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11 June 2016

A case for Brixit: the escape and reinvention of the Fall’s first lady

Kate Mossman experiences a day in the life of Brix Smith Start.

By Kate Mossman

In pop music, there’s no limit to the number of times you can find yourself back at the bottom. Brix Smith Start, the bombshell Beverly Hills arts student who married Mark E Smith aged 20 and spent six years in Manchester’s most chaotic band, the Fall, is sitting at the bar of a half-empty hotel in Shoreditch at 3pm, drinking hot water and lemon, and surveying, with a heavy eye, the space in the centre of the room where she’s going to have to pull off an acoustic set.

Brix is known to the hotel staff – she lives round the corner and often brings her mother-daughter pugs, Gladys and Pixie, to meetings here. But she is not known to the afternoon diners, who are probably too young to have followed the Fall, and possibly never caught her on TV as sidekick to Gok Wan, or shopped at the boutiques she started with her second husband, Philip Start. She has played only one acoustic set in recent times and she is terrified – but Viv Albertine, from the Slits, told her that this was the way to get back in the game. “Viv started going to open-mike nights,” she tells me, “on her own, where no one knew her. She had to get up there, be totally anonymous. It was horrific.”

Brix is the latest female musician to be signed by Faber & Faber in the wake of Albertine’s groundbreaking 2014 memoir (Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys), a book that recognised the rich seam of experience to be mined from women who’d had their time in important bands, and then left music behind to do other stuff. Brix has also read Girl in a Band, by Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, fresh out of her marriage to her own bandmate Thurston Moore. “She did it too soon,” she declares. “It’s too raw, too cold.” Her own, 450-page biography comes 20 years after she last played with the Fall. Brix is that combination of things you find in everyone who was meant to be famous in some form or another – highly strung, in need of reassurance, very patient, and willing to put the time in. She tells me she likes to have sex in the morning, because then she can spend the rest of the day – she closes her eyes, breathes in, flutters her fingers – “giving off sex vibes”.

I first met her a year ago, at her house round the corner in Shoreditch. The sound of tiny dog nails rattled down the hallway as the pugs rushed to the door, Gladys holding a baby’s dummy in her mouth. Two things stood out from that day. One: that Brix, traumatised by the end of the band and by her relationship with its Svengali leader, had not picked up a guitar in years, having lost all interest in playing. Two: Mark E Smith had just wet himself on stage at Glastonbury. Like Shane MacGowan, Smith is one of those public figures whose continued existence in the face of massive self-abuse is generally considered a miracle. He intro­duced one journalist I know to a drink called “Bia Maria”, a cocktail of Guinness and Tia Maria which, he explained, was very good for stomach ulcers. The Glastonbury mishap was watched with interest by two Fall escapees, Paul Hanley and Steven Trafford, who’d jumped ship to form a splinter group with Brix called Brix and the Extricated. Their audience, she tells me, consists mainly of old Fall fans and their teenage daughters who first saw her on Gok’s Fashion Fix. 

Down in the basement of the hotel, the strange hybrid that is Brix and the Extricated reveals itself. This is a busy cottage ­industry in which hard-gigging northern rock musicians meet a Shoreditch fashionista who’s more than prepared to slum it again. They will play a rock set tonight, after her acoustic one.

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“What do they do about invoicing?” says someone. “Last Tube’s at 12.40.” The band ask whether Hanley’s autobiography can go next to Brix’s on the signing table. “Only problem is, this is Faber’s night and they might not like it,” someone points out.

Tonight Brix will perform in a look she calls Cleorocktra. Her make-up artist, Cher, arrives to do the honours; there’s a Flipagram showing the technique online, with thousands of Likes. Up in the hotel room of the band’s guitarist, Cher mounts a kind of elaborate impasto on Brix’s eyelids. A layer of black, then bits of gold leaf attached like little scales, or chain mail, or the jewels of a miniature Egyptian queen.

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“The first tour was gruelling, I’m not going to lie,” she says, trying to sit still. “We weren’t starting at the bottom bottom but we were playing really small venues. We were all in a van. We would route everything out of Manchester where the band live, so we only had to pay for a hotel for me. I was in the Holiday Inn. It was cold. And wintery. Our manager was good; she made home-made soup in a giant vat.”

She has had no feedback yet from Mark E Smith about her new venture. He still tours as the Fall, with his third wife on keyboards. He and Brix have not spoken for years.

“To me, both bands can absolutely coexist. It is my dream that we play on the same festival bill some day.” Brix frequently says generous things like this; you get the sense she’s decided it’s good for her well-being.
Her manager brings more lemon and hot water: “The sound man’s asking how full it’s going to be. I didn’t know what to say.”

“How can we know?” says Brix philosophically.

“What do you want to eat?” says her manager. “We can get you butties?”

“There is no way I can put anything in my mouth,” Brix says.

