The Cure co-founder and star of music podcast, ‘Curious Creatures’, Lol Tolhurst is looking relaxed as he prepares to fly from his home in LA to England for the first time since the pandemic to start his promotional book tour for ‘Goth: A History’. It’s the third book on the subject to come out this year, and at 230 pages, is the shortest of the three. Coming along last was always going to be difficult but it’s a very intimate and personal take on the topic and builds on his previous biography, 2016’s Cured: The Tale of Two Imaginary Boys. It’s 11 o’clock in the morning there, 7 o’clock in the evening here. In LA it’s warm, in England; it’s raining and Gothic. Lol is in a chatty mood despite having already completed a brace of interviews with the likes of The Guardian and others. We were given half an hour to chat to him but he kept going for over an hour, such is the appeal of talking to Outsideleft.
Outsideleft: Firstly, thanks for sparing the time to talk to Outsideleft - I know you still have a lot to get ready ahead of your trip, and congratulations on the new book as well! I like the way it looks. It's very easy to read and is a good length too.
Lol Tolhurst: People do love to hear their own voice, me included!
OL: The elephant in the room is the fact that these other two books on Goth have come out this year too. I know you're doing an 'In Conversation' session with Cathi Unsworth in London soon as part of your book tour, which will be interesting, as she takes a more personal approach in her book on Goth - as do you. Given that you will have competition for the same readers, what makes your book stand out from the other two?
Lol Tolhurst: Obviously, I'm aware of John Robb's and Cathi Unsworth's books and they are much longer than mine, especially John's. I didn't really want to do that kind of thing though, because apart from not being a completist, I'm not a journalist either, so that was not my aim with this book - I was just talking to someone about that. I think John started his book many years ago, whereas I wrote mine in the last eight months, really. Mine is more of a historical memoir. When I first started to write, I was like, 'Hey, I'm not a journalist! so I'm not going to try and be one.’ When I wrote my first book 'Cured', I threw in everything that I could think about. By the time it came out, I had started to think, well, there's a whole load of other stuff that could have gone in there. I couldn't say, 'That was the memoir, now; here's the next memoir,' but I wanted to do that. So really, I think it's two things here. Non-journalists don't like doing research. It's like homework to me, I cannot do research. I told my publisher, "I'm going to do this book, but I'm not gonna do the research for it.”
My son has a Masters of Fine Arts in creative writing so I said to him; "Now's the time to pay your Old Man back for all the money that I paid out to put you through college. Write me some words on a couple of subjects and give it to me.” I showed those to my agent and said "What about this guy?" - I didn't tell him who it was, and he said, "Yeah, he'd be good," so I went, "Okay, it's my son, we'll hire him!" That was great, because a lot of fathers and sons bond over football or whatever, but we bonded over this instead. As I say at the end of the book with the quote from Joan Didion; I write to understand stuff, I'm not writing to explain it completely to people. I'm not going to itemise each individual thing, because I don't care about that. When I went on tour for the last book, the thing that struck me was that what people really, really, wanted to know was what was it like to live through those times? What was the experience? They wanted to know from a personal point of view. So that's what I put in.
OL: In my review of your book, I described it as, “the view from backstage”.
Lol Tolhurst: Or even on stage!
OL: In terms of Goth though, did you get a feeling at the time that a new scene was forming around you? Or was it something that you can see more clearly now as you look back and go, yes, it was happening but I didn't realise that at the time?
Lol Tolhurst: The thing about when we started was that we definitely didn't want to be part of any kind of club. We were acutely aware that England is super fashion-orientated. If you're not in fashion, you're out. When I first arrived in America, I would see these magazines that would have bands that I thought had died 10 years ago, and they're still going, they're still playing everywhere and they're still doing stuff. England is not like that. It's very ephemeral and although we didn't want to be a part of that, we definitely were a part of that. That was the fertile ground it [Goth] all grew out of. Without us, without Joy Division, without Siouxsie and the Banshees, without Bauhaus, there wouldn't be anything like Goth. If you go back further to Bowie, then there's nothing without that, so I see it as a chain. Like passing on the baton. The fact that we didn't look like what people think is Goth is irrelevant to me. It's like people thinking punk is just about spiky hair and angry music. It's also a whole other thing as well.
OL: I think you just touched on an interesting point there about defining Goth, because I've not heard anybody manage to properly define it. They all have a different view on it.
