In Between Albums

Robert Smith grapples with writer's block as the Cure prepares for a rare Bay Area appearance.

After thirty years in the music business, Robert Smith still hasn’t found a cure for writer’s block. The Cure frontman who gave us tight postpunk songs like “Boys Don’t Cry,” dark anthems like “Fascination Street,” and snappy pop hits like “Lovesong” is now struggling to finish his band’s fourteenth studio album — a 33-song double record he has been laboring over for more than a year. Constantly trying to improve the songs, Smith has postponed the album’s release twice so far. It is now tentatively scheduled for April or May.

“As usual, I’m holding it up because I can’t get the words how I want them,” Smith says. “I find myself stopping short and thinking I’ve done this before better, so it’s hard to find subject matter that really matters to me, things that I really want to sing. I just don’t want to make a record because we’re in a group. That flies in the face of what I’ve always wanted the Cure to be. It frustrates the others a lot, I think, but there’s not much anyone can do about it. The last four Cure albums have really stalled on my lyric writing. I think it’s worthwhile because they end up better than they otherwise would have been. I never worry about writer’s block; I figure if I don’t have anything to write about, I shouldn’t be writing.”

To finish the double album, the Cure canceled almost all dates on its North American tour this fall — one of the few exceptions being its imminent Bay Area appearance at the Download Festival. The other shows have been rescheduled for next May and June.

By then, the new album — which doesn’t yet have a title — should be in stores. Smith is producing it himself, recording the band with minimal overdubs in an attempt to capture the vibrancy and brink-of-disaster excitement of a demo tape. “It kind of teeters on the edge, everyone’s concentrating and trying hard to get it right,” he says. The band spent one day per song, playing until it got the right take. Then Smith wrote words to fit, an approach he hadn’t used since Pornography in 1982.

“It has more color, more style,” he says. “Some songs have what one might call mistakes in them, but they sound great and that pushed me to this idea of not trying to refine everything all the time.”

By Smith’s own account, the album is shaping up to be a mix of mournful songs alongside more energetic and upbeat cuts.

“It’s incredibly varied at the moment,” he says. “Everyone’s contributed so there are some very different styles. I like the idea of it being more in the style of the Kiss Me album with different things happening. But the art of that is to get it to all hang together, which is quite difficult as well.”

For the first time in more than two decades, the band has no keyboard player, after Roger O’Donnell quit last year. Original Cure guitarist Porl Thompson — who is married to Smith’s younger sister — has returned for a third stint in the band.

“There’s no need for keyboards when you have Porl playing guitar,” Smith says. “He can pretty much create any sound you want. He’s brought back a sense of urgency and we’ve got a rock edge again.”

Bassist Simon Gallup, in the band on and off since 1979, and Jason Cooper, on drums since 1995, round out the ensemble. “Being a four-piece is getting back to a stripped-down stage look and sound,” Smith says. “The fact that we can turn out anywhere with very little equipment and play is the old idea of the Cure. It’s less grand than things we’ve done in the past, but we’re still planning to play for three hours.”

His spidery hair, thick eyeliner, and slightly smeared lipstick earned Smith the title of leader of the gloomy goth-rock movement in the press, a typecasting he has long argued against, with little success.

“It’s so pitiful when ‘goth’ is still tagged onto the name the Cure,” he says. “We’re not categorizable. I suppose we were post-punk when we came out, but in total it’s impossible. How can you describe a band that put out an album like Pornography and also Greatest Hits, where every single song was top ten around the world? I just play Cure music, whatever that is.”

As for the makeup, that’s just part of Smith’s performance ritual. “My makeup is pretty ’80s, isn’t it?” he says with a chuckle. “My appearance is preposterous anyway, so it doesn’t matter how old I am. It puzzles me why such a big deal is made about it. It’s part of the ritual of going on stage and performing. It doesn’t come that naturally to me even though I’ve done it for years. Perhaps not as badly applied and not as obvious, but for thousands of years people have worn makeup onstage.”

Smith has already left a deep imprint on rock history. His confessional lyrics made it acceptable for male rock singers to express feelings of vulnerability and opened the path to a plethora of emo bands like Thursday and minimalist ’80s revival bands like Interpol. And that’s just another reason for the British musician to stubbornly labor away at the expense of deadlines and touring schedules to produce an album worthy of his band’s legacy.

“It’s gratifying to know that people still want the Cure to exist,” Smith says. “The best thing about playing live is that we’re an old band playing to a young audience. As long as I still enjoy it I should keep doing it. I find it slightly upsetting to see seriously old people performing contemporary music. I haven’t quite reached that stage, but I’m aware that time is moving on. Once I won’t be able to sing for three hours … that’s when I’ll stop. I don’t want the Cure to fizzle out doing 45-minute shows of greatest hits. It would be an awful way to end the legacy of the Cure.”

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