I’m a long-time fan of The Fall (writes Andy Wood) and it’s possibly true that when you first hear them that’s the period that you fall in love with. From my experience, there is more than a little bit of truth in that. They hit me in my mid-teens with the release of the sublime This Nation’s Saving Grace, which, for me, is still one of my all-time favourite albums.
My first trip to see The Fall was at Manchester Ritz in early 1987 at the tender age of 16. Travelling with two friends on child tickets on a coach to Manchester, coming up against the then antiquated English licensing hours and being welcomed into a little bar under some railway arches called Archie’s, whose owner advised us that Mark E. Smith and his delightful wife often dropped in for a drink after rehearsals and had some pretty cool posters on the wall. Being the small-town boys we were, we took quite a while to realise that it was a gay bar, being the cosmopolitans we wished we were, we didn’t care. It was a cool wee place and everyone took us under their wing, the daft kids who had bunked off work to travel all this way to see a band that were not household names.
The Fall were absolutely amazing that night. To be honest I had expected nothing less. I’d repeatedly listened to all the records I could afford to buy or had borrowed and taped, viewed their television appearances with an intensity, particularly their appearance on The Tube where Mark and Brix had been interviewed prior to storming performances of ‘Bombast’ and ‘Cruisers Creek’.
For a band who the music press often described as dour and lacking in image, the pair looked glamorous and otherworldly and at points, Mark even cracks a laugh during the interview. As he discusses bands who ‘try to be esoteric, experimental and even poppy’ I understand that The Fall were all of these things but in a quite natural way. However, even at a young age, I’d understood quite clearly that live gigs could be disappointing, even dispiriting affairs. The Fall though were absolutely captivating. I had a massive crush on Brix, a fantastic guitarist, vocalist and a thoroughly energetic stage presence.
Over the coming years, I went to as many shows by The Fall as possible and bought the records religiously. I also fell for The Adult Net, Brix’s project, who embraced a more sunshine pop aesthetic which was pretty fun and cool. The singles released on The Fall’s label at the time, Beggars Banquet were especially good, sometimes featuring members of the band.
The debut single shared a huge linkage with Brix’s main band. The A-Side, a cover of the psych-garage classic, The Strawberry Alarm Clock’s ‘Incense and Peppermints’ linked in with one of The Fall’s core influences, garage-punk – they would have a hit with a cover of The Other-Half’s ‘Mr Pharmacist’ while the B-side was a version of The Fall’s ‘Rebellious Jukebox’ re-imagined as ‘Searching For The Now’. It could be then that the seeds of The Extricated are in those choices of songs.
The singles that followed it, ‘Edie’, ‘White Night (Stars Say Go)’ and ‘Waking Up In The Sun’ were all gorgeous and in my mind, the latter of the quartet should have been a huge hit dug out every year by radio at that point when the first sunshine heralding summer splits the pavements.
The solitary album by The Adult Net came out on Fontana in 1989. The Honey Tangle is full of beautiful songs slightly marred by a very glossy 80s production sheen that makes it sound a little of its time when I listen to it now. It’s still a sweet experience though.
However, the label failed to make much headway with the album and it disappeared from view. By then Brix had departed The Fall under acrimonious terms and carried on music until about 1997, recording a solo album which was never commercially released. The Fall continued, sometimes to fine effect, sometimes to chaotic and less impressive affect. There were still some great records and shows and Brix re-joined for a period in the mid-90s which resulted in a fine album, Cerebral Caustic and the less satisfying The Light User Syndrome. By the end of the 90s Brix had disappeared from music altogether.
For me, personally, Brix’s departure from The Fall made them a little less special. There is a minority view among hardcore fans of The Fall that she was essentially little more than the love-interest of the band leader who made the band somehow more lightweight. I’d argue that she was an integral part of the band and music and brought important things to the table during a massively prolific and successful period in the bands long and chequered history.
Brix’s subsequent professional and professional lives were scrutinised – her relationship with the classical violinist Nigel Kennedy and her subsequent television and fashion careers as though those found her wanting. I figured that if she had found happiness and success after surviving The Fall then good on her. Though I would have liked to have heard more songs, saw her perform again, these were pipedreams that would never happen. Still, the records and memories remained and what records and memories they are.
