Interview: Mark E. Smith
No boogie-woogie piano, Mr Holland. Otherwise The Fall will not appear
Words Niall O'Keeffe
Photography Richie Hopson
Cover story of issue 10, February 2007
Who says you should never meet your heroes? Today, Mark E. Smith is charm itself. Sure, he turns up late, blaming Manchester’s one-way system, but he’s profuse with the apologies and grateful when I take his drinks order (“Two Coronas please!” — both for himself). He uses my first name constantly and comes off as an old-fashioned gentleman.
Yet others have gained a very different impression of Mark E. Smith. A staggering 70-odd musicians have passed through The Fall since a young Mancunian docks clerk sat down at the office typewriter in the mid-seventies and wrote his first song. The latest turn of the wheel, last year, saw three members desert a US tour. One, Ben Pritchard, publicly accused Smith of systematic bullying and heavy speed and alcohol abuse: “They’re not a good mixture ’cause he’ll take his speed and he’ll be up for three or four days on end and all he’s doing is drinking, drinking, drinking.”
Today, the only indication of a dark side is the odd flash of paranoia. When I offer him another drink, his eyes narrow and he asks, “Are you having one yourself?” The implication is clear: “Are you trying to get me drunk?” Later, he fixes me with a searching look as he talks about journalists stitching him up. Generally, though, Smith seems rather like a grown-up version of the teenager who read up on the French Revolution while his father taunted him for being a “bookworm”.
Driven by his autodidactic zeal, the young Smith steeped himself in music (Krautrock, sixties garage punk) and literature (Malcolm Lowry, William Blake). His refined tastes belied a fierce original-mindedness. Much is made of Smith’s relentless work pace but what’s more amazing is the quality of his writing: its depth, wittiness and piquancy. Look up ‘Wings’ or ‘Hey! Luciani’ and you’ll discover that few people, if anyone, come close to matching Mark E. Smith as a lyricist.
When his last group mutinied, Smith recruited American replacements and, to judge from new album Reformation Post TLC, they’ve hit the ground running. So, immediately after an ugly split, a new Fall rises. With any other band, you’d consider it a Lazarus-like return. With Smith, it’s just business as usual.
Smith’s an advocate of primitivism and repetition. Nonetheless, The Fall’s sound constantly mutates. Oddball folk punk characterised the band’s first phase, which climaxed with 1982’s demented classic Hex Enduction Hour. Dense and mysterious, Smith’s writing seemed to create a whole new syntax.
After Smith’s new Californian wife Laura Salenger, aka Brix, joined on guitar, The Fall embraced West Coast pop and northern soul, and a commercial golden-age ensued (see singles compilation 458489 A-Sides). In 1989, the Smiths’ marriage crumbled and Mark sojourned in Edinburgh, from where he scorned the Madchester scene: “The working class has been shafted… so what the fuck you sneering at?”
Suddenly obsessed with Italian house, Smith next recruited programmer Dave Bush and The Fall went dance, denting the Top 10 in 1993 with The Infotainment Scan. Two years later, as a bolt out of the blue, Brix returned, as did early-eighties drummer Karl Burns. Today, I suggest to Smith that there was a lot of potential for conflict in that mid-nineties line-up. “Tell me about it!” he replies.
Scottish artist Tommy Crooks replaced Brix on guitar, just in time to get involved in The Fall’s most famous meltdown. To quote one witness of a 1998 gig at Brownies in New York: “After much antagonising from Mark, Karl jumped out from behind his kit and nearly strangled Mark. He kept saying, ‘I’ll kill you, you bloody cunt!’ Tommy kicked Mark in the ass really hard about half a dozen times. Mark proclaimed to the audience that he had been ‘assaulted by a dumb-as-a-goat Scotsman’ and that we were all witnesses.” The festivities continued backstage, Smith got arrested and the group went home. Court-ordered anger management deepened Smith’s sense of betrayal but didn’t stop him rebuilding The Fall (repeatedly).
Famously, The Fall were John Peel favourites, and the broadcaster’s passing sparked a surge of mainstream interest in the group, just in time for 2005 masterpiece Fall Heads Roll. Arguably, this was the time to steady the ship. But, as you’ve probably worked out, that’s not how The Fall works.
