Cardiacs, who were they?
The use of the modified Alessandro Manzoni’s quotation seems to be appropriate, not just to show off, but because the answer to this question is less obvious than it might seem.
In addition to the fact that this is a band that too many people still don’t know, it is possible that even those who claim to know them have never fully grasped their essence, and this by virtue of an elusive nature that intrigues, but can also make you retract.
For example, if someone answers the above question with something like “oh yeah, it’s those weirdos who fused Prog and Punk”, you can be sure that he is neither a fan nor a true Cardiacs connoisseur. In fact, it’s certainly not a false statement, but it would be a bit like describing Frank Zappa as “that weird guy with moustache who fused Contemporary and Doo-Wop”: that definition points to some formal aspects that are unquestionably true, but it’s definitely incomplete and, while grasping the actual unconventional attitude that characterizes Cardiacs, it seems to highlight only their most freaky aspect. This is because… there’s more to it than weirdness.
So how do we proceed in order to give an authoritative answer to the initial question?
We could have opted for a classic monograph, but would it have been really effective? You would have read that the band certainly deserved more, that Cardiacs were the offspring of a guy named Tim Smith, that the best albums are generally considered to be “A little man and a house and the whole world window” or “Sing to god” and other things that can be found elsewhere. But probably we might not be able to solve the mystery of Cardiacs, and you might have ended up according to this reading thinking of them as “those weirdos who fused Prog and Punk”.
The question becomes even more thorny if we consider that the English band is extremely divisive and does not allow “middle ground”. After Manzoni, Jo Squillo and Sabrina Salerno (ed for non-Italians, two Italian women who scored a big hit with a chorus saying “we’re women, here’s more to it than legs”), we had no choice but to paraphrase none other than Jesus Christ himself: either you’re with Tim Smith or you’re against him! In fact, it’s hard to find someone who likes the Cardiacs but who listens to them just once in a while: generally speaking, either you’re in love with them (and fans are a sort of transnational tribe) or you just can’t listen to them, often finding them annoying.
Given the difficulty of the task, we decided to play “the Expert” card and turned to one of the greatest exponents of “Cardiacs-ology” here in Italy. His name is Emanuele Sterbini, a man divided into a dual identity: that of a musician under the name of Sterbus (first as a moniker, then with a real band and now a duo made up of Sterbini and Dominique D’Avanzo) and that of an avid fan and tireless spreader of the Cardiacs’ Gospel.
A dual identity that moves in parallel directions, but with some occasional convergence. Let’s take Sterbus’s latest record, for example: the double album ‘Real Summer/Fake Winter’ doesn’t sound at all like a pure replica of the ‘Cardiacs sound’ (on their Bandcamp page the album is described as Power-Pop-Prog), yet the band has also performed Cardiacs covers, participating in a couple of tribute records to Tim Smith’s band.
Taking advantage of these different but simultaneous perspectives (musician on one side and listener/fan on the other) seemed to us a not-to-be-missed opportunity to untie the Cardiacs’ knot in order to grasp the essence of a truly unique band.
Before presenting you the conversation with Emanuele, we would like to tell you only the sad and touching epilogue that led to the premature end of the band: in 2008 the “leader of the starry skies”, as Tim Smith is lovingly called by fans, (using the title of one of his songs) suffered a heart attack (cruel irony of fate for the guy who had initially given his band the name of Cardiac Arrest. …); later it was discovered that he had developed a very rare disease called ‘dystonia’ which prevented him from controlling his muscles, while in the meantime causing him excruciating pain. This obviously marked the end of the group and forced the English artist to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair, struggling with many difficulties, including financial ones. Over the years, a fundraising campaign was organised to finance his treatment, which, thanks to his loyal fans (and others), was much more successful than anyone hoped for. Smith finally passed away in July 2020 at the age of 59.
Before talking about Cardiacs, tell us briefly about yourself and the Sterbus project. I ask this because the band’s history has crossed paths with Tim Smith and co. at some point, right?