A couple of years ago, I heard stories that Brix was now playing in a band with a number of ex-members of The Fall playing songs by The Fall. Initially I was a bit suspicious of this endeavour and didn’t bother to check them out. Then I heard reports from a friend that they were fantastic live and my interest was piqued. I start checking them out and was hooked. All the attack of The Fall without the nonsense of recent years. Then I was asked if I was interested in doing a show for Brix and The Extricated in 2015. It didn’t come to fruition but things started to slowly fall into place (no pun intended).
2016 saw the publication of Brix Smith Start’s autobiography, The Rise, The Fall and Rise. I bought it and devoured it in a few sittings. It’s a fantastic book, funny and heart-breaking and often deeply moving. Like Viv Albertine’s wonderful autobiography, Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys it is a joy to read but, at times, quite painful and honest. Neither book looks for revenge but to tell the protagonist’s story as honestly as possible, to reveal the story, the good and the bad. I’ve read literally hundreds of music books and these are two of my absolute favourites.
I finally confirmed a show with Brix and The Extricated which was co-promoted by another staunch fan of The Fall, STOOR’s Scott McKinlay who had first alerted me to The Extricated. Scott asked me how it felt when I finally confirmed the date and my response was mixed. I was, I confessed, ecstatic at bringing the band to Dundee but utterly shitting myself at having to speak to the band. Surely after years of dealing with difficult characters and situations in their years both in The Fall and afterwards might make them a bit spiky and difficult themselves?
In the weeks before the show I spoke to both Steve Hanley and Brix Smith Start as I interviewed them. Both were warm, fun people to chat to. While Steve could be guarded, and reserved but equally funny and charming Brix is one of the most unguarded interviewees I have ever spoken to.
What I understood from both Brix and Steve was how much they loved playing again, how invested in the project and music they were and how it meant so much to them. And Brix is my favourite swearer in the world. She doesn’t randomly swear so much as detonate a well-placed expletive in the conversation like a hand grenade. As the interview came to an end I felt so relaxed about the show, only a day away.
And what a show it was. Even during the sound check I could feel goose bumps all over and by the time they hit the stage I was really excited. Watching live videos and a TV performance couldn’t really prepare me for just what a great live band they are. The new songs merged into the classics and really stuck in my head especially the fantastic debut single ‘Something To Lose’ along with ‘Pneumatic Violet’ and ‘Teflon’ which closed the main set in dramatic style.
The band played with a huge intensity and sense of joy which was shared with the audience. The band were also such a joy to work with and I felt myself so utterly without a sense of time passing. At one point, we were in the supermarket picking up stuff for the rider, the next, the band were onstage for their second and final encore, a blistering rendition of ‘Mr Pharmacist’.
Since I spoke to Brix and the Dundee show they have began recording a debut album of new songs. I don’t use the term ‘their own songs’ as the songs in the live set are ‘their own songs’, reinvented and reinvigorated from earlier incarnations. It is set for release in Spring next year and I can’t wait for it.
Anyway, I haven’t gone into events too deeply surrounding the events leading up to the second rise in the book’s title as Brix speaks about them so well and in such a loquacious way.
I’ve not long finished reading your autobiography. I loved it. What drew you towards writing the book and how did you approach it?
Thank you. Well, I knew thirty years ago, when I started playing in The Fall that what I was going through, the situation that I was in, was really extraordinary. Being an American, middle-class girl, joining an iconic, Northern, working-class band and playing guitar and that it was a really interesting story. So I kept a diary just to remember things. And then, obviously when you read the book, they got destroyed by my father but it was still something that I always wanted to do, just to write the story of it, for years but it was never… it took me years and years to find the right voice, to get in a headspace where I could tell the story really objectively from a human point of view. When I first – when people first heard I was writing a book I think they expected me to be very vicious towards Mark, you know that I would get the knives out (laughs), to rip shreds but it was in fact the opposite. I just really wanted people to understand what a joy it was and the fact that, even for all the very difficult things in my life, I feel really grateful because they made me what I am now and I’m better than I ever was.
So it’s a really long story about how the book came, but when it did come it was a perfect storm of a whole bunch of things coming together. I was in the right headspace, I had the time to write or make the time to write, a publishing deal came through, I started playing music again. It all just came together.
It’s certainly a very human book. Very honest. Did you ever feel at times that you were being too honest or did you worry about how people might feel about how they were portrayed in it?
