Mark E Smith Of The Fall On Art & The Artist
, July 5th, 2010 12:22
"I was thinking of opening a shop to sell snuff", says Mark E Smith. "When I was a kid they used to have snuff in pubs in Manchester. There was snuff on every bar when I was growing up." We're sat in a Hamsptead pub in the spring of 2009, trying to record an interview with The Fall frontman discussing his relationship with art for filmmakers Nichola Probert's series of short films for the Tate. The sound didn't quite work out for the final cut (which you can see here) but nevertheless, a couple of hours was spent in the company of the songsmith as he sank a few lagers, took the occasional nasal blast of snuff, and talked about his relations with art and artists, keeping creative control of his band, his work with Michael Clark and Leigh Bowery… and the obligatory dig at The Scottish Band.
Why have visual artists responded to The Fall?
Mark E Smith: It's a strange thing, really. It's always been the case since we were first starting out. Artists still write to me and I've never met half of them. They're pretty reclusive, especially down south, Cornwall and that. They all say that they play the music all day, while they're working. It's strange. It’s not like I get contacted by filmmakers, it's always artists. The Fall doesn't really go with that; nobody does a cover version of art, but lots of artists like the Fall. Somebody explained it to me, they said it's the repetition in the long tracks; you can lose yourself in it. It's the atonal-ness of it. There's no definite message to the songs that can be fathomed. Hahahaha.
It's not because of the images you create with your lyrics?
MES: I think there's colour in sound. You get flashes of that.
When you've worked with artists how have you selected them?
MES: That's what I mean - we've never had any trouble selecting them. Now, you've only got to give them a sniff of an LP and they're all over it. From Paris and that...
Have you had to battle labels to keep control of the visual side of the Fall? Has that been important?
MES: It's been good for me because they've always got an art department. So, usually, if they come up with something, it's vetoed before you see it. There's a lot of LPs that aren't sanctioned with ropey record deals. I think that when that happens people can tell. You can tell when it's a proper new Fall LP because it's not just a picture of me going "Arghgh" [pulls face].
When you were growing up did you have much engagement with art and galleries?
MES: Oh yes, very much. There used to be a lot, but they're not there anymore. I used to spend a lot of time in parks. I was pretty lucky where I lived; North Manchester has got Heaton Park. That used to have a big mansion house - 18th century shit. I remember a park in the middle of Monsall, a really rough area and it had an art gallery in the middle. It had Constables and all that Raphaelite stuff. You couldn’t' get away with that now, just walking in. You'd have a bottle of cider in the park blagging off school and we'd go in there. You don't get that now. We were lucky in that way.
Do you think it was easier to expose yourself to art back then?
MES: Yeah. I didn't take much notice of the art teachers I got. They were all very tail-end-of-the-60s, the art teachers I had.
Were they hippies?
MES: Yeah, hahaha, it had to be swirling shapes. They didn't like anybody who painted normally, especially my shit.
What were you doing? Can you remember?
MES: At school? [long pause] I took my O-level on acid. I was never much good at it, or so I was told. But that's the sort of school it was, I was good at English but I never really liked school. I used to read more than the books they gave me.
What about the influence of art school on music?
MES: It explains a lot.
MES: Drippy music. It was more engineering colleges that interested me. Art College never appealed. How can you teach somebody to paint? I have trouble with that. It's like English lit. The art classes I went to, I tried. You always had to discover stuff yourself. The teachers were all just Warhol fans. I did it myself. You had to dig people like the Romantics.
What about the idea of concept over craft? Is that an unfortunate direction?
MES: That's right. Painters I correspond with or talk to, it's a full-time job.
Do people go into art like they do music, as a lifestyle choice?
MES: I think they do maybe. I never understood that. I didn't want to go to college. I learned more when I was 18 working on the docks, going to a lot of libraries, discovering things. They used to have a lot of German avant-garde shit on in Manchester, 20s stuff. There were quite a lot of exhibitions. They had a lot of Wyndham Lewis stuff.
What was it about him that you particularly admired?
MES: I'd never seen anything like it. I liked the way it was all pamphlets, and Blast! - which was one of the best magazines ever made. Still is. He was into manifestos as art. Nobody comes out with anything like that now, do they? 'fuck machinery!' 'Bless machinery!' it was good.
Did that inspire some of the early Fall communiques?
MES: Yes it did, but also a lot of literature. Celine and things like that. A lot of exclamation marks.
Did the diversity of the ways in which Lewis worked appeal?
MES: Yes, that's right; he was a composer as well wasn't he? An interesting character. You don't see that any more. They were all characters, mechanics and things, racing drivers, soldiers and things, and poets.
