When Brix Smith-Start joined the Fall in 1983, she probably didn’t anticipate the lasting impact she’d have on the group. Prior to 1984’s ‘The Wonderful And Frightening World Of’ – an album she co-wrote with Mark E Smith – the prospect of The Fall trying their hand at poppy accessibility would have been a strange one.
While it’s laughable to think of that album, or indeed any Fall album, as a record aimed at a commercial market, Brix’s role here was an imperative shift in their trajectory: it was the group’s ‘pop’ period, but she also brought American glamour to a group that famously prided itself on being anti-fashion.
In the years that followed her second departure in1996 (she briefly re-joined for the release of ‘Cerebral Caustic’ and ‘Light User Syndrome’) Brix left behind her musical past and pursued other avenues, including fashion and TV presenting. Last year, she published her memoir The Rise, The Fall, And The Rise, the process of which became the catalyst for playing music again.
And then came Brix & The Extricated, a band made up of former Fall members: Brix Smith, Steve Hanley, Paul Hanley, and Steve Trafford. A development that came about via timely happenstance, as well as mutual respect for each other as musicians, and of course an inability to neglect their history and contributions in The Fall. As a starting point, their recent debut LP ‘Part 2’ melds the old with new, incorporating classic Fall tracks, breathing new life into them.
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What was the catalyst for you picking up your guitar and playing again after such a long break?
It was a culmination of ingredients that lead to it. It was something that I never thought I would do again. I thought that part of my life was over; it was broken – I’d moved on, you know? I was doing TV and fashion, and just thought I’d never play again.
I knew for thirty years I wanted to make another record but it took me ages to get to the place where, mentally, I could write it: detached enough and objective enough to write it and tell the story that needed to be told. It was really the beginning of the writing of my book that seemed to open some kind of creative channel of inspiration that had previously been blocked, but for some reason the actual physical act of writing the book that opened the channel.
At the same time as that, three important people in my life said in the space of literally a couple of weeks – separately and randomly – you should really pick up a guitar and write because it’s kind of criminal that you’re not writing. One was my husband, one was the producer and DJ Andrew Wetherall, and the other was Craig Leon, the producer. So I thought, Jesus, these three people who are so important to me are saying the same thing and it’s happening in this close a space of time. It was a sign that I should just try it.
I had a couple of guitars left. I went to the closet where they were stored, pulled one out and sat on the bed. Only my dogs were here, and I just started playing, and I could still totally play, even after not playing it for 15 or 18 years. I started singing and the voice that came out of my body wasn’t even my voice, it was this voice that belonged to this person that had lived life, had highs and lows. It was the voice of someone incredibly strong but incredibly vulnerable and super honest. It was so different to how I’d ever sung before and it was really emotional. I just sat in my bedroom and wept for two months because there was something so hideously broken inside me from not playing.
I was put on the earth to do this, but obviously for those 15-18 years or however long it was, I denied that part of myself and shut it down because it was too painful to do it because, after the second time in The Fall, I basically had a breakdown.
So how did the idea of Brix and the Extricated come about?
Steve Hanley – who was bass player in The Fall for 21 years – released a book called The Big Midweek, and I hadn’t seen him in 18 years since I left the group. He had a book launch in Manchester and invited me. It was interesting because during all that time we worked together, we never really had a deep intense heart-to-heart conversation, but we always had a very deep connection musically – almost telepathically. When you’re playing music with people at that kind of level and intensity it becomes telepathic, it’s really interesting.
So I went to his book launch; he had put a band together for it, including his brother Paul who was on drums, and they were doing a bunch of cover versions. They played 'Mr. Pharmacist' and I felt what I can only describe as a lightening bolt shooting through me.
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Like you felt that you should have been up there with them?
Yeah, it was incredible. All I wanted to do was get up on stage, push the guitarist aside, grab the guitar and play it. When that happened – and nobody knew I was playing again or anything, not even my husband – I was like, oh my god, it’s back – I’ve got it back!
This fire inside me to get on the fucking stage and play was so strong that it was physical – it was crazy. Afterwards, I asked Steve why he didn’t ask me to play because I was so upset that I wasn’t up there playing. They were like; I thought you’d given up for good! And I said, well guess what? I’m writing again!
Then we decided to get together and just jam for fun. It was completely organic. When we got together, from the minute we plugged in, you could tell there was something there in the room between us; something amazing. We got Haney’s brother, Paul, to join on drums, and then we asked Steve Trafford and Jason Brown to join because they’re incredible guitarists.
So eventually we all got in a room and started playing and we all just looked at each other – eyes bulged out – and thought holy shit there’s something here! It felt so good and sounded so good. We’ve all been in so many bands before that we knew there was some kind of special magic going on.
It sounds like you felt a really strong connection.
Yeah, the feeling of that is probably one of the best feelings I’ve ever had in my life; where you just know, and collectively you all just know.
A promoter in Manchester, Jay Taylor, heard we were playing music together and said that he’d put us on whenever we want. Then we got this gig at The Ruby Lounge, and we’ve pretty much never stopped since that night.
