MARK E SMITH of the Fall is talking to me, eyeball to eyeball, giving me a few pointers about how I might like to approach our interview:
“Is he an idiot like Oasis? Or is he friendly like New Order? Or is he reclusive like Morrissey?” he whines in a fey, airhead manner, before snapping back into reality and fixing me with a surprisingly steely and clear-eyed gaze. “Say what you want. But watch your back.”
MES doesn’t have much time for the people others might regard as his contemporaries. If you see Manchester as one big happy musical family, Smith is the surly step-child in the corner, loudly singing off-key and out of time, spoiling it for everyone. Loving the fact that he is spoiling it for everyone.
The last time I interviewed him we ended up sitting on a bench in a graveyard, drinking cans of cheap lager and arguing about patriarchy in Yorkshire. This time we’re lounging around the bar of Manchester’s Malmaison hotel, still drinking lager but it’s more expensive now and it comes in glasses. Smith seems equally at home, either way.
A well-read, working class lad from grimey Salford relocated to leafy Prestwich, Smith was fired up if not directly influenced by the energy and DIY ethic of punk rock at the end of the Seventies.
Harnessing the mesmerising repetition of krautrock, the emotive thump of northern soul and the cut-up, disorientating prose of William Burroughs, Smith and an ever-changing cast of supporting players have been creating a weirdly absorbing, constantly evolving and very Mancunian kind of rock’n’roll ever since.
Along the way, the Fall have released dozens of hugely-influential albums, played hundreds of edgy, intense, fantastic gigs all over the world – and quite a few edgy, intense, shockingly bad ones too – and collaborated with everyone from Michael Clarke and Leigh Bowery to Coldcut and the Inspiral Carpets. They’ve even dropped a genuine hit single or two.
Key to understanding the Fall is the idea that great bands don’t stand still, that whatever they’ve done in the past is irrelevant and it’s what happens in the here and now that’s important. Similarly, one of the band’s early singles, How I Wrote Elastic Man, details the ways in which “the public kill off their heroes’ creativity” and Smith remains wary of taking notice of other people, especially his fans. His is a very singular vision.
He studiously avoids, for example, logging onto the famously lively message board on the band’s official fan-run website, although given his almost Luddite attitude towards new technology, I’m not absolutely sure he could if he wanted to.
“I think it’s great,” he says of the site. “A lot of people are jealous of it. A roadie, who’d worked for David Bowie, told me that the first thing he does when he comes offstage is get on to the internet and read his reviews. Even before the encore. He employs like eight people who do stuff for him and he was yelling at them, why isn’t there more discussion?”
By contrast, it’s clear that Smith doesn’t even like his musicians looking at the Fall Online.
“It affects what you think, what you do,” he explains. “Last British tour, they’re like this in the back of the van” – he pounds his two forefingers on the table and camps it up – “oooh look at that review, and we’ve just played somewhere like Nottingham, and they’re like that, oooh look what he said! I says, fucking turn the fucker off, or I’ll fucking throw it out.
“And I’m not talking about Fall fans, but on that internet, you’re talking about people who’ve never written a letter, never read a book, aren’t you? This is what I say to the group. You can’t even write postcards home, but you can bloody get on the internet, go to your girlfriend, hello, how are you? They always try to make out, y’know, you’re an old fool, like I don’t understand it. I had a computer in 1983 man.”
Smith is on conspicuously good form today. Interim, a between-proper-albums release has just come out and it is classic Fall product, full of great tunes and smart ideas – and he knows it.
To the casual observer, Interim might appear to be the work of a band on the way out. Someone, probably Smith, has scrawled ‘rehearsal and live’ in black felt tip under Pascal le Gras’ neo-primitive cover art. As the message board posters sulkily point out, it has only three new songs on it, combined with a few recent b-sides, older classics and rehearsal out-takes, thrown together on the hoof and on a budget. It all seems a bit rushed, a little hurried. And all the better for it.
The album got me thinking, I tell Smith. How much of the music is directed by you and how much is the band just jamming?
Smith gently clears his throat, considers for a moment and ignores the question. “Well, to be honest, I’m quite pissed off with British fucking, bloody … studios, y’know. They’ve scaled down.”
They use computers?
“Correct. So what used to be quite a big studio is now four little compartments, where people who are not particularly talented and that, are avoiding their college work, y’know, cos you know you can do that in Manchester? If you’re a spoiled brat, and you’re no good at physics, you can always get onto the music thing. But I’ve forgot your question now.”
