Mark E Smith and the Mystery Jet

“Do you ever suffer from hallucinations?” In a quiet corner of Salford’s New Oxford pub, Mark E Smith looks Blaine Harrison straight in the eye and then asks again: “Do you ever see things that aren’t there?” Half a beat goes by before he pops out his dentures and gurns toothlessly as Blaine jumps back in his seat more in shock than horror. Moments later Mark’s teeth are back in place and he’s shaking his head sadly. “I think you’re seeing things, matey.” The day had unquestionably taken a turn for the surreal. How had this happened? The pints of Sparta ale with whisky chasers had been a factor. We had come here with the best of intentions. We had come to meet the infamous ringleader of The Fall. Since forming in 1979 the band’s uncompromising union of raw punk rock and motorik rhythms has produced no less than 29 records while Mark, the sole constant, “doesn’t fucking know” how many band-mates he’s got through. “Mark’s incredibly fascinating,” Blaine had said earlier. “I’m looking forward to having a pint and a conversation. Anything could happen.” We’re also here to find out what the often irascible punk poet of the proletariat thinks of ‘Greatest Hits’, the new Mystery Jets track which mentions him by name. “The lyric is about a couple breaking up and dividing their record collection,” Blaine explained. “He’s saying to her: “You can keep all your Belle & Sebastian records, but I’m keeping ‘This Nation’s Saving Grace’. You only listen to it when you’re pissed, and when you sober up you ask why I’m still listening to Mark E Smith.” I think it’s complimentary, I just hope he does too.”

NME: Blaine, when did you first hear The Fall?

Blaine: My first encounter was when I was 17. I read an interview with Mark in a book about the Eighties musical underground called Tape Delay then went out and bought ‘This Nation’s Saving Grace’. It seems like the public have always been quite confused by The Fall, but I think in the Eighties they were trying to be a pop band.

Mark: Yeah, but we were real pop and they weren’t. Boy George wasn’t pop. Spandau Ballet wasn’t pop. That was fashion.

Blaine: ‘This Nation’s Saving Grace’ introduced me to Damo Suzuki and Can. Do you think The Fall were almost a British Krautrock band?

Mark: Sort of. It’s funny because in Germany they’ve said the same thing, that they hadn’t realised how good those old groups were until they heard The Fall. That’s an achievement, isn’t it?

Blaine: Have you met Damo Suzuki?

Mark: Yeah.

Blaine: Was he a nice guy?

Mark: Fucking bonkers! When I met him he was selling Japanese cars in Düsseldorf. Who’s going to buy a Japanese car in fucking Germany?

Blaine: I also went out and got the first Fall record, ‘Live At The Witch Trials’. Where did your fascination with the occult come from?

Mark: I knew people who were sort of pseudo-witches, so the title was just to annoy them. It’s the same now with Twilight or Buffy The Vampire Slayer, particularly in America. It’s a big rebellion for them. I see it when I go through the Midwest, where to be into vampires or werewolves is like spitting in your dad’s face. To us it’s Carry On Dracula, but to them it’s very serious because they all go to church every Sunday.

mes-blaineNME: Have you heard the Mystery Jets, Mark?

Mark: I’ve heard ‘Greatest Hits’ and it’s a fucking good song. I’m not just saying that.

Blaine: Thank you.

Mark: I won’t say it again!

Blaine: You’re influenced by people like Bo Diddley, Johnny Cash and Gene Vincent. What do you like about rockabilly?

Mark: The simplicity, as I’m not really a musician. Do you play a lot?

Blaine: I see myself more as a songwriter. I learnt the guitar through wanting to write songs but I don’t go into music shops and play ‘Stairway to Heaven’.

Mark: I’ve never really done much on the guitar. Mine’s only got two strings. It’s just A and E and then I get the group to embellish it.

Blaine: Was your dad into rockabilly?

Mark: No, there was no music in my house. Well, my sisters had singles but I was a latecomer. I was more interested in writing poetry. Nothing in music satisfied me. I still write every day. How do you operate?

Blaine: I sing stuff into my Dictaphone. I don’t think writing music should be laborious. There’s a Keith Richards quote which I love where he says that songs are just floating around and you need to have a radar to pick them up. If you stay up late enough you can catch them.

Mark: You’ve got to trap them.

Blaine: Yeah. Nick Cave says he puts on a suit every day and goes to his office. I couldn’t do that. They just appear now and then.

NME: Is there a bit more labour involved for you, Mark?

Mark: Correct. There’s no secret to being creative.

Blaine: What do you mean by that?

Mark: [Sticks his tongue out]

NME: I love that Keith Richards line too, but I think there’s also graft involved.

Mark: And half a gram of heroin and some Afghani black! He doesn’t just smoke skunk, does he? If he thinks there’s so many songs flying around why is he still playing the same ones after 50 years?

Blaine: A lot of your lyrics feel like things that have been overheard in the pub, particularly characters like Carry Bag Man, Wireless Enthusiast and Hip Priest. Is that how you write a song, rather than autobiographically?

Mark: I do try to write objectively, not subjectively. People say all the time: “Oh, you’re the Hip Priest!” but it’s not about me. ‘Carry Bag Man’ isn’t about me. I don’t go around with carrier bags full of drugs, do I? What do you do? Was your missus really moaning that you’d taken half her record collection?

Blaine: Yeah, a lot of the records mentioned in that song were records that I didn’t want to part with when I had a break-up, but it’s sort of a fictionalised account.

Mark: Well that’s good. You got it out of your system, didn’t you? Good riddance to bad rubbish as regards her, and you got a good fucking record.

Blaine: Your girlfriends and partners have often been in the band. What’s it like touring with your wife?

Mark: What’s it like touring with your dad?

Blaine: [Laughs]

Mark: So what have you got in the Jets? A guitarist, a bass player and a drummer?

Blaine: Yeah, and a pedal-steel player because this one’s an Americana record. We spent quite a lot of last year living in Austin, Texas.

Mark: You’re joking!

Blaine: No, we did.

Mark: [Incredulous] What, the whole group? With your dad?

Blaine: Yeah. Well he came out, but it was really the four of us plus wives and girlfriends. I’ve always wanted to live in America. It’s a ridiculous place. Texas is fascinating. We got obsessed with the suicide cults, like Waco and Heaven’s Gate. That’s all on the record.

Mark: That takes me back. When we were in Austin in 1981 the mixing guy and the drummer were kidnapped by these fucking weirdoes. Me and the bass player had to go and rescue them. They were being seduced! The guy running the place had a fucking cane and looked like Lucifer personified. He was a member of the KKK. There were all these birds in miniskirts with their tits out. They were all very attractive. We were looking through the blinds and we could see the drummer and the sound guy in the middle of all this. I said, “We’ve got to get them out!” Me and the bass player did this sort of weird attack. We broke in through the fucking skylight. We got them, but they weren’t very pleased about it. They were in their underpants with hard-ons and white powder all over their faces. I said: “Get in the van, you fucking cunts! Say goodbye to Austin, matey. You’re going back to the misery.”

Originally published in NME, 14 April 2012.