Well because I wrote the book with complete love, really my criteria was to be absolutely as honest as I could but to be sensitive to the people who I was writing about. I didn’t write anything that I would feel bad about writing later.
In a way I couldn’t really worry about what other people think. I really only worried about what felt right to me and what was honest to me so when you tell the truth you tell the truth and that was it. Of course there were certain chapters of the book – the chapter of the break-up with me and Mark, when I was writing it a lot of old emotions came up. It happened quite a few times in the book actually but then I really had to take a step back and I had to tell it from my point of view. It’s none of my business to tell another person’s story, this was my story and people could draw the conclusions they wanted but I had to feel good about it first and foremost.
I did, however, check that everybody in my family was okay with what I had written. Obviously not my father who I don’t speak to, but his other children, people that it would affect. I wanted to make sure, and also, a lot of the memories were so old that I wanted to make sure that their memories jived with what I wrote. Just for clarification and sort of fact checking, but really, I felt good about everything I wrote in the book and I could stand by it and I think I was extremely generous to people that were, that I had difficult relationships with. It was just honest and I had no anger or anything inside of me whatsoever. I think it comes across.
I think that does come across clearly. There’s an honesty and a love. There’s good times and some bad times and I love this and you’re really clear about that. Throughout the book there’s a sense that you believe in fate and to that extent, the good times, the bad times, the periods of transition, these are all part of your whole story. It’s not skirted over, it’s part of the whole of you.
Well life is about a duality right? There’s highs and lows, darks and lights and for years I’ve had many dark periods and I’ve gone through all sorts of things like depression and eating disorders, abusive stuff, whatever and really serious low periods where I can’t get out of bed but that actually, everybody goes through it, it’s part of… you cannot have the good without the bad. You have to have the dark and I realised that actually, the dark is so important because it is from the dark that the spark of creation is born and it is from the dark that the need to move forward and drives you. Writing the book made me not fear these periods in my life any more. Certainly people that suffer with depression, when they are depressed, when they are low, they think that it’s never going to end and when will it feel better but, for me, now if it happens, just choose a path, it will be okay, deep breath, get through it, tomorrow is a new day. So it’s quite comforting really.
You stepped back from playing music for fifteen years and had a whole other life outside music. How did it feel to go back to performing and writing music again after such a long time away from it?
Stepping back is a really gentle term. I was basically like a tree that was felled and I couldn’t perform, I couldn’t write, I couldn’t play. I physically couldn’t play because I had horrific Tendonitis and nothing was working. Absolutely nothing. I did record an album. After I left The Fall a second time I recorded a whole album. Nobody wanted it, nobody cared. I couldn’t even get arrested. So I took this to mean, in terms of fate and a sign, that my music playing days were done and I drew a line in the sand. It didn’t feel good to me anymore. I just lost it totally. Lost the spark, lost any joy in it.
When you lose joy in something you have to turn in another direction and find something that makes you feel better. So I was forced to reinvent myself. I didn’t have enough money to live. My husband and I decided we wanted to open a shop together. He had sold his business and we started this fashion business and I put everything I had into that and, weirdly, from the fashion came TV which I loved and I did so much of it for so long and I loved it and I thought by doing live TV I was satisfying the part of me that loved playing live music. That itch that you get when you’re going to go up and anything can happen and you can create magic.
I thought that that was giving me what I needed, the TV thing but I didn’t realise what was missing. I did not realise! It took me fifteen years. For that time I barely listened to any music. I never went to a gig. I couldn’t even face going to a club. I would only go if a friend of mine was playing and I was on the guest list. I literally couldn’t deal with.
Anyway, finally around the same time of the writing of the book, this bizarre thing happened. I never thought I’d play music again in my life and I didn’t want to. I gave away most of my guitars, I sold the rest and I had about two left, maybe three. Didn’t touch them for fifteen years and, finally, all at once – I can’t even remember – it’s like what came first, the chicken or the egg, and I can’t even tell you what came first but it all came together.
The writing of the book unleashed some sort of collective consciousness stream of creativity from the nether world. God only knows where it came from. And, at the same time, three people, my husband, Andy Weatherall and Craig Leon, said to me in the space of a couple of weeks, ‘Y’know you really should pick up a guitar and play. You should write, you’re a really good writer’ and I basically said ‘Fuck off’ to all them. ‘I’m never doing it again’. Then I thought, these three people, why is it that I’m hearing this again. Maybe I should try, what the hell.
