This is a ghost story. It’s about a woman, a girl, and a traveller. About regeneration and survival. It’s about the past, and it’s about the future. It’s both absolutely about a man who died, and yet not really about him at all. And like many of the best ghost stories, it takes place in a theatre. Pay attention, because at some point the spirit of a recently-deceased curmudgeonly indie legend is literally going to poke me in the bum. Don’t believe me? Read on and decide for yourself.
I meet Brix Smith Start in the cafe at Sadlers Wells theatre, near Angel. We’re here partly to talk about the re-release of I Am Kurious Oranj, the 1988 album she co-wrote with her husband, Mark E Smith, and their band The Fall as the soundtrack to Michael Clarke’s groundbreaking ballet, I Am Curious Orange. Thirty years ago they performed the piece here over a two-week run, as well as shorter stints in Edinburgh and Amsterdam. Every night Brix would pull on her white bathing suit and ballet shoes and play these scything, unorthodox pop songs; some odd and ugly, some lilting and beautiful. Her husband would sing, talk and spit his strange, unique words and she would pour her heart out through her guitar while cutting-edge choreography whirled around them. One of the most memorable images of the night involved Brix sitting on a giant rotating burger as if it were a throne, strumming her riffs. In that single image was everything she’d left Chicago for five years earlier, at the age of just 21, moving to a country where she had no friends, no family and no home in pursuit of art and love. The proud warrior woman, gunning her way through a living art installation; uncompromising rock and pure creativity all at once. The Burger Queen. And her heart was breaking.
“Artistically, creatively, in every single way it was one of the pinnacles of my career,” she says, “one of the things I was proudest of doing, one of the most special, amazing, collaborative experiences ever.” She pauses. “At the same time my marriage to Mark Smith was completely deteriorating, so emotionally I was ruined. Shattered. Every day I'd have to steel myself to go onstage and pretend we were the perfect rock & roll couple when in reality I was sitting backstage in a dressing room sobbing my eyes out before every show, Mark not speaking to me, me not speaking to Mark, and people like Leigh Bowery and Les Child putting on my make up every night for me, and turning me into a doll. And then of course I'd go out there, and be on this giant burger and make this fantastic music for this amazing, groundbreaking ballet but inside I was crumbling.”
Is it strange to be back here?
“It's weird. Buildings hold energy, and when you've been in places where you've had hugely emotional things going on, and you walk back the energy all comes back. I'm not afraid of that though.”
Though Brix has spent the last 30 years moving her life forward and is now happily re-married, a successful businesswoman who returned triumphantly to music a few years back, it’s hard to not feel the past hanging over us. Partly it’s the location, partly the fact we’re specifically here to discuss an old album, and partly because, though neither of us has brought it up yet, we’re both very aware of the fact that Mark E Smith, the man who fell in love with a 21-year-old Brix and brought her to the UK, and with whom she will always be associated, died earlier this year. I wonder which of us will bring up Smith’s passing first.
I Am Kurious Oranj is one of the more well-regarded of the Fall’s 31 albums, and a swansong for Brix who would leave the band for several years – and leave her marriage for good – shortly after the run at Sadlers. It’s also seen as something of an uptick after two albums, Bend Sinister and The Frendz Experiment that some (including members of the group) felt were below par.
“I remember it was a monumental task” says Brix of writing songs intended for a ballet, “I remember writing the music, or most of the music, with Craig [Scanlon, Fall guitarist] and Steve [Hanley, bass player in The Fall and, later, Brix and The Extricated] in America, we were on tour and there was a deadline. We would write the music, put it on a cassette and mail it back to England. The problem was that The Fall are very free and quite ramshackle, and things often aren’t the same every time you play. A ballet has to be precise, every step, every move, every breath was choreographed. It was really challenging for The Fall. Simon Rodgers [occasional Fall member and collaborator] had a big hand in helping us do it, his wife was a prima ballerina and he'd scored ballets so he helped us. I remember rehearsing it, maybe in Amsterdam and it was technical and difficult and amazing. It was like riding a wild elephant: you just didn't know what was going to happen.”
