thu 25/07/2024

theartsdesk Q&A: Musician Mark E Smith | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Musician Mark E Smith

theartsdesk Q&A: Musician Mark E Smith

The transcript of an 2010 interview with The Fall frontman, who has died aged 60

Mark E Smith: the bard of Manchester

Since releasing their first record, Bingo Masters Breakout, Mark E Smith (b 1957) has led The Fall through some of rock music’s most extreme and enthralling terrain, cutting a lyrical and musical swathe that few other artists can match. An outsider, self-confessed renegade, and microphone-destroying magus, Smith has seen dozens if not hundreds of musicians pass through the ranks of The Fall over the last 34 years.

With their 28th studio album featuring a line-up that’s as stable as it gets in The Fall's rickety table of elements, they continue to make music like no other band, young or old. Your Future Our Clutter is up there with their very best.

The In and Out Bar of the Hilton Holland Park. Lunchtime. The familiar figure appears in the hotel foyer. “How are you enjoying your Hilton experience?” he asks with a screwed-up grin, before walking towards a quiet corner table of the bar, where two bottles of Heineken, a bottle of sparkling water and a bowl of nuts is deposited. Mark E Smith talks to theartsdesk about the new release, and the afterlife of many of the old ones.

TIM CUMMING: The new album feels strong and cohesive – as if it’s one interconnected piece of work. Is that the case?

MARK E SMITH: Reflecting on it, there is a bit of a thread there, considering I started it about a bloody year ago, which is a long time for me.

What were the first songs you started with?

It was weird cos I cracked my hip open – it was a year ago last week, someone informed me, and it was a really bad crack. So we started a year ago, in April - I was in actually a wheel chair, I was in a studio in Castleford, and to be honest I had about nine songs. And they were thematic, but then it started getting a bit strange and of course the producer wants it to be the same sound all the time. And I started fighting against that. But it’s worked out right in the end actually. It’s funny because looking back some of the takes on the tracks – going through all the various mixes - there’s one or two things on the record that are there from the first bloody week. They are like first takes. Which is great. But there is a thread there. I always aim to do that, to pull a thread through the LP, and I’m quite surprised it came through. It’s weird that unconsciously the thread has come through. I usually work the thread, but it’s come through anyway, right from the start. Like the newest song is the first song, #So the title song came last.

Yeah yeah yeah, that was done in December.

So you’re talking about April to December, in different studios.

It sounds daft but that’s a long time for me. Very frustrating [laughter]. Eight months…. We took time off during it, to play and all that.

How would you describe the theme of the album?

I wouldn’t describe it any way. I’d like to hear how you think, I’d like it to come from you. I’ve noticed there’s a lot about sickness on there. A lot – when it started out it was about equity and clutter. Then the credit crunch happened - that was quite surreal. Then I was thinking, a lot of this is irrelevant now, so...

You were recording it in very extreme times, after the credit crunch and during the near collapse of the whole financial market…

Yeah. I was thinking, why don’t the bastards get it out, to get that. I wanted it out last November.

What was the delay?

Well I’m glad there was a delay, because we got another two tracks out of it, the one at the start, so can’t complain about that.

Watch the video for "Cowboy George" on YouTube


In "Cowboy George" there are lyrics about "unseen knowledge, unseen forces". Is that about mortality? Death? The other side?

That’s, uh, very much sort of the case. That’s one of the tracks that was a first or second take. We done it about 100 times since in the studio, and as we listened to it before we did the final cut, said, "That is the best one." I don’t even know what I’m saying really, because I’m still on medication from the wheelchair. [laughter] Heavy German medication, you know. Which I’m not used to. But it’s still the same lyrics. And it captures it more, I think. It is a bit mystical, that one, yeah.

Also in "Weather Report 2", "the whirlpools getting wider and wider", and "walking towards the sea, the bright lake in Chino" – there’s the sense of being flooded. It happens with the music, too, the keyboards, which sound amazing.

I think so. Fantastic. You can’t tell Elena that though. "Not good enough", you know [chuckles].

Is "Weather Report 2" a personal song?