Lol Tolhurst: That is kind of irrelevant. Is he Goth? Is he not Goth? To me, that's looking at it from the wrong end. I know Goth when I see it. It really has more to do with how people approach life. I know plenty of people I think are Goth, but maybe they wouldn't themselves, because I see their personality. It's about their approach more than anything else.
OL: Cathi Unsworth, in her book, says Goth is almost like a state of mind, born out of a reaction against the social situation at the time under Thatcher.
Lol Tolhurst: She's absolutely right, and you're absolutely right about that. Goth was the thing that was birthed out of that time. I remember going to the Post Office with my mother to see the schedule of when the electricity was going to be turned off in our town. That was really a time of revolution, but of course, at the time, when you're going through it growing up in the 70s, you just think oh, well, that's our lot, you know. That's what puts the dismal overcoat on, because you think, oh, that's all that we can expect. That's why punk started: because that was the only outlet. As I say in the book, once you have kicked down the doors, what's left? Well, you have to discover the rest of the stuff left behind that's still worth things. You know, there's art, there's literature, there's ways of thinking and they're still worthwhile things. We brought them in and added the sheen of punkdom to them. In the early 70s, there was only disco and prog rock and neither really spoke to us as kids.
OL: I think it's surprising how many old punks now say they were big fans of stuff like that, but they never would have admitted that at the time. I'm talking about anarchist punks too, pretty hard-core types.
Lol Tolhurst: Me and Budgie have had that discussion, because there was a point where you couldn't say that you liked that sort of stuff. That wasn't right, you know.
OL: I think you said in your book that The Cure bridged several different camps at the time.
Lol Tolhurst: People always ask me about that and I hate it in a way, because categories are for radio programmers. It’s not really for Robert and I to say. We said, "We were just pure music,” when people asked us what we were. I was thinking to myself, I think the two main strands at the time were punk and psychedelic, and that's what I feel that The Cure was at the beginning. Those were the things that drove us.
OL: I've spoken to a few of bands in the genre, and virtually none of them would admit to being Goth. Almost every band says, "We're not Goth!" like it's a bad thing. It has been used as an insulting term in the past of course. You know, "you bloody Goth,” that kind of stuff, so it's had a quite a negative connotation. Do you feel it's a bad tag to have given to you?
Lol Tolhurst: The short answer is no, because it's only a bad thing in England, it really is. That's the only place in the world that is so judgmental about anything. There's always a reason to poke fun at something, and that, to me, is a cheap shot. It doesn't explore why it happened and what the validity of it is. That doesn't mean that everybody has to be po-faced and sit around navel gazing. That's not what it's about, but you know, I spent the last 40 years travelling around America, and every little town I go to, I spot them. I'd see five or ten kids, and I'd know they're going to be Goths. They might call it something different, but I know it when I see it. To me, the thing that I identify with is being an outsider; having the feelings that you have at that time in your life and being able to process them through the music. In the early days of The Cure, people came up to us and said, ”Oh, your music - it is so down and depressing. It probably contributes to people's bad states of mind,” to which I say, “No, you're wrong.” The opposite is true. It's what it's there for. That's why it's The Cure. It's a panacea. It's to bring things back into focus about their lives, because if you don't have anybody that understands you, or anybody that shares your point of view of the world, it's very isolating. That's really what I wanted to get across by saying, we're very much a Goth band, because that's what I associate with being Goth. I don't associate it with the various fashion accoutrements and the pale face. That's part of it, but it's not the thing to me.
OL: I think that all came along a little bit later, didn't it? Bela Lugosi's Dead sparked off the whole vampire thing, which brought with it that Goth fashion.
Lol Tolhurst: Nick Cave as well, with Release the Bats and all that stuff. Like I said in the book, it's kind of trite - although I know a man in Portland who sleeps in a coffin. I remember going to The Batcave [nightclub] and yes; there were people in there that looked like the people you thought would go to The Batcave. But there were also a lot of people that didn't. There wasn't anyone on the door going, "No, you don't look Goth enough, you can't come in". It wasn't like that, and that's the thing that made me like the place.
OL: I only went there twice, actually. I did have spiky black and blonde hair and a little bit of eyeliner and nail varnish, but I wasn't really dressed up. I just wasn't brave enough to walk the streets looking like that. So yes, I think you're absolutely right. Probably most of the photographs taken at the time were of the people who were more dressed up, so you get a false impression. No one photographed the ordinary-looking people, did they?
