Madness' Chas Smash: 'We’re the Working-Man’s Pink Floyd'
Some things seem to endure forever, Madness being one of them. Although the ska-pop band has gone on hiatus a couple times during its 33-year career, it keeps coming back like a manic episode. Energized by 2009’s The Liberty of Norton Folgate, its first album of originals in a decade, the group continues the momentum with its terrific 10th studio set, Oui Oui, Si Si, Ja Ja, Da Da (out Nov. 13). The Hollywood Reporter caught up with multi-instrumentalist Cathal Smyth, aka Chas Smash, fresh from a year in which the English group played its biggest hit, “Our House,” at the Closing Ceremony of the London Olympics and showing no sign of letting up.
The Hollywood Reporter: What led you to employ several different producers (Charlie Andrew, Clive Langer, Liam Watson, Owen Morris, and Stephen Street) on this album?
Cathal Smyth: The main reason is we’ve worked with Clive Langer and Elmore Stanley on pretty much every album. Clive essentially is like an eighth member … but we’ve worked with him for so long it felt like a change would be interesting. So we felt we’d try a few tracks with different producers. Obviously it could go really wrong, or it could go really right. It was just different energies. Stephen Street is very calm and collected. Owen Morris is very much boisterous and energetic. Charlie Andrew, who works in preproduction and on some mixes with Clive, he’s an up-and-coming set of ears; Alt-J, one of the acts he produced [won the Mercury Prize this month]. And Liam Watson, he’s very much old-school 8-track analog. The thing with Madness is you can work on any song you like, but once it goes through the process of being worked on by the band, it sounds like Madness, so there is never any fear that you’re going to lose “the sound.”
THR: You’ve had a couple hiatuses. What provided the spark for your latest return?
Smyth: We reformed in ’92 [releasing the concert disc, Madstock], we did an album in ’99 called Wonderful, and we did another album in 2005 [covers disc The Dangermen Sessions, Vol. 1]. I think what really sparked the fire was The Liberty of Norton Folgate. It was a really enjoyable experience. It sort of repositioned the band in the eyes of a lot of journalists and the fans. A lot of people saw it as our best album. I may not agree with that, but it seemed to spark a certain enthusiasm as far as rediscovering one’s passion for the band and the band as a vehicle for one’s writing. I personally look at it as a new beginning, and if that’s the case, then we’ve just done the difficult second album.
THR: There are some really strong melodies on the new album, particularly during the first half.
Smyth: The British love a good melody. I remember reading in art school a couple years ago an article with Puff Daddy; he was asked what he looks for in a track, and he said melody. I think really melody and the platform for that melody is the essential ingredient for a great song.
THR: Well, there have been periods where melody hasn’t held such strong sway.
Smyth: Sure. I think maybe that reflects the mood of a nation or a culture or the globe -- who knows? That sort of collective expression, like punk. I think in times of conservatism, you can take risks -- when everything is comfortable. When things are uncomfortable, you want less risk. You want to be comforted, not challenged, when times are tough. We began with our first release in ’79 during a recession. We reformed in ’92 during a recession, and here we are again in a recession. So quite simply, I like to think we’re the working-man’s Pink Floyd, a bright shining virus of joy hoping to spread a little joy and happiness when things are hard.
THR: What is it the album’s title is affirming, or are you simply trying to get someone to shut up?
Smyth: The cover of the album is all the alternative suggested titles crossed out. So it sort of shows the complexity of trying to come to a decision in a band. In its essence, I suppose, we’re in Europe, and it’s really an affirmation of how positive life can be, how positive you can be in life.
THR: I understand you wrote “So Alive” for a girl who tossed you over. Did you ever hear anything back from her?
Smyth: She got married -- she has a kid with a guy, but I think the thing is this, right? You come out of a relationship for a helluva long time [separating from his wife after 27 years], and you play the field a little bit. You’re looking, and then you stop looking. You think you’ll never find love again. Then you meet someone, and you fall head over heels. You act like a stupid kid again. And I think the thing is, thank God you at least felt that. So part of writing “So Alive” was processing those feelings without getting bitter … even though feelings that didn’t feel so good, the mere fact that you can feel that intensity of love, that sort of obsessional love, is amazing and encouraging. … F---, it hurt at the time. But love involves risk. Without risking it, you never have it, do you?
THR: I talked with Flogging Molly’s Dave King some years ago, and he spoke about getting to the place where he wasn’t writing for anyone else but simply trying to write the most honest song he could for himself. After 33 years, what is it about for you?
Smyth: I was talking to an artist the other day. He came from a kind of underground place, and now he’s got a No. 1 single, but he wants to get back to a more casual or dark or not-caring-about-it vibe. We were talking about the “three years in,” where you’ve been on the road, you’ve been in hotels, you’ve been on TV shows doing interviews, and you’re wondering where you’re going to get inspiration from. It seemed to me it’s not where you get inspiration from, it’s your state of mind that you have to work on and your interest in life. It’s all about your internal perception, what’s between your ears. If you’re not enjoying what you’re doing, of course you’re not going to write something that’s going to lift you -- or maybe not lift you but make you feel complete in the sense that you can represent it live with confidence and belief. That’s the challenge. You can take that same approach to all aspects of life. It’s like getting up in the morning and wanting to face the day even though you’ve lived those years and years. How are you going to face the new day? How’re you going to be engaged in life? What’s going to rock your world?