Mark E Smith – Our Final Interview
Following the sad passing of Mark E Smith, we publish for the first time online Fergal Kinney‘s interview with Mark E Smith that was published in Louder Than War magazine in August 2017. The interview took place in July 2017 in Prestwich. All at Louder Than War would like to send our condolences at this sad time to the Fall, Pamela and Smith’s family.
Mark E Smith – ‘I think they’re a bit fucking idiotic, the British people regarding politics’
It’s the first day of the Manchester International Festival, and the city is celebrating New Order and Joy Division with a special exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery, as well as a series of New Order concerts. 2017 marks forty years of the Fall, and the sixtieth birthday of its visionary frontman, Mark E Smith. There were no celebrations in his home city for either landmark. Unlike many – any? – of Smith’s contemporaries, the Fall’s restless forward motion has always been too hard to qualify, too hard to fit into a version of the past or put into a box. It’s not the glistening, modern city centre where on this damp summer’s day I meet Smith, but out in North Manchester in a pub near his Prestwich home. The night before we were due to meet, Smith suffered a bad fall, but won’t countenance anything so unprofessional or middle class as pulling an interview. In this fortieth year of the Fall, the group (and it’s only ever the group, ‘a band is what plays in Blackpool’ Smith once warned) are releasing ‘New Facts Emerge’ – a record as hard, heavy and unpredictable as the times in which the group find themselves. Smith has suffered health problems in the last year, and though the current lineup of the Fall has been largely unchanged for a decade now (defying many a cliché), last year his wife Elena departed from the group following her separation from Smith.
When we meet, Smith sits with a lager, double Jameson’s and a small bottle of painkillers in front of him. He’s got a plastic bag beside him – at one point, as I return from the bar, he quickly rustles some loose sheets of paper back into the bag. He’s not one for small talk, but lights up when I mention the Virgin train journey I have booked back to London later that day: “People think they’re great but they’re crap. If you buy a beer people look at you. It’s criminal. You should be drinking your fucking computer shouldn’t you.”
It’s been two years since the last Fall album, ‘Sub Lingual Tablet’ – a long time in Fall terms, what caused the delay? “I got a bit poorly last Christmas, then the master engineer, he goes sick at the same time ha ha…so yeah. It’s a bit long for us, a long time for me. Well we went back to Castleford in Yorkshire, we did ‘Are You Are Missing Winner’ there years ago. So yeah, I just put the group there on their own in this heavy metal studio for about a month. I thought it would sort them out.”
“The business doesn’t cater for you unless you’re fucking Ed Sheeran. I had to watch him”. Why?! “I’ve never watched Glastonbury on the TV, ever. It’s a swizz. Anyway, I left it on with the sound off and just had the lyrics up. I don’t think it’s the same fella, I think there’s three of them or something like that. I don’t know how he hasn’t been caught, he’s going to be caught surely? Stealing all them tunes. I remember those tunes. I remember when I was fourteen, fifteen, getting into music and you’d go round to people’s flats and their older brother would have a duff James Taylor LP and you had to sit there waiting for them to go out. Them tunes, I’ve heard ‘em.”
Over the last year whilst ill, it turns out Smith has been acquainting himself with a lot of television – he tells me unprompted that he’s a big fan of ITV’s the Chase with Bradley Walsh. “All through the 80s I didn’t watch TV, so everything that’s on is the stuff I avoided back then. I must have seen the worst Jools Holland show I’ve ever seen in my fucking life. There wasn’t one good redeemable group on it. I mean where do they get these people? It’s London groups pretending to be Latin groups. Why doesn’t anybody say anything about it? It’s a waste of fucking…their job is to put groups out, musicians and shit. Fucking hell.”
“People say to me ‘I bought a record player the other week’. It’s weird how people change, I used to give them vinyl LPs! And I say why can’t you press it up faster but they say it’s because of the vinyl, and you have to bite your tongue. They don’t even fucking know. I remember giving Ding (long time Fall engineer), he likes David Bowie strangely, and I give him an American edition of the Man Who Sold the World on vinyl – I bought it in America – so I give him this fucking record and he didn’t want it because it was fucking vinyl! (Gentrification) happens so quick, it happens here. This pub used to be a bit of a rough house, and you get these middle class fellas coming in with baby’s round their neck. And that’s their idea of austerity, coming in here!”. About half an hour after this, in the window behind Smith I do actually see a real-life middle class fella with a baby round his neck.
