An Interview with Brix Smith-Start
Almost twenty years after leaving for the last time, Brix Smith-Start is finally ready to revisit her work as guitarist of the seemingly unkillable post-punk group The Fall. As she prepares to release her autobiography, Robert Parry asks how it feels to play again after so long.
Before we start, just for a bit of context for anybody who’s new to The Fall, could you just… sum them up?
Sum up The Fall.
Sum up The Fall? How can you ever do that? I mean The Fall is like… a musical Rorschach test, it’s whatever you want it to be, it’s a powerful, hypnotic, infectious… magnificent beast, you know. Mark’s [E. Smith, Lead Vocals 1976-present] words are just, I mean he’s absolutely a genius, I have to hand him that, he’s amazing, and his delivery… There’s no other band like The Fall – there are definitely bands that have been influenced by them, for sure, but The Fall is an original. And it’s a powerful thing, when it’s on form – even now, with the band [Mark] has – I saw them at Glastonbury, and I thought that was an amazing set that they did.
So had you been thinking about writing an autobiography for a while, or was it sparked off by Steve Hanley [Bass 1979-1998] writing one?
I’ve been thinking about it for a long time, I think the first idea came about fifteen years ago. I was approached to write a memoir when I was doing Gok’s Fashion Fix, but the publisher wanted something that I didn’t really want to be involved in. I knew I wanted my story out there, but I wanted to write it myself and it just needed to come out when it was ready. Eventually everything just fell into place, and I’d say I physically started about three or four years ago.
How do you go about writing an autobiography – is there a lot of research, or do you just go from memory?
There’s a bit of both, really. I have an incredible memory, I’m able to do something where I can… it’s not really self-hypnosis, but you can take yourself back deep down to your earliest memories, so when I get to this place I can actually see my childhood room and smell the smells, so with that technique it was pretty easy to remember. Of course there were times where things were fuzzy, so I would call old friends or bandmates like “Do you remember this time?” and they’d jog my memory. And then there is a lot of research, but there were a lot of resources out there to help me along. All the stuff having to do with The Fall is extremely well-documented, there are like twenty books about them and an amazing website, I think it’s The Fall.org, they have an amazing chronology and discography and gigography, so if there was ever a blank spot I could go back and say “Oh yeah, we played those songs on that day”.
Were there any points where you found that your research contradicted your version of events?
Oh yeah, memory is subjective and there were things where other people looked at it and saw something completely different. In Steve’s book he has this memory of a gig that we did in Belfast where he assumed that I was too hungover to go onstage, but the truth was I had flown separately from Paris and gotten horrific food poisoning, the kind that kicks in like forty eight hours after, and when we got to Belfast I just exploded out of every orifice and they had to call a doctor, it was the worst food poisoning ever, I was like lying on the floor crying in this dressing room. But Steve doesn’t remember that so I’m like “You can say I had a hangover, but I’ve never missed a gig from a hangover”. That was his perception and that’s fine, you know, I accept anyone’s perception.
The thing is I loved Steve’s book so much, it was Steve’s book that brought us back together as a band. Steve and I, although we didn’t ever have deep conversations and hang around buddy-buddy, we were very, very close, sort of each other’s rock in that band, but Steve was quite a silent man, so to read his book was fascinating to me because I got to understand what he was thinking all that time.
How soon after Steve’s book did you start thinking about playing together again?
It’s weird because Steve and his editor sent me a pre-release copy of the book to check, to make sure I was happy, and I read it and was like “this is so good”. Basically for the last sixteen years I’ve completely shut down music and didn’t want anything do with it, but when I read Steve’s book, it reminded me of all the special stuff that we’d done with The Fall and how actually incredible all that work was, and after I guess fifteen years of healing I began to be open to what we had actually created. Then Steve and Olivia [Piekarski, editor] invited me to come up to Manchester for the launch. At first I thought “I’m sorry, but I can’t handle that”, but I decided I’d go, and everybody… it was just so unbelievable to see them all again. Everybody was happy, everybody was smiling, they all had families. They’d all moved out of the misery that we were in when we were in the band. It’s an extremely difficult band to be in.
I can imagine.
They’d all come through it, and seeing them again like that was amazing. So at that book launch, they formed a band and did a couple, sort of Fall cover versions. I was sitting there, and unbeknownst to them about two months before my husband and a couple other people had convinced me to pick up a guitar and I had started writing again, and I found that in all that time off I’d really, I don’t know, I came back to it and I had a different voice and everything was so easy, and so good, and I loved it. So I remember they were playing Mr. Pharmacist, and something inside me… snapped, and it was all I could do to not jump up and run on the stage and grab the guitar.
