“I’m A Cult Hero”: An Exclusive Q & A with the Cure’s Robert Smith
At the recent Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, SPIN sat down for an exclusive tete-à-tete with Robert Smith, frontman for concert headliner the Cure. As the spokesman for a generation of lipstick smearing, hair-teasing goth-romantics, an older, wiser Smith chatted about his band’s upcoming album, the pressures of growing up, and the aural delights of Blink-182.
Robert: I’ve decided to call our [new] record The Cure for a good reason, because I think it’s the best thing we’ve done.
SPIN: That’s the first time you’ve made a self-titled album, right? After thirteen albums?
R: Everyone’s been bugging me for the title, but yesterday I decided I would call it The Cure.
S: Well, there’s a long tradition of albums that are named after the band.
R: Yeah, everyone’s [done it].
S: I think it’s funny that you’re choosing to at this point in your career.
R: Yes, thirteen albums in. I had a very long conversation with [producer] Ross Robinson about this record before we started it. His dream was that the twenty-five years the Cure has been going culminate in this moment, this record. And every time I’ve tried to come up with a title and stuck it on the wall of the studio, it just didn’t seem to capture what we were trying to do. We were trying to distill the essence of everything we’ve trying to do [as a band] up to this point. I was joking with him today, because I told him that if we’re going to call it The Cure, that’s going to pose a problem if we do another album. [Then] what are we going to call it?
S: The Cure II.
R: Excellent, yeah. Can I use that? Naw, I mean I suppose bands call albums after themselves because it means [people who'd heard their name] were going to go to shops and ask for the album by that band.
S: Like the Pretenders’ The Pretenders.
R: Yeah, so people buy it. Or I think bands get to a point, strangely enough [where they make all their albums eponymous]. Blink have done it. Their [recent] album was called Blink-182.
S: Yes, after they’ve already [made it].
R: Which is a bit early on, I feel, for them to be doing that.
S: It was supposed to be called Use Your Erection.
R: Yeah, I’ve read that. When we did Pornography, I thought I could have called it The Cure, because I felt, “This is us.” But with the benefit of the years that have gone by, I kind of grew up. We’re coming to America and there’s a generation of people that grew up with the Cure.
S: I lost my virginity to “Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me.” So I want to thank you for that.
R: I’ve heard similar tales. It’s strange, because the Cure has always been there. When we did the trilogy thing a couple of years back, we did Pornography, Disintegration, Blood Flowers, and we [performed all three] live in one night. That, for me, I felt was a celebration of what I felt represented the Cure for the first 25 years. This new [album] is-I thought it was going to be a complete break with the past. I actually wanted to walk into this and do something completely different. But we’ve ended up doing something that I think sounds more like us than anything we’ve ever done before, so it seemed natural to call it The Cure.?If someone was to have asked me last year what the Cure is, I would have said the trilogy album, like the trilogy DVD, because I felt that like this line up had finally [reached its pinnacle].
S: But that event that gives short shrift to some of the great poppier stuff, like “The Love Cats,” or–
R: I never really dissed the pop side. I used to when I was a bit younger, because I thought it would somehow interfere with me being able to be an artist. And I realized, probably when were doing the Wild Mood Swings album, it got such a kind of terrible press when it came out, and yet a lot of went into the making of the record was really genuine, was really heartfelt. I felt so disturbed after that. I felt, “Well this is sort of what I want to be doing.” I took a step away from worrying what other people thought about the band, and I started to think, “Why am I still doing this after all of these records?” and Blood Flowers was really a translation of that, because I didn’t fucking care what anyone thought about Blood Flowers. The fact that it was our first Grammy-nominated album really amused me at the time, because it was designed to be, in my mind, a totally inaccessible album, it was just [for] Cure fans. I was going right back to the days of Faith and Pornography.
S: You [seem to differentiate] the general public audience and…Cure fans, and it seems to be implicit that they filter you’re your music differently.
