Looking for the Cure (Nov. 2nd,1997)
In the histories of pop, the Cure is barely mentioned. But Robert
Smith knows his band's place - centre stage.
Story by Michael Epis.
'BETWEEN THE CLASH and Curve." That's the spot Robert Smith assigns
his band, the Cure, in the grand
scheme of things. The question is occasioned by the appearance of Galore, a collection of Cure singles from the
past decade, with one new song (Wrong Number). Behind it lies the fact that the Cure, a band whose 18 albums
have sold multi-millions over the past 17 years, rate not one mention in the 800-plus pages of the recent Faber
Book Of Pop, nor did they get a look-in in the recent TV series on rock's history.
"Yes," says Smith, taking up the gauntlet, saying that in the book
he's reading at the moment, on English pop
culture in the two decades since the emergence of the Sex Pistols, "we have two-and-a-half pages and the Smiths
have a chapter and a half". Not that he's counting.
"Rather than believe that that is the case in real terms, I suspect
it's more that the author, when he was at college,
listened more to the Smiths than the Cure. I know myself what we've done; as far as I'm concerned we're right at
centre stage, the most important band in the world," he laughs, acknowledging that it is his own subjectivity that
"It's not anomalous really," says Smith, warming to the topic of
why his enduringly successful band, which carved
out a distinctive, high-grade take on pop in the '80s is being ignored by the history-makers.
"I've gotten used to it. I'm not that bothered to be honest. I've
always done it for my own reasons, not for
posterity. I'm still doing it for my own reasons, because I enjoy it."
Despite a reputation for arrogance, and for keeping a keen eye on
what the press is saying about him, Smith
sounds convincing, unperturbed about how the critical world rates the achievements of the band in which he has
spent all his adult life. While having long expanded beyond their cult following - 1990s Wish was a No. 1 album in
the UK and No. 2 in America - Smith maintains that the band has never been fashionable.
"Some people just don't get it. But maybe there's nothing to get,
because of the fact that I've done everything
throughout the years purely for my own enjoyment.
"It's been done on a whim, in a haphazard manner, sometimes much
more seriously than at other times. There
isn't anything cohesive about it apart from me.
"And the Robert Smith who sang on Pornography in 1982 isn't the Robert
Smith of now. I'm inhabiting the same
slowly decaying body, but mentally I'm worlds away. If we'd disappeared quickly we'd be much easier to write
about, we could be romaticised like the Smiths, but we've always kind of jumped about too much."
Jumped about they have. One of the enduring characteristics of the
Cure is its unusual capacity to attract
members from diverse audiences, without alienating longer-standing fans. Boys Don't Cry (1980) boasted the
instantly memorable title track, and was followed only months later by the moody Seventeen Seconds, which set
many a young adult brooding about his or her existence.
The claustrophobic production and aural grandeur of Pornography marked
the Cure as a band apart, capable of
painting on the big canvas, yet shortly thereafter the irresistible Love Cats was marching up the singles chart.
Within a few more years Smith and Co. rode a wave on the back of the 12-inch single into the nightclub world,
from where they leapt to mega-status with Wish.
Smith's band - it has always been his, notwithstanding the significant
contributions of others - formed the
soundtrack for so many parties through the '80s and into the early '90s because of the happy cohabitation of
these distinct parts. Smith's voice, limited in range and depth, shares the spotlight with everything else; his lyrics
can be worth attention, but they are never allowed to take up too much space.
Perhaps most important of all, the Cure realised early on that the
dominance of the guitar is what stops people
dancing; it was the Cure who turned things on their head by making the guitar, sometimes, an instrument
supporting the keyboards. Yet the guitar remained the basis of so much of their music, without them ever being
a guitar band.
The Cure wasn't quite all things to all men (and women), but they
did attract teenyboppers and existentialists
alike (the latter loving Killing An Arab, inspired by Albert Camus' The Stranger). Smith agrees that their
audience, while having had a visually identifiable hardcore following, thanks to their Gothic dress sense, is
"I actually like that," he says. "On our US tour last year we met
people we knew from our first tour in 1980. In
some cases they're now bringing their kids to the concerts, which is pretty disconcerting at first, but is also quite
charming. We have fans in their 50s who write in and get nostalgic about the old days, who can't tell their friends
they've bought the new Cure album because they'd be laughed at.
"We've been successful at developing and keeping an audience because
our ethic, the way that we do things,
is that we've been seen not to compromise, to do things exactly as we want them done, to succeed on our own
Then there is the other side of the coin, one developed more through
the media. "We are supposed to be very
mysterious, reading French Romantic poetry by candlelight," Smith says, furthering the image by invoking it,
even if the mention is slightly dismissive.
Yet the question of the band's achievement is premature, says Smith,
"even rude, because we're still going".
Indeed, the next album, due in April, is well-advanced, 15 songs recorded, seven of which he says will definitely
be on it. The recording experience has been a new one for Smith, who complained during the making of last year's
Wild Mood Swings that the process simply got more difficult as time went on.
This time, however, rather than go into the studio and record an
album over months, they're taking it one song
at a time, recording and mixing it over four or five days, having a break, then moving on to the next one. He
likens it to the recording of their first album - the difference being that in those four days they recorded 12 songs.
"Rather than trying to do something different in the same room, all
you have to do is open the door and wander
into a different room, with a different set of toys, with different wallpaper and a different view out the window.
Recording this way: it's much quicker, less laborious and more spontaneous: a totally different way of working."
Smith has been taking the tapes home, and working there, clipping
bits from one abandoned song for use in
another: "The songs are interchangeable, in certain keys and bpms (beats per minute)." Sampling his own
songs is allowing the freedom of creating from smaller working parts - and writing lyrics last. That freedom -
and also the determination not to name songs too early has freshened his attitude.
"I've also learnt to play cello this summer," he says. The results
will be on the album: "I haven't been spending
hours practising and no one else is going to suffer."
Smith intends to tour the album here next year, although fans won't
have to wait that long to hear them live,
thanks to their website and an American fan, who compiled a list of Cure bootlegs, including concerts, studio
out-takes and interviews. The list came to more than 700 albums.
"I was absolutely staggered. There were whole tours, every date,
available on bootleg. It's like my entire life's
on tape. It's pretty terrifying. He had the nerve to quote me an all-in price, in the thousands of dollars. I admired
his cheek, and ordered a few select ones."
Some of those, along with the Cure's own tapes, will turn up on their
website, from which they can be downloaded
free. "By Christmas there will be four shows - one from the last tour, two from the Wish tour and one from
Disintegration. My aim is to have one from every tour, going right back to the beginning. The bootleggers will
be up in arms - we're doing them out of business."
And will the Cure play a stadium gig or something more intimate?
"We won't have a choice, 'cos no one likes
us anymore." Always the charmer.