Following a triumphant return to Glastonbury, The Cure’s iconic frontman Robert Smith breaks his silence for a rare and exclusive chat with NME’s Andrew Trendell. Topics for discussion include the action on Worthy Farm, their mind-blowing new live film marking four decades together, how the darkness of recent years has inspired their “merciless” new album, and the importance of being outsiders.
Glastonbury 2019 photos by CAROLINA FARUOLO/NME
SUNDAY, WE’RE IN LOVE – THE CURE TAKE GLASTONBURY
It’s been two days since The Cure closed one of the finest Glastonbury weekends in living memory with an historic and banger-filled headline set. Between the shattering crystal sounds of opener ‘Plainsong’ and the pogo frenzy of a closing ‘Boys Don’t Cry’, it was one of those unifying and timeless Pyramid performances. As I tremble like a shitting chihuahua waiting for a rare interview with Robert Smith, the memory of The Cure rattling through ‘Shake Dog Shake’ seems like the ideal soundtrack to the endless mire of this Glastonbury hangover. Does frontman Robert Smith suffer with a touch of the post-Glasto blues, just like the rest of us mere mortals?
“Well,” he says with a chuckle. “I feel considerably better than I felt yesterday!”
It sounds like the band had the afterparty they deserved. Having not performed at Worthy Farm since 1995, they returned with a two-hour masterclass of lush, pop-noir, alt-rock brilliance. And having headlined three times already (first in 1986, the year after sixth album ‘The Head on the Door’ came out), they now match Coldplay’s record for topping the bill on the Pyramid Stage more times than anyone else. They sure made it feel like home as they played classic after classic after classic.
“I didn’t actually go into the festival grounds until the Sunday,” Smith says. “But I saw some of the coverage on a couple of different televisions in a couple of really excellent pubs in the area, so I felt like I was definitely getting Glastonbury vibes.”
And what were those vibes?
“It was all about the diversity of stuff. Although a lot of the big European festivals have very obvious similarities, they all have their own character. For the band, it’s been a long time since we played Glastonbury and it just became kind of ‘a thing’. With all the other festivals, we play them – well not regularly – but certainly more than once every 25 years.
“It was me getting into the mindset of ‘Oh, I’m going to be walking out onto THAT stage in a day or two. I was just preparing myself.”
The Cure at Glastonbury in 2019. Credit:CAROLINA FARUOLO/NME
The only constant presence in The Cure since they formed in Crawley in 1976, Smith betrays himself with his dry humour and humility. His knack for a melody, natural flair for melodrama and ability to communicate the extremes of romance – from morose to giddy – have made him the architect of so much of the culture we enjoy today. So does Robert Smith, a man who has reshaped rock, indie, pop and beyond over a 40-plus year career still feel the weight of a night like this?
“Not really,” he says, before clarifying: “Well, I’m not downplaying it. The other festivals we’re playing like Roskilde, Werchter – they’re massive. To all of the people there, when you walk out stage it’s like, ‘This is it, the last thing we do’. I have that mentality instilled in the band and it just comes naturally. But walking out at Glastonbury was the biggest moment so far for us. This was the concert that matters, but we’re going to Belgrade to play Exit this week and I’ll have the same feeling: this has to be the best show that we’ve ever done.”
Well, it felt like it. While it started with some of the more understated and esoteric moments from the band’s vast and sprawling ocean of a catalogue (the dry-ice-gloom of ‘A Night Like This’ and twitching paranoia of ‘Burn’ from The Crow soundtrack), the set naturally flowed through every mood of The Cure via the baggy swagger of ‘Never Enough’ and bittersweet loveliness of ‘Just Like Heaven’ before the lushness bloomed into an almighty rave as they “put [their] pop heads on” for an encore loaded with the spoils of a band who had far more hits than the casual fan may have realised (‘Lullaby’ into ‘Caterpillar’ into ‘The Walk’ into ‘Friday I’m In Love’ into ‘Close To Me’ into ‘Why Can’t I Can’t I Be You?’ That’s just daft).
Reviewing their set for NME, I was smitten by how, unlike any of the other act to headline the Pyramid Stage this year, there was “no frills, no banter – just joy” . The Cure just came as themselves, and we all got a little bit lost inside them. Smith delighted us all with his dad dancing, and even seemed to have a tear in his eye during the final throes of the show. Is it possible that rock’s dark overlord was humbled by all the crowdsurfers, flags and flares aloft in front of him?