Through all this, Smith’s eccentricity has generated a treasure trove of anecdotes. Former keyboardist Julia Nagle remembers him locking her in a rehearsal room overnight. When pop cultural theorist Michael Bracewell arranged a public interview with him at the ICA in 1994, a drunken Smith turned up late and demanded to be given a bucket — to piss in. Badly Drawn Boy once gave Smith a lift home, the latter having mistaken him for a taxi driver.
If you’re an obsessive Fall fan, there’s always another website to trawl through, another piece of gossip to savour. Still, every album or gig succeeds in chasing the trivia from your mind. Once you’ve tuned into this band’s wavelength, most other music seems thin and pointless.
BBC broadcaster Marc ‘Lard’ Riley was in The Fall for a while in the early eighties. Given that Smith punched him in the face and wrote a song called ‘C.R.E.E.P.’ about him, Riley’s assessment of the man is strikingly magnanimous: “People use the word genius quite a lot, but I do think he’s a genius.”
Reformation Post TLC is worthy of its place in the canon. Where Fall Heads Roll was dark and intense, Reformation… is more playful. At one point a ramshackle cover of Merle Haggard’s ‘White Line Fever’ gives way to ‘Insult Song’, which good-naturedly mocks new band members. Yet there’s also some real heaviness. The title track in particular throbs with malevolence; ‘My Door Is Never’ even threatens someone’s life.
It’s another great Fall record. No wonder Smith seems full of the joys as he settles down in the Malmaison hotel bar with a dictaphone under his nose…
The Stool Pigeon: The last group left midway through a tour and you had to find people quite quickly. Was there a period when you weren’t sure the new guys were going to fit in?
Mark E. Smith: It was a bloody fluke, really. I was so bloody lucky. Somebody up there likes me, I tell you. The English ones pissed off in fucking Arizona and two days later we had these lads. They could have been really crap, you know what I mean? Two of them were from a mate of the record company’s, the drummer was freelance. He was spot on. They all lived in the same area but the drummer had never met those two. Three days after they hooked up we were playing San Diego. It is quite strange. Very strange. Because I was getting fed up with them lot.
TSP: The last lot?
TSP: Had there been a lot of tension?
MES: Not particularly. What you find with a lot of English groups in America, they all sort of crumble after a week. They haven’t got the fucking stamina. Yanks are much more… I’m going to them, ‘You know there’s an eight hour drive tomorrow?’ and they look at you like you’re mad: ‘We always do that. We do that to go and see a show somewhere.’ These fucking British start fucking crying. ‘Is it over three hours?’ They want to get on to their mams. It’s true… [The Americans] are a bit more enthusiastic. Because they don’t fucking know one another.
TSP: You seem to enjoy touring America. Are you fascinated with the place?
MES: It’s alright to work there. I think I was determined this time. We’d cut the last tour, and every time you open a bloody newspaper there’s groups quitting after a week, Oasis and that. I thought, ‘This time we’ll fucking do it. We’re staying here, me and Elena [Smith’s wife], we’re staying here and we’re fucking doing it.’ I was really sick of it. You know what Yanks think: ‘Fucking limeys, they’re not rock bands.’ But these [new] kids are good. They’re good because — well, you’ve heard the record. They’re fucking brilliant, actually. They’re not fucking session musicians. They’re 10 times better.
TSP: People assume that you are able to lick musicians into shape, instruct them.
MES: It’s more the psyche of it. I restructure their ideas. They’re good musicians… and I’m not a musician.
TSP: You don’t really like musicians, do you?
MES: I don’t, really! I don’t socialise with them. Daft thing to say, but your problems arise when you start treating them like pals and they start treating you like your dad or summat.
TSP: You’ve shown great determination to keep playing new material rather than old stuff. Is that to ensure that there are young people at the gigs and the audience isn’t ageing?
MES: The audience is getting younger and younger. I mean, at the shows we done last year there’s a load of people who’ve never even seen The Fall before. It’s good, that. We or I were sort of banned from festivals for about fucking 10 years. We’ve always been concentrating on being a club group. I always preferred that. But they allowed us into festivals last year.