Sterbus is a project that dates back to 2004 when a friend of mine called me that way – my surname is Sterbini – during a gig with the Sweepers (a band in which I played bass at the time). It sounded good to me and I decided to adopt it for my solo stuff. For all the early years, at least until 2013, Sterbus was just a studio project, I was making my own self-produced CDs, but I didn’t feel the need to play them live, until 2013; after the release of “Smash the Sun Alight”, I was invited to play in Kingston-upon-Thames (south London suburb, which is also the birthplace of the Cardiacs) at a benefit concert for Tim Smith. It should be mentioned here that in 2010 and 2011 I had also done two Cardiacs covers, ‘Dirty Boy’ and ‘Anything I Can’t Eat’, which had been very well received by the band’s fanbase and had started to spread my name in that area. So, when I was invited to play, I needed to recruit people to play live! I called the drummer who played with me in another band, another friend on guitar and finally Dominique D’Avanzo (who had already sung on my albums whenever I wanted a female voice) to share the vocal parts with me. The concert went very well and that day I also met Bob Leith, Cardiacs’ drummer from “Sing to God” onwards; he’s a really great drummer with a style I love very much. We became friends that night and stayed in touch. So, my live debut was in London, in front of members of my favourite band! (Percussionist Tim Quy and Mark Cawthra were also there). Over the next few years, we would play three more benefits in England, each time playing our own songs and covers, in a stripped up duo formation with just Dominique and myself, but with our dear friend Noel Storey on keyboards. One day, during a conversation, I asked Bob Leith if he would like to play drums on our next record and he agreed! A dream come true! After sending him some demos, between October 2017 and February 2018 we invited him to Rome to record the drums for “Real Estate / Fake Inverno”, which will turn out to be a double album and that we will be able to present right in London, in the mythical Water Rats (the historical venue where people like Bob Dylan played his first concerts in London) with Bob on drums and Tim Smith in the audience! What a night! Right now we are in the studio working on our new record.
Ok, so now let’s start by doing things properly, as we were taught in school: who (introduced you to them), what (you heard them first) where (you were when you heard them) when (it happened) why (they became your band)?
I met Cardiacs in the summer of 2006, thanks to my long-time friend Francesco Gentile with whom I’ve always been in touch thanks to Zappa, our common passion. One day he told me “you should listen to these guys, I think you’ll like them”, and he handed me “On Land and in The Sea” on cdr. I remember like it was today that I had Jethro Tull’s ‘Thick as a Brick’ in my car radio: I pulled it out, and probably never put it back in. Obviously, as soon as I got to the end of the cd, I was already struck: there was the complexity and the absurdity of Zappa, together with often fast and odd tempos and distorted guitars, with an enormous playfulness and a great desire to surprise the listeners.
Often eclectic bands with their “no genre barriers” attitude end up to not only dissatisfy but even to displease everyone… except for a small tribe of Pasdaran with a strong identity who live their love for the band as a faith. It seems to me that the Cardiacs do not escape this rule. Is it possible to make a sketch of the typical Cardiacs lover? Is there a musical or social aspect that characterizes them and makes them part of this proud minority?
Good question! At first glance, you might think that the typical Cardiacs fan is a progressive fan, but in 15 years I’ve discovered that’s not like it at all: more often than not the die-hard fan doesn’t know if he’s listening to an odd time signature or if the chords are many and/or strange because when they listen, the first impact is with the melody, which in the case of Cardiacs is always in the foreground. Their songs are all ‘singable’ as if they are simple pop songs. Then, of course, there is also the lover of 80s prog like IQ or Marillion, or going further back Gentle Giant or Genesis. As well as the fan of Blur, Faith No More, math-rock, Henry Cow, the Damned, Madness, Stranglers… There’s really every kind of people, all ages, gender and looks…
This may just be an extra-musical suggestion and it should be taken with a grain of salt, but an English friend of mine once pointed out something about Cardiacs fans: he had the impression that every Cardiacs fan had something “broken” inside that Tim’s music managed to bring together/put back together.
It may seem strange because this kind of feeling is often associated with “sad/melancholic music”, while Cardiacs’ music is exactly the opposite, but maybe that’s the point: Cardiacs’ music probably has a soothing, almost healing, or, even better, exhilarating function.
