Before the release of the Cure's eleventh album, 2000's Bloodflowers, fresh off a photo shoot and all made up in his trademark teased hair and lipstick, Robert Smith sat in a New York City hotel bar in front of a stack of Cure CDs. He picked up each one and recounted the story of its recording ... sometimes with a laugh, sometimes with a grimace.
Smith was convinced – as he's often been – that his band's latest opus would be its last. As always, he was wrong, and in 2004, we updated the piece with Rolling Stone's then-recent interview about The Cure. Four years after that, we spoke with Smith yet again about 2008's 4:13 Dream, their most recent album.
Three Imaginary Boys/Boys Don't Cry
After nearly every major label rejected their demo tape, three schoolmates from the London suburb of Crawley signed with Polydor imprint Fiction Records. Under the tutelage of label owner and producer Chris Parry, who landed the Jam and Siouxsie and the Banshees for Polydor, the Cure recorded their debut album, Three Imaginary Boys, at London's Morgan Studios in just three nights. The next year, Fiction repackaged most of the album with some early singles as the Boys Don't Cry album.
I was writing songs for the first album for a period of about two or three years. I wrote "10:15 Saturday Night" and "Killing an Arab" when I was about sixteen, and we recorded the album when I was eighteen, so I wasn't really still convinced by some of the songs. The pop songs like "Boys Don't Cry" are naive to the point of insanity [laughs]. But considering the age I was and the fact that I had done nothing apart from go to school – no real life experience, everything was taken from books – some of them are pretty good.
The Jam were recording their album during the day and we used to sneak in at night and use their equipment – we knew the bloke who was looking after it – to record our album. We just borrowed tape and stuff.
The first one is my least favorite Cure album. Obviously, they are my songs, and I was singing, but I had no control over any other aspect of it: the production, the choices of the songs, the running order, the artwork. It was all kind of done by Parry without my blessing. And even at that young age I was very pissed off. I had dreamed of making an album, and suddenly we were making it and my input was being disregarded. I decided from that day on we would always pay for ourselves and therefore retain total control.
On the Cure's U.K. tour opening for Siouxsie and the Banshees, Smith began playing in both bands after the headlining band's guitarist defected. Smith wore the same drab clothing on stage for each set, prompting an NME scribe to write that the Cure had "no image, no style." When it was time to return to Morgan Studios, bassist Michael Dempsey voiced distaste for Smith's new atmospheric songs, and Smith replaced him with Simon Gallup. Enthralled with the new synthesizers coming out at the time, Smith also added keyboardist Matthieu Hartley.
With the money we got from Three Imaginary Boys I bought ten days of studio time. We only used eight, so I got my money back for the last two, which was lucky 'cause we spent far more than I thought we would on beer. We did all the photos the day we finished recording at about eight o'clock in the morning. I said to the bloke, "Could you do some that are out of focus." And they're the ones we used, because the ones in focus looked so hideous.
During Seventeen Seconds, we honestly felt that we were creating something no one else had done. From this point on, I thought that every album was going to be the last Cure album, so I always tried to make it something that would be kind of a milestone. I feel Seventeen Seconds is one of few albums that genuinely achieved that.
With "A Forest" I wanted to do something that was really atmospheric, and it has a fantastic sound. Chris Parry said, "If you make this sound radio friendly, you've got a big hit on your hands." I said, "But this is how it sounds. It's the sound I've got in my head. It doesn't matter about whether it's radio friendly." He sometimes thinks that I'm willfully kind of stopping this from having more success, but I'm not. One of the reasons people like the band is because they're never quite sure what's gonna happen next. If we were predictable, we wouldn't have really lasted this long.
By Smith's own admission, Faith is the Cure's "difficult third album." Recorded over a month in a handful of different studios, the somber Faith was born of death, isolation drugs and alcohol.
The whole band had a family member die, and that really colored Faith. The initial demos that we did in my mom and dad's dining room are really quite upbeat. Then, within about two weeks, the whole mood of the band had completely changed. I wrote "The Funeral Party" and "All Cats Are Grey" in one night, and that really set the tone for the album.
When we toured on the back of this album, the mood was so somber. It wasn't a particularly healthy thing to do because we were reliving a really bad time, night after night, and it got incredibly depressing. And so I kind of have mixed feelings about Faith.