“Yeah!” Smith says. “But it’s probably not the first time or the last that I’m going to burst into tears at the end of a show this summer. It was a long weekend and it probably got to me. For the first 20 minutes I was very, very unsure. In some respects for the first half hour we didn’t really offer much concession to the ‘casual’ listener. Everyone was a little concerned about that. They were going, ‘Oh, maybe we should load the front end of the set with songs that people know a little bit more’, and I was going ‘No, we’ll build towards the end with this big release in the encore’. I never get nervous, but for about 20 minutes I was like, ‘Ooh, maybe I haven’t read this one right’. Then by the end it was a slight release because the encore was absolutely fantastic. It was just a huge sing-along, but we’re not really that band.”
Did he feel as if he had to live up to anything else he’d seen at Glasto?
“The stuff that I’d seen on various screens, with Stormzy being the exception because he’s exceptional in many ways anyway, showed me a tendency to have the special guests, and the sing-along, and the ‘how you doing?’ and the fireworks. It’s fantastic and that’s what people expect and what makes Glastonbury really good, but I thought we should just be a bit more minimal. The best way to do Glastonbury was to just do what we do. It was a bit of a gamble I suppose. If it hadn’t have come off then the rest of the band would have turned around and said: ‘See! We told you! Where were the dancing girls?’”
The Cure at Glastonbury 1995. Credit: Getty
The Killers didn’t quite have dancing girls for their Saturday night set, but frontman Brandon Flowers did lead the Pyramid Field through a very Butlins, very Freddie Mercury-like “waaaay-ohhhh-waaaaayy-ohhhh” call and response. Robert Smith would eat shit before such an utterance left his lips. “I realise that I’m going for the award for the person that says the least ever at Glastonbury,” at one point. Did he ever get the award?
“Ha! I was given a certificate to that effect by someone who I won’t name in the aftershow. It was handwritten in Sharpie, but it was appreciated. I guess that’s the one other difference with me. Offstage, I can talk for days and don’t shut up. There are days when I don’t shut up at all.”
Today must be one of those days. He continues: “I realise as the years have gone by that I come across as reasonably inarticulate on stage, and it’s primarily because I’m so absorbed in what we’re doing. I suddenly become very self-conscious. It isn’t an act because I’m not shy in the slightest, but there’s a huge difference being part of a band while performing and singing, and then having a communal experience and becoming ‘the person that’s talking’. Standing there and talking to 100,000 people is fucking weird! There’s nothing I can do to get over that. Rather than try to agonise about it, I just don’t say much.”
CLOSE TO ME – A BAND OF BROTHERS
Robert Smith may not be one to chat up a crowd, but you do often spot him whispering and joking with his bandmates on stage. This is heartwarming, given that Smith’s relationships with other members of The Cure haven’t always been smooth. “Sometimes I seem monstrous because I chuck people out of the band,” he told NME in 1995 of the band’s ever-changing line-up.
They’re a group who’ve threatened to implode more than most. They haven’t had the same turn-around as The Fall, but there has been a total of 13 people in The Cure over the years – including Smith and the current members who have been solid since 2012. In 2019, they seem tight. “There’s an atmosphere and everyone’s clicking,” Smith says. “For the first time ever, I’m able to talk to the others on stage. Everyone gets on really well, and it’s such a joy to be playing.”
Photo credit: Tom Jackson
At one point during their Glastonbury set, Smith ran over to Reeves Gabrels (guitarist, former member of both David Bowie’s band and Tin Machine) to congratulate him on his dizzying fretwork (“After all this time, I’m still blown away by how he manages to play a different solo to the same song every time”, says Smith). On another occasion he gave bassist Simon Gallup (who’s been in The Cure, on and off, since 1979) a knowing glance (“I’ll understand why he’s making faces at me so I’ll be like, ‘Yes I’ve seen it too and it will be fine’”). Do these friendships carry over into civilian life? What is a typical night out for The Cure?
“That’s a tricky one,” says Smith. “We’ve had one night out together as a band since we started the summer festivals, and it was very low key. We spend so much intensity onstage that I don’t think we feel the need to whoop it up offstage. We actually just sat around and drank beers by a lakeside and just talked about life and stuff into the early hours.”
Do things ever get a little rowdy?