So afterwards I said to Steve “Oh my God why didn’t you ask me to play, I would have played” and he goes “Oh my god we never thought you’d ever do it, Brix”, and he said “well maybe we should play together”, and I said “Sure!” – so me, Steve and Simon Rogers [Guitar 1985-86] got together, and I think the first thing we played was U.S. 80s-90s, and immediately we all got chills up and down, like “Oh my god, there’s something going on here”. So from that, a promoter in Manchester heard we were messing around, and he said “Why don’t we put you on at the Ruby Lounge?”. Paul Hanley said he would do it, then we got Steve Trafford [Guitar 2004-06] and a guy called Jason Brown [Guitar, only non-Fall member in the group] who’s the most amazing guitarist, on a different pole to me. We started to rehearse, and there was something magic about it, and after the first gig we got offered about five more on the spot, so we knew there was something.
Can I just ask about Jason Brown?
Steve Hanley played with him, I think they were all in Tom Hingley’s band [The Lovers] together. He was a music examiner, and he’s a guitar teacher, so he brings a more professional edge to what we’re doing. Steve and Paul and I have all played together for years, so we’re locked into each other, but we’re all self-taught, sort of scrappy, and then Jason comes in and weaves this musicality through it, so it’s an amazing balance. And he’s a lovely guy, you know, the thing about the band is I’m so enjoying hanging aroung with them because there’s no fighting, there’s no bullshit, and we all have the same feelings about what we’re doing, we’re just really into it.
So he didn’t have any trouble fitting into the dynamic of the old Fall songs?
No, it was completely natural, everything just fell into place. I mean everything is a process, so we’re getting better, honing our sound and finding different nuances each time we play, and this Summer we spent some time rehearsing, we’ve written some songs together, we’ll be doing new songs on the tour and hopefully we’ll have an album out soon –
– of course it’s not ready yet, but it will be – we’ve got like seven songs done. When things are right in life, it’s almost like they’re effortless, like they just fall into place and you don’t have to fight it, and that’s really what’s happened. Maybe a year and a quarter ago, in my wildest dreams, I never thought I’d be doing this. Nor taking it seriously.
When did you start trying out new songs?
I think it’s after December, I came to them with a couple of songs and said “Do you like any of these?”, and then Steve Trafford brought one that he’d written and we added our bit to that, and then one day we were rehearsing and came up with another one that we just wrote all together on the spot. The Hanley brothers and I have written together a lot before, so it’s an instinctive thing. I don’t know how many new ones we’re going to do on the tour, but my favourite one that we’ve recorded is called Something To Lose, so we’re going to do that one for sure. I think we’re going to do a new cover version as well, I’m not going to tell you what it is but it’s good – hopefully.
Do you see it as a continuation of The Fall?
I’m not making a conscious effort to go either way, I’m letting the band evolve as it is. Obviously there are very Fall-like elements to it because Steve Hanley’s playing the bass, and then my guitar playing was also an integral sound of The Fall during my time in it, but it’s going to develop the way it does. I mean I love doing all the Fall songs that we wrote, and even though I didn’t write Leave The Capitol – Steve was the songwriter on that – or Totally Wired, I love doing those too, because those were some of my favourite Fall songs that I didn’t do – it’s just lovely playing them again, I can’t tell you.
So you weren’t too nervous about approaching songs that you hadn’t had a part in writing?
Not really, once I’d gotten my confidence about tackling some of my favourite songs that I wrote, like U.S. 80s-90s and L.A., I love L.A., I got more and more confident. So I’ve heard Totally Wired so many times and played on it so many times, I’d just never sang it but I was like “Okay, I can do this”. The rule is, with the old Fall stuff, one of us has to have a writing credit on it, otherwise we won’t touch it. In the beginning I was really conscious about people saying “Is this a Fall cover band?”, but it can’t be when these were the people that wrote it.
I think that’s everything, there’s just one more thing I’d like to ask. I was reading up for this interview and I found something about a gig in Heaven [nightclub] where Swans supported you.
And the article described it as something like “notoriously violent” and just left it at that.
I don’t remember what happened there, but let me tell you, that was one of many. I mean I talk about a couple of incidents in my book, and Simon Wolstencroft [Drummer, 1986-97] talks about one [in his book], there was a particularly nasty incident at the Roskilde Festival which was pretty awful. I do remember something going on with Swans, but I can’t remember what it was. Really bad stuff I try to block out. There was some shocking stuff, you have no idea. I think we did a tour with The Bad Seeds and there was a riot on that one, at The Tavern. They had oversubscribed the venue and some people couldn’t get in so they just rioted. There were people rolling tyres down the street that were aflame and throwing petrol bombs, it was pretty intense. There’s just endless stories of it. Me and Marcia [Schofield, Keyboards 1986-90] just constantly [tell them to each other?], we were just like “Oh my god”. Yeah. Give me a hot shower and a lipstick.
Brix and the Extricated begin their next tour on the 19th November, and play the East Village Arts Cub on the 21st. Brix’s autobiography, The Rise, The Fall and The Rise, should be out next May. Thanks to The Fall.org for information about other band members.
Image Credit: The Trades Club