Do you direct the music?
“All the time. I do the editing and all that. And one thing I’d say, it gets harder and harder, the more computers they’re bloody getting. Which is why that LP’s good, I think.”
“The deal with the record company was that they wanted half old songs and half new. And I thought, well, that’s fair enough. A lot of that stuff was recorded in Warrington as well, which was a weird studio on an industrial estate, like Tuff Gong. Four of them are from there, another four are from an Eccles warehouse, the other four are from some bloke’s house.
“But you don’t want to go around saying them things. The next LP’s gonna be done in the best studio in the world. That’s the way I am, y’know. They think you’re a bit daft if you don’t do it on an economy drive.”
“I get a bit fed up with labels,” says Smith, unnecessarily. “Sometimes they talk to you like you’re fucking 19. I can’t be doing with it anymore, you get my drift? So it’s like, d’ya want this or don’t you want it? If you don’t know what to expect off the Fall after 20-odd years … I mean, are they mad? What you’re supposed to do is sign up for five years but I don’t operate like that. That’s why I’ve been a bit skint sometimes, and sometimes I haven’t.”
The band have just spent a couple of weeks in New York recording the next, as yet-untitled album – how does he feel about the way in which people can circumvent the industry by downloading music online?
“It’s beyond me, to be honest,” he says, seemingly unconcerned. “I had an interview yesterday I was supposed to do. Bloke rang up about downloading, all that. I’m not embarrassed to say to people, I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about. This bloke was going on to me, I’m from the fucking PS… y’know, MP3 fucking blah blah blah, saying he wanted to do an interview and I just said, I don’t know what you’re talking about, mate. Talk to the guitarist. Cos they’re all into that shit, y’know.”
“That’s our president’s dream isn’t it? A computer in every home. I’ve got better things to do than look at a fucking computer. That’s the way I am. It’s a sore on the eyes. How you can listen to music out of a telly? I’ve got mates that are dance DJs and they go, listen to this, and you can’t hear it. They’ve got the best systems and it sounds like it’s coming out the telly.”
We’re actually here to talk about the two-night residency the band are playing at the Bierkeller this week. Smith, in between long, deep drags on a series of Benson & Hedges’ finest, says he prefers the venue – which is one of those dark, basement shit-holes Manchester does so well – to swankier student-orientated venues in the city.
“We can’t play Manchester much, we’re not that well liked here, to be honest. Thing about it, our fans, they’re from Nottingham, Birmingham and all that, so they can get off at Piccadilly and just stroll down – as opposed to bloody going southside, as I call it. The main thing is, we’ll have our own control like. I’m into residencies, you know.”
How is it going to work then?
“We’ve expanded the group to like six now, it’s got a lot more thump in it, y’know. I’ve got the old drummer Spencer, thumping it. I’ve got a really good guitarist in, Jim, who I work with now and again. It’s great.”
Yeah, but what are you actually going to be doing? There’s a lengthy pause. Smith takes a long drink and clears his throat.
“We did it in Iceland, well, it was a two-and-a-half day residency. When you get the group settled – I can’t stand all this festival-type of mentality, y’know, you do Glastonbury every year and that’s it. That’s what a lot of groups are like. I want to sort of re-establish the Fall as a club act. The group’s hot, and I wanna keep them bloody moving.”
Smith has no truck with the idea of ‘classic’ Fall line-ups. The current group is the best version of the Fall yet – or they could be the very best yet, with a bit of hard work:
“It’s like an organic thing, isn’t it? It’s like a pack of cards, you’ve got to get the right balance, you only have to get one wrong one in there, or one nutter – no, really – and it all goes.”
You say organic but that implies it’s a gradual thing, and often with line up changes in the Fall, it’s not a gradual thing at all.
“There’s too much made of all the line up changes …”
Okay, I get the point. I wonder if it’s better playing in cities or in places like those name-checked on the band’s early Totale’s Turns album: Doncaster, Bradford, Preston. Places where audiences have no …
“Preconceptions, yeah. Well, Doncaster, that’s where we sort of started, cos that’s the only shows we could get. Y’know, in them days, we couldn’t get a gig in Manchester, believe it or not. Only places we could play was Liverpool and places like Doncaster and Wakefield and that. They weren’t hip places, they were working men’s clubs.”
