The Birmingham Post (England), November 27, 2003, p.14
The thinking person's dour rock iconoclast; Mark E. Smith has been frustrated at how long it has taken to produce the Fall's new album, but, as he tells Al Hutchins, it's been worth the wait.
Byline: Al Hutchins
Mark E. Smith is a man of letters. Literally. Along with Ben E King his 'E' moniker is the best known in pop music.
With customary wit (which dense journalists have often taken literally) Smith once claimed the veteran crooner had robbed the moniker from him.
But the Fall's frontman, lyricist and only surviving member has always been steeped in literature and history, and interviews with him during the last 25 years (and as many new Fall albums) have been as likely to find mention of Edgar Allan Poe, Wyndham Lewis, Oliver Cromwell or the history of the Balkans as The Fall's latest effort.
'My idea was just to get people's heads going because they don't read,' Smith once explained.
Over the last quarter century The Fall have evolved a kind of garage music for the mind. With Smith at the helm, they've taken the pop and rock record out of its dumb confines and into a realm of possibilities while retaining a directness of method.
For all the 'strangeness' of The Fall's music it never feels removed from the everyday –or Earth's Impossible Day as Smith entitled one side of their 1991 LP Shift-Work. Their tours have always been more likely to turn up at Doncaster or Blackburn than more glamorous Southern settings, yet they've also successfully written music for a ballet with Michael Clark (1988's I Am Kurious Oranj, based on William of Orange) without all the ponderous SpinalTapisms potentially incurred in such an enterprise.
Like one of Smith's favourite sixties bands, L.A. garage group The Seeds, who brought out their first two albums in a year, The Fall quickly established their credentials as hard grafting professionals –a tonic to the leisurely approach of the rock supergroups of the 1970s who preceded them.
When Sex Pistols' frontman John Lydon brought out his autobiography No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs in 1993 at the age of 35, Smith denounced the enterprise as 'middle-class propaganda'.
So far from doing any laurel-resting himself the release of the Fall's first new LP since 2001 sees Smith as feisty as ever.
'I'm of the opinion that I haven't even started yet, that it's never good enough!' he tells me. 'Part of the thing with this LP is that it's taken two years to get this group together, slimline and good; and they're a lot younger than me, their perspective's totally different. I mean Ben [the guitarist] is about 24, he's not your regular guitarist, that's what I like about him. I'm allergic to guitarists,' he rasps.
Originally entitled Country On The Click, produced by Grant Showbiz, it was set for release in April of this year but put on hold by Smith who was unhappy with the mix. Now self-mockingly re-titled, The Real New Fall LP formerly 'Country On The Click', Smith is clearly uncomfortable about the time the project has taken.
'I'm quite embarrassed about a Fall LP taking six to eight months to get released –that's unheard of. The frustration is when people embellish what you're doing. I thought this LP was perfect round about March. But then you trust people – them who shall remain nameless,' he laughs, 'to go away and mix it and it comes back sounding like Dr. Who meets Posh Spice. You have to go back in and strip it down to what it basically was.
'It's like writing a book and then cutting it up and then reassembling it again –you've got to cast your mind back to what your original thing was. But I'm very happy with it now, there's a thread going right through it I always wanted. ' The music on the album, which includes songs co-written with guitarist Ben Pritchard, drummer Dave Milner, and ex-bassist Jim Watts, feels more of a piece than a Fall album has in years. It's due, in no small part, to the band Smith has around him. Other than Pritchard, the album is driven by drummer Dave Milner. 'Dave's great y'know, Welsh fella, full of surprises. He's good 'cos he hasn't got all the Fall LPs. And I mean if you said Krautrock to him he'd say 'Who's that?'. But he does what a drummer's supposed to do. If you've got a good drummer you're made. With Dave I can say 'Oh, I'll just take half of your kit out of the mix' and he goes 'that's a good idea', which is very rare. I've always been in a panic about drummers, and I'm not fussed about anything else really.'
Typically catholic in its musical references –country (Mountain Energei), dub reggae (Contraflow) and Krautrock (Recovery Kit) included –it maintains a simplicity that is a perfect foil for Smith's distinct narrative to ravel and unravel. A kind of narrative that makes a David Lynch film like Mullholland Drive seem straightforward to explain.
Motifs of imperialism, vanity, greed and self-delusion appear and disappear, but put out your hand to touch them and they fold like a spider's web.
'I want it to be topical but timeless, you know? With the lyrics I keep trying to sparse it down 'cos it can get a bit too wordy. I've started throwing away more than I keep. With me, a lyric starts off four bloody pages, so you'd end up about seven minutes for every song!
'I mean that first song, Green Eyed Loco Man, there's about eight more verses to that. You've got to hold yourself back.'
On the subject of lyric-writing, I mention to him Paul Heaton, who I'd just seen quoted as saying that he thought writing lyrics was like writing a list, 'You'd be surprised how many think like that,' laughs Smith. (doing exaggeratedly slow and stupid voice) 'You get a bit off the telly, then a bit out of a book. At least he admits it.'
And as the conversation rolls on to Smith's love of The Move ('Grossly underrated. If they'd've been from Los Angeles instead of Birmingham they'd've been bloody legendary!') via the filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder and writer Malcolm Lowry, Smith adds: 'My grandma was from Dudley, you know. She never had a good word to say about anyone!'
The Fall play The Robin 2 in Bilston on Tuesday December 9 (Box office: 01902-401211). The Real New Fall LP formerly 'Country On The Click' is out now on Action Records (www.actionrecords.co.uk). The Fall's excellent Xmas single (We Wish 4 U) A Protein Xmas is released by Action on December 8. The Fall's website can be found at: http:/www.visi.com/fall.