Paleoanthropology: a talk with The Cure’s Robert Smith (1996)



In August 2019, The Cure will play their first show in Scotland since 1992. By weird synchronicity, I recently rediscovered a mostly unpublished interview I did with Robert Smith back in 1996, which was supposed to coincide with a show the band was due to play in Glasgow that year – but which was eventually cancelled. (Curiouser yet: this cancelled show was itself part of a string of rescheduled dates for shows that had been cancelled earlier that year.)

This interview was conducted in November 1996, a few hours before the The Cure went on stage in Essen, Germany. Among other things, Smith talks about the scale of the shows, the way his band is perceived at home, his reasons for being in The Cure, never fitting in, and the importance of doing things.


Where are you living these days, when you’re not knocking around Europe?
ROBERT SMITH: Sort of around the Brighton area, in Sussex. I moved out of town about, errr, eight years ago now. It’s where I grew up, in Sussex, so it’s kinda back to where my family are.

You’re about to play some rescheduled shows in the UK that were postponed. Why were the original shows held up?
RS: Well, we went over to New York to do various TV and press things, and we spent a week there, and when I got back, I had a very weird kind of infection which spread sort of all through my head. I couldn’t stand up for about a week. It sounds funny now, but it was quite a strange sort of virus that I got. The thing was, the first two shows had been postponed anyway, because the people who were doing the lights – which were supposed to be this cutting-edge 3D technology stuff – couldn’t get it together in time. So we were going to postpone the following two, and then we decided it would easier to just move the whole lot en masse, back to December. Otherwise it would’ve meant me going on stage and kind of just sort of…doddering about, basically.

Thinking about how The Cure started out, when things like that start happening – problems with big lighting and all of that – do you ever feel  there’s a danger of something getting swamped by the scale of the shows you do now? Or has the scale become part of it?
RS: Well, in a way, this delay sort of did us a favour. We took the big show to America, we did three months in America this summer, and that had the full works, and we played a variety of different venues – some of which were like 20,000 places, where, y’know, it just has to be a pretty big show, or else it looks absurd. Also, it’s kind of a different sensibility over there than it is in Britain. But when we were halfway through, we realised that what we were doing in America wasn’t going to work in Europe, anyway, and so we radically redesigned the whole stage set up. In fact we won’t be doing any of the 3D-projection stuff on this leg of the tour. So that means it’s also much more flexible: we can get in and out of places, we’ve done a few kind of semi-spontaneous club-dates as we’ve been travelling round, and we can take elements of the show in to really small venues. It’s much more manageable. If we’d tried to take the big show around Europe and into Britain, it’d be kind of depressing for everyone, because it takes so long to set up. And you’re right: I mean it isn’t really worth it. So we’ve honed it down a little, and in some ways, it’s made us much better in Europe, because the emphasis is much more on the music.

How are you going about compiling a set-list these days? Which eras, if you like, are you drawing upon?
RS: Yeah, it’s pretty weird. It really depends upon what we feel and what an audience reacts to during a set, because we sometimes change it on stage – which is another good thing about us not relying on the computerised lighting: it’s kind of a hands-on affair, because every night’s different, and so the lighting bloke has to earn his money. So it’s everything. Two nights ago we played like ten or eleven songs from Wild Mood Swings out of the thirty; the following night we did at least five songs we’ve only done once or twice in the last fifteen years. Like, we did “Funeral Party” for the first time in about fifteen years, and the audience really reacted to it, so when we came back on for an encore, we threw in another couple of really old songs, we did “Grinding Halt” and “Subway Song” from the first album, which we haven’t done for…God knows. So it changes every night, which makes it exciting for us as well. It’s this old fashioned idea that every night should be different.

You’ve been doing The Cure for about twenty years now. Do you ever find yourself thinking about that?
RS: Not really, because I think the break…After the last tour, the Wish tour in ’92, I just decided to take a break from it all and come back to it if I felt I wanted to, which is exactly what I did. And everyone was going ‘Oh four years is too long to be away’ but everything I’ve ever done with the group has kind of reflected just how I feel. And I just didn’t want to do it for a couple of years. I’m doing it now again because I want to.

What did you do with your time off?
RS: Uhhm. Very normal things. I kind of reacquainted myself with my family and my extended family and friends, people I hadn’t seen for about seven or eight years, because, effectively, I hadn’t had a break from the group for about eight years, and the worrying part of it is – and this has happened to me once before – I started defining myself as “Robert Smith of The Cure.” And it’s a bit limiting. So,yeah: I read, I caught up on all the books that I should’ve been reading. I went for walks, took up astronomy again, just kind of… pastimes. Uh…living, I think it’s called.

What were you reading?
RS: Oh blimey. I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction. A lot of it about paleoanthropology, because I’ve got a hankering to go on a dig, so I’ve been reading up on that over the past two months. Crumbs…I tried to understand quantum-dynamics at one point. I read about six text books on that. Couldn’t really get my head round it. All it did was just upset me. Loads of stuff, just loads of stuff. I’m fortunate in that a lot of people give me books. While we’re on tour, I mean. It used to be cuddly toys, but on the Wish tour, thankfully, it turned into books, and I had a pretty huge stockpile. People would say ‘Oh, if you like that, you’ll like this….’ and they’d recommend something else. I’ve actually made a list of them, because I got to the stage where I realised  I was reading books and I could never remember if I’d already read them or not…which is like the onset of senility. But it’s like with records, I can never remember what the titles are. But I read to enjoy myself, to further my education, not really to name drop.

