This article originally appeared in the March 1988 issue of SPIN.
“I’ve dealt with the worst already,” says the Cure’s Robert Smith about the bizarre relationship he has with his fans. “Here I am in my mom and dad’s house, in the same room I grew up in, eating peanut butter sandwiches. I’m not really worried about them.” Thus the current state of affairs between the cherub-featured Cure leader and his fans, those ardent souls who believe the music possesses power enough to wash away the gloom and alienation it so vividly describes.
For Smith, coming home isn’t simply an ordinary visit with the folks. Rather, it’s part of a regimen of re-ordering both internal and external priorities. He’s taking a year off to finish the next Cure album, then to work on a solo project. He’s even been offered a shot in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. And he’s moving, retreating from his London flat in favor of a more pastoral life close by his parents’ Sussex home.
Having recently turned 28, Smith realizes that the years may well have brought a clearer vision of who he is and where he is going. “We are very conscious of re-modeling things that have already been,” notes Smith. After 10 years and numerous personnel changes, the Cure has evolved without losing the essence of it’s uniqueness, a fact underscored by the platinum success of the most recent album, Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me. Smith’s guiding musical aesthetic (shaped oddly enough, by his great affection for comic books) places less emphasis on the durability of art than on its ability to strike an immediate, responsive chord in listeners.
“It’s the impact that draws you in,” he explains, “just like reading a comic book. It has that immediacy.” In addition to comics, Smith knows all kinds of music (from artists such as the Eno-inspired Gavin Bryars to Elvis Costello) and has an insatiable desire for literature (he’s quick to rattle off the titles of books he’s read lately, naming Lautreamont’s Malador as one of his current favorites, and sing the praises of revered authors, in particular Patrick White).
What we have here, then, is a dual personality—not in the true head shrinker’s sense, but in all the ways Smith likes to be. He will smear his face with lipstick—confusing the hell out of homophobes worldwide – then revel in his long-standing relationship with teen love Mary. He professes to have little concern about fashion, yet his flyaway hair style makes him distinctive. He has self-confidence for two, yet frets over his height (he’s six feet tall).
And though fans—”waifs,” Smith calls them—arouse his consternation over their tragic, romantic image of him languishing in a callous world, he recognizes as well they comprise the Cure’s solid rock of support. They have his address, these waifs, and often slip obscure notes under his door in the dead of night. This facet of success Smith has accepted, virtually without reservation—the simple reason being that minus the waifs would still be a Robert Smith, but there would never be a Cure.
There’s something almost subversive in what you do musically.
Sometimes I think when we release the more pop songs it’s good ’cause they entice people in and then we can break them into listening to things they’d not normally be exposed to. Even if one person out of a hundred really follows our particular train of thought and listens to Pornography and thinks, “My god this is great,” then the pop songs are good. If our music always reflected the content of the lyrics, we would have a far reduced audience and that would frustrate me.
How do you deal with the different sides of your personality?
I decided a long time ago that I had to try to subjugate two very distinct sides. One had to take over from the other for me to make the most of it. Otherwise, I’d be compromised to the extremes. I’m lucky I’ve managed to juggle the two.
A manic-depressive kind of duality?
It went to that extreme, I suppose, at one point. I’m trying to juggle the extremes of touring and the group and also keep my private life in a more centered position. That’s why on the last tour it was the first time all the girls came away with us for weeks. And all the families came to see us. I’m trying to make the Cure a bigger environment so that all the people I like are involved in it. In the past it’s all been purely the group; it’s been a horribly selfish kind of life.
Do you see yourself as self-destructive?
I think there was a point around the time of Pornography when I was probably closest to following in those people’s footsteps, ’cause I had romantic delusions, which I no longer have. I don’t want to be immortalized.
You don’t want to be another Ian Curtis?
I think one for each generation is enough.
Have you found it difficult to deal with success?
It was just something that just sort of happened. I remember one particular night when I thought to myself, I am now faced with these two choices: Continuing like this with the inevitable end, which would have happened within a period of a year or two, or just rethinking what I was doing and why I was doing it and concentrating on enjoying myself outside of the context of the group.