So I picked up the guitar and secretly, in my house, I started playing. I was rusty but I started playing and from the second I started playing I have no idea what happened. I started singing in a voice I never had. It wasn’t The Adult Net baby voice of the 80s, it was a strong women’s voice. You’ve lived life. And songs basically downloaded into me. Brand new songs practically written. I’ve no idea where they came from. It was magic.
So I sat in my room and played for two months. Didn’t tell anybody. Wept every time I sat and played. Then one day I said to my husband ‘I have something to show you’ and I played him a song and he just went ‘Holy shit!’ and it was back.
Then around that time Steve and I got together when he had his book launch. Steve Hanley had a book launch and I went up to Manchester. He had put together a band of a few ex-Fall members and some other people and they were doing some songs and I said ‘Why didn’t you ask me to play?’ I was with Marcia (Schofield) actually and they were playing ‘Mr Pharmacist’ and I was sitting in the audience and I felt this feeling that I hadn’t felt for I don’t know how many years and it was like a fire through my body and I could barely control myself.
I was about to jump out of the seat, run to the stage, shove the guitarist and grab the guitar and show them how to fucking play that solo. And I was like crazy. I didn’t do it and afterwards I said ‘Why didn’t you ask me Steve?’ and he said ‘Oh my God we would never have thought you’d do it’ and I said ‘Well guess what, I’m secretly playing again’ and he said ‘Oh, that’s fantastic. We don’t we just get together for, just for a jam session and see what happens?’ I mean it was a hobby.
So, we got together, we started playing and I think the first song we played was ‘U.S. 80s 90s’ and both of us got goose bumps all over our body and we looked at each other and went ‘Oh my God, there’s something here’ and then we put the band together and a promoter in Manchester heard we were doing this for fun and he gave us a gig and that was the beginning of it.
How does the dynamic work in The Extricated?
It’s so interesting that you ask that because every single one of them is a fucking brilliant musician and a brilliant songwriter. And every part of the band is as important as the other so we love playing together, we love it. We love touring, we love rehearsing, everything. Every time we are in the room together the music lifts us up so high and it feels fantastic and I’m so excited about the new stuff.
The dynamic is we’re extremely respectful of each other. We are enamoured with each other’s playing. Everyone brings something important, everything is split evenly. We listen to each other. We know how fragile it is to be in a band because all of us have been in fucked up bands and it’s just an absolute pleasure to play together and I think that really transcends through the music you know because there’s none of the bullshit or anger or weird mind games there blocking anything – it just flows.
Could you tell me a little bit about the debut single? I don’t think anyone knew of its existence until it was actually coming out.
This is a limited edition single. It’s two new songs, ‘Something To Lose’ which is the A side and ‘Faced With Time’ which is the B side. It’s a 7” vinyl and we’re also doing a CD with the same songs plus a live version of ‘U.S. 80s 90s’ at Hebden Bridge.
This single isn’t part of the album. It will be completely different performances and it’s really just a taster to set everything up for what’s coming. But we thought it was important. We do play Fall songs that we wrote in the set. As songwriters we’re taking back the songs that we wrote and reinterpreting them which is different. But we want people to realise that we’re a proper band and we’ll moving on now to original material.
Well it’s all original material but we’re moving on to new songs and moving forward so that’s why we did two new songs because some people didn’t really understand what was going on, they thought we were just gonna live in the past which is certainly not the case.
How has the response been to the live shows so far?
People are gobsmacked and blown away. They lose it. I think to be really honest, people approach it – certainly I’ve met quite a few hardcore, sort of old-school Fall fans – in fact I’ll tell you the story.
We were playing Latitude Festival this summer and Keith Allen asked us to be the special guests on his stage. So there were lots of people there and there was a guy, I think he ran a record label or he was a manager but he was like a big music business guy who had been utterly besotted with The Fall and you just don’t know who is coming to see you so we go up there and we kill it. We love playing live and bring it.
It’s like all the power of the old-school Fall infused with sunlight. It’s just… it’s powerful, intense, it’s quite heavy. And so after the show the guy came up to me and said, ‘Look I have to tell you something. I didn’t want to come and see you. I just didn’t understand what you guys were doing, it didn’t really appeal to me.’ He said. ‘But I have to tell you, you were one of the best things I’ve ever seen and honestly, it’s not really comparable. I was blown away.’