Do you still buy music?
RS: Well, I get given a lot of music, y’know. I still get given a lot of demo tapes and demo CDs, which I listen to religiously, I feel kind of obliged to. It’s some kind of weird guilt that I’ve grown up with, but I’ve only replied to one band, a band in America that I thought was pretty good. But most of the time, when I listen to music, for me, I listen to a lot of classical music. I have for years. It’s funny: I’ve never really been into listening to pop music. On the tour bus, we listen to a lot of dance music because it’s kind of facile and it helps the journey along. But if I’m in my room and I want to listen to something, I listen to Beethoven or Mahler or something. Because if I listen to music, I like to listen to it and be involved with it, and there’s very little I’ve heard over the last five years that I really want to go back and listen to over and over again. Even people that I initially like. You know: I make the mistake of reading an interview or seeing them on television or something, and then I think ‘Oh god. So that’s what they’re like. I can’t like them anymore.’

How do you feel The Cure is perceived in the Britpopping Britain of 1996?
RS: Uhhmm. Very poorly, actually. Probably worse than anywhere else in the world by a long, long way! Which is understandable, because it’s always been that way, I mean, media-wise, we’ve always been slagged off in Britain. But, it doesn’t really bother me actually. I’ve met enough people who write shit things about us to know that they’re shit themselves, y’know? I’ve given up criticising people: anyone that does anything’s alright by me, even if I don’t like what they do. You know: at least the act of doing is better than not.

But it’s weird, like I said about going round America, the perception of the group there is different from state to state, everyone’s got a different take on what we’re supposed to be about. It’s just in Britain, everything is so much faster and so much more fad-led, and obviously we don’t fit in. But then we never have. So I’ve had many years of being unfashionable. I mean, I know what I like about the group, and I know why I like being in the group, so that’s all that’s important to me, really. If someone else decides that they think what we do is invalid, they can have their opinion, but they’re not going to make me think, ‘Oh crumbs. They’re right. I’ve been misled all these years….’

I can see the shortcomings of the group much more than anyone else. I know our weaknesses, and I know our strengths, but we’ve never been a fashionable band, and we never will be. It’s like people saying ‘Wild Mood Swings is not a 96 album,’ like Disintegration was an 89 album, or Kiss Me was an 87 album… there’s no such thing for me. It’s so small-minded in a way, which is probably why it doesn’t affect me, because you just see that what’s fashionable in a certain city in Britain isn’t fashionable in Texas or Sydney. And I’ve always perceived the group as, not in a pretentious way, but meaning as much to people wherever they are in the world. It’s not a British perspective – you don’t have to be culturally au fait with what goes on where I live to understand what we’re singing about.

How do you respond to the feeling that The Cure are “Robert Smith and Backing Band”?
RS: Well, it wouldn’t exist without me. That’s just a fact. But, at the same time: I’m not the Cure. I’ve always worked in a band set-up, because that’s how I feel most comfortable. And depending on who’s in the band at different times, it affects what the music sounds like. If the dynamic’s different, if the relationship’s different, it affects how the band performs. And also, the other people in the group do bring ideas along with them, they don’t just kind of sit there – in the old days, I used to tell everyone what to do and what to play, but since about 1987, everyone’s had much more of an input, which is good. I was getting fed up of having to do it all on my own, anyway. Everyone kind of gets involved in different levels in different areas. But, essentially, the others trust my judgment. If they give me a bunch of demos and I say, ‘No, I don’t like this, and I don’t like this,’ they don’t ask me why, they don’t ask me to explain myself. They realise that what The Cure is, is kind of based on my instincts and my feelings, and in that sense it is me…but they’re not a ‘backing band.’ Particularly when we’re playing, I do feel like part of a band, not like the leader of a band.

Over the years, you’ve sometimes expressed a desire to do something that didn’t have “The Cure” on it. Is that feeling still there?
RS: Yeah. We’ve kind of been talking about it through the tour, actually, and whatever we do next, we’ve kind of got the pros and cons of using ‘The Cure.’ Thing is, if I do it with the others, it’s just gonna be The Cure anyway, and people are just going to say, ‘Well, It’s The Cure.’ The downside of it is, when Wild Mood Swings came out, the critique wasn’t actually of the album, it was a critique of the group, and of me, which I’m never going to be able to escape, basically – it’s my history. But in some ways it colours people’s expectations: they see something with ‘The Cure’ on it, and for some people it kind of repels them, and for others it draws them in. I’ve often thought it would be nice to do something that didn’t have those kinds of connotations, and maybe do something anonymously, just to see what the reaction would be. I mean, if I didn’t open my mouth, no one would know it was us anyway. So as long as we do something I don’t sing on, it could be anyone.

You took a few years off, and then you decided to start again. It made me wonder, are the essential reasons behind being in The Cure the same as they were when you first started out – is the impetus the same?
RS: Hmm. In a funny way, they’ve probably got more personal, actually. Because when we started, I kind of felt I was on this…crusade against all the…dross that was around. And as the years have gone by, I’ve realised that that’s a losing battle. There’s always so much rubbish, and so much good stuff, and it doesn’t really make much difference what anyone else does. So the reasons for me doing it now are very much more to do with what I want to express, I suppose. And also, the thing that drove me back into doing it after taking a few years off was that I kind of missed creating something. I’d reached a point where I felt very…useless. I just like…doing things.