As a young man in the 1980’s my brow was furrowed and my mac was long, I effected an air of existential angst, I read Nabokov, I wrote poetry, I was high on pretension and snakebite, I was a bit of a tit. My favourite band was the Fall; they had it all: an impenetrable wordy anger and a fierce garage rock back beat, their front man Mark E Smith spat out a poetic invective peppered with obscure literary references and concise observations on everyday life, I became a devoted acolyte.
I count myself very fortunate, by luck of birth, to have been following the group at the very zenith of their powers: Perverted by Language, Wonderful and Frightening World, This Nation’s saving grace, Bend Sinister, I am Kurious Oranj; a run of albums that were testament to a group bursting with ideas. Live they were taciturn, tight and mesmerizing. They made musicals, they scored ballets, they even troubled the charts on a couple of occasions. What was it that inspired a band five albums into their career to reach such new heights of creativity?
There is surely no coincidence that this period of fruitful experimentation coincided with Mark E Smith’s marriage to Brix Smith; a child of the Californian sun who injected a new vitality into the dark hypnotism of the Falls post punk rumblings. So it was with a renewed teenage fascination that I read Brix’s new autobiography “The rise, the Fall, and the rise”, sometimes harrowing, always honest; it reveals much about my erstwhile hero that is uncomfortable, though perhaps not surprising? Mark E Smith was a consumer of amphetamines on a biblical scale, and a drinker of steady determination, never a winning combination.
Photography courtesy of Sumishta Brahm.
However, this isn’t just a book about the Fall; Brix has rubbed shoulders with the royal family (her account of her time with Nigel Kennedy is possibly more bananas than her time with Mark E Smith)., presented television shows, advised on frocks and opened shops. Brix, it seems, takes it all in her stride. We had a bit of q & a here’s the result…
There are some very personal revelations in the book, some of them clearly painful for you, what made you decide to write your autobiography at this time? Do you feel its part exorcism?
‘’I’ve been wanting to write my autobiography or memoir, actually for years, and I tried quite a few times. I had stabs at it, crumpled chapters here and there, I wrote it out long hand, and finally the time was right and everything fell into place really quickly: I found my voice, it felt comfortable and effortless, and literally the story was at the top of my throat ready to vomit out! Do I feel its part exorcism? I would say exorcism is too strong a word, I feel that I’ve certainly released and healed supressed memories. Writing it there were of course a lot of painful and upsetting things that happened in my life, and those things were dealt with by burying them really…. And literally living in denial. So when I wrote about it , I used a technique called ‘Sense Memory, which is almost like a self hypnosis or a deep meditation, where I went back, back, back into time, I took myself into the room , for instance when I was a small child; so I could see the colours of the walls and feel the texture of the blankets on my skin. So when I did that some very dark memories from over the years unearthed themselves and floated to the top of my consciousness where there I had to deal with them at this time, and once they were acknowledged and dealt with, it was like they were miraculously healed and faded again from my consciousness.”
Your account of your early life in California sounds, bar the ups and downs of teenage life, fairly idyllic, or at least in sharp contrast to urban life in Manchester or London. Do you miss the open spaces and sunshine, or are you a city person at heart?
‘’When I look back on my early childhood in Los Angles although it was highly dysfunctional, there was something magical about it, and I think it’s quite magical to be a child, and to look at things through a child’s eyes. I had a way then of looking at the world that was just fantastical, you know? Some people may call it rose coloured spectacles, or a veil of illusion, I don’t know? But to me, you know, even the pavement looked beautiful. So yes , I miss the narcotic heat of Southern California, and the sunshine, and the outdoor life and the coolness of swimming pool water on my skin, but at the same time ever since I was a small child I knew London was the place I wanted to live. I love it here and I wouldn’t live anywhere else to be honest, I feel like it’s the hub of the world, you can get anywhere in Europe you want to very quickly, I even like the Romantic-ness of the grey drizzly weather, you know? I actually like going out to the country as the antithesis of city life, staying at someone’s lovely house, sitting by a roaring fire, having a big filling meal! I like the balance and duality of life, so yeah I’m all of it! I’m happy anywhere.”
