Dave Segal, "Hip Priest in Motown"
YOU CAN'T HIDE YOUR LOVE FOREVER, Issue #3, Winter 1989, pp. 2, 3, 32
AT AN AGE (11 years) when most postpunk groups long ago have dissolved or embarrassed themselves, the Fall appear to be rising to new heights. Oblivious to all musical trends (except to mock them), the Fall made 1988 a landmark year, releasing two superb LPs--THE FRENZ EXPERIMENT and I AM KURIOUS ORANJ. The latter was the soundtrack to a ballet about William of Orange of all bloody things!
Mark Smith, the Fall's founder and leader, refuses to follow predictable music biz paths. We explored the Fall's idiosyncratic brilliance in our last issue, so I won't belabor the point except to say, buy all the Fall records you can.
I had a chance to talk with Smith during their May 1988 visit to Detroit. What follows is what I could decipher from his slurred Mancunian accent.
When you started the Fall in 1977 did you ever think you'd be around 10 or 11 years later?
MS: No, definitely not. The ironical thing about the Fall's longevity is I never plan more than four months ahead. Mainly because I was always very guarded against getting in a rut from working. I worked the docks for about three years and I was determined not to do the same thing over a long period of time.
Was you initial motivation to start a band spurred by punk or some other reason?
MS: We had a group together - three of us, What we were doing from late '76 to '77 was just pissing around really. We could never get a drummer because nobody could afford a kit. We did start around the time a lot of the punk bands started. I never actually thought of getting on stage. We used to do it for fun. And to experiment, Strange enough, when I left school at 16, I learnt more. I read more books than I ever did at school. I was really getting into writing and literature. So I wanted to throw that sort of stuff around.
Why do you think that the Fall, of all the bands that originated around that time, have survived and even thrived long after most have split or embarrassed themselves?
MS: I'm very bloody-minded, I got a lot of hard knocks when we started out. We used to get attacked onstage by punks.
Why did they attack you?
MS: You see, what we were doing at the time.. I do dislike it a lot when people nowadays go, "You're one of the survivors of the punk movement." But we weren't even a part of that. We used to play with the Buzzcocks and all that but we always were different. We were from the other side of Manchester, north Manchester. All those other groups came from the south part. The second gig we did was a Stuff the Jubilee concert with the Drones and the Nosebleeds. Paul Morley was managing the Drones. All these people were walking around in black stockings and torn Union Jacks and spiky hair. We weren't into that at all. I think the Sex PistoIs made it into a fashion thing. To get back to your question, when we started playing London people were throwing bottles and it wasn't because we were shit, but because we weren't punk. That was really annoying because I considered us as apart of the start of it. That made us quite cynical of punk from the start.
After 11 years do you find it difficult to think of fresh ideas?
MS: No, not at all. The only problem I have is what to leave out.
Do you have certain songwriting methods or is it pretty random?
MS: No, I use all different methods. I like not to use a method at all. I sort of prune my lyrics from the writing I do. Some of it's prose some of it's just snatches. If I think it's a particularly good piece of writing I'll assign it to the band to write music for it.
What are your impressions of America and Americans and has marrying Brix altered you view of them?
MS: I always have time for Americans. I was never anti-American. A lot of my rock and roll influences are American. As a country, I think it's getting homogenized like all the West. I think America's suffering from a danger complex at the moment. One thing that excited me about America was this sort of omnipresent danger, a creativity. Even the guys who have furniture shops are creative. I remember when we first came to America and it was a very exciting place, it seems to be a lot tamer now.
Do you think the Fall would be a lot different now had Brix not joined the group?
MS: When we got married I didn't even know she could play the guitar. That sounds ridiculous but it's the truth. I thought she was a bass player, and of course the last thing the Fall needed was a bass player. Listening to her mess around on the guitar, I was very impressed so I asked her to join. She didn't want to but I said it would be great if you did. Then she became more enthusiastic about it than I was. When we got married it was a particularly low point in the band.
Was it around the time of PERVERTED BY LANGUAGE?
MS: Just before that. We ware having a lot of trouble with the record, company. Kamera were about to dissolve. We foresaw that so we left. It was a bastard going back to Rough Trade. It's a shame about PBL. It could've been 10 times better, although the songs live sound dynamite. Because it was Rough Trade, they put us in some fucking crap studio for like 4 days. Some of the tapes were actually recorded too slow, things kept breaking down.
Do you think Brix set the Fall on a totally different course?
