Arts: Alas, Smith and clones

So many people resemble Robert Smith of the Cure that he gets taken for a lookalike. Suzi Feay talks to the bloke in the baggy black jumper about his popularity, his band, his drinking and not growing up
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There are three things everybody wants to know when you tell them you've met Robert Smith of the Cure. Has he still got that ridiculous hair? And I bet he was wearing that jammy smear of scarlet lipstick, right? But the most bizarre question of all, and one posed most urgently by young women who would have been in primary school when "Killing an Arab" came out in 1979, is simply, "Is he fat?" This, after all, is the man cruelly dubbed "Fat Bob" by the Banshees, as music legend has it.

Robert Smith opens the door of his suite in a Kensington hotel. His hair is in its full finger-in-the-light-socket glory. He is not wearing lipstick. He's undoubtedly a big lad, but not fat - though it's difficult to x-ray his figure through his capacious black sweatshirt and baggy black trousers. The only concession to pop-star consumerism is a pair of spectacularly clumpy boots. He is very pale and unshaven, with shadows under his eyes, but gives a warm welcome and immediately offers me a glass of fresh orange juice. He looks as if he needs it more.

The Cure have a new single out, "Wrong Number", and an album, Galore, a collection of Cure singles from 1987 to 1997, featuring "Why Can't I Be You", "Close to Me", and the delirious "Friday I'm in Love". Listening to the singles again, it's difficult to square them with the Cure's reputation for being deep, dark, Gothic and gloomy. With his don't-fancy-me clothes, his pained whine of a voice, his shambling gait and maladjusted air, Smith gave permission to a whole generation to feel unhappy with their bodies. The film Career Girls lampoons the type brilliantly: Annie (Lynda Steadman) has Robert Smith's pallor, hair-do and physical awkwardness, and uses Cure music as therapy.

Smith still seems bemused by the whole experience. "I got a letter from Mike Leigh saying, would I mind if he used a lot of my music in the film? Then he invited me to a pre-release screening. I really didn't know what to expect. That character, Annie - it was strange, I do still know people like that, who want me to be a representative of ... otherworldliness, but I'm not like that at all. I've never had the chance to observe someone like that so closely, because they've always been watching me. At the end, there's a poster for one of the singles from last year. I thought it was funny when one of the characters went, 'urrrrr ... he's back'. That made me feel really ... prickly, because it was like, I've stayed in the same place, and they've grown up." He grins, unoffended. "I'm not sure if I liked what it was saying at that point. It's not my fault that I'm constantly misrepresented."

Come again? "That I am that image, that I am wearing a baggy black jumper". (But y'are, Rob, y'are.) "That's the image I have to live with, that's constantly reinforced. I've given up trying to change it," he says defensively, forming a bracelet for his left wrist with the thumb and forefinger of his right. "From time to time, I've shaved my head, and it never makes any difference. I do an interview and I've always got 'big hair', I've always got 'loads of make-up on'. I'm looking a bit rough today, I had a very late night and a really early morning ... I'm like everybody, I wear what I feel comfortable in, as comfortable as I'm ever going to feel about how I look. This is how I go shopping."

Curiously, for the frontman of the ultimate student band and a man whose debut single was inspired by Camus, Smith himself never went to university. "I had a place at Sussex but in my year off after school the band became real. I couldn't do both; you can't put off something like that. That was another thing about Career Girls: when I was that age, I was on tour, in the studio or sleeping on [Banshees bassist] Steve Severin's floor. I was never really involved with that student lifestyle."

Smith is eloquent on the blessing and curse of his distinctive voice: delightful, whimsical, expressive to fans; a demented, affected whimper to foes. "I never really opened my mouth to sing before I was about 17, I didn't even know what I sounded like. Being the frontman happened by default. In the early days I only used to sing one song. Then it became two, three, until I ended up doing them all. I hated it. Over the years people have said, 'oh, it sounds like the Cure,' and what they're really saying is, it's me, it sounds like my voice. We've done loads of different things, and in fact on the new single, if it wasn't for my voice you would have no idea it was the Cure. But as soon as I open my mouth ... It gives me an advantage, because I can be instantly more intimate, I don't have to fight for attention. But the drawback is that it never varies. Whatever baggage the name of the Cure and my voice brings with it, I'm stuck with."

There are a number of myths that Smith is keen to dispel, not just the tricky question of image. One is that the Cure's line-up has been subject to bewildering changes, due to his own petulance. Three years ago, founder-member Lol Tolhurst took Smith to the High Court in a blaze of ugly publicity about drinking binges and bullying. "I've got this reputation of having a high turnover; in fact there's only six or seven ex-Cures abroad in the world, and over 20 years that's not too bad. The group has always been about what people are like, it's not to do with how they can play. Very few members of the Cure have been anything more than proficient. No virtuosos. I've really liked everybody who's been in the group, and I'm still on speaking terms with all but one of them. It's just that if you feel uncomfortable crying in front of someone, you can't really do work with any emotional depth. I can still go for a drink with them [the ex-Cures] but I can't cry in front of them. They become acquaintances rather than friends."

