- 21 Apr 20
To celebrate his turning 61 here's a classic interview in which Robert discusses drugs, keep-fit regimes, Mastodon collaborations, football, David Bowie, Tommy Cooper, the DART and living in Dalkey!
It's not just Glen Hansard and Iggy Pop who are blowing out candles today. Turning 61 - how the heck did that happen? - is Robert Smith who's been helming The Cure since 1978 (again, how did that happen?).
It was only last summer that we got to see their epic gig in Malahide Castle. We also have particularly fond memories of them in The Point Depot in 1992 and their headlining Electric Picnic in 2012, a show that the late EP founder John Reynolds rated as one of his proudest moments.
What often gets forgotten is that Robert was a one-time resident of Dalkey. That along with drugs, keep-fit regimes, Mastodon collaborations, football, David Bowie and Tommy Cooper were all on the agenda when he had a late night pow wow with Stuart Clark ahead of that Picnic visit.
FEEL GOOD SMITH OF THE SUMMER
I’ve been allowed to stay up past eleven since I was 14 – sadly this landmark was reached during the 1970s – but usually it’s the hour at which I’m watching Paxo on Newsnight or slathering on the Nivea For Men rather than waiting to be rung up by Robert Smith.
“Perhaps he really is a creature of the night!” laughs a female friend who buys into the idea of The Cure mainman as vampiric Goth precursor to the Buffy/Twilight/True Blood gang.
“It’s such a lazy stereotype,” Smith sighs when I mention the G-word to him, “and suggests we’ve been stuck in the same place for 35 years. One of the things I’m most proud of about this band is that we’re constantly evolving.”
Having a future as well as an active present and glorious past means the world to The Cure, whose summer has been spent wowing festival-goers with Springsteenesque three-hour-plus sets.
“Actually, I’ve just come from rehearsals,” explains the 53-year-old. “We haven’t played for a month and have a show coming up in Austria, so I figured it would be a good idea for us to brush up. It just gives everyone that bit of confidence walking out on stage – we’ve ironed out some kinks and tried a few new things, which keeps it fresh for all concerned.
“What the band don’t know is that on my drive back tonight I’ve changed my mind about the set! What we rehearsed today actually won’t be what we play on Saturday but close enough. Because it’s more of a rock thing – Korn and Placebo are the other headliners – we’re going in with a harder mentality. The Electric Picnic will be a lot more summery and spacey I imagine.”
Frequency Festival attendees could have had few complaints as Robert & Co. belted out a 25-song main set – ‘In Between Days’, ‘The Caterpillar’, ‘Friday I’m In Love’, ‘The Walk’, ‘Bananafishbones’, ‘A Forest’. ‘From The Edge Of The Deep Green Sea’, ‘Wrong Number’ and ‘The Hungry Ghost among them – followed by an encore that comprised ‘The Lovecats’, ‘Close To Me’, ‘Let’s Go To Bed’, ‘Why Can’t I Be You?’ and ‘Boys Don’t Cry’. Normally I’d preface that sort of info with a “SPOILER ALERT!” but, like Mr. Springsteen again, The Cure have adopted a strict “no two shows the same” policy.
“I read somewhere that Springsteen insists on the E Street Band knowing at least 150 songs off by heart. When Porl Thompson rejoined us and we went out on tour in 2007/08 as a four-piece, we played 103 different songs, which was pretty good. But because Porl’s no longer with us and (ex-David Bowie man) Reeves Gabrels has joined, I’ve limited our song palette this summer to 50 songs. More than that and I think the poor bloke would have a nervous breakdown having to get up and play guitar in front of 60,000 people! Having done all the Reflections gigs last year and prior to that the Trilogy stuff, I’d say that the four of us excluding Reese know 200-plus – and we’ve been around a few years less than Bruce!
“We started to play extended versions of things around the time of Disintegration in ’89 – we pretty much broke the curfew everywhere we played on that tour, which got a little expensive! It was a lot more free-form and slower-paced than we are at the moment. In the past we haven’t approached festivals any differently to our own shows. This time we have and it’s
benefited both us and the crowd. We haven’t turned into The Ramones, but there are more songs in our three hours than there used to be! The songs are more upbeat, which makes it quite physically demanding.”
How does a man who’s only 12 years away from his Senior Citizen Bus Pass keep festival fit?
“I’ve never looked after myself – in fact, the complete opposite. There’s been a bit of cycling as a token cardio-vascular gesture, but I wouldn’t be able to drum for three hours every night like Jason (Cooper) who’s phenomenally fit. And Simon (Gallup) jumps around the stage with his bass for three hours, but he cycles hundreds of miles a week, as opposed to my to and from the shops a few times.”