Cardiacs is a band that escapes any kind of categorization. But if someone point a gun at my head and told me to choose one genre to describe their music, I’d say that Tim Smith is essentially a punk. The motivation can be found not so much and not only in some musical elements or in the singing (perhaps the most obvious aspect in this sense), but above all in the irreverent, iconoclastic and irreducibly independent attitude. Do you agree?
Well, if having an irreverent, iconoclastic and irreducibly independent attitude means being a punk, then yes, Tim was a punk, even if everything in his music was written and planned up to the smallest detail. Some have coined the word “pronk” for Cardiacs (progressive + punk) but Tim has always hated this definition, preferring to call himself just “pop”, or at best “psychedelic pop”. And I actually agree with him. Tim simply wrote songs (“tunes” he would say) and those songs had his signature and that was it. Compared to so many eclectic bands (including Mr Bungle) in Cardiacs you can never say “here’s a punk song, this is classic prog, that’s country, that’s 50’s doo-wop”. Tim’s music is never a pastiche, it’s never something ‘in the style of’, it’s always something expressed in his own unique language, through a kind of songwriting he himself invented.
We now come to Tim Smith as a composer. When Smith was asked about the complexity of his own music his response was “it’s always about the songs for me”. But the song form is codified and structurally simple by nature. How do you combine this linearity with the complexity of Cardiacs’ music?
I believe that in all areas of life man always seeks perfection… When he dresses he wants to dress well, when he cooks he wants to cook a good dish, when he speaks, he tries to enrich his vocabulary and feed his intelligence perhaps with culture, by studying… It is not clear why when it comes to listening to music he has to reset his brain so that he can only understand “verse + chorus, and with as few chords as possible” without effort. You can also make pop music by using a few more weapons, a few more ideas which, in the end, have no purpose other than to stimulate the brain and be intelligent, thus succeeding in being more satisfying for both the writer and the listener. And this can absolutely be achieved without losing ‘heart’. I hope I have answered your question.
Let’s now try to analyze some of the fundamental elements in the group’s music, starting with the rhythm. The use of odd time signatures and complex rhythms, in general, is, at least in rock, associated with music like progressive or jazz-rock that is often accused of virtuosity for its own sake. How does Tim Smith differ and why should he escape the same accusations made against genres such as those mentioned before?
First of all, a small fact: in Cardiacs’ music there are no solos at all, of any kind: the few that do exist, which can be counted on the fingers of one hand, are solos that reproduce a precise and written melody (such as the guitar solo at the end of “R.E.S.” or in the middle of “There’s Good Cud”). Or there’s the unorthodox solo on ‘Fiery Gun Hand’, built in the studio by creatively editing fragments of guitarist Jon Poole’s pre-existing phrasing to create an ‘impossible solo’. By Tim’s own admission, they’re not a band that improvises during gigs or writes their own songs from studio jams. “I can never figure out how bands manage to write songs by ‘jamming’ I couldn’t think of a more horrible nightmare…. apart from the fact that we’d end up with compromised bollocks. It must give you an arm ache and get you really really bored and make all your eyes boil…”. Tim would write many of the odd tempos in his head first… “If I just pick up a guitar and start trying to write a song, I instantly start playing the same two chords I always go for and then everything sounds the same. The only way to do it is to be nowhere near an instrument and just try to think it up that way…”Will Bleed Amen’ is a classic example of such a riff. Sometimes the fact that a tempo can be odd is something you simply discover after the fact, by counting beats, but while writing it just comes naturally that way. Sometimes it can just be fun to decide to remove or add a beat to a verse or a chorus… “Wind and Rain is Cold” is a delightful, almost reggae-like pop song that gains in fun with its “altered” bars.
Anyway, the thing that stands out the most when analyzing Tim’s songs, is the almost total absence of laziness in his songwriting. Songs that would work even without that change of key or that change of tempo, work BETTER precisely because at every moment he CHOOSES to make them even more interesting. Sometimes simplicity is not a real choice, but just the result of having done something on the fly, which sounds good at first, and then deciding to leave it as it is. Laziness disguised as spontaneity.
Another element that I find central to Cardiacs’ music is a certain pomposity. Especially in the second part of their career, when Drake’s circus-like, stoned keyboards were replaced by more emphatic-sounding keyboards and a more “pumped up” and compressed production. A negative element in itself, but one that becomes functional and characterizing for the band’s sound mix. Do you agree with this statement?
