Robert Smith was asked by his careers adviser at school what he wanted to be when he grew up. He didn't hesitate: "I want to be a pop star," he said.
He shakes his head at the thought. "It was really, horribly overbearing," he says, "and a bit out of character. I actually wanted to be a footballer. I played for my school team, and I played for my county – Sussex – but I couldn't get into it on that level. I played left-wing, and it's the kind of position where you drift in and out of the game. I quickly realised I didn't have what it takes."
It’s 1997 and we’re sitting in a hotel room in Kensington with Robert Smith. I am here to get tips from him for young musicians. Because instead of becoming a footballer, Smith formed The Cure, the left-wingers of the pop world. Since 1978, The Cure made a career out of drifting in and out of the game, in and out of vogue, and up and down the charts. While the prima donnas – the bands that said they were going to change the world, conquer America, and bring home the trophies – hit the post and burned out too early, The Cure played a blinder, turning on the individual brilliance and knocking goal after goal past the keeper.
"One of the first songs I ever wrote was about [legendary QPR/Man City striker] Rodney Marsh,” he says, “who was my idol at the time. It's awful. I've actually got it on a tape. My mum's playing the piano, it's excruciating. I was about ten, I think. That was an early attempt at marrying football and music – again, I was way ahead of the game."
The Cure have stayed ahead of the game. Lyrically inventive, romantic, playful, and without any obvious influences, the album Smith was there to talk about – 1997 singles collection, Galore – showcased The Cure at their most accessible and fun, while still hanging on to their uniqueness: a back catalogue that covers post-punk, alt.rock, psychedelia, prog, the darkest goth and the most uplifting pop.
In 1997, the critics had begun to snipe. They said that The Cure were losing it, that they were too old, that their style was old-fashioned, and it was time to make way for a new generation of players. When, in 1996, The Cure released Wild Mood Swings – an album that went right over the crossbar and became their first not to sell more than the last – people began to whisper, the critics scoffed, the record company balked, and The Cure themselves must have wondered if it was time to hang up their boots.
Robert Smith pulls a French filter-free cigarette from his pack and lights up. "Nah," he says. "We're not going to pack it in until 1999.”
Spoiler alert: that never happened.
Stand your ground
"There was a competition at the back of the Melody Maker," says Robert Smith about how The Cure got signed. "1975 this must have been, so I was 16, still at school. You had to send a tape and a photograph to Hansa records, who at the time had Boney M and Donna Summer. We ended up doing a three-song performance for them in front of a video camera, and they signed us on the strength of what we looked like.
"They gave us I Fought the Law to cover, a year before The Clash did it, and I refused to do it. I'd written Killing An Arab, but they said, 'Oh no, that's far too contentious'. Killing An Arab, Boys Don't Cry, Fire In Cairo and 10.15 Saturday Night were the four songs we gave to them on a tape, and said, 'This is what we want to do: choose one for our first single’."
Hansa refused and demanded the band's £1,000 advance back. Unfortunately, The Cure explained they'd spent it on a new PA and amps. Robert's dad wrote Hansa a letter pointing out that he was still a minor. The contract was null and void.
Play to your strengths
"The following week, I sent the same tape out to every record label that had a band that I liked, like United Artists with The Stranglers, and Polydor because I
liked The Jam and the Banshees. We sent out about 15-20 tapes, and Chris Parry was the only respondent."
Parry, the Polydor A&R man who had signed both The Jam and Siouxsie and the Banshees, invited the band to London to play, but Smith insisted that Parry came to see them in their hometown.
"I wanted him to see us in our own environment. If we'd gone to London and played a pub, we'd have fucking bombed. There'd be five people drinking beer, thinking, 'What the fuck is Killing An Arab?' But we had 50 or 60 people who'd go to all our gigs, get drunk and have a good time. To his credit, Chris came down and saw us play one of our local haunts in Redhill in Surrey, and signed us on the spot."
At the time, Parry was bored with Polydor and eager to establish his own label, Fiction. "He wanted to set up his own label, and he wanted us to be the guinea pigs, really. He said, 'I will offer you better rates than a major, more flexibility, more autonomy. So it all just fell into place, and we're still with him after 20 years."
Don’t copy: borrow ideas but stay original
The thing about The Cure – and it seems even more precious these days when AI can knock up a decent facsimile of any artist you choose to name – is that they never really sounded like anyone else.
"I often nick stuff," admits Smith, "but not a sound. I'll nick an idea or bit of a tune. But I've always wanted to do stuff that sounds different. Ninety-nine percent of stuff that I write doesn't ever get past that first hurdle, 'cos I think, 'I've heard that before’. I've never felt the urge to emulate someone else. I've always thought there's more point to doing something when it's unusual.
“It's like when you find a writer that's got his own voice, it's always much more satisfying. It's nice to read something that makes you think in different ways, connect in different ways, and it's the same with music."
