Brix Smith from California to life and love with a true Northern maverick

Brix Smith
Brix Smith

Three decades after The Fall played a legendary concert at Clitheroe Castle bandstand, Brix Smith returns to the Ribble Valley with her band Brix and the Extricated, she spoke to Tony Dewhurst

As the taxi chugged through the monochrome streets of Manchester, Mark E Smith excitedly pointed out the landmarks of the city sprawl to his bride to be.

Brix and the Extricated are playing Clitheroe's Grand Theatre

Brix and the Extricated are playing Clitheroe's Grand Theatre

“Look, Brixie, there’s the Boddingtons brewery chimney. And there’s the watch tower of Strangeways prison.”

She says: “I just never expected Manchester to be so grim. It was 1983 and everybody looked so poor.

“Where was the colour? I was a girl from sunny California and felt like I was watching a black and white film clip, a Pathe post-war newsreel.

“However, failure was not an option. Mark was my Svengali – we were inseparable - and I was going to have to find the beauty in this place if I was going to survive here.

Brix Smith, left, with ex-husband Mark E Smith in The Fall

Brix Smith, left, with ex-husband Mark E Smith in The Fall

“I’d run off with a man I’d only known for six weeks and my mum thought I’d gone insane.”

It was Brix’s fast track introduction to the strange and frightening world of The Fall, the Manchester band, fronted by Mark E Smith, with whom she would play guitar and co-write songs like Hit the North for the next six years.

“We actually spoke about getting married after only seven days of knowing each other. Mark told me he wasn’t a rich man and said he had £1,000 in the bank.

“Don’t worry’, I said, ‘I only have £500. Like it even mattered at that point. “The Fall’s music was powerful, grinding, ugly, poetic, hypnotic, beautiful and multidimensional and this was my dream come true.

“We got married in the local register office and we had a reception at the Eagle and Child pub, which was arranged by his dad. We had sausage rolls, pickled onions, crisps and beer.

“And do you know it felt like a magic carpet ride. I was 20 and in love and I was in this cool band that had transfixed me from the first time I had heard them.”

Smith is hugely entertaining company and fizzes with the energy of a Californian girl half her age. But her joyous mood darkens a little when she recalls her ex-husband’s death and quite understandably does not want to linger too long on the subject of his passing.

“The shock of him leaving the planet left a big, empty hole in my life,” says Brix of the man that brought her to Britain after meeting her on tour in America. “For three months I don’t think I went out.”

It is nearly two years since Smith died, aged 60, shortly after The Fall released their 32nd album, New Facts Emerge. Smith bravely continued to tour with The Fall during his illness and the vast number of tributes to his passing spoke of the musical and literary influence on several generations of artists.

Naming his band after an Albert Camus novel, Smith’s infatuation with literature followed him throughout his life.He was also known for his tempestuous relationship with bandmates; 60-odd different members of The Fall either quit or were dismissed in four decades. A soundman was even sacked for eating a salad on the opening night of a tour.

Radio DJ Mark Riley who, despite having been dismissed from The Fall on his wedding day, still describes Smith as a genius.

Brix recalls: “I look back with gratitude as I was part of one of the greatest bands in the world. I also feel honoured to have worked with, and been a partner with, somebody so incredibly talented and free-thinking – off the scale of what people understand free-thinking is.

“Sometimes his lyrics were impenetrable, but he was a magic shaman of words - and a poet.A line of Mark’s I really love is, ‘Uncanny bushes are in disagreement with the heat.’

“To me these are some of Mark’s most brilliant lyrics. In Los Angeles it gets so hot, you can almost hear the bushes complain.

“My favourite Fall songs were the powerful ones like Smile. It felt like standing in front of a freight train. I would have been happy playing Totally Wired every night.”

She said Smith came at everything in life from odd angles but like many creative souls he could be a volatile person.

“He shook up the snow globe every day of his life,” she says. “He was a dark and complicated man, but a gentleman too, and he lived his life how he wanted to live.”

The psychedelic power pop of Brix and the Extricated latest work, Super Blood Wolf Moon, has been hailed as one of the albums of the year. The group includes several ex-members of The Fall, including bassist Steve Hanley.

“Nobody knew what to make of us when we started out – but it was always the plan,” says Brix. “We have a pedigree and a history, so it seemed only fitting to start from the beginning and take back songs we’d written in The Fall and re-invent them.

“People love to put your music in a genre, surround it in scaffolding and say you are this and that, but you just have to trust your instinct. Crash Landing (song from new album) tackles the tough subject of euthanasia. I’ve never spoken about this, but my little brother is dying of multiple sclerosis.

“He is crippled, blind, trapped in his own body, so the lyrics were incredibly difficult for me to write as he is somebody I love deeply. His condition and options in his life, because of a devastating illness, will resonate with many people. Wolves is about losing one of your pack, not just Mark’s death, but the many people who have coloured my life and passed on.

“I live my live in the moment and I do what feels good to me. Life is not all Devon cream and beautiful sun-dappled rainbows. I follow my heart and my instinct from moment to moment.”

She battled tooth and nail through the tortuous journey of a nervous breakdown and the devastating loss of her ex-husband.

“Sometimes the spirit of creation emerges from darkness. A defining characteristic of Mark is that he was a self-saboteur. He would do things like come on stage after we’d sound-checked for an hour, got it perfect, and then twist the knob on the amplifiers and mess everything up.

“He once got rid of the drummer between the sound check and the show and pulled somebody up from the support band. When things started to go really well, he got destructive, ripped it up and started again.

“That is why The Fall remained fresh and ever evolving, but the transitions were ruinous. It was traumatic - and it drove us bonkers.

“But he was creating chaos and energy and you’d have to work that much harder to get everything back.

“He may have blamed other people for his misery, but he was the cause of his own misery. The chaos did make us better musicians and able to cope in all kinds of circumstances.”

When Brix wrote she explained that she used a technique of self-hypnosis, memory and deep meditation, “that meant I could go back and put myself into situations where I could smell what was cooking and feel the texture of the clothes I was wearing.

“I had to deal with a lot of darkness through depression, but I used that pain as fuel, to re-build, get better again, and be in a happier place.”

“Many people wrote to me when I made my struggles public to say that they battle depression too.

“You must concentrate on what gives you joy in life: maybe eating your favourite food, stroking a cat, walking in the hills, reading a great book or listening to brilliant music.”

* Brix and the Extricated play the Clitheroe, Grand on November 16. Telephone: 01200 421599 or visit www.thegrandvenue.co.uk