R: I think they invest a lot more in what we do than the average casual listener. I’ve never been of a mind to dismiss people. When we first came over here in a real sense in the mid-eighties, [we were] playing songs like, “Just Like Heaven” and “Close to Me.” I didn’t think, “This is going to compromise everything we’ve done to this point.” I thought it was fucking great that we were being played on the radio. Why would we have ever made those songs, if I didn’t think they were good songs? I’ve always felt that way. “Love Cats” is the only song that I really I used rail against, because I didn’t want it to become a milestone. And same with “Boys Don’t Cry” early on. But the pop side of the band informs the other side of the band. The two things aren’t divorced in my mind. But for whatever reason, that Cure fan wants something from the band. It’s not just a nice cheap and catchy bit at the end. They want something invested in the making of the record. And this [new] record, even the pop songs on this record have that invested in them. You’ll sense that even the pop songs have something about them that in the past that Cure songs haven’t had, and Ross is responsible for that, because he refused to let me just sing a song. If I would just sing the upbeat once, he would say, “Naw, naw naw.”
S: What’s it like working with a producer with an identity that comes to the table based on the records that he’s produced in the past?
R: On the first day we were in the studio, we set up and started playing a song, and he let us play through it for an hour or so, and then he came out and he just started kicking things over, and he went absolutely mental.
S: He literally started kicking things over?
R: Yeah, saying like, “Don’t you know who you are?”
R: Yeah, he’s talking like, “You’re the Cure, what the fuck are you doing?” And suddenly, at that moment, everyone in the room thought, “Oh my god, he’s saying really obvious things,” things that, in a funny way, I always think when I’m in the studio. Like, “This is the biggest audience that you’ll ever play to.” There’s no one in the room, but more people will hear what you’re doing now than will ever hear you on stage. This is it. This is the real thing. The band as a band is never usually confronted, because it’s usually just me saying to them, “This is the last album, try to pull something out.” And suddenly we had this bloke running around, kicking thing over, going, “For fuck’s sake, don’t any of you realize?” And it was so incredible having something like that.
S: How did you react to that when that happened?
R: How did I? I loved it. I was like almost crying with happiness. And I knew at that moment that it was going to work, because I knew that I could stay in the recording environment and just play, and that Ross would just take care of what [everything.] He would know if we were doing it [right]. And most of the time we were recording, he was out with us in the room. He didn’t want to sit in the control room. Steve Evitts also worked on the album. He’s also done a lot of things with Ross- lot of heavy rock stuff. Got a great sound, but his sensibility [is very different from ours] and yet, he also grew up with the Cure. I mean, it’s a weird thing in America-it doesn’t really happen anywhere else. People grow up with the Cure, but like other kinds of music. But back in England if you listen to the Cure, you can’t like any other kind of music.
S: You’re a goth.
R: Yeah, so here we were confronted. Ross Roberts is known for [working with] Slipknot, Korn, At the Drive-In. Incredibly heavy, heavy music. I mean sonically heavy and yet, he’s the sweetest bloke you’ll ever meet. He was actually standing in front of me, and I was singing at him, and he was like, “Make me cry.” [He'd do] stuff like that, and I’ve never had that before. How can I translate the experience into something that doesn’t sound completely drippy? When you’re onstage and you play and the audience is there, and everything clicks, it’s like, that’s why you do it. To get that in the studio is such a rare thing. Even the best records we’ve made, they weren’t made in the way like this one’s being made.
S: So he’s like a one-man audience.
R: He has been like the crowd. He comes in and demands.
S: That’s almost his talent?
R: We’d say, “That’s a good take,” and he’d come in and go, “That’s the worst fucking thing that I’ve ever heard. What are you all thinking about?”
S: He’s a fan?
R: Yeah, he wants, he want something from the music that we make-he doesn’t care that he’s making it. He wants something that he can go away with and be the best thing he’s ever done. And I’m sure he does that with everything he’s ever worked on. He’s that kind of person.
S: But like, ten years ago, there wouldn’t have been someone able to do that.
R: There would have been. Mike Hedges worked with us in the early years. At one point, he was going to come back and work with us again, and he’s a quite abrasive, a big character in the studio.
S: But he didn’t grow up with you like Ross did.
R: Yeah, you’re right. It’s a huge difference. [Mike] grew up with us as contemporaries and would push us in a different way. He would think, “Well, I know what you can do.” But [to hone in on] the emotional side of what we do, you need to have grown up with those records like Kiss Me and Disintegration, and matured with that sound too.
S: You must have been witness to the gamut of devotion over the years from fans basically pledging themselves to you. Through all the albums, all the sort of changes in style, the creative evolution, what is the constant that holds people to your music?