A lot of people around the band began reacting badly to the fact that we were becoming successful, on a very limited scale. There was a lot of jealousy and sour grapes and people saying, "You've changed!" We had changed because we weren't going to the same pubs all the time, because we were touring Europe. So we lost a lot friends, and we became much more insular. We would just drink ourselves into oblivion, and play these songs.
The Cure's fourth album, beginning with the lyric, "It doesn't matter if we all die," was even darker, prompting British rag Rip It Up to write, "Ian Curtis, by comparison, was a bundle of laughs." Smith began spraying his hair in all directions and wearing lipstick, and lack of an image would never again be a problem for the Cure.
During Pornography, the band was falling apart, because of the drinking and drugs. I was pretty seriously strung out a lot of the time, so I'm not sure if my recollection is right.
I know for a fact that we recorded some of the songs in the toilets to get a really horrible feeling, because the toilets were dirty and grim. Simon doesn't remember any of that, but I have a photo of me sitting on a toilet, in my clothes, trying to patch up of some of the lyrics. It's a tragic photo.
We immersed ourselves in the more sordid side of life, and it did have a very detrimental effect on everyone in the group. We got ahold of some very disturbing films and imagery to kind of put us in the mood. Afterwards, I thought, "Was it really worth it?" We were only in our really early twenties, and it shocked us more than I realized – how base people could be, how evil people could be.
There is a certain type of Cure fan who would hold Pornography in greater esteem than anything else we've ever done, but, at the time, most people hated it. They're the only songs we've ever played where people would walk out or throw things. But then we probably were not that good on stage [laughs].
I don't have particularly fond memories of Pornography, but I think it's one of the best things we've ever done, and it would have never got made if we hadn't taken things to excess. People have often said, "Nothing you've done has had the same kind of intensity or passion." But I don't think you can make too many albums like that, because you wouldn't be alive.
Looking to shed his "gloomy cult figure image" and leave behind the squalid world of Pornography, Smith abandoned his dismal London flat and returned home to live with his parents. The Cure, now Smith, Tolhurst and a revolving cast of characters, put together an EP full of downright chipper singles.
It took me a few weeks to recuperate in the bedroom I had grown up in, because I was like totally gone. And I decided to be a pop star [laughs].
When I took "Lets Go to Bed" to Fiction and played it to them, it was like silence. They looked at me, like, "This is it. He's really lost it." They said, "You can't be serious. Your fans are gonna hate it." I understood that, but I wanted to get rid of all that. I didn't want that side of life anymore; I wanted to do something that's really kind of cheerful. I thought, "This isn't going to work. No one's ever gonna buy into this. It's so ludicrous that I'm gonna go from goth idol to pop star in three easy lessons."
Suddenly, "Let's Go to Bed" was turning into a big hit, on the West Coast particularly, and we had a young, predominately female, teenage audience. It went from intense, menacing, psychotic goths to people with perfect white teeth. It was a very weird transition, but I enjoyed it. I thought it was really funny.
We followed it up with "The Walk" and "Love Cats," and I just felt totally liberated. With "Love Cats," I suggested that we were going to do something that's kind of like a Disney take on jazz, based around the Aristocats. And suddenly everything we did started to sell.
From '82 to '84, Smith sporadically reprised his role in the Siouxsie and the Banshees. Playing guitar in someone else's band gave Smith a live outlet without all the responsibility. Smith also formed the British Invasion-inspired side project the Glove with Banshees bassist Steve Severin, and they released their lone album, Blue Sunshine, in 1983. In 1984, when Smith returned to the studio to work on The Top, he was without a band, and almost out of ideas.
I was kind of cajoled back into making a Cure album by Fiction, who had me under contract and could have stopped me from playing with the Banshees.
The Top was the closest I've ever come to making a solo album. I didn't really have a very coherent idea of what the album was, and I think it shows. It's probably the patchiest Cure album.
I suppose the Banshees and the Glove worked to my disadvantage, because rather than putting the best ideas into a Cure album I was spread a bit thin. There are a couple of Glove songs, "Sex Eye Makeup" and "Blues in Drag," that I wanted on The Top. "Dressing Up" was actually done as a Glove song, and then I didn't play it to [Severin] because I thought, "I like this one too much" [laughs].