Yes it is. It’s one of the later ones. It is actually the last song recorded. It’s fitting that it’s the last song on the LP. It wasn’t meant to be like that actually. It’s a lot of people’s favourite as far as I can work out. If I’d have had my way, actually, I would have had it more instrumental. The only reason there’s a lot of vocals on there is the way we recorded it, it was quite difficult. We did that in Salford with Ding [Archer] in his studio. So it’s like you’ve got to do it very quick. The idea of it was to co-op an acoustic track with a machine track. Then I reversed it. Then Ding said, "If it’s going to work –" I was going to sing bits and bobs over it, just joining it up – and he said, "You can’t do that because we need a vocal level". So a lot of that is getting levels. They are the lyrics for it, but the middle bits – they’ve come out very well, and the end bits, I would’ve chopped them out, but they work out very well. It’s good that I didn’t have too much of a say in the matter! [Laughter]

It’s a haunting end to that song, that last intake of breath.

That’s right, that’s not meant to be there. [Pause, then quietly] Bit strange, isn’t it?

Is that the process of fortunate accidents, chance operations?

Very much so, yeah. On that one definitely. It’s a sound experiment, with things about whirlpools and esoteric lyrics over it, and it turned into that. I’m very pleased with it.

Your Future Our Clutter – it sounds like a poster, a campaign ad.

That was the intention.

Do you get these phrases in your head for a while before you use them?

No… The tune came first. The title of the LP came, then that tune came, then I thought I might as well do the title of the LP over this tune. It was good because I couldn’t really articulate what the title of the LP meant but it’s like, you know – it does fit in with the rest of the songs. What sparked me off was I distinctly remember playing Belfast and coming out and remember saying to the bass player, there were all these posters – it was well before we started recording the LP – all these really massive posters in Belfast and it had like, "Our Equity is Your Future". I remember saying to Dave, "That is really fucking Irish." Our equity is your future. That is like – you can’t say fairer than that, can you? [Laughter]

Sounds like a curse.

That’s right, yeah. [More laughter]

And it is now…

It’s something like a Satanist would say. "Our riches are your soul." It’s hard to explain. That’s what kicked it off a bit.

imperial_wax_solventThere seems to be a crossover between LPs – you have the track "Mexico Wax Solvent". Is that picking up from Imperial Wax Solvent?

Well, I like to do that. It’s a bit of a joke, that. I wouldn’t have put that on the LP, but the record company liked it and the producer liked it so I thought okay. It’s nice, isn’t it? I would’ve taken it off because of the Mexico thing, the Mexican flu thing. Looks like I’m trying to make an LP out of all these things.

Swine flu.

[Laughter] Yeah. It’s not about that at all. It’s about expats really. Do you know this? After Spain, Mexico is the next place for retirement expats. Spain is getting too crowded. I think I’ve been there. On a cruise. Yeah, yeah. I went to Cancún on a cruise once, an American cruise. I’ve always got on very well with Mexicans, in America. We’ve got a big following of them over there, in Frisco.

"Cowboy George" seems like a story song.

The title is from the group, it’s got nothing to do with George Bush or anything. I don’t know why the hell they come up with that. Sometime the group’s good at titles

The writing of the record - is that group writing – do you work on things altogether, or does the group come up with them.

There’s three parts of the group really. There’s me, there’s the lads, as we refer to them, and there’s Elena and me. That’s the beauty of the mix. I think this is the best line-up I’ve ever had, really, touch wood. Whether it’s the best LP or not, I think it’s the best incarnation of the group I’ve ever had. But you know I’m bound to say that, but I really do thing so. The difference of opinions and taste in the group is marvellous. See how long it lasts. If that represents it, I’m very happy.

There’s a very strong bass on the album – it almost sounds like a sculptural album, layered, like a kinetic sculpture.

Marvellous, good.

Were there many tracks left off?

Yeah yeah, about half a dozen.

I’ve got a couple of background questions. Later this year there’s the Beggars Banquet reissues. Are you involved in that?

This_Nations_Saving_Grace I know about This Nation's Saving Grace. Is that out yet?

I’ve seen stuff about the 4-CD Wonderful and Frightening World.

I haven’t okayed that. I doubt if I’ve okayed that. What can you do? They wrote me a letter, to Domino – they’re the same area of London, aren’t they? They spoke to Domino so they’ve got an agreement to wait till after this LP comes out. Which is fair enough.

Does it interfere with what you’re doing now?

Uh, no not at all. I do see the point of it. [Pause] Beggars – I haven’t been in touch with them since 1990. A long time ago. They go like, "We didn’t understand what we had at the time." Like, join the club. Neither did anyone else [laughter]. There is a lot of fucking interest there, very much, from young kids. [Pauses, clears throat] So I don’t really want to know about it, I keep an eye on it. Obviously I don’t think it’s as good as the stuff we’re doing now. I remember the track listings, that’s about it.

The whole Fall reissue programme has gone through pretty well everything else but that catalogue. Right up to Are You Are Missing Winner.

