Articles/Interviews

Mark E Smith interview March 2010

Interview

This in-conversation was live at the Green Room in Manchester on Saturday 20th March 2010. This is the complete transcript. Journalists etc; please acknowledge the source (www.davehaslam.com) of any quotes taken from here. It was a wonderful event even though (or because) Mark took the piss throughout…

Over the thirty four years that you’ve lead the Fall, what are the biggest changes in the group?

What, for me?

Yeah.

(pause) I just think now I’ve got the best group. (pause) Is this the best you can do David? C’mon!(audience laughs)

Mark, is that the best you can do? (audience laughs) I’m sure you’ve changed as a person surely in those years, but how has your writing changed?

The way I write is a lot different I think, it’s not as detailed, I’ve got a bit more savage in the editing. I’ve tried to cut things out more and more. People – engineers and producers – are always trying to put a lot more words in songs than I want them to.

What about the process, do you write ideas in a notebook?

Believe it or not, I still try to get up at half seven, try and get crackin’, and then it sort of drifts away (laughs) and then I have a drink about twelve o’clock and it usually works out alright. Come back to about six. Its true…

Do you use a computer?

I used to have a computer in the 80s.

Do you write at home, or do you ever write in public, like do you have your notebook with you when you’re out having a drink…

I don’t go out drinking all the time…

Like in South Manchester you go to a bar…

I don’t go to South Manchester (audience laughs)

I know you don’t, but in South Manchester you can be in a bar and there and people writing, out and about…

(Mark laughs) I know South Berlin better I know South Manchester.

Ok, so we’re two minutes in, we’re already talking about North versus South Manchester. (pause) Is it a young man’s game, rock & roll, do you think? In terms of the energy levels..

I think musician-wise, yeah maybe, I don’t know.

You like to use young musicians, like the group you have now…

They’re all about 28, 29.

Which is relatively old for the Fall.

Sort of. But I don’t judge people by their age or their sex, never have.

Yeah, over the years you’ve often had women in the group, and for someone’s who’s often been thought of as being politically incorrect, you’re ahead of that old four boys with guitars thing. Do you think women have a better attitude to it?

Definitely, yeah.

In what ways?

Because you can repeat things to fellas over and over again. (audience laughs). They never get it! I’ve never really understood this thing; what difference does it make if you’ve got women in the group, men in the group, black people in the group? I don’t understand that.

You know with that Sex Pistols gig in 1976 that everyone talks about, the talk is always that Manchester was a cultural wasteland and then Malcolm McLaren came up and changed everything – and I know you went to see the Sex Pistols. Do you think the band and your music career would have happened even if the Sex Pistols hadn’t happened, let alone come to Manchester?

I was already doing stuff for a while, to be honest; about 1975 I started. But it was always a very bookish club type thing, three nights a week. In those days people had a job, in those days everybody had a job and it would be three nights a week book club, women and men together…

In bands? Together? (audience laughs)

(laughing) Working, composing. Before DJs. (audience laughs)

So what difference did punk make though to what you were doing?

Nothing to be really honest with you, I’m serious. It gave us a bit of a break, to get into that thing…

The Buzzcocks…

They gave us a few breaks, yeah.

One of the characters around then. John Cooper Clarke; he’s one of the people that over the years you’ve always had a good relationship with.

John was always very good to us. We used to rehearse in his house and he always used to tell me to ignore the reviewers, they don’t know what they’re talking about. People forget that all the press we got when we started out, 1978, was very bad.

I remember good press, well, mostly good press…

I know, but at the start it was quite bad.

What were the press saying?

You know, we had teddy boys in the group, I had long hair and all this shit, blah blah…

You were doing something different though.

I was never ever into all that punk stuff to be quite frank with you, or that new wave, it’s not what I was going for.

So when you started what were going for?

I was just trying to do very basic music, very savage music, with intelligent lyrics. It’s what I’m still doing now.

The lyrics in many ways are very specific, and very realist, in comparison say with a lot of the punk stuff which was more abstract and sloganeering maybe.

I think you can look back on those times with rose-coloured glasses. I think the Fall would have happened. We’re not overground, we’re not underground. I was saying this the other day, nothing’s really changed.

In the lyrics you were writing at that time, and as you still do – as I was saying in the introduction before you came on stage – they’re brilliant and innovative and influential and inspired. One of the qualities I like is the way they’re realist and specific but it’s almost like they’re filtered through some kind of hallucination or dream. They’re just not obvious, and I wondered if you had a handle on all this, could explain this.

I can’t be objective but I appreciate what you’re saying.