When ‘New Facts Emerge’ was announced, the ire of the internet was swiftly drawn to the title of one track – ‘Victoria Train Station Massacre’. A press officer made clear to me that the track had been titled long before the tragic events that took place at the station’s sister building, the Arena, though Mark was unhappy with this having been pointed out, confirming he was asked if he wanted the title changed. “I said it’s not your fucking job and he was disgusted with me! I just said ‘Victoria Butterfly’ then, ‘Butterfly Suitcase’, you shouldn’t have to deal with it, and that is the problem nowadays – you spend more time getting things back to what they were. It’s a societal thing. If it’s broke, they don’t fix it, but if it’s alright they fucking tamper with it, it’s a bizzaro world. Why would that man connect that with the attack when it was the Arena, is he a spy?” Wasn’t the track inspired by the refurbishment of Victoria train station? “Yeah it was…I remember distinctly I’ve always liked Victoria, I used to have a lot of mates in Leeds and Wakefield, I’m not an architectural buff but I noticed them start pissing around with it. Then just suddenly that was the thing that kicked it off. You know what that’s about? It’s access to students from South Manchester. So that’s why they changed it. I used to have to sit in Victoria train station in the 80s with shit cafes, shit football, but you could look at it and think that is intricate, where now this is false. And Manchester council fucking painted over it. They ripped it out and replaced it with like an outdoor tent.”
He’s got a point – the regeneration of Manchester has been a glorious thing, but it’s hard not to mourn the onward march of sterile, bling architecture and endless glass buildings. Mark nods in agreement: “my dad always said that they hate anything nice, Manchester. They don’t understand. Salford Council are the worst, what the Luftwaffe failed to do during the war, they managed to do. Ha ha ha ha ha. It’s true that innit? They don’t knock anything shit down. The Arndale (bombing) was the best thing the Irish ever did, fucking genius.” Have you been to the re-opened Manchester Central Library? “ I used to know this lad who worked there and they were burning books. They do things in secret, they put little adverts…when they did that library stuff they had old books, and it had on page 14 ‘old book sale’, on some street you didn’t fucking know so no one could go. This fella said he had to cart all these books to a shop that you couldn’t look at and after two weeks they burnt them all. That’s a Salford council trick. They used to do that with 18th century houses when I was a kid. They’re closing them down and nobody seems to notice, have you seen them things on the side of the road? It’s called a mobile library, they shut the libraries down and put up these mobile libraries and it’s just like a bus shelter…you open this door, and it looks like a urinal with charity shop books, some Woman’s Weekly’s and a book some Nigerian student put there in good faith. It’s fucking weird. I read in Private Eye that that’s what they’re doing, and that’s their excuse for shutting the library round here.”
He confirms that he didn’t get round to voting in the general election, but that he was broadly pleased with the result. “I think they’re a bit fucking idiotic, the British people regarding politics. That’s what I liked about it”. What about Brexit? “I thought it was great”. A good idea? “Yeah, still do” he pauses, for the first time in our conversation prickling slightly. “This is a music interview, why is that a point?” Well, a lot of musicians tend to avoid having an opinion on politics, where you’ve always had an opinion…”Yeah! But they still come out against it! I saw all this in the 70s and 80s, fucking, there’s a sort of revival of what I fucking had to put up with. False leftism that is in fact a middle class thing.” He points to the example of the Musicians Union, of which he remains begrudgingly a member: “all they say is vote Corbyn and stay in the European Union. Which actually means, it’s alright for middle class kids to go busking around Europe…middle class kids here want to go to Europe, but why do they think all those European kids are here? They’re the sort of people who go on about India. But now I can bargain with Spain and Portugal. But middle class groups who don’t sell any records used to get the same money as the Fall, now that’s well out the window. You know what I mean? It’s incredible innit. Some fucking Spanish and Greek people they’ve been fucked over by the EU, but people over 30 there have the power. They’re stoners, they’re fucking stoners, I know they are. You see them EU lads, they’re having a joint. When May’s talking, they’re just sat there, life’s a gas man. It’s like David Cameron, he’s a fucking space cadet and all. I’m fucking telling you. It’s like fucking Glastonbury!”