TSP: My friend said he saw you at a Norwegian festival and you kept saying: ‘We’re more of a club group…’
MES: Yeah, we are. ‘We’re doing you a favour! Playing in the open air at five o’clock! You’re fucking lucky!’ Ha ha! All them other groups, they’re arse-lickers, aren’t they? Those festival groups.
TSP: You once said that every time you turned on your TV, you saw Primal Scream playing a festival.
MES: Ha ha! It’s like a job for life, innit? Just do 20 festivals a year, earn the money, full stop. The money’s good. ‘New music stage: Primal Scream.’ Always makes me laugh. ‘New music stage: Chemical Brothers.’ They’ve been going about 30 years, haven’t they? As long as us.
TSP: You say in the opening song on the new album, ‘A seven-year cycle seems to happen every day.’ Is that a comment on the history of the group? Because it was about seven years after the last band left during an American tour that it happened again…
MES: It never occurred to me, that. A lot of my lyrics… half of them are on the spot, honestly. You’re talking about the song ‘Over’ [‘Over! Over!’], aren’t you? The other day I had to listen to it…
TSP: Do you hate listening back to stuff?
MES: Too much, yeah. Once it’s done, it’s out of the fucking way and then I’m on to the next thing. I’ve always been like that. It’s not a good thing, people say. I’m not one to fucking sit around too much, but it’s funny what you said: a seven-year cycle? Did I fucking sing that? I’m more concentrated on the group and getting them over properly. I’m not saying the lyrics are secondary but… one or two songs, it’s not like I’m drunk or anything, but it just came out like that on the spot. It’s good sometimes.
TSP: In the early days of The Fall and through the eighties, a lot of Fall songs told very long stories and were crammed with lyrics. Have you deliberately moved away from that and tried to simplify?
MES: [snaps] Do you think so?
TSP: Well, it seems like you’ve sought to fragment it a bit more.
MES: Yeah, I know what you’re saying — more repetition and that. I do try to hold back. It’s not that I’m short of words. It is a bit conscious.
TSP: There’s a song, ‘Scenario’, where you’re singing about ‘November day poppies on TV’. What’s that about?
MES: A friend of mine, his dad was in the Chindits [British forces who served in Burma during World War II] and he gave me some poems of his dad’s. I thought, ‘This is really good shit.’ And, it turns out, quite topical. Way before all this shit that’s going on now.
TSP: ‘The Wright Stuff’ talks about I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! I hear you had an approach to be on that show?
TSP: I can’t imagine that was too tempting.
MES: Ah… could have been. I was broke, I was very broke at the time. But it’s a very weird thing. I remember when Big Brother came out, I was in this Catholic club, actually, sat with some priests, and one of them was going on, ‘There’s this thing called Big Brother…’ In this Catholic club they never had the fucking TV on and I was going, ‘That Big Brother, it won’t catch on. British people won’t watch that shit.’ And then they went, at nine o’ clock, ‘Shh!’ and turned the telly on! It was, like, people asleep in bed. To me, I can’t understand that. The encouraging thing is, ‘You were right all along, Smith: people are stupid.’
TSP: The new album seems in some ways quite playful and there’s some humour on there. Is there a happy, jovial atmosphere in The Fall at the moment?
MES: Very much. It’s a big difference. Very self-important, Manchester musicians, as you can imagine. London musicians are pretty easy-going, but in Manchester, they think they’re really great. I’ve never seen The Fall as a Manchester group. We’ve always been at arm’s length.
TSP: I guess the closest thing you’d have to a peer here is John Cooper Clarke. Is he a mate?
MES: He was a mate, and he did play at some of our shows. He’s a mate of the Arctic Monkeys now! I actually read that thing in Mojo [an interview with Clarke conducted by Monkeys singer Alex Turner]. I didn’t read about me — this is the sort of person I am — I read that one just to get the humiliation… I’m going to wind him up if I ever see him again. He’s a fucking space cadet, that Monkey guy! It’s funny, Clarke licking up to him. He’s got the support slot on the tour now! What’s that about?