I played all the instruments, except drums. When I listen back to the album, I have a strange image of me sitting in the middle of the studio floor surrounded by little bongos and spoons and things. I would just sit there and make things up with an acoustic guitar. [Producer] Dave Allen and I would play, and I edited it down a couple weeks later. I don't think any of the songs were actually played as songs; they were kind of created later.
It was a bit sad, because it was very badly reviewed and it dented my confidence in that way of working, and I put a stop to it.
The Head on the Door
Craving the power of a real band again, Smith expanded the Cure to a five-piece. A 180 from The Top, The Head on the Door was recorded as live takes. The MTV hit "Close to Me" cemented Smith's hair and lipstick image, which prompted him to get a crewcut on the ensuing U.S. tour.
During the demos of The Head on the Door, I knew that this was the band. The album's got a real fantastic freshness to it, and it was a really pleasant environment. All the girlfriends got on well, and the band became much more like a family. That old gang mentality was growing a little bit stale. By this time I was twenty-five and realized I should grow up a bit.
I bought a good metal six-string acoustic, and as soon as I picked it up I started playing the chords to "In Between Days." I'd never really bothered playing one, because I'd never owned a good one.
Porl [Thompson] has always been a great guitarist, and Boris [Williams] is an extraordinary drummer. We could never have attempted "Six Different Ways" before, because we never had a drummer who could play 6/8 time. It was a great feeling to be in a band that played well. I thought, "God, we could jam – should we so desire."
A lot of the lyrics came out of really weird conversations that we were having in the studio. We had this fatuous argument about how many ways there were to skin a cat. The inanity was staggering [laughs]. And someone said, "There are definitely six different ways." And it just seemed like a nice title because of the 6/8 time.
MTV was running hourly news bulletins, like, "Yes, it's true; he's cut his hair off." I said, "Are they serious, or are they being funny?" Although I don't like what I look like at the best of times, I think I look particularly hideous with cropped hair. I did it on that tour because I was getting so fed with [press about] "hair and lipstick, hair and lipstick."
Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me
For the recording of Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, the Cure retreated to a vineyard in the South of France. Songwriting-wise, the album was the band's first group effort, and, according to Smith, it became a double album simply because they were having so much fun that they didn't want to stop. "Just Like Heaven" would crack the U.S. Top Forty, a Cure first.
The dinners were really pleasant occasions. Again, the girls were there, so the conversation was kind of elevated above what it usually is when it's just a bunch of blokes.
After we'd finish recording for the day, I would go and sit down in the woods and write another song. And they were done so fast. We didn't fuck about with production; there's a quite touchingly naive sound on some of the songs.
We use to have this thing called "the panel," and all the girls would sit on the sofa in the back of the control room and give the songs marks out of ten – so there was a really big female input. They wouldn't like "Fight," which was really not a girly song. But the more male members of the band were like, "This is rock! This is what we should be doing, not this other wussy stuff." "Shiver and Shake" was my male kind of song. "The Perfect Girl" was a very female song. I think that's probably why the album had such a huge appeal, and why it did so well.
I remember on the Kiss Me tour we were in Los Angeles, and there were girls taking their clothes off and lying down in front of the bus to stop us from driving away. And I remember thinking, "This isn't really what I imagined I would be doing with this band."
Bliss turned to anguish in 1989, when Smith turned thirty and began taking stock of his life. He wanted to again make an "important" album, and talked of disbanding the Cure upon its completion.
It sounds really big-headed, but everyone wanted a piece of me. I was fighting against being a pop star, being expected to be larger than life all the time, and it really did my head in.
I got really depressed, and I started doing drugs again – hallucinogenic drugs. When we were gonna make the album I decided I would be monk-like and not talk to anyone. It was a bit pretentious really, looking back, but I actually wanted an environment that was slightly unpleasant.
Everyone expected me to be writing songs that were gonna follow-up "Just Like Heaven." They thought that we were gonna keep things light and bouncy with an occasional bit of gloom, but we did the opposite.
I wrote "Love Song" for Mary, my wife, as a wedding present, and I put it on the album to be kind of romantic. I thought it was the weakest song on there, and suddenly it went to Number Two in America. It was kept off the top by, like, Janet Jackson. I thought, "Of all the songs I'd written, this is the one that kind that cracks through." It was quite disappointing.