“When we go out as different combinations of the band, you kind of know how late it’s going to be and how bad it’s going to end up depending on what combination you’ve got. There are a couple of combinations where people around us are like, ‘Oh, really? Please don’t’. There are other combinations where it’s fine and people know that we’re going to be in bed by one o’clock in the morning. But there are combinations where people don’t know if we’ll be back at all. There’s still that side to the band, thankfully. But also thankfully, it’s not every goddamn night.”
Who makes for the most dangerous combination?
“Without question, me and Simon.”
Indeed, it’s Smith’s relationship with Gallup – the longest standing member of the band other than Smith – that has formed the bedrock of what The Cure are today. “There’s a really good balance,” says Smith. “A really good discourse that goes on, and it’s on a level that’s just more enjoyable than it used to be.”
So let’s take a break to meet the band…
SIMON GALLUP, BASSIST
(In The Cure: 1979-1982, 1984-today)
Robert Smith says: “For me, the heart of the live band has always been Simon, and he’s always been my best friend. It’s weird that over the years and the decades he’s often been overlooked. He doesn’t do interviews, he isn’t really out there and he doesn’t play the role of a foil to me in public, and yet he’s absolutely vital to what we do. We’ve had some difficult periods over the years but we’ve managed to maintain a very strong friendship that grew out of that shared experience from when we were teens. When you have friends like that, particularly for that long, it would take something really extraordinary for that friendship to break. You’ve done so much together, you’ve so much shared experience, you just don’t want to lose friends like that.”
JASON COOPER, DRUMMER
(In The Cure: 1995 – today)
Robert Smith says: “I think with Jason, he’s just a charming bloke. He’s just utterly… erm. What’s the opposite of capricious? I’d say reliable but that seems really boring. He’s constant. He’s just very even-tempered and the perfect drummer. He drums for several hours before we go on stage and he’ll sometimes drum some more when we come off stage. It’s like, ‘We’ve just played for three hours. Why are you still doing this?’ More importantly, he’s just a very genuine individual. That’s been the band the heart of the band for a while now.”
ROGER O’DONNELL KEYBOARDIST
(In The Cure: 1987-1990, 1994-2005, 2011-today)
Robert Smith says: “Roger, he’s been in and out of the band over the years so is slightly more volatile, but he’s calmed down remarkably. I think the secret is age, if I’m being perfectly honest. It takes an awful lot of effort when you get older to get irritated and agitated by really silly things because your perception of time changes and everything is relative. You realise that there isn’t that much time left. Not just as individuals, but for the band. Fucking it up for stupid reaons is not an option any more. When you’re young, you explode, you beat each other and all of those things. But it would be really, really boring to do those things as a more mature individual.”
REEVES GABRELS, GUITARIST
(In The Cure: 2012 – today)
Robert Smith says: “Finally, Reeves has brought something of another dimension to the band. He’s played with so many people, most obviously with Bowie, but he has a breadth of experience which is probably greater than ours. He’s also an American so he tempers what we think. For example, if we said that ‘Glastonbury is the only festival that matters’, he would immediately pull us up and go ‘hold on’. He comes from a totally different culture where he knows what Glastonbury is but knows that is isn’t the be all and end all of festivals.
The Cure at Glastonbury 2019. Credit: CAROLINA FARUOLO/NME
A PERFECT DREAM – HYDE PARK 2018
The Cure have spent much of the last 12 months celebrating 40 years since the release of their beloved 1979 debut, ‘Three Imaginary Boys’. As well as curating the Meltdown Festival at London’s Southbank last year, they played a massive show at Hyde Park to 65,000. The weather was glorious, the handpicked-by-The-Cure line-up including Interpol, Editors, Goldfrapp, Pale Waves and Smith’s friends The Twilight Sad, plus everyone was having it large because that afternoon saw England thrash Sweden 2-0 in the quarter finals of the World Cup. It was just about the most perfect day you could imagine.
“It was!” says Smith. “Maybe that was on my mind at Glastonbury as well. We hadn’t considered it yet when we played Hyde Park last summer. Hyde Park was going to be our grand finale, our big day in the sun. We were astonished by the response. If it wasn’t THE best crowd we’ve ever had, it was certainly one of them. From beginning to end.
“It was created, as you say, by the day itself. The weather, the football, the bill – just perfection. It was one of the happiest days I’ve had. It probably won’t be repeated. It was a fantastic way to mark the 40th anniversary of the band, because I’m not sure we’ll get to a 50th.”
