Fall founder Mark E. Smith: a fiend, a frontman, straight up punk or a living legend? Whatever your answer, you can’t deny that the man has led a long and exciting career through his pioneering rock band The Fall—sometimes celebrated as “the last rock band standing.” Decades have passed since The Fall’s relentless assault on mainstream music staked the band a prominent place in rock history. With a sound that’s written in stone and a revolving cast of members, Mark has kept The Fall going since 1976 by controlling the band like a captain through a storm. Some of the crew are bound to fall overboard, into oblivion, while others survive but, as Mark has put it: “If it’s me and yer granny on bongos, it’s the Fall.”
With a new album out and a world tour in progress, it’s apparent that Mark has no plans of slowing down in the immediate future. And guess what? Mr Smith and his band are returning to Iceland, set to co-headline ATP Iceland next week, playing alongside another revered rock figure, Nick Cave. We mustered up the guts to call up Mark and ask him about the band’s current state and whether he remembered anything from his prior Iceland visits.
What do you think of returning to the Iceland?
I’m looking forward to it, but I don’t think I’ve ever been in the summer. Yeah I’ve been there a few times, but never in the summer.
Have you given any thought to the fact that you’ll be playing in an abandoned military base?
Fuckin’ hell! [spoken in a muddy Lancashire accent—no one quite handles profanity like the British]
You visited Iceland in 1981 and 1983, roughly thirty years ago—and then again in 2004. What were those visits like? Any particular memories—do you even remember them at all?
Yeah, I really enjoyed it; I made some good friends there who are either dead or relegated.
Anything particular that caught your attention?
Nah. I’ve always liked it. When we first went there, there weren’t that many groups around, which was kind of weird. But we were still very selective of them [laughs].
THE ASCENT OF BARK
What did you think of the Icelandic music scene during your first visit?
Well, we toured a bit with Purrkur Pilnikk, but not much other than that, and they turned into, what you call—Bark? You know what I’m talking about son? [Mark may be referencing that Purrkur singer Einar Örn went on perform in Kukl, and later the Sugarcubes, along with another singer who later struck out on her own as…Björk. Or he might not be referencing that at all].
Do you remember any other Icelandic acts from your first visit?
No. I mean, I got a few LPs that you can’t pronounce, some folk music and some poetry as well, and I liked that.
Do you have an opinion on the current Icelandic scene?
Well, I don’t know anything about it. Nothing recent at least. What’s it like?
It’s evolved a bit and has gotten quite big, actually. I hope you’ll see it better when you come here.
Well, what kind of music is it? Like, do you have a lot of groups going?
Well, yes, quite a few of them.
Well alright then.
In your song “Iceland” you mention Icelandic singer/songwriter Megas… any particular reason?
Right, well, he was a big deal back when I was there, and I got some of his LPs. But I’ve never met him or anything. Is he still going?
Yes, he’s still going strong.
SOCIETY GETS WORSE ALL THE TIME
The Fall was a pretty groundbreaking band when you first came out. Can you tell me why you got started or what inspired you to become a musician?
I think it’s the same as now really. I would hear any music that was around then and thought I’d make some different music, something that was primitive and mixed with intelligent words, really. That’s what I’m trying to do, still.
So you’re trying to achieve the same things you were trying to achieve then?
Well, if you look at it that way, then probably, yeah.
Where did you find you your inspiration then?
To be honest, I don’t really think about the past that much nowadays. It’s always the next LP with me.
But is there something you find inspiring today?
Society gets worse all the time; somebody has got to say something. And if you ever get to thinking you aren’t fed up with it all, then just turn on the TV and watch some music programmes. It riles me up. But the group I’ve got now is almost ten years younger than me.
Do you feel this brings you in contact with the current generation?
Yeah, I suppose it does.
But do you feel it is harder to be all “groundbreaking” now than back when you were younger?
Do I find it hard? No, not at all. What we do today is what the rest of them will do tomorrow, that’s my motto.
WATCH YOUR BACK, CURRENT FALL LINE-UP
Your band is famous for having played host to some 66 members since you founded it. However, your latest album, ‘Re-Mit,’ is the fourth you’ve recorded with the current line-up. Have you finally found the core members of the group?
Haha, they’re getting nervous though, they’ve been here four years now. Yeah, I don’t think so, I might axe them [laughing].
Some claim that the Fall would not be what it was without the constantly changing line-up. What are your thoughts on this?
I don’t know. Sometimes you’ve just got to sack somebody. You never know. The current group, they’re all married now—so that’s a worry sign. I’ll have to watch them from now on.
Many people consider music in general to be in a state of decline, what is your opinion on that?
What? Music in general? I think they might be right, who said that?
Ehrm. I’m not referring to anyone specific, but it seems like a prevalent attitude. I was merely interested in what you have to say about it…
Well, you know, if I was 16 again I wouldn’t really think [unintelligible]… But you can always say you’re looking at the bastard through rose coloured glasses.
What I think is a big problem today is the recording studios. It’s getting harder for me to record now, because these new studios make everything sound kind of plain. They level everything down, so you have to spend bloody hours and days trying to get it to sound like it should. You know what I mean?
Yeah. Do you think maybe these studios are meant to make music more accessible for radio and the casual listener?
Yeah, they’re trying to phase it, with ProTools and all that. The studios are, in my opinion, mainly built for talentless people.
IDIOTS LIKE BONO
Many Icelanders get their music by illegally downloading it. What’s your opinion on that?
There’s nothing you can do about it, really. I’ve been really fucking mad about it, though. For instance, our last LP—not this one or the one before, but the one before that—the one on Domino Records (2010’s ‘Your Future Our Clutter’). Well, some idiot left a copy of the LP in a bar and before we knew the thing had twelve thousand downloads. So that’s twelve thousand sales. And then you get idiots like Bono or fucking Madonna saying [adopts an Irish accent] ‘Oh the music should be free to every person, it should be all free.’ But in the end I don’t mind, we of course gained a lot of fans from it.
Any special plans for Iceland?
Not really, but we’ve got a day off which sounds good. I don’t know. I guess we’ll wander around, get phased from the nuclear base. I’m not staying in town like everybody else, that’s for sure.
I’ve read some of your interviews in preparation for our talk. Often, you don’t seem very fond of us journalists as a profession. Any specific reasons for that?
Well it just depends, Ragnar, it depends.
[On that note, Mark quickly ended the interview saying he has to go out and catch the afternoon. Before saying his final goodbyes, the good man gracefully invited me to “take him for a drink” if we should meet while he was in Iceland. I of course accepted, and as I put down the receiver I thought: “I now owe Mark E. Smith a beer.”]
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