Doom pop uber-lord Robert Smith is far cuddlier and more approachable than his stern image might suggest.
You’re making it sound like I’ve been really busy!” laughs Cure frontman Robert Smith. Our alloted time with the goth legend, primarily to discuss his involvement in the beguiling John Martyn tribute album, has meandered into his many recent activities: collaborations with Crystal Castles, The Japanese Popstars, 65daysofstatic and a contribution to Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland soundtrack.
Despite his rock legend status, Smith is refreshingly open to creative pitches.
“I just get emails saying this project’s being put together and would you like to be involved? Then I get in touch and take it from there. I don’t do third party stuff, there is no middle-man,” he says.
“With the John Martyn album I was desperate to get one of two or three songs because the One World album is by far my favourite.”
Smith’s contribution – a charming, ethereal re-working of ‘Small Hours’ – is one of the highlights of the collection, which brings together an unlikely bevy of fans that includes Beck, Joe Bonamassa, The Swell Season, Snow Patrol and Lisa Hannigan.
“There are different approaches to covers, you can pick the key parts of the songs and put them back together in a different way or try to make it your own and not worry too much if it’s like the original. That’s what I did with ‘Small Hours’,” Smith proffers. “Quite often with cover versions when you try a song you really, really love it’s impossible to improve on it. You end up feeling sort of distraught because you can never better the original. I don’t think I’ve come near to that but I’ve got something that captures how I feel about the song, which is the most important thing.”
The collection is an eclectic paean to the folk genius. Its emotional reconstructions combine to create a powerful listening experience which also reminds us of the breadth of Martyn’s appeal.
“He was brilliant, he was just untouchable,” Smith enthuses. “He used very weird tuning and that’s the key to ‘Small Hours’. When I was learning to play the guitar when I was 16 or 17 and listening to his music, I loved the way he made shapes with his hands that weren’t conventional shapes. I do actually play a little bit like him. Well, I try to play a little bit like him, I’ve never quite achieved his fluidity.”
Taking his lead from the title of his chosen track, Smith opted for a nocturnal approach to recording.
“I wanted to try to retain that simplicity and the mood of the song. I did try it three times and each time I started work after midnight and would finish as the sun was coming up. I thought this would be true to the spirit of the track.”
In order to reproduce the guitar parts he turned to the world wide web for guidance.
“I just went on YouTube and watched him play in various live environments. I tried to figure out how he would interpret the song differently each time he played it until I got a sense and a comfort level of being able to play the song.”
The purchase of the One World album was a watershed moment for Smith as a young music fan.
“I was 16 and in those days I didn’t have very much money and buying an album was a really big deal,” he remembers. “I heard John Peel playing it a lot and even though I had a crackly cassette recording I wanted to hear what the proper album sounded like. When I got the vinyl home and put it on, the sound was just astonishing. During that period of your life there are so many things happening for the first time and you associate music a lot with events. There are a handful of albums from those years that I fell in love with and just mean a lot to me now. It’s a shame that it happens less frequently nowadays.”
The changing shape of the broader industry and way people consume music is a subject which concerns Smith.
“I think in some ways the industry I’m in has brought about its own demise because of the absurd cost of music,” he avers. “To a lot of people now music is just a commodity, take it or leave it. But to a minority it still has a real power.
“I have always felt – and I have been making this argument for a long time – that you have to believe as an artist that your work is of some value. That’s why I have never really fully thrown my arms around the idea of free music. Unless you’re a touring band, it’s impossible really to make a living out of playing music. It’s a shame to me that a lot of people are accepting that it should all be free and that anyone can do it. I think, well hold on, that’s not true, look at John Martyn, he was an exceptional talent. I didn’t resent for a moment paying money for his albums. Had I realised that probably 80% of the profits were going to someone else I probably would have thought twice (laughs). But you think, ‘I am rewarding him for creating this which has given me an enormous amount of pleasure for years and years.’”
In addition to the ‘Small Hours’ cover, Smith has doffed his cap to many other influences over the years. The Cure have released versions of Hendrix’s ‘Foxy Lady’ and ‘Hello, I Love You’ by The Doors. Surprisingly, they also regularly covered Thin Lizzy’s ‘Don’t Believe A Word’ at live shows.
“I never denied my love of Thin Lizzy,” Smith says. “Before the advent of punk, that mid-’70s period, I liked a lot of disparate music. I suppose in a way without realising it my generation were waiting for punk to happen. In the meantime, I didn’t disparage people like Thin Lizzy or Alex Harvey. There were a lot of fantastic bands around even though there was an awful lot of dross, prog rock and that,” he adds. “But there were a great set of great high-energy bands which punk kind of usurped. It’s a shame they couldn’t co-exist. I did love Thin Lizzy. I never tried to emulate Brian Robertson’s technique, I opted for John Martyrn instead, which has benefited me in the long-run!”