It must be hard for her to view those songs objectively, I say, given what was happening in her personal life. How can you look back at songs like ‘Bad News Girl’, Smith’s barely-veiled swipe at his wife which he insisted she perform night after night, and not be resentful?
“I still feel resentful,” she says, “It's obvious now, and it was sort-of obvious then, that he had his own issues going on with his life, I fully believe that me doing [Brix-fronted side project] the Adult Net threatened him, because he really is…” she stops for a minute, correcting herself “was, a control freak. He had to be that dictator. He was proud of me, and in a weird way, I was a possession to him. He loved me, for sure, but when my own band happened it challenged him, it possibly emasculated him, and it made him want to be unfaithful, to validate his own masculinity and his own power. And probably to get back at me: ‘I don't need you, I've got others’. I was the only person that could be honest to Mark. Mark is a…” she stops again, this time visibly uncomfortable “was a... I keep talking about him like he's still alive, it's so horrible.”
She sighs, sipping a cup of herbal tea. “He could be a very difficult person to even have a conversation with. People will tell you horror stories and love stories about him. People were scared of him. Certainly every journalist. People walked on eggshells, everybody, the band, the label... everybody. You never knew which way he would turn. Obviously I didn't act like that around him, I told him the truth, which he greatly valued to an extent and then began to resent. Toward the end when his drink and drug problem became seriously destructive I would stand up to him and read him the riot act. I think that's where ‘Bad News Girl’ came in. When I questioned him about it, he told me it was about Ellen Van Schuylenburch who was the prima ballerina in Curious Orange. Later I heard they’d had an affair, whether that's true or not I can't say, but I don't care now. I understand it all. I accept it all. I learned a lot. It's part of growing up and learning and it's all okay.”
I ask Brix in light of all the emotional turmoil, Smith’s prestigious substance use, and the need for the band to play a regimented and controlled set to keep up with the immaculate choreography, how on earth they managed to pull it off every night?
“Night after night! I don't ever remember a massive glitch in anything. All of it was so on a knife-edge. Everything could have fallen apart. Miss a cue, fall of the burger. I never did that… er, is everything okay?”
This last bit is directed at me. As Brix was talking about performing despite titanic distractions, a small distraction of my own occurred. I jerked suddenly as I felt someone brush the base of my spine, just under my tailbone, where – not to put too fine a point on it – my bum begins. It felt like someone had brushed me with a feather or leaf, light but definitely there. The kind of thing you do to someone at school when you’re trying to embarrass or distract them. I whip around, expecting to see someone I knew having a laugh maybe, or school kids on a trip taking the piss. There’s no-one there. The theatre cafe behind me is completely empty. I look around the room, obviously weirded out.
“Are you okay?” Brix repeats,
“Yer”, I reply “I swear someone just poked me but…” I gesture behind me, “there’s no one here”.
Her eyes widen and she smiles, genuinely. “That was Mark!” she says, “I’m sure of it! He’s here! He’s fucking with us! That's exactly the sort of thing he would do. Absolutely that’s him.” She looks up, into the air above our table. “Hello!” she says, raising her voice. “It's all good now... You miss me!”
Now... Did Mark E Smith – indie legend, the ex-husband of the woman sat in front of me, a man with a famously twisted sense of humour, and crucially a man who died of cancer in January of this year – just poke me in the bum? I genuinely don’t know. Something did, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t my imagination. Maybe it was an insect, or someone who ran away quickly. Hell, maybe it was my mind playing tricks on me. Or maybe, as Brix is sure of, it was a spiritual intervention from a man who, in-life, believed himself to be a powerful psychic capable of cursing his enemies and predicting the future. I honestly couldn’t tell you, and to be fair I’m open to any explanation. What I am sure of, is that whether literally or metaphorically, and whether she wants him there or not, the ghost of Mark E Smith hasn’t been far away from Brix Smith Start since she formed Brix And The Extricated four years ago, resurrecting a musical career she thought she’d left in the 20th century.