Uhm, actually this time I don’t agree: in my opinion, a bit of pomposity (but I’d rather define it as “majesty”) is more present in the period when William D Drake was around, thanks to these big organ and mellotron sounds that were especially in the first two albums. (“In a city lining” from the first album “A man and a house and the whole world window” from 1988 springs to mind). In the second part of their career, tracks have slowly dried up, becoming on average shorter and more concise (but not less dense), with a few exceptions like “Dirty Boy” from “Sing to God” in 1996, or the brilliant coda of “Jitterbug” on “Guns” in 1999.
In the first part of the band’s career, the sound relied heavily on the interplay between William D Drake’s keyboards and Sarah Smith’s sax. After the departure of those two, the decision not to replace them, and instead to rely on a second guitarist (though Smith herself and the saxophone returned on several tracks) had a big impact on the band’s sound. Can you talk about how this line-up change has affected the evolution of the band?
When Tim Smith met William D Drake he realized that there was finally an element of the band for whom he could write pages of music that he couldn’t pursue on his own – it was really like adding another colour to his palette. And on top of that, William D Drake also brought his own ideas into the group. There are many songs where Drake’s contribution has been fundamental, among all certainly “The everso closely guarded line”, the epic closing of “On land and in the sea” (1989). When Drake left the group, Tim found himself again writing “only” on guitar. The first album without Drake, 1991’s “Heaven Born and Ever Bright”, is definitely the more guitar-based album in the entire discography.
Now it’s time to play devil’s advocate and talk about the faults that are attributed to the band. Among the characteristics that keep at a distance many listeners, we notice: an excessive and schizophrenic fragmentation, the love for a certain complication for its own sake, maximalism that deprives the music of breath and suffocates even the valuable ideas of the writing, the paroxysmal rendering of a certain “moody” and typically British tendency. Do these criticisms/concerns seem somehow at least understandable to you? If you were in court, how would you defend Cardiacs against these allegations?
I can understand these allegations but I can’t give them any objective musical meaning. Unfortunately, the way music can be received and understood cannot be separated from the nature of the individual listener. Without wishing to generalize, it is safe to say that 90% of music listeners belong to a certain watertight compartment from which they rarely deviate: the die-hard Zappa fan will never enjoy listening to 40 minutes of Sister Ray live in the same way, as the Marc Bolan fan will really never understand the meaning or beauty of a change of key or tempo. I myself once found myself in the studio playing a song that had a verse in 7/8 and the drummer could do no more than ask me “Why?” The idea of being able to play an ‘odd’ part was not contemplated, indeed it was received with contempt. The answer to the question “why” should always be “why not?” If a person is open-minded he’s willing to embrace everything, he isn’t afraid to be surprised by what he doesn’t know, he isn’t afraid to smile, to embrace something new. But when the only way to survive in this world is to show off, to wear dark glasses because ‘no one should see my face’, it is clear that music will be nothing but an extension of this way of thinking.
Musical tapestry to help him keep the drink in his hands, hoping that that drink will make him uninhibited enough to find a way to continue the species. After all, that’s all nature asks us. So who knows, maybe it’s those who are too worried with thinking too much and too distracted – even by a song – who should abandon this planet… Err, what were we talking about?
The figure of Tim Smith can certainly be ascribed to the great attitudinal tradition of certain British ‘irregulars’ that goes beyond the type of music (we can cite Mark E Smith and Syd Barrett, for example). In Italy, however, the figure of Smith has briefly jumped under the limelight only on the occasion of his death. We know that some “big” names have a passion for his music and recently there has been the weighty endorsement of Dave Grohl. We also know that Smith received an honorary degree from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. But we don’t know if these are isolated cases or not. So can you tell us about how and how much Cardiacs are considered by British critics?
I think that even before Tim Smith’s untimely death, some of the music press finally started to realize Tim’s genius and uniqueness. Luckily, sometimes time puts things right, so this is no longer music to be judged on sales or relying on what was fashionable at the time but is judged on its intrinsic value. Graham Coxon, Steven Wilson, Dave Grohl, Mike Patton… There are countless, and – even if we just refer to these four names – especially from different backgrounds, artists who have recognized the absolute value of these records and this music. Tim’s has really his own language, it’s his own genre, there are no bands like Cardiacs.
