Mark E Smith - A renegade's revival

Over 34 years, Mark E Smith has led The Fall through numerous upheavals. Tim Cumming talks to the frontman as he prepares to release Your Future Our Clutter, an album that stands, miraculously, among the band's best

Sunday 23 October 2011 08:39
Over 34 years, Mark E Smith has led The Fall through numerous upheavals.
Over 34 years, Mark E Smith has led The Fall through numerous upheavals.

'Are you enjoying the Hilton experience?" cackles Mark E Smith, lead singer of post-punk legends The Fall when he finally appears in the bar of the Hilton in Holland Park, grinning like a wizened schoolboy. After 33 years fronting one of the most volatile groups in rock history, Smith is no stranger to controversy, coercion, violence or breakdown. But since the group's last major implosion in America in 2006 – followed by the emergency recruitment of West Coast musicians to finish the tour, record an album and play the last-ever concert at Hammersmith Palais – things have settled down in the Fall camp.

Perhaps it is part of the ageing process. Smith turned 50 in 2007, and the following year's Imperial Wax Solvent saw him "reflect" on that fact with "50 Year Old Man", the album's raging magnum opus. Since then, he has worked with the German electro duo Von Südenfed, read out the scores on Football Focus – as well as ghost stories for BBC4 – and had a second spell in a wheelchair (the first came in 2004 after he collided with a lamp post at a rockabilly festival in Great Yarmouth). Most performers would take time off for a broken hip; not Smith. He booked into a studio in Castleford in West Riding and completed a UK tour with a line-up that has been stable for the best part of three years – not bad going for a group whose history is studded with more arrivals and departures than a budget carrier.

It wasn't always the case. At the end of the Nineties, many saw Smith and The Fall as a spent force. An infamous gig at Brownies in New York ended in on-stage fighting, band departure and brief incarceration for Smith – lovingly retold in the singer's hilarious, if ghosted 2008 memoir, Renegade.

The brilliantly catchy "Touch Sensitive" from 1999's comeback The Marshall Suite found its way on to a Vauxhall Corsa ad and set the course for one of the great career revivals in rock'n'roll. The Fall albums of the Noughties have consistently delivered, even on the tin-hatted mayhem of 2001's Are You Are Missing Winner, which sounded as if it had been recorded during a fight in the hold of a cargo ship. Gigs can be variable, with start-times edging perilously close to the night-bus schedule, but the current line-up has delivered some of the most bracing Fall performances in years.

The keyboard player Eleni Poulou, Smith's beautiful German-Greek wife of 10 years, is behind the disorientating lashes of synth and electronica that punctuate the band's recent music. "Mark's lyrics get a new dimension being layered over that sound, rather than over a regular song with normal song movements," she says.

Poulou's noise interventions are coupled with the guitar wizardry of Peter Greenway, a technician handy enough to make his open effects pedals, and the rhythm section of drummer Keiron Melling and bassist Dave Spurr, the two of them fusing like base metals in an alchemist's retort. "I know people have ideas about The Fall, preconceptions, but we're really friendly and there is only happiness," she says of the current band dynamic. Pretty far, then, from the tales of genius, paranoia and victimisation streaked through most journalistic accounts of the group, such as Dave Simpson's The Fallen, a book that set out to track down every former member of The Fall, and which became out of date between proofing and publication. An updated paperback edition recently appeared, and a Fallen documentary is being filmed for the BBC. "That'll be a scream, won't it?" remarks Smith later in the day with acid sarcasm. He's not a fan. "I can't read it really, and also he's taken advantage of a lot of them. It's like a dirty book I keep under the stairs, a porn book."

Stability, it seems, has come to the house of The Fall. "There's three parts of the group," Smith tells me. "There's me, there's the lads, and there's Eleni and me. That's the beauty of the mix. I think this is the best line-up I've ever had, really, touch wood."

Your Future Our Clutter is the band's first album for indie behemoths Domino Records, and it's a return to peak powers. The music sounds sharper in its depth of production and Smith's attention to detail. Whether it be wildly different sounds layered in a song, or lyrical fragments that linger in the mind, its strength harks back to the group's seminal 1980s albums, Hex Enduction Hour or The Wonderful and Frightening World of The Fall, the latter due to be re-released in a boxed, four-disc remastered edition by the label Beggars Banquet later this year.

Clocking in at around 50 minutes, there is no filler, no drift. Smith and group sound in control of their material, bristling with furious intent and brilliant imagery. The songs build like cubist sound sculptures and the sound palette ranges from saturated home taping to stereophonic bliss, with Smith delivering fractured poetry that makes haikus sound indulgent. The lyrics are as cryptic as ever, but they haven't sounded this clear in years.

If phantom equity is one key to the album, the other is Smith's recent health issues, with references to medication, incarceration and mortality scattered throughout the set. It's there in the spaghetti-Western gallop of "Cowboy George", a song that enters a vortex halfway through and re-emerges transformed into tranquilised, psychedelic splashes of synth oscillating over Smith's ominous mantra of "unseen forces, unseen facts, unseen footage". It's this song that is, perhaps, the core of the Clutter experience. "It is a bit mystical that one, yeah," agrees Smith. "I don't even know what I'm saying really, because I'm still on medication from the wheelchair."

With more than three decades, dozens of albums and thousands of gigs behind him, you wonder if Smith fears the latest Fall sound being drowned out by the old. Will the reissues interfere with what he's doing now? "No, not at all.There is a lot of interest there, very much, from young kids." He leans forward conspiratorially. "I haven't been in touch with them [Beggars] since 1990. They're saying, 'We didn't understand what we had at the time.' Like, join the club – neither did anyone else." He leans back, shaking with laughter.

'Your Future Our Clutter' is released on 26 April (Domino Records). The Fall tour the UK from 24 April

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