By Jonah Bayer; photos by Jason McDonald on May 11, 2012
The first thing Jason Sudeikis does when we sit down in his office on the 17th floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza is pull out his own digital recorder, a high-tech looking microphone that wouldn’t look out of place in a recording studio. “You gotta get one of these jobs,” the clean-cut comedian says in his Midwestern drawl. “This is what you need right here; you gotta ask Vanessa for one of these for Christmas.”
I should probably mention that my younger sister Vanessa Bayer is one of the featured players on Saturday Night Live so I have some insight into the long hours and amount of work that go into putting the show together—but you wouldn’t know that talking to Sudeikis, who is extremely upbeat and refreshed despite the fact there’s a good chance he was working on sketch ideas in this very room until 4 a.m. this morning.
In addition to his weekly roles on SNL, Sudeikis has been branching out into the movie world in the past few years with starring turns in films such as Hall Pass, Horrible Bosses and, yes, A Good Old Fashioned Orgy—and that was just 2011. You’ve also probably spotted Sudeikis’ recurring cameos on 30 Rock and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and seen him with inventive facial hair on the new season of Eastbound & Down as Kenny Powers’ equally enthusiastic teammate Shane.
After some more small talk, I tell Sudeikis I’m ready to start our interview and, to show off, pull out a hidden USB port on my aforementioned gadget. “I can’t do that, no way,” Sudeikis admits, his eyes transfixed on the undersized recorder. “That was great, it’s like a Transformer! Jonah just whipped out his USB port.” He laughs loudly before suddenly getting serious. “So yeah, what do you want to know?”
I just saw a new episode of Eastbound & Down and I was so impressed you were able to match that level of absurdity with Danny McBride because everything on that show is so…
Heightened and rude? [Laughs.] I’m a big fan of the guys who put that show together and I would have been friends with them when I was 15, so it just sort of felt like goofing around when I was doing it. They’ve done such a good job of making that show so specific in tone that you just get swept up in it. There’s so much care and intelligence to it that you feel OK being awful because it’s so well protected by the way they go about doing it.
You also seem like a well-rounded person, which is so opposite in real life from Shane. Is it fun for you to step into a character like that?
It is, because I know those people. When I was taking classes in Chicago, one of my teachers encouraged me that when you play people you don’t like, you shouldn’t comment on them. One of the characters that I played early on was “Two A-Holes” with Kristen [Wiig] and they’re guys that you see out there in the world and you can’t believe they have no filter. There’s something kind of amazing and impressive about someone who doesn’t care about what people think of them—or at least doesn’t appear to. I appreciate the thinly veiled compliment in there, too. Let me say that right off the bat.
The format of SNL is really unique. Is it strange going from there to a show like Eastbound & Down or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia where you’re not also writing your own material?
I’ve been lucky because you’re allowed to give ideas on both of those shows. I’ve yet to work on a set where that wasn’t the case; whether it’s the Farrelly brothers or Seth Gordon, there’s no one who has been militant to their words. I’d say we’re probably more strict here at SNL because, since you’re editing live, you don’t have time to indulge. You can do little things when you’re doing blocking or maybe make a choice at the [writer’s] table, but for the most part I’d say we’re a little more on the book here. Or on the cards, I should say.
2012 marksFILTER Magazine’s tenth year in print. To celebrate, we are looking back at some of our favorite magazine features, from July 2002’s Issue #1 all the way up to this coming November’s Issue #50.
Below you will find Issue #12’s cover story, in full, where we documented the journey into the world of Interpol. It all started with a cassette tape and ended with an insane asylum. Read on below to see how we got there!
Lost Days with Interpol: A Diary of Antics (Issue 12, Fall 2004) By Gregg LaGambina
I’m at Randall’s Island. The Curiosa Festival. New York City. But I’m behind the whole thing. Nearby machines and the music backwards-sounding, blown around the wind like it always is at outdoor things like this—it’s all making me and it the rest of wherever I am seem submerged. Everyone has that voice from Peanuts, when parents and teachers speak in that indecipherable monotone. Wah. Wah. Wah. Wahhh. You can’t really hear who is playing what song to the crowd on the other side of the stage. In fact, the crowd isn’t even that impressive. Someone tells me to blame it on the “rough climate” for summer festivals this year. (The difference between this event and the doomed Lollapalooza apparently being “at least this one is half full.”) Every machine and bus and generator is buzzing and humming to keep things cool and there’s some speculation about the building off in the distance. Up and up this brick thing bends over the proceedings, menacing like you’re one inch tall and standing on the toe of Vincent Price’s boot. Some whispers “nut house,” but I’m lost to everyone else. Like I said, between the rumbling of some band behind me playing in the other directions and the pure vibrating industry of keeping the “backstage” air conditioned and supplied with power, well I might as well be underwater.
A bit later (two minutes, maybe 20) someone mumbles something about a “psychiatric ward” again and indeed it looks like there are bars on the windows of that building you can’t help but stare at if you’re back here and not out there, up front watching whomever it is who is playing. All I know is that it’s too early for the Cure, I’m a guest of Interpol who’s nearby, I just saw the Rapture mingling and Mogwai sitting in their bus chatting with Chloë Sevigny and pouring out drinks for whoever stopped by. In short, who knows who is playing? And who really cares? It’s too hot. It’s too bright. Who, in fact, is responsible for assembling this dark caravan of midnight music and packaging it up for the outdoors in the hottest part of the year to take place mostly under the sun for these kids who pretend to be sick when they’re picked to be “skins” in gym class? And then I find out the building in question is indeed a mental institution of some sort. That’s Ward’s Island, which is only separated from this here Randall’s Island by a sewage facility, which must be what was tickling my nostrils on the way in. Terrific. A scene this depressing couldn’t have been set designed any better than by one of Sybil’s multiple personalities. In fact, is that her up there in that window? I’m actually waving.
Two weeks earlier.
Alone in my car. 8:07 p.m. Los Angeles.
I have a cassette of Interpol’s sophomore release, Antics. I can’t remember the last time I’ve used a tape deck, but now it’s the only place where I can listen to their new record. Which means that I have to sit in my idling car outside my home at twilight, the sky that color blue which in summer means game over and time to come inside. The dog is staring at me through the window while I walk away, ears pricked up, head tilted as if to say, “What is that giant white furless upright thing with the thumbs doing now?” Well, apparently the cassette tape is everyone’s favorite old technology to prevent the new technology. I’m sure someone can upload a cassette to the Internet. I can’t and I don’t want to. But I do wish I didn’t have to think of a place to drive every time I wanted to hear these new Interpol songs. So here’s this relic of a plastic rectangle in my hand and the only tape deck I own is in the faux black leather dash of my four-door; so I’m already three steps across the lawn.
Breakfast with Daniel before the Cure,
Saturday, 2:14 p.m. New York.
“Rather than stress out and worry about if the well is dry, we just accepted that we wouldn’t write songs on the road and we just became a better live band with each show. When we finally got off the road, you’d think the last thing I’d want to do is pick up my guitar, but the first day I was back home I got into the mode I always get into when I’m writing—with my classical guitar, just sitting on my couch. The next day, I was already writing. I think it’s because I starved this energy, which is the only reason I ever wanted to be in a bang. It was for this energy of writing and everything else just stems from that. I mean, I love playing live and I love playing our songs, but the reason is writing. So after coming back from all that touring, things just poured out.”
I’m lucky to be here with guitarist Daniel Kessler this early in his telling the world about his band’s forthcoming Antics. It means that I can ask him bad questions about the pressures of sophomore records and he’s full of energy describing the first days coming off the road after supporting Interpol’s hugely successful album Turn On the Bright Lights. But in fact, it may not be such a bad question, considering, fairly or not, Interpol was sort of lumped into that big rock renaissance garage savior clin when really they sounded nothing like the Strokes or the Hivers or whoever else. They may also prove their mettle by being the only ones to stumble upright and unscathed from the huddle—the band with the least to lose, actually delivering on their promise the second time around.
“When I have something written, the band is pretter good as far as attacking it and building it into an Interpol song and arranging it. Once we have things on the table,” he says (actually knocking on wood to illustrate his point or to please the ghosts of songs that haunt him, so they keep haunting him), “we’re good at working on them. So, instead of worrying about what to do next it was more like, ‘We’re already doing what we’re doing next.’”
First revelation of the day is that Daniel is the source for virtually all of Interpol’s music. There is no Page/Plant or Lennon/McCartney or even a Berry, Buck, Mills, Stipe dynamic going on with Interpol. Over a late breakfast before his band plays the Curiosa Festival at Randall’s Island, I soon realize that it’s Daniel here who dangles a melody or a guitar line above the rest of them and the band bites or doesn’t, but everything that we end up hearing by Interpol starts from the man sitting across from me. He speaks quickly and specifically, with no ums or likes or pauses. In fact, he sounds like the parts he plays in his songs—these treble notes picked with precision, like he graphed them out of a patter on a piece of paper before he ever heard them come out of an amp. He’s deliberate and serious and the only one at dinner the night previous who specifically requested to do his interview today before he headed out to the venue—as much to get it over with as to just get it done so he could focus on the work ahead for the performance that night.
