The Cure: Confessions of a Pop Mastermind
by Joe Gore
"Is your magazine technically slanted?" inquires Robert Smith in
a tone that hovers between suspicion and
bemusement. The Cure, it seems, have never been interviewed by a guitar magaizine, despite having generated
13 years of consistently creative and often brilliant guitar-based pop.
"Depends on the artist," I fudge.
"What about us?"
That, too, depends on who you talk to. To their gargantuan worldwide following, the Cure combine sublime pop
and heartfelt expressivity; to a large segment of the music press, they're self-obsessed gloom merchants,
purveyors of pessimism to suburban America's petulant teens. But many of the band's detractors have probably
let Smith's personal flamboyance divert their attention from the band's phenomenal pop craftsmanship and stylistic
The Cure have been called "the world's biggest cult band." While most stadium-circuit musicians trad in easily
digested attitudes and images, the Cure have attained those heights without fist-in-the-air anthems or a
down-home, populist stance.
Smith's persona, like his music, remains as oblique as ever.
Robert, the Cure's only constant member, has graced each of the band's 12 albums with moody, multicolored
guitar textures. He has largely defined the group's guitar voice, even though he often appears guitarless in
videos and delegates parts that he played in the studio to other players when performing. His lines tend not to
stand up and announce themselves, but merge with other instruments into deep, evocative atmospheres. The
casual listener might not realize that beneath that hooky vocal melody lurks a rat's nest of complex, intersecting
Smith and his co-guitarists---Porl Thompson, who worked with Robert
in the band's earliest days, left before they
started recording in '79, and then rejoined in '85, and Perry Bamonte, longtime guitar roadie newly elevated to
co-conspirator---emphasize that the Cure's latest album, Wish, is the result of an unprecedented degree of band
democracy, Smith having loosened his sometimes dictorial production stance. But Robert is still responsible for
the lion's share of the studio guitar work.
Wish, the Cure's most guitar-driven record, roams from delicate balladry
to manic psychedelia, from perfect little
pop tunes to violent feedback assaults. The hooks snare you immediately, but repeated listening reveals quirky
guitar delights---strange open tunings, near-subliminal overdubs, unlikely collisions of soft picking and amp-frying
feedback. The band's current live show runs the same fey-to-ferocious gamut, the new three-guitar lineup
(Bamonte switches to keyboards for the older material) capturing the depth and detail of the record and raising a
deliciously overpowering din on the feedback-laden, howl-and-burn material. "I thought a third guitar would allow
me to become a singer and not play very much onstage," claims Smith, "but I'm actually playing more than ever."
After a hectic day in Manhattan media circus---interviews, an MTV
appearance, a record company testimonial, a
phone-in radio braodcast---Robert, Porl, Perry and bassist Simon Gallup sat down to talk guitar over an ongoing
parade of beers. All are in their early thirties; each is warm, well-spoken, and funny.
Never before has the Cure had such a musical guitar presence. There's
certainly more solo space than in the
Robert: It's taken me a long time to come to terms with having guitar solos in our songs---I used to abhor them.
I didn't like the whole wanky idea of stepping to the front and saying"Look at me!" But now it doesn't bother me,
because it suits what we're now doing musically. It would have been dumb in the past to put in a guitar solo just
because someone felt like playing one, but it would be equally dumb now to stop someone from doing one if that's
what the song needs to make it more exciting.
The solos on Wish run to two extremes: composed parts like on "Friday,
I'm In Love" and total anarchy like on
Porl: "Friday, I'm In Love" is one of Robert's songs. I've loosely studied it, and I try to play his solo live. I
generally work best in the studio with the things like "Cut," while most of the worked-out things are Robert.
Robert: Porl prefers to play things that aren't very tied down.
Porl: A lot of it stems from my early involvement with things like Jimmy Page, the energy side of his playing. In
the past, that type of playing was always frowned upon in the group. It was a joke---Boris and I would be doing
Zeppelin covers at sound check, and we'd stop when everyone else showed up. But actually, we used to do
Zeppelin covers like "In My Time of Dying" in the very early days.
Robert: There's been a heavy side to the group since the Faith album, but it's relied on other instrumentation.
Pornography had quite a bit of loud guitar, but generally just on
instrument playing a rhythmic sort of thing.
That album has some of your strangest playing.
Robert: I must confess that I don't remember making a lot of Pornography. We probably drank and took more drugs than we should have---an interesting process, but one that would kill me now. In the period between 1982
and 1984 I was looking for something. I went a bit weird for a while, but in quite a postivie way. I did a lot: I
played with Siouxsie & The Banshees, and I recorded Pornography and the Glove album [Blue Sunshine, a
collaboration with Banshee Steve Severin]. But Pornography reminds me of things I'd rather not be reminded
of. I was quite out of sync, a bit disturbed. I knew then that Mary [Smith's wife] was the girl for me, because she
stuck by me. But everyone I know reaches a point where they throw out their arms and go beserk for a while;
otherwise you never know what your limits are. I was just trying to find mine.
