The Fall Pick Up the Thread
"I think vinyl's coming back, and all that crap." Mark E. Smith is uniquely qualified to make this statement, having released more albums with the Fall than Robert Pollard has with Guided by Voices and his various projects combined. The latest Fall album, Fall Heads Roll, is the band's 24th studio LP. The first of those appeared in 1979, which puts the Fall two short of a career-long yearly LP output (not including live albums and comps). Fall fans can argue for days about which are the cream and crap of the crop, but everyone who cares agrees there are more brilliant works in this catalogue than toss-aways (despite what people who don't care might say).
In a self-contradictory move typical of those who view new Fall albums as anachronisms, a reviewer of 2001's lackluster Are You Are Missing Winner concluded: "Unlike last year's exceptional The Unutterable, this record confirms that, unless you're helplessly obsessed, you'll never need to buy a new Fall record." Hopefully that reviewer is obsessed enough to have checked out 2003's The Real New Fall LP, which locked The Unutterable's synthesizers in the garage with Missing Winner's caveman rock and all the ale they could drink, delivering the fruit of their inevitable hookup. That slightly sour plum was perhaps better than anyone should hope for from the turnstile membership of Mark E. Smith's long-in-the-tooth Fall (his name is the only consistent credit on every album). One could also argue that by now we should just expect greatness from the Fall.
After relentlessly spinning two versions of the album, whose tracklist was rearranged shortly before its release, I spoke with keyboardist Eleni Poulou, drummer Spencer Birtwistle, guitarist Ben Pritchard, and Mark E. Smith about Fall Heads Roll. Initially, I was scheduled to speak only with Smith, but he craftily maneuvered me into speaking with other members of the band, which of course gave me a better picture of what is a remarkable release by a band that's given its fans enough to think about for a lifetime of listening. Whereas Mark E. Smith quipped in a 1998 NME interview, "If it's me and your granny on bongos, then it's a Fall gig," this lineup has had time to stabilize, and Fall Heads Roll is clearly a group effort.
Blindness Blindness Blindness
The Fall's 24th and final session for John Peel's BBC Radio One show was recorded on August 4, 2004. It's no coincidence that this session preceded the January 2005 recording of the Fall's 24th studio album. As usual, the Fall used the session as a preview and rehearsal for its new material, recording versions of four songs that would appear on Fall Heads Roll. It was a notably strong session that followed a few sub-par performances by the Fall on the program. In particular, the song "Blindness" bode well for the next release, with its powerful and persistent distorted bass line, which, along with Smith's spirited, even frantic delivery, recalled the dedication to repetition (with or without a difference) found on early Fall records. At their best, the Fall have always been able to wring more out of a simple part, or word or phrase, than most bands can get out of an album of material. As Smith sang on the band's first 7", "This is the three Rs, the three Rs: Repetition, Repetition, Repetition."
Spencer Birtwistle joined the Fall on drums for The Unutterable tour, played on Are You Are Missing Winner but not on the following album, The Real New Fall LP, and was asked back for Fall Heads Roll. His presence on post-millennial Fall albums has come to signify a departure from the programmed beats the band has dallied with to some success over the years. His playing has also revivified the Fall as a functional performing unit. He did not play on those relatively weak Peel Sessions that preceded the triumphant final Peel performance, and the vigorous, massive-sounding U.S. shows he played on The Unutterable tour translated the electronic rhythms of that album into a live rock act that earned the Fall a stronger, younger stateside following.
Asked how he relates as a drummer to Smith, Birtwistle said, "He's sort of taught me a lot, but he's taught me something that I really wanted to know, as well."
Pitchfork: What's that?
SB: Simplicity. Don't be flashy. Don't overuse your technique...because it doesn't become you. My grandfather was a big-band jazz drummer in the '40s. He was Melody Maker drummer of the year in 1942-1943. It was all about keeping time then, wunnit? And that's what it's about now, especially with Mark-- it's like, no frills, not too flashy. But, on the other hand, you've got to be rock solid, and come up with inspirational rhythms as well. That's how I see it.
Pitchfork: Do you have a sense when you're playing with Mark that the band is providing a sort of backdrop for him to come in and do and deliver his vocals, or do you have a sense of exactly where he's gonna be and when he's gonna be there?
SB: Once I met Mark E. Smith, and I started playing drums for him, there was something that me and him totally agreed with, and both of us pulled each other up here and there, but we knit together, and it's almost like I know what he's gonna do, and he knows what I'm gonna do. It's like something you cannot explain. That's why I wasn't surprised when I was asked back to play for him, because I knew we had that thing.