Those with long memories will recall that Smith was the Banshees's guitarist for 18 months in the early Eighties, playing, most memorably, on the single "Dear Prudence". Asked if there was any ego clash between himself and the famously spiky Siouxsie Sioux, he permits himself a brief explosion of mirth, a sort of wheezy snigger. "It caused quite a bit of friction at the time, because the Cure were actually selling more records than the Banshees. We did 'Love Cats' and it was a big hit! When I was with the Banshees, I refused any payment. It meant they couldn't make me do anything. Sioux found it difficult; she's unused to males saying no to her." There's a long pause after this statement. "I've not seen or spoken to her but I'm not sure that Sioux and I would be on very good terms. She'd probably hold a grudge."

With the Banshees, he relished the chance to step back from the limelight for once. Not one of the world's natural performers, Smith needs a drink before venturing on to the stage, but he plays down the allegations of frantic, excessive boozing which made the Tolhurst case so entertaining for pop-watchers. "The group has a reputation for excess, and it has been justified. We were drunkards for quite long periods of time and the group has always been sociable, which doesn't really fit in with what we're supposed to be like. But there have been members of the group who've drunk to excess too often, and it's reduced them to jelly, which is what happened with Lol. I had one last fling in 1989, the year I turned 30. Everybody just enjoyed drinking and it's better than getting involved with hard drugs. I suppose I set the tone; if I smoked a lot of dope, then the band would too."

Sociable? The Cure? Smith seems almost suicidally keen to shoot down all the stereotypes now, revealing that he's a fan of audiobooks ("they're good to listen to in the garden when it gets too dark to turn the pages"), that he re-reads one of the Narnia books every Christmas, and that he's going to buy himself a potter's wheel. "I went to a craft show in the summer. I hadn't been on a potter's wheel since I was at school and it was so brilliant. There was this line of kids behind me going, 'Can you tell that man to finish?' I was on it for about 15 minutes just making the same pot. It was excellent!"

When he's out and about in Brighton, near where he lives, people often think he's a lookalike. "They go, 'You're not him, are you?' and I say no. Then they come up again and say, 'Can you sign this anyway?'" Smith is famous for his uxoriousness, having married his childhood sweetheart a few years ago. Mary does voluntary work. "She can't have paid work, she'd get the sack, because I'd just keep wanting her with me." They have no children, but he enjoys being a genial uncle to lots of nephews and nieces. Though he must have made a bob or two, he doesn't want a huge rock-star house. "If you live somewhere like that, you've gotta have cleaners and gardeners and I don't want anyone living in my house apart from Mary. I wash my own clothes."

Another dent in Smith's Elfin Knight armour: the Cure have never had a manager. Smith has always dealt with the men in suits. All releases come out on their own label, Fiction, licensed to Polydor, with whom they've been since the beginning. "There is no loyalty on their side, it's a one-way thing, it's terrible," he moans. "We sell a lot of records for them, but they don't know why we're popular. They're content to take the money. I deal with everything. That's why it makes me laugh when people think I'm reading Baudelaire by candlelight. I have been criticised for being a fantasist, for not living in the real world. Well, I'm lucky that I don't have to clock in, and I think there's a certain amount of resentment. People, particularly in the UK press, think, Bastard! Why can he be like that and I can't?"

His summarises his relationship with the band as: "I am not the Cure, but without me it wouldn't exist." He has never allowed any of their music to be used in advertising ("I think the commercialisation of everything is really insidious and really horrible"). A proportion of album royalties goes to good causes ("It's my Catholic upbringing"). He's proud, he says, that the Cure is the sort of band his fans want to be in. "Most Cure fans I've met through the years I do quite like. They're generally introspective and thoughtful; it's a nice audience. But what I accept as normal is so out there: total strangers bursting into tears in front of me because they've met me. Over the last couple of years, I've been feeling less and less able to cope with it. My long-term plan has always been to stop the group when I'm 40, which is in 1999. I hope I have the courage to stick to it."

In the meantime he has one more album to make, the last one he's contractually obliged to deliver. Influences for this include the dance music he's been listening to of late, and a new departure in his lyrics; the cut-up technique, popularised by David Bowie. Smith was invited to sing with his hero at Bowie's 50th-birthday concert in New York earlier this year. "He asked me to do 'Quicksand' with him and I'd learned it phonetically when I was about 14 in my bedroom: they're completely the wrong words. And when we were walking up to the stage I said, I know I'm going to sing the 14- year-old's version. He thought it was really funny. He said, if you want I'll sing your version. I said 'no no no no, it doesn't make any sense!' He said, mine doesn't either."

He finds listening to other people's music "a bit of a busman's holiday" but, as a shareholder in new radio station XFM, is listening to more than he has for years. "I'm aware of what's going on, but I don't rush out and buy. I like discovering new types of music - world music, not the idiot world music that's recorded in the West Country but Russian peasant songs and stuff. I've been listening to a lot of dance music; it's really very cerebral. It might be just a couple of phrases repeated over and over, but it becomes mantra-like."

So for the time being he's found a new creative lease of life, with his samples and stream-of-consciousness lyrics. The next album, apart from the obvious fact of having his extraordinary whine atop it, will not sound much like the Cure. "There's lots of reasons I'm doing it, but I think at the core it's laziness and the inability to write anything new," he says sunnily. He seems to have an ideally balanced life and personality: integrity; a sense of humour; a marked lack of arrogance. Bastard! Why can't I be you?

'Galore: the Singles 1987-1997' (Fiction) is released tomorrow.