The Cure seems to have an overall guitar sound, as opposed to three
Robert: Even people who are quite close to the band are surprised to learn that I played the solo on "From the
Edge of the Deep Green Sea"; everyone would immediately assume it's Porl. But why should it be important who
played what part? When I'm in the studio, I have a picture of the overall song, as opposed to what I'm going to
play in it.
How did you get those incredible swirling sounds?
Robert: A straight signal, a distorted signal without effects, and a distorted signal with phasing, all mixed
together. That solo was one of my key moments in making Wish. After dinner one night I said I was going to
record it. Everyone had thought Porl was going to do it, but I was really drawn to the idea. I figured if I couldn't
get it right away, I wouldn't bother. I spent 15 minutes getting the sound, and then got it on the first take.
Actually, all the guitars on the song are me. Porl didn't see the point in playing because he couldn't think of
anything, and why have gratuitous parts?
The solo Porl plays live on "Cut" is very similar in character to
your playing on the long, chaotic wah-wah solo
on "The Kiss" [Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me]. Both recall Neil Young's playing---sloppy, but delivered with
enough emotion to make technique seem irrelevant. Are you secret Neil admirers?
Robert: It's no secret---he's so brilliant! He proves that you can get past a certain age and retain that certain
something, and that flies in the face of the accepted idea that after you're 30, you're fucked. People like Neil
Young and Tom Waits had it, kept it, and never lost it. Some of the older rock generation are boring old farts
because they were fucking hideous even when they were young.
Comparing the Cure to Neil Young would probably alienate both your
fans and his.
Robert: Why, though?
I imagine a lot of his audience would consider you an effeminate
haircut band, and a lot of your fans probably
think he's a boring old hippie.
Robert: Well, having read what he's said over the years, he seems like a very sound bloke. The guitar sounds on
the live version of "Hey Hey, My My" on Rust Never Sleeps are the best anywhere.
Calling Mr. Chaos
It sounds as if many songs start as bass lines.
Simon: That's how Robert and I write, starting with drum beats and bass lines.
Robert: Simon thinks up brilliant melodies. A lot of the pop stuff we've done, like The Head on the Door, are
more him than me.
Simon: We all do separate demos at home on our Portastudios, and then things get changed along the way.
Robert: We never fine-tune things at the demo stage. A lot of the fun of being in the stuido is adding that element
How does the tracking process work?
Perry: After the bass and drum tracks are recorded, Robert likes to get loads of instrumental tracks down, and
then he writes words. As he starts to hear cetain lyrics, it might mean that the song has to be adapted. We must
have done four version of "Doing the Unstuck," not counting the various demos.
Porl: I try to play as little as possible, until it feels right to do something. Nearly everything I played on Wish was
done after we'd been in the studio for four months. I redid almost everything I'd done previously. I rarely do more
than two guitar tracks per song, but Robert tends to layer things a lot. Wish was done on 48 tracks, and almost
everything was used.
Perry: Our recording process is quite democratic; anyone can record any idea, so long as there's a spare track.
But towards the end, there's a point where someone has to take a guiding hand, and it's usually Robert. You can't
all be there saying, "I want my bit louder."
Porl: I often leave at that point. I might have gotten used to something I'd done, and then miss it if it's not there.
I prefer to play, forget what I've played, and then see where it ends up.
Do you experiment much with mike placement?
Porl: A lot of stuff I do is done with mikes in different roos, even in rooms I'm not playing in. My amps were
recorded in a carpeted room, but quite often we'd open the doors to the live drum room and mike them from in
there, in the next room. There are some of those distant sounds on "Apart."
Many parts on Wish are mixed so low, they're almost subliminal.
Robert: A lot of the "offstage" noise on the album is Porl. He'd decide he wanted to do something, so he'd put it
on tape. Quite often I didn't even know he'd done that until I'd overdub something three or four days later. When
I heard the wall of feedback on "Cut," I thought, "What the fuck is this?"
But it's wonderful!
Robert: Porl genuinely loves feedback. I'd wake up in the morning hearing feedback coming from his room
above the studio.
Perry: Feedback lets you add sound without adding on a whole new part.
Robert: But real gut-moving feeback requires high volume, so I prefer it in small doses. The short spell I spent
with Siouxsie & The Banshees warned me about what high volume can do---they're deaf! The Cure's stage
volume has always been based on the acoustic volume of the drum kit.