“I love this band so much,” she continues, throwing me a weighty, golden, sideways glance. “I was broken because of the way it finished, and the way the marriage finished. I couldn’t get a record deal. I was too old – 36! People thought, ‘What is she without him?’ I thought: ‘Change tack, do something that you enjoy, maybe you are too old? What more could you accomplish? You were in that band, you wrote those songs, you stood there for all women at the time there were barely any women guitarists – my God, fucking own it and move on!’ I sold most of my guitars and bought a car.”

One guitar Brix did not sell was her 1960s red, solid-body Gretsch, which she calls “God”. It was given to her by the New York musician Eric Ambel: when she left the Fall, she entrusted it to Ian Broudie of the Lightning Seeds, who put it in storage till she asked for it back again.

* * *

The Fall have had 66 members in forty years; they have released 30 studio albums and have hundreds of songs. Brix wrote a good number of them with Mark E Smith. She tells me she cannot be bothered to fight him for royalties and rights and things like that, as there’s no money in the Fall anyway. Instead, she plays songs her ex-husband has “kicked to the curb”.

“Mark didn’t want these songs, so we rescued them,” she explains. “People were so pleased, they never thought they would hear those songs again. People wept.”
Downstairs, Hanley compiles a hasty set list in black marker, off the top of his head. “Spine Track”, “Lay of the Land”, “Hotel Bloedel”. Brix whispers that she has made some lyrical amendments of her own, which will be premiered tonight.

The band stack up next to one another on a tiny sofa in the dressing room, holding cans of Red Stripe, waiting for the venue to fill. Brix tells me that she will now be hypnotised. The hypnotist is her guitarist Jason Brown. Crushed beside him, she focuses on a spot on the far wall; he clicks his fingers and her head falls to her chest. The band carry on talking loudly as though nothing is happening; Hanley complains that his new wearable technology is too sensitive: “You do the washing-up or play the drums, and it thinks you’re Mo Farah.”

Fresh from her trance, Brix runs me through her outfit. She wears black sequin­ned Isabel Marant leggings from Liberty – very expensive – and a black sequinned hoodie that looks like it came off the same rail but cost £27 from a Chinese website. Her complicated shoes – Roman sandals with a trainer sole – are Nike Lunarsandiators, and she has aviator sunglasses like the ones in Police Academy. She describes the look as “Ninja meets Beverly Hills grandma” – and suddenly she is a different person, grabbing my arm and hurtling, hood up and head down, through the quiet restaurant where an hour earlier she passed unrecognised, in the direction of the stage.

In the hands of Brix and the Extricated, Fall songs sound different: a bit like a heavy version of Blondie, ringing out with that sing-song, late-Seventies New York punk energy. Mark E Smith’s surreal, free-association lyrics turn into the words of a glamorous Sixties fembot dictator when delivered in Brix’s American accent: “Leave the capital! Leave the capital!” The old song “US 80s-90s” transforms into something like early Nineties rap rock when fired from under her black hood. And Brix’s solo song, “Glory Days”, bears a tinge of gutsy, campfire protest pop. It is “about being on a tour bus and dying”, she told me before the gig: “I always worried about that.” She says the song was delivered to her in a dream by the dead members of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Her insistence that her compositions are implanted in her mind by other people might be the only trace of the woman who spent years convinced she couldn’t write music any more.

The venue is packed, the audience heavily populated with Fall fans – instantly recognisable as solo men jogging up and down, – and hipsters and fashion types, too. Amid the noise, no one hears the new line Brix has woven into Mark E Smith’s song “Spine Track”: “he was a freak whose sexual proclivity bordered on the yew tree”. It is delivered in Mark’s speech rhythms, by the woman who makes Fall songs sound fun. Backstage, she proclaims: “I see this band as huge! I see Foo Fighters! This is the reason to be alive.”

Last summer, Brix told me a strange ­story, a version of which ended up forming the epilogue to her book. In 2011, she dreamed that she heard Mark E Smith was going to die, and that she had to say goodbye and fast. A few days after the dream, she went to Manchester on fashion business. (For some reason, hospitality had got her tickets to see Take That after her meetings, at the City of Manchester Stadium.) She returned to the metropolis she had first adopted as a wide-eyed 20-year-old and decided to find the house she had shared with her first husband, fully expecting that he would have moved long ago.

When she shouted through the letter box, she heard Mark’s unmistakable grumble from within: “Who’s that?”
“It’s Brix, your old wife,” she replied.

He moved away from the door, so she went round the back of the house, peered in through the kitchen window, and saw him on the floor, scrabbling through piles of paperwork. He didn’t let her in. It was a strange goodbye. With a very heavy heart, she went to see Take That. 

Brix Smith Start’s “The Rise, the Fall and the Rise” is published by Faber & Faber.

This article appears in the 07 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A special issue on Britain in Europe