Was it really thirteen years ago when I interviewed the Fall’s legendary Brix Smith for Guitarist magazine? Apparently so. To be honest I’d forgotten all about it, but in trying to track down some of my earlier feature work for the ‘archive’ section of my mythical website-in-development, I found this lurking in a dark corner of the internet. I’ve not edited it at all, which was pretty brave of me, because I can’t quite believe how embarrassing my attempts at ‘cool’ journalism were. Still it’s no worse than looking at photos of those bad haircuts from the mid-1990s. Times change I suppose, and even if we don’t get cooler as we get older, we come to a better understanding of the semi-colon. But even so… ‘Schlepped’, ‘mega-babe’, ‘miserablists’, ‘real deal’, ‘agit-pop’… Really? What on earth was I thinking?
The Fall Girl
Brix Smith has again played her ‘last note ever’ for The Fall but happily she is going right back into the wonderful and frightening world of the solo artist. She talks to her near namesake Nick Smith about The Fall, the guitar and the future
It’s impossible to say just how many records The Fall have made over the past twenty years. Even the experts don’t know. Brix Smith, twice serving guitarist with her trademark white 330 Rickenbacker, certainly doesn’t. What about ‘Fiend With A Violin’ (1996 Receiver Records)? “Yeah, I got that one at home somewhere. It’s a live compilation, isn’t it?” And ‘Sinister Waltz’ (1996 Receiver Records)?
“These things are just out-takes, aren’t they? From ‘Shiftwork’ and ‘Extricate’ – I don’t listen to that stuff’ much, it’s kind of collectors’ stuff.” And there are others – including a live double – less than a year old, but she can’t put a name to them. This is because, for her, there has been only one Fall record this year, and that’s the stunning ‘Light User Syndrome’, showcased on a European tour including a Sunday afternoon appearance at the Phoenix Festival, finally winding up, for Brix at least, on October 4th in Cheltenham. She’s left The Fall again.
Quite how Manchurian miserablists The Fall ended up with an American guitarist, and how she became a legend is a long story, and Brix takes evident delight in telling it. It all started in the early 80s in Vermont’s famous liberal arts college, Bennington where Brix was studying theatre and literature. Naturally, there was no actual work done here, as everyone just wanted to hang out, play guitar and be in a band.
Up until this point Brig’s only brush with the instrument had been her bluegrass-playing father’s tuition and a friendly babysitter who taught her how to play Joan Baez songs. “So my first chords on a small acoustic guitar were A, E, D, E minor. In college we were listening to Joy Division, Echo and The Bunnymen, and The Clash. I just wanted to be like The Clash. I used to go around singing Guns Of Brixton all the time. I guess that’s how I got my name.”
Inspired by Peter Hook – she had yet to fall under the spell of “the greatest” Fall bass player Stephen Hanley – she spent her first term’s book money on a bass guitar, a second-hand Carville. “It was the most horrible kind of thing you could imagine, but it was black so it was okay. My friend Lisa had a red Epiphany, and we used to have fights over her Pignose amp. The band started gigging in school in 1982.” Lisa is important – it’s her fault Brix joined The Fall first time around.
Thinking it would be easier to get a record deal in Chicago (she was wrong) Brix moved into the third floor of her mother’s house, which quickly became an improvised rehearsal studio for her new ensemble Banda Dratzing – ‘Clockwork Orange-speak for fighting band’. They were a moody garage outfit, a cross between Joy Division and The Go-Gos. Cautioned by the local cops, Brix and Lisa decamped to a disused abattoir: “There were no carcasses left in there,” she says reassuringly.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, The Fall had stunned the music scene with albums such as ‘Live At The Witch Trials’, ‘Dragnet’, ‘Slates’ and a stream of jarring, anti-establishment singles. They were the real deal, the only authentic art/punk band, and it was only a matter of time before Brix caught up with them. “I was looking through the import bins in Wax Trax in Chicago, and I found ‘Slates’. I took it home and became obsessed. It was the most brilliant thing I ever heard. It was outrageous. Two weeks later they were playing Chicago at Cabaret Metro, so Lisa and I went along. Stephen Hanley was totally, totally hypnotic. I was scared of Mark E Smith. They played a lot from ‘Slates’. After the gig, Lisa took off with some boyfriend, leaving me at the bar on my own. Before I knew what was happening I was talking to Mark E Smith.”