Cycling of course now being Britain’s national sport.
“Apparently it is, yes! Simon has been vindicated. After many, many years of having a sore arse, the last laugh is with him. For me, it’s more about breathing and being able to keep my voice in shape. I gave up smoking quite a few years ago, and I stopped drinking spirits when I was 40 – well, pretty much! I used to drink wine on stage, now it’s beer. I suppose I’m slowing down every decade. It’s a 12-step programme, though I just don’t think I’ll ever get to that 12th step!”
As Ronnie Wood once said to Hot Press in relation to his alcohol consumption, “Keep it to a gentle rain – nobody likes a drought
or a flood!”
“A man after my own heart!” Smith laughs before returning to matters of a Stradballyian nature. “Over the three days the Electric Picnic is the best bill of all the festivals we’re playing this summer. It’s just a fantastic bunch of bands. Orbital are on after we finish, which is the best thing you could imagine! They’ve got that big College Football game happening in Dublin, so the consensus is to get a hotel near the site and arrive a day early so we can catch Sigur Ros and The xx, both of whom I’m totally in love with.”
Smith’s current musical infatuations aren’t confined to
“Mastodon are a phenomenally good live band,” he enthuses. “The first time we saw them, it was, ‘Good grief, this is full-on!’ It’s not easy generating an atmosphere when you’re on during the day, but everyone down the front was going berserk. You wouldn’t have thought it, but we’ve struck up a good friendship. In fact we’re going to be doing something together next year, fuelled by our mutual love of Thin Lizzy, Led Zeppelin and other classic ‘70s rockers. It helps having Reeves in the band because he’s a very highly esteemed guitarist. Brent from Mastodon almost wet himself when they high-fived!
“One of the nice things about doing festivals is you get to meet people who do what you do, and sit about backstage for a couple of hours talking bollocks. Down through the years I’ve made lasting friendships with people in bands, but not as many as you’d think because rarely are you in the same place at the same time. In 2004 we did a thing called Curiosa where we went on tour around America with Interpol, Mogwai and The Rapture supporting us every night on the main stage and Muse, Cooper Temple Clause and a few others rotating on the second one. Everybody knew everybody else and partied together, but if you did that all the time you’d keel over and die. It was very intense!”
Playing on the same bills as acts like Bob Dylan, Pearl Jam, U2, Sonic Youth, Iggy Pop and the aforementioned Mr. Springsteen, does Robert ever get starstruck?
“Only once, which was when David Bowie asked me to play at his birthday party concert in Madison Square Garden. When I walked on to rehearse ‘Quicksand’ with him it felt like I was dreaming. When he started playing guitar, I thought, ‘This guy’s been my hero since my early teens and it’s just the two of us on this huge big stage. How the fuck did that happen?’
“Actually I lie; I was also blown away as a kid when I met (Fez-sporting British comedian) Tommy Cooper. He played the Crawley Leisure Centre in 1975/76 and I was the only person outside the backstage door, which was slightly bizarre and I suspect he thought a bit creepy. He was about 7ft 8 tall or so it seemed to the teenage me. I got him to autograph the programme, which was my prize possession for years… well, it still is. If the house goes on fire, that’s what I’m saving!”
Forget The Clash at The Lyceum or Everton winning the league in 1985 and ‘87, the happiest moment of my life was aged 10 meeting Eric Morecambe at a charity fete and him doing that wiggly thing with his glasses.
“The stuff you’re into as a kid is always what makes the biggest impression,” Robert agrees. “Bowie, Tommy Cooper, punk exploding… those are the memories you carry with you through life.”
Interesting, but of minor concern compared to tonight’s breaking news that Joey Barton has lost his Queens Park Rangers squad number and looks like he’s off on a season’s loan to Marseilles. Is he a fan of young Joseph Anthony’s Nietzsche-esque utterances?
“I better not say too much!” the one-time Loftus Road regular laughs. “To be completely honest, I loathe Premiership football and haven’t bothered tracking QPR since they were promoted to it. When I was young, I used to go alternate weeks to QPR and Brighton & Hove Albion who I’ve now gone back to supporting until Rangers drop out of the top flight.
“During the dark days when QPR looked like they were going under, there was drunken talk of us sponsoring them but it didn’t go any further than the pub. I hate Formula 1 with a passion – it’s the most ludicrous, corporate-minded event ever invented and I refuse to go to Loftus Road while there are F1 people sat in the boardroom. Football’s changed so much that the sport I loved as a kid doesn’t exist anymore at that level. I’d rather watch a Sunday parks game.”