Talking of the contrast between sun kissed California and rain kissed Manchester! Tell us a little about your first impressions of arriving in the city, It must have been quite strange, having never even visited the City before? Do you still have much of an attachment to Manchester? I was living there at a similar time, and only left a few years ago, it has a really magnetic quality as a city I think?
‘’Oh Justin, I’m even sure what to say here? But when I got to Manchester for the first time in May 1983, I was… disappointed, I mean I don’t know what I expected or really what was in my fantasy brain of what Manchester was, but it wasn’t the reality of what I saw, which I found very grim indeed. In terms of; yes, the heaviness of the weather, but also the red Victorian buildings and the scowls on peoples faces and the quality of light coming from the sun, it was bleak indeed and it was a hard life. It was a physically harder life, just living in that city than it had been to live in America. It was so provincial compered to where I came from, which isn’t a bad thing, but it meant I had to get used to doing things in a different way? I mean in 1983 shops shut at 1 o clock on a Wednesday, it was half day Wednesday, and of course nothing opened on a Sunday, and I came from the land of 24-hour shopping! So you know, I struggled. I didn’t have any friends, I didn’t have any family, the only person I knew was Mark and eventually the band. So I really struggled with coping to live there; I struggled with the food, I struggled with the drink, I struggled with the lack of heat and hot water… it was difficult. The place I loved most was the Hacienda, which was the greatest place to escape from everything, it was fantastic, it was like the epicentre of cool in the entire universe! So that was pretty special, but in terms of Magnetic? For me it was not. However! maybe in a weird way it is, because I’m still going there all the time now! To play with the band, so I couldn’t really get it out of my system, and of course now I know what I’m getting into… so I like it!”
Your account of meeting Mark E Smith is both impulsive and romantic, and for us obsessive Fall fans it’s quite interesting to see a vaguely romantic side to quite a taciturn character. Would you say you are quite impulsive and romantic?
‘’um….I guess you could call me impulsive, although I prefer to call it “following my gut instincts” or being guided, so when a feeling comes over and I need to do something – I do it, I don’t really question it? If it feels right to me, I go with that feeling, I believe in signs, I’m quite spiritual: I look for signs everywhere, and I get them everywhere. I live my life by what feels good to me in every second of the day. Romantic? I believe in love, you know? I believe that love is the answer to everything. Romance feels good I guess? But really it can get very mixed up with lust its hard to differentiate you know? When your bodies pulsing. Obviously I love to be looked after and cherished I wouldn’t say I was particularly romantic though. I’m glad you saw a different side of Mark, and that was part of intention when writing this book, although the book is about me, I needed to explain to the reader why I fell in love with Mark E Smith, and how he looked to me, through my eyes, so you could have some understanding of how I saw the person I fell in love with, and I’m glad I was able to convey that.”
The unravelling of your relationship with Mark is quite harrowing to read, his erratic and often awful behaviour must have been hard to bear. You must have felt quite isolated, but did you derive anything positive from that time, personally?
“Well there were a couple of different instances of unravelling and at the time it was incredibly difficult, but with hindsight it made me a more empathetic person and I had to learn that you cannot change somebody, that in fact you have no control over anybody else in this world, and all that you really have control of is your own emotions from second to second. You can make a choice about how you feel. I don’t regret any of it, I am in fact now, with hindsight grateful that it happened because it helped to form into the person I am now, and those experiences did make me more empathetic and understanding to everybody and to myself. I learnt a lot from it, although it wasn’t pleasant, but I’m no longer in that situation, in fact I’m in a good one, so that’s fine. In terms of Mark’s awful behaviour and erratic behaviour, it was nothing I could control, you can’t control anybody and that’s hard, because when you are young you think “I can change that person’’, ‘I can save that person, I can help that person, I can reinvigorate this person’s career, I can feed them healthy food, I can get them off a bad lifestyle, I can dress them and turn them into a style icon!’ you think you can do that for different people, but in fact… you cannot, you can only have control over yourself, and that was something I had to learn, and it was a Fucking Good lesson to learn!”
Your musical input to the Fall is very significant, and dare I say I think its their golden period, not only was it the point of greatest popularity for the group, but you provided something of a psych pop edge to the sound, it maybe their greatest period of experimentation also? Do you feel you opened up the group to new possibilities? New sounds? A new approach? (as a side note I remember going to see Hey Luciani in London, I think you certainly encouraged that broadening of possibilities, and all the work with Michael Clark must have been fascinating?)
