Music interview: Brix Smith Start

Brix Smith Start. Picture Amelia Troubridge
Brix Smith Start. Picture Amelia Troubridge
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Singer and guitarist Brix Smith Start’s memoir reveals her life before and after The Fall. Duncan Seaman reports.

There’s a recurring motif in Brix Smith Start’s engaging rock ’n’ roll memoir The Rise, The Fall and The Rise about her experiences of visiting Disneyland in California.

“It represented different things in different times of my life,” says the 53-year-old guitarist, singer and latter day fashion guru who’s perhaps best known for her time in the long-running post-punk group The Fall and to whose lead singer, Mark E Smith, she was married for six years.

“As a small child in the beginning it was a place to escape my parents’ troubled marriage and my extremely dysfunctional life. My Dad [a child psychologist] would just drop me at my grandparents, he didn’t really engage with me, he’d go off and do his doctor things or dating things or whatever, my Mom [a TV executive at CBS] worked all the time so my grandparents would take me to Disneyland and I loved it there.

“Basically I think it is one of the greatest art installations in the world in terms of it takes you out of your own reality and puts you in a different reality. It can make you forget about your troubles if you look at it the right way.”

Later in her life, it “became a source of inspiration” for her music. “A lot of people who are big Fall fans don’t realise that there’s so many Disney-like ambient sounds from walking around there sampled onto all their favourite records.” She says she learned a lot about layering and juxtaposing sounds from Walt Disney’s theme park, which was close to where she grew up in Los Angeles.

Brix Smith with her former husband Mark E Smith of The Fall

Brix Smith with her former husband Mark E Smith of The Fall

By the end of the book readers can see the journey she goes through with Disney. “On one day it changes from the happiest place in the world to the worst place, but I still crave going there,” she says, “because I craved to be taken out of any painful reality. At times where I’m depressed in my life or having some kind of trouble I go to Disneyland as a safe place, it’s my Switzerland.”

Around the age of 15, the girl born Laura Salenger became nicknamed Brixton by her friends at private school after her Anglophile music tastes – in particular the Clash song Guns of Brixton. Five years later she met and fell in love with Mark E Smith at a Fall concert in Chicago. A few months later she travelled to England with him and they were married. Living in a tiny flat in Manchester, where Smith would ‘refrigerate’ pints of milk on the kitchen window ledge and wash clothes in the bath, the harsh reality of the North West in 1983 was a world away from privilege she’d known in the States or the romantic image of England that she had in her mind from watching Mary Poppins or Peter Pan.

“Manchester in the early 1980s was not the Manchester of today,” she says. “Then it was not so hot, but now it’s OK, and part of my heart is Mancunian, they’ve really looked after me over the years and almost taken me in as one of their own and for that I am grateful, but on the day of my arrival I did not expect what I saw.”

Smith had gone through one of his habitual phases of firing members of The Fall, so Brix joined as a guitarist. (He liked her self-taught style, he said, because she sounded “like Lou Reed”.) Two of the tracks she’d written while she was in a band in the US became Fall songs, with Smith’s clever and enigmatic lyrical input. So began a creative partnership that was to last six years and incorporate The Fall’s most melodic and commercial albums including Perverted By Language and This Nation’s Saving Grace.

We were so opposite in so many ways, there was no reason why we should ever have met in this world, but I think there was, to make that music. It was magical.

The marriage – and Brix’s time in the band – ended when Smith left her for another woman. It was, she says, the hardest thing to write about in her book; they had, as she describes it, been “soul mates”.

Years later she recognises: “Soul mates can come together for brief periods in one’s life or can stay with you for your whole life. I believe that soul mates are souls you’ve known before in other lifetimes or you’re meant to meet in this lifetime. We were so opposite in so many ways, there was no reason why we should ever have met in this world, but I think there was, to make that music. It was magical, I honestly think it was such a fantastic collaboration for the time that it lasted.”

Traumatic as it was at the time –“I felt kicked to the kerb,” she says – she appreciates that “I allowed myself to feel terrible, I allowed myself to be controlled by him. At the end of the day nobody can control you but yourself, I allowed it to happen and he allowed it to happen as well.” She now also feels in an artistic respect that Smith was “brave” to do “what felt right to him” knowing there would be “political repercussions on a million levels because of our work together”. “Everybody thought he was insane but he did what he felt he wanted to do.”

Brix’s next relationship would be with another musical maverick – the violinist Nigel Kennedy. The world he inhabited, which included mixing with Charles and Diana, was very different to Manchester. “I found it easy to adapt to, it wasn’t an unpleasant world,” she laughs. Though it didn’t last, the pair remain on friendly terms. “He hasn’t read the book but I saw him recently at the Festival Hall and we were really happy to see each other,” she says. “Hopefully he’ll be happy with what I’ve written about him, I haven’t been unkind.”

Today she is married to the fashion entrepreneur Philip Start and she’s now touring with her band The Extricated, who include former members of The Fall, and has a two albums in the works.

The urge to write songs again coincided with starting work on her book. “I sat down in the privacy of my house with my dogs and nobody else and I had only about three or four guitars left, I’d sold most and given some away, and I took out one and I started playing, although I could barely remember how to tune it, and pretty much within the first half an hour I don’t know what happened but I’d written a new song and I’d begun singing with a voice that I never knew I had. It was a new voice, it was a voice that had lived a life then was free. It was the craziest thing.”

The Rise, The Fall and The Rise, Faber & Faber, £14.99. Brix Smith and The Exricated play at Long Division festival in Wakefield on June 11.