Lucky, then, that a few weeks before Hyde Park they asked longtime visual collaborator Tim Pope to film it in 4K with loads of other fancy effects (Pope is the genius behind a staggering 37 of their iconic music videos, as well as the live movie The Cure In Orange). And on July 11 Anniversary 1978-2018 Live in Hyde Park London will hit cinemas.
“I didn’t want it to be just about The Cure,” says Smith of the film. “I wanted it to be low-key in a funny way so that the band didn’t really know that we were being filmed. I wanted it to be a celebration of us playing music for 40 years. It wasn’t that big a deal. It grew into a big deal, but I thought it might cripple the band’s nerves if I made too much of it. I had no idea how it was going to turn out. It was only when I watched Tim’s rough cut through that I grasped how big it was.”
As you watch the film, you can see each Cure member stepping onto the Hyde Park stage and being left a little breathless by the enormity of the crowd. While admitting that the film is “the most serious thing” the band and Pope have done together, Smith says there’s still a little of the “slightly dark and off-kilter humour” you’ve seen in videos like ‘Close To Me’, ‘Friday I’m In Love’, ‘The Lovecats’, and ‘In Between Days’.
“We find the same kinds of things funny,” says Smith. “Tim’s visual references and the way he does things make me smile. I don’t know how or why he’s doing it. With the Hyde Park thing, he kind of nods back on certain songs to things that he’s done in the past – but without the flying socks [see: ‘In Between Days’]. I like that, and that his work – like our songs – is superficially joyful, then you start listening to the words and go, ‘Hold on, he shouldn’t be singing those words to this tune’. I think he was drawn to that side of the band.”
Pope knows The Cure’s inner workings so well he’s been able to reflect what Smith calls “an intimacy that had never been revealed within the band before” in the movie. “That hasn’t really been seen since The Cure In Orange [the magnificent 1987 concert film],” says Smith. “And that’s what I like best about the film.
“But it does end up being completely chaotic. I went to see the final thing the other week. Although I’ve been involved in mixing the audio with Paul Corkett, who co-produced our ‘Bloodflowers’ album, I have also been suggesting that certain shots make me look worse than I already do! Also the flow of certain songs needed a bit of work, but generally the whole thing has been put together by Tim.”
AMBITION IN THE BACK OF A BLACK CAR – THE “MERCILESS” NEW ALBUM
Tim Pope started teasing his new film about The Cure last year, by saying he was working on a special anniversary film containing archive footage alongside the band’s story narrated by Robert Smith. After they found that the format didn’t hold together, they decided to just focus on the London gig. The original idea has not been totally shelved, but won’t be revisited just yet.
“I hate people who write their autobiographies when they’re still alive,” says Smith. “I’d prefer it for them to write it when they’re dead! You know what I mean. They do one, then they go, ‘Here’s my autobiography part two’. I’m not going to do a history of The Cure from my perspective when we’re still going to do something new. What’s the point?”
The “something new” he’s talking about is, excitingly, an album. It’s been over a decade since new music from The Cure, but the wait should be over by the end of 2019. The act of searching for younger talent to play at his Meltdown residency last year left Smith “enthused by their enthusiasm” and it pushed him to create something new. And the band have been working on a huge batch of new songs. While 2008’s acclaimed ‘4:13 Dream’ and its self-titled 2004 predecessor felt very much like a stab at ‘classic Cure’, this new 14th album will see the band push down on the bruise that inspired their morbid ‘80s masterpieces ‘Pornography’ and ‘Disintegration’.
The Cure at Glastonbury 2019. Credit: CAROLINA FARUOLO/NME
Smith once said he wanted the claustrophobic nihilism of ‘Pornography’ to sound and feel“virtually unbearable”, and it laid down the black runway for the likes of Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, Placebo, Deftones, Muse and, arguably, Billie Eilish. It seems only right that The Cure should return to the shadowlands they opened up for so many. So when will the new album be ready?
“It’s changing. It is a work in progress,” says Smith. “We did three weeks in Rockfield Studios in Wales in the early part of the year to try and capture some genuine Welsh doom and gloom. It was sunny the entire time though, which was pretty disappointing. It only rained once in three weeks, which I think is a national record for Wales.”
Which version of the The Cure are we likely to hear on the record?