‘’ I think my injection into the Fall was extremely stimulating for Mark and for everybody else, it was coming from the leftfield and it was so different, it was really quite a brilliant thing to put my light against their shadow, weaving my little glorious nursey rhyme bonehead guitar lead hooks through the fabulous hypnotic cacophony that were the Fall, it was just a fantastic recipe. I think it shook everything up and generated a lot of creativity. I would love to be able to take credit or it, and I’m sure plenty of credit is due to me! But the Fall was always a collaborative project, and I think Mark’s brilliance in bringing me in re invigorated the entire band. In the early days I was let free to be creative and to push the boundaries with Mark and push the boundaries we did!. Hey Luciani, I can barely remember any of it, but I remember it being incredible, and I cannot believe you were there! I think it was sold out for a week at the Riverside in Hammersmith, but so few people saw it, because it was such a small theatre, I’m not sure if any photographs or film exist of it! Mark was really open to collaboration as well, he was reading ‘In God’s Name‘ about the Pope ( a book by David Yallop about Pope John Paul 1st, Albino Luciani, and the scandalised Vatican Bank) and he was just fired up from it, and was like ‘Hey I’m going to write a play about this, I’m going to write a musical about this, anyway it was madness and amazing. The Michael Clark thing was probably one of the best collaborative moments of my life. ‘I Am Kurious OranJ ‘’ ballet was brilliant on every level; I would do it again!”
You even managed to inject a bit of style into Mark E… how!?
‘’Personally I didn’t tell him what to wear, because you could not tell Mark anything, but I think him being around me, probably inspired him, and actually we shared a lot of clothes, we shared a lot of Body Map. There’s a long Body map parachute silk black coat that we used to share. So yeah, actually, and this is a weird story, I bought Mark his very first suit from Woodhouse in Manchester. I bought him an Armani suit which cost £700, which was a kings ransom then, and the weird thing was; the man who owned Woodhouse, who I didn’t know then… was a man called Philip Start… who is now my husband.. Weird! So yes I did inject a bit of style….he would dress up for my family. He probably still wears the Armani jacket today.”
Post Fall you headed to London, where your life took a very different turn, did you ever consider returning to the USA, what was it about the UK that kept you here?
‘’I just knew I was meant to live in London. I knew from a really young age. There’s a chapter in my book called ‘’Peter Pan’s flight’’ and it’s a description of an actual ride in the original Disneyland that was built the late 1950’s …where you get into this boat and fly over a diorama of London, so its dark and you are flying over London at night, and the lights are glittering and you can see Big Ben, and its completely romanticised … every time as a child I would fly over London, it would take my breath away. So that chapter is about that ride and how it inspired me to fall in love with London, and in fact the ride itself is a very strange metaphor for my life. This was going through my head when I flew over to live in Manchester in 1983. I talk about Captain Hook on the ride fighting off an alligator, and Captain Hook is Mark and the pirates are the band and I am Peter Pan, the fierce boy you know? I talk about the Native Americans that appear as my spirit guides on the ride, its all weird and fantastical. Now you know I’m truly nuts! I didn’t want to go back in America, although I had terrible homesickness for LA, I had homesickness for the beach, which is why I wrote the song LA [ on ‘This Nation’s Saving Grace’], and why i wrote ‘’Waking up in the sun’’ [ Adult Net], they were love songs to the city I missed, but I didn’t want to live there. I was happy in the UK; it was my home.
Your time with Nigel Kennedy sound in many ways a lot crazier than your time with the Fall! I love that you go from making genre defining post rock in Prestwich to rubbing shoulders with Lady Di, did you find that a dizzying experience, was it uncomfortable, or did you take it all in your stride?
‘’I took it in my stride, life is a wonderful journey, you just never know where its going to take you. I obviously felt a bit intimidated, being in the presence of royalty, but only because I felt.. you know how feelings come over you of unworthiness, or just a bit of a fish out of water? Well I don’t really get that, that much, but only in certain situations, so I was really worried, not about meeting Princess Dianna, or making conversation with any of them, but I was worried about how I ate, and my etiquette, I was worried about the small stuff …how I held my knife and fork! Which fork to use, what length my dress should be, do I wear gloves, how do you curtsey, all those stupid little details! I was more worried about that stuff rather than meeting the person, she was fine. You want to do it right; you know there’s a protocol, that’s it. Flying on the Royal jet was so much fun, I literally pinched myself all the way, I kept pinching my inner thigh.”