What about the fairytale Conference-to-League-Two rise of his local club Crawley Town?
“I’ve had journalists onto me repeatedly these past 18 months asking me to comment on them playing Man U and stuff, but having dissed Crawley so much in my life it’d be duplicitous of me to suddenly turn into a follower of their football team, though what they’ve achieved is incredible.”
The average Cure fan perhaps being less enamoured of footie than Noel Gallagher or Kasabian devotees, we shall return to matters rock ‘n’ roll. Talking last August to our Ms. Dwyer, Robert indicated that there was a half-written follow-up to 2008’s 4:13 Dream. Have they made progress since?
“There are now three half-albums on the go! We were going to record this week, but I’ve been mixing all the live shows for a DVD of this summer. I wanted to get a head-start on it rather than having to stay up 72 hours straight, as I’ve had to in the past! We’d love to do something with Reeves… there’s a lot going on at the moment with The Cure, but it’s all historic. I’ve being doing the Wish re-master for what seems like 15 years – Kevin Shields is my role model in that department! There’s a compilation coming out and a Mixed Up 2 project. I’ve just done something for Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie film and I’ve a couple of other collaborations in the tray marked ‘pending’. There’s going to be a glut of Cure stuff when they all arrive at the finishing line at the same time!”
Is there an autobiography in him?
“I’ve got a folder of requests but, no, I don’t think so. Another Cure thing that’s ongoing is a retrospective four-hour DVD and accompanying book, which will serve as some kind of nod to what I did before. It’s not ‘definitive’ because to be definitive you’d have to talk to everybody who’s been in the band since. It’s absurd really, given what I do, but there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to be exposed. I know how I work but I don’t want everyone else to! And I don’t think it’s of that much interest. You need to take that final step into the world of total ego to believe that you’re interesting enough to warrant an autobiography. Plus, it marks an end, which The Cure are neither at nor nearing. When you see the autobiographies of people who are in their twenties, you think, ‘For fuck’s sake!’ It should be done in your dotage when it’s all faded away and you just make it up.”
Is there a secret story to be told or are The Cure a ‘what you see is what you get’ kind of a band?
“Put it this way, pre-internet we got away with murder; it was excellent!” he chuckles. “We’d never survive with the level of exposure that every single move gets nowadays. When we were at the pinnacle of our success in the ‘80s we lived a totally bizarre life. You get caught up in a bubble and just roll around the world with loads and loads of people attached to you. I mean, we did stop it. I realised I was going completely mental in the early ‘90s and kind of saved myself.
“We did a book called Ten Imaginary Years, ending with the Kiss Me album in 1987, which documented our first decade and had quotes from everybody who’d been in the band. It was an entertaining read – there were conflicting views on the same incidents and I liked that. Apart from being there all the time – and often it’s been in body rather than mind! – I don’t think my take is any more real than anybody else’s. The DVD/book thing I was talking about will be along those same lines.”
It can’t have done much for band relations when Keith Richards claimed in his autobiography that Mick Jagger had a small penis.
“I suspect not! Doing the Reflections thing last year and getting back with our old drummer Lol who was the catalyst, we did start to natter about the ‘old days’ in a way we hadn’t really done before. We’d have a drink after rehearsals and start telling these stories to Jason who’s been in the band for 17 years but is still treated like the new boy!
“We started to realise how bizarre our early adulthood was – the three of us against the world. Much the same as every band, the difference being that not every band keeps taking relentless steps on the ladder of success. You think, ‘What more can we do?’ and then you do it! There’s always been a very dry, dark, self-deprecating humour within The Cure, which has kept us all reasonably sane. We’ve taken the recording and performance side seriously whilst being able to look at each other and think, ‘Hang on, you’re acting like a fool!’ I enjoy it but don’t like to dwell too much on what we’ve done.”
I’ve always thought that The Cure have been clasped as close to the UK’s musical bosom as it’s possible to be clasped – 13 hit albums and tours which consistently sell-out would seem to confirm that – but in Robert’s eyes, they’re undervalued in Blighty.
“We’re perceived in such an awful way at home,” he rues. “Despite headlining Glastonbury three times, our position in the hierarchy of British music is such that we don’t figure at all. There’s a certain anger in the band that we all still live here but have been airbrushed out. There will definitely be some point-proving when we headline at Reading and Leeds
“There are bands who will always reference The Cure and appreciate what we’ve done, but the British media doesn’t. I’m probably alone in the band in that I quite enjoy that sense of people still not being comfortable about what we do and how we do it. It’s an us-against-them thing, which makes you work even harder to prove ‘em wrong!”
