MES by Sean Smith, Manchester, November 26, 2004.
A slightly edited version of this interview appeared in City Life, issue #564, December 2-8, 2004, under the title "Fall and Rise"
Mark E Smith of the Fall is talking to me, eyeball to eyeball, giving me a few pointers about how I might like to approach our interview:
"Is he an idiot like Oasis? Or is he friendly like New Order? Or is he reclusive like Morrissey?" he whines in a fey, airhead manner, before snapping back into reality and fixing me with a surprisingly steely and clear-eyed gaze. "Say what you want. But watch your back."
Mark E Smith doesn't have much time for the people others might regard as his contemporaries. If you see Manchester as one big happy musical family, Smith is the surly step-child in the corner, loudly singing out of key and out of time, spoiling it for everyone and loving every minute.
The last time I interviewed him, we ended up sitting on a bench in a graveyard in North Manchester drinking cans of cheap lager, arguing. This time we're lounging around the bar of Manchester's Malmaison hotel, still drinking lager but it's more expensive now and it comes in glasses. Smith seems equally at home, either way.
A well-read, working class Salford lad, Smith was enthused by the DIY ethic of punk rock. Taking influences as diverse as krautrock, northern soul and TV science-fiction, an ever-changing cast of supporting players (fast approaching three figures and counting) have helped Smith create a basic, disjointed kind of rock'n'roll, it's hypnotic, repetitive grooves the perfect accompaniment his weirdly absorbing stream of consciousness. The Fall sounded like nothing you'd ever heard before. The outspoken, sharply intelligent frontman became something of an icon.
Smith is on conspicuously good form today. Interim, a between-proper-albums release has just come out and the ragged, uneven, insistent collection is classic Fall product, full of great tunes and smart ideas, and he knows it. We're here to talk about the two-night residency the band are playing at the Bierkeller this week. Smith, in between long, deep drags on the first of a series of Benson & Hedges' finest, says he prefers the venue to swankier students venues in the city.
"We can't play Manchester much, we're not that well liked here, to be honest. Thing about it, our fans, they're from Nottingham, Birmingham and all that, so they can get off at Piccadilly and just stroll down - as opposed to bloody going southside, as I call it. The main thing is, we'll have our own control like. I'm into residencies, you know."
How is it going to work then?
"We've expanded the group to like six now, it's got a lot more thump in it, y'know. I've got the old drummer Spencer, thumping it. I've got a really good guitarist in, Jim, who I work with now and again. It's great."
Yeah, but what are you actually going to be doing? There's a long pause. Smith takes a long drink and clears his throat.
"We did it in Iceland, well, it was a two-and-a-half day residency. When you get the group settled - I can't stand all this festival-type of mentality, y'know, you do Glastonbury every year and that's it. That's what a lot of groups are like. I want to sort of re-establish the Fall as a club act. The group's hot, and I wanna keep them bloody moving."
Smith has a neat habit of simply ignoring questions which are too dull or intrusive. I wonder if it's better playing in cities or in places like those name-checked on the band's early Totale's Turns album: Doncaster, Bradford, Preston. Places where audiences have no...
"Preconceptions, yeah. Well, Doncaster, that's where we sort of started, cos that's the only shows we could get. Y'know, in them days, we couldn't get a gig in Manchester, believe it or not. Only places we could play was Liverpool and places like Doncaster and Wakefield and that. They weren't hip places, they were working men's clubs."
"Manchester never recognised us. We're not a Manchester group. Always been at arm's length. If it was up to Manchester, we would've starved to death like ten years ago, The Manchester scene and all that, we weren't part of any of that, it was nothing to do with me. We're a different entity, you understand?"
Smith is wary of over-analysing what he does. At one point, when I ask about the way the band has changed from line up to line up he tells me, "I don't look at it. I can't look at it. If you look at it, you lose it, I think. You think about how good you were or how bad you were and all this shit, and it goes."
This line up is the best yet, full stop: "It's like an organic thing, isn't it? It's like a pack of cards, you've got to get the right balance, you only have to get one wrong one in there, or one nutter, no, really, and it all goes."
You say organic but that implies it's a gradual thing, and often with line up changes in the Fall, it's not a gradual thing at all.
"There's too much made of all the line up changes ."
Talk moves onto other things. Perhaps not surprisingly, Smith remains unimpressed by the changes his home town is going through as it continues to reinvent itself.
"I think this country's gone very centralised again, like it was in the Eighties. This big city boom that's encouraged, I think it's all crap. London is ridiculous, last time I went. You drive past shops and there's no fucker in there, is there? This is what's happening in Manchester, I think. Nobody can afford what they're selling, understand me?
"What I'm saying is that Manchester is a city and that it should remain a city, not just a collection of stupid villages. London isn't a city, in my book. Cities are where people all bloody, all fucking come together, and like it or not, y'know, you're gonna get bloody muggers and all that."
Do you care what goes on in London?
"They've been kicking kids off the street, 19 year olds, just going to the West End. They're only drinking cider. I do care about stuff like that, y'know, cos I was one of them once and you were one of them once. And I don't want Manchester to turn out like that."
Smith's voice has taken on an oddly plaintive tone. He pulls himself together, shrugs and grins, a bit self-conscious.
"Not that I bloody care about that, right?" he says, and drains his pint.