Robert Smith: The imaginary boy

The Cure's frontman, Robert Smith, has never really grown up, he tells Clare Dwyer Hogg, and that's just the way he likes it
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The library in London's Charlotte Street Hotel is quiet and plush, with expensively framed pictures decorating its walls. It is the epitome of discrete refinement. And in walks Robert Smith. It is not unfair to suggest that, in this room, and in his black clothes, petrified hair, and make-up, he is an unexpected addition.

The library in London's Charlotte Street Hotel is quiet and plush, with expensively framed pictures decorating its walls. It is the epitome of discrete refinement. And in walks Robert Smith. It is not unfair to suggest that, in this room, and in his black clothes, petrified hair, and make-up, he is an unexpected addition.

Rock stars in make-up might not be unusual, but it is still a shock to see the front man of The Cure up close: his eyes are so heavily ringed in black eye shadow that his pupils are no more than sinister blue glints. But when he sits down, commenting on how comfy the sofa is, the word sinister floats away. "I don't normally wander around like this," he says, pointing to the area around the glints. "Not with this much on, anyway. I don't wear my eyes like this if I'm just in my normal mode."

Smith has just come from television and radio interviews and finds the make-up issue to be a case of the pot questioning the kettle. "Everyone who asks me is wearing far more make-up than I am," he says. "I find it really weird; every magazine you look in, people are caked in it, and the TV people I've been talking to today..." He shakes his head incredulously, as if he can't possibly imagine what it must be like to wear that much. This is a slightly cheeky of him, given that these words come from a mouth painted bright red, but Smith is cheeky. Not a word one would necessarily associate with a Sartre-inspired existentialist who, despite it all, still feels lonely, but those blue glints have a bit of mischief in them.

"I've just done an interview for Radio 1," he says. "Which is weird. I've done three things for Radio 1 this week and they haven't played The Cure for, like, 10 years. We were too old last year for them." He's right. There was a feeling - hard-core fans excepted - that The Cure had had their day. Founded in 1976, the band enjoyed a string of hit albums in the 1980s, beginning with Three Imaginary Boys (1979) and including Pornography (1982) and Disintegration (1989); hit singles included "Love Cats" (1983), "In Between Days" (1985) and "Why Can't I Be You" (1987). The Cure rolled on (with quite a few changes - Smith is the only remaining original member) until 2000 and the release of Bloodflowers.

That year Smith announced the end. But the end had seemed nigh before that when the singles album Galore was released, and the end had been talked about in 1987. In fact, it shouldn't be surprising, given that Smith often thinks the end is just around the corner. This week, for instance, he did an interview for Channel 4's morning show T4 to promote the new album, The Cure. "The researcher gave me the questions to look at," Smith says. "One of them was: 'There's a rumour every year that you're dead. Does that upset you?' And I said: 'Well we're all dead essentially.' He looked at me in horror and said: 'Oh, please don't say that'." Smith laughs and says he tries not to talk about doom and gloom too much, especially if the target audience is tweenagers on a Saturday morning. At that age, of course, Smith was reading Camus and worrying if he'd cry at his mother's funeral. And though he's 45 now, there's still something of the teenager about him. It's not just the dress, but also the open admission that he still feels a bit of angst. Most people close off that side of themselves (in public at least) as they get older. Not Smith - his new album is riddled with it.

But he's different to how he used to be, he says. Though he's still an existentialist - "I think, at heart, unless you discover faith in something else, something other, it's very hard to shake the thing that you're adrift alone" - his beliefs (or non- beliefs) don't inform his personality in the way they did when he was younger. "It worried me to the point that I was uncommunicative," he says. "I went through a phase of thinking there was no point in saying what I thought because..." He pauses and the blue glint amid the black eye shadow looks cheeky again "...I'm dead anyway." He grins. "No, I think that's changed for a number of reasons. Obviously age is one of them. Another is having lots of younger nephews and nieces: they're really interesting. It revitalises my spirit spending time in their company." So he isn't all doom and gloom. "But," he continues, looking apologetic, "I still think that I feel pretty alone."

Smith and his wife Mary (they've been together since they were 18) have no children. He attributes some of his state of being to this. Angst, he says, disappears greatly when you have children of your own. "I think," he says, tugging at his hair, "that if you become a parent, you stop being a child and your position in relation to your parents changes. Your parents dying is the other thing that has a huge impact on you as a person." Neither has happened to Smith so, he concludes, he's essentially the same person. "Even though my circumstances have changed materially, I'm doing the same things I did when I left school."