That’s gonna be the last one, isn’t it? It’s like the so-called indies, they see all these reissues, and think [adopts moronic voice], maybe we could get into that. We do it in an artistic way, but it’s the same rigmarole, isn’t it? It’s like Michael Jackson, isn’t it? There isn’t much difference. Why didn’t you bring it out like that when it was out? [Laughter] That is always my attitude. Why didn’t you bring it out properly then? I’ll tell you what, about these reissues, with me, you didn’t put that fucking effort in when it came out. I’m serious. I used to call it the two-year gap – now it’s the 20-year gap. [Laughter] With the group it takes them two years to suss out what was going on. The media, it takes 'em two years to catch up with what we’re doing, and now it’s 20 years for the record companies. By which time it’s too late. Everyone’s got it all on download anyway [laughter]. All the new Fall fans have downloaded it fucking years ago. All the 17-year-olds have already got Wonderful and Frightening which was recorded when they were nine or something.

album-the-wonderful-and-frightening-world-of-the-fallWith the song "Bury", when did you bring in the idea of the very lo-fi opening and the three-part song?

That was there from the start. I wanted it to be a bit of an opus, a six-part thing. At one point [laughter] when I was still in the wheelchair, I wanted it to be a quarter of a side, 15 minutes. What’s on the album is like the first 10 minutes of it. There is actually six parts to it.

What were the other six parts?

Much the same, definitely. I don’t know what they’re putting on the B side but they’re supposed to put on another song and the other parts. There’s an instrumental as well which is very good. Sounds like a Northern Soul instrumental.

The singing on the album ranges from almost spoken-word style to pop vocals, and a great rock'n'roll vocal on "Funnel of Love".

Oh, you like that? [Laughter] Thank you. I’m glad somebody does. I sound winded on it, like I’ve run out of cigarettes or something. No, it makes a nice change that. [To the waiter] Thank you, sir. [To me, in a tone of wonderment] Look at that [shows off a huge measure of whisky. Nods towards the retreating waiter]. He likes me for some reason - he remembers me from nine years ago. Last time we came up. Fuckin’ huuuge! It’s the Glenfiddich as well. Anyway, go on, sorry.

Have you used different mics for the vocals – the sound is very distinct and there’s a careful awareness of how your voice is going to sound.

We got to the point, to be honest, doing vocals in studios – maybe it paid off, I don’t give a fucking shit anymore, I just do it like I would at home. I always have three mics. One going through a guitar amp. I have a very very good mic, like what fucking whoever the best singer is, whatever the best opera singer in the world would have – and one that you’d use at home with a practice amp. And a normal onstage mic. I’ve done it all through the years and it never came out properly, to be honest, they’ve either cut one out or it’s sounded like a complete mess. But it seems to have worked on this.

It gives this three-dimensional feel to it.

Yeah and it increases the tones. I’m very surprised, but that’s one good thing about technology, isn’t it? You cut out spillage.

Did you spend a long time on the mixing?

No, not at all, believe it or not. Leave them to it. Best thing is to pile 'em on, I’ve found. And then stop all these studio tricks. Where they drop lines in and that. Like they use on the Sugababes, you can see they’re recording line by line. Drop-ins, drop-ins, drop-ins. I’ve always used them, but you can always hear a drop-in, or I can. Even on a so-called rock record. But I’ve stopped all that shit and it seems to have worked. Like I say, I don’t mind sounding out of breath. Like on "Funnel of Love". I don’t mind that at all.

I love the shouting on "Slippy Floor".

You have to fight for that. Know what I mean? With Ding and all that, it’s like, "Who slipped this one in? That’s a better line". Just leave it.

Going back to "Bury". "I’m not from Bury"- what is the thing about Bury? The mythology of Bury?

Well… [pause, clears throat], it’s a specific thing. It’s like – it wasn’t particularly Bury, you have to find a title for these songs. It could be anywhere, but it just happens to be a place. I almost regret it. Well, I don’t regret it but the shit will actually hit the fan because I am actually a part of Bury, where I live.

So it’s your local council?

Not at all, it’s just like… me and the rhythm section actually live in Bury, or we‘re adjacent to it. I’m actually Salford. But… for some reason I’m in Bury. It’s much more a comment, a Lancashire comment, cos the drummer’s from Burnley, and the bass player’s from Ramsbottom, and we were laughing about the attitude of Lancashire, you know. It’s our "California über Alles" [laughter] of Lancashire. One thing we did unite on mentally – "Bury - fuckin' shit!" [laughter].

