Brix Smith Start Talks to PKM About Her Time Playing in the Fall, As a Fashion Maven, Her New Band Brix & The Extricated and Her Memoir
“I have a granny tat,” the bubbly blond across the table smiles as we sit at the Ace Hotel’s restaurant in London’s nouveau rich hipster neighborhood, Shoreditch. It says, “This Too Shall Pass,” she elaborates. “I was fifty when I bought it. You know when something bad is happening, it’s okay because it will pass, and on the other side when something good is happening enjoy it because that too will change.”
Brix Smith Start was the guitarist of the Fall between the years of 1983-1989. She wrote some of their best songs, “L.A.” and “Cruiser’s Creek,” among others for the rowdy, Post-Punk group. Brix met singer Mark E. Smith at a Fall show in Chicago where she was living after growing up in sunny Los Angeles.
Brix had fallen in love with music as a child while listening to Carole King’s Tapestry and the Carpenters. Hippie camp instructors turned the young Laura Salenger, A.K.A Brix Smith Start, on to her first musical idols. Her father bought her an acoustic guitar at age seven while she was taking in her parent’s music: The Beatles, the Mamas and the Papas, Creedence Clearwater Revival, before getting into David Bowie and eventually punk rock in full force.
She formed her first band while at the elite Bennington College in Vermont, a school she shared with writer Brett Easton Ellis. The band was called Banda Dratsing. Brix explains, “It’s nadskat (a language) from Clockwork Orange, it means ‘fighting band.” Her nickname was also picked out of the punk rock handbook, taken from the Clash song “Guns Of Brixton.” After massive goading to leave her school and concentrate on music by her pals, she quit school and relocated to Chicago with her friend Lisa. “I didn’t know who the Fall were, but they were playing at The Metro Club (Cabaret Metro). We were underage (of course) and Lisa, who at the time was a lesbian, went off with a guy and left me alone!”
Describing witnessing the Fall for the first time she recalled, “They were unique, mesmerizing, powerful, vitriolic, they were anti-fashion…. It was like standing in front of a freight train. I was bewitched. Swaying, like a bewitched heathen.” Young Brix crashed right into Mark E. Smith at the bar after he walked off of the stage, sealing her future. “I was told always to carry a tape with me, so Mark heard the tracks on the tape which were written at Bennington.” He asked, “Who wrote this?” and I said, “I did.” He said, “You’re a fucking genius.’”
“Maybe he thinks I’m a fucking genius or maybe he wants to fuck me or both!”
She’s had a quite the career. After meeting her second husband, Philip Start, they opened Start fashion boutique in East London. Brix was a wardrobe stylist, buyer, as well as a co-presenter on the U.K. television show, Gok’s Fashion Fix. How did this woman manage to be Joan Rivers and Courtney Love in the same lifetime? You could never say she wasn’t ambitious. In fact, Brix paved the way for many women in rock & roll.
“Joy Division were one of my biggest influences. By the time I got to Manchester, Ian was dead and New Order was there and “Blue Monday” had come out. So of course, I loved New Order. All the Manchester bands, like New Order, the Buzzcocks, and the Fall grew up together so I was immediately infiltrated to that crew.” Brix adapted to her surroundings once in England, even though people called her “the Linda McCartney” of the band.
“It was normal, working-class English blokes and then this little, pretty blond girl comes there which was bound to shake it up, which I’m sure was Mark’s intentions. Pretty soon they saw that I was on the writing credit and the sound was slightly changing and becoming more commercial. So the biggest success the Fall had were during the Brix years.”
Like many women in their careers, Brix had to prove herself twice over to be accepted. Her mother who was very successful working at CBS television station lifted Brix up at an early age by letting her know she could do anything she wants in life and should never feel as if she has to have children. Brix was given complete freedom.
Within six weeks of meeting Mark E. Smith, twenty year old Brix was married to him and living in squalor in his Manchester flat, with his ex’s knickers strewn about the dirty hovel.