And I chose the latter because I felt, well, it’s an age-old argument that I’m going to die anyway so I might as well have some fun rather than remorselessly grinding myself into the grave, which is what I was doing. I wasn’t doing it in the public, or in front of an audience, or for applause. I was just on one of the vicious, descending spirals. You alleviate your discomfort and pain by becoming ever more excessive.
It’s almost fashionable.
It becomes inevitable if you do it. A lot of people weren’t aware of that. Only the group was aware of how ludicrous I was becoming. I kept a very straight face when other people were around, but was in a pretty savage way while we were recording Pornography.
You should read a book called Acid Dreams.
Apparently I said something over here in one of the magazines—I was being very “colorful,” I suppose—about not knowing anyone who hadn’t experimented with drugs, and that I didn’t remember making the Glare album, and things like that. In the Evening Standard there was this big piece about how I’m completely deranged and on drugs, so I’m expecting that in the next couple of days the police will come and do a “Boy George” on the in London and hammer the door down.
You’ve been outspoken about doing drugs and drinking.
Yeah, but Mary (Smith’s girlfriend of 13-plus years) drinks much more than me. I just drink to help her along (Laughs).
You’ve had such a long term relationship. It’s like you don’t need all these breakups and all the kick-you-in-the-butt.
I don’t know. Whenever people say that about me and Mary it makes me laugh. I don’t think I’m that difficult.
Mary isn’t overshadowed by your job or your role?
No, because she doesn’t come in contact with it. She usually doesn’t tour and we never discuss the Cure when I’m at home. I always think of myself as Mary’s boyfriend, never her as my girlfriend.
Do you think you and Mary will ever have children?
I’ve thought about it from time to time but it’s too much responsibility—I’m too erratic to be a father. I really love kids, the happiest times of my life are spent with kids. I’ve got six nephews and I constantly pay with and attempt to teach them the finer arts of football or, as you call it, soccer.
But I think my attitude toward them would be different if I were actually the father, like my older brother who owns three of them. I see his attitude when he feels responsible for them and gets very nervous thinking, “My god, they are going to kill themselves,” whereas I just join in on their level. If they scream, I scream back, if they nip me, I nip back. Consequently they treat me as one of their own.
Ultimately though, it’s up to Mary. If she decides she wants children then it would be different.
Did the move to the country made any difference in your attitude?
Well, now I’ve got a house on the beach—actually it’s not a beach with sand but pebbles—and I can look out the window towards the sea; maybe such a peaceful environment will rekindle my paternal instincts, but I doubt it.
Did the “Killing an Arab” controversy make you more politically aware and more interested in getting involved with political issues?
In a very real way I was brought into contact with a worldwide problem—racism—and with the sort of heightened distrust it engenders. But we were almost like a third party, brought in as a catalyst and put on trial for something that existed apart from us. It seemed quite absurd that we were being blamed for anti-Arab feelings, because we were being used by certain Americans who were anti-Arab. We didn’t realize how serious it was until we had to take sides and make a point.
At first I just stood back and laughed, thinking, this is ludicrous. But we were eventually forced to do some things when it started interfering in our lives. It turned out alright, though it was a bit weird. Once we got involved, I made it very clear where our allegiance was—and I refuse to make any retractions. Even the explanation I offered for the song was really tongue-in-cheek, because the whole notion of explaining a song that obvious made me laugh.
Are there any other political issues you take an interest in?
The only things we’ve done have been in the mental health benefits. That’s political in a sense, but it’s more. The benefit concerts we’ve done have been almost exclusively for mental health. They’re such a downtrodden minority, that no one seems to bother. It’s awful.
Michael Dempsey, who was the original bass player, used to work in a mental asylum. We used to go there for parties. I could never understand why a lot of them were there. There’s this enormous difference between people who are mentally unstable and people who are actually mentally deficient. That distinction doesn’t seem to be so clear-cut anymore. People use it as a political weapon, especially in America. I’ve only read about the percentage of minority races that are institutionalized under the banner of being mentally deficient or mentally unstable, which is another way—a veiled way—of saying that they’re threatening the fabric of society. It reaches the point when it can be used as a very effective weapon for social order.
