A day in the company of Mark E Smith

The usual British in Northern Europe scenario. I couldn't agree with you more Richard. You go and sit in a coffee shop all bloody day, and you know there's a cop van there. Anyway, you getting a drink in or what?

 

 

 

 

A day in the company of Mark E Smith

 

 

(An instructive story in two parts, including Mark E Smith interviewing Incendiary's Richard Foster, two plucked chicken carcasses on strings, and Winston Churchill.) 

 

Part the first; how not to conduct an interview.

 

I'm sat on the train bound for Rotterdam, having just finished a hard season's tulip bulb packing, contemplating - not without a fair measure of alcohol-fuelled trepidation – the assignment that lies ahead of me. This assignment is one that all true music fans would face with a fair measure of contemplation, maybe foreboding. I am, for what it's worth, detailed by both magazine and record company to interview Mark E Smith of the Fall. He is here with the band to play the GDMW festival at Rotterdam's prestigious Schowburg theatre, and simultaneously to promote the new LP, Fall Heads Roll. Instructions are to meet Mark in a hotel lobby and then proceed to fit as many questions in as possible in an allotted space of twenty minutes. I disembark from the train, and walk the windy and sodden streets of Rotterdam, all the while racking my brains to think what to say in the interview, or, more accurately, what not to say.

 

I don't think I'd felt like this since someone threw a copy of The Hobbit in the bin at school. Reprisals on that unhappy occasion consisted of telling the teacher who, in your opinion had done it. In front of the rest of the class. The temptation to say what you wanted to say, (and drop someone you didn't like in it) was tempered by the very real threat of after-school reprisals if the culprit was unmasked by yourself.

A thorny problem and one that guaranteed a certain amount of suffering whatever way you looked at it. Not unlike the one that presented itself to me in Rotterdam. Okay now, remember. Don't mention Ian MacCulloch, Brix, drink, the past, any old songs at all, anyone from the Manchester scene, old or new.....

 

Once I turn up at the hotel, I see another nervous face peering over at me from the reception desk. It's the journalist from Live XS, a nice lad with a similar Fall fixation. We fall into conversation and await the inevitable summons. Except that it doesn't happen. The record company ring to say that Mark E will be a bit late. A rather gruesome apparatchik from the festival at the Schowburg (the one the Fall will headline later that night) pops her head round the door and tells us to look out for Mark E Smith on the street as he might go and do something else. What else? According to her, we are to accost him and take him to the hotel lobby. What? I'm only meant to be interviewing the fellow, not grabbing him on the street and pulling him into an unknown building... you can get arrested for that, it's called assault. Still, rather crushed by the apparatchik's un-smiling demeanour (and confidence of one who is, however temporarily, "hanging out with the band"), we sally forth rather unconvincingly out onto the street.

 

"Tell you what, you grab him" says the Live XS lad.

"Why me?" I counter. "You'll see him first, as my eyesight's terrible"

"Yeah, but you're English" he says. "He'll listen to you".

"How do you know?"

"I don't" says the lad. His voice takes on an increasingly nervous tone. "This is mad. We are waiting on the street for Mark E Smith, who could come from any direction. I don't like this at all".

"Let's go back to the hotel and have a few beers" I suggest.

 

We go back to the hotel lobby and have a few beers. We cheer up. We even manage to laugh and have a good-natured disagreement about music.

 

And then Mark E Smith walks through the hotel door, looking genially over at us very dapper in a suit and blue shirt.

"Alright Mark" I mutter.

"Alright, are you lads the record company? I got a little bit lost walking round the place."

"No, we're here to interview you"

"What's your name?"

"Richard"

MES then takes complete control of the situation.

 

"Oh right. Tell you what, you wait here Richard and me and this lad will go and look for a cafe. When they turn up, bring them over will you? We'll only be over the road."

 

The Live XS lad throws a quick, glassy-eyed glance over his shoulder at me and is ferried over the road by Mark E Smith.