Something else that’s been airbrushed from history is the 18 months Robert spent living in Dublin shortly after The Cure had gone supernova.
“I came over in 1986 for a few weeks’ break and ended up spending a year-and-a-half there,” he reminisces fondly. “I rented a cottage just outside Dalkey – it’s beautiful down there. I used to walk back along the DART line, that’s the only way I could find my way around. I went to Ireland on holiday a lot when I was very young because of my grandparents’ family connections. I was reconnecting with that.
“As a band, we used to stay in The Westbury. There was this bloke called Frank who entertained us in the bar. We rehearsed in this run-down old farmhouse and the local pub would bring us trays of Guinness in the back of this van. I went there to get away from it all. We’d just entered that stage of being in an incredibly popular band and, although I’d been playing for a decade, it took me a while to figure out how I was going to deal with it. I was the only one who stayed. I went to the west coast for a while too; we moved from location to location B&B-ing. I even started to go fishing again, which I hadn’t done in
One of the people who Robert used to party hard with back then, Steve Severin, was in Dublin recently supplying the live soundtrack to Vampyr in the Irish Film Institute.
“Yes, we had our moments. In fact, it’s a whole separate book! Steve and I meet from time to time and threaten each other with following up the album we did in 1982 as The Glove, but he’s living in Scotland now so we’re not going to bump into each other. What he’s doing musically at the moment is really good.”
Smith also briefly played alongside Severin in Siouxsie & The Banshees – the only band other than The Cure he’s been a member of.
“When we supported The Banshees in 1979, we suddenly became aware of how limited our palette was. I felt constrained, so when the opportunity arose to play with them I jumped at it and juggled the two bands for a while. It taught me a lot – they had fantastic rhythm sections and this made me think, ‘Why can’t I have this?’ There was a great theatrically about them as well, which we didn’t have. I felt more confident throwing myself around playing with The Banshees – it was a learning process that benefited both myself and The Cure as a whole.”
How did he get on with the notoriously prickly Siouxsie?
“Em, I think I upset her by leaving The Banshees. It was a cardinal sin, really, but John McGeoch took my place and he was a far better guitarist than I was. She still holds a bit of a grudge, but I don’t lose sleep over it.”
Robert has always been upfront about his drug taking – everything from LSD to a mercifully brief dalliance with heroin – and has used The Cure’s website to promote The Beckley Foundation, a charitable organisation that favours harm reduction over prohibition.
“The present system is ludicrous and archaic,” he opines. “I think that most drugs should be de-criminalised. The vast majority of people in prison are there because they’re having to rob or deal to fund their habit. Some of these substances are in fact less dangerous than alcohol or tobacco. There’s never been a serious public debate about drugs in Britain and that needs to change because the present policies are fucked up.”
The trouble being that any political party espousing a more enlightened approach is regarded as being ‘soft on crime’.
“Yeah, you get slight shifts and then a more right-wing group gets into power and it’s back to square one. It drives me crazy.”
Is there a ‘doors of perception’ aspect to his drug use, which he thinks has benefited him artistically?
“I’ve never been afraid of changing my own consciousness,” he states.
“I find it stimulating but I wouldn’t be foolish enough to rely on something other than myself. But if I experiment with different areas of consciousness and bits of my brain that I didn’t know were there and come back with something useful, great. I’ve written loads of things under the influence of various drugs and recorded as well. It’s a difficult balance because as a musician you often think you’re really good when you’re really shit and drugs can make separating one from the other even more difficult.
“I acknowledge my age. I don’t fall over in public as often as I used to. I’m a bit more careful, but then again I’ve always advocated what I call ‘sensible’ drug use. If you become dependent on it, like Russell Brand this week banging on about addiction, it’s a bad thing. Which is true for any kind of dependency. But ‘the war on drugs’ is like ‘the war on terror’, it’s an idiot phrase and an idiot campaign.”
Smith’s sticking his head over the drugs parapet is in stark contrast to most musicians who’ve had anything vaguely contentious media-trained out of them. Before we load up on that most powerful of sedatives, Horlicks, what would be Robert’s proudest achievement?
“I’d say The Cure as a whole because what I wanted, much like anyone in a band wants, is for people to hear what you do,” he maintains. “I still enjoy what I do immensely and want it to be really, really good. I don’t take any of it for granted. Along the way there have been a lot of highlights — particular songs and albums.
“I suppose I’m getting kind of mellow in my old age, but I look back and feel lucky to have been involved with some great people. I’ve enjoyed pretty much all of it. If you turn it on its head, there’s very little I’ve done with the band in the last 20 or 30 years that I’d go back and undo.”