I realized at this time that, despite my best efforts, we had actually become everything that I didn't want us to become: a stadium rock band [laughs]. Most of the relationships within the band and outside of the band fell apart. Calling it Disintegration was kind of tempting fate, and fate retaliated. The family idea of the group really fell apart too after Disintegration. It was the end of the golden period.
During the three years since Disintegration's release, "alternative" music had become mainstream, and the Cure returned to an ever-expanding new audience. On the strength of singles "Friday I'm in Love" and "High," the Cure continued playing stadiums, culminating in the concert film Show and accompanying live albums Show and Paris.
On the Wish album I felt much more isolated, like I was making the album on my own, and the others were just playing. Some days it would be really, really great, and other days it would be really, really horrible.
After Bloodflowers, Wish is actually my favorite Cure album, but I felt we weren't really doing anything different with it; I just felt we were making an album. I suppose that's what was wrong with it. It was almost like consolidating where we were. We were gonna go back out and we were gonna get more fans and we were gonna play bigger places, and somehow I lost my enthusiasm. There were elements lyrically and the way I was singing that I was almost going through the motions.
The Show concert in Detroit was the band at the peak of its powers. We had been together at that point for eight years, and it was so tight, but I set up the film because I knew that after the Wish tour the band would fall apart.
Porl left and then Boris left soon after. And then Simon left. Perry [Bamonte, guitar] and I were sitting in a room talking about doing demos for a new album, and we just both burst out laughing because we realized that we didn't have a band anymore.
Wild Mood Swings
Drained from maintaining the business entity the Cure had become, and the extensive touring, Smith took his time reforming the band. Although, by his own admission, Smith constructed many of the songs with radio play in mind, the Cure's extended break cost the band dearly in public profile, setting up Wild Mood Swings for commercial failure.
When we came back to do Wild Mood Swings, I got that sense of fun back. And it shows in the album; there are some pretty demented songs on there. But it was a shame, because it got slagged when it came out. Fans hated it as well. It's the only time I've been hugely disappointed.
I suppose it was because "The 13th" – with this sort of crackpot salsa feel – was the first thing that they'd heard from the band in years, and I don't think they gave it a chance after that. Every album up to that point had sold more than the last one, and suddenly the record company was confronted with this horrifying drop in sales, and they didn't have a fuckin' clue as to why we'd ever sold records in the first place. That sort of stymied any attempts at a promotion campaign, because they didn't really know what they were promoting or who to.
The album suffers from being too long. And it's disjointed. I was trying to write in different styles, and wanted us to sound like different bands, almost going after the Kiss Me idea. But, because we'd lost Boris, and before Jason [Cooper] settled in, we had a different drummer every week. I would often forget the name of the person who was drumming.
Finished in May of 1999, but delayed because, according to Smith, the record company wanted to release it "post millennial fever," Bloodflowers is a clear departure from Wild Mood Swings. In fact, like Faith, Pornography and most of Disintegration, the album is one epic mood piece, wherein the atmospheric collective whole reigns over the individual songs.
Before we did Blooflowers I actually wanted it to be short album, because I find that seventy minutes of one artist is, almost without exception, too much. So I set a target of forty-five minutes, but, even cutting it down to nine songs, we we're still over an hour. I realize, in hindsight, that it's the songs themselves that probably need trimming back, but I think that they benefit from their length. I've done an edit of "Watching Me Fall" at home, and I got it down to under six minutes [from eleven minutes, thirteen seconds], but it's just not the same song.
I edited the first track, "Out of This World," down from 6:30 to 4:45, but I was told that the introduction was still too long for radio. But I like that slow development, and I didn't want to impose the three-and-a-half-minute structure on anything I was writing, because it just felt stupid. We did a couple of what we'd consider to be pop songs at the demo stage and they just sounded so shallow.
But recording Bloodflowers was the best experience I've had since doing the Kiss Me album. I achieved my goals, which were to make an album, enjoy making it, and end up with something that has real intense, emotional content. And I didn't kill myself in the process.
In 2004, the Cure – after enjoying a renaissance thanks to the rise of disciples like Interpol, the Rapture and Thursday – headed into a London studio with aggressive-minded producer Ross Robinson (Korn, Slipknot) to record The Cure. The result, not surprisingly, is heavy.
I was on the point of making the album I had been waiting to make for about fifteen years. We [Robinson and Smith] met at the end of Coachella. I knew after the first day of sitting and talking to him that I wanted to work with him.