“I spent many miserable years looking for people and finding people who were not as serious as I was about having a band,” he says, digressing for a bit of back-story. “They were really casual about it and I just decided that if this was something I was going to do with my life, I would have to really try. I might fail, but I had to do this or else I would be really miserable. So, I had this class with Carlos. It was like a lecture course, but he was the only person asking questions. He was this really striking young man, really well-dressed as he is now, and I had decided already that I was going to drop this course. I’m not a very audacious person. I’m pretty shy especially back then. But when you want something, you have to ask for it, so I waited after class one day and I just went up to him and struck up a conversation about music. He told me that he used to play guitar, but he didn’t anymore. He was an academic. He was at NYU and he basically just wanted to be a philosopher. But he had just moved her and he didn’t know that many people, so he was like, ‘I’m interested in what you’re doing, sure.’”
Drunk with Carlos after the Cure
Saturday. 11:23 p.m. New York.
“I had given up playing music. I was a philosophy major and then I met Daniel and he was like, ‘I need somebody to jam with but I don’t have a bass player.’ He even had a bass, this piece of shit Ibanez thing. He was like, ‘Do you want to just fuck around and play bass?’ And I was lie, ‘Whatever, sure.’ I didn’t really care. I didn’t really think about it. I was like, ‘I’m not a bass player. If anything, I’m a guitar player. But what the fuck, I don’t care.’ So, I’ve always been sort of distanced from my own instrument.”
At this point, I am unfortunately shithouse tanked from “filling” the long and empty spaces of this day in this park at the foot of the asylum, and the air I’ve been breathing in those confined trailers and buses (and small spaces where I’d have gone to walk upfront to look for a steering wheel just to make sure I was in a large automobile instead of a small suite in the asylum on the hill), is full of exhaled cannabis and recycled oxygen and in short, I’m not feeling well. Carlos D., one of the last in a dying breed of celebrity bass players, seems fine. He’s full of energy and when it finally came time for us to formally talk at the end of the evening, the gaggle of youthful, darkly garbed females (who follow him around in an awkward flight pattern, rearranging themselves when he’s just gone two steps and turned around abruptly as if he’s forgotten something, or speed up when he’s off and running) are excused with a flourish and sort of sadly drift away so their hero can come chat with little anonymous me. In fact, once he’s settled in this back room of the Interpol tour bus, I’m struck by how lonely he looks—not like he’s frowning or sad, but that this probably the first time I’ve seen him today not surrounded by a cloud of admiring estrogen.
“I have lots of interests that probably don’t have much to do with the group.” He’s talking about his gradual inclusion in the band at a time when he wasn’t thinking much about playing in one. And as the energetic, outspoken and oft-seen out-and-about dark figure of Interpol, you wonder if this is just a brief stopping point before he ends up pursuing what he left behind the day he met Daniel. “I don’t like to think about things like that. For me, right now, I acknowledge those impulses, but what we’re doing at this moment is so important—not for music is a general sense, but for us as people. This is what we need to be doing right now. I try not to think about too much other stuff. I want to focus in on what the job at hand is.”
Carlos is a lot less arrogant than you’d think he is. (Let me explain, Carlos. This is going to be a compliment I promise.) Here is a man who wears a par of empty gun holsters and whose dyed-black, angular hair is the closest the band comes to looking like they sound. He’s what the rest of the band should also be, but it’s as if Interpol has concentrated all of its dark, gothic tendencies into this banshee of a bass player who hops and jerks around on stage, the only seeming purveyor of showmanship in the entire quartet. It’s amazing, really, that he’s outfitted himself in all these components you think you’ve seen somewhere else and if he wasn’t “Carlos D. of Interpol” and he told you he was a bass player in a band, you’d think he wouldn’t have half a chance, that he might be trying too hard. But he’s not. When you’re at an arm’s length from him you begin to realize it’s you who’s the asshole for making those assumptions. He’s charming and kind and I must just have to join that admiring huddle outside and circle around him a bit to drink in some of his charisma (and I might blame the recycled air if you call me on this). He’s compelling, not because he’s wearing gun holsters because he has that kind of energy you want to be around for fear of missing something. It’s why Daniel didn’t stop the course before he talked to him.
“The thing that I love about what’s happening right now is that I’m still learning so many lessons. The first time around, it was like, “Woo! Take me on that rollercoaster! Do you want to interview me? That’s cool! I’ll just say a bunch of fucked up shit! Let’s just rid on our first album, everybody loves it!’ It was just a total adventure. Now there’s been time to reflect and it’s not just about the adventure anymore. Even if this album tanks, it’s really not the issue. We did it. We did our second album. This is who we are.”
Two weeks earlier.
Alone in my car. 8:46 p.m. Los Angeles.
Sitting here after listening to Antics and I’m really getting the sense that if people don’t this proper time, they’re going to condemn it prematurely. Sure, you have the instant gratifying foot-stomp disco of something like “Slow Hands,” which is going to cozy itself right up next to a song like Franz Ferdinand’s “Take Me Out” (and do the bizarre backwards thing of being a second-record band inadvertently capitalizing on a first-record band’s barnstorm). But whatever it takes, I guess. The really odd appeal of Antics is that it unfurls itself over the course of infinite listening and like all great records, never stops evolving. The rare criticism of the mostly praised Turn On the Bright Lights was an unfairly unified cry of Joy Division dags. But that was just an easy shot at Paul Banks’ calculated baritone delivery. This time, you can hang up the Ian Curtis references and begin to think of Banks as an altogether different kind of crooner—one with melodies and movement and much less monotone. Touring, confidence or both has brought the voice upfront and should serve to choke the naysayers on their own smiles. The real surprise being that this record sounds less like Unknown Pleasures than U2’s Boy or even elements of Regatta de Blanc by the Police—without sounding exactly like either. Songs like “Not Even Jail” and “Narc” and “Take You On A Cruise” move around like mini-suites, with multiple parts that never come back around, leaving you with a b it of amnesia as to what song you just heard. It’s probably why the whole thing sounds like something else as early as the next day. It feels epic without trying and important without asking to be. And the drums…
With Sam before the Cure.
Saturday. 5:42 p.m. New York.
“I’m pretty spastic in my taste and they let me get away with a lot.”
Sam Fogarino, Interpol’s drummer, is so agreeable he just asked me if it was okay to smoke in his own tour bus. We’re talking about whether Interpol is the exact band he’s always wanted to be in. See, he’s a few clicks older and this isn’t his first outfit.
“I don’t know what drummer would not be satisfied in this band. Probably a really dumb one. The dynamic in the songwriting is the thing, and that’s pretty understood. That’s the band. It’s only going to exist with the four of us.”
All over Antics, once you’ve parted the curtains past the melodies and all the upfront things that make up a rock song, you begin to really hear that Sam isn’t full of shit right now. A drummer talking about songwriting is usually your cue to stand up and pretend that you have a phone call. But inside these songs there’s Sam, sitting there, doing something very close to writing…in a song. You can hear that precise thought that made him tap a tambourine, or the pause before a decision to pedal the bass drum for an extra pair of hits the second time the verse comes around, but never does it feel dry like math. It’s inspired composition that few drummers ever bother with. Thing is, I don’t remember him this well from Turn On the Bright Lights. And it’s cementing my small theorem that Interpol might be developing into the last real band. I don’t know who is to blame entirely for Interpol, or who to pin the whole idea of them on. I’m doing my best to secretly interrogate these gentlemen separately (I was supposed to have two at a time) and my guess is it’s Carlos, but I haven’t heard from him yet. (He’s not even at the venue and they go on in less than two hours. Some people who are paid to worry about these things pacing. Apparently this is far from the first time, but he always shows in his own time and on time in way because it’s known that that’s when he’ll be here, or so they tell me.) But Sam is here early, smiling and making a strong case that he’s another 25 percent just like the other three and what’s so surprising about that?
“There’s always this line between kind of mapping it out and just letting it happen. That makes it difficult. It almost contradicts itself in a way. I mean, how do you do that? You pain over a part and you do obsess over it but if it doesn’t sound natural, we just stop. It’s a weird line to walk down, but we do I think it’s within the band—the balance kind of goes into affect Carlos—he’s a very learned musician. He has theory behind him. Daniel and I are a little more punk rock roots, with a little more abandon. And Paul. Paul is [pauses and smiles]…fuck man, he’s just—Paul is his own thing, man. I don’t know. I don’t know where the fuck he came from…”
By Laura Studarus; photo by Emma Le Doyen on May 9, 2012
Electric Guest has produced a song for Charlotte Gainsbourg, composed the music for the Saturday Night Live/Lonely Island digital short “Dick in a Box” and worked with one of the most sought-after producers of our time. But the Los Angeles duo’s success all started with a donut. Well, sort of.