In your autobiography ‘Renegade’ you talk about some of your drug use. Doing Mandrax in a pub in Prestwich, for example, and taking acid…

What’s this??? I hear something new every day.

How has drug use affected your writing?

What drugs? What Mandrax? (Mark laughs)

There’s another story in your autobiography that the ghost writer tells us, about taking heroin…

Yeah, yeah, that happened once.

I’m interested though in where that writing, that inspiration comes from.

I know what you’re saying, yeah. It’s everything. I only drank beer; I can’t drink beer anymore because it’s piss, isn’t it, it’s not what it was. If I did drugs it was just to calm me down. I’ve never had a problem writing. Where’s this Mandrax coming from? I’m interested now.

Is there a pub called the Church? I think it’s a pub Mark, in Prestwich. Taking Mandrax in the Forresters and the Church.

I did Mandrax in a church? (Mark laughs)

It’s all on page 35.

That ghost writer has got a lot to answer for! (audience laughs)

I’ll buy you a copy of your own book so you can read it. (Mark laughs)

No, but what I saying is that at the time – in the mid-70s – in Manchester there were a lot of barbiturate things, you could go to the doctor and get barbiturates, I was just observing that, like Valium was a big thing; mother’s little helper or something, you know what I mean. A lot of people were zonked out of their heads every time you’d go out or go to work. Nothing’s really changed if you think about it; I mean nowadays the medical profession give ‘em over the counter drugs, Prozac and shit like that, which is very dangerous. But a hundred years ago it was Laudanum wasn’t it? To keep the women quiet…

And the children…

That’s right, yeah.

This story may not be true, but it’s in ‘Renegade’… (audience laughs) Mark, thing is I don’t know what to believe…

Sorry Dave, it’s not your fault. (audience laughs).

According to ‘Renegade’, you have a gift for tarot reading.

I used to make a living off it. I’ve got a talent for it, apparently.

People would pay you to look into their future?

With the cards, yeah…

You’ve always been interested in this haven’t you, you know Cog Sinister and that, the whole idea of being able to foretell things? Can you explain this a little bit?

It’s no use to you really, though, it’s not good. I mean, what point is there knowing what’s going to happen in a year’s time? It’s not much use. It’s not is it? If it was the horses or something or the lottery but it’s not is it?

You’ve been proved right about things…

Not really no. What I do is write, it’s not prophecy.

You left school at 16, you didn’t do what most kids do now is which is go on and on in education, but you read a lot and you’re very inquisitive. Lots of kids go through all that education and in a way they don’t learn anything, and they don’t ask questions, yet you’re questioning stuff, you’re naturally a curious person…

I don’t see what you’re saying.

Your interests, you’ve educated yourself really…

What education system?

You know, school, sixth form, A-Levels, degree. Your interests are very broad, you’ve always questioned stuff…

I’ve never heard this before.

There are a lot of people who aren’t always questioning stuff…

How do you know? (audience laughs)

That’s just my perception. My perception is that most people aren’t like that, and my perception is the often the more education people get the less questioning they are.

Know-all knows fuck-all?

Yeah. Like that. (pause) So, one of the things in your work that I’m interested in is the North, you know ‘Hit the North’, ‘The North Will Rise Again’ and “Which way is North from here?”. Is there something distinctive about the North?

I do get homesick if go around a lot. I tend to get a lot of compression in my head.

When you’re outside of the North?

Outside of the North yeah. If it doesn’t rain for a week or two – this is serious – my head starts to hurt.

When you said earlier that the press didn’t take to you in those early days, was one of the reasons that they couldn’t work you out, and the Northern thing was part of that?

I never looked at the Fall as being Northern, a ‘Northern group’ and all that. I never liked any of that.

That’s the category you’re often in though…

That’s the category I’m in, yeah, but I don’t see the Fall as a South group, a North group, it’s ridiculous at the end of the day.

You can understand it, though, your songs about the North…

I’ve written songs about Chicago haven’t I? And Iceland.

But…

That’s how I’m pictured, Dave, I know what you’re saying.

We’ve had to get used to Manchester this, Manchester that…

Those days are over for you arent they? (audience laughs)

Yeah, me and Clint Boon, we’re very worried people… (audience laughs)

(Mark laughs) Those days are never going to come back Dave!

I’m hoping Hooky will bring them back (audience laughs) But, yes, so, despite all this Manchester this, Manchester that, Liverpool has always been really good to the Fall hasn’t it, since Eric’s and those days, very supportive…

Yeah, that’s true, but that’s what I’m saying, Liverpool to me isn’t North. It’s North-West isn’t it, Liverpool?