Lol Tolhurst: I think it also panders to the side of English society that The Sun and the News of the World and all the tabloid press loved. They did it with punk, with Lydon too. They love to put out 'shock, horror' headlines. There's a paper here that does the same thing; the New York Post.
OL: I think a lot of punk fans - and I guess Cure fans as well - weren't that different visually from anyone else, but they had that different mindset.
Lol Tolhurst: Mindset is the optimal word. It's all about how you view the world.
OL: You describe in your book about it always being ‘The Cure versus the world’ as outsiders, and Cure fans identifying with that. You also talk about your religious background and upbringing and how it affected you. Was that a big influence on the way that The Cure developed and why your earlier records were quite downbeat?
Lol Tolhurst: Obviously having an album with the title 'Faith', there's some immediate connections. An awful lot of musicians or artists have an upbringing that's mired in that stuff. Whether it's a band like Load, who are Mormons, or a band like The Cure, who were all Catholics. When you think of John Lydon, there is Catholicism there too. I do think having something to kick against guarantees that you're going to do something artistic. When I talk to my friend, Dr Tracy Fahey, in Ireland, she said the idea of Goth came out of times of great upheaval, and personal upheaval is religion. When you're 16 and you don't understand why you've had to do all this stuff for the last 10 years of your life and you start to question that, it is a personal upheaval.
OL: She said in your book that Goth is, "a mode that responds to crisis", which is a great phrase of hers.
Lol Tolhurst: She's great. She's a really interesting person. I met her on the last book tour and we’ve been friends ever since. She was great to talk about Goth from that more academic point of view.
OL: I think you said it keeps you young?
Lol Tolhurst: It amazed me when I read about the woman from Baltimore that wrote a thesis on it, you know, on how being Goth reduces ageing. It's everywhere. I have some friends that run a Goth shop and they just co-opted it into their life. It's their life, it's the way they live, and I can see them doing it until the end of their days. I think it allows people to be vulnerable. You know, we were never allowed to be vulnerable in the early 70s. We were supposed to be very hard and strong, and we're going to take anything, and I was like, no, that's not how life is really, you know, there's always doubts and stuff. I did a conference in Canada a couple of years ago with Dr. Christine Guptill. She works in mental health for musicians and artists in Canada, who are far more forward looking and thinking than a lot of countries. The fact that they invited me to come and talk means they've invested in something. In England, the stiff upper lip business produced men like my father, who came home from the Second World War with what we would now call PTSD, shellshock, or whatever, and had no resources to combat that. That meant I didn't know him. He was there in my house but I didn't know him. The only person that knew him was probably the barman at the pub! My aim is to help people to be connected and realise they're not completely out there by themselves because that's what Goth gave me. I feel connected. You know they're my people. I go amongst them.
OL: Do you feel the music industry can be a really cruel place too, without any real mental health support?
Lol Tolhurst: It can be. I always tell people it's the three circles of hell. I had the choice at about 19 to finish college, and become a chemist, or go with the band, and I went with the band. I haven't done anything else really since. The book business is getting a little competitive but there's still the three Martini lunch and some nice people involved. My agent is a wonderful man. The music business is very competitive and can be hard, but when I arrived here in Los Angeles, I realised that Hollywood has them all beat because Hollywood is just horrible. There are people here that would kill their children to have their film made. Well, maybe not that extreme, but you know what I mean. There is no mercy shown. I've had my little dabble with Hollywood, and now I try to keep out of it as much as possible.
OL: A wise choice. How hard was it for you to transition from being a musician into being a writer, because they are different things?
Lol Tolhurst: Different things only in certain respects. In other respects, I find writing very similar to writing music. Porl Thompson said to me when I told him 10 years ago; “I'm gonna write a book,” he said, "Well, you've always been a writer, I've always known you're a writer," and he's known me since I was 14 or 15. I had to be at a point where I could do it. A friend of mine called me from New York and called my bluff and said that his friend who runs a publishing company is coming to Los Angeles, and I should meet him for lunch. I did, and once I got over the initial terror of having to produce 80,000 words, now I love it. I absolutely adore writing, just as much as I enjoy making music. It's a much slower process in some ways you'd think, but maybe not. We've just finished this album coming out [Los Angeles] and that's been four years in the making, mainly because of the pandemic. Because I'm in music, I'm mostly reflecting things I feel. It’s the same thing with writing. I'm not a journalist and I don't want to be. I want to write about things I've experienced and how I feel and how I can connect stuff. That's what I want to do.