Do you feel that people can define themselves as artists just because they've been to art school.
MES: It's too soon. It's too soon to say to somebody: 'be original', 'be arty'. It’s a bit of an imposition. And then you get the parents saying.... hahaha, I've played with a lot of groups whose dads have given them money to go to college to become a musician. You know there's that tension, with a lot of rock bands - there's that pressure for them to make it, because they've got nothing to show for it and daddy's got his eye on them. Actually, music's better than banking nowadays.
There's a lot of money in the art world, in a way that there isn't in music, with big business funding collections, museums and exhibitions. What impact do you think that has?
MES: I think it's good that they patronise it. All that Hirst stuff is a tenth of the value. Why what do you think about it?
I like art that engages with people, where you can go to a public space and relate with it. I don't like it being shut up in bank vaults. And I do find it hard to relate to some of the more conceptual work that a lot of these funds invest in.
MES: Me too, yeah. Whenever I go to Italy, or Venice where I've only been two or three times, I'm never out of the churches. You find these little churches, and they're open for three hours a day, some old priest comes and lets you in. And they've got Titian, you know what I mean? It's like being in a Hollywood film from the 50s, so rich. You forget the size of these things. They'll have these slits in the stone, like arrow slits, and the light will come in and hit Jesus in the eye, and it looks like he's crying. There are all these old tricks they had, with lighting, and they can't even do that with films nowadays. They still fuck it up! With this widescreen, they've really fucked it up haven't. I've started watching a lot of shit films again recently, you know, those Sword of the Sorcerer films. I've got a young mate of mine, he's got the biggest screen you can get - it's fucking hilarious. Hollywood actors with heads like this, and you can see right up his fucking nose, it's horrible, and you can see the castle in the background is a computer generated image - it's exactly right for a castle, it's got smoke coming out of the top, it's that detail, it's ridiculous.
Do you see The Fall's evolution as being in a way similar to how an artist might grow, embracing new styles and new technologies?
MES: No not really. They're pretty much the same sort of idea. Get more than one LP out a year, and try and make sure it's what you want. Maybe make it a bit topical. I don't listen to my old stuff a lot but I have noticed that it doesn't date, which is something I'm very proud of. It doesn't sound like it's from 1983, that is the main thing, I suppose the main pleasure really, getting the LP right. I spend a lot of money I shouldn't on it.
How about for the new record?
MES: I'm very confident with this group, I can trust them. I don't feel like I'm carrying them half the time. They're all a lot younger than me. They've no illusions. No preconceptions about the group.
Is that important?
MES: It is to me.
They haven't embraced some mythology of The Fall?
MES: Yeah. It's a mistake, people like that are usually very hard to get rid of. The main thing with being The Fall is that you have to work a bit harder. It's hard to explain, you've got to, not fight, but you've got to make sure the work is yours. I don't believe in three year pushes. Six months getting the group a name, six months writing and recording, six months on tour, that's very boring to me.
A visual artists would have less of those constraints
MES: Definitely. But it's been good, in the early 90s I used to get paid not to make an LP, on Phonogram. They said, 'you can't keep bringing out LPs'. A lot of acts sign up to put out five LPs and they have to really push them. For me it's the opposite, I'm not stopping.
They have to lay you off for six months on half pay
MES: That's what it is yeah, half pay. Do you want a drink?
[There is a pause as The Quietus goes to the bar to fetch MES another pint Staropramen]
What do you make of these exhibitions of Fall art? Are you proud of it, or does it not bother you?
MES: It must be a weird meeting of people. I've never gone to one. He's an arrogant sod. He's got some of those crappy covers that aren't proper Fall sleeves, he's got one or two of them, and he's exhibiting it alongside Pascal Le Gras I had to say get him out. He said, 'what's it got to do with you?’ It's impossible to have control over things like that, but I don't worry about it.
Did it used to bother you?
MES: Yeah, yeah. When you're fucking broke and everywhere there's a discussion about The Fall, the artwork of The Fall, books coming out, it pisses you off. You'd never get any sleep, worrying about that.
How have you managed to stop worrying?
MES: Well it's funny, because we're moving into an age when it's common for all of it, people actually think they wrote the Beatles' songs. They actually do.
With the internet, is ownership of art and music being removed?
MES: Yeah, and in good ways. Because I think when it says, people know, they had a fucking symposium at Salford University, on Mark E Smith...
I heard about this. Your sister went down didn't she?
MES: It caused a lot of trouble...
Did you send her down?