So it’s just sometimes people have things in there head where they’re a little bit resistant and that’s their choice but the ones that have come are so, so, so, so supportive and I’m so grateful as well because they might have came with a closed mind but we’ve managed to open it. Those with really closed minds haven’t came but maybe they’ll come around. Or maybe we’ll just make new fans.
I think there’s a mix of people who will get it.
Everyone who sees us will get it. Sometimes you do get people so, uhm, not stuck in the past, but they have something they cling onto in their mind and it is like, basically, when you’re in love with somebody and you break-up and nobody ever measures up to that person and no matter who you meet you’re still looking for the things of the past. Well that’s not how to live life. It’s time to move on. We’re a new thing. A very different thing. We’re using the past as a stepping stone to move forward, sure, but it’s from the stepping stone that we’re going to leap to the sky.
How do you think the music business has changed in the time that you’ve been away?
I think the music industry is unrecognisable to me (laughs). The entire mould is broken. Shattered. Smashed to smithereens. It no longer exists in the way that I knew it.
So coming back into it was a real eye opener. There are so many creative ways that you can do things now. It’s very hard people say for you to make money but at the end of the day I’m doing what I love, I’m not doing this for the money. I’m doing this because I love it. In fact I can’t do anything else. It makes me so happy, it’s what I’m living for to tell the truth. When you’re following your joy and your passion that’s what living really is you know. That’s what you should always do.
Now saying that, when you follow your passion and joy it always leads to good things. So we only started two years ago but we just signed a record deal, we’re making an album. We’re in a band that we love, we’re going on tour and we made it happen. People said ‘You’ll never get a record deal.’ All sorts of things they said. Or ‘You’re too old or that’ and I’m like ‘You wanna see? Watch this fuckin’ space.
Brilliant. You are also working on a solo album as well aren’t you? Can you tell me how that’s coming along?
That is the case. When I started writing again it was like fifteen years of laying fallow. I was just infused with so much inspiration that I wrote a whole album which the songs, we did try and do some of them with The Extricated. There were a couple that we did in the early days but they didn’t really work for The Extricated. So I realised, actually, I should be doing solo stuff.
I got together with John Reynolds who is a producer and a really well known drummer and he works with a lot of people like, I mean he worked with Sinead [O’Connor] forever, and Jah Wobble and Brian Eno, Damen Dempsey. A great, great talent John Reynolds.
And I played him my songs and he said ‘Holy shit, let’s make a record.’ It’s almost done as well. And I’m also doing – very few and far between, but once in a while, solo acoustic gigs with these songs. I don’t know what’s going to happen with John Reynolds. I suspect we will get it together and take it on the road and do something really interesting with it but it’s still being formed in terms of how it’s going to go but we’ll just see. But it’s really, really good so I’m happy with that.
And then what happened with The Extricated and the writing, which is really interesting, because in the old days I would have said ‘here’s my song. I’m bringing it to the table, let’s give it The Extricated treatment and that’s the way The Fall worked. Someone would bring in a song and everyone would fix it or do whatever they did.
With The Extricated the recipe for writing is extremely positive. All of my guys, the whole of the band, are fantastic songwriters. They get together without me and they write the music and then they email me the music and I write the melody and the words and it’s just worked so well. And obviously, when we record the stuff I’ll put down my guitar part on top of what they’ve done and it’s just a really great balance.
It sounds like a really exciting time, like a lot of things are coming together now.
Yeah, it is. I mean, it’s been a long time. Fifteen years was a long time. But we talked about the dark period but maybe I needed it. Maybe I needed a complete rest. I needed to believe that I wasn’t going to do it any more in order for it to come back (laughs). But when it came back I… I’ve said this before, but I swear there was a piece of my soul missing. All that time there was something wrong with me and that’s what it was. No music. No singing. No writing. Honestly, that’s why I was put on this Earth.
Photos of Brix and the Extricated live in Dundee by Kenny Baird.
You can keep up to date with the wonderful and joyous world of Brix and The Extricated at https://www.facebook.com/extricated
The debut single, a limited edition 7” featuring ‘Something To Lose’ b/w ‘Faced With Time’ and a three song CD edition also featuring a live version of ‘U.S. 80s 90s’ is currently available from http://blang.co.uk/music
Here’s a live version of the new single: