When he was 30, Mark E. Smith, iconoclastic front man for The Fall, wrote "Living Too Late," an odd reflection on mortality where he sang of crow's-feet ingrained on his face. Now almost 50, one of rock's most original and recognizable voices sees no reason to reflect or dwell on melancholy.
"I haven't thought about mellowing out," says Smith, speaking from London a few days before starting an American tour that brings The Fall to Phoenix on Sunday. "Why should I?" he asks incredulously.
Speaking to Smith is a lot like listening to him sing. With his thick Manchester accent, he slurs and curses, answers a question with another one, refuses to repeat unintelligible remarks and hides behind the dialect that often resembles Dylan on the worst whiskey bender imaginable. He's beyond petulant. But Smith's also funny as hell, brutally honest and distinctly accurate a good amount of the time.
"These bands like Bloc Party and Franz Ferdinand, where do they get off claiming The Fall as an influence?" Smith says. "I wish I could afford a lawyer." Smith's right, of course: Along with Gang of Four, The Fall has gotten its fair share of name-checks from bands barely alive during their prime. Even American icons of alternative rock, such as Henry Rollins and Sonic Youth, have often praised The Fall as a forebear of their music. Some artists might be content with such praise, but not Smith.
"I mean, I wouldn't even shake hands with Sonic Youth, you know?" Smith says. "And Henry Rollins is a bit of a lunatic. He gets up and gives a fucking lecture about how he wishes he was me."
Despite Smith's vitriol, there's actually little bitterness in his responses. He has fronted some form of The Fall for 30 years, creating a massive catalogue of confrontationally original music. Secure with his legacy as an ultimate outsider, Smith speaks with a confidence some mistake as arrogance. He questions every assumption about his music and about himself while remaining unafraid of offending anyone.
"I like this new band," Smith says about the quartet backing him for this tour and on Fall Heads Roll, the impressive new effort. "They're a lot younger, so I have to kick their asses." Judging by the new tracks, Smith's favored mode of encouragement has proven quite successful. Cuts like "Pacifying Joint" and "Assume" are intense mixtures of post-punk raggedness and Smith's literate caterwauling. His infamous talk-singing hasn't been matched by music this engaging since mid-'80s releases like The Wonderful and Frightening World of The Fall or This Nation's Saving Grace.
The current Fall features Smith's third wife, Elenor, on keyboards. His previous two wives also appeared in various incarnations, usually for the betterment of the music, even though Smith doesn't think it a big deal: "My wife's in the band because she's a good keyboard player. I don't care if it's my fucking wife or brother."
About the only soft spot Smith betrays is for legendary DJ John Peel, one of The Fall's greatest fans and supporters who died in 2004.
"It's just not sinking in," Smith says. "It's ironic that we weren't even invited to the tribute for him. They invited all these bands, The Cure and INXS, folks he fucking hated. Luckily we were in the States."
Last year's six-CD set The Complete Peel Sessions presented as complete a picture of The Fall's erratic genius as anyone could hope for. It also brought the number of Fall releases to just around 80, created by a revolving cast of musicians that number in the 50s. Smith, of course, disputes both figures.
"That's exaggerated," he says. "Two-thirds of those are unauthorized. And 50 people? You can't believe what you read on the fucking Internet." (After finding out that the information came from the official Fall Web site, Smith replies with characteristic contempt: "That makes it even worse.")
Much has been written vainly trying to describe exactly what it is Smith and The Fall have accomplished over the past three decades. Smith's no help making sense of the band's stew of noises and influences -- he mocks any band that claims him as an influence as quickly as he derides any notion of his own.
"If I wanted to make music that sounded like any particular artist, what would be the point of carrying on?" Smith asks.
In Mark E. Smith's world, the truth is often subjective. He sees ineptitude in labels, promoters and especially journalists, and he scorns any attempts to pigeonhole him or his band's sound. "Post-punk?" he asks. "What does that mean? The Fall is The Fall, and I don't know what any of that other shit means."
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