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Brix and The Extricated - Life After The Fall

When Brix Smith Start picked up a guitar for the first time in fifteen years, it was an understandably emotional experience. Smith Start, after all, is a survivor of not just one, but two stints as guitarist with legendary punk-sired outsiders, The Fall. She was also married for six years to this most truculent of bands' mercurial vocalist and leader throughout almost forty years, thirty-odd albums and countless ex members, Mark E Smith.

Following such service above and beyond musical duty, Smith Start eventually moved into a career in fashion, first running a chain of boutiques with her current husband, Philip Start, then on TV alongside Gok Wan on Gok's Fashion Fix.

Once she started playing guitar again, however, there was no turning back, and the result of this renewed love affair is Brix and The Extricated, a band she fronts with no less than three former Fall members, including bassist Steve Hanley and his drummer brother Paul, who first played with The Fall aged fifteen.

The Hanleys are regarded by many to be the finest rhythm section The Fall ever had, with Steve Hanley clocking up some seventeen years hard labour in the band's engine room. Brix and The Extricated's forthcoming tour, which stops off in Glasgow this week, will be the first chance to see the trio play on a stage alongside guitarists Steve Trafford (a later ex Fall casualty) and Jason Brown for more than twenty years.

“It's the weirdest thing,” says Smith Start. “After I left The Fall, I did a couple of solo projects, but nothing ever happened. It wasn't my time, and I thought that was it. I not only never touched a guitar, but I sold ten of them, lent others out and put others in a closet as I became creative in different ways. But life is weird, and I really believe in signs and spirituality, and just as my husband started really getting on my case about doing music again, I bumped into my old producer, Craig Leon, who also said I should be playing.”

With no-one else around and in the privacy of her own home, Smith Start wondered what harm it could do. Once she plugged in, however, “Something weird happened, and this fully formed song dropped out. My voice was different, kind of vulnerable and charismatic at the same time. I didn't know where any of this was coming from, and began weeping.”

Around the same time, Smith Start was sent a copy of The Big Midweek, Steve Hanley's tragi-comic memoir of his time in The Fall that also features his thoughts on Smith Start.

“I read it,” she says, “and I thought, my God, what we did was really important. It was also really interesting to find out what Steve thought of me, because we never really spoke. I'm a chatterer, and he's very inward, and while I was Mark's girlfriend in America, he took me at face value, but his book doesn't really pull any punches. There are things he said about me that are different from the perception I have of myself, but that's okay, and they're completely valid.”

At the book launch, an ad hoc band led by Hanley played a selection of Fall covers.

“Steve seemed happy and healed,” Smith Start says in a nod to the trauma playing in The Fall clearly leaves in its wake, “and as soon as they started playing, something inside of me just opened up. The first thing they did was U.S. 80S 90s, and I just got chills.”

Smith Start asked Hanley why they hadn't asked her to play with them.

“He said they didn't think I'd ever do it.”

With the aim of performing both old and new material, the seeds of Brix and The Extricated were duly planted.

“We're all songwriters,” Smith Start points out, “and the first rule was that we only do stuff that we wrote for The Fall. We're doing different interpretations of our own work, and we have the right to do that, because they're not only fucking great songs. They're part of our lives.”

While this rule allowed for a welter of material, including singles Cruiser's Creek and L.A, for Smith Start it also made for a slight problem.

“Nobody wanted to sing Mark's lyrics and stand in his shadow,” she says, sounding like a fan girl as much as Smith's ex wife. “I have to tell you, I was absolutely terrified to do it. First of all, his words are incredible, but so is his delivery and his attitude. He's so iconic, so to try and follow that is pretty scary, but then, with those songs, because I was married to Mark, I understand where some of the inspiration came from, because I was part of it too.

“Once I realised that, I started to sing the songs in my own way, and it all transcended. It's different, and I have a style, but that's okay, and I felt confident, because it's relevant. We've only played six shows so far, but old fans have accepted it, and that's been really emotional.

“With the new stuff, we're not trying to sound like The Fall, but it's early days yet and sometimes, because of who we all are we can't help it, but we're letting it evolve. I love the bombast, and I love the repetition, and I'm really into rapping right now, so let's see. This is what I live for, and right now is pretty much my whole life.”

The artist formerly known as Laura Elisse Salenger grew up in Los Angeles and Chicago before studying theatre and literature in Vermont. It was while playing bass and singing in her first group, Banda Dratsing that Laura became Brix after Salenger was inspired by The Clash song, Guns of Brixton.

Having met Smith in 1982, she subsequently married him and became The Fall's second guitarist, arriving not long after current BBC 6Music DJ Marc Riley left following a punch-up with Mark E Smith during a tour of Australia. The newly monickered Brix Smith gave The Fall both a glamour and a commercial sheen that paid dividends. For a while she even sorted out her new hubby's wardrobe, as scruffy jumpers were exchanged for shiny shirts in major label backed videos in support of chart-skimming singles, including covers of Victoria, by The Kinks, and psych-garage classics, Mr Pharmacist and There's A Ghost in My House.