R: I think it’s that people believe I’m not going to say yes to something I really think I should say no to. It’s as simple as that.
S: So it’s a matter of personal integrity?
R: That’s why I agonized about the Hewlett-Packard ad that used “Pictures of You.” I was backed into a corner with that and I still feel really bad about it.
S: I heard the [Cult Hero song] “I Dig You” song in an ad.
R: That’s not my song.
S: But the old fans know that you played on it. Somebody licensed it to somebody to sell something.
R: I agreed to that, fuck yeah, because I still know Frank The Postman, and he’s running a garage, so it’s like pay day money. But it’s different. There’s no real emotional investment in Cult Hero. That was me at like nineteen, but it’s not the Cure. “Pictures of You” is a huge song in the Cure cannon. It means a lot.
S: That whole record?
R: Yeah, and it means a lot to a lot of people. I mean I despair at the use of Hendrix, in particular, to sell cars in the UK.
S: To sell everything.
R: It’s fucking awful. [When I licensed the song] I was out of contract I had nothing left as leverage, except to basically give Universal an advert in exchange for remastering the albums. Otherwise they wouldn’t do it.
S: What was it like being on the market again at this point in you career? Did you know that you wanted to be on Geffen? I figure you can just upload something on the web and sell like a hundred thousand.
R: Yeah, but the downside of that is that there are sort of a large enclave of Cure fans around the world who don’t have broadband. I’m one of them. When I live in England I don’t have broadband. Same with the South American fans. There’s still this brave new world that’s [not really accessible] yet. The idea of doing stuff only for the internet seems cool, but it’s not [realistic yet]. We signed to Artist Direct a year ago in order to do this through the internet, and the whole thing just came apart at the hinges, because they had a whole different idea of what I wanted to do. So we just let it go. We signed to Geffen, because Ross signed to Geffen. Simple as that. He knows Jordan Shore who runs Geffen. [In the 80s] Jordan came to see us doing the Kiss Me shows. It’s a great thing that someone who can wield that amount of power can also go back to being a seventeen-year-old fan and talk to me about the lyrics of “Catch.” I had that with [the Cure's former label] Fiction through the 80s, and it was a joy to work in an environment where people would be [excited] about what you were going to do next.
S: The Cure are important to many millions of people and have been massively influential over the years. I just did an interview with Interpol. They’re finishing their new record, but they’re actually going in a more upbeat, pop direction, as if they’re moving fromWild Mood Swings to “Let’s Go To Bed.” I was talking to Carlos, the bass player, and he said, “Well, if the Cure did it.” There’s this span of three decades of listeners influenced by your music. Does that affect you?
R: I enjoy the idea that other people and groups like what the Cure do. And through the years, people do come up to me. When we played with people like the Pixies in the late 80s, or Dinosaur Jr. who did a cover-
R: Yeah, it was really cool. I thought they were fantastic. I was worried about being blown off stage by the Pixies because they were so good. And just walking up to Frank or J, I’ve thought, “We have a connection.” Like when you meet a [rock] writer, it’s like you kind of share an unsaid thing. It’s really nice having people in other groups who like what you do. Since the Grammy nomination, a paradigm shift hit London. Last year, suddenly, we were given a Q award, which I wasn’t going to accept. I thought, “How petty will that be?” [It seemed like] they were jumping on the bandwagon. The Rapture and Interpol say [the Cure's] the coolest thing ever, while Q Magazine had not done an interview with the Cure in ten years. I thought, I can be cynical and say “Fuck off,” or I can accept the [award] and it will probably be quite a good thing. It was probably the first awards ceremony I’ve been to in more than a decade?The whole thing was so bizarre, and suddenly the whole room is giving me a standing ovation. At that moment I actually realized what had occurred in the previous like eighteen months. The award that we were getting wasn’t for what we had done. Because a whole lot of bands out there suddenly say they like what we’ve done, the media has to take notice. It reached a kind of critical mass point. But we’re not doing anything different.
S: It’s not like the Cure was obscure. You’ve always had fans who would lay down and die for you.
R: Yeah, when we did the Wish album in 1992, it went number one around the world. In America it was held off the number one spot-it might have been number two because of Janet Jackson, at that point. We were playing stadiums and stuff, but I knew that that wasn’t going to last. We were kind of “there,” I knew.