Certainly, I’ve vented a lot of my frustration and expressed a certain amount of derangement as a singer in a group and been applauded for it. I’ve been lucky because the people around me who’ve been willing to help me channel it in a more productive way. Had I been born into a different environment, a different social environment, I would have turned out very differently.
I bet you were a pain in the ass to your parents.
They sort of understood that I thought I life was basically a waste of time unless you were doing something you wanted to do. What’s the point of spending years and years doing something you don’t want to do?
With this overview in mind, this ambition that once you reach a certain age or a certain point then you promise yourself that you’ll do something you really want to. I thought all of this was nonsense, and I suppose I’ve been lucky in that I’ve proved to myself that I can exist doing exactly what I want to. But if it had gone wrong, I hope I would have had the strength of my convictions and died. I hope.
What rock music most affected you when you were younger?
I used to really love Roxy Music. I remember seeing “Pyjamarama” on English TV when I was 13 or 14. Bryan Ferry used to have a really good quiff, pink leopard skin jacket and stuff. The first four Roxy albums are really good.
The initial people who made an impression on me, through my older brother, were the 60’s psychedelic types like Jimi Hendrix, Captain Beefheart, Cream. But my first choice in records, ones I actually went out and bought, were Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the first Alex Harvey album.
I used to follow the Sensational Alex Harvey Band around when I was 14. That was the only group I really wanted to be in. I used to wear an Alex Harvey t-shirt, a black and white striped shirt, and I went to see them everywhere, right through til 1976. Alex Harvey was the closest I ever came to idolizing anyone. But I never met him, although I met the rest of the group after Alex died. I never tried to backstage or anything, even though I was following them around.
I didn’t think I’d have anything in common with him. I just thought he was good. I didn’t think we could sit down and talk about anything, because we’ve experienced completely different things. I liked the power of the and the drama of the Alex Harvey Band, but not in any emotional context. We attract different types.
Is there anyone around now whom you admire and would like to meet?
I’ve thought about this because I’ve actually had the opportunity to meet some of the people I’ve really admired—people who are almost heroic to me—and I haven’t bothered to. I’ve actually turned down the opportunity. Last year I was set to go to lunch with Ray Bradbury, but I didn’t go. I apologized, said I wouldn’t be able to make it.
I didn’t want to bore Ray Bradbury, but I also didn’t want to be let down; I didn’t want to find out that he wasn’t like what I expected him to be like. It’s like seeing a bad film of one of your favorite books. I know I’ve disappointed people I’ve met who admire me—people who figure if I can write something like “Faith” I must be like this all of the time. But god, I’m not. I wouldn’t actually want to meet anyone I considered more than human, because I’d hate to be disappointed. I’d think, “God, everyone’s as bad as I am.”
I met Ray Bradbury once and he was some sort of right-wing reactionary.
Well, he wouldn’t come to our concert either. That’s another reason why I wouldn’t go out with him. He gave me a signed copy of Something Wicked This Way Comes, but he wouldn’t come to the concert. He said it wasn’t his thing. I thought, “Well, if he’s going to be such a staid old bastard anyway, then lunch isn’t my thing.”
How extensive has your drug use been?
I’ve tried a lot of different drugs because I’ve been interested in trying them, and I haven’t for a couple of years because I’ve had mood swings and it’s because I was aware of my body getting old; I wanted to try the blue sky and fresh air for awhile.
I’d spent a couple of years being hideously introspective which, at the time was really good fun, but I’ve never made any bones about advocating people to try drugs as long as they don’t get addicted. It’s not destructive like drink or types of food or lifestyles. I have always been completely anti-addiction, but I’ve always been pro-experiment.
If someone offered me anything and I felt like it would be good fun to try—whatever it was, a different way of cooking worms or an hallucinogenic—I would try it. If I didn’t feel like that, I wouldn’t. I’ve never felt any pressure one way or the other.
In America, there’s been the development of designer hallucinogenics. Have you been intrigued about have ever tried any of these things like Adam or XTC?
I tried XTC a couple of years ago. At the time I was completely mauled. I probably missed half the effects because I was in a coma through drinking.
Some people believe your brain cells are completely fried.
I’ve just grown up the same as anyone else, really.
Had any weird sort of paranormal experiences?