In the Manchester story, the Factory Records story is always portrayed as very central to things, the local story. Do you think this is slightly to the detriment of groups or musicians who weren’t part of that. Do you feel that, the Factory story is too dominant?

I never saw the Fall as part of that.

Did you ever nearly sign, were interested in signing to Factory?

If you go back a bit, the mid-80s.

What didn’t appeal about getting involved?

The Fall were very autonomous. The Factory label it was like Tamla Motown or something. Everybody was on the same wage and blah blah.

Even in terms of the artwork for your sleeves, the look of them was very very different to Factory…

I should hope so…

I mean, they were paying Peter Savile a lot of money, but…

I don’t know, you know all this. (audience laughs)

In your relationship to the press, there’s something in ‘Renegade’…

Oh right, here we go…

There’s something about Samantha Fox reviewing ‘Living Too Late’ in ‘Smash Hits’ and she says “he sounds like he’s having yodelling lessons”.

(Mark laughs) Yeah I used to carry that review around with me, in the Eighties…

You said that she did a better job of understanding the Fall than Paul Morley did.

That’s what I said?

In ‘Renegade’, yes. (silence) You generally you give a hard time to journalists, generally, do you think that?

I don’t personally, no. That’s just what someone from Penguin has written on the back of that cover (points to ‘Renegade’).

I’m wondering why you seem quite resistant to people who wish to put a lot of analysis into the Fall – the music attracts academics, for example a couple of academics from Salford have brought out a very highbrow sociological type compendium of essays on the Fall.

I’ve never seen it. What book?

It’s twenty-two dollars, plus postage.

What, from Salford University?! (audience laughs)

They’ve got a chapter called ‘The sound of The Fall, the truth of this movement of error: a true companion, an ambivalent friendship, an ethic of truths’ by Angus MacDonald.

I’ve not seen it.

But my point is that the Fall have attracted that kind of interest, but you seem totally not interested in that kind of take on things…

Of course Im interested in it. That’s the thing about the Fall, it’s not overground, it’s not underground. Whatever place in the world we play, there are stockbrokers, dole-ites. You can’t explain it. It’s what I wanted to do in the first place. That’s why the Fall were formed, it’s not meant to be any particular kind of music for any particular kind of person. (pause) There’s nothing I can do about it, David, I’m sorry.

(Dave laughs) Well, just in terms of audiences, other groups, bands…

I’m not interested in “other groups, bands”.

Other groups have an idea of who their audience is…

Well, I don’t. (pause) Well, I do, but they don’t.

When you’re writing do you ever think about au audience, how they will receive it?

No, not at all.

What about when you play shows? Other bands, people will go and see them and expect all the greatest hits, and expect to be charmed but Fall shows aren’t about charming the audience into buying more albums are they? What’s your hope when you go on stage?

I still get very, very nervous.

Are you looking for a reaction? I’ve seen you goad the audience. I’ve seen you jump off stage and punch a member of the audience. (Audience member shouts “I haven’t seen that”) It was a gig at the Cavendish building, the old Poly on Oxford Rd…

I don’t know what you’re talking about.

OK, so that gig in Brownie’s in New York…

1998.

There were fights onstage and for some band members it was the end of the career in the Fall, and so on. You’ve described it since as “the best thing that ever happened”.

In retrospect, yeah. And it’s happened again hasn’t it? It always happens, you get deserters don’t you? You can’t blame them, I’m not really a musician; I can see where they’re coming from but I’m not coming from the same thing. They think when they’re on the front cover of some magazine they deserve a mansion. I’ve never looked at it like that. (pause) They don’t think they deserve it, they just don’t understand it. The thing about the Fall is that I’ve always thought you have to be ten times harder than the most commercial group, and ten times nastier, otherwise it’s a waste of time. With the Fall, the music we play, it’s never ever gonna go on ‘Top of the Pops’ – not that ‘Top of the Pops’ exists anymore – but it’s never gonna happen. No, I always thought that. It’s hard to explain to a lot of people.

The musicians want a career?

Not particularly, no. I wouldn’t say that at all.

Was there a time when the Fall started, and when Una Baines and Martin Bramah, was there a sense that it everyone’s band, or, for you, was it always your group?

I don’t remember, it’s too far away…

Now, is it ever a democracy the band?

Er (pause) (Audience start arguing among themselves about whether the Fall are a democracy or not)

Ok, can you tell us something about the new album?

It’s fine, it’s good. It’s finally out in April.

