Brix Smith-Start is something of an iconic figure in the world of rock and to women in general. She released a best-selling autobiography in 2016 The Rise, The Fall and the Rise about her momentous life including time spent in Manchester band the Fall as a singer and lead guitarist and being married to the legendary Mark E. Smith. Brix was reunited with former Fall members Steve Hanley and Paul Hanley in Manchester’s Ruby Lounge in December 2014. They went on to form Brix & The Extricated releasing their debut album Part 2 to critical acclaim. Over the past few years, they have relentlessly toured the UK and performed at numerous festivals.
Brix & The Extricated followed up their debut album quickly releasing Breaking State on 26th October 2018. Mark Millar caught up with Brix to talk about the new album, her book and her time with Mark E Smith in The Fall.
You stopped writing music for 15 years to become a TV fashion expert and run a designer boutique. What inspired you to get back into it?
Brix: I didn’t become a TV fashion expert, and I didn’t stop writing music to do any of those things. I had a breakdown and could no longer create music, and because I could no longer create, I had to reinvent myself, and I had to change my life to do something completely different. And what I did was start a boutique with my husband, and through hard work and grafting with him, it came to people’s notice in the fashion industry that I had a fashion gift. Because of that, I was interviewed for various magazines talking about selling jeans or buying or putting things together, and somehow I was put on film, and I got a job on Television.
The people who cast me on Channel Four had no idea that I was ‘Brix’ or I had ever been in The Fall and that I was a musician and that I had written hundreds of songs – so that's what happened. It was a circumstance of life. I just took the cards that I was dealt, and I ran with it. That's what life is. Whatever it serves you up you have to go down the path, which is the path I went down.
Were you writing any songs during that period?
Brix: No, the truth is I felt broken because I could no longer play music anymore – my time in The Fall had finished me. I could not find the creative spark to write anymore, nor did anyone care about me or want to give me the time of day, and it was utterly heartbreaking. And because of that, and because of the pain of not doing that, I shelved music altogether, and I never touched a guitar for fifteen years. I never considered going back into music because it was too painful, and I moved on with my life, so I did not write. I did not do anything.
Brix and the Extricated formed in 2014 to reclaim classic songs from The Fall back catalogue written by members of the Extricated. Once in the rehearsal room new songs followed resulting in two albums of new material. What was the catalyst that brought the band together initially?
Brix: It's a strange thing because I never intended to play the guitar or write music again or do anything like that but what happened was I was going to write a book – and a whole bunch of things led up to me writing the book. While I was writing the book, three people that were very important to me in my life said to me in the space of a few weeks: “You should pick up a guitar again and write music.” One of them was my now husband, one of them was Andrew Weatherall, the producer and DJ, and the other one was Craig Leon, the producer. Randomly three of these men said this to me. I thought, "It must be a sign, maybe I should pick up a guitar and see what happens.” Remember, fifteen years had gone by – I had not even touched a guitar. I needed the money, so I had sold most of them. So I started to write the book, I can write words, but I can't write music, so I get a book deal and somehow physically writing the book opened the stream of creativity, and I thought I could maybe pick up a guitar again.
During the book's writing, I would wake up in the morning, and I would secretly start writing stuff on my guitar in my bedroom for the dogs – just for fun. My husband didn't know – no one knew. So this is going on, and the weird thing that's happening is out of fifteen years of not writing and nothing coming out – all of a sudden a deluge of stuff is coming out of me. I didn't question it; I just put it all down on an iPhone. While this is happening in secret, I then get a message from Steve Hanley's publisher. At that time, I have not seen or spoken to anyone from The Fall for eighteen years. I had not made contact with anybody from the band since the day I left. I turned my back on it all and shut down. I couldn't do it, it was awful. The publisher said, “Steve Hanley is releasing a book, and do you want to come to the book launch?” and I thought; “Fuck it. I'm writing a book too, The Fall was a long time ago, and I feel good now.” I had gone through the pain and all the stuff I had to go through.