 

Five minutes later the record company reps turn up looking wild-eyed and somewhat sheepish. Have I seen Mark E Smith? Yes, he's in the pub with the first journalist. They run off, even more wild-eyed. Another journalist turns up and together with her, I make my way to the pub. I sit at the bar and watch the Live XS lad get on famously with the great man. Things are looking alright. In fact things (and Mark E's mood) pick up even more when a mate of his comes into the bar and says hello, yelling "alright mate?" In a loud Yorkshire accent. A hug of sorts takes place and lots of loud banter ensues. This lad, who works as a landscape gardener, sits down next to me. He turns out to be a top bloke. We have a pint or two, and then I am summoned to the table in the corner. The Live XS lad grins triumphantly at me as he goes past, looking for all the world like some kid who's just had his Tetanus & Polio jab and survived, and is now intent on making the rest of his class nervous with horror stories of huge needles stuck into bare arses.

 

I suddenly realise I am pissed mindless.

 

IN: Mark, I've got a present for you, (namely Brilliant Orange, a book about the cultural changes in post World War Two Dutch society, as mirrored through Dutch football, specifically the Ajax teams of the seventies. Okay, trust me, its actually a lot more exciting than it sounds. Mark E seems pleased at any rate).

 

MES: Oh, cheers, I like stuff like that, have you read Tor? That's a book about German football, that's a really good book that... So, then, sit down, don't jump about. What part of Yorkshire are you from then?

 

IN: You fucker, I'm from Accrington!

 

(I suddenly realise through my drunken fog, that I have called - albeit with a fair amount of jest - a man who can lay claim to be the greatest and most consistent artist of his generation, if not of the entire alternative rock genre, a fucker. I squirm inside and fumble for a question. However, Mark has beaten me to it.)

 

MES: I used to go out with a girl from Accrington some time back. Is it still as mad up there? I remember that when I split up I had the entire family round, granddads with shotguns and stuff. They were nice people, but it was a bit mad. Do you like it?

 

IN: Me? Yeah, I go back at Christmas... but I live here now. Sometime I like it here better than in Accrington.

 

MES: What isn't better than Accrington? Always raining. (A long laugh ensues) What's it like over here then, to live?

 

(I then go on a long and rambling explanation of why I am in Holland and how I think the country has changed since the time I have been here. All the while I am thinking, "Ask him a bloody question you prick". And all the while I keep rabbiting on... Finally I pluck up courage. But Mark has beaten me to it.)

 

MES: So this magazine you write for, what's it all about then?

 

(I then go on a long and rambling explanation of why Incendiary is in existence, its goals and dreams, its foibles and past mistakes. Mark nods and listens appreciatively all the time smiling in a detached way. Christ how am I going to ask a question?)

 

MES: Erm.. Do you want a drink then?

 

(We get drinks)

 

IN: I think I'd better ask you a question about the album Mark.

 

MES: Yeah, sure, what do you think of it then? Have you heard it?

 

IN: Yes, I have.

 

MES: Well, what did you think of it?

 

IN: I actually thought it was brilliant. It's very poppy and it's got a real spring in its step.

 

MES: That's really good to hear. I'm glad you think that. That's the group, doing that. They're all a good ten years younger than me you know. That's a lot to do with it.

 

IN: I'd like to talk about this concentration on pop songs you cover, Mark. You do cover a lot of standard tunes... am I right in thinking there's a love of classic pop in the Fall that needs to be assuaged on record?

 

MES: Well, the band, they are all very open you know, they've not heard these things before so there's no baggage, you know. They've never even heard any Fall records, and they're in the group... (MES smiles at this)

 

IN: Is this something you are going to exploit?

 

MES: Oh, definitely, definitely. It's an advantage. I mean the guitarist was six when Live at The Witch Trials came out, ha ha!

 

IN: The other thing I was going to ask you was - bearing in mind the amount of stuff you've written over the years, and bearing in mind the nature of your work -  why did you choose music as a form of expression? Why didn't you become a writer? Wouldn't that have been a more logical step?