Three months later she was married to the lead singer of The Fall. “I never intended joining. The idea was that Mark was going to produce Banda Rating’s first album, my first record. But when he heard my song Everything For The Record he wanted it for his ‘Perverted By Language’ album, and he wanted me to guest guitar on it. I couldn’t play guitar at the time – I was a bassist – but he said, ‘Do it, you play just like Lou Reed’. I was like someone with emphysema running a mile – I just couldn’t do it. And when he asked me to sing it, I thought I was going to die. So I did it on an electric guitar that wasn’t plugged in, just miked up, and I sang into the guitar mike and it came out quite interesting with Mark playing some sort of 3-string violin on the top. There’s real magic there. It’s the song that became Hotel Bloedel.” Brix was now in The Fall.
She may have been a musician and a songwriter in her own right, and she may have been a fully paid-up member of The Fall, but this did not signal the beginning of a happy relationship with either the media or the group’s fan-base. In Banda Dratzing she had been her own woman, bristling with confidence and arrogance, but now these strengths were chipped away. When she played live she could see what was written over everyone’s faces: she’s married to the singer, she can’t play. It was the Linda McCartney and Wings syndrome. “It was like being scalded with burning oil or being burned alive. There was this dark, brooding, northern, train-spotting band with this American girl no one had ever heard of. I could have coped with being Yoko Ono, but Linda McCartney…”
This was the one thing that really hurt. The press carped that she’d single-handedly ruined The Fall. In fact she’d singlehandedly saved them from repetition and being typecast. “Mark was pissed off with the dissenters, but eventually the disdain turned to grudging respect and after a year or so it became open respect.”
As things got better, with Brix’s first fully-fledged Fall album ‘The Wonderful And Frightening World Of The Fall’ her acceptance was complete. Brix’s songs started to become, if not a creative backbone for The Fall, then at least a vital organ. In this incarnation she toured the world non-stop for five years at the rate of 150 gigs a year. The Fall were on a roll.
At this point the story gets confused. When Brix joined the band her attitude towards her guitar playing had been: I’m only good for one thing, but at least I can do it. But after five years she had become good enough to hold her own with anyone she wanted, with a creative urge to front her own band again. She reaIised she’d forgotten the limitless possibilities involved with running your own show or simply being available to session for other bands – something she loves doing. Her relationship with Mark was at an all-time low.
“I’d been in The Fall since I was 19, and I’d missed out on a load of things. I was spiritually dead, I had no independence and I couldn’t even write a cheque. I suffered from stress and I’d become hypoglycemic.” She freely admits to having ‘bitch alerts’ on tour. Surrounded by press, tour managers, fixers and a general entourage of people seemingly put there just to get on her nerves she would lose her temper and become impossible to deal with. It was time to spin out into Adult Net.
Adult Net was Brix’s first solo project since Banda Dratzing. She was still in The Fall and her Svengali, Mark E Smith, wanted to produce the first single – a cover of Strawberry Alarm Clock’s Incense And Peppermints. The single appeared in 1985, but it was John Leckie – one-time Fall producer, more recently associated with Radiohead, Cast and Kula Shaker – who sat at the controls. Mark’s influence was still pervasive – the name Adult Net comes from ‘The Wonderful And Frightening World of The Fall’. There’s a lyric buried somewhere in the mix which you can only hear on the left channel with headphones on where Mark, for no apparent reason, says ‘Adult Net, net of mesh.’ Brix likes this; “It sounds like a prophesy of pornography on the internet.”
The album ‘Spin This Web’ was recorded with future Lightning Seed Ian Broudie in the Penthouse at Abbey Road but never released. “I went to the States and took it to Geffen. They really, really liked it, but told me that the record was only good enough for demos. This totally knocked my confidence, because in those days I thought the record companies were God and that they knew everything. So I sat on the album. But I went back to the UK and did one gig at the ICA with The Smiths as my backing band and got a deal the next day with Phonogram, who bought the album. So I got to re-record it.” The new version produced by Craig Leon and renamed ‘The Honey Tangle’ (1990) was much better. Recorded at North London’s Church Studios, with dubbing and vocals at Jimmy Page’s Buckinghamshire Sol Studios, the album drew on the skills of Blondie’s drummer CIem Burke and The The’s bassist James Filer, as well as the classical might of the Brodsky Quartet.
By this time Brix had left The Fall (“and The Fall left me”) and was in the messy process of divorce from Mark. She had also developed the crippling repetitive strain injury Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, a form of tendonitis making it impossible for a guitarist to even think about playing the guitar without wincing in pain. The fear of the pain duly turned Brix’s CTS into a psychological illness as well as a physical one. Coerced by her parents she underwent physiotherapy at the University of Chicago with a hand specialist. For nine months she walked around with a packet of frozen peas strapped to her arm. Brix’s inability to play led to the inevitable. Phonogram dumped her. Not surprisingly, without a band, without a record deal and with a profound aversion to the guitar she was now “really unhappy”.