I used to believe I’d once seen someone reflected over my shoulder in the mirror in the house where my mom and dad live. I spun around and no one was there. It was just my mind I think.
I don’t actually believe in ghosts or UFOs. I mean, I believe that UFOs could exist.
But they haven’t picked you out as a target.
No, in fact I was just reading in OMNI about all the abductees. There’s a big new wave of abductees in America. The big thing is to have been abducted. The abductees talk about all the grey aliens and artificial insemination and such.
It’s pretty weird isn’t it?
I tend to go along with the mass hallucination, Jungian sort of explanation rather than the official vehicle ,UFOs.
What are you listening to nowadays?
Irish folk music. I’m still addicted to it, I keep buying cassettes of it. It just makes me feel good.
You’re going to record a solo album. Is it going to be ambient music?
That was going to be the second Glove project. A music for dreams record. A free hit of LSD with every record. I’m going to record a solo album in the summer. I was going to do it last year, but I never had the time. I got caught up in the frenzy of the Cure and before I knew it I was booked for three full months of concerts. So this year I thought I’d dedicate time for it because I wanted to make a serious effort to break into film music.
What will the album be like?
Mostly acoustic. Even the drum machine that’s going to be sued on a couple of songs will be the one we used on the Glove album; one of those big old Roland boxes so it’ll be very bassy.
I’ve been trying to learn how to use certain instruments like the emulator. It’s very basic technology but there’s something in me that won’t let me accept technology. I fear that if I learn how to operate a thing like the emulator I’ll forget how to be naïve, how to be stupid. I still have a fear of knowing too much about inanimate objects.
There are 12 songs on it. There’s an internal sort of logic to that. I’ve always had this cassette on which I’d put songs that had been originally for a Cure listening session. There were songs that had been worked out to their conclusion, but then I thought, well, they aren’t going to work for the Cure but we’ll give it a try. I’d play them for the group and if they hadn’t passed after going around three times in a row yet I still thought it was a good song, I’d put it on the tape. Well, when the tape had been filled it had reached 12 songs. It’s the moodiest stuff I’ve done since “Faith.”
Most of the songs on the acoustic album are going to be very simple. Few of them will have more than three instruments. They’re mainly piano, bass and cello. Or piano, bass, and guitar.
How do you feel about the Cure’s success?
It’s difficult for me to make judgments without seeming conceited because I am a fan of certain groups. I’m a fan of the Cure. I would like the group desperately even if I wasn’t in it. So I can’t explain it in the same way I don’t try to explain to myself why I feel the Cocteau Twins are so good.
Echo and the Bunnymen, what a dreadful group. They’ve let me down. There’s this duality I feel; I can think other people have let me down, yet as an artist I think that I ca do whatever I want to do and I’m not letting anyone down. People trust us not to be stupid, at least in a way.
Who continues to excite you musically?
New Order had become really stagnant and really repetitive, but now I think they’re brilliant again. Particularly with the video where they do this heavy metal dress up thing, I mean, they’re nicking us, really.
Beside Alex Harvey, who is the most important performer to you?
Do you think you could have saved him?
I don’t think it would have been a very good party. Unfortunately I don’t think he had the people around him to encourage him to see the lighter side of things though.
Who’s the most danceable group nowadays?
Mel and Kim.
What’s been enjoyable about the Cure is that the effort is never meant to be pretty, and it’s confrontational.
I’ve never consciously done anything. I’ve done things and been conscious of them, but I’ve never really sat down and thought, Well, this would be good for me to do, you know, away from the group. It’s always been that sudden decision and I’ve always thought that we’ll do this without ever worrying about consequences. From time to time it seems to set us back or set me back, but it’s all had this very weird kind of plan to it.
We started off at the right place and we’re still in the right place. People used to laugh at me, and I used to say we’ll be mainstream when the mainstream accommodates us. The mainstream won’t accommodate you; you have to go out and look for it, and we never really have. But everything we do seems to get us more attention. In America, though, it has a little bit to do with the fact that we haven’t gone away. I think people have been obliged to take note of us really because we haven’t faded. They think, good grief, that group’s made another album. The strangest people now are beginning to play The Cure album—they may not like us, but they can’t get away from knowing who we are.