 

MES: Well it's all the same thing... plus I still don't think there's any good music around, actually, you know, when I get fed up and I turn on the radio or the telly to cheer meself up, and the music on there's still shit... (Silence) So what was the last group you interviewed then?

 

(Cue a long humourless story from yours truly about bands I've recently interviewed, none of which Mark has heard of. He seems perfectly cheerful in his non-acquaintance with the scene.)

 

MES: So do you show these bands around then?

 

IN: We normally take them to coffee shops and show them the usual sights. Personally I find coffee shops incredibly boring.

 

MES: The usual British in Northern Europe scenario. I couldn't agree with you more Richard. You go and sit in a coffee shop all bloody day, and you know there's a cop van there. Anyway, you getting a drink in or what?

 

I come back with a pint or two. Mark is eager to know all about Accrington Stanley...

 

MES: That team of yours is doin' alright, then. They'll be playing Man U soon! He he heh!

 

IN: You mean that break away team?

 

MES: Yeah (emits a long wheezing laugh) Playing Padiham next, what a riot that would be! Me, I'm a blue, so I don't give a stuff, it's all rather ironic I suppose... Heh heh! Right, who's next?

 

The interview is terminated by MES there and then. He's got three more interviews to do, and it's obvious that he finds talking to us press a pain, though he's shown a great deal of courtesy to everyone. The girl journalist who I saw in the hotel lobby is ushered into the corner. I stay at the bar and grab MES a few minutes later to sign all the Fall stuff I've got stashed in my bag.

 

I am now rolling. The girl journalist comes back and, in a shocked tone, tells me that Mark says he has never been interviewed by a lady before. However he put any embarrassment that may have ensued on her behalf by kissing her hand. God, get the drinks in...

 

Part the second; a long overdue performance.

 

The Schouwburg's hosting the GDMW festival tonight. In the main it's a literary festival, comprising readings, signings and general "fun" acts, plus the odd deejay. Topping the bill is the Fall, who will obviously blow all the other pretentious mediocre rubbish away.

 

Tonight is billed as a radical mix of the arts, with lots of happening and wacky events – that will, despite their fun nature, contain plenty of thoughtful commentaries on the society we live in. Bollocks, the Fall are on at 1am and it's only 9.30pm. And I've got a splitting head.

 

Quite why these sorts of events feel the need to be seen as radical is beyond me. I can understand background music, but why always rap? I will bet my shirt on the fact that none of these people own a Public Enemy CD in their homes. However to be seen by your literary peers in a state of actively not enjoying P.E. or tapping your toes to it at the very least is a crime against civilised and literary humanity, and undermines the radical nature of this event. After all P.E. are black, are they not, and they come from a less than privileged background, and they have a thrilling if somewhat dangerous association with guns (like all rappers) so that means they must speak a deeper level of truth, no?

 

I don't know and I don't care. All I want is the Fall.

 

 

Being radical and on the edge is obviously very important for these comfortably off people. Not for me. I sit drunkenly down in a heap and stare at my signed Peel Box set. Behind me the deejay booth lot are interviewing some smug young pup who is wearing a slovenly get up that could be described (by those not in the know) to be Bohemian. I have to listen to an interview where this young kid is protesting about the boredom and ennui in everyone's daily life. Go and work in a factory, you fuck... I decide to watch an act. It consists of two lads being silly standing in a box, and turning Thriller on and off. Later they produce two chicken carcasses and proceed to manipulate them like puppets, to another soundtrack I can't remember. I sit on a chair, and am promptly told to stand up by a bad tempered young man in horn-rimmed spectacles. Bossy, these liberal intellectuals, aren't they? I look at my watch, 11pm. I call to my girlfriend and suggest to her that, in the interests of the general safety and well-being of the clientele here, I shall remove my person to the local pub, where I am less likely to commit an act of violence upon Dutch liberal intelligentsia. She readily agrees. We go to the pub and get trolleyed some more.

 

We come back.