I’m so glad you haven’t! I’ve seen the Extricated a few times and was so happy to hear all those classic Fall songs that I never thought I’d hear live.
You know, that’s the interesting thing. In the beginning we thought that those songs had been kicked to the curb. There are people that have heard them on the record but never heard them live, and there are people who have heard them live for however many years. We wrote those songs, you know? We only play songs that we co-wrote, and as songwriters we felt that we had absolutely the right to reinterpret them in our own way.
For me, writing with Mark, I know where the inspiration came from because we wrote those songs together. So we were in our rights to do it, although it was slightly controversial from the beginning.
It wasn’t long until we moved on to writing our own material because it couldn’t be stopped: we’re all songwriters, so it was just natural. The amount of emotion we see when we do songs like ‘L.A’ and ‘Lay of the Land’ is incredible. People wept at the beginning, so it’s completely worth it. And I’m glad you said that because there is a divide in the Fall camp [laughs].
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Yeah, I’ve noticed. I’ve seen a few people say “oh they shouldn’t be doing that!” But I think it’s great to hear these songs come back to life in a new way.
Oh my god, this is the thing: if you have a child with somebody, right, that child belongs to both of you. And the thing is, Mark had thirty years to do those songs. They were sitting there for thirty years while I wasn’t playing or singing, and he could have easily put them in an encore or something but he didn’t because his ethos is to always play new stuff.
For me, those songs are too good to not be played and I’m proud of them. They’re classics that need to come back into the world in a new way.
They’re too good to be ignored, definitely. I’m just happy someone is playing them.
Good! You’re my kind of girl [laughs].
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On ‘Part 2’ there are some re-workings of classic Fall songs. For example, the riff on ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ is taken from ‘Midnight In Aspen’. What made you want to do this as opposed to writing an album completely of new material?
The Fall was our history and our past and the place from where we came. While the Extricated is completely about the future, that album was just a starting point, so we talked about including old songs and reworking them.
I wrote ‘Hotel Bloedel’ myself when I was seventeen, and Mark just put some poetry on top of what I did. Although the version on ‘Perverted by Language’ was haunting and fantastic – and still remains my husband’s favourite Fall song – for me, it was never how I had imagined it to be in my head. So I wanted to have a crack at it, after all these years. Same with ‘L.A’ and ‘Feeling Numb’, which I felt was wasted; I felt that it could be so much more because it’s such a great pop song.
Regarding ‘Moonrise Kingdom’, Steve Trafford had written the music for ‘Midnight in Aspen’ and Mark had done a spoken word poem over it which was incredible, but Steve Trafford was really proud of that music. So he came to me and asked if I could write a melody and some lyrics for it and I said, fuck yeah! it’s incredible. So, I sat down in my bedroom with just the music he sent over and I would play that on one iPad and sing over it on the voice recorder on the other one. I literally wrote the melody and the words in an hour.
Both versions are so beautiful, but I’m really proud of this one. We just found out that it’s on Manchester United’s playlist and they’re playing it at Old Trafford on 25th November to 75,0000 people! It’s because Tim Burgess was doing the playlist that week, so he picked it as one of his five. So it’s doing really great and I’m so glad people love it.
Have you had any objections from Fall fans for using that riff?
Well, the 'Midnight In Aspen' riff is Steve Trafford’s – he owns it all. Mark wrote the words, he did not write the music. So, I don’t care what anyone says. They can have their opinions and it’s totally valid but we have every right to do it because it’s Steve’s song.
I guess us Fall fans can be quite critical, but some more than others!
Here’s the thing: you can’t ever control what people think about you, and loads of people filter it through their own life and their own ups and downs which everyone’s going through, and sometimes it becomes a weirdly obsessive and unreasonable focus.
But it doesn’t have anything to do with me – it’s all about them. I’m doing what I love, I’m in a band that I think is amazing and playing with great musicians. We’re following our passions, we never expected this to happen, and all I can do is do what I believe in and love. I can’t worry about people that use their own insecurities and hang-ups as fuel to criticise me.
As for Fall fans, they are highly intelligent people and on a different level than people that would listen to mind-numbing stupid pop. They’re really smart, and most seem to get it.
I find that quite inspiring, because as a female music writer I do get the occasional abuse for things I write. It can be difficult not to let it get to you or make you doubt yourself.
You cannot let it get you down. I’m going to tell you a story: I was doing fashion coverage for the Royal Ascott, live on TV, all day long. It was the most stressful kind of TV that you could do; like 10 seconds! 9! 8! And they’d turn the camera on you and you’d have to be so graceful and on it, you know?
That particular week was the time when there was all this voting around the world for equality for same-sex marriage, so my Twitter profile picture was an equality symbol. I didn’t think anything of it.
In-between being live on TV I went on Twitter – bad mistake! I was seeing things like “you fucking fat American bitch” “fuck off my TV, I hope you die of AIDs”. And I was like, what the hell is going on? I got so upset, and it almost put me off my game in front of millions of people.