Since The Cure’s last album, 4:13 Dream in 2008 Smith has undertaken a variety of projects to keep his creative muscle flexed. Most recently he collaborated with Northern electro merchants The Japanese Popstars on their ‘Take Forever’ single.
“That happened through a mutual acquaintance,” he explains. “I actually had one of their songs which had been given to me as an open-your-ears-and-listen-to-this kind of present. I liked the spirit of them, their attitude and what they were trying to do. They’re good blokes. That sounds a bit patronising doesn’t it?! They’re really into what they’re doing and I just like the vibe. I try to do a few things here and there to keep myself from falling into disrepair.”
Smith also added vocals to Crystal Castles’ ‘Not In Love’, providing them with their highest-charting single.
“I was aware of Crystal Castles but blown away by how much I liked them live,” he says. “Watching them live took me back about 30 years. I got chatting with them after a show. I wanted to tell them that what they were doing was really great and that I loved their second album. Then they got back in touch and asked me if I’d collaborate and I agreed.”
Smith also provided vocals on the 65daysofstatic track ‘Come To Me’, a project that evolved from them supporting The Cure on their last world tour.
“I went to see them in Brighton about three or four years ago on someone’s recommendation,” Smith remembers. “I thought they were absolutely fantastic. After the show I got on their bus and invited them on tour. I didn’t ever remember doing it. Someone had to remind me – ‘you know you’ve got your support band?’ They’re such a lovely bunch. It was great fun having them on tour. I watched them every night and they just got better and better.”
Smith is selective about collaborations and points out that not all projects come to fruition.
“For every one that comes out and works there are a handful that don’t,” he says. “Sometimes it doesn’t suit my voice or I don’t feel like I’m doing justice to the song and then people can think I’m being mean or slighting them. But I have to put my heart into it or people will know that it isn’t true.”
Smith also contributed ‘Very Good Advice’ to Cure fan Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland soundtrack. He has long harboured a deep affinity with Alice and
“I made an album called The Glove with Steve Severin from The Banshees a while ago and when we got home from recording we used to watch Alice In Wonderland in slow motion while coming down!” he laughs. “The cartoon is burned into my brain!”
Plenty of internet rumours hint at another creative alliance with Severin and Robert confirms this possibility.
“We do meet up from time to time,” he muses. “It’s one of those things that I have a feeling in my bones another album is inevitable, it’s just how old will I be when we make it!” (Laughs
More immediately The Cure are gearing up for their only European appearance of 2011 at Bestival.
“I’m really looking forward to that,” admits Smith. “We haven’t really played a proper Cure show as such for a couple of years. It’s the longest we’ve ever gone. I haven’t quite decided what we’re going to do or how we’re going to do it and we’ve got less than a month so we’re cutting it a bit fine! I think it will probably kickstart us back into work again and into the second part of the album.”
The long awaited follow-up to 4:13 Dream has been the subject of much web speculation and chatter, its release having been anticipated by the cognoscenti for some time.
“It’s one of those things that it’s been left so long now I expect it will come out as a half-finished sort of thing,” sighs Smith. “I’m not sure if the band wants to complete it, which is sort of the elephant in the room. What happened to the second half of the album? No-one mentions it! We’re aware that it’s there. Nobody really wants to talk about it. Maybe it will come up after a few post-festival beers!”
Not being able to make the trek to the Isle Of Wight your humble reporter bemoans The Cure’s long absence from these shores – Oxegen 2004 was their last visit.
“We didn’t come on the last tour, which was 2007 or 2008. I don’t know why. Well, I do know why. The honest reason is, as the years go by, the tours get shorter,” he admits. “In the old days we thought nothing of working 365 days a year. We’ve started to realise that to keep the shows fresh you have to reduce the amount of time you spend doing it – a very simple equation. I think bands who flog themselves to death just end up as imitations of themselves. I’ve always wanted us to be doing it with the same kind of passion and verve that we’ve always had. So you have to leave places out.”
So with only one major live date on the horizon what else will Robert be piling his energies into? More collaborations?
“There are another two still to come out but I have been asked not to talk about them so it’s a bit pointless even saying that they’re there really!”, he laughs. “But that’s the end of it for this summer. I gave myself a deadline of this month to start thinking about Cure stuff again. The ones that are done to date are done. I’m sure there will be more in the future but The Glove would be top of my list of future collaborations because it would be nice to get back together and do something with Steve. But I think between now and this time next year The Cure will take precedence over anything else. Until I get the second half of this album out I won’t do another collaboration.”
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