The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website


INTERVIEW: Cardiacs' Tim Smith
Sean Kitching , November 9th, 2018 13:53

Sean Kitching talks to Tim Smith about the conferring of an honorary PhD on the much loved cult musician, and gauges reaction to the news from some of his fellow musicians and advocates

On October 25, Cardiacs, Sea Nymphs and Spratleys' Japs principle songwriter and composer Tim Smith was awarded an Honorary Degree as Doctor of Music from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

Smith, an autodidact who left school at the age of 16 to pursue his muse, seemed initially taken aback by the development: "I'm eternally grateful obviously, but I feel like a fraud. I thought that PhDs were for really clever people and I don't even know what PhD stands for, or why I have been given this medal, when there's so many busting their asses trying so hard to get some letters after their name. I really feel like it's all a trick," and then he added "...all I know is the ALPHABET BUSINESS CONCERN will not be happy with this."

Although operating largely, by his own definition, in the sphere of 'psychedelic pop music', the award was not the first time that Smith's genre-defying artistry has drawn admirers from the sphere of modern composition. In October 2016, Jos Zwaanenburg, a Senior lecturer at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam, and recent Cardiacs convert, visited Smith in Salisbury, where the two discussed Cardiacs scores and Zwaanenburg was permitted to take away a previously unreleased Cardiacs piece, 'Pod', to be performed with his Zappa CS Ensemble at CvA.

In response to news of the award, Zwaanenburg effused: "Tim Smith is a fully-fledged composer who has produced the most amazing and original music. I admire Zappa's work and also the work of Boulez, Berio and Xenakis but for me Tim's is the best. It changed my life."

Then in January 2018, another Cardiacs neophyte, composer and RCS alumnus, Martin Keary, posted a video entitled 'Cardiacs: Why I Love Them' on YouTube, which has since received close to 20,000 views. Keary said: "I'm very glad to have been tangled up in this event. My old composition professor, Gordon McPherson had been talking about nominating Tim for an honorary degree for quite a while and the fact that it happened in the same year that I published my Cardiacs video was great because it presented me with a unique opportunity to be involved."

Unable to attend the ceremony in person, due to severely debilitating health issues that followed in the wake of his cardiac arrest in the summer of 2008, Smith sent co-founding member of the band, his brother Jim Smith, to receive the honour in his stead. Like his brother, Jim also confessed to the head Registrar that he "felt like a fraud, and it was all probably a mistake." To which she replied: "That's what Emma Thompson and David Attenborough said. It's not a mistake, Tim belongs here."

Several other musicians of note also wished to comment on the event.

"Anybody with an ear - regardless of whether they like his music or not - could recognise Tim's remarkable abilities as a composer; particularly in terms of his rhythmic, melodic and harmonic sense. However I think this award is testament to the fact that Tim created (using the stuff available to us all), his own distinctive musical language; a language brimming with humanity. This is his genius - for genius he is." Craig Fortnam (North Sea Radio Orchestra, Arch Garrison)

"I am thrilled that Tim Smith is being honoured with a well-deserved doctorate of music. His dense and euphoric work is dazzling in its construction and execution. His music defies categorisation and it has inspired, and continues to inspire, countless musicians to soar to greater heights." - JG Thirlwell (Foetus, Steroid Maximus, Manorexia)

"The soul I hear in Tim Smith's huge catalogue is the most psychedelic, the most colourful, and the most generous I've ever come across, particularly for guitar-based music. In his work I hear an overwhelming sense of celebration for life and for love. It is both alien and delightfully human all at the same time. His unorthodox ear for melody is so singular, so utterly his, that he has, to my mind, created a genre all of his own. Having been an obsessive of his work for decades now, his work never stops rewarding me. I feel tremendously lucky to have discovered him." Mike Vennart (Oceansize)

"For whatever reason, since Tim Smith began composing in his own unique harmonic language from the late 1970s, on the rare occasions he even warranted a mention in the music press at large it's been almost exclusively negative. All those touched by Tim's radiant, magical and incandescent music know how deeply affecting, how unlike anything else it is. Tim Smith is not only the greatest living composer we have, he's an English visionary. From my first hearing of his music I have remained forever changed. We knew an appraisal must come eventually - we can't all be wrong about him, surely - and, of course, it came from academia. Dr Tim Smith, next you'll be on the school syllabus." Kavus Torabi (Monsoon Bassoon, Cardiacs, Gong, Knifeworld)

"Tim's Doctorate is so well deserved - I think it's long overdue. For me there has been no other musician who has been so instrumental in nurturing my escapism. Tim's rich library of music and lyrics have helped me though turbulent times and uplifted me when I needed it the most but always with a familiarity, a recurring homely theme like I was in the other room as a five-year-old secretly listening at the door as he composed his masterpieces - a blueprint for my DNA!" Shane Embury (Napalm Death)