing interviews now easier than they had been in the past?
Well, since these are based around the Greatest Hits, it’s easier. Part of doing a new album promotion, you have to instill into everyone that it is a great album. You have to try and convince them of this at all costs. With the Greatest Hits, I can start off with that taken for granted. I can actually talk about anything because I’m not constrained. It’s nice that I don’t have to bang on about the same old thing. I’ll tell you the worst thing about doing an interview today, though, is the fact that the transcript is on the internet within about fifteen minutes. So I have to think of endless ways to say the same exact thing. I’m stretching my vocabulary a bit. (we both laugh)
When you went into the Greatest Hits, did that title make it easier or harder to put the album together?
I was happy to be constrained [by the title], because if I had to pick sixteen songs that I thought well-represented the band, it would have been more daunting. So to be limited to singles gave us an easier starting point. It was still tough deciding what was going to be left off. I think it might be a odd position for a band to actually have too many hits to fit on one cd. We ended up leaving off some of my favorite Cure singles. I did have certain criteria that had to be met because then the album would have just been my favorite songs. And that would have not been fair to the creative spirit of a Greatest Hits album, which are most often the band’s most popular songs.
With a Greatest Hits compilation, in the long run it’s an album that introduces new fans to the group who don’t really know where to start, as you’d suspect that diehard fans already own the album and only buy it for the few new songs.
You have an interesting point there because I suggested very strongly to the labels that there should be a companion cd to this Greatest Hits in the near future that would give the listener more insight into the band. Because I think you are right, and if you only listen to this you get a very weird picture of what The Cure is. These songs have been a big part of what we’ve done, but it’s not everything we’ve done.
Do you own another artist’s Greatest Hits?
I have a Jimi Hendrix hits record. It wasn’t hit singles though, it was some guy at the record label deciding what was the best Hendrix songs and I disagreed with that. There were four or five songs that weren’t on there that should have been, and I know everyone says that about every artist’s greatest hits albums. Most, by the time you get to track eight, you’ve run out of hit singles and the rest are just up to the person’s taste. Someone somewhere has to make that decision. For us I would have felt better with a title maybe like Anthology and we could have chosen other songs, but then again a lot of the songs on the Greatest Hits would have made it on that record too. There are key songs in the history of the band that didn’t make it on there because they were never made singles. I’m crying out to have the other side represented on another cd.
My first greatest hits was the Doors. And that album doesn’t give you a clear picture of who the Doors were. I bought it because I was a teen and I heard they were this rebellious group, but I was disappointed by that album. So you hear it now with some knowledge of the group and I feel like that album sounds like a wrestling match between hits and art.
True. And with us every single had a B-side that was really good, but was different and reflected the other side of who The Cure was. So a lot of people only got to know the A-Sides not the B-sides. We wanted people to listen to the other side and really get drawn into the band. So the trouble with doing just the A-sides or a complementary B-sides album is that you are always trying to find a way to really represent the band away from just what was on the pop charts.
And on the other hand, here you are trying to quickly sum up your whole career with this one album in some sense. It has to be maddening.
I don’t think it’s the right time to do it. I haven’t resigned with any of the majors so I guess it’s signaling the end of my twenty year contract history. I wanted to spend some time as a free man. I could have opted out of working on the album because it was going to be put out either way, but I wanted to be involved and make something I’d really be proud of. I suppose putting the new songs and the bonus disc with the acoustic songs makes the whole package a bit more exciting for fans.
So you aren’t pursuing a contract right now. Do you just want to sit back and relax?
Yeah. I’m taking a risk that the Greatest Hits will do well. (laughs) I actually want to do things more spontaneously. I don’t know for how long, I guess it depends on how much I enjoy the freedom. I think the reason is that the past few years has really ground me down. Now that I’m in my early forties, I’m having to speak to people who are younger than me and getting their permission to do things, and that doesn’t sit very well with me. I didn’t mind when I was in my twenties and I had to ask someone in their forties because I could pretend that was how the world turned, but there is something wrong with my needing to get permission from a youngster. (we both laugh)
What is your view of the music industry itself, I mean, do you want to be out of it because of the business of it, or do you truly need a break from music?