MS: When I met Brix, people say it was a very exciting time for the Fall, We were touring America, we were doing completely new material. That band inspired all those what I call Fall rip-offs, like Sonic Youth; we did the Speed Trials and all that. It spawned a whole movement. I'm only realising this now. You talk to people like Live Skull, a band I admire a lot. They said, "where can we get you tape?" I was shocked at how many groups were following us from New York. About 10 of the groups at the Speed Trials were really into the Fall. But for the previous year or two nobody was talking about us much. In England the thing was doing Latin cocktail music. The thing that got the band back on its feet was Beggars Banquet. Me and Paul Hanley had written this song called "CREEP" which was sort of shoved around. So I was very mad when "CREEP" came out end Brix was attacked for it. So we went around flogging this song in our usual way, not actually selling ourselves too heavy. Tamla-Motown were going to sign us. We were gonna be the first white British band on the label. But that fell through and Beggars Banquet got wind of us so they signed us up.
Is there any significance to the title THE FRENZ EXPERIMENT?
MS: It's from the song "Frenz" obviously. When we laid that down I was very excited about that, when we were playing it live, I thought it would be quite interesting and a bit out of the ordinary for the Fall. The songs on the album are all directly from me almost. Of course, with this LP we were supposed to do a very commercial one because we had had two-(UK) top 40 singles, So everybody expected a commercial album, which. was the-last thing I wanted to do.
Despite that, it does seem very accessible.
MS: A lot of it might be the sound of it. That's sort of the part about the experiment. I don't want to get high-falutin' about this. It was the first time in our career we'd been able to use a top-class studio. I thought it would be a shame if we came out with a load of glossed product, we used the room where the Beatles did Sgt. Pepper. It's a fucking great room. It's like a concert hall. Abbey Road is like going to an office, it's not like a rock studio at all. We had more time to spend on things. I'm very adamant in the studio. I don't like anything being polished up and shit.
Is FRENZ an effort to break the US or do you not even care about that?
MS: I'm not particularly interested in that. You see, when you ask me about America, it depends on which cities you're asking me about. I have to be, frankly, dragged screaming to the airport to go on tour in America. We don't get anything out of it. It's not as if we've been appreciated properly. And we don't fucking need any more money. We could live quite well on British and German royalties. One of the few reasons we come is we've got a lot of die-hard fans like yourself who have been fans since 1981 and shit, been to every fucking concert, so that's one reason that gets me on the plane.
You have a strong following in the Midwest.
MS: I get a lot of mail, you'd be surprised.
A lot of bands are into you, Big Black...
MS: Oh, I know. Big Black are (muffled). You get a lot of resentment from these independent shits because they're still trying to be like the Fall in '82, '83. They're fucking light years behind. You don't see that the Fall has always been like that, always been ignoring what the trends were. I see Big Black as another fucking trend. They go around the world and play to 400 people in every city and they're all dressed the same. And all act the same. Why do world tours? Why not stay at home? The Fall audiences are interesting. They're good people. All age ranges, all races, all creeds. I enjoy coming to America with Brix to visit relations. This has been great so far. I've done American tours and been lucky to come out alive. You come out with nothing and nobody appreciates you. We've not ever been in Rolling Stone. We've not had any coverage there whatsoever, But they pour pages on these American and English bands that slavishly imitate us. And actually quote verbatim from my interviews, the ideas. You meet some of these American rock journalists -I'm not age-ist, you know-but some of 'em are fuckin' 45. And they still talk about Lennon and things like this. When I was 19 that was irrelevant to me.
Rolling Stone still really hasn't acknowledged punk yet so you can't expect them to know much about the Fall. They're still in a time warp. What were your motivations for covering "Mr, Pharmacist," "There's A Ghost In My House" and "Victoria"? Was irony involved?
MS: With "Mr. Pharmacist," yeah, because there was a hysterical anti-drug campaign going on in Britain at the time "Mr. Pharmacist" was a big favorite of mine. We still couldn't track down the guy who wrote the song. It's pretty different from the original, as are all our covers. "Ghost," we were just pissing around in the studio. "Victoria," I wanted something a bit short for this LP and I liked the lyrics to that song a lot. Also, I wanted to rearrange it 'cause I thought the Kinks' music, which is very rapid, on the original was pretty dopey. That was one challenge, something I don't usually do, is rearrange songs, I usually give the band the riff and the words and that's it. The biggest kick with "Victoria" was rearranging it, making it very punchy.
By not including lyric sheets do you intend to keep meaning obscure or to encourage misinterpretation?
MS: I just don't think it should be separated from the music. If that were the case, I'd write poetry. Also, I'm very into the sound of the language. I don't think I should have to commit meself on meanings. Also, I'm changing. If I don't agree with a viewpoint, I've got a right to change it, I don't like to be pinned down on certain things. I also think it's a boring, bourgeois thing to put lyric sheets in records. I find that most people who print lyrics are arrogant and stupid, It's hilarious to read these lyrics that they think are good.
