Interview: The Fall
Coming Full Circle
By Michael Carr
Mark E. Smith, the frontman and sole constant member of seminal post-punk group The Fall, is a venerable figure in today’s music industry. Having put out 28 studio albums over more than three decades, triple that if you include live recordings and other releases, Smith is a tireless talent. Enduring every facile wave the fickle and trend-obsessed music industry have thrown at them, The Fall have consistently delivered album after album of shambolic, humourous and telling commentary on life and living.
Smith’s lyrics – remarkably incise, bitingly witty and often cryptic – doll out swathes of social observation and general misanthropy amongst repetitious, sparse and often brash music; despite their cult following, the band never achieved the same level of acclaim and fame as contemporaries like Joy Division or The Sex Pistols. In recent years though, the world has seen The Fall held up by the hordes of the fashionable as yet another talisman of hipdom, the band’s journey coming full circle as pop-culture eats itself once more.
“It’s a bit weird for me really,” Smith explains over the phone in his thick Manchester accent. “The last four months we’ve been doing a lot of festivals, which is strange for The Fall – we’re usually banned from them. There’s one up side; our audience is a lot bleeding younger than it was five years ago. But there are just so many more ass-lickers now; all these new bands are ass-lickers, and you see that playing festivals.”
Never one to lean away from candour toward tact, Smith is unafraid of voicing his opinions on “these new bands”… “We were playing a festival in Dublin the other week,” he starts, with an undeniably mischievous tone. “There was this other group like, warming up in the next sort of chalet, and they were terrible. I said ‘shut them c***s up,’ and they were still warming up, so I threw a bottle at them. The band said ‘that’s Sons Of Mumford,’ or something, ‘they’re number 5 in charts!’ I just thought they were a load of retarded Irish folk singers.”
Part of why The Fall have grown so popular in recent years is the remarkable influence the band have had on those who followed. Artists like The Birthday Party, Pavement, The Happy Mondays and Nirvana all doffed their hats to Smith, with every third band on MySpace listing The Fall or Mark E. Smith in their influences box. Even Britain’s bad boy Pete Doherty is blatantly plagiarising Smith’s image as a frenetic drug addled misanthrope. “I’m glad you said that, but you must have an antipodean view point there – because a lot of people here in the UK don’t see that,” he says, when I mention Doherty. “I don’t really know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing…” he trails off, in contemplation.
It seems that while Smith is happy to have the spotlight on him, there is a degree of uncertainty about the circumstances around his illumination. With The Fall’s music intended to fly in the face of what was accepted and celebrated by mainstream culture, the message has been somewhat undercut by the wave of trend-followers that have sprung up around the band. “I think that means something’s gone wrong,” he confides. “I mean we actually got a good review in NME, you know? Like fuck me, it’s time to fucking pack it in,” he laughs maniacally.
It’s disturbing that Smith, one of the strongest symbols of individualism in music, has become yet another fixture in the pantheon of false idols youth culture seems intent on worshipping. His music, which was once a statement of disdain, has been misinterpreted and translated into yet another statement of blind acceptance – worn on a Dangerfield T-shirt with blissful ignorance of the irony. Nothing has changed, only the times, and The Fall are now a fashion item for hip teens to pin on their chest; a symbol of their homogenous rejection of conformity. The band’s message is still valid and the music is still good, but the ethics and philosophy seems to have fallen on deaf ears.
Smith continues to spit at consumer culture, and shows no signs of stopping. “I shouldn’t be telling you but I left Domino [Records] last week, so I’m just going to record – then we’re touring in November and December, and then we’ll see what the New Year brings. That’s the way I do it though, I don’t plan ahead.” Part of that tour will see The Fall in Australia for the first time in 20 years, playing Meredith Festival and a sideshow in Sydney. Until then, let’s just leave him alone to do his job, and try to avoid mythologising him into anything other than he is; a cantankerous poet, with a lot on his mind.
By Michael carr