 

Its 1am, and surely the Fall are going to be on soon? Not yet. We sit in the main hall, yawning drunkenly through some rubbish dance/mime show (the dancers dressed, interestingly enough, as if they are on Play School) and then have to listen to some writer declaiming against all sorts of people including Winston Churchill, De Gaulle and Schopenhauer. Everyone sits on the floor at this stage, looking towards the great teacher/novelist, who prances like a tit round the lectern. There is the odd whoop of assent now and again. Why do people whoop? What purpose does it serve? When are the fucking Fall on?

 

They are on right now, I am thankful to say. The reading bullshitter has gone and the curtain draws back to a large stage with the band minus MES. I turn round and all the chin strokers have pissed off. There are teenagers everywhere, and they are all about 14 and look like they are into Ned's Atomic Dustbin. This is mad. Hardly the cliched old git audience, though there are old gits around. There's someone even more spectacularly drunken than me, who, I swear, cries when MES saunters up to the two mikes he has prepared for him, and blasts out a fabulous version of Pacifying Joint off Fall Heads Roll; (a large advert slogan for which glimmers electronically behind the band). What a song to open with, especially in this temporary bastion of intellectualism... "Yeah, pacifying joint", spits Mark over a thunderous, choppy rhythm. It's a real challenge thrown out, a case of "who's the fucking real artist here then?" and there is only one winner. The band are really really tight, and, more importantly, not over effusive sonically, creating a landscape that MES is content to prowl around in. As indeed he does, forever walking over to amps and twiddling with nobs, pressing random keyboard keys, nodding sagely now and again like some master chef checking up on his pupil's dishes.

 

The set comprises mainly of tracks off Fall Heads Roll, and the odd Country on the Click number, most notably Theme from Sparta, (as if mutated into a tribute to Sparta Rotterdam) the audience went wild, belting it back at the band. Where's all this mutual interaction and commitment come from then? It's as if overnight the Fall are a stadium rock band, and the audience are prepared to indulge in the most obvious of stadium cliches. Fine, it suits them right now. What About Us is another question and answer track that gets the crowd bawling back at the band. This is a cracking gig. The stuff that I didn't expect to work is amazing; Midnight Aspen is just a fabulous, very personal song. That lovely line when MES sings of shooting bullets at the stars only to hit circling satellites, works beautifully live. Ride Away is a brilliant, bumbling, affable stroll through the park, totally at odds with its awkward, "big kid in outgrown clothes" cousin that appears on Fall Heads Roll.

 

I wasn't the only person to think this; the drunken guy had decided to jump on stage and give Mark E a big hug, which the singer took surprisingly well. Mr Pissed then sat on the drum stand, which MES didn't take well at all. A cocked thumb and a sharp rebuke soon saw the invader safely back into the crowd. MES then, as if in self defence from this overly enthusiastic crowd, re-arranged all the mic stands, creating a web of wires that threatened to envelop anyone who dared trespass. The stage soon resembled a portion of No Mans Land, or a terraced house roof with multiple T.V aerials.

 

This re-arrangement coincides with the highlights of the gig, a brilliant segueing of Wrong Place Right Time and I Can Hear The Grass Grow, followed by the assault that is Blindness, a complete and utter Fall classic if ever I have heard one. It's thumping, Neanderthal rhythm is subtly interspersed with some acerbic guitar and keyboard passages, never sloppy, never overdone, always allowing Smith the last, defining touch. It's a fabulous gig by this point. After Clasp Hands, the band walks off, but are brought back for an encore of White Lightning, which is just bonkers. It's a far better version than the recorded one, there is so much more menace and intent in a song that I previously found a little slap-dash. The audience laps it up. Brilliant.

 

Up go the lights and off we go to bed via the longest train journey in recorded history. It is 4am when we get in, and I am bush-whacked. I wake up the next morning to find my signed copy of the Peel box set next to my pillow. I must have been staring at MES's signature as I fell asleep. It sounds incredibly pathetic to have done this I know, but at the time it brought a bloody great grin to my face. What a day.

 

Say what you like about the Fall, they defy every cliche and they are still around producing brilliant, radical music. Fabulous.

 

Words: Richard Foster.