"My long term plan is to retire in three years from being in the Cure," he muses after being asked about his future plans. "I won't stop playing music, I just think there should come a point when the Cure ...."
He pauses to reshuffle what he's trying to get across.
"Well, I say that," he continues, "and I don't even know, because I think the way the group's mutated over the years there's been at least five different groups called the Cure. There've been at least five different Robert Smiths in the Cure. I don't see any reason deep down why the Cure can't just, like, evolve into something completely different again."
Another pause, another shuffle.
"I mean, well, I know I wouldn't be doing it like this when I turn 40," he tries again. "It just wouldn't feel right .... Now I'm just determined that whatever we do is really good, and I get as much out of it as I possibly can because I don't want to look back on it and have any kind of regrets at all. I think Wild Mood Swings is the best album the Cure has ever made, and it's not just because it's the most recent."
Another pause, a final shuffle.
"I think we should make one more album that's better than all of them," he says finally, "and that should be it."
Or maybe not. Over the two decades that he's led -- or, according to some fans, been -- the Cure, Smith has shown a certain resilience. The trends might change, but he keeps going on, creating a brooding, melodramatic public image -- as critic Rob Sheffield once noted, part of the secret of Smith's success is that he's ugly and his mother dresses him funny -- while at the same time coming up with gorgeous pop melodies on the order of "Friday I'm In Love."
That particular little ditty was released almost four years ago on Wish, the Cure's last studio CD before Wild Mood Swings. Despite a pair of live CDs, it's been a while since Smith has put out anything new, but despite that, or perhaps because of it, it's hard for him to contain his enthusiasm when looking back at the year the Cure spent making Mood Swings.
"It was easily the best year I'd ever had with the group, probably one of the best years of my life really," Smith says. "When I was young, I always imagined what I'd like to do when I grew up. My thing was just to be in a house with my friends playing music. And for a year, I lived that dream. At the end of it, everyone was very sad to leave, and we all thought maybe we should just, like, go together and buy a big house and live together. But I think we realized the reason it was so good was because it was just for a year. You knew that you were part of something that was special."
Perhaps the reason such emotions are so intense is because in the time that preceded the sessions, Smith thought the Cure, the band he had founded in the late '70s and guided through a variety of personnel changes and shifts in musical moods and styles, had truly reached the end of the line. Ground zero came several months after the Cure finished a yearlong world tour to support 1992's Wish. By then, guitarist Porl Thompson had made good on a long-mentioned promise to leave the band to spend more time with his family.
But the 1994 departure of drummer Boris Williams, followed by a temporary exit by bassist Simon Gallup (he returned to the fold less than a month later) left Smith upset and doubting the future.
"I can distinctly remember the weekend," Smith says. "It was really the day after Simon told me he was leaving. I was just sitting there with [guitarist] Perry [Bamonte], and we were just laughing at each other because we can't be a pop duo. I was resigned for about a week to the fact that that was it." But then Smith decided to talk to Simon to get to the bottom of why he'd walked away. And what he heard was that the bassist had left to help save the Cure: Simon thought that the reason other band members had been coming and going was because of him.
"So he thought if he left I could find some people that I could stay with and be happy with," says a bemused Smith. "I mean the weirdest thing of all was that Simon couldn't actually see that maybe it was me that was the reason why people left the Cure."
With the creative core of Smith, Gallup and Bamonte restored, work began in earnest on a new CD. Over the following year, the new Cure lineup was completed by drummer Jason Cooper and the return of keyboardist Roger O'Donnell after a six-year absence. Wild Mood Swings began to take shape -- although it went through considerable change along the way.
In fact, Smith had originally intended to make a spare record built around a string section, piano and acoustic guitar. A few songs on the final product, such as the muted, aching tune, "This Is a Lie," reflect that approach. But elsewhere, Mood Swings ended up departing drastically from the initial concept. The new CD is one of the most varied of the Cure's 14 studio records, veering from tunes such as "Want" and "Club America" that reflect the moody, chiming pop sound that's defined the group's recent records to the giddy, almost bossa nova feel of "Gone!" to "The 13th," a pop tune that blends Latin rhythms and festive horns.
"It's a much more honest way now, the way it turned out. It reflects a group of people making music, rather than me trying to take one particular style and work at that style," Smith says. "I think I would have felt very uncomfortable, certainly I don't think we would have toured, if we had made an album that was just, like, string quartet, piano and acoustic guitar."
The group's desire to redefine the Cure was reflected in the choice of "The 13th" as the new CD's first single. Gallup sums up the band's thinking this way: "I think that people sometimes have a preconceived idea of what the Cure are meant to sound like. We wanted to break that down in a way; it was something where we just [wanted] to sort of break down all the preconceptions of us. Because even before the record was released, the English press was writing things like we're quintessentially Goth. And you think, well, you haven't even heard the record yet, and I don't know that we've ever been Goth. I don't know why we ever got labeled with Goth type, because we sort of didn't come out of that at all. Contrary to popular belief, we don't go around wearing black all the time."
Smith echoes his bandmate's frustrations over the Cure's image. "It's sort of like an in-joke in the group, and it has been for years," he says. "We either suffer from being doom and gloom merchants, or we're insanely happy and we're doing 'Friday I'm In Love.' I think we're about the only band in the whole world that the media tries to force to exist in one or other of those areas. We're not allowed to exist in both, and everywhere in between, which we always have."
"We started out as a pop group," Smith adds. "It seems quite extraordinary that after all this time people still think the Cure is doom and gloom. Yet if you ask them what they think and what they remember of the Cure, most people would probably say 'Friday I'm In Love,' and I'd say, well, how can you reconcile those two? And there's kind of a blank look.
The variety of music found on Wild Mood Swings, Smith says, may change that. But then again, Wish was varied, and the Cure was still seen as, well, the Cure. It may be that as long as Smith stands out front with his thick layers of makeup and styled-by-electric-shock hair, no change in the sound will change the group's image. But then again, who knows what sort of mood swings are possible not only in the Cure, but the public as well?
The Cure performs at 8 p.m. Friday, August 23, at the Summit. Tickets are $26.25 and $31.25. For info, call 629-3700.