It’s clear that through out your life, clothes and style has been a central part of your life, and you certainly know how to rock a mean look. Is style important to you? Is it part of the expressive package?
‘’Yes absolutely! Its how you present yourself. I use clothes as a suit of armour in a way? And I use it as a power tool, I dress for every single occasion to get what I want. I make sure that when I go into a situation where I really have to deliver, I feel good, I’m wearing clothes that I know that I look good in, because that gives me the confidence, it helps me to deliver what’s inside me, by getting the outside right. I make sure all my colours are right, I only like certain fabrics touching my skin, certain shapes, I’m always aware of it. It’s a power tool, everyone should know how to use it. Sometimes I wear a dress at home when I write, I call it my ‘’MuuMuu writing dress’’ which is something I got in Africa at the airport, it’s a long dashiki dress in faded turquoise with an African print, its long and over sized, and I sleep in it! You know I wrote this book on my I pad in bed! I would sit all day in my bed with little snacks in my my eating and writing MuuMuu dress, which nobody must ever see me in! but I give you a description now for your pleasure!
I have quite a few Adult Net records, and now you are back treading the boards with Extricated with a fine selection of ex Fall members. Are you glad to be back playing music again? Was there a time when you felt disillusioned with it?
‘’I was so broken by my experiences in the Fall in the end when I left in the 90’s…. that I would say I had a breakdown to be honest. I could no longer sing, write, I didn’t want to see an instrument, didn’t want to go to a gig, didn’t want to listen to any records. I didn’t want to know; I didn’t care… it was painful. When I saw other bands do really well, like All Saints, at the time I just remember it ripping my insides out, you know? Just shutting down completely. the weird thing writing this book actually opened up the creative process to get me in touch with my music again, and as I wrote this book, I began to write an album. I began to play my guitar and sing again, and when I began to sing it was with a whole new voice. When I picked up my guitar it was right where I left off, I was a little rusty but within a month I was playing better than I ever played, and the joy! Literally the first three months playing guitar and singing in my bedroom I wept every time I sang, I couldn’t get through a song without weeping because there had been a part of my soul that was missing. I feel like crying even saying this, but it was such an important thing to me . It is my purpose in life, and I had denied it and suppressed it for fifteen years, maybe it had to lay fallow? I don’t know? When I got together with Steve Hanley (long standing former Fall bass player) at the book launch of his book in Manchester (‘The big midweek’), I told him I was writing again, and he said why don’t we play together… from the minute we started playing together I felt goose bumps and tingles, and so did he. We looked at each other and we knew there was still some magic there, so he really assembled the rest of the band, so it’s Paul Hanley on drums, Steve Trafford, the ex bass player from the Fall on guitar, and Jason Brown who is a great guitar player on the third guitar, we have three guitars, but I don’t play all the time because I have to sing! We’ve done our first tour, we’re making an album, I can’t tell you, it’s the best feeling ever, having a second bite of the cherry is a thousand times tastier than the first! I’m so grateful and I love every second of it, and I think the passion comes out on stage and in the music.
What’s next Brix? Will we see an updated biography in a few years with further adventures, or do feel like putting on the slippers and putting your feet up for a bit?
‘’That’s not going to happen! I’m working on the Extricated album, I’m also doing a solo album, separate from the Extricated, which is different again. I would say it’s a continuation of the Adult Net, of what I wanted to do with the Adult Net, but it’s a very very different sound, its not sweet sickly psychedelic pop, I’ve really come into my own, with my own thing. So two albums yes! And I’m going to write another book! Which I’ve already started, which I’m not going to tell you anything about because its still in its formation period, but I have started writing in bed with my MuuMuu dress and my I pad. I’m working on some TV ideas as well, there’s a bunch of stuff happening on the music, documentary front and on the fashion front, and then finally my dream is to get this book made into a film or an episodic TV series , and I’d also like to write one too. So that’s what I’ll be doing, and not putting my feet up!