Smith’s feelings on Glastonbury range from mixed to outright hostile – shunned since the 80s due to his pro-Falklands War stance, he’s been invited back twice over the last couple of years, first in a surreal guest appearance on the Pyramid Stage with Gorillaz, and then with the Fall in 2015. How was the experience? “I didn’t know that the Dalai Lama was on after us” he deadpans. “It was alright though. I saw all his entourage. It was a bolt out of the blue that. So yeah, I was barred, but we did it and it was like ‘we accept you again’, it was weird. People change, you think you know them. I remember when I played there I had this roadie who I had for ten years and I was standing behind the car, about 5 miles outside of Glastonbury he says ‘stop’, he comes out the fucking gents with some shorts on green fucking wellies. I said ‘what are you fucking doing?!’, he goes ‘Glasto mate’. He starts being friendlier than he’s ever been to me in five or six years…I said you stay in the car!” He was invited to a celebrity tepee but refused – “I thought it was just an Indian tent” – and found himself holed up with the unlikely combo of hip-hop trio De La Soul and Shaun Ryder.
On Sunday 5th March, Mark E Smith turned 60. That morning, the BBC Music Twitter account put out the statement ‘RIP Mark E Smith’ alongside a poignant, black and white photo of him. After going viral amid a cloud of confusion –Smith is, of course, not on Twitter to rebuke such a thing – the BBC quickly retracted the tweet with an apology. How did it feel to be pronounced dead on your 60th birthday? “It was just weird. What happened was, I had the worst chest infection of my life and I was joking that I was dropping dead about a week before.” Owing to illness, he’d been ordered to stay indoors and avoid using his voice that week, making it difficult when people called to check. It’s like something out of bad dystopian fiction isn’t it? “It is, it’s like the corniest novel you’ve ever read…it’s not funny, you know? It’s not Manchester local radio you know, it’s the BBC, it goes round the world. And then I’m getting calls from Germany. The Sun loved it which is good. It’s me and the Queen, they did it with the Queen, so it has happened before. I didn’t know that either!”
“I remember when Bowie died I was up dead early at like 4 o clock in the morning, and I turned the telly on and it said ‘David Bowie Dead’. And I thought what the fuck’s that, they’re taking it a bit far. But then it had all the Twitters coming in, and the first one was that bloke out the Office – Ricky Gervais – makes you think doesn’t it? Number two was like some mad Scottish Bowie fan, and number three was David Cameron. Surely David Cameron should be running the country? Weird. I’m like the Grim Reaper. I was there sat up when Prince died as well. 3 o’clock in the morning, I’m doing stuff and I’ve got the telly on. And people like Obama, he was number 8 on the list. They call Trump because he’s always on the tweet, but what’s Obama doing tweeting the BBC at fucking o’clock?” He begins to laugh at the tweets that came through in tribute to him before it was clarified he hadn’t died. “Peter Hook! ‘I’m just listening to the LP now’. I think it’s fucking PR people who do it for them, personal secretaries. ‘Don’t worry Pete I’ve took care of it!’”
Recent years have been frustrating for Smith. Two prominent former Fall members have released memoirs and formed a group with a third ex member that, as well as playing new material, is happy to tour the hits. The Fall have always been the group that, in return for refusing to look backwards, promise the earth and often deliver. Of their thirty-two albums, I’m happy to commit to at least fifteen being bona-fide stunners. I put to Smith that it must have been hard to see a group out there touring the old material. “It was strange,” he agrees, though refusing to be drawn on it, “I could tell you things you wouldn’t believe. It brought me down for a bit but y’know. You’re fighting for your life and people don’t believe you, you know what I mean? I’m not fighting for my life, but you know. People go ‘oh Mark, he can handle it’ but he can’t.” A pause. “It passed.”
As an artist, Smith has an uncanny knack of making his best work at the very point at which the Fall have been written off. After a period of diminished creative returns and bankruptcy, a 1998 gig in New York collapsed into a brawl, culminating in Smith’s arrest and the walkout of the full group. Fast forward a few short years, and the Fall were bigger than they had ever been – critical acclaim, bigger venues, music on adverts and hip bands lining up to pay homage to Smith. Likewise, in 1982 the Fall walked out on their deal with Rough Trade and joined a heavy metal label who agreed to finance another record, which Smith assumed would be their last. It would be the making of them – the athletic ‘Hex Enduction Hour’. “People romanticise that shit. I think with Hex, I knew what I wanted to do. The only people who had a hard time was the rest of them! It’s true, I thought it was the best LP, that money was paid for by heavy metal groups, it was just like “yeah, you fucking do it!”. Historians make a big fucking thing about it, but they’re fucking right, I thought it was the best thing we did so fuck it. All the group, they all thought I’d fucked it up. They wanted to be U2, but it was ‘you’re not U2, go to fucking Iceland, fuck off, it’s going to have two drummers from now on, you’re lucky to be in a two drummer group’”.