It's almost like Buddy Rich playing for Frank Sinatra-- if you've got the feel for the singer, then the singer's got the feel for you. That's the way I see [our] relationship: We are great friends, absolutely fantastic mates, but on a musical level, it is totally professional. I am there as his back beat. But when we're playing, I am playing to make sure he does what he wants to do, and he also plays around in the way that he does and makes sure I'm able to express myself in my own way as well. But the two things meet really well. I've been in bands for years, but I've never ever, ever ever, experienced the kind of thing that goes on like it does when it's me playing drums and him singing in the Fall.
Running 7:24 and slotted at track seven (of 14 songs), the album version of "Blindness" is literally the centerpiece of Fall Heads Roll. It takes that unrelenting bass-line groove of the Peel Session version even farther, and is marked by Smith's inspired improvisation.
Pitchfork: How do you feel about the album version of "Blindness" compared to the Peel Session version from 2004?
Mark E. Smith: I'm sick to death of the song, really, if you want the honest truth. [laughs] I just wanted to get it out of the way. You know, it's like, "blindness, blindness, blindness, blindness." I don't listen to a lot of me stuff, so I don't know what the "Blindness" one's like. I remember it being very very good. It's always very good live, so I thought I'd just whack it out for the LP. I can't be objective about this, but I got the Narnack LP about a day before yesterday, and I did play it, and it's got a lot to it. You can hear everything and all that, you know.
Pitchfork: Yeah, I especially like the way the bass line is kind of muted at the beginning, and then it kicks in louder.
MES: Right-- what we did there is we took it to Rochdale from New York, and that's about the only one of the tracks recorded in Britain. But the studio in Rochdale is fantastic. It's like where Lisa Stansfield records, and all that, and they don't let anybody in, you know what I mean. So it's a good contrast to the New York stuff, I think. If you ask them for a sound, they fucking do it. That bass is like, you could hear it down the whole street-- people were complaining and all that.
Pitchfork: There are a lot of prominent bass lines on this album...
MES: He's good-- Steve-- yeah.
Pitchfork: ...In "Blindness", what put you in mind of "Chicago Now", the line from Extricate  that you throw in there, where you start singing, "Do you work hard?" Was that a spur-of-the-moment thing?
MES: Right. How do you mean?
Pitchfork: I wonder if you were trying to indicate anything or if you had a reason for putting that in there, or if it just came to mind while you were recording it.
MES: It's about the blind politician [David Blunkett] we've got here in Britain. He wants to set up camps for people, camps for dysfunctional fathers, and camps for dysfunctional kids. Luckily they got rid of him, but he's come back now, so that's quite timely. And he's blind, as well. From Sheffield. [laughs]
Fall '70s-'80s, Fall Now
To put it mildly, there have been several lineup changes during the four decades in which Mark E. Smith has led the Fall. However, the ins and outs of band membership picked up considerably in the '90s, as the Fall became like a rock club one has to step outside of for a smoke. The official Fall website includes a page with an endlessly scrolling list of past group members (several of whom had multiple tenures with the group). However, these comings and goings have slowed considerably, or at least fallen into a manageable rhythm, since the turn of the century. Bassist Steven Trafford is the latest addition, having joined in April 2004, but everyone else in the band has been around for at least three years (though Birtwistle did step out for a bit, and Pritchard has reportedly availed himself of the Fall's revolving door). A few years might not seem like a long time, until you consider that the Fall have put out four albums in the zeroes-- this band is not on the same calendar as others.
In recent years, Smith has reiterated that he likes to work with young musicians who are not Fall fans. However, the sound of the new album has a connection to older Fall albums that has been largely missing for years. Despite the consistent innovation evident on recent LPs, this recollection of the past is a welcome sound on Fall Heads Roll. Perhaps it has to do with the band's newfound stability-- if you play in the Fall long enough, you're bound to sound like classic Fall. As Pritchard puts it, "The Fall are now starting to become again a professional band, I think, and that's the kind of image that the Fall needs at this point in its career. The Fall don't want to be known as chaos forever."
Pitchfork: It seems to me, especially on the new album, that the Fall are returning to the sounds of albums they were making in the '80s and the late '70s. How aware of that music are you, and how aware do you feel like the current band is?