“There was this donut shop by my house that I would hang out at,” says Electric Guest leadman Asa Taccone of his band’s name, the origins of which stretch back to his teenage years in Berkeley, California. “There was this weird, older woman that worked there. Me and her would get into these weird, metaphysical conversations. One of the last times I saw her, she stopped me and said, ‘I want you to remember something, that you are an electric guest of the universe.’”
Suitably christened but unsatisfied with the music scene in Northern California, Taccone headed to Los Angeles shortly after, where he met Virginia native and drummer Matthew Compton. It was instant musical kismet—as proved by Compton’s willingness to battle the traffic snarl between his West Hollywood home and the eastern Eagle Rock area where Taccone lived. “I feel like we hit it off as really good friends, too,” Compton offers. “It was different music than what I was used to playing, but it felt really comfortable and nice. It was a good fit.”
The springy blend of R&B vocals and 1960s guitar-pop refrains would go on to form the duo’s EP Mondo, released early last year. However, the band members balk at too rigid a discussion concerning genre-labeling. “People get it wrong,” notes Compton. “People will definitely categorize stuff, but it’s what they equate the music with, as opposed to the person who made it.”
Taccone interjects, addressing his bandmate. “I always liked the fact that even if I was doing something, even if the song had what someone would think of as ‘soul,’ or ‘R&B,’ the way that [Compton] played never leaned toward that,” he says, gratefully. “A lot of people think of it as ‘pick a genre,’ and I always hated that kind of shit.”
The lines surrounding their music are blurred even further, classifying elements smeared into an Impressionist glow by the hypnotic repletion of “Troubleman,” the Marvin Gaye–posturing of “Under the Gun” or the bubbly pop of “Waves”—all augmented by an effortless blend of strummed guitars, live percussion and old-school electronic embellishments. But Taccone and Compton didn’t get there alone. To combine their disparate influences—born of youths spent, respectively, indulging in underground hip-hop and rocking out to Archers of Loaf—the band needed a producer equally adept at obscuring genre lines. They settled on Brian Burton—better known as Danger Mouse.
Scoring such an icon—who has worked with the likes of The Black Keys, Beck and Jack White—as the producer of a debut album seems like a near-impossible get. However, the seeds for Electric Guest’s collaboration with Burton were sown long before Taccone and Compton set foot in Los Angeles, extending back to a time before Burton went “Crazy” or was considered an A-list producer. Taccone explains: “I would always call my [older] brother [The Lonely Island member Jorma Taccone], who was living in L.A. at the time, and I would play him little songs that I had made. One day, I played him some track I was working on and he put Brian on the phone.” Impressed, Burton continued to encourage the younger Taccone, officially coming on as a producer and squeezing the fledgling duo in among higher-profile gigs—an act of scheduling that stretched production out over five years.
2012 marks FILTER Magazine'stenth year in print.. To celebrate, we are looking back at some of our favorite magazine features, from July 2002’s Issue #1 all the way up to this coming November’s Issue #50.
Getting To Know is a section in the magazine that serves as a good gauge for our predictions of greatness. In FILTER Issue #11, released Summer 2004, we introduced The Fever, Le Tigre, Magnet, Hope of the States and West Indian Girl. Here is a brief look at those artists, then and now.
Stay tuned for Issue #12's complete Interpol cover story to be posted later this week.
Getting To Know Recap
ISSUE 12: Fall 2004
Band: The Fever
Where The Band Was Then: Following the release of Red Ballroom (2003), the band was enjoying the exposure they received as supporting acts for bands such as Hot Hot Heat, Moving Units and Death from Above 1979.
Where The Band Is Now: After the departure of guitarist Chris Sanchez, the Fever struggled to maintain a cohesive cast of musicians and consequently disbanded after the release of In the City of Sleep (2006).
Band Said: “I wanted to create this basis of a machine or a clock or something organically industrial sounding, and then just throw everything else on top; throw the emotion on top.”
FILTER Said:…underneath all the influences, whatever they are, there is an uncategorizeable element that remains a mystery. Like all good bands, Fever is giving us something both familiar and completely new.
Photo by Kirsten Luce
Band: Le Tigre
Where They Were Then: Springing forth from the womb of Riot Grrrl, the feminist electro-punk group was shaking hips and the status quo while inspiring a wave of girly mustaches with their first major label release, This Island (2004), on Universal.
Where They Are Now: Although Le Tigre decided to go on hiatus in 2007, the ladies have kept themselves busy by working and recording with other artists such as Peaches, Yoko Ono, and Chicks on Speed.
Band Said: “I felt there was a real kind of hipsterism that was passing as progressive thought, when it was really just ironic appropriation of really conservative values. With Le Tigre, we’ve always been into sincerity, our form of critique.”
FILTER Said: Le Tigre has remained a paragon of fierce integrity while making unabashedly danceable and original politically-heated music that crosses punk with electro, and spoken word with ’80s pop.
2012 marks FILTER Magazine’s tenth year in print. To celebrate, we are looking back at some of our favorite magazine features, from July 2002’s Issue #1 all the way up to this coming November’s Issue #50.
Below you will find Issue #11’s cover story, in full, where we sat down with Robert Smith of The Cure and we tried our hardest to learn the ins and outs of a legendary artist. How successful were we? Read on friends.
25 Imaginary Years: Alive and Awake with Robert Smith (Issue 11, Summer 2004)
By Mikel Jollett
In Between Days
The lapel on his shirt is as black as the sky which hangs crisply over a hushed New York evening outside the stiflingly small hotel room where Robert Smith sits in a chair with his hands beneath him like a child with a shy smile that guards a strange secret that he’s only so willing to tell you if he can just find the right words somewhere within the endless mumbled phrases which fall from his mouth and gather in the air, filling the tiny room with fragments of a man, an artist, a narcissist, a ghost, an idol, a shy, sleepy child who has endlessly dreamt, then awoke, then scratched his fevered head to stare out at the contours of four walls covered in mirrors, false doorways and gaudy prints on the carpet.
It’s one o’clock in the morning and the beer is in the corner on ice. A half-empty wine bottle sits on the floor with an extinguished cigarette floating in sweet yellow liquid surrounded by a ring of forgotten black ashes. His hair suggests madness. His faded lipstick looks rather like blood. His eyes smile, his hands fidget, and his jaw is covered in a shadow of manly stubble, his countenance a kaleidoscope of contradictions: a child in the body of a large man, a large man in the pose of a delicate artist, a delicate artist with the face of a clown, the face of a clown uttering the words of a dizzy seraph, a dizzy seraph attempting to make sense of a night spent standing like a statue in the corner of a crowded listening party watching a collection of agents and publicists and assistants and journalists and marketing specialists and tour managers and sales representatives, who gathered like bees, like ants, like locusts, like vultures, to eat prosciutto and drink scotch and talk, ceaselessly talk, as the morbid, searing rise and fall of the new Cure album droned out from a pair of tinny hotel conference speakers.
Four hours later, we’re sitting in that tiny room together talking about the preceding five hours, the preceding five months, the preceding 25 years in which Robert Smith has come to symbolize something dark and happy and elegant and twisted to an entire generation of misfits and wannabe misfits and people for whom the Cure was the introduction to their inner misfittedness, and in the midst of Robert’s unending streams of consciousness (of which there are tributaries which become creeks which return again to the stream which spawned them) he stops point blank, while discussing the fateful year when everything changed for the Cure and says, “The realization of your own death is the only important thing in your life.” Leaning forward in his chair, he takes a manful pull off his bottle of Budweiser and wipes his mouth through gritted teeth, looking for all the world as if he’s about to spit across the room.
Robert Smith is, if anything, an existentialist. Which is to say that he is forever questioning the nature of his existence, deciding it’s meaningless, then pushing forward to assign a meaning anyway. Our late-night conversation on the second floor of the Essex House Hotel across from Central Park—interspersed with alcohol, with publicists arriving at the door (which Robert continues to shoo away with a flick of his wrist as we talk into the night about his new album, his new producer, the love of his life, and the doldrums days when the young Mister Smith wanted nothing more than self-annihilation; a career ambition, to be sure, for any artist with his particular perspective)—is continually bombarded, on subject after subject, with his ceaseless desire to ask himself why.
To wit (in less than three hours, in the midst of the exact same conversation), he says:
“Ross [Robinson, who produced the new album] is always saying to me, ‘Can you feel what’s going to happen when people listen to this?’ But then the cynic in me starts to argue and say, ‘And then what? What’s it matter? It means absolutely nothing.’”
And (when discussing mixing):
“I’m always thinking, but why bother? Why not piece it together? I’d be thinking, ‘Just drop in my voice, it doesn’t matter.’ And Ross is saying, ‘We’ll come back in tomorrow.’ It’s like we don’t care. And then he’d go out and I’d think, “But I do care.’ And then I’d think, ‘But why do I care?’”