“We did about 17 songs and almost all of them were really downbeat and heavy. There were a handful of others, and I really shouldn’t say this because you’ll go ‘oh no’, but in my head I wanted to do two albums – one after another. One was gonna be upbeat and the other downbeat, but the upbeat one I’m not so sure about now.”
So you’ve settled on the idea of something quite miserable now?
“Although the concept of what it’s going to be hasn’t really changed, I may have to change some bits of it. It’s kind of pushed me back a little bit because I thought I’d be in the mixing stage by the time we’d finished the festivals, but in fact we’re going to go back and re-record about three or four songs around the time we go and play Glasgow in August. I feel intent on it being a 2019 release and would be extremely bitter if it isn’t. At some point I will have to say ‘this is it’, otherwise we’ll just keep recording like we have done in the past. It never gets any better. We’re due one more session then we’re done.”
It’s been 11 years since you released ‘4:13 Dream’. Do you feel like a different person now?
“I don’t think I’ve ever changed much particularly. The core of who I am remains the same. Just like everyone, I have good days and bad days. I think I’m generally more of a balanced individual than I was 10 years ago. I’ve experienced more of life’s darker side, for real.”
What impact has that had on the new songs?
“Before I used to write about stuff that I thought I understood. Now I know I understand it. The lyrics I’ve been writing for this album, for me personally, are more true. They’re more honest. That’s probably why the album itself is a little bit more doom and gloom. I feel I want to do something that expresses the darker side of what I’ve experienced over the last few years – but in a way that will engage people. Some of the albums like ‘Pornography’ and ‘Disintegration’ are kind of relentless. I levelled ‘Disintegration’ with some songs like ‘Lullaby’ and ‘Lovesong’, but I think this one is more like ‘Pornography’ because it hasn’t got any of those songs that lighten the mood at all.”
So you’re not looking for ‘a hit’?
“When it’s closer to its finished form, it’s all about whether I think it’s too much or whether we just go with it. If it does turn out like that I think it’s going to alienate any kind of pop audience we still have. I think fans for a certain type of music that The Cure make will love it. That’s the dichotomy of the paradox: they will love the fact that it’s merciless.”
Merciless and very, very long?
“I know eight songs that currently make up the album. In the band, there’s a certain discussion going on but I obviously realise that the option is to do another album. Roger thinks that this is the last album but I think that every album we do is the last Cure album. It may well be, but if there’s another bunch of good songs then there’s no reason not to follow it up. What do we do if we’ve got seven good songs leftover? Wherever it ends up, it will be an honest decision. There’s no record company involvement. It’s just us doing it. No one is pulling the strings.”
WHY CAN’T I BE YOU? – FOREVER OUTSIDERS
Most bands in The Cure’s shoes would round off this victory lap of enormo-gigs at Hyde Park, Glastonbury and beyond by either churning out a ‘Greatest Hits’ or delivering a diluted, market-friendly record to cash in on the world’s attention. Rather than become a cartoon of themselves, The Cure are exploring the deepest extremes of their darker side and entirely on their own terms. From starting as three Crawley punks to setting the template for post-punk and goth with their first five records (without ever being goth themselves), via appearances Top Of The Pops and becoming a stadium-headlining band, they have always bled ideas, imagination and intensity, and always rolled onto landscapes they did not belong and left them forever changed.
The Cure at Glastonbury 2019. Credit: CAROLINA FARUOLO/NME
“I’ve said this before,” says Smith. “And it came across as really big-headed when I really didn’t mean it that way, but there are an awful lot of artists who reference us who you wouldn’t necessarily think would be influenced by The Cure. Half the time it’s just the fact that they wanted to become successful without compromising on what they wanted to do. It’s that which a lot of artists are referencing, rather than certain albums – although a lot of them do.
“We’re still perceived as an ‘alternative band’. We can do things like play Hyde Park and headline Glastonbury and we’re still considered to be ever-so-slightly outside of it. That’s always where I wanted to be: a really big band but no one really knows what we do or what’s going on.
“That’s what other bands are looking for: how do we get successful and remain successful while doing exactly what it is that we want to do? You know, without having fireworks and special guests…”
And that’s the thing, You can dress in monochrome, spike your hair with Coke, smudge your lipstick, and flail your arms, but to really channel The Cure? You’ve got to just do whatever the fuck you want.
The Cure – Anniversary 1978-2018 Live in Hyde Park London will be in cinemas from July 11. Find your closest screening here.
The Cure headline Mad Cool festival in Madrid next week.