What to make of the musical mind-melt that saw The Fall’s Mark E Smith hook up with Düsseldorf experimentalists Mouse On Mars? Jan St Werner takes us behind the scenes with Von Südenfed
Eurovision and all its pageantry is not something you’d ordinarily associate with Mark E Smith. But if the stars had aligned, Von Südenfed might have represented the UK in Serbia in 2008, wowing the continent with the surrealist wonder of ‘The Rhinohead’. While the “if” in that sentence is doing some heavy lifting, the thought of the leader of The Fall standing onstage at the Belgrade Arena, his foghorn vocalese coming out of every television set across Europe, is just too delicious a spectacle not to consider for a moment. Like Benny and Björn, Serge Gainsbourg and Mr Lordi before him, Smith harboured secret ambitions to conquer the continent’s premier musical tournament. That’s according to Jan St Werner of feted German electronic outfit Mouse On Mars.
Werner and his bandmate Andi Toma memorably formed the short-lived but jaw-droppingly brilliant Von Südenfed with Smith in the mid-2000s. Was it a side-project? Was it a supergroup? Was it a collective? Whatever it was, the dirty electronica left an indelible imprint on the careers of both parties. It wasn’t The Fall mixed by Mouse On Mars, and it wasn’t Mouse On Mars featuring Mark E Smith. It was Von Südenfed, a singular collaboration that went for the jugular.
And somehow, Smith saw this Anglo-German alliance as a means of conquering Europe.
“Mark’s dream was always to do Eurovision and we thought maybe we could join the Eurovision Song Contest,” says Werner, cheerfully, on the phone from Berlin.
As frontman of The Fall, the subversive and ever-changing Manchester ragtag, Smith was always an outlier – contradictory by today’s standards and driven by gut instinct and an absurdist world view. The idea of entering Eurovision as Mark E Smith was perverse enough; entering it with Germans was even more wonderfully unorthodox.
“For me, the whole thing was very Dadaesque,” says Werner. “He was an enigma you couldn’t solve. I think that was what we really liked about the project.”
Von Südenfed didn’t make it to Serbia, but they did go to Norway. Let’s park the Time Machine on the lawn of the Bergen Kunsthall in early 2008, and head in for one of the most bizarre gigs ever performed by humankind. It’s a pristine, functionalist building they’re in, next to an idyllic fjord. The Kunsthall is mainly used for contemporary art exhibitions, installations and the odd music show. And speaking of odd, Smith is about to perform one of his most off-the-wall sets ever. This, remember, is the man who in 1998 fought his entire band onstage in New York.
“Mark wouldn’t come to the stage,” says Werner. “He stayed backstage, but backstage was situated so you could look down onto the stage. He opened a sliding door and was visible to the audience.” A microphone lead was found that was long enough to stretch from the stage to the backstage booth. “And his entourage kept a close eye to ensure that he wouldn’t stumble or fall into the audience.”
Smith needed lyrics, and when somebody dutifully printed them out for him, he then realised he didn’t have his reading glasses. What ensued was the stuff of high art or utter madness, or both. Mouse On Mars’ manager was drafted in to read Smith’s lyrics into his ear, which he would then disseminate to the audience, slurring the words as the music galloped ahead without him.
“He’d be singing ‘The Rhinohead’ on delay,” laughs Werner, who says that specific song was inspired by a visit Mark and his wife Elena paid to the zoo, where Smith claimed he spotted a rhinoceros wearing a necklace. “Everything was completely behind and not at all in sync with the music, but it was so cool!”
For added visual entertainment, Von Südenfed invented an associated band to travel with them – a troupe of three drag artists who mirrored the three in the group. You can see Jonny Woo, Jeanette and Batty Lashes in the video of ‘Fledermaus Can’t Get It’, and they’re also pictured on the back sleeve of the ‘Tromatic Reflexxions’ LP. Dancing onstage, they would keep the crowd moving and engaged, especially when Smith did one of his disappearing acts.
“Mark often went off,” says Werner. Each time Mark came back, people would be cheering. They were happy when he was away, they were ecstatic when he came back! I dunno, it was some weird magic.”
I tell Werner that the first time I saw the album cover, I’d assumed Mouse On Mars had somehow convinced Smith to dress up in drag.
“Yeah, it was funny because that was Mark’s only concern,” he says. “When we had the idea to put the drag artists on the cover he said, ‘What if people think that’s us?’. He didn’t want that. He was happy to be affiliated with them, and enjoyed having them there. He thought anything that helped us get into Eurovision would be good.”
Despite being unable to control Smith, he looks back on the Bergen show with great fondness.
“That performance was so intense and so weird. It was more like an art performance or something, and the people really loved it. Everyone knew it was a one-of-a-kind thing, so they completely accepted what happened. And we were fine with it too because we had no expectations.”
Back at their studio in Cologne, how did Werner and Toma manage to handle an artist who once sacked a sound engineer for eating a salad? Werner says their secret weapon was Elena Poulou, Smith’s wife at the time, who’d introduced them when they’d lived in the same complex in Düsseldorf in the mid-90s. She knew when to call up and say, “Mark isn’t coming into the studio today”. Smith was also perplexed by the pair, which he liked.
“I think that’s what he trusted,” says Werner, a truth appearing to hit him as he says it. “He trusted us! That was it.”
While Von Südenfed had assumed they were “invincible” at the time, according to Jan St Werner, Domino Records had to pull the plug due to budgetary restraints. The band lost its impetus and ‘Tromatic Reflexxions’ remains their only album, though it’s quite a statement. The Eurovision dream was never realised – Russia’s Dima Bilan won with ‘Believe’ in 2008 instead.
Eurovision winners are a “Dima” dozen, but there was only ever one Mark E Smith.