Another presenter took me aside and said “listen to me now: that person is a sad man, alone in his bedroom, sitting in stained Y-fronts, drinking a can of warm beer and losing money on the horse races, and the last thing he wants to see is someone like you talking about frocks”. They put it into perspective, and then I thought, I can’t let this bother me. It’s this own person’s misery coming out at me, but it has nothing to do with me. So, let it go.
Normally I only get love because it’s all I ever really give out, I try to never say bad things. I come from the Peter Pan school; “think happy thoughts”.
That’s awful. I guess it’s all about giving less of a shit what people say and focus on what you enjoy. It’s a hard thing to overcome.
Men are so opinionated, especially miserable ones! You’ve got to do what makes you happy and what you’re good at. You can’t let these people sidetrack you with their poison.
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During your time in The Fall you brought a much poppier, more melodic sound to the group. Is that the same with the Extricated? As in, do you like to make sure there’s always an emphasis on melody and pop?
Yeah, that’s just our handwriting. My strength as a songwriter is a hook and a riff. You could give me a man or a woman standing in the street with a jackhammer and I could write a hook and a riff over it [laughs].
Same with the Adult Net, my old solo band. You’re going to see familiar strings woven throughout. And the same with the Extricated: you’ve got the Hanley brothers, so you’re going to feel the rhythm section that was in The Fall; you’re always going to find similarities. It is very different, though, and for us it’s all about the future. I don’t think we’ll ever record another Fall song.
We’re focusing on new now and we’re really excited about the future, but you can’t have a future without having a past.
Yeah I think looking at the past can sometimes be a progressive thing.
Yes. Everything leads up to this point. People ask me if I have any regrets and I say no, I don’t have any regrets. Because every decision I made, even if it was the wrong decision at the time, lead up to this point and at this point I’m happy, doing what I love.
In this world, I always think that your job is your joy. You need to follow your joy, and if you’re feeling great and putting that out to the world then the world can only be a better place because there’s so much negativity and awfulness. What is the point of life if you’re not doing what you love doing, or following your passion?
I hear about people who hate their jobs so much they can’t even get out of bed to go to work and dread it every day – I’ve been in that position. It’s such an awful way to live, and I understand that fear of change, scared of losing money, income and just living with fear. I try not to do that any more.
What music are you listening to / enjoying at the moment?
I am a really bizarre case in terms of music. I’m completely open – I’m all about the song. I’m a big Shazam person, if I don’t know the song I’ll Shazam it and then I’ll become obsessed. So, once I hear something and I love it I basically only listen to that until I’ve digested every single minute detail. Old, new, whatever; I just hear stuff and I get really into it.
At the moment it’s this band from the 90s called Sparklehorse. I have this obsession with the album ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ and I just put it on the second I walk out of the house on my headphones. I’ve been listening to that for about a month and a half.
I’ve also been listening to a lot of Sleaford Mods, LCD Soundsystem and Menace Beach who I really like.
Ah! Menace Beach are from Leeds…
Yeah, I love them! I’ve also had really intense periods with Joy Division. When I was really young – The Fall, especially ‘Sates’ – I absolutely loved. There’s so much to digest and every time I heard it there was always something different.
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I’m the same with ‘Perverted By Language’, it’s my favourite Fall album and I probably listen to ‘Garden’ at least once a day. I always watch that live video of it on YouTube and I’m mesmerised by the two drummers. It’s incredible.
What a song! For me, it’s ‘Garden’, ‘Smile’ and ‘Wings’ – I just think ‘Wings’ is a masterpiece, and ‘Garden’ is amazing. The two drummers were fantastic and it was incredible to play with them.
They had such different drumming styles and it was just so tribal. It definitely felt spiritual and transcendent to play with them. In the Extricated, and just in general, Trafford’s guitar playing is beautiful and melodic and just exquisite, and Jason Brown is basically as good as any guitarist that’s ever lived. So the two of them together are like my version of the two drummers.
What are your feelings on The Fall as a group now? In retrospect, do you have generally fond memories?
It’s a band that’s morphed and changed over the years, but I don’t think I need to comment about them now. I mean, God Bless him [Mark] and I’m happy I had that experience and good luck to him. We’re not in any competition with them; we love The Fall and I’m grateful that Mark Smith was my writing partner for so long.
What’s next for Brix and The Extricated?
We’re just about to start a British tour, and then we’re going to do a big concert at the O2 with The Charlatans – we’re opening for them in December. Then hopefully next year we’ll be doing a European and American tour and another album. It’s not set in stone, but it’s on the to-do list!
Are you going to be back in Leeds any time soon?
I don’t know why there isn’t a Leeds date on this tour but I’m sure we can sort something. The Brudenell Social club said basically whenever you want to play; you’re more than welcome, so let’s just see…
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Catch Brix & The Extricated at the following shows:
2 Brighton Sticky Mikes
3 London Oslo
4 Oxford Cellar
8 Wolverhampton Newhampton Arts Centre
9 Bristol Thekla
10 Nottingham Bodega
11 Leicester The Cookie
17 Newcastle Cluny
18 Manchester Academy 3
24 Glasgow Stereo
25 Dundee Beat Generator
Words: Hayley Scott
Photography: Melanie Smith
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