Do you know of any “sliding doors” moments when their career might reach a turning point towards greater notoriety or were they always destined to be just a cult band? I don’t know… a moment when some well-known figure got it into his head to put Cardiacs’ music on the map by producing a record for them, or if Smith was ever tempted to normalize his sound.
Good question. Let’s put one thing straight: by the mid-to-late 80s, everyone in the music business had realized the band’s strength. There were many offers from labels to sign them, but Cardiacs always wanted to safeguard their freedom and artistic integrity, preferring to remain independent. In 1991, they seemed to have found the right label by signing with Rough Trade, but they went bankrupt soon after the release of the album ‘Heaven born and ever bright’, leaving them without any, even financial, support. In 2005 it was Mike Patton himself, who wanted them in his Ipecac label’s roster for a new album, but the record simply wasn’t ready yet and nothing more was done. There was also another misfortune when in 1988 the success of ‘Is this the life’ was held back by mere technical problems, with the enormous demand from the public to buy the single and the impossibility of being able to print and sell an adequate number in a short time. Just like if they had asked AstraZeneca for the bloody vaccines!
Some time ago I saw on Youtube the award to Tim Smith of the honorary doctorate mentioned above. It is a very touching video because of the presence of Smith in his wheelchair on the stage, defiladed in a corner, but most of all it is striking for the deafening silence of an artist who was characterized by strong hyperactivity of sound… And yet, despite the silence, both the charisma and the tenderness that his smile instilled in the air emerged from that inert presence. Can you draw a profile of the man Tim Smith?
I’ve tried so many times to understand the man Tim Smith. Through his songs, interviews, concert pictures, photos, testimonials from people who knew him… my own recollection after meeting him in London in 2007, at the end of their concert. He was very nice to me, I told him that I had come to London just for their concert and that I was going back to Rome the next day and he hugged me and was surprised. It always struck me that in almost every picture of him offstage that I saw he was wearing a T-shirt of his band. It’s well known that there’s nothing less cool than wearing your own band’s T-shirt. But these are conventions, superstructures: Tim always gave me the idea that he didn’t know all these “human too human” things, almost as if he was, in the end, an innocent, pure child who didn’t know why mixing prog and punk should be wrong. He was a free person, and in this, he was very similar to Zappa, the other artist who, more than anyone else, was able to mix different genres just for the sheer love of it.
A lot of people say that he didn’t really realize how much his music had touched so many people. Because the other thing I’ve noticed over time is that yes, not many people know Cardiacs and even fewer understand them, but for everyone who likes them, they’re the band of a lifetime, and I am one of them. In “Swimming with the snake”, from his solo record, there’s this line “And I love you /And I know you can’t love me there too / Can’t hold her hand to ease the pain inside my heart / Drowns me / out of depth / Over my head” that always made me further believe in his fragility, his candour.
Finally, we talked about your passion for Cardiacs as a listener. If one were to look for traces of this passion in Sterbus’ music, what and where would one find them?
I came across Cardiacs’ music in 2006, at the age of 27, when I had already been writing songs for at least 10 years. Obviously, Tim opened up a whole new sea of possibilities, he ‘showed’ me how a song could evolve, through chords, melodies, rhythms, arrangements…. There’s definitely a Before Tim and an After Tim in my writing. The 2012 album “Smash the Sun Alight” (which already quotes a line from “Home of Fadeless Splendour” in its title) but especially 2018’s “Real Estate/Fake Winter” wouldn’t exist the way they do if I had never listened to Cardiacs. Tracks like “Prosopopeye” owe so much to Tim. And it gives me immense pride to know that Tim himself heard my music, liked it, and wanted to get it! One of the best compliments came from Mark Cawthra, Tim’s friend and the band’s first drummer, who after hearing some of my songs said “I love the way it works…. You can hear the influence, but it’s not merely Tim-By-Numbers, you know what I mean. A lot of people do that car-crash key change thing without getting it right, Tim’s big gift to the world, but you have to do it his way and pick the right changes!”