OL: They say always write about things you know.
Lol Tolhurst: Yes, I write about the things that I know, and write about the places that I've been and how I think about it. So yes, it is very much ‘write about what you know’. As Joan Didion said, “I write to explain the world, to understand my world.” Maybe it's something that happens when you get to my age - I'm in my mid-60s - and you look back, and you start to think, 'what happened? How did it happen? Why am I here?’ If you had told the teenage me that I will have lived in Los Angeles for 30 years by the time I got to 64, I wouldn't have even understood what that meant. So, I am looking backwards, explaining things and trying to bring in enough to make sense of it. Hopefully that helps others make sense of their lives.
OL: I'd like to talk a little bit about your Curious Creatures podcast if I may, which has a great title by the way! It's become very popular and has really taken off.
Lol Tolhurst: Thank you. Me and Budgie had a chat a few years ago and said; okay, we're going to do something musically. Kevin Haskins [Bauhaus' drummer] was in the mix at first and we were planning to do a three drummers thing, you know, like The Three Tenors. Then Kevin left to go and rejoin Bauhaus, so it was just me and Budgie. I knew Jacknife Lee socially. We knew the same people, and I knew what he did. We had a chat about it and I played him what we had done with Kevin, and he said, “Okay, let's rip it up and start again.” I called Budgie immediately after that meeting and said, "I think I've found our guy". Budgie came straight back to Los Angeles and we carried on working on the album. We thought we needed to do something to make people aware that something's going on. I have a friend who has a podcast all about drums, so I picked his brain about it and we started our podcast. At first, you know, it was very scary. Now, I think we've done about 71 episodes, and it's been really good. It's been really good to do and to open things up. A lot of musicians and artists will talk to us quite freely, precisely because we're not journalists. They know that their words are going to be broadcast out there, but after a minute or two, everybody relaxes, and they just talk to us.
OL: It’s a safe space, as they say.
Lol Tolhurst: Yes, but a safe space that's going to be broadcast worldwide! We've only actually had one person call us up afterwards and go, "By the way, that thing that I spoke about, you know, please don't broadcast that!" It wasn't anything very outrageous or anything, but we cut it out.
OL: Now I want to know what that was!
Lol Tolhurst: Actually, Budgie just came back here [to LA] because we're starting to rehearse and think about touring. We've got a manager and a management team but he said, "I've only talked to these people sitting down,” you know, over Zoom, as he lives in Berlin, so he didn't even know how tall they were. Now he's met all the people in the management office for the first time and said it's a great relief to see that they are the height he thought they would be!
OL: However, I could be eight foot tall for all you know! Okay, let’s talk a bit about the new album by Lol Tolhust x Budgie x Jacknife Lee: 'Los Angeles'. You haven't got a separate name for the group, have you? It's just your three names. I think you've done pretty well though to get yourself first in the list, as alphabetically you should be last, not first!
Lol Tolhurst: Ha ha. Well, we worked out how people would read it and it sounded good to us. We were thinking of calling it all kinds of things, but then we thought the thing that people know most is our names, so we'll just put those up there. It was also a nod to things back in the day like Moebius, Roedelius and Eno, you know - from Cluster. We have great admiration for those guys.
OL: I guess what really matters in the end, though, is what it sounds like.
Lol Tolhurst: Yes. We also wanted to distance it from our past, so when you listen to the album, although you could tell who it is: it doesn't sound like the past.
OL: Is your band history a bit of a millstone in that it will colour people's perception of the album, and in some ways prevent them from hearing it how you want them to hear it?