Fronting her own band, The Adult Net, in tandem with The Fall, Smith Start went on to tour with The Bangles, covered Donovan's Hurdy Gurdy Man with her later partner, classical violinist Nigel Kennedy, and auditioned for Courtney Love's band, Hole, playing with them for just one day. Smith Start went on to release a solo EP at the end of the 1990s and a digital only solo album, Neurotica, in the noughties, though both slipped out barely noticed.

All of this and more will soon be laid bare in The Rise, The Fall, and The Rise, Smith Start's forthcoming memoir, overseen by the same team who worked on ex Slits guitarist Viv Albertine's book, Clothes, Music, Boys, and set to be published by Faber and Faber in 2016.

“I kept my mouth shut for fifteen years,” Smith Start says, “because I'm an extremely private person, but this is the complete truth. I've no anger about things anymore. It's just about the choices you make in life, and the hardships I faced which no-one has any idea about. There's stuff in there about Mark as well, which, because I was married to him, no fucker knows.”

Given Smith Start's background in drama and her ongoing membership of the American Screen Guild, it is interesting to note the inherent theatricality that has powered The Fall. While some dismiss Smith's restless messing with sound levels inbetween moving both members and equipment around or else wandering offstage entirely as the vagaries of an incoherent drunk, such incidents are closer in execution to the way Polish theatre guru Tadeusz Kantor used to control the stage.

This is borne out, both by YouTube footage of a 1995 band rehearsal notable, not just for Smith Start's presence, but for the way Smith's instructions more resembles the behaviour of a theatre director than a band leader per se. Smith Start agrees, and points to Hey! Luciani!, a musical play penned by Smith about the short-lived reign of Pope John Paul I, and which was performed at the Riverside Studios in 1986 by the band and a cast that included choreographer and dancer Michael Clark and performance artist Leigh Bowery. While the play bemused reviewers, Smith himself described it as “a cross between Shakespeare and The Prisoner”.

“He's a mastermind,” Smith Start says of her ex-husband. “He's omnipotent in every way. No-one had a clue what was going on in the play, but it was fucking brilliant. Mark used to do all these songs through a megaphone which we wanted to stick up his ass, but he was like the silent movie director, Mack Sennett.

“You have to remember that Mark is not a trained musician, and that's what makes him so brilliant, because there are no limitations on what he can or cannot do. So when he picks up a three-string violin on the song Hotel Bloedel, and starts doing things with it, it has a real effect on things. It is like theatre, and that's possibly why he wanted me in the band, to break things up onstage and maybe give things a different dynamic.”

With Smith Start still a member, The Fall have the honour of being one of the first contemporary bands to appear at the Edinburgh International Festival when in 1988 Smith and co composed and performed the live soundtrack to Michael Clark's ballet, I Am Kurious Oranj. Loosely based around the 300th anniversary of William of Orange's accession to the English throne, the show was performed at the capital's King's Theatre, and among its many eye-popping highlights was notable for Smith Start arriving onstage sat astride a giant hamburger.

“That was Michael Clark's idea,” Smith Start says. “I didn't know what he meant till he showed me this nine-foot burger. Leigh Bowery, who was in the show, used to take great delight in spinning me round on it as fast as he could, and I thought I'd either fall off or puke.”

Smith Start was fashion commentator on the broadcast of this year's Royal Ascot meet, and recently took part in BBC4 documentary, Girl in a Band. While she expresses a desire to combine music and fashion for further TV ventures, with an album already planned, it is Brix and The Extricated that matters right now.

“This band is very special and we're all loving it,” she says. “It's a joyful thing, and I think it has everything. I see it conquering the world.”

All of which begs the question of what Mark E Smith thinks of all this.

“I don't know how he feels about it,” is Smith Start's short answer, “but I hear through the grapevine he's not pleased. I'm not in touch with Mark and haven't been for years, and I don't know how to get in touch with him, but I've heard rumours of him calling venues we've been playing and trying to get the gigs cancelled.

“Whether that's true or not I don't know, but we are not The Fall. We are The Extricated, though everything we do obviously brings attention to The Fall, and that's no bad thing. At the end of the day, this is for the love of our music, which is the only reason for doing anything, so why would he be mad?

Smith Start pauses, perhaps remembering the old days that might go some way to answering that question.

“Mark may have issues,” she says, “but he really shouldn't.”

Then, looking forward, she mischievously speculates on what might be, but probably never will.

“Imagine if we played on the same bill,” she says.

Brix and The Extricated, Broadcast, Glasgow, November 19th.
www.broadcastglasgow.com

An edited version of this article appeared in The Herald, November 16th 2015

ends

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