Eleni Poulou: I'm sure that wasn't a conscious process, trying to recreate past sounds; it probably just happened that way. Of course everyone is aware of the music, but as you are aware, most of the musicians Mark chooses are not Fall fans, as such, or big Fall fans. Obviously, being English, they know the music. They all come from very different musical backgrounds, and each member of the group has a totally different taste in music, which in this case might have led to that mixture. Which songs do you think resemble past Fall songs of the early '80s?
Pitchfork: One thing that I'm noticing is the very prominent bass lines seem to be returning, where the music is organized around this bass-line center of the album, [and] the bass almost operates as a melodic instrument rather than a rhythmic instrument.
EP: This must be down to the bass player. He's actually also a guitar player. He's probably more into the melodic kind of playing. Whereas I used to be a bass player, and I like to emphasize the rhythm side of things. So that's how I play the keyboard, for example. So he's probably the driving force behind that.
Pitchfork: There's a return to more natural-sounding rhythms, and letting your keyboards take over more of the electronic element of it sounds more like earlier Fall stuff to me. Also, some of the more sprawling, contemplative, beautiful songs like "Midnight in Aspen" and "Early Days of Channel Führer" remind me of songs that have been dotting Fall albums going way back to songs like "Paintwork" [from This Nation's Saving Grace, 1985] or "Disney's Dream Debased" [The Wonderful and Frightening World of the Fall, 1984]. That's another thing I see coming back into the mix.
EP: That's again down to Steve and Ben, who like melodic stuff very much. They wrote those songs. "Early Days of Channel Führer" was written by Ben, the guitarist. He's really into those things. I don't think he's been heavily influenced by early Fall stuff, because he's into totally different music, I would say, so that would just come naturally to him, being a guitar player. And Steve, as I said, also really likes melodic songs. I don't think they did this consciously. But other people have said this to me as well, that it reminded them of early Fall stuff-- which is not necessarily a bad thing.
When I asked Smith about "Midnight in Aspen" and the other pretty, less driving songs on the record, he concurred with Poulou and provided some more insight into the Fall Heads Roll sessions.
Pitchfork: What compelled you to reprise "Midnight in Aspen" after "Assume"? [The dreamy "Midnight in Aspen" gives way to the aggressive "Assume," then picks up where it left off with "Midnight Aspen Reprise," as if two records are playing simultaneously, and we are switching between them.]
MES: I think it's a pretty sad tune. Steve wrote it, the bass player. He's quite into that sort of organic, sort of Liverpool sound, actually. But I thought I'd couple it up with, like, Hunter S. Thompson dying, and all that. That's the vague idea. Half the songs, I made the lyrics up on the spot. That's the way I work. I have half the songs prepared, and half were just improvised. What happened in New York is they got there before me, and there was that big snow drift, so they were there for like four days on their own, so they came up with all sorts of shit that was quite good.
Pritchard picked up on this story when I spoke with him:
BP: We went to New York at the beginning of the year. It was a strange three weeks, because we actually got snowed in, and Mark ended up coming to the studio about a week after we got there, so we'd spent a week recording, and then Mark turned up, and then it all got scrapped and we had to record it again, so it was quite a surreal experience. We all worked really hard on it. We've not been working very much this year, because Mark's been in the studio doing all the post-production, making sure it sounds right.
I've never seen him do that before. Everyone's been really committed to it. Rather than it just sounding like a load of songs that have been off-handedly put together, you can tell that a lot of care has been put into the way it sounds, and the way everything comes across.
Pitchfork: You ended up having to scrap everything that you had worked on?
BP: We'd recorded maybe 10 tracks-- absolutely perfectly, averaging recording a 4-track [song] every day, and we were using the entire day to record that one track, and when he turned up, we had the CD. And I don't think he was ever gonna accept it. At the time, when he said, "We'll just start again," we were gutted, but when you think about it, it's his band, he wants to be there for the recording process. He likes to oversee everything. So in hindsight, we weren't really that bothered. There may be some songs on the album that are the originals of what we did...but I remember pretty much redoing everything.
Pitchfork: So when you say redo it, you're just talking about rerecording it, or reworking it?
BP: No, just rerecording it. Whereas when Mark wasn't there, we were doing it the old-style way we would do it, where the drums go first, and the guitar played would go in second, and we kind of overlay all the tracks. But when Mark turned up, he had us all doing it as a band, with the guitar, the keyboards, the drums and the bass, all at the same time, so the majority of that album is live takes. There has been some keyboard overdubs and there's been [some] doubling up on the guitar tracks, but 90 percent of those songs are all a live take.
Pitchfork: Mark says he prepares half of his lyrics and improvises the rest in the studio. When you go in to record songs, to what extent do you know what you're going to play, and how aware are you of what Mark is going to do?