And (on songwriting):
“I was sitting outside at home playing guitar and I thought, ‘That’s really nice. This is exactly how I feel. This set of chords, these words.’ But the question of why I’m doing it, why I’d want anyone to hear what I’m doing, why I wouldn’t just be content to sit outside my home and hear those chords—that’s the thing I’m hoping gives me some purpose.”
And (on why he makes music at all):
“I feel driven in a way that I would almost sneer at. I have no idea why I’m doing it, but I love singing to people. It’s really weird.”
He’s not being dramatic. He’s not trying to play some role that has been thrust upon him as the avatar of the disaffected. He simply has no self-consciousness to him. For all the years of tours and albums and songs and press days and mix-downs and fights with the band and heartbreaking songs that seem like signposts, like time capsules of a specific era in the life of any Cure fan (How old were you when you first heard “Just Like Heaven”? How many of your mix tapes include “Boys Don’t Cry”? Who’s in the pictures in your own life’s version of “Pictures of You”?)—he simply sits in his chair, uttering his asymmetrical thoughts, philosophical and self-questioning and dreamlike, with that hair and that face and that shy, friendly, slightly deranged demeanor—exactly at ease, exactly in angst, precisely Robert Smith.
Three Imaginary Boys
The veneer of a person that sits before me, a trifle paunch and consumed in his beer, resembles in form (framed by large strands of wayward black hair) the baby-faced young man of 25 years ago that began his career as a guitarist in a teenage cover band called Malice—in which he was known for the steady jaunt of his fingerings on the fret board, and penchant for wearing large women’s coats. It was (as are more quixotic art projects, all-consumed by the dog-dare of art in the face of that mind-numbing propriety) a suburban affair. Philosophic contemplation, (as Nabokov said), is the invention of the rich, Or, perhaps more accurately put (in the modern era), it is the playground of the well-fed middle class. Crawley is a London suburb and Smith, along with milktooth chum, playmate, confidante, drummer and whipping boy Laurence Tolhurst, was a private school product, raised by Catholic parents, who devoured his Proust, his Camus, his Nietzche—then caught the visage of an androgynous Davis Bowie on the television one night, and thought, “This world is large and strange. And it will be mine.” Or so the story goes.
Malice became Easy Cure and well-fed private school guitarist became enigmatic singer (after four other singers quit) became tortured artist. Or perhaps that’s skipping ahead. Easy Cure was in face first signed to the German label Hansa who discovered the lads from Crawley by placing an ad in a magazine for a contest for new talent. Which the band won. And were signed solely because of how they looked. (Post-punk aesthetic enters here, the juxtaposition of minimalist, dark, somber haircuts, poses and moods with honest, youthful charisma—as if the good boys of the world have been corrupted by the unbearable depression of existence itself, rather than politics or street habits.) Hansa wanted a teen group to take advantage of the “punk” thing. (Consider the twirling of mustaches, the roasting of live pheasants over demonic flames as German businessmen envision the Cure as New Kids on the Block dressed up in the snarl of the Sex Pistols.) Asked to cover “I Fought the Law,” Easy Cure told the label to get bent and send them “Killing an Arab” instead. Promptly, the song was dismissed as racist (a claim that reverberated throughout the Cure’s early years) and the band was released.
Touched by early success (a tragic twist of fate which cripples the selfhood of any unfortunate wunderkind with perplexing notions of “artist” instead of “man,” rendering the disfigured personage into something fascinating, for all to watch. “Nobody loves a genius child, kill him and let his soul run wild,” as Langston Hughes once put it), Smith and the band carried on, sending their curiously minimal demo to 10 record companies. Chris Parry of Polydor responded (the man who, in the same rush of recognition signed Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Jam), inking Easy Cure (which quickly became simply the Cure, after firing lead guitarist Pori Thompson whose virtuoso vamping about the instrument was made quickly obsolete by the rise of punk) a contract in 1978 to his own indie side-label, Fiction. Three Imaginary Boys was released in 1979 and the Cure—confused, distraught, familiar and enigmatic—was unleashed upon the world.
The response was immediate and curious, not so much a juggernaut or a revolution, but a collective head-scratching as critics and fans and fellow-travelers looked up from their Led Zeppelin (et. al.) and uttered in unison, simply, “What?”
Firstly, what to make of the cover art, the three disembodied objects—a lamp, a refrigerator and a vacuum cleaner—which, in total, seemed to conjure no image at all. (This, a ploy suggested by Chris Parry and fought by Smith who saw the willful manipulation of public persona as garish in the extreme.) What to make of “Killing an Arab,” a strangely upbeat and macabre telling of a murder scene from Camus’ novel The Stranger. It didn’t fit in. Nothing fit in. There were rough comparisons to Joy Division (whose eminence over-shadowed all music of the time which suggested darkness) and the ever-present Siouxsie from whom Smith (at least) later borrowed his look. But the band was mostly without precedence, without context, their seeming genius buried beneath their youth, like the melding of disparate adjectives whose coupling seems obvious in retrospect: the ability to find a jest in majesty, to make an ass of passion—a puzzling admixture of warped pop and breathing soul capable of twisting God and the devil into a live dog.
They were attacked by skinheads (for supporting a former school teacher who’d been fired for engaging in a “lewd act in public with another man”): the Nationalist Front (right wing limey extremists), sensing some sort of threat from the enigma of the band, distributed leaflets at shows, scaring up locals in the crowd, once attempting to burn a venue to the ground while Robert and the boys played inside. They were dismissed in the press as an “abrasive light metal trio,” as dilettantes, as the “New Existentialists,” as talentless, neophyte suburban kids trying to cash in on ideas outside the bounds of their comfortable domain.
They played with Wire (immediately after penning their contract). They played with Joy Division (who they claimed not to like). They played with Generation X (on whose lead singer, Billy Idol, Laurence Tolhurst once urinated after discovering him in the john in a rather compromising position with a young lady who refused to depart so that Lol could attend the business at hand). They played with the Fall and Siouxsie (of course). They played festivals with the Police, with Motorhead, with the Clash.
They were oddly suggestive and incomplete hodgepodge of ideas about sparseness, about youth (Smith was barely 20), about philosophy, about pop music—panned for being incomplete, attended to for being compelling, the obvious question on everybody’s lips as they considered that which the Cure represented in the minds of the public: What exactly are they the Cure for?
Robert Smith refused to serve up any obvious answer to this question, and with his next three albums (17 Seconds, Faith, and the boiling blood Cure classic Pornography), proceeded instead to tear down any notions anyone ever had about the accessibility or light-hearted nature of his band. Pop became a bad word. Strangely, hits continued to accumulate (“A Forest,” “Charlotte Sometimes”) but the band took a decidedly darker turn, eschewing the jaunty domain in post-punk pop inhabited by songs like “Boys Don’t Cry,” in favor of layer upon layer of gloom and feedback and keyboards and chorus effects. (“Phil Spector in hell,” as was once famously said.)
Apparently, boys did cry. And scream. And wail. And fight (with audience members, with each other). And take drugs (cocaine and acid fueling aggressive all-night recording sessions in an earnest attempt at psychological self-mutilation). And rub lipstick over their eyes, to mingle with sweat, causing the melted crimson wax to streak down their faces like blood. And open albums howling lines like, “It doesn’t matter if we all die!” (Pornography)
After a particularly violent argument ended with he and Laurence Tolhurst rolling around on the floor once night trading punches on the Pornography tour, Smith flew home and broke up the band. It was the first in what has become something of a perennial event for the Cure. It was 1982.
Having accepted an offer from Steve Severin to play guitar for Siouxsie and the Banshees (again), Smith holed himself up in a studio and wrote a song meant to destroy the whole myth of the Cure, to alienate their audience and undermine any artistic credibility they had earned with their legions of goth fans. He considered it a swan song. A lark that would be met with enough derision to bury the Cure forever. The song was “Let’s Go to Bed.” Unexpectedly, it became a hit—even in places as far away as America, turning the rather surprised Robert Smith into a pop star.
A likeness of the band was reassembled—including Tolhurst and Phil Thornally, who engineered Pornography (and currently makes his living as a songwriter for such clients as Natalie Imbruglia and Bryan Adams. Go figure.) More singles followed as the face of the Cure continued to change from youthful minimalists to loathsome goth rockers to deranged pop artists. “The Walk” (a single and an EP) and “Lovecats” were released the following year and became the Cure’s biggest bits to date. They were compiled on a collection of B-sides and singles sent out into the world in December of 1983 under the moniker Japanese Whispers.
The Top followed, and with it passed Smith’s fateful year of willful self-demise. Having worn himself out on the Siouxsie/Cure tour (in which he played in both bands, feeling an ever-widening gap with former friend Siouxsie Sioux, who referred to him as “fat boy Smith”), he quit the Banshees, teamed up once again with old friend and bassist Simon Gallup, fired the rampage-happy drummer Andy Anderson (after Anderson destroyed his hotel room in a fit of chaotic mania on tour, tearing at a door behind which sat Smith, unimpressed) for former Thompson Twins drummer Boris Williams, decided to give up drugs and hard liquor (imbibing only beer, for now) and set out to make his “Strawberry Fields Forever” masterpiece, The Head on the Door.
There are many ways to characterize music that hits the nail on the proverbial head (one conjures images of dreamscapes or personified guitar effects, ad nauseum), but all that journalistic lingo resembles so much senseless dancing about architecture. Let’s just say The Head on the Door was a great fucking album. Flaunting two hit singles (“In Between Days” and “Close to Me”) as well as enough bombastic strangeness to tug the tortured heartstrings of anyone who’d ever looked around an honors English class and said, “Who are these people and why am I here?” (reference “Screw” and the mind-numbing, unfocused hope of “Push”), the world listened in on what Robert and the boys had created with The Head on the Door, and fell smack in love. Top ten in the U.K. charts. It even cracked the charts in the States. And this was 1984 when Van Halen was all the rage. Robert Smith was 25.
Another singles collection, Standing on a Beach, was released the following year. A compendium of songs spanning the band’s already infamous career, it reached #4 in the U.K. and cracked the top 50 in the U.S., where Robert Smith had become, by then, something of a cult figure, playing to hoards of somber Americans who’d adopted his look and attempted to co-opt what they perceived as his somber attitude (an attitude, which, in reality is nothing of the sort), attending shows draped in black, with painted white faces and red lipstick. The Robert Smith clones that walked the streets of New York Chicago, L.A., San Francisco, Paris and London wore their chosen costumes like shibboleths, like signs that they belonged to the melancholy tribe. There was, of course, a certain playfulness to it. A certain irony, that was lurked beneath the costume was not an individual taken to dripping hot wax on white skin at midnight (as outsiders might suspect), but a person with enough humor and insight to know that in this world, no one truly fits in. (So why bother?) Of course, not everyone understood the joke (or the irony). At one particularly infamous Cure show in Los Angeles, a rather confused and heartsick 38-year-old man climbed on top of a chair during the Cure’s set, stripped off his shirt, and while a crowd of onlookers watched in horror, stabbed himself in the chest with a seven-inch hunting knife. He survived, saying he did it for the unrequited love of a girl named Andrea. The band was aghast (it has been a successful tour after all), but it was clear that the Cure—however dramatically, belatedly, drearily or perplexedly—had touched a nerve (literally), and were poised for something big.
Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me was released the following May (1987) and with it, the Cure became a worldwide phenomenon. “Just Like Heaven” was their first American top 40 hit. “Hot Hot Hot” was (rather oddly) the biggest dance song of the year. The double album was an eclectic, heady mélange, showcasing all facets of the Cure’s artistic life, from the dreamy catch (of, uh “Catch”) to the wailing pathos guitar of “The Kiss” (a song seemingly more at home on an album like Pornography, with such lyrics as “Get your fucking voice out of my head… I never wanted this/I never wanted any of this/I wish you were dead!”). What the album represented wasn’t so much a change in tone, but one of scale. Clubs became stadiums, chartered flights became private jet, the outward spiral of their ever-widening influence left the cities, invading suburbs, clubs, MTV, the isolated headphones of likeminded souls everywhere listening to “Like Cockatoos,” wearing Generra cardigans and Creepers in their bedrooms, in cars, in record stores, in shopping malls. Six years earlier Smith had famously said of his band, “We’re not mainstream and we never will be unless the mainstream changes to us.” It seemed pretentious at the time.
Smith’s reaction to all the success was to recede, as he always had, into himself. 1988 was the year leading up to his 30th birthday, an event which had taken on great meaning to a man who was quite sure he’d be dead by 25. He felt he was slipping. He felt he was reaching an artistic cut-off point. He became very isolated, recording the demos for the Cure’s next album alone, on acid. He was tired of pop, tire of trying to write singles (however deranged) for radio play, and having felt such dire mortality at the prospect of completing (gasp) his third decade, he wrote what he felt was a companion piece to Pornography—a sweeping, epic, melodramatic collection of songs entitled, rather fittingly, Disintegration.
The record company didn’t like it. They had expected Smith to produce a second Kiss Me, an album rife with singles. Disintegration, by contrast, seemed to them to be commercial suicide. They thought it wouldn’t play well with the mainstream audience the band had only recently captured. They were wrong. Released in 1989, the album went to #3 in the U.K., #14 in the U.S. and produced the Cure’s first American top ten single [“Lovesong”—a flawed and patently clichéd (by Cure standards anyway) pastiche of lovelorn expressions which found its way to the #2 spot on the American charts]. There was no denying it at this point: the Cure were one of the biggest bands in the world.
What followed, as the details became sketchier, the band more reclusive, Smith more difficult (according to bandmates, anyway), and the backwards trajectory of fame more prominent (which gives birth to butterflies, then wraps them in cocoons)—was a broad, sweeping glide down to earth, punctuated (rather ironically) by the apex of commercial success. Propelled by two light-as-air singles (“High” and “Friday I’m in Love”), Wish was the band’s biggest selling album. Released in 1992, it debuted at #1 in the U.K., and #2 in the U.S. Despite its mammoth sales (which were, let’s face it, a result of so many people having jumped on bandwagon Cure with Disintegration), the album itself was inconsistent, failing to live up to the daring creativity of its predecessor.
Soon after the album was released, Smith was in court with his best friend and longtime collaborator Laurence Tolhurst, who had been booted before the release of Disintegration at the behest of other members of the band. Tolhurst sued, claiming that Smith did not own sole rights to the Cure’s name. A bitter, entrenched legal battle waged for eight months, at the end of which the score was: Smith: everything. Tolhurst: nothing. To make matters worse, both guitarist Porl Thompson and drummer Boris Williams had departed the band after the Wish tour, leaving Robert Smith at the top of the world, all alone.
Wild Mood Swings followed in 1996, but by the time Smith (who had turned increasingly more interested in his private life) had overcome the nightmares of the preceding years, he’s lost the momentum the Cure had culled in the early ‘90s, and woke to find a commercial world mired in grunge and Brit-pop. (That rat nest hair would never do beneath a beanie and Smith simply wasn’t one for goatees.) The Cure had finally become obsolete.
Touched by a searing, tangible mortality of a more banal sort than he one expected from life (read: favor lost, years lost, prominence lost) which the unfettered, youthful and tragic liked of James Dean, Kurt Cobain, Ian Curtis and Jesus would never be forced to suffer, Smith (who would have made a perfectly suitable tragic hero in his mid-20s) attempted once more (approaching 40 now) to create a final, epic, perfectly Cure-esque attempt at dramatic denouement. Bloodflowers, he called it. Released in 2000, it was Robert Smith’s unbridled attempt to go out on top. And though the record achieve the air of cursed finality he was seeking (owing in part to his intense appropriation of Mogwai), the world nonetheless responded with an unimpressed yawn (there’s a Cure song in there too, I’m sure) and sent Smith packing—tragedy, pathos, lipstick, ego, hairspray, gloom, guitar, affection, obsession, anxiety, enigma, catharsis and all.
The story should end there, a symmetrical pyramid of ascension and descension, the heavily vetted protagonist seeking the warm comforts of home or exile or isolation (and death, looming out there somewhere, the conclusion of all life, vetted or not). But Robert Smith is not Ivan Ilyich. And the same dog-dare world of art (pop music anyway) that attracted him, inspired him, embrace him and rejected him now reveres him. You see, the kids grew up. They traded in their Walkmans for mp3 players, their creepers for converse, their cardigans for tight jackets—and they formed bands, borrowing a bit of a “Lovecats” lick here, a “Disintegration” rant there, in a gleeful attempt to rediscover, reconjure, reinvent, revitalize the music that fell forth all those years from a pair of bedroom speakers as they scribbled “show me how you do that trick” on the back of some ratty notebook.
And now they’re everywhere. And here we are in 2004 and it is the Cure’s moment once again. Of course there’s some new album. Of course there’s a Cure summer tour (Curiosa). Of course 60,000 people will still swoon in unison to the heartfelt chords that propelled them forward so many years ago. And though the mantle of “elder statesman” has been passed to him (the rather tasteless province of ex-jocks, aging tenured professors, and retiring Elksmen sitting comfortably in the haze of alcohol-soft middle age), Smith will have none of it. Or more precisely put, it does not apply to him. Because he’s still the same man he always was (a trifle older, a trifle larger), but questioning, rambling, puzzling—approaching the subject of music, the subjects of his songs, the subjects of life—as if it was all just a dream from which he never awoke.
The Same Deep Water as You
“Don’t you wish Kurt Cobain was still alive?” He stares at me a moment with that crazy look in his eye—like a butterfly drunk on absinthe. It’s gotten rather late at this point. The get-to-know-ya’s ended sometime around midnight and we’ve taken to pacing the room. We’re discussing his youth, when the idea of self-annihilation haunted him (as did the ghost of Ian Curtis of Joy Division, a person he once thought he’d have to emulate, by committing suicide, in order for anyone to take him seriously). I wonder if it’s harder to live, to grow old, to be human.
“Yeah,” he says, with a knowing smile. “Because you fuck up. Everyone always does. But it’s only a burden if you think of it in those terms.” He fidgets with the beet bottle in his hands as the older, wiser, slightly more detached (slightly drunk, to be honest) Robert Smith begins to explain the dark forces which drove that alienated young man so many years ago. “There was a time I’d spent at 18-month period really pushing myself, taking every drug under the sun. I guess I decided I’d get out of it one way or another. That was February 14, 1984. I suspended the idea of being scared of dying. It’s the sort of thing you go through if you have a certain mentality at that age. I wanted to see if I was as good as I thought I was. I wanted to conquer my fear of death. There have been so many time when I’ve been whipping myself. It’s like riding a horse. [He raises his voice, pounding his hands against his hips, yelling, like a jockey] ‘Come on body, keep up.’” From the looks of him—a bit dazed, a noticeably large pouch of a belly outlining the contours of his disheveled shirt—his body hasn’t kept up so well. Or perhaps the ride was longer than I can imagine.
“On Christmas Eve of 1984, I hospitalized myself because I felt so ill. They threw me out because I’d been taking drugs. They weren’t going to give me a bed. I wanted them to give me something to make me better and I remember the doctor saying to me, ‘Try taking nothing. That’ll cure you.’” He’s oddly confessional, oddly sincere. Like a man who’s been to the brink, stared over the precipice and found exactly nothing—drawing the conclusions that all people seem to when faced with the prospect of so much life in the midst of so much death. “Some good music came out of it, I guess. But most of it was just an experience: my life condensed into one year. Once I got back into 1985 and we did the Head on the Door, there was a huge shift in my idea of what was good about being alive.”
He stands to address the cache of bottles on ice that have been sitting idly on the other side of the room. As he removes the cap with a twist he says slowly, contemplating the label, “Of course…it’s always been cathartic for me. Like that song ‘The Kiss’ [from Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me]. I sang it once. I just stood in front of the mic and sang about the things I sang about like, [he gathers his face into a wild pixie sneer] ‘Aaahhhgh.’ There was no sense of, ‘Could you do that again? It was a bit out of tune.’ Everybody was staring at me because no one had ever heard the words before.”
He speaks of his records like children, the way a father or mother might refer to moments in life as occurring before or after the child’s birth, the child’s first steps. As if he’s spent a life consumed, driven by the making of albums which express all he feels and drowns out the humdrum din of everything else. “I’m really proud of certain songs that we’ve done. Other things, the only reason they exist is because I’m screaming at the world. It’s a selfish act. I am, by nature, obsessive about anything that I do. I have to beat it down. It’s been like that so much on the record we’ve just done.”
The record they’ve just done is something of an experiment for the Cure. Possessed by a need to re-invent, to find new ground, to surprise himself, Smith gave up producing duties on the album and handed the reins to, of all people, Ross Robinson-the slick young hot-shot behind such nu-metalocrity as Korn and Limp Bizkit. Never one to resist a new idea (Smith sang a surprisingly artistic track on Blink 182’s latest record), he seems genuinely excited about Mr. Robinson’s role, leaning forward in his chair to exhort the virtues of his new friend. “It’s hard to resist him. He is so passionate about it. The same that I am. He’s sold lots of records, just not in the context of the Cure. At first, the others were really resistant to the idea. They were just like, ‘Why is he even around?’ But I wanted it to be part of the band. The only way to do that was to have an outsider. I would stay outside of the control booth and Ross would say, ‘Could you do that again?’ And I’d be looking at him through the glass thinking, ‘What the fuck was wrong with that?’” He laughs, brushing a strand of tangled black hair from his forehead. “Someone asked, ‘Did Ross push you on the vocals?’ And I was biting my lip because he kind of did. The sound at the start of one of the songs is Ross throwing a metal chair at me.”
Having heard the album in that crowded room earlier in the evening, it’s not entirely clear the experiment has worked. Smith, for his part, seems somewhat cagey on the subject himself. He’d leaned into my table while I sat there scribbling notes in that crowded room and said, “Why the fuck is everyone talking?” He doesn’t seem to care terribly whether his album is embraced or not. It’s already got a hit single (“The End of the World”) and the might of Geffen (ahem, Universal) behind it. Still, there is something of a nascent capitalistic impulse in him, like a sidewalk street painter that instinctually understands that in order to remain a bohemian, he must sell a few paintings at $50 a pop. “I don’t know whether it’s going to translate into record sales,” he says quietly. “I would hope that some of the people who grew up with us and are in a position to play us will play some of the songs off this record. I honestly wouldn’t care if it was given away. But just to know that what I’m doing still can be listened to by people is very important to me.”
It’s not hard to believe him. He’s never had another job. “There is nothing else I can do,” he says rather meekly a few minutes later, standing to stretch him legs and walk the room. His hands are over his ears and his face puffed innocently with a child-like expression. “I’ve tried writing and I can’t write. I’ve tried painting, I can’t paint. I’ve tried sculpting, I can’t sculpt. I’ve tried pretty much every other creative art and I can’t do any of it. So when I want to do something, I write songs. It’s not so much that I want to keep the thing going. It’s just that if I marry those few words with a set of guitar chords, I’m going to come out with something I’ll be able to hear and say, ‘That’s who I am.’ Which is all artists are ever trying to do.”
There’s more beer and more discussions of Ross and the album and his dad (who gave him business advice), and his mom (who wondered aloud why she’d “raised such a miserable son”) and all those maddening self-questioning inquiries as to why he does everything he does. And he appears to be waning, like the surface is starting to give way. He stops in the middle of the room and looks over at the tape recorder on the counter with a smirk. As if he’s ready to take the very interview to task. “People seem to wonder what I think about, but it always seems to me as if how I feel about things is dead obvious. It really never strikes home until I’m sitting here answering questions about myself and I think, ‘Well, how far can I go?’”
I want him to go far. I want him—as he settles into the chair again and stares back at me, peeling the wet paper from the brown bottle in his hand—to explain how he could be sitting in this room in this hotel in New York City in 2004 at 2 a.m., having this conversation, when he’s always been a poster on the wall, a voice in the headphones, someone we grew up with, explaining ourselves to ourselves as we cried—“why won’t you ever know that I’m in love with you?”—to some impetuous crush, 10 or 15 or 20 years old, testing our youth, caught up in the unfolding drama of our own lives, the ones to which this man may not even realize he’s provided the soundtrack. And I think, “Well, how far can I go?”
Which is when the conversation turns, and we somehow wander into virgin territory and the man behind that hair, those albums, that contradiction, that visage, begins—as if pulling aside the curtain of his own theatricality to get at the core of the humanity behind it—to speak sheepishly about his wife. Mary. “I’ve always found it amazing over the years that all of the interviews I’ve ever done, no one has ever wondered for a second about Mary, the girl I’m married to, and whether she has a life outside of mine.” He sounds sad, wistful, the faintest hint of a small lump forming in his throat. Mary was his first love, his only love. And I suddenly wonder if she’s been the protagonist of every Cure song ever written. “They think it’s just me that’s mad,” he says. “And I’ve never ever told anyone otherwise—[he then whispers, like a wink] and I won’t.
“But one of the key things of this record is the notion of love. All these years I’ve been singing about it. But what do I really mean? [He pauses a moment staring at the ceiling, saying breathlessly, emphatically, exhaling.] I mean, I would die for someone—I really would die for someone. It’s like she encompasses the entire notion of love—like a mother dying for a child.”
It all sounds so familiar. It all sounds like a song we heard when we were just beginning to grasp the contradictions of life anyway. All that “true-blue” tripe on the radio and none of it made a lick of sense. And he’s 45 years old, talking about his wide, simply saying, “I love her insanely. But the fact that you can feel that kind of blunt passion with someone [his eyes perk up]…is scary. You can be dependent and completely fucked up and in love all at the same time.” And isn’t that how it goes? And isn’t that why “The Kiss” belonged on the same album as “Just Like Heaven”?
Isn’t that essentially why there are so many Robert Smith look-alikes in the world? All trying to peel away the surface to peer at the dizzy, paradoxical, human-nature beneath. Robert is inured to these people too. And we’re almost slurring our words at this point, a little dizzy from the late hours, the pile of empties on the floor. He has to go to the studio in a few minutes for remixing (and yes, it’s 3 a.m., but that does not strike him as odd). And he’s going on and on about his fans and their choices, their bravery—nothing like a cult leader, nothing like an ego-maniac, more like a person who has sought like-minded souls—if for no other reason than to know (and yes, this is the kicker) that fucked-up situations happen, fucked-up feelings occur. And life goes on anyway. You find people who understand this, you tell them about it. And then you can wake in the morning and everything is fine. That’s a Cure song. That’s a Cure fan.
