Interview: Robert Smith of The Cure, Conjuring a Festival in 2004

By Bradley Bambarger <2004>

Notions of hip in rock music are as cyclical as fashion or economics. Bands and sounds deemed the essence of cool can be out of style just a few seasons later, only to come mysteriously back into vogue a few years after that. In the case of The Cure, an ’80s English underground band turned early-’90s trans-Atlantic sensation, the winds of change have been relatively kind.

Iconic group leader Robert Smith’s fright-wig hairdo, black eyeliner and smeared lipstick can be blamed for the styles of multiple generations of “goths.” But his multi-hued music has a wider scope than any such subculture, as well as an enduring air of integrity and individuality.

It’s the legacy of The Cure as music rather than fashion that is the essence of the multi-band Curiosa Festival that’s touring across the country this summer.

Or, more accurately, the Curiosa Festival’s essence lies in the resonance of the ’80s post-punk era in the swirl of 21st-century rock. Such divergent Curiosa bands as Glasgow’s Mogwai and New York’s Interpol grew up absorbing the sounds of The Cure and, moreover, its peers — from Wire and Joy Division to Echo & the Bunnymen and New Order.

It’s those often tormented yet tuneful sounds — or, rather, their underlying ethos — that Smith recognizes in the bands he chose for the Curiosa lineup. The nightlong festival’s main-stage lineup also includes The Rapture alongside Mogwai, Interpol and The Cure. A second stage will host the Cooper Temple Clause, Melissa Auf der Maur, Thursday and Muse.

“The prerequisite for the Curiosa Festival bands was just that I liked them — and not only their music but the way they go about it,” Smith says. “Each group has a very individual voice. Yet they all share a passion and integrity that are rare in bands today.

“There’s a misconception that just because some of these bands have credited The Cure as an inspiration that they would sound like us,” Smith adds. “But you can’t necessarily hear The Cure in their music at all. It’s just like when The Cure began: David Bowie was an obvious influence on me, but I don’t think our records sounded much like his.”

Far from the phlegmatic eccentric his reputation may suggest, the 45-year-old Smith is an acute conversationalist, reeling off estimations and enthusiasms with disarming rapidity. He also has the sort of confidence that manifests itself in generosity. The singer/guitarist is quick to note that musical influence goes both ways.

“When I first got hold of Mogwai’s Young Team album, I played it endlessly,” Smith says. “In the mid-’90s, I had forgotten how powerful music could be, but this record sounded like the band was one person with five arms. It led directly to our Bloodflowers album, in that I wanted to make a record that made people feel like I did listening to Mogwai. But, again, Bloodflowers doesn’t sound like a Mogwai record.”

Yet one can hear hints of Mogwai’s expansive, mostly instrumental atmospherics in the textural layering of 2000’s Bloodflowers (despite The Cure’s more overtly narrative aims). Likewise, the dark, deep-toned guitars of such Cure albums as 1989’s Disintegration echo in the Scottish band’s six-string sheets of sound.

Mogwai guitarist/vocalist Stuart Braithwaite recalls that The Cure was “my big sister’s favorite band when she was a teenager, and their songs were some of the first I learned to play on the guitar.”

Braithwaite also acknowledges the fashion factor when it comes to The Cure’s reputation: “For a long time in the UK, they were seen as being uncool, which in comparison to the drivel that was then ‘cool’ is hilarious. The thing about The Cure is that they are liked by and have influenced so many vastly different people.”

One of those people happens to be Jason Cooper, The Cure’s drummer since 1994. He was 13 when his father, who worked in the record business, brought home a copy of The Cure’s 1980 album Seventeen Seconds, which “left an indelible mark,” he says, “as did Faith, Pornography and Head on the Door later. It’s funny, but those are still my favorite Cure albums.”

The Cure’s back catalog will have a chance to sway a new generation in deluxe style starting later this year or early next, when remastered editions of the band’s Fiction/Elektra albums appear via Rhino. Curated by Smith, the albums will be expanded to double-disc size with the addition of previously unreleased material.

The Cure has had a stable lineup for the past decade, with Cooper joined by guitarist Perry Bamonte, keyboardist Roger O’Donnell and old-hand bassist Simon Gallup, who has been Smith’s onstage and studio foil since 1980. But after the Berlin shows in 2000 that saw the Cure perform Pornography, Disintegration and Bloodflowers in their entirety (captured on the Trilogy DVD), Smith intimated that the band was at a natural ending point. The Join the Dots rarities boxed set also seemed to put a cap on The Cure.

While contemplating a solo album, Smith met nu-metal kingpin Ross Robinson, a Cure fan and a strong personality. He persuaded Smith to sign The Cure to his I Am imprint and re-enter the studio with him as co-producer. Robinson demanded a virtually live recording, with Smith singing as the band played in the same room — not standard procedure in technically perfectionist times. The result is The Cure, the band’s most intense album to date.

“Ross pushed us in a way that hadn’t been done in quite a while, if ever,” Smith says. “I not only sang live with the band, we discussed the lyrics of the songs beforehand… I was angry when I wrote ‘Us and Them,’ which is about how the Western media’s 24-hour rolling ‘news’ has wound everyone up that we’re moving toward this inevitable Armageddon. It’s not inevitable, and the media are just playing to people’s base instincts.

“So, talking about it in the studio, with Ross winding me up, I got angry all over again,” Smith continues. “Then he would send us in to record with that in the air. And with a more personal song, like ‘Lost,’ that only exists because of me screaming my heart out in the studio and the band reacting to me looking as if I were about to be sick.”

Despite being “tarred with the brush of goth,” as Smith says with a laugh, The Cure has never been just about the dark side. A wider public knows the band for its long string of loopy, lovable hit singles, such as “Boys Don’t Cry,” “Let’s Go to Bed,” “Why Can’t I Be You” and “Friday, I’m in Love.” The Curiosa shows reveal the light along with the shadow, with nearly 70 songs rehearsed for the ever-fluctuating set list.

“I’m looking forward to seeing some of my favorite bands every night — and then getting the chance to sing myself,” Smith says. “Curiosa is all about challenging ourselves. And with the way we’re playing and all the different sorts of songs we have, I don’t think it’s possible for someone not to have a good time. To really hate a Cure show, you’d have to be one of those people who enjoys kicking small, defenseless animals.”

(Originally published in The Star-Ledger of New Jersey on July 25, 2004).

Longtime music journalist, from Billboard to Gramophone to DownBeat to Medici.tv, etc. Founder/curator of the Sound It Out jazz concert series in New York City.

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