07/30/2007 - Stuff.co.nz (NZ)
A close encounter with Robert Smith
by Grant Smithies. - Interview
Grant Smithies talks to The Cure's Robert Smith, and finds the godfather of goth is animated, thoughtful, funny and charming - and obsessed with life.
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It's three in the morning on England's south coast and The Cure's Robert Smith is sitting in his living room, staring out into the inky blackness towards an ocean that he can hear but cannot see. It whispers and sighs, like nature's own lullaby, but Smith is wide awake.
Now 48, the so-called Godfather of Goth sits nursing a cup of tea, and he talks to me for well over an hour as his childhood sweetheart, Mary, sleeps in the next room.
"I'm really looking forward to coming to play in New Zealand again," he says, though he admits the decision to tour here had little to do with the internet petition instigated by two New Plymouth fans. He was intending to come here anyway. "After 15 years, it's about time, really, isn't it?"
It's impossible to hear Robert Smith's voice without picturing his famous look: his skin white as paper; his thick black hair back-combed into a gravity-defying rat's nest; his lipstick smudged like the world's sloppiest kisser; his eyed panda-ed with kohl; his body soft and rounded, as if someone had slightly over-inflated him with a bicycle pump.
But the longer I talk to him, the more this image fades. He becomes an ordinary bloke. I have to remind myself that this is a songwriter who has made his millions fetishing alienation and depression; that he's the patron saint of ledge-jumpers and wrist-slitters. Far from being a monosyllabic moping ghoul, as some of his music might suggest, Smith is animated, thoughtful, funny and charming. This elder statesman of musical gloom is not obsessed with decay and death. If anything, he is obsessed with life.
"I am as happy as I could possibly be," he says quietly. "I love making music, and I love living here, just down the road from where I was born. I did my stint living in London, but then moved back down here. The call of the sea got too strong, and the call of family, too. Both me and my wife's extended family all live within a 50-mile radius. Like me, a lot of them did time in London then started drifting back to the countryside and the sea. Perhaps it's a homing instinct.
"Jesus! I sound like one of those nostalgic old blokes, like - (he adopts an old geezer accent) `It were all green fields 'round 'ere when I were a lad'."
When I were a lad, I went to see The Cure on their first New Zealand tour. Drunk as a pickled onion, I staggered along to the Founder's Theatre in Hamilton, on July 31, 1980, almost 27 years ago to the day. Their second and best album, Seventeen Seconds, had just come out, and terrible local band Lip Service played first.
"That was a great tour," says Smith. "We ended up playing in loads of people's basements and garages. People would come up to us after shows and we'd go drinking, then we'd end up back at someone's house, playing in their shed or whatever. It was very convivial."
Convivial? This is not a word I'd expect a filthy rich British rock legend to employ when describing drunken jam sessions in the suburban carports and implement sheds of 80s New Zealand, but there you go. Robert Smith is no ordinary rock star. For one thing, he hates irony, which has become the emotional default setting for most bands these days.
"Irony is the recourse of the weak- minded wimp, I think. I hate bands that deliver their songs with knowing smiles on their faces, so that if those songs fall flat they can say `Ah well, we never really meant it anyway.' It's so dishonest."
Smith also seems unusually unpretentious. He will readily admit his own weaknesses and eccentricities. For example, he is extremely short-sighted, but doesn't wear his glasses, not because he's self-conscious about looking nerdy, but because without glasses he can't see whether people are staring at him or not. The fact that anything beyond the end of his arm is out of focus gives him a welcome sense of privacy. Of course, one simple way to stop people gawping at him would be to flag the smudged lippy and gorsebush hair.
"A lot of journalists give me a hard time about how I look, but I've never met a journalist I'd rather look like," he says. "I like how I look. It just feels like me. And it's not just a performance thing. Really, I don't look that different when I'm off stage than when I'm on- stage, except I wear a lot more make up on-stage."
Trivia-obsessed fans will already know that Smith's favoured lipstick is MAC Ruby Woo, because it's a fetching blood red and doesn't run under the heat on stage, and that he always applies his own makeup, because he hates other people touching his face.
"I don't drive around the countryside in full makeup because it would scare the animals, but I've been wearing it a long time. I started when I was teenager at a school, after I saw Bowie wearing make-up on Top of the Pops. I immediately borrowed someone's older sister's makeup and put it on. I loved how odd it made me look, and the fact that it upset people. You put on eyeliner and people start screaming at you. How strange, and how marvellous."
These days, of course, many an urban man has embraced cosmetics. Smith's familiarity with the dark arts of blusher and foundation is perhaps less surprising than his refusal to become musically irrelevant like so many of his contemporaries. Even after 12 studio albums, The Cure has remained fairly interesting.
"Yes, 30 years together and we're still not rubbish! It's amazing, isn't it? Part of the reason is that The Cure has never been a job for life, like some bands. If someone becomes complacent, I replace them, and their replacement brings in some new energy.
"If I ever become crap, perhaps they'll try to turf me out and all 13 ex- members will rejoin and walk off into the sunset together."
The Cure has also retained our interest by refusing to stick to one musical style. Elegantly morose dirges may be their trademark, but they've also given us day-glo radio pop, post- punk minimalism, glacial instrumentals, slippery synth pop, tarted-up techno-rock, woozy psychedelia, even an art-house movie soundtrack full of great crumbling towers of guitars and synthesisers.
"Yes, and that's why it's hard for me to take seriously accusations that we're a goth band; we've played all sorts of music, and you could list 30 songs that any serious goth would run screaming from. When we first started The Cure, I wanted us to be like the bastard child of The Beatles and The Buzzcocks, a mix of pop and punk. Then as time went on we started to sound a bit more dour, not because we were dour people, but because we wanted to make mood music of a sort that hadn't been made before. Then, after a while, I allowed a lighter part of me to come out by making songs like `Love Cats' and `Let's Go to Bed' and so on. And ever since, we've gone between those two extremes."
Extremes is right. Played loud, The Cure's 1982 album Pornography makes me feel physically ill. There's Bob on the first track, wailing "It doesn't matter if we all die" over some horrid guitar noises and a rhythm section that plods along like Frankenstein's monster in heavy lead boots. He sounds like terminally damaged goods on that record, but today, he's a box of birds.
"I'm not a morose person; it's just that my best songs reflect on the sadder aspects of life. It's very rare that I'll write an upbeat song that captures the essence of me feeling joyous. It's not that I don't have a fantastic life; I do. I couldn't dream of a better life, really. It's just that I don't feel the need to document my every happy thought, and that I don't think I write happy songs convincingly."
Righto. In an hour the sun will be poking its bright bald head up over the sea outside Smith's windows. Time to let him brush out his tangled hair, wipe off his makeup and head for bed. What a lovely man he seems, so content with his life, his home, his music.
Does he see himself retiring at any stage? "I'm still enjoying it, so why stop? People often misunderstand why older musicians keep making music, I think. Take the Rolling Stones. People surmise that they're only still doing it for the money. They're not. They're doing it because on stage is the place where they really exist, the place where they operate in some sort of heightened state that's important to them.
"I suppose I feel the same way. I still feel things as deeply as I did when we made our first record, and I still sing these songs to express myself, not for the fame or the money. I'm still overwhelmed by what I do when I do it well. If I ever thought I'd become a caricature, then I would stop."