“It is like a tribal thing,” he says. “You recognize people in public places and you think, ‘I could talk to that person.’ I think the average Cure fan is quite sensitive. Much more resilient than people imagine. They’re not just sitting in a dark room somewhere. It’s not that they’ve been disenfranchised or marginalized, but more like they’ve taken a positive step back from mainstream culture. Which I think is a healthy thing. I think the Cure fans who look a certain way or dress a certain way identify with the band because they’re trying to embrace things they like. They’re doing it to feel a part of something else. That attracts a certain type of person to the Cure. A person that believes there is no norm.”
And then it’s time to go. The entourage awaits. And then the remixing at the studio. And then another listening party in L.A. in a couple of days—probably another late night rambling session about just what these 25 years have come to.
As we stumble towards the door to leave, he places his hand on my shoulder and turns me around gingerly, as if he’s got one final thing he needs to say to end the conversation, like that diminutive speck of punctuation which appears at the end of even the longest sentence.
Leaning into my ear (in all our ears, really), he says, “I fucking hate the idea of normal. Normal is all that’s bad about living. All that’s boring about life. Why be normal?” I stare at him a second, wondering how to retrace the lines that we’ve blurred between an icon and a person, between journalist and subject, between reality and projection (the mortally-plague artist waving hopefully to us from the grave). “To be honest,” he whispers fiercely, “I have no idea what normal is.”
2012 marks FILTER Magazine‘s tenth year in print. To celebrate, we are looking back at some of our favorite magazine features, from July 2002’s Issue #1 all the way up to this coming November’s Issue #50.
Getting To Know is a section in the magazine that serves as a good gauge for our predictions of greatness. In FILTER Issue #11, released Summer 2004, we introduced Keane, Madlib, The Veils and Gomez. Here is a brief look at those artists, then and now.
Stay tuned for Issue #11's complete "25 Years of the Cure" cover story to be posted later this week.
Getting To Know Recap
ISSUE 11: Summer 2004
Where The Band Was Then: Trudging along without a guitarist or even a guitar, Keane’s debut full-length release featured heart-wrenching harmonies belted out by their cherub-faced frontman.
Where The Band Is Now: Beginning with their 2004 Island Records debut, every Keane full-length has been certified platinum in the U.K., so it’s safe to assume that the RIAA is setting aside a bit of that precious metal for Keane’s upcoming release, Strangeland.
Band Said: “If you write songs that are honest and just say what you feel about the things that you think about in your life, often it just turns out that they are lot of the same things other people think about”
FILTER Said: Although these guys don’t hear it, they do pull melodies, rhythms, and the unexplainable aural magic that seems to be in the most familiar of songs, effortlessly pour them into their tunes, polish them and present them as a new gift.
Photo by Eric Coleman
Where He Was Then: Ignoring the restrictions and conventions of genre, Madlib was revisiting the iconic sounds of Blue Note jazz and incorporating his hip-hop imagination into the music’s syncopations and strides.
Where He Is Now: Since the passing of longtime collaborator, J Dilla, Madlib has stationed himself in the control room, producing albums for the likes of Erykah Badu, Mos Def and Ghostface Killah. Nevertheless, unchecked rumors are always circulating about the next Quasimoto and Madvillan recordings.
He Said: “I don’t even look at it like underground and mainstream, somebody made those terms up. There’s good music and there’s bad music. I’m just trying not to compromise with that radio shit.”
FILTER Said: His beats are uncluttered, but never basic. The range of source material he samples is sweeping without being kitschy. He has no single gimmick, trademark or identifiable routine.
Band: The Veils
Where The Band Was Then: Finn Andrews was taking us back to those golden years of acne and heartache with his Poe-meets-Suede torch songs.
Where The Band Is Now: The Veils split shortly after the release of The Runaway Found, yet Andrews reformed the group in 2005 and established Pitch Beast Records with Suede’s Bernard Butler.
The Band Said: “You have to consider the age when a lot of [The Runaway Found] was written. It’s that kind of energy and feeling that comes from the first time of experiencing things.”
FILTER Said: Andrew’s lyrics suggest a young adulthood of heartbreak, agonizing betrayals and exotically named females—perfect fodder for the dolorous poetic histrionics that have made [The Runaway Found] so absorbing.
Where They Were Then: With Split the Difference, the band was showing off their idiosyncratic brand of alt-rock with interwoven guitars and vocals.
Where They Are Now: After their label, Hut Recordings, was disbanded by Virgin, Gomez signed to Dave Matthew’s ATO Records where they’ve released three full-length releases, all without a single “lead” vocalist.
The Band Said: “Even on the poppy tunes, we tended to put on lots of harmonies and counter-melodies and stuff. So, a lot of the time, everybody’s singing. For us, it was really about getting back to being a band again.”
FILTER Said: While many bands find a sound that works and then mine it for all it’s worth, Gomez are constantly evolving. It’s something that stems in large part from the fact that this is a “band” in the true sense of the word.
TO VIEW THE PREVIOUS "10 YEARS OF FILTER" FEATURES, CLICK HERE.
[Be sure to read Part 1 and Part 2 of "A Broken Hallelujah: The Incomparable Musical Journey of John Cale" feature from Issue 47.]
THE VELVET UNDERGROUND & NICO, THE VELVET UNDERGROUND & NICO (1967)
A cultural landmark and still one of the most influential albums ever. Cale’s penchant for experimental sonics collided with Lou Reed’s debauched romanticism, and the result was a shocking counter to ’60s hippy-dippy peace and love. From dreamy balladry (“Sunday Morning”) to drug culture verite (“Heroin,” “I’m Waiting For the Man”) to S&M homage (“Venus in Furs”), it remains a stunning document of the decay of the old value system.
THE VELVET UNDERGROUND, WHITE LIGHT/WHITE HEAT (1968)
Cale’s last album with the VU, the descent into experimental noise and chaos laid one of the imperative cornerstones of punk. The 17-minutes-plus “Sister Ray” is like the sound of the world falling apart—which, in many ways, it was.
PARIS 1919 (1973)
With a titular reference to the post-WWI peace talks, it was very much the work of an artist trying to make peace with himself. Opening with Cale’s musical take on the Dylan Thomas poem “Child’s Christmas in Wales,” it becomes part imaginary travelogue (“Andalucia,” “Antarctica Starts Here”) and part showcase for his literary proclivities (“Macbeth,” “Graham Greene”). Stark, personal and yet epically orchestrated.
Despite admitting that punk had snuck up on him, here Cale paid tribute to the DIY ethic by recording the entire album live at CBGB. The apocalyptic cover image hints at the noticeably less romantic, more politicized content within. You can hear Cale’s influence on Talking Heads, and their influence on him.
WORDS FOR THE DYING (1989)
The long-delayed release of Cale’s 1982 “The Falklands Suite” (his response to the Falklands War using the poems of Thomas), Brian Eno stepped in as producer/co-writer and the beautifully melancholic result, featuring the Llandaff Cathedral Choir of Wales, showcased Cale’s remarkable talent as a neo-classical composer.
LOU REED AND JOHN CALE, SONGS FOR DRELLA (1990)
In the aftermath of Warhol’s death, Reed and Cale put aside bitterness to pay tribute in song. It’s musically spotty, never really peaking viscerally. But as an earnest and passionate tribute to the almost incomprehensible genius and bizarreness that was Andy, it’s a lyrical triumph. Cale’s “Trouble With Classicists” pithily sums up how the artist laid so much of the cultural past to waste.
BRIAN ENO AND JOHN CALE, WRONG WAY UP (1990)
The definitive pairing of the two giants of experimental music, Wrong Way Up is actually a masterpiece of modern pop. “Lay My Love” and “Been There Done That” are exuberant, reggae-and-funk-tinged glories, reminding that all pre-conceived notions about both Cale and Eno are pointless.
[Be sure to read Part 1 and Part 2 of "A Broken Hallelujah: The Incomparable Musical Journey of John Cale" feature from Issue 47.]
Steven Severin of Siouxsie and the Banshees on Working With John Cale
Steven Severin shares remarkable parallels with John Cale. Both played bass in seminal bands that were wildly misunderstood by the press and media, and, not coincidentally, Severin’s nom de guerre was actually nicked from Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s masochist classic Venus in Furs, from which the Velvets had also borrowed for their song of the same name. As the Banshees were suffering through personal and creative differences in the early ’90s, Cale was called upon to produce what would become their final studio album, The Rapture.
Siouxsie and the Banshees were going through some difficulties around the time of the recording of The Rapture. Was it a tense atmosphere in the studio?
Definitely. Although it was just a vibe; no explosive arguments. John was aware of it. We ploughed through it to be honest, which was not the way I wanted to work with John.