BP: When we recorded the album, and it was in the normal style with the Fall when you are recording, the band puts the music together, and we never know what he's going to do. We've never got any idea what vocals he's gonna do or what lyrics he's gonna sing. He never tells us; he just turns up and he does it. When he does, that's the first time we hear it. So you have to get into the mentality of writing a song that you can't put a melody or anything over. I mean, sometimes you can push him in one direction, like you can give him a song like "Early Days of Channel Führer," which is on the new album. It's a very slow, very acoustic song. You try and make it melodic, and something he'll be able to pick up on....You just have to write a repetitive riff that just goes 'round and 'round so that he can just come in and do whatever he wants on [it].
Pitchfork: When you write the melody for a song like "Channel Führer," and Mark comes in and adds lyrics, are you ever surprised by where he takes the song?
BP: No, maybe not surprised. Sometimes you give him a song...Even though you know you aren't writing any lyrics for it, you do have an idea of what you would like him to do with it, like he did with the other slow song I wrote on the last album, "Janet vs. Johnny"-- I had an idea of what I thought he was gonna do, and then he went and did the performance he did, which he also did on "Channel Führer," and it's just the last thing that you expect him to do. But at the same time, that's what you expect out of him. You expect him to do the last thing you'd expect him to do [laughs]. That's just the way he is. You get to learn that he's not an obvious guy, and he's not somebody who's very easy to read. If a song's pushing him in one direction, he'll purposely take it in another...just to stop himself from being obvious, which no one else really does anymore. Not the way he does it, anyway.
Smith returned to the band theme later in the interview, tying together various guiding philosophies he has used to keep the Fall vital, while acknowledging that this incarnation of the band is something special.
Pitchfork: What does Fall Heads Roll add to your catalogue?
MES: I think it's a proper representation of the group, really. You've got to remember, they're all a good 10 years younger than me, apart from Spencer-- he's about 40-- but the rest of them are like spring chickens, and I think that's working. It's working live, because the fans are getting younger and all that. And that's what I want it to capture. I didn't want another reformation-type group scene, which is what you're getting a lot. The Fall is an ongoing thing, you know.
Pitchfork: I'm wondering what your relationship to past Fall albums is, from long before your time, and in particular, are you at all influenced by past Fall guitarists like Brix Smith or [Craig] Scanlon?
BP:...I'm 26 years old, and the first work I did with them was when I was 19 years old, and I'd only been playing guitar for two years, and I didn't know the Fall. I knew the name, I'd met Mark a few times, I'd been to see them once, but I didn't know the history of the Fall. So when I joined, I was starting to learn about the history of the Fall as I was in the band. And I always remember one of the songs off Code: Selfish, called "Time Enough at Last"-- that still remains one of my favorite songs, and it's different on the album in the same way that "Janet and Johnny" is and "Channel Führer" is and "Mountain Energei" is on the last two albums. It is very melodic, and that's kind of where I got the idea from to try and do those slow tracks.
I try and not get too involved with past albums because I think a lot of band members made the mistake of being Fall fans, or listening to loads of old Fall songs, so when it comes to writing music, they've constantly got that thing in the back of their mind that says, "Right, let's think about what the Fall sounds like," and they're always trying to write songs the way they think the Fall should sound. And that's kinda not the idea. Mark doesn't like having fans of the band in the Fall for that reason. He wants people to come in with fresh ideas, things that you wouldn't associate with the Fall. That's how he constantly moves forward, by constantly evolving, rather than just finding the one thing that you're good at and sticking to that and making every album sound the same. If he'd have had the same band members for 30 years, I think he really would have struggled. I think he needed to have that constant change.
Pitchfork: What have you learned as a member of the Fall?
BP: It's Mark's band, it's his group. A lot of people don't like that, a lot of people, after they've been in the band a while, and they start to believe that all these people have turned up to see them, they start believing that they've got something to do with that. As soon as you start thinking like that, he'll get rid of you. You just have to learn to do what he tells you to do. Whether you agree with it or not doesn't matter. When he tells you to do something, you do it. If you can live by that rule, you'll get on all right with him.
Interlude: Being Americans, Being Rwandans
Pitchfork: How did you end up running the photographs of Rwandans above the band member names on the inner sleeve [of Fall Heads Roll]?
MES: [incredulous] What?
Pitchfork: On the inner sleeve of the album there are these photographs of Rwandans.