TSP: Regarding the internet, do you find the level of interest in The Fall and the amount that The Fall gets discussed on the internet almost a bit troubling?
MES: It’s half-truths, innit? There’s about three fucking websites for The Fall. If I spent me time reading it I wouldn’t have time to do anything else. But Elena checks in on it and the group are pretty well up on it.
TSP: But you feel you have better things to be doing?
MES: I don’t like reading about myself. I never have. Total strangers know more than I do. What amazes me is, a lot of journalists I talk to, the big papers, they take it as gospel, which I find really weird. Some bloke from Hartlepool can say I was in a boozer in Hartlepool with some woman, and someone from the fucking Times will be like, ‘Oh, you were in Hartlepool the other night.’ I’m like, ‘No I fucking wasn’t.’ Some nut case, pissed out of his head, has put, ‘I saw Mark Smith the other night…’ like people do. And they take it as bloody gospel. It’s quite strange.
TSP: Have you any views on MySpace culture?
MES: What, MySpace? There’s another one that’s got, like, three tracks…
TSP: On MySpace you can put four tracks up…
MES: What, of The Fall?
TSP: A lot of bands have set up MySpace sites, and you can link to other people’s sites…
MES: Are we on that?
TSP: I don’t think there’s an official Fall one…
MES: There’s an official one and an unofficial one.
TSP: Those are websites. There’s also this MySpace thing, which is a networking site…
MES: I think we’re on that. Sanctuary did ask me. I think it’s on. Because somebody told me the other day, another stranger, that it was the one where they hung Saddam…
MES: They hanged Saddam and then The Fall’s ‘Insult Song’ comes on right after it. Ha ha! That’s not very nice, is it?
TSP: What did you think of the hanging of Saddam Hussein?
MES: Me? I was very deeply ashamed. And I don’t usually get worked up about politics. I was very deeply ashamed. And you just know what Blair’s going to say: ‘Well, Iraq has the death penalty,’ when, every time they hang any fucking body around the world, or kill anybody, there’s always a petition at the embassy, isn’t there? Saying, ‘We don’t agree with the death penalty,’ and all this. I was upset, actually. The wife was very upset. She’s like, ‘I wanna leave.’ And I can understand that.
TSP: You mentioned Tony Blair. What’s your view on the succession, Gordon Brown taking over from Tony Blair?
MES: I think people get the fucking government they deserve, really. You get me? I mean, there doesn’t seem to be any opposition in this country. I think the sinister thing is, the opposition is very glad to be in the opposition. They’re all pals, aren’t they? I’m not saying they should hate each other, like Hitler and the Communists or something, but no fucker’s bothered. You open a newspaper, it’s like, Jordan’s on page one; Chelsea players on page three; page six, 10,000 Iraqi women and kids have been bombed by accident. I find that really worrying, that. I’m not going to go on about the Iraqi war, but I didn’t like that hanging, me. There are British soldiers out there, you know? And apparently in Britain we don’t believe in death by hanging. It went out when I was a fucking kid. The last hanging was in Strangeways, which is a fucking five-minute walk from where I fucking live; from where I was born. I find that very worrying.
TSP: When you go to the States, do you find that it’s become a more right-wing place with Bush in charge?
MES: What really shocked me is, when we were in Texas, they hate him. They hate Bush! I don’t mean people at gigs, I mean rednecks! It’s like, ‘Fuck Bush,’ and all that. Not particularly because of the Iraq war. It’s just, they don’t fucking like him. You think, ‘If only we had a bit of that here.’
TSP: Do you think people are too accepting of Tony Blair?
MES: They get what they fucking deserve, in my book. There’s no use tossing and turning about it… I personally wanted to fucking line them up against the wall in 1998 and fucking shoot the lot. But I’ve got a bit of pre-cog like that. People, semi-friends, wouldn’t talk to me: ‘You’ve really lost it now, Mark.’
TSP: You’ve claimed to have pre-cognitive powers for years, with a number of things: you wrote ‘Powder Keg’ before the Manchester bombing, ‘Terry Waite Sez’ before his kidnapping… Do you get freaked out when events transpire to give a song new resonance?
MES: I try not to think about it, really. Because my mam was a bit psychic. I was, very much, when I was a teenager. But it’s not a good gift to have. First up, people think you’re fucking barmy. Second thing is, a psychic can forecast when a bus isn’t going to arrive but they can’t forecast the winner of a horse race. It’s no good to you! It’s not much fucking use if you can’t forecast how to win the pools. So I’ve always thought that, since I was 20. It’s something that’s there, you know. It gets a bit horrible sometimes.
TSP: You’re afraid to say what you think might happen?
MES: I can see, with a journalist… I know if he’s going to stitch me up. And there’s no reason for it. You know what I mean? It’s not a very nice thing to know.
TSP: A couple of years ago, with the BBC4 documentary and with John Peel’s passing, there was suddenly a lot of interest in The Fall…
MES: I did spend two fucking years building the group back up again, which is why them fucking off on me pissed me off. I mean, seriously. Two years of fucking hard slog to get Fall Heads Roll, that LP. It was fucking hard work, that, tutoring people and getting them into the psyche of it… The reputation of me in the group was, like, in the year 2000 I could hardly get shows. ‘He’s a fucking drunken nutcase, gonna kill you if you put him on.’ It’s all right laughing now, but… The thing about me and Peel is I only spoke to him about four times ever. I always told him we never depended on him, and he knew that, God bless him. If we’d depended on John Peel, we would have starved to death. We never counted on it. He knew that. I don’t think we’re ever going to get on the BBC again, actually.
TSP: You did Later… with Jools Holland. There was a story going around that you insisted Jools stay away from his piano when you were playing. Any truth in that?
MES: I did put a clause in there. It’s true what they said. I tried not to admit it, but it was fucking true. It was, like, Clause 11: ‘No boogie-woogie piano, Mr Holland. Otherwise The Fall will not appear.’ It was very funny. And I walked in to do the soundcheck and I sort of vaguely know his drummer, and he just got up and walked out! Jools Holland walks past and I go, ‘Hey Jools, y’alright?’ and he fucking runs off! They take it dead serious, don’t they?
TSP: Does it annoy you when a lot of focus is put on ex-members of the group? In The Guardian, for example, Dave Simpson did a big piece on everybody who’s ever been in The Fall.
MES: No, it wasn’t their fault, actually… I had the guy [Simpson] in here, actually. I thought he wanted to talk about the LP. He kept going, ‘What’s happened to blah blah?’ I’m going, ‘I don’t fucking know.’ After two hours, he fucking cracked! [mimes crying] ‘I’ve had enough of this! I can’t get anything out of you!’ I’m saying, ‘Have you heard the LP or not?’
TSP: He was emotional? Teary?
MES: Yeah, yeah. I did pile him up a bit.
TSP: With drinks?
MES: Yeah. Me old tricks. Couple of whiskies and that. Always works. Then I took him to a pub over there [across the street] and I got it all out of him. What it was, his boss had said to him: ‘Get the dirty on Mark E. Smith.’ The editor. Because he [Simpson] used to have an office in London. Then they had a bit of cutback. He was kept on, but he had to go back to Yorkshire. He was still working for them. They said, ‘You’ve got to get a fucking scoop.’ Get the dirty on me! It must have cost a fortune, that piece. The ex-members, I don’t know where they live…
TSP: The only guys he didn’t find were Johnnie Brown and, more significantly, Karl Burns.
MES: I’ll tell you a funny story about that. As he was going back to the train station, we went in this other pub by which time I’d got more out of him than he’d got out of me. But, as we went in this fucking pub, I couldn’t believe it, there was this woman sat there in the fucking pub with her boyfriend. It was fucking Karl Burns’s mum! She said, ‘Mark! How’ve you been?’ I says, ‘Hello Mrs Burns, nice to see you.’ She’s like, ‘Long time no see.’ And he gets his fucking pad out! ‘What is Karl Burns doing now?’ She goes: ‘I don’t know, he does what he bloody does.’ ‘What’s his address?’ ‘Oh, he lives on a farm in the hills somewhere, looks like that bloke out of Emmerdale…’ Ha ha!
TSP: Alongside that documentary and that article, there were various books written as well.
MES: Yeah. All crap.
TSP: Did you read Simon Ford’s one, Hip Priest?
MES: No. I can’t, really. It’s not that I can’t be arsed, it just might affect you. I’ve always been like that. I don’t read much about myself. Maybe I should, I don’t know. That Mick Middles one, I didn’t get past page 50. A lot of those books, I think it’s more about the person who’s writing it. Do you ever get that impression? It’s like the people who write them history programmes — they write about Cromwell and they look like Cromwell, don’t they? They get a bit too involved in their subjects.
TSP: There’s a good Raymond Chandler quote in The Independent today: ‘The more you reason, the less you create.’
MES: Yeah, that’s spot on, actually.
TSP: Chandler was an influence on the young Mark E. Smith, wasn’t he?
MES: What, on the young one? Yeah. I’m more into Jim Thompson nowadays. You know, he did The Getaway and everything pulp fiction and that shit tries to be… But I agree with what Chandler says. It’s kind of like reading about yourself, listening to music… I don’t try to listen to music a lot, otherwise The Fall has no purpose. I do watch groups on the TV now, only because they’ve got one of them things for deaf people and you get the lyrics of the songs, and it’s fucking hilarious. It cheers me up. I don’t feel so bad then. How appalling the lyrics are… It’s like, ‘It’s not that bad, Mark. Your writing isn’t that bad, cock.’
TSP: Your own memoir, Renegade, is on the publication schedules now. Did you just feel that you wanted to put those other books out of business?
MES: Yeah, that was the original idea for it. It’s nowhere near finished. I’ve got a ghostwriter. The thing is, I’m not a book-writer… I do bits and bobs, but I think it takes a lot of discipline and concentration, and of course everything’s on the records, so sometimes things have to take preference. But it’s shaping up alright. I want to make it a bit different. I don’t want to just shove it out. I’m thinking of doing it like a football biography. It would be a parody on that, which would be funny. ‘Chapter 6. I remember my first gig. I was gobsmacked. We only got £15.50 that night…’
TSP: Do you have axes to grind with certain past members of the group?
MES: I’ve tried not to bring it up, really. Actually, I lie: I’m trying to work on these interludes where the groups fuck off on me or I fuck off on them. You know: ‘New York, 1998…’ That sort of shit. Like them daft novels, you know, Jackie Collins, Thomas Harris. ‘Flashback!’
TSP: With that 1998 thing and this latest walkout, did you feel a sense of betrayal?
MES: I should call the book ‘Betrayal’! ‘The Betrayal of St Mark’!
TSP: There’s been this suggestion that you like to keep the band on their toes and maybe bully them a bit… I read a quote where you said that you sometimes give them the wrong directions to the studio so that they arrive pissed off and play better. Is that a philosophy you bring to bear a lot?
MES: Depends who it is.
TSP: Do you think certain players respond to that?
MES: Well, a lot of players don’t react very well to it, obviously.
TSP: Have you had any contact from that last lot?
Elena Poulou [who’s just joined us]: They called up before Christmas: ‘I’m sorry.’
TSP: Ben Pritchard seemed quite a solid member of The Fall. It was quite surprising to a lot of people when he left…
MES: It’s always the ones you least expect, in my experience…
TSP: He did a couple of interviews after he left the band.
MES: Yeah, I saw them. I got them taken off the net. They were libellous. What a load of ridiculous rubbish. I had to ring his dad up and say, ‘Get it off!’ To me, it was nothing, but he was talking about other people, who were very upset, like me sister and Elena. No need for it. It’s not fair… There’s a lot of myths [about the band’s various splits]. It’s like, half the time they left me. It looks better to say you got fired. Half the time, they weren’t up for it. There’s shit I could have said about them, you wouldn’t fucking credit it. I would never do it. I’m a gentleman.
TSP: From the Simpson piece, it seemed that a lot of ex-members kind of missed being in The Fall.
MES: The two-year gap, I call it.
TSP: They get out and two years later they think, ‘What have I done?’
TSP: Do you think you’re getting that with Pritchard and that lot at the moment?
MES: Yeah. I wanted to call the book ‘Two-Year Gap’. But Penguin wouldn’t have it.