S: Was that the peak?
R: No, I think there have been a number of those moments throughout the years. I mean if that was it, I wouldn’t be sitting here right now. Blood Flowers did that for a new generation of people. The reason why I still do it is the same. [I have] a desire to create something, and it’s as simple as that. I fucking hate the idea of the Cure that’s going to embarrass me. I defend it passionately, because I’ve invested my adult life in the band.
S: Blood Flowers seems like the perfect swan song.
R: It was, it was.
S: Because it’s completing the trilogy, so you know, you even framed it?
R: Honestly, if I hadn’t met Ross, I wouldn’t be doing this record.
S: When I read that you guys were doing a new record, I was surprised. I’ve been a fan for twenty years-it’s great, so I’m happy.
R: See, I thought that the idea that we were doing it was kind of perceived as, “Oh, they’re getting kind of known again, so they’re going to put out an album.” I’m hoping this isn’t going to be swamped by that, because I actually think this is the best thing we’ve ever done. If I hadn’t met Ross, we wouldn’t have made this record. If I hadn’t met someone with the kind of passion he’s got, I would have let it slide by. Blood Flowers was a great way to end for me.
S: I remember vividly, sitting in my bedroom, downtown on Bleeker St., listening to Blood Flowers and saying, “Well, this is how it ends. It’s over. This is the last Cure record I’ll ever hear.”Do you think it’s just a serendipitous thing that Ross came into the picture?
R: There was a short interview in some magazine with Ross Robinson, about great guitar sounds, and one of the ones he discused was mine. And I was like, that’s weird.
S: For what song?
R: “A Forest,” I think. I started to investigate who he was and what he’d done. I had the first Korn album, and hadn’t played it for a few years, and I put it on my hi-fi. And when I saw what he was doing, I was thinking, “God, you know, that’s really weird that he actually likes us, because he doesn’t seem to be doing music [like ours]. I bought Vex Red after I’d kind of started to find out about him, without knowing that he had produced it. When I saw it was him [I knew I had] to get in touch with him. His enthusiasm for the idea of the Cure was what reinfected me with the idea of doing a Cure album. I did ask him if he wanted to a solo album, and he told me, “No.”
S: Is there something about you as a personality that you think keeps these people riveted? I mean, as we all get older, everyone wonders if you look the same as we remember.
R: Believe me, I would have loved to shave my head [again], but my wife?
S: When you did shave your head it was a scandal. Do you remember?
R: I did have a number three cut for the Wish album. It was like twelve years ago.
S: Yeah, so like everyone on the radio was saying, “Robert Smith has got a short haircut!”
R: I haven’t changed fundamentally. For me, the idea of growing up is this idiot idea, because I was more grown up when I was thirteen than I am now. I had aspirations and an absolute idea of the world, as I’m sure that all thirteen year olds have. I’ve kept my life absurd. That’s how I managed to do what I do. I think that being grown up is fucking awful, if being grownup translates into looking down on someone like me and what I do. Yet, I think I’m more emotionally mature than anyone I know. I’ve been married to the same person for years and years and years.
S: Do you have any advice on that by the way?
R: Looking forward to getting up in the morning? Well, actually the late afternoon, but that comes with the job. I really enjoy what I do, it’s as simple as that. If I could have been told at thirteen, don’t worry too much, because in a few years time you’ll still be playing music, still be writing songs, I would have been a different person, because I wouldn’t have agonized so much. I was like, “What the hell am I going to do when I grow up?” To me, grownups [were] people that kind of sighed a lot and had worry lines and looked forward to the weekend. I don’t look forward to the weekend at all. When we’re in the studio, I have no idea whether it’s Monday or Saturday.
S: So you don’t feel 45 at all?
R: I feel 145 at times.
S: At the same time, you feel like fifteen sometimes, right?
R: I’ve always felt old in a funny way. But I’ve always felt young too; I always get on more with the young generation of my nephews and nieces, because I like music. Essentially it’s that. I really love music still, and when I’m at home on my own, and I drink, I listen to really loud music, as I’m sure grownups do as well, but they have to get up in the morning.
S: I was wondering, when I knew I was going to interview you, does he still wear lipstick? Is he still teasing his hair out?