MES: Oh, right, yeah. I was in the Narnack office, and I said, "Wouldn't it be a good laugh [to have the photos there]," and they did it without telling me. I was sort of half serious, and said, "It would be great if you just put the names of the group [below the photos]," and being Americans, they took me literally. I meant it as a joke, like for a poster or something like that. What do you think is gonna be the result of that?
Pitchfork: People who are looking at things overly seriously might find it inappropriate; people who are more familiar with the band, I imagine, will just be like, "All right, this is just some kind of joke"-- people will try to read into it.
MES: In reflection, it will go down well in Britain, actually. Because there's loads of posters like that wherever you look.
Though "Blindness" is the heart of the album, there's a lyrical theme that runs through several of the other songs, and aside from the tightness of the band throughout, this lyrical motif brings things together in a way heads can roll with, or roll to, as the case may be. Smith has been asked about the meaning of his lyrics countless times over the years, and he's usually resistant, if not hostile, to the idea of extrapolating on what his songs mean. However, at the beginning of our conversation, he dropped a thread:
Pitchfork: Do you compose and develop songs with a sense of where they belong on the track list, or are you trying to tell a story?
MES: On this LP, I was trying to make a sort of thread going through it, and I think it worked quite well.
Pitchfork: What's the thread?
MES: The songs do relate to each other, pretentious as it sounds.
Pitchfork: I've got my own theories on what's going on. Are you talking about lyrical connections, or more of the way the music sounds?
MES: No, I think there's a nice thread there. I don't like to debate it too much.
Pitchfork: Here's something I want to throw at you. This is this reading I've been doing of the album as I listen to it. I'm seeing a thematic link-- maybe this speaks to the thread you were talking about-- between "Pacifying Joint," "What About Us?," and "I Can Hear the Grass Grow." They've all got these drug references in them, and you can even sort of trace a high from looking for pot in "Pacifying Joint" to copping in "What About Us," to euphoria and paranoia in "I Can Hear the Grass Grow," and you can take it further to spaced-out tranquility in "Midnight in Aspen"...
Pitchfork: ...and then a flashback ["Aspen Reprise"], talkativeness in "Assume", inebriated camaraderie in "Clasp Hands"-- am I imagining this, or do you think that's there?
MES: Well, it's there, but I can't be objective about it. But it is there, isn't it? It is, it is. Because there's a lot of skunk damage in Manchester, I'll tell you that.
Pitchfork: Skunk damage?
MES: Yeah, skunk. The weed, yeah.
Pitchfork: Did you say skunk damage, though?
MES: Yeah, there's a lot of damage there.
Pitchfork: How do you mean, "damage"?
MES: Well, I've got a lot of young mates, and the skunk is like 30 times more powerful, isn't it... I'm not a pothead, you see, so I don't fucking know about it, I'm just commenting on it. It's weird, that thread, though.
Some Guy in a Fucking Office
In addition to their prolific, sustained output and vast membership, the Fall have distinguished themselves by the number of labels for which they've recorded. In the big picture of the Fall's career, these three elements are related, since the Fall are, as John Peel put it best, "Always different, always the same." Such a protean creature cannot be held to one form, nor can it be confined by one label. Mark E. Smith and the Fall need to be left to their own devices. Perhaps Smith's insistence on running his band his own way, taking it where he needs to take it, will inspire young bands to follow his lead-- not by mimicking the Fall's music, but by asserting themselves as musicians who change, but remain the same.
MES: One of the main things about this LP was that, you know, I'm fed up with fucking people bringing out compilations, and they have no idea of the form of it. There's nothing I can do about it. We've had about a 100 record companies, obviously [laughs], and there's just some fucking fan or dickhead who works in the office cobbling together greatest-hits type of things that aren't greatest hits. So I was really glad about this, to control it. Does that make sense to you?
Pitchfork: Yeah, it does make sense. I'm just glad to hear that you're thinking so hard about the order of the songs on a record.
MES: Oh, very much. Yeah, that's the biggest part for me. But people don't give a shit nowadays. Like the British record company, they say, well this is the track listing we think is best, and I go, like, who's we? It's some guy in a fucking office who used to be in a fucking Britpop group. He thinks "Blindness" should be the single, you know what I mean? That's when it gets fucking heavy.
Pitchfork: Right. And that makes it a lot less fun as a fan, to feel like the band you're paying attention to isn't coming up with its own track listing, so you can't read into it the same way.
MES: Yeah, but at the end of the day, you shouldn't really have to fight about it. I didn't have to do that 20 years ago, you know what I mean? Because nobody was interested in the Fall. [laughs]