The Cure’s Robert Smith: ‘I survived. A lot of people in London didn’t’
The singer and songwriter is planning to record the first Cure album in 10 years
Robert Smith: ‘I couldn’t understand how we could be so successful and still be honest.’ Photograph: Sebastien Bozon/AFP/GettyImages
The first thing Robert Smith does is apologise for the makeup. He hasn’t worn it since his last concert with The Cure, in December 2016, but he has a photoshoot today at the Royal Festival Hall and thinks his features are too indistinct without it.
To be honest, I would be disappointed if he wasn’t wearing it, along with his regulation baggy black clothes and silver jewellery. Since 1983, the sooty eyeliner, blood-smear lipstick and cobwebbed forest of hair have made him a human logo, transmuted, through the work of people such as Tim Burton and Neil Gaiman, into visual shorthand for the morbidly romantic. He looks like The Cure sound.
Even without the warpaint, Smith finds it hard to blend in. In 1989, at the height of his fame, he moved to the quiet south-coast village where he still lives with his wife, Mary, and gamely attended a meeting in the village hall. “It was pretty chaotic,” he sighs. “I was asked to leave, for no reason other than I wasn’t welcome. I thought, ‘I’ve made a terrible mistake.’” He clasps his hands over his face, just like he does in photographs.
For someone who once sang “It doesn’t matter if we all die”, Smith has an endearing relish for the bathetic comedy of life. Like the time, during the first Gulf war, when he held a press conference to explain that The Cure’s 1979 debut single Killing an Arab was a reference to Albert Camus’s L’Etranger and not, as some US radio DJs thought, an Islamophobic anthem. “It was totally surreal, explaining Camus to a sea of utterly bemused faces.” Or the time that he interviewed David Bowie for Xfm and arrived so drunk that he proceeded to talk over his hero for two hours. “I think my opening gambit was, ‘We can both agree you’ve never done anything good since 1982’,” he says, wincing.
For all his easy, blokeish charm, Smith means as much to millions of people as Bowie meant to him. This year, The Cure are marking the 40th anniversary of their first concert under that name (they started in 1976 as Malice) with a flurry of activity.
Smith has been rummaging through boxes for a documentary directed by regular collaborator Tim Pope. “I knew a few people wanted to – what’s a nice way of saying exploit? – celebrate the 40th anniversary with projects,” he says. “I said no, but I knew that they would probably go ahead anyway unless I made it very obvious that we were doing something.” The Cure may even make their first album since 2008, but we will get to that.
I think people admire us, even if they don’t particularly get the music
First up, Smith is curating the 2018 Meltdown festival at London’s Southbank Centre: a walloping 90 artists over 10 days. Smith will close the event under the name Cureation 25 – which promises a lineup of previous bandmates and more – shortly before The Cure headline a sold-out Hyde Park.
He sent a handwritten letter to each name on his wishlist and almost all of them said yes. It’s striking that everyone on the lineup, from the Manic Street Preachers to Mogwai, Nine Inch Nails to the Twilight Sad, has been influenced by The Cure in one way or another.
Does Smith only like bands who like The Cure?
“I think you’d be hard-pressed to find many artists who don’t like The Cure,” he says. “I think people admire us, even if they don’t particularly get the music. It sounds very conceited, but it’s not about me, it’s about the band. We’ve stayed true to ourselves. If you’re in a band, you realise how hard that is. I think people admire our tenacity.”
The Cure’s position is certainly enviable: loved with cult-like fervour yet mainstream enough to be covered by Adele (Lovesong) and featured in the Marvel superhero film Ant-Man (Plainsong). There’s even a Reese Witherspoon romcom named after their 1987 hit Just Like Heaven , not that Smith has seen it. They are the only band, Smith notes, who are routinely perceived as both suicidal and whimsical. And they have maintained their integrity. Currently without a record label, manager or publicist, they tour (often) or record (not so much) only when Smith feels like it.
It’s not true that he’s the only Cure member who matters (if bassist Simon Gallup left, then “it wouldn’t be called The Cure”), but he has always been in the driving seat. When was the last time he did something he didn’t want to do? He points at my Dictaphone and laughs. “Sitting here.”
The music’s always reflected, to a very large degree, how I am mentally
The Cure tore through the 1980s the way The Beatles rushed through the 1960s, or Bowie the 1970s: wildly prolific, constantly changing . “It is weird looking back,” Smith says. “Everything was done at an incredibly fast pace. Life was whizzing by.” For a 19-year-old neophyte from the suburban West Sussex no-man’s land of Crawley, Smith seemed uncannily self-assured. “Where did that grotesque confidence come from?” he says drily. “Probably punk. Most of the punk bands were f**king awful. I thought we were all right and we were getting better. A lot of it was bluff and bluster at that age.”
Within a couple of years, the punk boy wonders had evolved into avatars of doom: 1981’s Faith sounded like inching through a chilly fog. “I thought, ‘How much bleaker can we get? Either we make very, very tiny noises at the end of a concrete bunker and I whisper over them, or we do something different’.” Hence 1982’s Pornography, a churning inferno of rage, nausea and despair. “There was a lot of tension in our personal lives,” he says. “The music’s always reflected, to a very large degree, how I am mentally.”