Even at the height of post-punk, Smith had little in common with his any fellow writers. Where other lyricists chose social realism or political dogma, Smith found his voice in a kind of urban psychedelia; depicting post-industrial Manchester through the lens of pulp horror fiction. To paraphrase a Fall song, he saw Lucifer over Lancashire. His best lyrics have a real literary quality, a broken mirror of Dadaist surrealism (but never whimsy), barking fictitious slogans and sneering asides on contemporary life. The Fall’s long trajectory has seen them develop into a veritable Swiss army knife of rockabilly, garage, Krautrock and the piledriving noise rock that typifies the Fall-sound. He tells me he remembers one of his first singles being ‘Paranoid’ by Black Sabbath, but it would be discordant pioneers such as Captain Beefheart, the Velvet Underground and CAN whose spell would really take hold. How on earth did someone in 70s Manchester even find out about CAN? “It was impossible yeah. And I never saw them”. Last year, the Fall were booked to play with Velvet Underground founding member John Cale, but due to payment issues Cale pulled out at the last minute, leaving Smith thoroughly unimpressed: “I’ve a bit of a grudge against him. I’m a big Velvets fan and he reminds me of Fall members, only in there for two years but he’s made a career out of it. Like fucking Fall members who’ve been in for ten minutes. Those guys who were in the Searchers and go ‘I was in the Searchers!’, they’re great, but not these guys. ‘Why I left…Lou Reed was jealous of me’, I remember all that shit.” Smith was unaware that Alex Turner’s side project the Last Shadow Puppets covered (atrociously) the Fall’s ‘Totally Wired’ – “puppets, fucking puppets!” – but one act he does approve of is Sleaford Mods. “I think they’re fucking good, Sleaford Mods…I think they’re original. It’s fucking good stuff. It’s British and it’s right on the nose, nobody does that, there’s bits that don’t fucking work in the middle and that’s hard to do. There’s risk.”
In August, Smith will give a talk on the artist Wyndham Lewis – a grotesque and unapologetic fascist, but one who does deserve qualified celebration for his incredible avant-garde modernist paintings. Smith agrees: “It’s about fucking time…he was really interesting to me because I’m still interested in what he was. This exhibition, it’s quite good what I’ve seen, from his private collection. They’re all, you know Mark he’s a fascist isn’t he? So yeah, we’re doing it, just before we’re burnt to death by anti-fascists!”. Though, of course, Manchester International Festival isn’t celebrating the Fall, this is not a reflection of the art world’s ambivalence about the Fall – far from it, the artist Grayson Perry made a ceramic vase portrait of Smith, and said on Desert Island Discs that “there’s something aesthetically about the music of the Fall that always reminds me to follow the line of most resistance”. Though Smith has published an autobiography – 2008’s ‘Renegade’ – I’ve always been curious that he’s never published any fiction. “I wanted to do short stories, but no fucker’s interested. I’ve been like that for twenty years, short stories. I like books though”. I mention Morrissey’s much maligned literary attempt, ‘List of the Lost’: “I read this review of it by a fucking academic. It made me laugh, the fucking review was as long as the book. Cos he lived in LA, it’s like ‘Lolita’, there’s this guy…this English artist…moves to LA, we all know why, and he meets this five man American team. At a fucking university. This guy, this academic, it’s just so fucking funny. Some bloke has to write (puts on voice) the hero, probably based on the author himself, meets a college team of runners… ha ha ha ha”
Before I leave the pub, and the topic turns to ‘New Facts Emerge’, Smith is praising of the current Fall and their conduct over the last few years. “They’re faultless really” says Smith, “I don’t know, I can’t explain it. When you look at them they don’t harp on about how long they’ve been in, and they’ve had to put up with a lot of shit and they’re very hard cases… I was worried they’d get a bit off the boil, but they’ve just got better. “ But alas, for Smith, the hope for the future lies in the young people. “We’re getting a lot of young fans who are connecting with us, and it’s very fucking weird. They’re fucking well into it. A lot of the you meet”, he’s laughing aloud, “their dad hates me! Ha ha ha. And it’s probably because he hates you!”