Funnel Of Love: Mark E Smith Of The Fall Interviewed
, December 17th, 2010 09:48
'Av a bleedin' guess... John Doran talks to Mark E Smith about Your Future, Our Clutter, a firesome 2010, and The Fall's plans for the future
As I was saying to anyone that would listen earlier this year, in 2010 it should no longer be our job to explain to people why The Fall are the greatest English rock band of the last 40 years. In fact, I'd politely suggest the onus is now on others to find out for themselves instead of us having to draw them a fucking map. There are already enough 'How to' features which throw together the usual melange of grandmother's bongos, how no-one really knows how many albums they've had out, and a handful of (admittedly laser-accurate) John Peel quotes thrown in for good measure. In fact, it has taken a full decade and the release of their 28th album Your Future Our Clutter for news to filter out of the League Of Bald-Headed Men HQ and back into the mainstream press that The Fall have actually been busy traversing their third phase of intense creativity.
The first was one of narrative lyrical genius coupled with thuggish, art-informed post punk. The second, imperial phase saw them as unlikely TOTP stars with guyliner, Armani sweaters and brilliant infectious repetition pop. Their current period started with 2000's The Unutterable, has included Imperial Wax Solvent, 'Blindness', 'The Theme From Sparta FC #2', the Von Südenfed project and arguably the two best live line-ups of the band to date. But in some ways, YFOC, could easily become the full-stop to this phase.
Their first and last album for Domino will inevitably have been used as a ballast mechanism by Fall Sound Curator, Mark E Smith, who always seems keen to maintain the standing of the band at a certain distance away from the mainstream. This also extends to a wariness of the possibility of glowing critical praise, not to mention his commendable disdain for nostalgia and comfort. But as much as Smith might protest at how the label treated him (remember the live backdrops that read 'What Domino Want, Domino Shall Have' and the declaration "A new way of recording! A chain round the neck"?) the large independent has certainly re-engaged his nibs with the mainstream. This is, for example, probably the first time since the mid-90s that the broadsheets aren't portraying him as a tramp who pays his cab fare with false teeth; an embarrassing post punk throw back... the ghost at the wedding. And well, he can't be having anyone take him too seriously right? So perhaps in some respects it's time to move on again. That said, thankfully, he seems to be quite happy with the current line-up.
(He told me that Cowboy George was his nickname for guitarist, Pete Greenway because of his love for rockabilly. In any other band it would probably sound the worst of all alarms for the lead singer to go onstage a few hours after the interview and shout: "I fucking hate you Cowboy George! Why have you done this to me?" but as likely as not this was just Smith winding him up. After all, one of the YFOC tracks played is named after the guitarist, and at that gig had its lyrics amended to direct bile at "Jason" [sic] Barnett from These New Puritans.)
On a personal note, it took me months to get to grips with Our Future, Your Clutter. After so many years of bewildering stylistic jerks and manners of recording, hearing such a 'professional'-sounding album actually threw me and had me longing for the cheap nastiness of 'Fall Sound', the slur of '50-Year-Old Man' or the heavily medicated lurch of 'Dr Buck's Letter'. But once it bedded in I found it to be a really good album that sounded superb... I almost wish they'd signed to Domino to record Post Reformation TLC. The use of noise and lo-fi recording techniques has been a lot more conceptual and boutique, as shown on 'Bury 1+3'. The track starts as deliciously needles-in-the-red lo-fi Dictaphone-recorded demo, then becomes ragged studio recording, through to glistening chrome monster. This wasn't a great sound arrived at by accident. The funniest thing about the album, for me, is still the sample of Daft Punk's 'Harder, Faster, Better, Stronger' cheekily woven into 'Cowboy George', because you know that The Fall are still harder, faster, stronger and better than your favourite band and if you don't know this by now, it's your look out.
Do you think it was easier, sonically, for people to get into this one?
Mark E Smith: I can't really imagine what it is about this one, because it's a very strange record. After I've finished them usually I don't want to go near them for a bit. It's a very strange record you know, especially on vinyl. There's lyrics coming out of there and I don't remember singing them or anything. I was on German painkillers when I was recording the album [Smith was wheelchair bound after a fall] and I'm not used to taking them. So some of the stuff on the album is downright fucking weird.
I think we're going through the most conservative times for mainstream music since the mid-80s…
MES: Yeah definitely.
On 'Cowboy George', you've got a sample from Daft Punk that crops up on that and that's a mad record that. But isn't it the job of younger bands as well to be doing this experimental shit?
MES: Not particularly. At the very start of recording, I didn't know what was going on... I was on Planet Z. So for a bit of it, I just left them to it themselves. But they're really tight. I don't know if that answers your question but there's a bit of both there. There's a clash in the group. It's a good balance and I hope to keep it, touch wood. You've got Pete, that's who Cowboy George is, who is in to really weird rockabilly. And then you've got the rhythm section who are really into Motorhead and shit like that and then you've got Eleanor who's into German experimental stuff. It's a nice combination.
