"A Fall Hasn't Slowed Down Leader of The Fall"

San Diego Union-Tribune

By Jeff Niesel

May 13, 2004

When singer Mark E. Smith toured the States last year with the latest ensemble he's calling the Fall, he prowled the stage with a youthful energy.

Smith, who turned 47 this year, hasn't aged particularly well. He looks something like a cross between Gollum from "Lord of the Rings" and beat poet William S. Burroughs. But his sense of mischievousness remains intact – at last year's shows, he constantly adjusted his band's instruments, tweaking amps and guitars while the musicians played and wrapping his microphone chord around his hands and neck with the persistence of a hyperactive child.


The Fall, the Urinals, Kill Me Tomorrow
8:30 p.m. Sunday; The Casbah, 2501 Kettner Blvd., Middletown; $15 (619) 283-1124
(cancelled along with all California and Arizona dates on the 2004 tour)

But late last year, Smith slipped on some ice in Newcastle and broke his hip. Younger, more delicate musicians would've canceled shows and put the tour on hold. Not Smith. He played several UK shows while in a wheelchair. For the current U.S. tour, he's still not strong enough to stand for long periods on his feet. As a result, he's brought along a desk and chair and he's taken to sitting while he sings.

The result is a different dynamic. Smith can't wander the stage like before. But even while sitting, he manages to project the menace for which he's known. He was, after all, once dubbed the "grumpiest man in pop" by a British music magazine.

"I love the desk," said Smith with a laugh in a phone interview from a Missouri tour stop. "It's hard for me to tell if I prefer sitting or standing. It does have a quite different quality. It's strange. We did some all-ages places and it was a long stage and I was looking at all these kids and they seemed so far away from me."

Defying convention, however, comes naturally to Smith. A former office worker, Smith formed the Fall in Manchester, England, in 1977. Inspired by the Velvet Underground and the German avant-garde act Can, the Fall fell somewhere between new wave and punk, and thus never achieved the popularity of bands more closely aligned with those respective genres. While the Fall became a favorite of British DJ John Peel, who recorded numerous sessions with it, the band was never more than a cult item, though its influence can be heard in bands ranging from Gang of Four to Sonic Youth and the Strokes.

The Fall's never stopped recording, either. Its current tour is in support of "The Real New Fall LP," due out in June on Narnack Records, an indie imprint out of New York. The album was initially leaked to the Internet last year, but the versions that got out weren't properly mixed – hence the title.

"There's a thread to the album," Smith said. "It took me quite awhile to mix it. The record company took it and mixed some tracks, which really infuriated me. I've lost track to be honest, of the different labels that were going to put it out. It was EMI and then it was Mute. Most of what was downloaded was the wrong mix."

Smith, in fact, is so happy with the final mixes that he's calling it the best Fall album in years. Many of the songs feature the angular rhythms for which the band was originally known, and several tracks have become staples in the band's current sets. And Smith's as viscous as ever, snarling I hate the countryside so much / I hate the country folk so much, for example, in "Contraflow."

Though it's the signature mark of the Fall, Smith isn't particularly fond of his voice, which he said sounds "flat and monotone, too bloody high." But like Johnny Rotten's, Smith's voice stands out and has endured as one of rock's most recognizable.

"What I like is that it sounds unique," Smith said. "Especially as studios get more ridiculous, it gets difficult to recognize who anybody is."

Another constant: Smith has been through as many bandmates as record labels. The current group includes drummer David Milner, guitarist Ben Pritchard, keyboardist Elini Poulou and bassist Jim Watts. But even that is a different lineup than the one with which he toured last year.

"I don't know and I've never counted," Smith said when asked how many different musicians he's played with over the years. "I don't see myself as a musician and I never have. I've got an ear for it, but I just don't really classify myself as one. I'm not a novelist, neither.

"I don't really hang out with musicians – not with many of them anyways. That doesn't really suit me. A lot of times, they go on to other things after the Fall. Playing with me can be quite difficult sometimes."