How was the decision made to bring in John Cale as a producer?
It was Siouxsie’s idea. We had already spent a year trying to complete the album ourselves. We were thrilled when John said yes.
Had Cale’s music, including that of The Velvet Underground, been an influence on you and other members of the band?
Totally. The Velvets were my absolute favorite band, my benchmark. Likewise, I followed John’s solo work avidly. I played Fear, Slow Dazzle and Helen of Troy to death. In fact, when I first met Siouxsie, Fear was the only album we owned in common.
How was it working with him? Do you feel his production of The Rapture captured what you were going for?
I loved it but we needed more time. It would have been much, much better if we had started the album from scratch with John. I’ll forever wonder what we could have achieved like that. He did a great job, obviously, but it should have been better from our end. To me, it’s patchy and irritable, like we’re waiting to leave. Then again, there are moments when we soar.
Do you feel there are any common threads between your artistic motivations and Cale’s?
I’d like to think so! The variation, severity and trajectory of John’s career is something I admire immensely. It’s not like I sit and think, “Now what would John do?” But it’s close.
Cale playing bass with The Velvet Underground;
courtesy of Lisa Law
In a way, Cale became the ultimate stable-boy-at-the-ball, the working-class lad from the Welsh countryside who found himself hobnobbing with the elite of New York’s fashion and art scenes. He even married outré, proto-punk designer Betsey Johnson, though it didn’t last long. But Cale eventually had enough of the combative relationship with Reed and set out on his own.
He wasted no time blossoming into the Renaissance man he’d surely always meant to be. In fact, it’s hard to emphasize enough the scope of his influence, considering he would go on to produce the earth-shaking, self-titled debut of The Stooges in 1969, and later Patti Smith’s 1975 masterpiece Horses…both of which laid imperative groundwork for the punk explosion. In between, his nascent solo work ranged from the straightforward but absorbing debut Vintage Violence, to the primarily instrumental (featuring the Royal Philharmonic) Academy in Peril, to Paris 1919, which found him revisiting some of the aural chaos of his VU days and mating it with his classical inclinations.
He’d also formed one of rock’s most fascinating and enigmatic partnerships with none other than Nico. The aloof, Teutonic beauty was keen to reject her status as fashion icon, and with Cale as arranger or producer, recorded first 1969’s The Marble Index, still considered a seminal master work of Gothic rock, thenthe Desertshore and then yet another classic of elegiac exquisiteness, 1974’s ominously titled The End…
Reed, Sterling Morrison and Cale in studio during recording of "The Velvet Underground and Nico";
courtesy of Cale Archives
Nico died of a brain hemorrhage in 1988 in Ibiza, and in 2009, Cale, along with the likes of Peter Murphy, Mercury Rev and Lisa Gerrard, organized tribute shows, the most spectacular taking place at the Teatro Comunale in the medieval Italian city of Ferrara.
“It was this giant opera house,” he rhapsodizes, “just packed to the rafters. It was really amazing. I think what we tapped into [with the tributes] was an audience of young female artists who really appreciated Nico for her songwriting.”
The mid ’70s had found Cale at a brilliant creative peak, with him releasing a trio of albums for Island—Fear, Slow Dazzle and Helen of Troy—that would come to define the unfettered range of his musical vision. His collaborators included Brian Eno, legendary guitarist Chris Spedding and Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera. The common aesthetic thread was a general dark and brooding atmosphere, suggesting a rather unsettled psyche.
“‘Gothic’ is a good word for it,” agrees Cale while managing a laugh. “I was not in a good place at that time. The lifeline for me was going out on tour with Chris Spedding and the band.”
Curiously for someone so revered by its adherents, Cale was so busy touring Europe in the ’70s that he now insists that punk pretty much snuck up on him. While rock and fashion were being ripped to shreds in New York and London, he was busy cultivating a rabid following on the Continent, especially Germany. He claims of the punks, “I wasn’t really sure what they were after. I tried to do what I had done in Europe in New York, and it had all changed. Then we went to London and got our heads handed to us.”
Original Velvets: Cale, Angus MacLise, Morrison and Reed, 1965;
courtesy of Donald Greenhaus
Nevertheless, he concluded the ’70s by recording the abrasive, politically charged Sabotage/Live at New York’s punk temple itself, CBGB. But despite a generation of New Wave and Goth bands clearly mining Cale’s oeuvre, he spent most of the ’80s just touring around Europe and releasing a few solid but not distinctly spectacular solo records (Music for a New Society was notable for its gripping bleakness). He also, in a bizarre turn, produced the Happy Mondays’ outlandishly brilliant debut album.
2012 marks FILTER Magazine‘s tenth year in print. To celebrate, we are looking back at some of our favorite magazine features, from July 2002’s Issue #1 all the way up to this coming November’s Issue #50.
Getting To Know is a section in the magazine that serves as a good gauge for our predictions of greatness. In FILTER Issue #10, released Spring 2004, we introduced Auf der Maur, Secret Machines, Snow Patrol, Devendra Banhart and Muse. Here is a brief look at those artists, then and now.
Stay tuned for Issue #10's complete "Meet the Real Polly Jean Harvey" cover story to be posted later this week.
Getting To Know Recap
ISSUE 10: Spring 2004
Band: Auf der Maur
Where She Was Then: After surviving her tenure with Hole and trying her hand at being the “Prince of Darkness,” Auf der Maur decided to risk it all with her first self-titled solo release.
Where She Is Now: Once a sideman, always a sideman, Auf der Maur humbly lent her musical talents to Fountains of Wayne and the musical project Neverending White Lights before finally returning to the studio in 2010 to record her second solo album, Out of Our Minds.
She Said: “I'm totally living out my music dreams,” she muses. “I never would have known what I was capable of had I not taken this risk”
FILTER Said: Melissa Auf de Maur is, legs down, the sweetest rock star in the solar system
Band: Secret Machines
Where They Were Then: With their full-length debut, Now Here is Nowhere, the Secret Machines were mashing up Neu! electro-soundscapes with Pink Floyd psychedelia and stomping them out with a kick drum sound that would've made John Bonham rush out for bigger shoes.
Where They Are Now: Although guitarist Benjamin Curtis left the band to his brother Brandon after their third full-length release, the Secret Machines have enlisted the help of a couple qualified musicians and are still alive and kicking behind Josh Garza's 50 foot bass drum.
They Said: “Our philosophy of recording was if we can get the kick drum the way we want it to sound on record—which is the way it actually sounds when you're standing right next to it—then everything else will fall into place.”
FILTER Said: The Secret Machines take this low-end assault and use it as the foundation to anchor a colorful landscape that combines the precision and abandon of “Down By The River”-era Neil Young and with the ambient leanings of classic Pink Floyd.
Photo by Kal Regan
Band: Snow Patrol
Where They Were Then: After their major label debut, Final Straw, the band was upturning the scene’s ears with their driving rhythms and sing-a-long sensibility.
Where They Are Now: Somewhere in between founding a publishing company and rescuing an Irish football club, Snow Patrol still finds time to keep themselves on everyone’s radar with four full-length releases since 2003's Final Straw.
They Said: “We try to make as much time as possible to get out and meet the people of a particular country or city. We're not the kind of band who'll just sit in the hotel.”
FILTER Said: …lyrically, the [Snow Patrol’s] vision’s always been clear: girls, heartbreak and the various points where the two intersect.
Photo by Alissa Anderson
Band: Devendra Banhart
Where He Was Then: With stars in his beard, Devendra Banhart was freaking out the folk scene with songs that sounded like Caetano Veloso playing Tyrannosaurus Rex inside of a kaleidoscope.
Where He Is Now: After several records and a couple label changes, Devendra Banhart's Persian rug has landed at Warner where the psychedelic folk singer is still making music that sounds like burning sage.
He Said: “The music I'm drawn to hasn't been made into pillows and T-shirts and shit. And it hasn’t inundated the world via every form of communication.”
FILTER Said: So much music these days is drowning in crassness and posturing, you have to give up to Banhart for being brave enough to take off his shoes, grow out his beard, and sort of roll with the psych-folk vibe (a nod to an earlier age, no?) which can repel some as quickly as it attracts others.
Where The Band Was Then: With the 21st Century still sopping in the afterbirth, Muse's Absolution was helping the boys from Teignmouth, Devon establish themselves as one of the greatest bands of the new century.
Where The Band Is Now: The operatic leanings of their last full-length release, The Resistance (2009) demonstrates that Muse continues to create music on an exclusively epic scale.
Band Said: “I think the absolution in the album is exposing yourself for who you really are or being whatever your art form intends you to be. But also, the idea of things coming to an end and how you deal with that.”
FILTER Said: But if Muse is “sacrificing” anything, it's the fear of baring too much soul. In fact, emotional honesty is what's kept them hungry for continued artistic growth all these years.
TO VIEW THE PREVIOUS "10 YEARS OF FILTER" FEATURES, CLICK HERE.