Is she scarred from being married to the controlling yet enigmatic singer of The Fall from 1983-1989? After all, at his worst he was a crazy speed-and-alcohol abuser who brought a new girlfriend on their last tour together.
“Basically, I am in a place where I actually have no anger towards him what-so-ever. Not only that, I am grateful for what we had together. I am grateful that we wrote all those incredible songs and that I was put together with a song writing partner that taught me so much.” Incredible songs which continue to have brooding, post-punk lovers dancing such as: “US 80’s-90’s”, “2 X 4,” “Lay Of The Land,” “Hit The North,” “L.A.,” and “Cruiser’s Creek,” with The Fall’s 1989 album This Nation’s Saving Grace, becoming a mainstay in the record collections of cool kids everywhere. The Fall even made it in the top 40 with a cover of The Kinks’ “Victoria.”
Out of the initial songs that Mark E. Smith had heard, one went to the Fall and the rest went to the Adult Net. So how did her third band, the Adult Net, come about?
“I was really into psychedelic music and power pop and quite into punk. So I wanted it to be a fusion of all those things. The original Adult Net included members of the Fall with pseudonyms, but that couldn’t really carry on so then the second version, which is the version on the album, was my dream band. It was Clem Burke of Blondie on drums, James Eller on bass, Craig Gannon of the Smiths on guitar.”
Brix is a force of nature. Trudging on through the highs and lows of a chaotic, yet successful, music career, she is all-too-familiar with battling demons. During the Fall she was anorexic, and after the band broke up, she had a pill issue while fighting the depression which kept her chained to the bed. Courtney Love had turned her on to the Benzodiazepine drug, Rohypnol, which numbed her out. Even after marrying her current husband, she found herself feeling uninspired.
My husband said, “Why don’t you pick up the guitar again. You’re such a great singer and songwriter. It seems criminal you aren’t playing.” I said, “Fuck off.”
Steve Handley, who was the bass player of the Fall for twenty years, wrote a book called The Big Mid Week, and it was at his launch party where they decided to jam together again. Brix was secretly playing again after giving away most of her guitars. An epiphany brought her out of her depression once again and she thought, “Holy shit, stand up and claim what is yours. Stand in the light and bring it down. It doesn’t matter that you’re a woman in your fifties, you look fantastic, you’re happy, you’re grounded. Show people that you can do it and you can have it all and in fact be more powerful now than you were then.”
These days, the creativity that Brix feels flows out from her creative consciousness and is sometimes inspired by friends who have passed away. It illuminates the lyrics for her touring band, Brix & The Extricated. They have recorded and mixed an album this year and she is currently on tour. She has a contagious excitement, the kind usually reserved for teenagers, when she speaks of bands she would like to share the stage with, such as The Fat White Family, who have cited The Fall as one of their biggest influences.
We slow down the conversation for a moment to sip our tea and play with her two pugs, Gladys and Pixie. I chime in with one of my standard questions, “What song would you want to be played at your funeral?”
She perks up, letting me in on the symbiosis of that question. She said that strangely she had been thinking that to herself a couple of days earlier, not knowing how she would tell her mother. In the end, she chooses, “Here Comes The Sun,” by The Beatles. “Because saying, “Something to Lose,” (my own song) sounds quite arrogant.”
Brix is far from conceited, acknowledging Joan Jett, among others, as leading the way for female guitarists in the male-dominated rock & roll world. Her recent memoir The Rise, The Fall and The Rise is a scathingly honest and funny glimpse into her life, with emphasis on her time in the Fall. She admits learning a lot about guitar by emulating Kid Congo Powers, who is a personal friend from his Gun Club and Cramps days. There are even a few torrid escapades observed while living around gratuitous debauchery. Follow Brix from Disneyland, then around bleak Chicago, to the small flat in Manchester with Mark E. Smith, and on to her life as a fashion maven in Shoreditch with her lovely husband, Philip.
*Catch Brix & The Extricated at London’s Roundhouse June 10th for the 30th anniversary of George Best.