So I went to his book launch, and he had a band made up of random people doing some songs. One of the songs was The Fall song, ‘Mr. Pharmicist’, and when they played it – it was like something went off inside my body like an electrical shock, and I just woke up out of some idioteque fairytale drug stupor, and I said, “Oh my God I want to play.” And I hadn't felt like that for years. Afterwards, I said to Steve; “Why didn't you ask me to play?” his exact words were, “I didn't have the temerity to ask you.” I said to him; “I’m secretly playing again and no one knows.” He said, “Why don't we go into a garage and plugin and see what happens after eighteen years?” and I was like, “Yeah, fuck it that sounds like fun.”
You have to understand there was no pressure here – there wasn't any idea to form a band, it was the last thing that I thought was ever going to happen – this was only out of the fun. It felt good when, for so long, it had felt so terrible to me. We got in a room together, and we plugged in, and it was like the magic was still there and Steve said, “This is good why don't we mess around? ” “I can get my brother on drums.” And I agreed so we went up to Manchester and five of us got in a room, and it was something extraordinary from the second that it happened. It was so special that it short-circuited and overrode everything else that was happening in my life because it felt really right. It felt really good. I had played enough for so many years to know when something is right and firing on all cylinders, and there is a magical ingredient, and that's what it felt like to all of us because we have all been in tons of bands.
You then released the album Part 2, and now you are onto your second album Breaking State which was recorded very quickly after Part 2. Did you want to keep the momentum going?
Brix: First of all, it took a long time from that rehearsal room to Part 2. There were a lot of things involved, but they moved seamlessly. We had to gel into who we were, and we had to develop. It had to cook organically. You can't have a five-course dinner by throwing the ingredients into a plate, so we worked very hard to do it, but it was seamless and easy and pleasurable. It was not a struggle; let’s put it that way. There are so many things that can go wrong in a band, but we are lucky because we are all writers. We realized very early on that this band is the sum of all the parts it wasn’t just me or Steve Hanley or Jason Brown: it was all of us together. The momentum happened, and we worked very hard, we toured and toured, we made the album in five days, we recorded it live, and John Reynolds produced it.
It was all great and very well received and then pretty much as soon as that finished we had the next one written. It would be fantastic if out of all the time that I was unable to write and unable to create that I could get a fucking record out every year now to make out for lost time. I felt I allowed it to get taken from me. I’m so grateful to have it back again. I feel like this is one of the things that I’m meant to do in this world.
What was the band’s songwriting process for the album?
Brix: We hit upon a recipe early on, and the process is this. People bring in riffs or songs that they have written the initial skeleton of by themselves. For instance, let's take Jason Brown; he will write the initial skeleton of a song and put it on Logic in his house then he will send the demo of it to the rest of the guys and me. I will then listen to the song, and I will know in an instant if it's for me. And then I will write the words and melody at my house on top of what they have done.
Where do you get your inspiration for the lyrics from?
Brix: When I had the terrible writers' block, and I could not write anymore, and I could not sing, and nothing came out – it was because I was fundamentally unhappy and I was like that because I was not doing what I was put on this earth to do. Because of that, I had anxiety and fear, and I was doing stuff that didn't make me feel good. So the collective unconscious where the lyrics and any inspiration come from was shut down. But when I started writing the book, the stream opened up again because it made me feel good.
I fully believe that we are nonphysical energy in physical bodies. When we die out of our physical body, the nonphysical energy is released and still exists in a different form. And I believe that artists, mathematicians, scientists, and small children – anybody that's creative are always channelling all the time. There were all these interesting theories; for instance, when the guy came up with the steam engine seven other people tried to get the idea patented simultaneously, so I believe that's where the lyrics come from. I also believe that the lyrics are filtered through the person as well sometimes they come, and you have no idea what the hell you are doing - it's almost automatic. But sometimes they filter through your history and life. On this album, every song is extremely personal to me, so the initial seed is about stuff that has happened to me, but the lyrics are coming from God knows where.
Did you get the same enjoyment from writing your book Brix Smith-Start (The Rise, The Fall, And The Rise ) as you do from writing music?