I always think there are some similarities between The Fall and Motorhead... I guess it must be the work ethic.
MES: [much laughter] Are they still going?
Yeah, they're on tour at the moment.
MES: [even more laughter] He has one week in bed every month though doesn't he? You'd never catch me doing that. Sloppy.
Do you always think it's bad for a band to reform? After all you've been on stage with the Monks..
MES: Yeah but you can't really class The Monks like any other group. They were all sort of resentful because of having to reform.
So, I was very amused to see that Bury Council got the exclusive first showing of the 'Bury 1+3' video.
MES: Really! Someone told me about that but I just thought they were taking the piss. People in Bury seem to like it... they're from Bury! [much laughter]
At the Quietus, we tend to think of you more in the same way that we'd think of a newer band because you're not comparable to The Rolling Stones or some other unit that's been going for ages, There's not really much to compare The Fall of 2010 to The Fall of 2000, apart from yourself. The rate of change is pretty fast.
MES: Well, that's the way I look at it. Some young kids who are getting into The Fall might want to listen to all the old stuff, just because they can with computers and all that but that's not us. That is how I see the band myself, so yeah…
Strangely for a group who have been going this long [34-years and counting] people don't speculate about you quitting any more. People just presume that you're going to keep on going. And this is even despite the fact that on YFOC on the track 'Chino', you sing, "When do I quit?" Do you speculate about quitting yourself, even though people presume you won't?
MES: Not at all really. I've got a mental block about it. It's never something that I think about.
I always think that because you treat the band like your profession that perhaps it would be fitting to carry on doing the group until your 65th birthday.
MES: It is feasible. I have thought at the odd time here and there... Thankfully I'm in good hands at the moment. To be honest John, I've thought about quitting once every two and a half months for the last 25-years but not like that...
How have the sessions been going in Hustle Studios in Manchester?
MES: Very well, actually. Very well. I've been pleasantly surprised. Because we've been doing a bit of soundtrack music on the side. I can't say too much about it because it's supposed to be a secret but it's the worst kept secret in all of bloody Manchester... it's something about… but I'd better not say any more.
So there's definitely going to be a new album next year?
MES: Oh definitely yeah.
Is it in a similar Country and Northern, rockabilly vein?.
MES: No, they're a lot heavier actually. We do this song and it's... it's like a Greek heavy metal group. We've rearranged the song and put totally different lyrics on it. It sounds really good. It's like... well, I can't describe it really.
Greek heavy metal?! What like Aphrodite's Child?
MES: Ha ha ha. Yeah, sort of. A bit like Aphrodite's Child, yeah... but better!
Did things pan out with Domino as you expected them to. Because they're a bit like Rough Trade were when you were signed to them aren't they?
MES: It never occurred to me what would happen. It never does. Not really. I should have been ready for it because I went through it with Von Südenfed, y'know. But it was bit like going in a fucking time warp. It's a different mindset altogether and I get a bit frustrated with that y'know.
So you're looking for something that's the opposite now - a label where you can just go in and bang out an album?
I always imagine you're going to end up somewhere really odd after you've been on a big indie label, like you might get signed by an extreme metal or dubstep label.
MES: It's not out of the question...
And when you sing "a new way of recording... a chain around my neck", is that referring to the fact that you thought the album was done months before it came out but they thought it needed more work.
MES: [laughs] Yeah, but it would have been nice to have been told. I think it's just par for the course these days. It takes some people two fucking years to do an LP and it's just fucking alien to me. You worry. It ruins your flow. You get rusty.
And it's worrying for the fans as well isn't it?
MES: Oh definitely. Straight up. I was being attacked on the bloody street. "What are you doing?" You know, people who like The Fall, they don't usually hassle me but they were about that. "Where's this bloody LP? Where's fucking 'Cowboy George'?"
Did you hear about Shaun Ryder appearing in the jungle?
MES: Yeah, someone just told me.
What do you think of that and do you get asked to do stuff like that?
MES: I was asked years ago when Johnny Lydon was on it. I was doing this daft pilot show which was something to do with James Brown [publisher not soul singer]. The set up was that there were six people in these dentists chairs and each one had a TV remote controller. You just had to press random buttons and TV from abroad would come on... y'know, like soap operas from Africa and shit like that. We were supposed to comment on them. And the other five were fine. They seemed to know the names of African soap operas. It was a bit phoney. I just couldn't work the fucking TV controller. So I just had a picture of a butterfly on my screen. But anyway, halfway through filming the bloke from the Jungle comes in and says, 'Johnny Lydon's just left The Jungle do you want to replace him' but I said no. I don't know what the point of that story is but there you go.
But you don't mind the TV do you, I mean I've seen you on Johnny Vegas' sitcom...
MES: Oh yeah, I like the TV but it's just not a path I want to pursue. You know, you feel a bit like a part of your soul's gone even after doing two days of it. Not to be insulting to Shaun, but that's the way I see it.