R: It will stop one day, I’m sure.
S: You think? Maybe not, right?
S: Are you doomed to be the Phyliss Diller of like rock and roll?I mean, not to underrate you as a musician, because you’re an amazing musician, but there is something iconic and physical that goes hand in hand with it.
R: It doesn’t. It would be disingenuous for me to believe or say in all truth that [my career] would have happened without me looking like I look. I always used to say, if I had a big shock of ginger hair and freckles, life probably would have been different. But I don’t know how different. If I was singing “Pictures of You” the way I sang it, and made “Disintegration,” I don’t know who [would listen to that coming from] ginger hair and freckles.
S: No, the song is a beautiful song.
R: I apologize to all of the ginger, freckled people.
S: But there’s a physical archetype that people latch onto as well as the music.
R: Yeah, but I’ve never really played up to it other than the fact that I’ve got like pale skin, black hair, and I have a propensity to wear makeup. It’s not something that I used in a way to get around the fact that I couldn’t write songs or I couldn’t play guitar. I mean, I’ve always had the choice of how to look, going back to shaving my head. I shaved my head as joke because [music video director] Tim Pope had based so much of what he was going to film on silhouetting my hair against the backdrop. It shows how demented I was at the time, because I had no idea that it would impact on anyone other than myself. I just wanted to see Tim Pope’s face when I walked out that day. I went, “Ha.” And then he said, “Everyone else is gonna fucking beat you, you idiot.”
S: What do you think is the best song you’ve ever written?
R: Well I think “Faith” probably will never be dislodged from the place it occupies in my heart. For what it meant at the time.
S: Was it a turning point?
R: Yeah, I felt that it was the first song I ever wrote where I felt I had done something that would stand the test of time. I also sort of felt that with “Forest.” But “Just Like Heaven” is the other side of the coin. I knew when we did that, that that would be played on the radio in like twenty years time.
S: It’s sort of a standard now.
R: Yeah, it’s funny. I sort of felt that way when we did “Boys Don’t Cry” right at the start, I though I’m going to be the new Beatles. And lo and behold, I was.
S: If you’ve got like thirteen albums, twenty-five, thirty years of material, how do you make a set list?
R: For only an hour and a half show.
S: That must be a task. Are there certain songs like, “Just Like Heaven” that you can’t get away from?
R: We will do “Just Like Heaven.” There are certain factions in the band [about that].
S: There are certain Cure standards now that you guys have to play.
R: [My bandmates] feel that we should be confrontational, but I’m pragmatic. It’s a festival audience, really.
S: Yeah, you’ve got like sixty, seventy thousand people.
R: People are there for other bands as well. It would be nice for every other song draw people back in. Throw in a song that they haven’t heard before then throw in-
S: “I Dig You.”
R: Yeah. You know we haven’t got that in the set. It was an oversight. The idea of doing a setlist now has become kind of an in-joke, because there is no way that I can please anyone, actually, other than myself. We’ll definitely do “A Hundred Years” on Sunday no matter what anyone else in the band says. I’m going to sing it even if they don’t play it.
S: When you’re not writing or sort of involved or obsessed with the process of release a new album, how are you plugged in musically? Do you monitor or follow contemporary music?
R: I have no option. I’ve got like twenty-five nephews and nieces and I see them all the time, so when I wanna go driving or something, I take them places, or when they come ’round I’m subjected to some of the most awful bloody music.
S: Do you ever hear any?
R: I got a message saying, “[Blink-182] wants to talk to you about doing something on their new album.” I went to my teen nephews and nieces and asked, “What do you think it would be like if I sang with Blink?” And they told me, “That would be so fucking cool.” So I borrowed some albums of them and I started listening to them and I actually thought they had some really, really good songs.
S: I haven’t even listened to those albums.
R: I thought some of it was awful, and some of the songs were really sort of crass. I can’t explain to you in what context I listened to those albums, because it was too personal. It was like a family tragedy-the whole family was together and to kind of alleviate the atmosphere, one of my nieces put on a Blink album, and it really kind of did the trick. I was listening to it, because I was still feeling pretty miserable and I thought, “They’re actually really good.” Mogwai are the only band in the last five years that I’ve been so blown away by that I’ve gone out and bought everything they’ve ever done, [all the] bootlegs. I’m kind of obsessed with them. They’re one of the best bands I’ve heard in my life, and I can’t believe that, because they’re never going to have a hit single, obviously. I’m hoping people will connect with them [when they tour with us] this summer.