Know when to compromise – and when to lead
Originally, Robert Smith wrote all of the songs. "For the first 15 years, I took no notice of what anyone said or did,” he says. “Occasionally Simon would come up with an idea that was too good to resist and I'd use it. But the songs have always been credited – apart from The Head On The Door album – anyone who's in the band always gets a songwriting credit, and gets the same percentage as me on the recording side. On the song side, I always take half of it for writing the words.
“But the rest of it's divided up equally – recording, merchandising – 'cos I never wanted to argue about what the best songs are. I'm not using my songs 'cos I want the most money, I'm using them because I genuinely feel that they are the best songs.
"But with the Wish album I wanted it to be more of a caring, sharing group. So everyone did demos and everyone wrote their own bits. And it worked. On a musical level, it's a really good album, it's really varied and there's a lot of different sounds and structures. We did the same for Wild Mood Swings.
"The thing that I lost through doing that was a sense of vision," he says, explaining. his recent return to writing solo. "It sounds really pretentious, but I had compromised in certain respects, thinking that someone might know better than I did – and of course they might, but before I'd never believed that. It almost feels like I've had five years of dithering in a way. For the new record we're recording now, I know what I want again. And strangely enough, the others in the group have reacted very positively. I've realised that they perceived it as me not knowing what I wanted and they really hated it."
Sing your own songs
"I got into singing by default," he says. "We tried singers, and they could never do it the way I wanted it. I never sang in public until I was 17. I found it really embarrassing. In fact, I still do. I always drink a lot before I go onstage. I'm very self-conscious. It's not really an ego thing, 'cos I'm not lacking in self-confidence… And I do really enjoy singing, but to physically take that step onto the stage, I have to have a few drinks inside me."
Major labels don't understand
"We're on different labels and with different distributors around the world." says Smith, "and I think that being on an independent has more advantages than disadvantages. The disadvantages are that major labels don't invest enough time or energy in you. If you've got a sure-fire hit, then they try and get the most out of it, but in our case, they don't even know why we've done as well as we have. They don't know why it's worked, so when the last album [Wild Mood Swings] didn't do as well as the one before for the first time ever, they don't know why. Because they don't know why the others have done well in the first place."
Does he know why?
"I think because of the music, basically. I think it all comes down to making music that people are going to want to listen to more than once."
Don’t get hung up on sales
Smith can't understand the fascination with the charts and sales figures. "Sales don’t mean anything. Seventeen Seconds sold less than 50,000 albums globally in the first year," he says by way of an explanation, "but I still thought that it was a fantastic record. So although later we scaled the heights, and sold millions of records, success doesn't vindicate a record for me. It doesn't make it any better than Seventeen Seconds.
“It enhances the whole thing, 'cos you know loads of people liked your record, but it doesn't make sense of it. I do something that I think's good, or I don't bother doing it.
"The thing is," he says, "in America, it's totally different. This summer we played in Los Angeles, and the Chemical Brothers were second on the bill to us, Oasis were third on the bill, Blur were fifth and Radiohead were seventh! So I have a different view of the band. What's currently hip in Camden isn't necessarily going down well in Texas. I can smile at what have been seen as grim times for the group."
Playing covers is good for you
For a supposedly miserable goth band, The Cure have got a weird line in cover versions.
"We've covered really bizarre songs," admits Robert. "We did Merry Xmas
Everybody one Christmas at Wembley. At soundchecks we always play cover versions. Anyone who's hanging around the venue, we always open the doors and let them in for the soundcheck, and I never really wanna sing or do a performance of a song we're gonna be doing, so we do a cover. We've got about 30 or 40 standards, from really nice Nick Drake sort of stuff, for when I'm soundchecking with the acoustic, to Thin Lizzy. We do a very rocking Boys Are Back In Town."
Know when to stop. And when to change your mind.
Back in that hotel room in 1997, Smith said that The Cure had two new albums half-finished ("A dance album, and a half a sort of Neil Young- American folk rock album," he said. “We only have to deliver one under the contract, so I'm not sure which one I'm gonna give 'em). There was no “dance album”. The “Neil Young” album may have been what became 2000’s Bloodflowers – with its beds of acoustic guitars – seen as a thematic return to the likes of Faith and Disintegration.
He said that he’d fought the record company’s demands for a Greatest Hits album, rather than a "Singles Collection". "The Greatest Hits is going to be the last album The Cure ever release," he said, "and it'll be my selection of songs, it won't be the singles, and it won't be the greatest hits in the accepted sense, as in the songs that sold the most.
"It'll be the songs that I think represent the group," he said. "It'll be the songs that made me think and that I'm proud of." (The Cure’s Greatest Hits was released in 2000. The tracks were chosen by Smith himself.)
And, despite Smith's insistence that, in 1999 he would retire The Cure and take himself off to an editing suite and make music for films, The Cure continued. Last year he announced that he had two albums coming, to be called Songs Of A Lost World, “ the doomiest thing that we’ve ever done”.
It feels like he’s been planning his exit for over 20 years. We hope he keeps changing his mind.
This interview was first published in The Band magazine, 1997.