It’s just that the length of time that everything takes gets to me. The internet makes everything instant. The fact that you can finish a song and put it directly on a web site is amazing. The technology is there. It’s incredible to me the time it takes for a release. I knew the Smiths’ album’s schedule six months in advance. I just fancy downing something different and quicker. I also like the idea of not worrying about what I do and don’t do around a release. There are things you are obligated to do. The problem is that you do all the work and they just do fuck off. (we laugh) I just want to see what it is like out there without worrying about who I might upset. Maybe we’ll do something with The Cure that isn’t an album release. Maybe we’ll just make music as a way of getting things out there. It’ll be interesting to see what works and models will work for us to get our work out there. If it doesn’t work, then maybe we’ll have to go back to the regular way of distribution. Deep in my heart I think the music business is corrupt and wrong. But I’m not naive enough to think that I can single-handedly change it. I’ve given it a go and fought on the behalf of artists and had some small victories. I was able to change some certain established rules and to show them those rules were archaic. It was a bit of a struggle, and it’s more of a struggle when you aren’t as commercially successful. So I kind of feel like I’ve done my bit and I’m ready to spend a bit of time being my own man.
Nothing drives me crazier to find that great artists are releasing an album today, one they finished a year or two ago, and are already working on new material that no one will get to hear for a few more years.
The way of artists has shifted far too much toward commerce. Everything is driven by sales and it is wrong. The idea that you have to make money from everything you do is insane. The record industry has forgotten that. It’s peculiar. This is another reason why I want to take my chance now, because the five major labels are trying to corporatize the entire internet. If I don’t do it now, I may never have my chance.
I’ll never be able to wrap my head around the music industry. It’s frustrating.
I agree. There is a lot that doesn’t make sense. I suppose you just get used to it. But there is this searing realization that it’s not the only way. Around the time of the Bloodflowers album, I felt that we could have made that so much better had we been left to our own devices. I felt very constrained by the slowness of everything and the ponderous nature of everything. I wanted it to get out there, but it was exactly one year from the day that I finished the final mix to when it hit the streets, which was ludicrous.
Do you think that ten years ago you would have enjoyed all the publicity that artists get today?
When we started, we were an underground band and went around the world three times in support of the first four albums. And we played to a lot of people in small places. We were constantly on tour or in the studio and we made quite a lot of mistakes and not many people knew about them, and we grew as a band and were able to make mistakes. By the time we started to enjoy our success, we were ready for it and we kind of knew what was what. And we were kind of mysterious. It’s impossible to do that now and it’s a shame really. It’s here to stay and it makes me sit back and I wonder, ‘Do we really need to know all of this?’ I find myself hankering for the days when no one really knew who we were. And the fact that everything I say will get posted on the web means I can’t get away with telling lies anymore. (laughs) I can’t contradict myself anymore whereas I used to contradict myself from one interview to the next and no one was any the wiser because fans could only get one version. Now they get every version and are like, ‘No, he’s a liar.’ (laughs) On a lot of levels that there is that much information out there, common sense dictates that eventually you are going to run out of things to say, but even beyond that point people still want more. I think it all ends up being gibberish.
A lot of new bands really find themselves struggling with that sort of thing because they don’t have anything to talk about. I think about The Cure in comparison to bands today and, aside from the actual music, the biggest difference is the fact that there was a mystic around you and that doesn’t happen today.
Exactly. We used to do literally one interview per country with our first four or five albums and at the time I thought that was too much. (laughs) The thing is that if I’m not out there saying something, then someone else is going to take that place. It’s kind of like a wave and you can’t hold the sea back. We have opted out because we’ve been relatively quiet. In the ’80’s I was in the band day in and day out, but as the years have gone on, and now for me to remain relatively enthusiastic about the band, I find that I need it to occupy less of my time. So I’m not as much a part of that world as I used to and I’m not competing as much as I used to. I’m more relaxed in the fact that I know if I’m doing something I enjoy then someone somewhere in the world will enjoy it too. I’m satisfied with that.
Do you think the loss of superstars today is that artists seem too human?
I think there are superstars today, but they are overexposed. And we just end up finding out they are just crap. All the legendary figures have begun to fade. I think if you are totally honest and you see these people today, you wonder how in the hell did they ever get on. They’re not that special. I think in the past that once you got to a certain level you’d stay there. The struggle was getting there. Now once you get there you have to keep reminding people how you got there and that is hard. It’s rare in popular music that artists get better with age. We do. (laughs)
There was something you just said a moment ago, that you are satisfied that someone somewhere will enjoy what you are doing if you enjoy it. Does it blow your mind in a way to know that? I mean, someone right now, I’m sure of it, is listening to The Cure.