Whatever else she may be, Brix is a survivor and an opportunist, and after nine months of bleak depression, through a chance sequence of events, she was back on the road with Susannah Hoffs of The Bangles. A friendship had also been struck up with super-hip Fall fan Freedy Johnston, a gent more renowned for his work with Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and Butch Vig. Johnston’s agenda was to get Brix back into thinking positively about writing and playing again – an agenda that led to Brix rehearsing with Courtney Love’s upcoming mega-babe grunge act Hole, as well as detailed discussions with Mark (the first in six years) about “fucking The Fall up the ass”. After initial mistrust of his ex-wife, Mark eventually warmed to the suggestion and invited her back. One problem was that Brix couldn’t be the front woman in either band. Hole was always going to be the Courtney Love Show, and The Fall isn’t really The Fall unless Mark E Smith is the bullish centre of attention. Brix says of the Hole episode: “It was around 1993 when I rehearsed with Hole for two days, and stayed with Courtney. “She’s smart – I mean real smart and the band are great too, but they’re not as hard as The Fall. And in any case they only wanted me as the bass player and I had loads of my own material I wanted to contribute. With The Fall I could be Mr Spock to Mark’s Captain Kirk.”
Second time round was no easy ride, but there are two classic albums in ‘Cerebral Caustic’ (1995) and ‘Light User Syndrome’. Brix was less overawed by the band, and far more assertive, becoming recognisably more integral to the creative process. It’s no coincidence that The Fall make better records when Brix is around. But, unless you’re Mark E Smith, The Fall is not a band that you can hang around in for the rest of your life.
At Cheltenham Brix played her final note for The Fall ever. And she means it. “I feel like I’ve done The Fall, enjoyed it, given the most I could to it and got the most out of it. But now it’s time to move on.”
Brix’s cutting loose marks a new beginning and a series of new projects. So what’s the new stuff like? “Oh, it’s really heavy, and hard and good.” And the guitar playing? “Now I’m happy with that. Sure, I sweat and I worry, but now I have the room to be as improvisational as I want. But it only works when you’re comfortable. I love playing real hard. Chaos and order seem to work together.”
BRIX’S GUITARS AND GIZMOS
A staunch Rickenbacker user throughout her career, Brix is virtually synonymous with her mid-80s white 330. While in reasonably good condition, it’s a bit of a mongrel, with much earlier Rickenbacker components fitted to it by the Rickenbacker Doctor in Los Angeles. Brix uses incredibly light strings, helping prevent any recurrence of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, making it extremely easy to play and allowing those huge chord bends which are part of her melodic, loopy, groove-based style. The guitar retains blood spatters from an on-stage mishap at the Phoenix Festival. Brix once owned the guitar’s twin – a black 330 –, which was stolen from her brother’s flat in Los Angeles. Her other Rickenbackers include a short-scale limited edition John Lennon signature in black and gold with Bigsby tremolo arm, and a “truly beautiful” midnight blue 12-string. Brix’s other main guitar is the phenomenally rare cherry red 63 Gretsch Corvette, which was given to her by the guitarist from Joan Jett And The Blackhearts. “It was my first real guitar, and my first guitar in The Fall – I did my debut with it on The Tube. When Johnny Marr saw it, he called me up and said that he wanted to buy it, and I said nobody’s going to buy this. But a year later our van got broken into and everything got nicked, including my Gretsch. It broke my heart.
“I put ads in the paper trying to track it down, and called music shops. I tried everything but couldn’t find it. Then about five years later I was walking around Denmark Street and I went into Andy’s and there it was on the wall. It had been butchered a bit – ah the brass fittings had been taken off and replaced – but I knew it was mine from the scratches from my belt on the back of it. So I bought it back, and I’m using it today. I love it,” Having sworn that she’d never sell it, Brix found the irony behind having to buy it back most unamusing. It turns out that the brass fittings are probably worth as much as the guitar itself, so if you’ve got them you’d better watch out. Brix wants them back.
Another guitar that tends to get schlepped around on tour is a pink Paisley Fender Telecaster (early 80s reissue), while for songwriting at home Brix is using her recently acquired Yamaha 12-string acoustic/electric.
As for amplifiers, Brix doesn’t have one. She used to own a MESA-Boogie, but when she left The Fall the first time the band confiscated it. “It was actually in my divorce agreement that I got it back, but by that time it was completely trashed. They’d dragged it around the world and beaten the hell out of it. Since then I’ve never had an amp. When we went on tour I hired a Vox AC30.”
GUITARIST, December 1996, pp. 139-146