The strain of playing emotionally crushing songs every night, in various states of narcotic disrepair, broke the band. Smith joined Siouxsie and the Banshees and planned to use The Cure as a vehicle for “sort of stupid” pop songs such as The Lovecats – until the stupid songs became hits.
“I suddenly thought, ‘Well, actually, this is more attractive than slogging my way round the world with the Banshees!’ So I was never quite comfortable with my reasons.” Then again, he says, a cynical careerist would not have followed up with the queasy psychedelic splurge of The Top. Drummer Andy Anderson, he says, “used to make a huge pot of magic mushroom tea at the start of every day and it just went on from there”.
Only with 1985’s The Head on the Door did Smith decide to get “professional”, rearranging the studio for each song and pinning guidelines to the wall. “For the first time we were creating sounds as well as songs,” he says. The instructions for the desolate Sinking, for example, were: “We must cry by 6pm tonight.”
Smith considers 1989’s exquisitely morose Disintegration his masterpiece; the record label thought it was commercial suicide – it sold three million copies.
The Cure became so big internationally that promoters began calling them the Pink Floyd of the 1980s. Whether in or out of the charts, though,The Cure occupied a bubble of their own, regularly anointing a symbolic nemesis. “It was generally Duran Duran,” Smith says, “which is really sad because they loved us and they used to come to our shows. But they represented everything we hated: the whole glamorous 1980s, consumer bullshit; this horrorshow that we were up against.” Smith also had a long-running feud with Morrissey (“I never really understood it”), in which he has proven to be on the right side of history .
The hothouse of success drove Smith to escape from the capital. “I survived; a lot of people that I left in London didn’t.” By the time of 1992’s Wish, with its jaunty hit Friday I’m in Love, the novelty of being huge had evaporated. “I was coping in a slightly disturbed way with what was going on,” he says. “I felt it was at odds with what I’d started out doing. I couldn’t understand how we could be so successful and still be honest. With hindsight we were, but I couldn’t see it.”
So when The Cure were elbowed aside by Britpop, he was relieved. “I felt more comfortable being slightly outside of what was going on, because that’s how I’d felt from the very start. Had we kept pushing it, I don’t think I’d have survived it – not in one piece, anyway.”
Epic live shows
These days, The Cure are predominately a live act, renowned for their epic, multi-encore shows. In Mexico City, as a 53rd-birthday treat, Smith tried to break Bruce Springsteen’s record of 4hr 6min, but miscalculated and fell three minutes short. “I was a bit crushed,” he says, “because we could have honestly kept going for another half an hour.”
Friends, bandmates and critics have all suggested he leave the audience wanting more, but he keeps going because he enjoys it so much, and because he thinks he owes it to the fans. “I still think of that person who’s there thinking, ‘I wish they wouldn’t stop. I wish they wouldn’t stop’.” Hyde Park, he warns (or promises), will be a relatively brisk two hours.
It has been a decade since the last Cure album, 4:13 Dream . “I’ve hardly written any words since then,” Smith says glumly. “I think there’s only so many times you can sing certain emotions. I have tried to write songs about something other than how I felt but they’re dry, they’re intellectual, and that’s not me.” He wistfully quotes a line from The Cure’s The Last Day of Summer: “It used to be to so easy.”
Would he be disappointed if he never made another album? “I would now, yeah. Because I’ve committed myself to going into the studio and creating songs for the band, which I haven’t done for 10 years. Meltdown has inspired me to do something new because I’m listening to new bands. I’m enthused by their enthusiasm. So if it doesn’t work, I’ll be pretty upset, because it will mean that the songs aren’t good enough.”
He has been revisiting old unused lyrics to see if he can repurpose any, but “some of them don’t make any sense to me any more. It would be weird if I felt the same as I did when I was in my 20s. I’d be mental!”
How has his outlook changed? “It’s slightly more cynical and slightly less optimistic, which is strange. I was very optimistic when I was young, even though I wrote very dismal songs, but now I’m kind of the opposite. I have a very dismal outlook on life.”
Smith worries that, at 59, he has become a reactionary who scorns social media, smartphones and the like. “I’m at war with a lot of the modern world,” he says. “I really hate how things have ended up in the last 20 years. I don’t know how it’s happened. There’s a certain tone to this country that’s really changed for the worse.” He’s building a rant, but a melancholy one. “It’s weird how the ’70s is often referred to as a period of great unrest and the three-day week, blah, blah. It’s bollocks. The period from the Second World war to the ’70s, we were on a great trajectory for equality and so forth. It’s only since the end of the ’70s, Maggie and Ronnie, that things have inexorably gone wrong. It’s insane, people’s lust for technology and new things.” He sighs. “I’m just turning into a grumpy old man.”
Smith is feeling his age in other ways. He notes that Tom Petty’s last UK show before his death last year was also a 40th-anniversary concert in Hyde Park. “Last time we sold out places in America that we’d never sold out, even in the ’80s,” he says. “A darker part of me thinks they like watching us because they think I’m going to fall over and they’re not going to get to see us again.” He shakes off the joke. “I’m just being silly. It will stop, of course it will. I do wake up on a day like today and think, ‘Am I really talking about this band, still?’ I’m honestly astonished at how much love there is for the band. If you’d told me when we started, I would have been quite shocked.”
One more encore, then. Maybe two. – Guardian Service
- The Robert Smith curated Meltdown festival runs until June 24th. The Cure play Hyde Park, London, on 7 July 7th