I started writing really heavy songs, because, when you're working with Ross, he's bound to want dark and moody. What became very apparent is that he liked all kinds of things we did. He's really into the melodic side of the band and the pop side of the band. We ended up with thirty-seven demos and we all sat down and gave everything marks up to twenty. We didn't really leave the studio for the last couple of months. We had no visitors. No one was allowed in. It was quite a surreal experience.
It was treated as almost a long live event. Everyday it was a different song. We'd be facing the control booth so we could see Ross and we would figure out the technical stuff. He put us in a very confined space, right on top of each other, with eye-to-eye contact. At night, we'd face the other way, light the candles and suddenly it became very real. I would stand up and away we would go.
Everything we'd done before was going to culminate on this record – that was the mind set that we had when we were in the studio. And I would say that more passion went into the making of this record than all the others combined.
When he began sketching out ideas for the Cure's 13th album, Robert Smith envisioned a double album with 13 songs on each disc. The group did record 33 songs between 2006 and 2008, but once Smith began whittling them down he felt the project worked best as a single LP. After many delays, 4:13 Dream finally came out on October 27th, 2008. We spoke with Smith months before that, right as he was preparing to head into the studio and cobble the whole thing together.
I keep hearing that it's been delayed again and again, but I see it from a different perspective. I feel like they keep scheduling it when it's not ready. I love the sound deadlines make when they whirl past my head. I think what we do with this album will be around a lot longer than us, so I'm determined it should be exactly how I want it to be. Having said that, I'll be handing it in on my birthday, April 21st.
We've had a lot of difficulty figuring out what's gonna go on the album. There's a few seven-minute downbeat songs on there and some very upbeat stuff and everything in between. It covers everything The Cure does across 33 songs. We sort of did that with the Kiss Me album in the 1980s. We were trying to do the same thing and then paint it all together at the end, but there's a slight dissent among the ranks of what we should do. There's one voice saying we should put out the most commercial-sounding CD and draw people into the Cure world again and then hit them with the other stuff. There's another going going, "Fuck that, let's go out with doom and gloom and give the other songs away to films and stuff."
We recorded everything together in the same studio. Probably 75 percent of what we've ended up with comes from the very first session we did because it had a really good feel to it. Even though we've refined some of it a bit later and changed the tempos and re-recorded, the bulk of what we've done has actually been our own demos.
The good thing about it sonically is that the slow songs and the fast songs and everything in between all hang together. We have a limited palette of sounds. We only used four keyboard sounds across 33 songs. I've used the same basic instruments. I've used like three amps. The room sounds the same. Even though the songs are very kind of weird and fit together uncomfortably, they do at least have the benefit of sounding the same.
There's been a rule where there hasn't been a single visitor the whole time we've been in the studio. No one has been allowed to enter. There's just the four of us and Keith Uddin, the engineer, who we've known for a few years. There's no playing to the gallery. Everyone knows everyone's foibles and we just get on with it. That's another reason why it's been so much fun to do, although we do disagree quite a bit. We've gotten past the screaming stage of disagreeing, which is refreshing.
Two of the songs are old demos from the 1980s and one comes from the 1990s. Just in the course of completing the extras for some of the album re-releases we did a couple of years back I had listened to everything I had. I kept hundreds of cassette tapes and there were a couple of things as soon as I heard it I thought, "This could be good. I could hear this live doing that." I sort of put them to one side. One of them sounds pretty 1980s. You could probably spot it. It turned out really well. It's from the Head on the Door period and it's got really bounce to it, but it does sound genuinely 1980s, but I don't think that's a bad thing. It's part of our heritage. At the moment the working title is "Kat 8."
There's no theme to the album, but I've been trying to be more socially aware with some of my lyrics. One of the songs is taken from a book I read a couple of years ago called The End of Faith by Sam Harris which is about the absurdity of organized religion. I wanted to put it into a song in an entertaining way, if that could be done. I always think that other singers in other groups don't know anything when they sing about issues like that, and it sounds like they don't anything, so what makes me any different? So I shy away from that most of the time.
This is definitely the best lineup of the Cure there's been for 20 years or since Disintegration. The feeling in the studio is electric and the songs reflect that. My standards are much higher than they have been in the past. If you like the Cure, you'll like the album.