But Porl plays pretty loudly. I was sitting by his side of the stage
Porl: Note the blood coming out of his ears.
Well, your feedback passages on "Primary" and "Fascination Street"
were pretty apocalyptic.
Porl: My good old Gibson 345! Feeback just seems to have more depth and a nicer tone on a semi-acoustic.
Also you can get nice things by strumming behind the bridge on the long tailpiece. I do that live on "From the
Edge of the Deep Green Sea" and "Fascination Street."
How do you get that pulsed, rhythmic feedback?
Porl: Sometimes it's just damping the strings to stop the vibration, but on "Cut" I was flipping the toggle on a
That chaotic element is an important part of the band's chemistry.
Is Porl Mr. Chaos?
Perry: Now that you've said it, he will be!
Why do you prefer analog stomp boxes to rack-mounted effects?
Perry: We've tried more expensive rack-mounted digital effects, but they're less convenient, and there's so
much you have to relearn. I've been with the band for eight years, hundreds of concerts, and there were maybe
two occasions where a pedal caused a fault in the sound.
Porl: There's a lot of difference in the sound too.
Perry: We had a Zoom box in the studio. It was fun to muck about with, but the sounds were all too stylized. It's
the same with a lot of digitial effects: They add more than just the effect you want, and they have an overbearing
identity. They're either too subtle, or they add a weird edge.
Robert: I'm drawn to Boss pedals because of the colors [laughs]. I really miss the old pedals like the Fuzz Face;
everything used to be a different shape as well. It was really easy to know what you were going to hit.
You all seem to favor vintage guitars.
Robert: Actually, the key to my current sound is the new Gibson Chet Atkins semi-acoustic---it's brilliant! It's
the first guitar since my very first Jazzmaster to sound exactly how I want it to.
The white Jazzmaster with the extra pickup that you play in your
Robert: Yeah. The third pickup is fromm a Woolworth's Top 20 guitar, my very first electric. I took it in to record
our first album, along with a little WEM combo amp. [Manager/producer] Chris Parry, who was paying for the
record, said, "You can't use that" We went out and bought a Fender Jazzmaster, and I immediately had the Top
20 pickup installed int it, which really upset Chris. I played the entire Three Imaginary Boys album through a Top
20 pickup. It's a brilliant guitar, though I actually bought it because of how it looked. Same with the map-shaped
Nationals I used on the last tour.
What nylon-string do you use?
Robert: An old Spanish guitar, though onstage I use a Gibson Chet Atkins electic nylon-string. I stared on
classical guitar. I had lessons from age nine with a student of John Williams, a really excellent guitarist. My
sister was a piano prodigy, so sibling rivalry made me take up guitar because she couldn't get her fingers around
the neck. I learned a lot, but got to the point where I was losing the sense of fun. I wish I'd stuck with it. I still
read music, but it takes me too long to work through a piece.
When did you start using 6-string bass?
Robert: The whole Faith album has 6-string bass. I think when people talk about the "Cure sound," they mean
songs based on 6-string bass, acoustic guitar, and my voice, plus the string sound from the Solina [known as the
ARP String Ensemble in the U.S.]. Joy Division/New Order and the Cure both got into the sound at the same
The Brain Steps Backward
You detune your high-E strings by a few cents.
Robert: Yeah, using a tuner. I don't know what it adds, but the guitar just doesn't sound quite right to me
normally. In the studio, I often defy the tuners, particularly with keyboard overdubs. I even change the speed
of the tape to detune some parts. I think a lot of players presented with the same guitar and told to tune it
themselves would comeup with something drastically different. And the way you play affects the perceived tuning.
If Porl and I tune together and play the same thing, but he plays hard and I play soft, it would sound completely
"Friday, I'm in Love" is a quarter-tone sharp on the record, halway
between D and E flat. Was the tape sped up?
Robert: Yeah, though that was an accident. I was playing with the vari-speed and forgot to turn it off. But the
whole feel changed, and the fact that it's the only song on Wish that's not concert pitch really lifts it out and makes
it sound different. After working on the record for months, hearing something a quarter-tone off makes your brain
take a step backwards.
A big part of your sonic signature is that slightly detuned shimmer,
whether it comes from tuning, phasing effects,
Robert: A lot of the things on our record that sound like heavy chorusing are actually just detuned instruments.
The only drawback to that is that onstage it's very confusing sometimes, especially with a lot of phasing going on.
It turns into this overwhelming pulsing sound, and you can't hear anything.
The My Bloody Valentine syndrome.