MES: I did yes, hahaha! Nobody told me about this. They usually have it at the Lowry or somewhere like that. It's a blood racket, they sell tickets. It's like an Artists of the Lake District symposium. First thing I know about it is one of my family members says 'have you heard about this' and it's in the local free newspaper: 'singer to be honoured in symposium, tickets 38 quid', and they'd not even written me a letter. It's like I was dead. It's funny because I was working in a studio in Salford, finishing some bits and bobs for the LP, and went out for a pint. The people who go to this bar, they're the music department of Salford University, who set up this Symposium of Mark E Smith and The Fall, art literature and the supernatural. They're sat in the pub where I am, but they didn't come over and say 'this is what we're doing in two weeks', just 'hullo Mark' and walked away.
Is the artist retrospective like the album reissue, fixing you in the past when you're doing interesting work now?
MES: Definitely yeah. In some ways it's good, though. I feel sorry for the people who went to that symposium. People who'd come from Austria, saved up, just to see some windbag who's probably one of my old enemies and is a lecturer now, getting six hundred nicker a week to buy next month's Bordeaux.
The Fall has always had a very wide appeal whereas art can be seen as more elitist. Why do you think art has become divorced from mass appeal?
MES: [ignoring question] It gets worse as it goes on. People talk about this globalisation, but I don't see it myself. The BBC World Service, they're cutting that out. It's ridiculous. 15 years ago we had fans from Siberia who used to listen to the Fall on day release from the nick, letters from South Africa.
But with globalisation...
MES: ...and America, in the deep south, where people don't usually like British groups.
Do you think...
MES: ... and Belgians, people in the Belgian army. They really understand the lyrics. They're all there, crackpots and lunatics. It's good.
Have you ever seen The Fall as an art project?
MES: No. The reason for that is you have to fight a bit harder. If you were playing places like we were and the audience we had. It's important not to put yourself on a pedestal. A lot of groups who started out when I did, and became big, the college groups, people listen to them from 18 to 23, that's never happened to us. We've got a lot in the art crowd, a lot in the football crowd.
Looking at your work with Michael Clark, was that strange at the time, The Fall coming to work with a ballet company.
MES: He was using bits of music before that, like with Hail the New Puritan. I went to see that and thought it was quite good, and we got chatting from there. It wasn't like 'do the music for this fellah'. It was a gradual process and it worked well I thought.
Did you get on well straight away?
MES: With Mike, yeah I did, but we'd known each other before that. We met before 86, maybe 85. I think it was at Manchester School of Music. To be honest I didn't really know what he was doing, I just got on well with him. I didn't know he was involved in that Leigh Bowery scene for a while. I met Leigh when he was dragged into my play. My play about the Pope, that ran for about five weeks. We didn't have an actor to play the Archbishop of Chicago, and someone said 'I've got a friend'. He turns up in a blue fucking eighteenth century riding fucking suit with a big Catholic's priest's hat.
That sort of collaboration's not so new nowadays, but we weren't aware of how it hadn't been done before. It was just a good project. We used to swap tunes and lyrics by post while he was doing the troupe. The commission was because of the 300th anniversary of William of Orange coming to Britain, so in the van I'm learning up on what I'd learned at school, trying to write songs around the coming of William. We weren't deliberately going out to affront people, but we forgot, it's all about Catholics and Protestants. So we're up in Edinburgh, and he puts one of the dancers in a Celtic trip. I said Michael, up here in every city has got a split. He'd just thought the Celtic strip looked good. The Scottish people loved us, but I was shitting it. He was the darling of the very, very elite dance scene, on a par with Nijinsky, so had carte blanche to do that. But we were on a bit of a revival as well, so it was great for us. We got away from that 'another good LP blah blah'. We could sink ourselves in that. The Fall crowd loved it, but I don't think the media got it. They expected me to come out spitting and shouting and all that, and him to do Dame Bowie dancing, but it wasn't like that.
Was it quite ahead of where people were at?
MES: Very much. You look at the new, what's that Scottish group called, is it Franz Ferdinand? Look at their video - it's a straight copy of some of Kurious Oranj video. It's got the group walking around on a flat surface with orange lighting behind it.
Did you approach the writing of the lyrics in a different way?
MES: Yeah I was. Sometimes it's good to have a little project. I was trying to write for dancers as well, and my idea of dancing was a lot different to theirs - mine is Northern Soul dancing and all that. When stuck, do an instrumental.
Were they very open to your ideas?
MES: It was easier than a lot of stuff - it's a lot easier than dancing to Nirvana, but there was nobody doing it back then.
What were you bringing to it that other groups weren't?
MES: A lot of discipline, and it worked for them on us too.
Was that a new experience, to have discipline imposed on you?
MES: Yes, because I still don't time songs when I go onstage. They can be cut in half, but there they have to be done to the second.
The Fall play Field Day on July 31st. For more information, go here