Smith finished his formal education at A-level. He had always been asking questions and pushing against the rules. His school had no substantial reason to expel him, so for the last three months there the headmaster told his teachers to ignore him. His questions went unanswered in all but his English lessons, where his teacher flouted the diktat. "Very, very peculiar," Smith says, sipping his Bloody Mary.

This was not his first brush with authority. Aged seven, for example, he was preparing for his first Holy Communion. "We were supposed to wear a yellow bow tie," he says. "I refused to wear it and the priest said he wouldn't have me in the line unless I did." He stops and quickly clarifies himself: "It wasn't in a spoilt way. It was just that I'd watched people get communion for years and none of them were wearing bow ties." Smith took his first Holy Communion without the aid of a yellow bow tie, realising at the same time that some rules are there to be broken.

He still likes to quietly go his own way. It's hard to do that when you look like Robert Smith, surely, but he protests that he gets recognised hair or no hair. "Once I wanted to travel through France to wind down. I didn't look anything like myself: I shaved my head, had a tan, was wearing a short-sleeved white T-shirt and even wore a fishing hat for a lot of it. Everywhere I went I was besieged."

This is as difficult to imagine as the yellow bow tie but, disguise or no disguise, Smith has always been his own man. In all the time he's been in music (The Cure's first single, "Killing an Arab", a musical reworking of Camus's The Outsider, came out in 1978), he's never had a manager. He has had to deal with record companies, though, and has some beef with some of his contractual agreements. Having to compile Galore, an album of the band's "best" singles, seemed like the last gasp of a dying entity. If he was going to go, he wanted to go with a bang. "I thought, this is the road along which every band I admired has gone and ended up just being a band because that's what you do. For the first time in my life I felt that I was being dishonest about what I was doing." So instead of that being the end, he wrote another album about how much he hated the experience. The result, Bloodflowers, was released without an accompanying single.

And Smith thought that was it. "For the first time ever, it felt ended, finished," he says. "It was meeting Ross Robinson that reignited the fire." Robinson, a nu-metal producer from America's east coast best known for his work with Slipknot, became part of an unlikely collaboration that has resulted in the new album. "Part of me was worried about what it was going to sound like," Smith admits. "But I trusted Ross enough. Early on I said that I didn't want it to be a reinvention of The Cure - I wanted it to sum up what The Cure was, and he loved the idea." Robinson ran with the idea of creating what he called the ultimate Cure record. Both of them ran and ran with it, in fact.

In practical terms, you could say they almost went a step beyond what was necessary. In the mission to create something that kept the essence of the band while creating something new, the band (literally) dusted off all the old guitars they used to use and brought them into the studio. "They stunk of mould and cobwebs and damp," Smith says, screwing up his nose. "The first few days, everything was drying out. Ross even got an old EMI desk from The Beatles era in Abbey Road that was going to be decommissioned, and that's what we recorded on. It had 16 channels." Smith protested - the desks he works on are state-of-the-art with many more channels than that - but Robinson insisted. They recorded on the 16-track.

Inspiration came, too, from the many cassette tapes and unreleased early recordings that Smith had been sorting through in his attic. "I was probably overfamiliar with our catalogue," he says. "And when we came to make the album I had all these little notes about songs we'd cut and sounds we'd got that we hadn't quite taken far enough. It was all hauled back into the studio and there the fun began."

To give the album the collaborative feel they wanted, the band rehearsed together in one space during the day, stopped for dinner, and in the evening went into another part of the studio. This area was lit by hundreds of candles to give it an eerie ambience, and create the experience of performing live. Many of the songs were recorded in one take, and DVD footage of this was an extra with the first few thousand copies of the album. "There were also road lights there, sadly," Smith says, smiling. "That was a safety issue because we were very close to setting each other on fire after a couple of drinks."

Health and safety doesn't really sit easily with notions of The Cure, but then it's difficult to know what does, when Smith is next to you in person. Just when you think you've got him pigeon-holed, he says his favourite place is the Lake District. And that he can only now understand what Wordsworth meant about "emotions recollected in tranquility" when he spends time there.

Smith only writes, he explains, when he's worrying. "I'm happy quite a lot of the time," he says. "I've done far more than I ever thought I would have, so I'd be very hard-pressed to walk around miserable." And that's the danger of thinking you know someone through their music. Robert Smith is happy most of the time. Stop press.

The album 'The Cure' is released on I AM/Geffen. The single 'Taking off' is out now

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