Didn't you publish a book of your lyrics?
MS: In German. Yeah.
That was pretty wrongheaded.
MS: Yeah. They were pretty old songs. But as we got more popular in Germany, I was getting loads of mail from Germans. They can hear the words but they don't understand them. So I picked about 12 songs (they're in English, too).
Are you going to attempt any more plays or fiction writing in the future?
MS: Uh, no. I don't really plan things out too well. What we're doing next is this ballet with Michael Clark where we're going to actually play on stage with the dancers. The group wrote the music in its entirety. It's about the life of William of Orange.
Did the experience of the play Hey Luciani teach you any valuable lessons?
MS: It was discipline and it was very exciting, especially for the group (who played various roles in the play--M). The main thing was it was a writing exercise. It spawned from the song. It helped my writing a lot. My writing has improved 25% since that play. It's got me back into being objective. I thought BEND SINISTER was a great LP but a lot of me stuff was getting very personal. The characters weren't quite coming out there. When you write lyrics and music for a play, you've got to speak through the people, which I always try to do in me songs. The viewpoints I express aren't necessarily my own. To lot of people the play made no sense whatsoever. The thing I loved about it is that people like my mother and father really enjoyed it. Middle-aged people loved it. A lot of people who wouldn't like the Fall, And a lot of theater people liked it too, cuz it was different. It wasn't just a surreal thing, it was very comical. It taught me a lot about the British class system, as if I didn't already know about that. The theater people held us in contempt and they were the biggest bunch of no-talents. Out of a cast of 30 I only used 4 or 5 actors. I find them objectionable.
There are some Fall songs, especially "I Am Damo Suzuki," that seem very different from the rest of the body of your work. How do you explain a song like that?
MS: It's one of those things when you can actually conceive a work entirely in your brain. It really excited me. "Damo Suzuki" is like my tribute to Can. I think it's a great song. I actually met Damo Suzuki a month ago in Germany. He came to our concert in Cologne.
Wow. What's he doing?
MS: He doesn't believe in making records anymore. He still performs but he improvises it all. He was exactly as I thought he would be. He's smashing. He works with some computer mega Jap company in Germany. He's quite happy. He said Can have reformed. We got on very well. He thought the song was really brilliant. It reminded him of the period when he was in Can.
What other groups or songwriters do you admire?
MS: Not many, actually. I always get asked this question and I'm always stumped for an answer, I'm pretty eclectic in my listening. I do like the Hamsters' songs. I like Elvis, Gene Vincent, rockabilly.
MS: I don't play the Velvets much anymore. I think it's one of those cases, you hear so many horrible imitators, dilute it and steal it. You listen to the original and you've heard it all before. It's a real tragedy. There are some fuckers in this world who can't leave great creations alone. I like a lot of what the Jesus & Mary Chain did, for instance. but I just can't listen to it after a while. I've heard, "Sunday Morning." I don't want to hear it again.
Are any fiction writers an inspiration for you?
MS: I tend to read a lot of bios now and a lot of history. I've just been reading a big book on the English Civil War. I've just read a book on the Israeli secret service. I still do like Philip K. Dick. I like a lot of detective stuff, Chandler, Jim Thompson.
Do you have a favorite period of the Fall?
MS: I don't know. I'm continually reassessing. It took me a long time to play any of our records properly. From the things that you wrote-and there's been a lot of things like that in Britain as well--made me reassess, when I'm a bit drunk and have nothing important to do. I'11 slap on one of the old LPs. It's strange, I played TOTALE'S TURNS and I was surprised how poor it was, It wasn't as good as I remembered.
I like DRAGNET and GROTESQUE the best.
MS: GROTESQUE is good in parts. But I think the conception of it is brilliant. I'm more interested In getting to the bottom of HEX and ROOM TO LIVE; that era is interesting. I don't think I've ever read-your magazine ripped it to hell--or met anybody who's liked ROOM TO LIVE and that's what fascinates me about it.
HEX is one of my brother's favorite albums of all time.
MS: Uh-huh, that inspired a lot of people. I always hear it cropping up in groups like Husker Du.
You've got so many distinct periods in the Fall's career, and it's really rich and diverse. That's what's unusual. There's a restless energy. There's a little stagnation, There are a few moments when the inspiration is not as high but overall it's really good.
MS: Obviously, I can't be objective about it. It's funny what people think is good and what I think is good. They're quite different. If Brix has helped me in any one way it's to see things like that. She always puts a counterpoint to anything I do. The reason we do get on very well is we can give each other advice very frankly, cause we're very opposite people. She can always tell me how somebody else would look at it. Not that I always follow the advice, I don't. But it helps me to appreciate things.