Philosophical and frank, Madness’s Carl Smyth is more New Age than nutty nowadays, thanks to Ibiza and a new lease on life.
CHEEKY chappy north Londoner Chas Smash – aka Carl Smyth, one-seventh of natty British ska collective Madness – is in a dapper grey suit, in a field, surrounded by flowers. Suited, booted and replete with signature black shades, he couldn’t look more out of place, but appears very much at home. He lets out a lion’s roar that echoes across the Santa Gertrudis valley, and then reflects. “It’s great here. It really is very healing here.”
More Zen than mad these days, Ibiza’s laidback lifestyle seems to have brushed off on him and helped him change his life. “I’ve been a wanker, then I was a tosser, now I’m quite comfortable you know,” he smiles. ”It’s a process we all go through.”
Thanks to regular doses of sun, fruit smoothies, family and Wing Chun kung fu, he is trim, tanned and poised. His serene island state of mind seems a far cry from Muswell Hill and his quintessential London gang who sang with cockney swagger about baggy trousers and houses of fun in the ‘80s, who stood for the working class, the ordinary and the underdog. So what brought this diamond geezer to Ibiza, some four-and-a-half years ago?
“A geographical change with my life,” he says. “Somewhere that was easy for my children and me to get back to work and life. Somewhere that my children wanna be. Somewhere that had a variety of stimulating people. It’s never boring here.”
Ibiza seems to be Smyth’s sanctuary. He has immersed himself in creativity in his home studio. His new music is raw, with a little humour and a lot of passion. He sings with emotions laid bare, about lessons learnt and love lost. “I’m just really doing projects and writing, and I’m doing loads of it and I’m really enjoying it. I’m really living the aesthetic life: create a mellow environment, focus on creation, you know? And it’s fucking working, it’s brilliant, really enjoyable.”
He plays me a selection of his newest tracks, a mixture of solo and band stuff: some grimy, London dubstep; some up-tempo, reggae-ska tracks that nod to hot, hazy Ibiza days like the one outside. It Ain’t Me That’s Gonna Fuck You Up, Fuck Me Now, Come Fuck Me Now, What A Great Day For A Murder and Misery Loves Company are all stirring tasters of what’s to come. He does heartfelt acoustic ballads too, such as the cathartic recording he prepared the day before: “I long to let the good times find me/left the bad stuff all behind me/opened up my eyes to see/got down on my knees to feel/put my hands to good intent/said exactly what I meant…” And just as things are getting gushy, he bursts the sentimental bubble with a Pogues-esque melody about a woman with “beautiful breasts and a derriere made to impress/you’d have given it six of the best”. That seems to be Smyth in a nutshell: an imaginative mind running a mile a minute, forever distracted by thoughts.
Eloquent and literary, he reels off philosophical dictums and humorous quips. He recites poetry with comedy and conviction, slipping in and out of characters like his mind shifts through gears: the country DJ with a southern drawl; the kinky Irish songster. His memory is vivid, his timing as sharp as his suit.
When it comes to talking about his nutty boy bandmates, who have been together (on and off) for more than 30 years, he describes them as a “surrogate family of dysfunctional people” with a “neurotic psychological fucking connection”.
The well-oiled, middle-aged hit-making machine that is Madness has become something of an English institution, endearing and enduring. “We were formed in a recession, we reformed in a recession and here we are again. Once the recession goes people get pretentious again. We’ll be back to our little core fanbase thing.”
So, in more than three decades together, has anything changed? “Our relationship with our fans and our relationship with the public hasn’t changed at all. We’ve remained consistent in our attitude. We wanna be as far away from rock‘n’roll without leaving it, you know? But it’s just what we do. We do our thing wherever we are, and how things have changed is that we’re more aware of each other as human beings and psychological entities and we’re evolving at different rates and we help each other and we support each other and we’ve supported each other through divorces, addictions, all kinds of fucking shit.”
Smyth is open about his own divorce. He separated from his wife in 2005, citing this as the reason for his Ibiza relocation. “When my wife said it was over it devastated me because you know my family life and my home was everything I’d worked for.” Struggling with depression, he checked himself into rehab.
“I spent a fortune to go to Arizona. I knew that I had to re-programme the software. I didn’t want to be a cliché and get drunk, do loads of drugs, be a wanker. So I thought ‘I’m gonna do that catholic walk in the desert. I’m a fucking Irish catholic for Christ’s sake’. So I did the old proverbial walk. It was the best thing I could have done. Discovered core issues. Got the tools to re-programme. The hardware’s fine. I mean, I was overweight and unhappy, now I’m not.
“I didn’t need to detox or anything you know. But you’re doing two hours a day of primary group therapy anyway, which is great. I was in the hardest group, all women; you can’t hide in a group of all women! It’s the best thing I could have done really because I don’t think I’m an easy nut to crack or anything. So that sort of began a new chapter in my life. And I’m very fortunate. I’m lucky that I’m still in a band that’s still considered relevant, still going you know.”
Madness is set to release a new album “this side of the last quarter of the year” so that they can promote it while on tour, when they’re planning on doing “three shows in a small theatre in Paris”.
“There are 15 songs that have been recorded in rehearsals. I’m bringing in another seven. There’s a few more from the others so we’ll probably go into the recording with a really nice big choice, which is always good. I do quite a bit of work with [lead singer] Suggs but mostly I work on my own now.”
Straight-talking, suit-wearing, salt of the earth London lad Smyth has a new lease on life. He has plans, many plans. There’s the play (a gothic horror), the poetry, the “relationship album”, his dubstep project (“I’ve got a fucking great jungle drummer. We’ll put together a live act. A bit like Prodigy meets Gentleman’s Dub Club or something”). There’s even a women’s jewellery line. And, of course, a summer of Madness; as well as Majorca and Ibiza Rocks they’re playing the UK’s Reading and Leeds festivals and their own House Of Fun weekender in November.
“There’s no rush. Good stuff comes to you. It’s that attraction thing, you know? I like keeping a sense of calm and mellow and then it all works out.”
First published in Pacha Magazine, Ibiza, May 2011.
© Abbey Stirling