Music & clubs

Falling back to Berlin: Mark E. Smith

Tonight, on super-short notice, shouty and literate Manchester post-punkers The Fall play their first Berlin gig in six years. We spoke to their legendary frontman in advance of his show at White Trash Fast Food.

Image for Falling back to Berlin: Mark E. Smith

Hot on the heels of last year’s album Sub-Lingual Tablet, brand-new EP Wise Ol’ Man and what may or may not have been his 59th birthday, curmudgeonly Mancunian Mark E. Smith brings The Fall’s latest and longest-running lineup to White Trash Fast Food for a last-minute surprise show.

To be honest, we’re pretty apprehensive about talking to Smith one on one. The Fall frontman is as notoriously unpredictable an interviewee as he is a live performer, prone to jabbing at journalists with pens or lit cigarettes – if he’s in the mood to speak at all, that is. Add to that our knowledge that the German leftie paper taz declined an interview with him yesterday because they feared they wouldn’t be able to decipher his thick, rarely sober Manchester slur, and we’re feeling the pressure, to say the least.

Fortunately, he seems to be in a jovial mood today, laughing as he darts his eyes around the futuristic – in his words, “fuckin’ weird!” – lobby of Friedrichshain’s forced-trendy NHow Hotel. Over a beer and a double of whisky (both his) we start talking about The Fall’s history in Berlin.

Do you remember the first time you played here?

My relationship with Berlin goes back to about 1985… might’ve been before, you know. When the Wall was up here and all that. I think it was SO36 or something.

How was it?

Mmm, well… amazing. Incredible. Different. It took us a while to get accepted in Germany, but Berlin was automatic. Like Glasgow in Scotland. We’re very much the city group. Still are, really.

Did you feel like there were any parallels between what was going on in Berlin and Manchester back then, music-wise?

Well sort of, yes, I felt so… of course, and then it deteriorated in 1990. Both things deteriorated. And now they’re developing… This used to be the eastern part of Berlin, didn’t it? It’s a bit like Manchester – you go away for two months and come back and they’ve put up three new buildings and torn down two. Have you ever been there?


You’re not missing anything! [Laughs]

You ever think about moving away?

Yeah. No. Ah, I lived in Edinburgh for about two years and that was good. But I always go back home, it keeps you a bit grounded. Anyway, you can’t go abroad these days; there are too many British people! Everywhere in the world I go, y’know, there’s always some idiot who pretends he went to school with me. No, they fucking didn’t!

You’ve got one song, “Bremen Nacht”, where you sing in German about a bad show in Bremen – was that based on an actual event?

Yeah, yeah, it was a very strange thing! It was a bit like a firestorm; my whole body felt like it went up, like it’d been burnt and bruised. Its not a nice experience at all. At the time I thought I’d been pushing myself a bit too hard, hadn’t been eating properly, drinking too much… But then we found out six months later that the building we had played in had been firebombed by the Royal Air Force. A bit fucking weird!

Do you get those historical flashbacks often?

Yeah, sometimes, sometimes. Not so much nowadays. I still get ’em strongly in Manchester with the new buildings they open up – it’s ridiculous, people putting up flats in old churches. A friend of mine just got a big, huge building himself, and I remember it from when I was a child – my family used to go in there for plumbing equipment, shit like that. Before that it used to be a big old work house for children. I went back recently to see my friend’s new studio and it’s still got a really weird vibe to it, you know what I mean?

Speaking of history – you’re one of the few musicians from the old Manchester scene who’s still developing creatively after all these years. What do you think about the ones who’re living off the glory days?

Well I think it’s pretty disgusting actually. It’s like, that eternal reformation… people ask me, oh, you’re still going? We’ve always been going! I’ve gotta say, we are doing very well. You look at our crowds these days, they’re very young, they’re all fucking under 35. Which is what my group is, really, apart from me. That’s quite unusual. There’s nothing more depressing than to go to see them old groups playing, and looking out at the fans… Where I live it’s The Stone Roses and all that. They played at a big park near me, and all the fans were like five years younger than me, they’ve got families, it’s depressing.

So it helps to have an eternally young fanbase.

Of course we do have an old Fall army, we call them the old guard, they’ve been with me from day one. Peculiar people, to say the least. They’re all miners and things like that.

Meanwhile, your birthday was last week – you’re almost 60 now, right?

[starts laughing] Fucking… in a few years, yeah. I always used to add years onto me age, when I was a kid. Always have done. I started very early.

So how old are you, really?

I’ve just passed me mid-fifties.

The internet says you’re 59.

That’s right… well, I’ll leave it like that. Everybody believes the internet, don’t they? Does the internet see me passport? It’s amazing, I get interviewed by the Times and the other respected papers, and they ask me questions, and I just go straight away, you’ve got that off the internet, haven’t you? They say stuff like, “Did you get secretly married to somebody? Did you sack somebody in Australia by putting a lizard under their door?” I think that’s fucking sloppy journalism. It’s not a fact, it’s what some dickheads wrote on the fucking internet.

I guess they’re all just trying to do their homework. You’ve got a reputation for being a tough interview.

It depends on who the people are. I don’t usually do interviews with women, actually. [Laughs] I don’t. I didn’t know you were a woman till this morning.

That’s a choice on your part?

Well in general, yeah. It’s always just been a tradition, I don’t know why. They usually take me the wrong way, I think. From way back. In Britain, woman journalists… I’ll have a conversation with them, I’ll go out for a drink with them and everything, but they’re coming from a different angle to what The Fall’s about. A lot of them think it’s a “men’s thing”.

Do you feel like that?

No, not at all! It’s more of a British press thing. I don’t have those problems abroad.

As someone renowned for your lyrics, how do you feel playing shows in countries where people don’t understand what you’re singing?

The weirdest thing I’ve found about going abroad, is I can sing things I’d never dream of doing in Britain. And they work really well… Like [last week] in Israel, we just went into an improvisation, and it was stuff I’d be slightly too apprehensive to do in Britain. And it worked so well, because it doesn’t matter, you see. I’ve always liked that about being abroad. I like not understanding a fucking word of what people are saying around me. In my early twenties and teen years, my hearing was so acute, I could hear people talking all the way over there [gestures toward table on other side of room]… it was too much. I’ve still got that sort of eyesight, actually. I can tell if that guy over there has snot on his nose. But I’m glad that’s fading off with old age.

How does your audience in Berlin compare to those in other cities?

It’s a lot more personal. I sort of know a lot of people here, from the times I’ve played before. These DJs, these blokes who do this and that… they all sort of come together around The Fall every now and again, and pretend to like each other.

The Fall, Mar 12, 22:30 | White Trash Ball Room, Am Flutgraben 2, Treptow, S-Bhf Treptower Park