You’re on Domino Records, yeah? The idea of a label, where they sign a group and they record and then they distribute it…

Those days are gone. Nowadays they have “rolling contracts” they call it. “Rolling contracts”.

You’ve got a “rolling contract”?

Yes, a rolling contract.

What’s a “rolling contract”?

They pay for everything but you don’t get any money (laughter).

I want to bring us up to date Mark and talk about your future plans. Can you tell me about the personnel in the group now?

They’re alright, I said that to you before.

Will there be tours?

I don’t plan too much ahead, to be honest.

Do you think you can find a new Fall audience?

It seems to be going OK.

Are you hoping to find a new audience for the Fall and how do you reach them?

I don’t think about it. If you play to a hundred thousand people or to one man and his dog it makes no difference to me David.

Is it up the record company to increase your audience?

No.

Isn’t that not their job, to sell the records?

No. Like I said it’s a “rolling contract”.

I’m still not sure I quite understand this “rolling contract” thing (audience laughs)

Nobody does! (audience laughs) This is an interesting debate. Everyone’s on a rolling contract, the DJ days are over Dave. (audience laugh) No, to be serious, it’s an interesting thing to bring up, because it’s the big groups that started it off and the DJs. They’ve been going around giving the music away for nothing, so what’s happening is, it’s backfiring isn’t it?

So does this make it harder to finance the Fall?

I’ve never had a problem…

People aren’t going out buying music and buying records are they? The 7″, the 12″, the album…

No, but they never were anyway with the Fall (laughs).

One of the things I miss, is your attention to the record sleeves for example, and how they looked. And those of us who went out and bought the records we cared about all that, buying that package, getting into the whole vision…

For sure, yeah.

That doesn’t work in this digital era, they’re downloading it and …

I don’t know. I’ve always been of the opinion, since we started out is that 99% of music is shit. There’s no difference now, there’s a big fuss being made about downloading but there’s no difference.

To the quality?

It’s DJs who started it; they put themselves into the role of artists didn’t they, in a strange sort of way.

Talking of DJs, I’d like to talk about John Peel for a moment. There was that ‘Newsnight’ appearance, on the day of the news of his death; what was going on with that event?

I was just shoved into a room and I couldn’t see what was going on at all, I was just given headphones, and obviously I was a bit upset to be honest. This bloke in a suit shut me in this room and all I could hear was this Northern Irish fella yabbering down my bleedin’ ear hole.

That’ll be guy from the Undertones… (audience laughs)

Yeah, that’s right. So I said to him will you fuckin’ shut up. But then that Gavin fella comes on and he’s Scottish isn’t he and he’s got the same accent hasn’t he and I told him to fuckin’ shut up and I asked him if he was the new John Peel. I couldn’t see anything.

Have you watched it on youtube?

I know people watch it on youtube. Is it good? I imagine it is, it’s very embarrassing. That Gavin fella, it’s the same accent isn’t; Northern Irish, Scottish.

To be fair, I think he was more confused that you were.

We were talking about John here, and no-one seemed to be bothered about where he was going to be buried, and no bugger seemed to bothered where his coffin was…

One of the roles John Peel played was the way he was able to get across to people music that might normally have picked up on…

True.

How are the younger people listening to music now pick up on things via the radio?

They’re not anymore. I think the mistake they’re making nowadays is that they seem to think they can have ex-rock stars and things like that doing the DJing. Peel was an asset, wasn’t he, joking apart, he was passionate, wasn’t he? That’s why that 6 Music is going down, I don’t think it’s what they play, it’s the people who do it; they haven’t got a clue. I wouldn’t listen to it. I’ve done interviews with them and there’s like three seconds between each track, they haven’t got the skills.

There’s a lot of stuff on the radio but you don’t often get any sense they have love for the music…

Correct, yeah. They’re all laidback and all that.

I think they’re all scared.(pause) In terms of the Peel thing, he was a great evangelist for the group, but did you think that it ended-up being a limiting to you and who might listen to you?

Yeah, very much. (pause) Not limited, no not at all. “Limited”, it wasn’t at all.

What I mean is, people pigeon-holed you as a Peel group…

Yeah, that’s right. We couldn’t get played anywhere else, but that was his prerogative.

One more question, before we open up to the audience, in terms of that perception of you as “Narky Mark”…

What?

I’m not lying when I say there’s that perception.

What’s “Narky Mark”? What’s “narky” mean? “Narky Marky”?

No, you’ve proved tonight that’s a total misconception! Thank you Mark E Smith!

++(audience claps, audience questions)++