When I’m out with the band it is driven home most just how much I have effected people. Whatever I’m doing day or night, I am made aware that we are a special band. It gives me all different kinds of feelings, most are good. When I was younger I found it to be a lot more difficult to deal with and struggled to come to terms with it. But when it’s a one to one and someone tells me how much they appreciate what I do, it’s nice. When I first started out, maybe as a defense mechanism, I told myself that I didn’t care what people thought, but it was a bit disingenuous, because deep down I rationalized that if I didn’t really care then I wouldn’t be doing it. You don’t manufacture records for mass consumption if you don’t care. I think I felt that way early on during a period where I felt like no one liked us, but the opposite of that, when we peaked I thought there were too many people who pretended to like us.
At your peak and the peak of other artists who put their soul in there music, is there a weird feeling where you wonder what people like you for? The hit single or you as a complete artist?
Well, I think a lot of artists want to have people just like them. I think success is on the menu. When I started, I never thought that through. I wanted to do well, but I never thought we’d be successful. When it started to happen I kind of like dealt with it in my own ways but I think it reached a point in the late ’80’s where I went a bit funny. I mean, you are just stared at all the time like an animal and it gets weird. It was often good fun, but there was not a period of time that I can say I truly enjoyed. It was a strange experience, but I wouldn’t want to have to live through it again. It’s great being popular, but you cross a line where it becomes natural where it goes along the line of being a phenomenon. The stage isn’t a natural human home. I started to lose my mind because we’d be on stage singing songs to sixty thousand people and I just thought, ‘Something is wrong.’
It’s not natural, you can put the numbers in the hundreds of who has ever been in front of a crowd like that. You put me on stage like that and I’ll collapse from fear.
I used to collapse from beer. (we both laugh)
Are you able to walk the street and go about your business?
Not really, it’s still strange for me. It’s never kind of tailed off. It is kind of flattering that we still attract an overly affectionate audience. I still have people who camp outside. I’ve been in the same place for ten years so the locals don’t pay it no mind anymore, they just sort of mutter under their breath. (laughs) But I don’t think that has to do with me being in The Cure. If I want to go out and see a band in London, there are people in the audience who are Cure fans because I’m drawn to music Cure fans are drawn to. But it’s awkward and people will turn around and just stare at me like a secondary attraction. I’m going out for a drink after there is always someone who will act obnoxious. It’s become natural for me because you get to a point where you stop thinking this is strange because the strange becomes the norm.
I emailed a friend yesterday and asked her what she’d ask and it’s always the fan stuff, and I thought it was funny that this grown up girl acted like a little girl when talking about you. It’s amazing how that thing about The Cure has sustained.
I know. I think that the diehard fans feel that I understand what they are feeling because they get the songs. And I think our audience really bonds at shows and on the internet because they all have a common interest. But I think people put me in a roll that I don’t really occupy. I do often go on the web and troll around and read stuff. I find it fun that The Cure is this outlet, and I think because I’ve retained some privacy people are always putting out questions about me.
I think people still talk about you because they still know there is more about you they don’t know, whereas a lot of bands today just talk about anything.
(laughs) True. And here I am talking about how I want my privacy and yet I’m talking on and on. (laughs)
I was reading a bulletin board where fans were asking, ‘What do you think Robert Smith is listening to?’ Interesting question, but it’s funny how they cast themselves as you. (we both laugh)
It’s a bit bizarre. I look forward to the Deftones new album, I really enjoyed their last record. I have found myself listening to Korn, which I find funny because for some reason I don’t think I’m their target audience. (we both laugh) For some reason I find myself strangely drawn to them. I like Heather Nova, I forgot how much I liked her. I like Mogwai. I’m not as enamored by the new wave of British stuff.
The weak singer-songwriter stuff.
Do you find yourself listening to older music?
The cd I listened to over the weekend was Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust. I actually listen to a lot of instrumental music at home because I find myself criticizing lyrics. I hear something interesting and the intro sounds really good and then here come the lyrics and I think, ‘Oh, fuck.’
+ charlie craine