“The day he died my phone wouldn't stop,” she says, “It was like the whole world came down on me. I was bombarded. Everyone felt his death, and because we had been so intrinsically linked in our lives they felt for me, they needed one person to focus on and commiserate with, and that was me.”
That seems like a hell of a responsibility to shoulder? The grief of all those fans on top of your own...
“Yes, but I had dealt with him emotionally in my book [her 2014 autobiography The Rise, The Fall, The Rise], and by writing it I had come to a very peaceful and very grateful place. And this band too, he wasn't best pleased about the Extricated in the beginning, but later on, I heard he was really proud of me and thought it was fantastic. I heard the real story: It also drove him crazy. I believe the Extricated kept him alive, it gave him something to fight. It gave him a rivalry, it drove him to play all those gigs in the same cities we played. You look at the tour dates... I know him so well. And the last thing I heard was that he was planning to fire his whole band and hire an all-female band, which would have been directed at me. He was a fighter til the end in every way. But I've made peace with him, in my own heart. So when he died I was happy to be the gracious one, I was grieving but it was a long time that we were apart so I was okay.”
Last month Brix And The Extricated, the band she formed with fellow Fall alumni including bass-genius Steve Hanley, released their second album in as many years (presumably the old Fall work-ethic is deeply ingrained), following 2017’s Part 2 with Breaking State. Both albums are fantastic but it’s the latest that really impresses, getting out from under the shadow of Smith by both jettisoning The Fall reinterpretations that made up part of their debut, and pushing out from jumpy post-punk into string-laden, naked honesty. In places, especially on the plaintive, dreamy ‘Vanity’, it holds its own against anything Brix wrote in the 80s.
“This is standing up and claiming what I am as a musician,” she says “and what I brought to The Fall because those records wouldn't have been fucking made without me, and yes we worked as a partnership, but there are so many things that I did that I never took credit for. Bend Sinister? I named it. Kurious Oranj? I thought of the name. All this stuff people assumed is all Mark, and it wasn't always him. We worked as a team. I have this energy that makes people more creative when they're around me. There are certain people who click with me, and I click with them, and our brains go on fire and he was one of those people. With this album, I'm finally beginning to step into my power and the light I always had”.
Brix wears her heart on her sleeve. There’s no doubt about it. “This is why I was put on the earth.” she says, warming to her theme, “I think about the 15 years where I did not play, I did not go to see a band, I did not listen to the radio, I disengaged with music and I weep.” She’s talking about her years away from music, becoming a TV fashion expert and running a designer boutique in Shoreditch, not bad gigs but never in the original mission plan. As she says this her eyes are filled with tears and her voice is thick. “It's just so sad that I got to that place where I broke and I couldn't do it any more, because I love it so much now, this is my reason for living. I would do it for no money. It's what I have to do. I moved countries to be a musician. I moved my entire life because this was my dream. Now I'm doing it on my own terms and I'm really proud of what we're doing.”
The ghost of Mark Smith may or may not have been with us in that theatre. I’m still not sure. But the spirit of Brix Smith Start, determined, potent and creative, certainly was. It’s been 30 years since Kurious Oranj turned her life upside down, the start of a journey that would lead her back to this theatre on an autumn afternoon, now aged 55. Her life couldn’t be more different, but that projects themes of pure art, power and grace are as relevant to her today as they were then. Technically speaking, Brix has two albums out this autumn, one her past and her future. The same spirits haunt them both.
I Am Kurious Oranje reissue is out now via Beggars Banquet, and can be purchased here.
Breaking State by Brix And The Extricated is out now via Grit Over Glamour. For more information about the band and Brix Smith Start, including forthcoming tour dates, please visit their official website.