I live near a place called Berrylands, in south-west London.

[Whispers] Say it’s about Berrylands. Berrylands. There’s a lot of Burys, isn’t there? Shrewsbury…. Thank you, I can say it’s about all Burys. We’re all made up of Burys.

What’s the story of your involvement with the Gorillaz album?

Oh yeah. I was invited down for five days and just went down for a look, really. They sent me the whole LP, 24 tracks, top secret and all of this. Because I didn’t realise what they were, to be quite frank. Didn’t realise they are a big deal, aren’t they? I was still limping at that stage. I didn’t really know what it involved. It is for a big market and all this shit. They gave me three songs, so I said, "Well, I can’t" – I felt a bit guilty really. I was supposed to be there for three days, I went in there from 12 till 6, did one track, then went home. Felt a bit horrible. Not my scene. I’m surprised they used it, actually. It’s good, the music, I was there saying, "Do this," but hearing it, it sounds good. I’m glad because I did a lot of lyrics for it, on the spot, and they took 'em all out. But I did a lot with the music, that’s enough really. Nothing else I could have done.

Do you do lyrics on the spot in the studio or do you come in prepared with something written or something in mind?

All sorts. I like to think with the Gorillaz I applied a bit of The Fall rhythm to it. Listening to their LP, it’s sort of danceable. They’re always trying to do stuff. [The waiter returns] Do you want a beer? [To the waiter] And one for me too please.

Any comments on the BBC documentary of The Fallen?

Well, it’s out already. Oh, you mean a film. What did they say? Where did you hear that?

On the Fall website.

That’ll be a scream, won’t it?

Did you read the book?

I’ve read bits of it. [The drinks arrive] Thank you. With books you can’t – what can you do? You stop it, and it makes you look – the bits I’ve read – I mean I can’t read it really, and also he’s taken advantage of a lot of them. It’s like a dirty book I keep under the stairs, a porn book.

Who was producing on the new album?

Ross – can’t remember the second name. And Tim. Tim from Gracielands. It’s actually good that they only want their first name on the credit. Don’t want it to affect their career. Like I went to Ding. "How do you want to be credited?" Just put Ding. Go to Tim who does Gracielands, Lisa Stansfield’s studio. "What do you want?" "Tim". Not even Gracielands this time. So it’s Tim, Ding and this Ross character who’s done all these Domino acts. "What’s your second name?" "Oh just put Ross". [Laughter] So I just put ME Smith, Ross, Tim and Ding. Once you’ve got your name tainted…. [laughter]  Doesn’t go down well. Can’t go to a record company, say, "Is that U2 job up?" "What have you done?" "Worked with The Fall". "Oh, see yer then…" 

Will you be able to do an American tour with this album?

Don’t know. They’re talking about it. It’s going down very well there apparently. I’m not used to all this. They like the LP and all that. Slow process isn’t it?

Will you bring in new songs to the set?

You bet, mate. [Touches the watermarked press copy of new CD on the table in front of us with the nuts, beer, whisky and bottled water, whispers] This is history.

Watch "Weather Report 2" 

The media, it takes 'em two years to catch up with what we’re doing, and now it’s 20 years for the record companies. By which time it’s too late

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One of the worst conducted interviews with Mark E Smith I've ever read. A waste of time. The journalist had a limited allocation of MES's time - so he asks him when they're going on tour! Ask his press officer stuff like that. His questions demonstrated a complete lack of knowledge and interest in The Fall - they could be directed at any act. All he could do is namecheck a few song titles from Clutter. It's like MES has been interviewed on bring-your-kid-to-work day. "Are you going on tour?" "When did you record your new album?" "Is there a story behind that song?" "What comes first the words or the music." These are beyond cliche - and get the dull unilluminating answers they warrant. No wonder The Independent cut almost all of the (non) quotes when they ran their piece by this "writer". What an insult to your readers, MES and his fans.

You should take a little break from the internet, Elvis.

Try thinking before you write such crap, Elvis.

Absolutely right Elvis. With you.

Nice to see the embittered, failed journalist diving in with some impotent fanboy criticism there. Maybe one day she'll get a chance to show how brilliant an interview with MES can be, if only the fools would listen! I enjoyed reading the interview, nice to talk about the music for a change and MES didn't have to spend his time taking down the usual second-guessing "watch me outsmart the great MES"-type journalist, and his response to the question Who Produced The Album turned out to be quite endearing and funny.

Who is the photograph by? There is no clear credit. Non-attribution to photographers seems to be the norm these days.

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