Brix: Yeah, the book saved me. I'm telling you. If I didn’t write the book, I wouldn't be making music again. The actual act of writing the book unlocked the creativity that was blocked because I was using it in the way that I should have been using it, and that was writing. I took me pretty much two years to write the book from start to finish although it was thirty years in the making obviously because I knew when I was in The Fall I was going to write a book.
I had tried many times to write this book and had been knocked back from a lack of confidence and not being with the right publisher. I knew that being an upper-middle-class American girl joining a Manchester post-punk working-class band in the eighties and playing the guitar was an excellent story to tell – and I was the person to tell it. I knew that the story didn’t happen to many people, and I knew that people would be interested in the story because it was a good one. (Laughs) I believe that everything happens at the right time and for the right reason, and quite frankly, I was probably way too emotionally involved in everything to be objective to write a decent book. It was only twenty-five years later when I was way out of The Fall doing something else and having wholly given up music.
The book is written with truth and vulnerability and respect. The book isn’t there to shred anybody or to blame anybody. I take responsibility for my whole life and for every choice that I made, and I don’t believe I ever made a wrong decision. I needed all that space of doing other things to come back to something with clarity. So you can thank the book for these two albums.
Unfortunately, we lost Mark E Smith at the beginning of 2018. What’s your happiest memory of Mark?
Brix: Mark had a perfect sense of humour – it was funny, but it was nasty humour as well. I suppose the best thing about Mark was in the early days he was incredibly supportive of me as a musician and as a writer, and he had my back. Mark took me and put me in the band, which obviously suited him. But he also stood up for me against anyone that ever doubted I had any talent. People looked at me and thought, “Oh, she's just a pretty blonde girl.” but Mark knew that I wasn't because I was a songwriter and that is why he brought me in. He stood up and went to battle for me. He was extremely loyal in that way.
Do you know if he had an opinion on Brix and the Extricated?
Brix: Yeah, I heard at first he was fighting against it, and he was furious at me. Then I heard later on (according to one of his good friends) that he was proud of what we were doing and he said, “Tell her to go fucking get ‘em, girl.” He could have had mixed feelings about it, and frankly, that would have been within his right to feel like that. What I was doing was nothing at all to take away with anything to do with The Fall of which we are incredibly proud to have been a part of and of which I was a massive part of. What I'm doing now is what I have to do as a musician who has nothing to do with The Fall it is basically the foundations of where I came from and which I'm grateful. Of course, it will sound a little bit similar because we wrote the music in The Fall – four members of Brix and the Extricated were in it. So there will be the odd sonic thread people will recognize but it's a different animal altogether.
I love the band’s mix of Manchester punk meets Hollywood and the West Coast. So who were your main influences growing up?
Brix: It changed all the time, depending on the era of my life. When I was very young, people like the Supremes, Carole King, and The Carpenters and then it was The Beatles, Crosby Stills and Nash, and Creedence Clearwater Revival that's what my mother had. When I got a bit older, I was listening to Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix and a lot of guitarists. Then further on it was Blondie, The Ramones, Adam, and the Ants, and The Pretenders, then The Clash, and The Sex Pistols - it goes on. I had many many eras of listening to hugely influential bands.
It's wind downtime after a show how do you unwind or recharge?
Brix: Usually, straight after a show, we come out as a band, and we meet everybody, and we sign all their stuff and take pictures with them and spread the love. This band has grown from social media which we look after ourselves. Everyone on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram has all supported us and interacted with us, and we are grateful for that, and that is why we go out and meet them every night.
Remember I was in a The Fall a band that notoriously never met any fans – they weren’t allowed in the dressing room. If you went into The Fall’s dressing room – you were dicing with death. Nobody ever walked in there; I was kept separate. Now we are super grateful, and the world has changed. We want to show our appreciation to everybody who had paid money to come and see us, has spent money to buy our record, bought the T-shirt and supported us on social media over all these years. Its time to give back and for everybody to connect. This world is a cruel and cold place a lot of the time, so the more we can spread love and relate to people, the better it's going to be.
Brix & The Extricated Tour Dates:
7 YORK Fulford Arms
12 CLITHEROE The Grand
25 LONDON Borderline
26 DERBY The Venue
27 MILTON KEYNES Crauford Arms