S: How will the Cure end?
R: Um, naturally I think. The same way everything we’ve ever done has happened.
S: Heart attack on stage?
R: Yeah. I think it would be painful to keep banging out our albums. It would be utterly insincere, and like I don’t think any artist in the history of creative art has ever managed to do it, unless they die early.
S: Bowie, he’s gonna do it until he’s a hundred. He’ll be like the guy in “The Hunger.”
R: I’m not be being pompous, but any band can knock out an album a year. I think Bowie’s attained a certain status where it doesn’t really make much difference what he bangs out year after year. You’re hoping that he does something really good, and if he doesn’t, you kind of think, “Well maybe the next one will be it.” He’s kind reached that plateau, where he’s allowed to just [go on], which I suppose is fair enough. With someone like Bowie, his back catalogue pre-1981 is the best back catalogue in pop I think.
S: It’s pretty seamless.
R: Yeah, and he’s made some pretty good records since then, but the more records you make, the great records will be fewer and further between. I wasn’t going to make two hours between Blood Flowers and the new album in order to keep profile. It’s fucking nonsense. I want to make a record that means something. My sense of being in the band reflects how I am in my life. And of course I’m slowing down. It’s completely natural. I’m not the same as I was when I doing the Kiss Me album. The ego that’s actually involved in making records actually sits quite uncomfortably with how I think I am, which is the whole point of this record-the need to tell people how I’m not. It’s a weird kind of concept.
S: How so?
R: Well, that [it takes so little to make me] feel content now than ever before. I want so much less now than I ever did before. Yet I still feel an overriding need to make a record that with lyrics that proclaim the fact.I’m aware of the paradox that involves. When we did this record, there was no outside life. I didn’t go home for like two months. I didn’t see anyone. I didn’t see my mum and dad my family friends or anyone for two months. Ross agreed to the same thing. It was exactly the same as when we did Seventeen Seconds, or Faith or Pornography. We’ve done all albums in the same way, but there was a four-year gap between Blood Flowers and this. If I was to [hole myself up like that] every year, I would be a fucking idiot, because I would have nothing else. People say, “All I need is my art,” but it’s nonsense, because where would [that art] come from? Who would you be playing it to if you don’t meet anyone? You have to evolve and live in the real world.
S: What do you do when you’re in the world? Do you come up with ideas when you’re going about your daily life that you have to run and scribble down?
R: In my early years, I would do that. Now I go for like a whole month without writing a song. I write music all the time, but I never write words. I’m more content to read stuff now than I am to write. I’ll get an overall urge to write and I feel like I need to say something.Then I think, “Oh no. No, no, no, no, it’s going to happen again.” That’s what it was like with this record. I was reading a book about identity and as I was reading it I thought, “I have no idea who I am.” Everyone is like at some point, of course. I’d thought it before, but this was as if someone actually punched me in the head and said, “Stop for a second and think-you have absolutely no idea who you are!”I’m writing this down thinking, “I’m going to turn this into a song and start singing it with a group,” and that was the start of this record. This record is informed with quiet, deep levels of why I’m doing it. I’m sure you [question] what you do, what you’d like to do, what you aspire to do, what you’re content with. Everyone does. To be presented with choices and to say, “I will choose this over that,” you kind of think, “Well, why did I do that?”
S: Will you continue to make records?
R: Based on how the records have panned out, the next one’s gonna happen in like 2011. And I will most certainly not be wearing black and lipstick in 2011. That’s a guarantee.
S: I think you will.
R: I know I won’t. I might still be wearing black, but-
S: Bowie has not aged at all.
R: The thing with Bowie is he’s an incredible person because everyone of a certain generation invested huge amounts in him when he was starting out. When I actually met him, he said he never invested his own art with anything and still doesn’t. I think that he just generates stuff. He makes stuff, and you as the consumer invest it with meaning. And without the consumer, it has no meaning.
S: He’s actually Warholian like that.
R: And I take completely the opposite view. I have to have absolute meaning in what I do, before I can actually put it out in front of people. It’s a totally different. But I think it’s a much easier way of creating what you call art.