Robert: If you want that effect, it's a really nice feeling. But if you're actually trying to sing a song to it, it's
Many of your songs consist of a large collections of guitar phrases
that all fit together over the same groove and
Simon: A lout of our songs are like that: "Fascination Street," "The Same Deep Water as You," "A Forest."
Robert: I work out parts that all the way through the songs. It can be nice to go from a chorus back to a verse,
but have the same part come in on top of it. It's the Cure version of sampling, really. "High," one of Simon's
songs, has the same basic phrases all the way through---you can put any of the almost anywhere, and they'll still
work. But on some songs less is more. On "Trust" I recorded six takes of 6-string bass. I liked all of them for
different reasons, but in the end I bulk-erased everything because they were too obvious. Sometimes tunes are
so obvious that they're almost implicitly there---you can almost sing them to yourself. The same thing applies to
deciding not to repeat a strong melody just because it sounds good once.
Do you have to deliberately simplify?
Porl: I always have to think about cutting down.
Perry: I never have to think about paring it down, because I could never play anything as complicated as Porl
Robert: When you leave holes, you can peer through and hear things, even things that aren't actually there. I
tend towards the "less is more" ethic. It's really exciting to go mental for a few minutes on a song like "Cut,"
but if the whole set was like that, it wouldn't have any dynamic. That's what's wrong with a lot of grunge metal:
It's uniformly in your face, and it doesn't have any shading or impact.
The Model Listener
Robert: For every album we do, I assemble a bunch of songs that have
something that I'm trying to capture.
When we were recording Seventeen Seconds, I would listen over and over to a tape with four songs: Jimi
Hendrix' "All Along the Watchtower" from Live at The Isle of Wight, Nick Drake's "Fruit Tree," Van
Morrison's "Madame George" from Astral Weeks, and the Khachaturian ballet piece that's on the 2001
soundtrack. I was trying to get a combination of all the things I liked about those four things, even though they
were so completely disparate. When we were recording The Top, I had Billie Holiday's "Getting Some Fun Out
of Life" and Pink Floyd's "Interstellar Overdrive." For Wish, I would listen to "Mesmerize" by Chapterhouse
for its feeling of abandon and "Human" by the Human League. You couldn't spot anything sonically or
structurally that would influence anything we did, but there's an indefinable something that I'm trying to capture.
On night I must have played "Mesmerize" 20 times, drinking and turning it louder and louder, putting myself
into a trance.
Any other crucial listening?
Robert: My top five all-time favorite songs are "Are You Experienced?" by Jimi Hendrix, Tom Waits' "Tom
Traubert's Blues," "Give My Compliments to the Chef" by the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, David Bowie's
"Life on Mars," just because it reminds me of the first time I danced with Mary, and...hmm..."Faith" by us.
Jimi Hendrix has always been my idol, though I absolutely hate Crash Landing, Midnight Lightning, and all
that. I remember first hearing The Cry of Love on a really good stereo when I was 11. I listened with headphones
on maximum, just deafened by this stunning stereo picture. It was one of those moments that's stuck with me
through my life. I'm also very drawn to Eastern music, though the things we've done with it, of course, are very
dilettantish, quite tongue-in-cheek. "Killing an Arab" is obviously very dumb, though "The Blood" was very
fun to do. I've always loved the drone side of it, and that's probably influenced what I write more than any other
kind of music.
You get production credit on most of your records.
Robert: By the time of Seventeen Seconds, I decided I wanted to produce because I knew how it ought to sound,
and I didn't want anyone else involved in the chain. I had to know how everything worked, because there's an
awful lot of bullshit flying about when you're in the studio. I know the entire process of what we do. I learned how
to operate the desk, what mikes are being used, the whole technical side. It's really a very simple process if you
know what you want and have the capacity to learn.
So why do you alway have a co-producer?
Robert: I would be wearing too many hats and imposing myself far too much on the group. Dave Allen know
what I'm trying to get, and it's good to have someone there to tell me if I'm getting it. We enjoy what we do in
the studio, and that entails things like drinking quite a lot, so we need someone there with a rational overview.
But we'd never have a producer who actually tells us what to do. I suppose I had the courage of my convictions
very early on. I'm glad I didn't give in to people who thought they knew better than I did when I was young.
Some people are torn apart because they believe that we've become successful through moaning, which makes
me laugh.Your interview is based around the thrust of what we do musically, but the bulk of our interviews miss
that point entirely. Not to be bigheaded, but we play good music and write good songs. If we didn't write good
songs, no one would care what our attitude was. Sometimes I do moan and whine, but I can get away with it
because it's got a good musical backdrop. A lot of work goes into making something that works, that sounds
good when you listen to it over and over again. I personally spend hundreds of hours listening to what we do to
make sure it works. That's my life.
(Thanks to Jason Seals for typing this up!)