The Cure’s Lol Tolhurst: ‘Goth made it OK for teenage boys to be vulnerable’
September 23, 2023
The musician recalls the band’s early days, the origins of the goth movement, and how he created his guest-heavy new album, Los Angeles, a tribute to his home of the past 30 years
“You don’t realise at the time [that you’re making something special], because if you did, you’d be so scared that you’d just stop,” he says.
Tolhurst, who co-founded The Cure with Robert Smith, has lucid memories of a then embryonic band. He wasn’t to know it at the time, but it was a group that would change the course of alternative rock and spearhead the goth subgenre that came into vogue in the early 1980s and never really went away.
“I remember going around to Robert’s house three times a week, because his parents had built an extra room where they’d have, like, Christmases and parties in, but we just took it over. Every so often, they’d chuck us out and we’d have to go to the church hall to rehearse.
“You know what Malcolm Gladwell says about 10,000 hours?” he asks, referring to a somewhat controversial theory popularised by the best-selling author. The argument is that one has a chance of becoming an expert on something if they devote a huge amount of time to it.
“Well, we put in the hours. We were practising all the time.”
Lately, he has been thinking of that period in his young adult life, because a new album he has made has come together in much the same way that The Cure made their debut album, Three Imaginary Boys, and follow-up, Seventeen Seconds, which features A Forest.
“We put that together in a way that I distinctly remember putting things together with The Cure at the beginning. We didn’t come in and go: ‘Here are your notes. You play this and I’ll play that.’ We came together, sat in a room, drank some coffee and went: ‘Have you heard this? Or what about this? Play something.’”
The new album is called Los Angeles, in reference to the city that Tolhurst has called home for 30 years. It has been made with another exile in the City of Angels, Dublin super-producer Garret ‘Jacknife’ Lee, and one of Tolhurst’s old friends, fellow drummer Peter Clarke, AKA Budgie, former sticksman of Siouxsie And The Banshees.
It’s a guest-heavy affair. Lead single features LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy. Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse and Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie pop up elsewhere. The most intriguing guest, from an Irish point of view, is The Edge, who lends his guitar to a pair of tracks. The connection was made via Lee, who is close to U2, having co-produced a number of their albums. He is also involved in the band’s Las Vegas residency, which kicks off next week.
The guests help to add colour to what was initially supposed to be an instrumental album.
“It was completed just as the pandemic began,” he says.
“After a while, we thought: ‘Let’s send a few tracks out and see what people make of them.’ We sent something to Murphy, because I knew him a bit. He said yes straight away, but it took him 18 months to do it. His son is learning to play drums and he likes to play Cure and Banshees songs, so I’d send him little iPhone videos of me playing Cure songs so he could learn…
“The Edge has a place near Jacknife. People forget that The Edge has a history of avant-garde, experimental stuff and he was really eager to do something — and what he did turned out to be brilliant.”
Most of the guest appearances, he says, were recorded remotely: “It was during the pandemic, so nobody could travel.”
One of the songs was written with his musician son, Grey. It’s far from the first time father and son have had a creative union. Tolhurst’s latest book, Goth: A History, features extensive research conducted by Grey. It’s something of a labour of love for both men and does considerable justice to a movement and subculture that has its roots, by Tolhurst’s telling, in at least the early 19th century and, most prominently, in Mary Shelley’s hugely celebrated book Frankenstein.
Tolhurst’s memoir, Two Imaginary Boys, was well received on its 2016 publication. It offered an unvarnished look at his membership of The Cure, his complex relationship with Robert Smith and his dismissal from the band in 1989 after his drinking had got out of hand.
“It told the story of my whole life right up to — what was I then? — mid-50s.
“Because I’d written that book, I got over the terror of writing 80,000 words,” he says.
“But a new terror set in: ‘How the hell am I going to approach a subject like this?’”
He settled on the idea of telling the story of goth through his own experiences and influences. He called it a “historical memoir” — an apt phrase for capturing the book’s idiosyncratic style. He says Joan Didion’s ‘new journalism’ approach to writing was inspirational for him.
Tolhurst says it not easy to define ‘goth’. The term can refer to music, fashion, make-up, “a way of looking at the world” and can encompass even those who don’t ‘look’ like goths. On paper, sun-dappled LA is the last place one might imagine to find goths in significant numbers, but Tolhurst begs to differ.
“You’d be surprised,” he says, “parts of east LA — that’s away from the epicentre — tend to be very gothic.”
He believes, in essence, that goths tend to feel like outsiders, a word that was certainly applicable to himself growing up in Surrey.
“I see it in hippies, even. Hippie, to me, is like another version of goth, but something that’s less dark.”
He says he is struck by the fact that many of those who feel a calling to a gothic lifestyle have grown up in a small town, as he did.
“Big cities tend to be very fashion forward and it’s all ‘What’s the next big thing?’.”
But, he believes, if you’re from off the beaten track, or suburbia, goth offers a chance to escape stifling conformity.
“[Nine Inch Nails frontman] Trent Reznor has talked about growing up in small town Pennsylvania with nothing but cornfields around him and the only thing to save him was the music coming from the college radio.
“I see that in the States especially — there are so many places that are hundreds of miles from anywhere else and the town has loads of metalheads and goths and hip-hop kids.
“One of the best things goth did was to make it acceptable for teenage boys to have feelings and to be vulnerable. All the lyrics before that were very braggadocio and full of certainty. But I don’t know that I was certain about anything when I was 18.”
After leaving The Cure, Tolhurst’s music took him in several unexpected directions, including the synth and percussion curio, Levinhurst, that he founded with his wife, Cindy Levinson. The pair have released two albums thus far, but the music has caused few ripples.
His passion project with Budgie and Jacknife Lee is likely to attract a bigger audience. He has long known that no collaboration or future venture will eclipse the music he made with The Cure. Two Imaginary Boys detailed the breakdown in his relationship with Smith as the band started to embrace a more pop-oriented sound in the mid-1980s, but their bond would not be completely sundered.
“We’ve known each other since we were five. There’s a lot of history there.”
Tolhurst has toured with the band several times over the past three decades, although there has been little by way of collaboration in recent years.
In 2019, The Cure were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. Smith’s red carpet encounter with a wildly enthused television presenter went viral. Tolhurst was just glad to be included.
He says relations with Smith are good: “I talked to him a couple of weeks ago. [The Cure] came here to play the Hollywood Bowl and I went to see everybody. It was strange. I’m standing in the audience with my wife and this woman comes up to me and says: ‘Who am I?’ I knew I knew her, but I couldn’t place her. She lent forward and said: ‘Janet.’ That’s Robert’s younger sister. I hadn’t seen her in 30 years.
“It was an emotional night. We went backstage afterwards and Robert was there; it was like going back to the pub together in 1977.”
“But,” he says, holding a finger aloft, “it’s family. And everyone knows what families are like.”
Goth: A History by Lol Tolhurst is out now. Los Angeles’ by Lol Tolhurst, Budgie and Jacknife Lee is released on November 3