“Manchester never recognised us. We’re not a Manchester group. Always been at arm’s length. If it was up to Manchester, we would’ve starved to death like ten years ago. The Manchester scene and all that, we weren’t part of any of that, it was nothing to do with me. We’re a different entity, you understand?”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Smith remains unimpressed by the changes Manchester is going through as it continues to reinvent itself.
“I think this country’s gone very centralised again, like it was in the Eighties. This big city boom that’s encouraged, I think it’s all crap. London is ridiculous, last time I went. You drive past shops and there’s no fucker in there, is there? This is what’s happening in Manchester, I think. Nobody can afford what they’re selling, understand me?
“What I’m saying is that Manchester is a city and that it should remain a city, not just a collection of stupid villages. London isn’t a city, in my book. Cities are where people all bloody, all fucking come together, and like it or not, y’know, you’re gonna get bloody muggers and all that.”
Do you care what goes on in London?
“They’ve been kicking kids off the street, 19-year-olds, just going to the West End. They’re only drinking cider. I do care about stuff like that, y’know, cos I was one of them once and you were one of them once.
“And I don’t want Manchester to turn out like that.”
Smith’s voice has taken on an oddly plaintive tone. He pulls himself together, shrugs and grins, a bit self-conscious.
“Not that I bloody care about that, right?” he says.
I wonder what he thinks is the difference – besides longevity – between the Fall and his Manchester punk rock contemporaries like Slaughter and the Dogs, the Buzzcocks …
“I don’t recognise them, like I don’t recognise the Madchester scene, the Liverpool scene, the Glasgow scene, like I don’t recognise any scene,” he spits, suddenly impatient, pissed off that here’s another one who does not get the fucking point. “It’s the Fall, it’s a different group, otherwise we wouldn’t be – we wouldn’t have our longevity.”
Do you like that word?
“I’m only saying what you said. It’s you who fucking said it first.”
Smith has a history of liking black music, and, whatever R&B’s flaws, it’s resurgence has been one of the most vital and interesting things in music over the last decade. There’s lots of polished, banal crap about but surely there’s also stuff that presses his buttons the way that Northern Soul once did? And you haven’t done a cover version in ages. Is there nothing in today’s pop you’d want to cover?
“I’ve got me ideas, actually, I’ve got a few ideas. There’s a lot of fucking groups in Britain, all the groups you see on telly, on Jools Holland for instance, you’ve got to have various ingredients of music in your group, and that’s the qualifying thing for you to get on. It’s like Pop Idol, except a bit more middle class. D’you not reckon?”
I don’t know. I’d not really thought about it.
“Well you’d better have a think about it then, hadn’t you? You’re a journalist. It’s your fucking job. If I had three trombonists in, I could be on 30 grand a year.”
But you can usually hear more Can or Velvet Underground than Sister Sledge or Prince Buster in your stuff.
“Exactly, they’re not going to have anyone on who was, y’know, brought up with Prince Buster, it’s just bits and bits, bit of jazz, bit of reggae, bit of this, bit of rock’n’roll, bit of fucking heavy metal, what kind of group’s that? At least with someone like McFly, you can see that their fathers’ have been into the Jam or the Who, it’s obvious.”
Kids listen to their parents’ record collections these days. It’s weird.
“Correct, which is one of my big objections. In America, you see the support groups and it’s like a bit of Beatles, a bit of Pink Floyd, a bit of Nirvana, bit of the Sex Pistols. You can hear it.”
I tell him that I once went to a few contemporary Northern Soul nights and got quite inspired by it all, the idea of people being into what they’re into, regardless of fashion. I tell him my little maxim about Northern Soul fans, that it isn’t so much about not growing up as not growing old. Has that got any relevance to what you do with the Fall?
“They all live round where I live,” mutters Smith.
And looking for parquet flooring, right?
“No, I don’t think they are actually. I think they’re just fucking … fucked off. I thought that at first. There’s a lot of Northern Soul reunions near where I live, but it’s not like that. You meet them DJs and they play the fucking music man. You take people out to these places, and they go, who’s that by? Who’s that by? The DJs, they don’t fucking know. That was the secret of Northern Soul, you never knew who they were.”
Somewhere along the line, I appear to have said the wrong thing.
“What do you mean?” he snarls. “Do I want to get old or something? Course I want to get fucking old, I was old when I was 12 and I’ll be older tomorrow. You wanna watch that…”
[Reworked and expanded from two separate pieces in City Life and Flux, both of which were based on an interview with MES in November 2004]