Lol Tolhurst: Yes, it's totally that. When I left The Cure, I had a band - Presence - for a while, and we made two albums. I put out some albums with my wife as well - three or four of those. I also made a few solo albums. That was completely the thing I faced every single time. It either sounded too much like The Cure, or not enough like The Cure, so you couldn't win whatever way you did it. We made a conscious decision with this. We made this in a way that most people who have been in a band or have been a musician for a while don't do. Normally everyone has their station, you know, 'I am the keyboardist', 'I am the drummer', 'I am the guitarist' and so on. We decided not to do that on this. Me and Budgie thought that although people know who we are and what we've done, we're not going to chain ourselves to our past. The best way to do that was for us to go to Jacknife Lee's studio every day. Jacknife is a big audiophile and has 10 or 12 albums arriving every day to his house, all kinds of records, so we'd be sitting there talking about stuff and drinking coffee, having a chat getting to know each other better. Then he would pull out some obscure African record and put it on and almost by osmosis, we'd be sitting there thinking okay, well let's go and play something like this. We recorded it like we did when we first started playing as teenagers, you know, just go in and play something and see how it works. We did that for two weeks. Every night we would go home and come back the next day and he'd have assembled things a little bit, and we'd go, okay, that sounds good, let's work on that. We did it in a very organic way, which neither of us are like. In the process I found out for the first time that Budgie is a really excellent harmonica player. I didn't know that until then. I did all kinds of things I normally wouldn't do. It was really an exciting process.
OL: I think a lot of bands now don't necessarily go in the studio. They've got their home setups, and they do things separately, they exchange files, and it gets compiled together. They don't really write in the studio.
Lol Tolhurst: All of the instrumentation for this was recorded in the studio, except for a couple of bits from different guitarists that were recorded separately. Some of the vocals were done in the studio with people when they were in town and some of them were sent in, but the bulk of the album was done here. We finished the instrumental part of it just as the pandemic was locking the world down.
OL: So that was three or four years ago.
Lol Tolhurst: Nobody knew what the hell was going on, of course. We'd send the album to people and they'd go, "We're not doing anything right now until the world starts again.” That actually proved to be a blessing, because having heard it 1000 times by then, I thought: maybe we don't have to be completely instrumental. Maybe we can put some vocals on. I knew James Murphy; Budgie knew Bobby Gillespie. I called up James and said, “Would you like to do something?” He doesn't sing on anybody else's stuff, you know, so I was very pleased when he said, "Yeah, I'd love to do it.” It took him a while because I think maybe he was worried about what our expectations would be. It wasn't until I said to him, "Okay, well, we have got to have it finished now, so I'm coming over to Brooklyn and sitting with you in the studio and I'll help you out." He's like, "Okay, I'll have it done!" and he got it done that week. Bobby [Gillespie from Primal Scream] just sent us three things straight away like bang, bang, bang, and it was really, really good. There were other people we didn't already know, like Lonnie Holly, who Jackknife was working with on an album. He was also working with Isaac Brock from Modest Mouse, who said to us, "How about this?" which wasn't even sung to the track that we gave him in the end, but we just sort of modified it and put it in there. So, there's some trickery going on, but in a good way, you know? Then there were other people like Arrow de Wilde [Starcrawler]. She came to the studio and sang it. We just did a video with her last week that will be out when the album comes out. I am very excited to see that as it was really good. Everything was done in a hybrid way, and there's a lot of electronics on it. Yes, a lot of electronics! There's also some very organic stuff. All the percussion stuff is played, so that helps it feel less stuffy, I think. I do like to be able to get inside stuff and make it breathe a little.
OL: How is that going to work live with all those guest vocalists?
Lol Tolhurst: We've thought about doing it two ways. We will try and do a few big shows, say in London, and get as many people as possible that are on the record to come along for that. That's very possible because we've talked to a lot of people already, and most people are very interested. You are right though, you can't bring everyone along on tour for six months, it's just not possible. The second version is what we call the suitcase version, which is basically as much we can get in a suitcase or two and take with us. There's some electronics involved, you know, to make sure we're playing against things, and it won't just be me and Budgie playing drums, it will be maybe one or two other people. We're thinking of doing some residencies, so we play a smaller theatre for five or six nights and we do some extra things alongside as well. Maybe book stuff, maybe some podcasts, maybe some different stuff. That's how we're approaching that, but it's still early days. We just finished our first two weeks of rehearsal, which was very exhausting if you haven't played drums for a long period of time.
OL: I always saw drummers as the athletes in the band as it’s a very physically demanding job.
Lol Tolhurst: It's okay though because I've got Budgie to rely on. I know if I fall apart, he'll pick up the slack and vice versa. It's been fun spending a couple of weeks in the studio facing each other and working out how we're going to do it. I'm just grateful that at my age, most of the muscle memory is still there, but obviously, it's not like when you were 16.
OL: At least you can sit down!
Lol Tolhurst: Yes, but then you have to think about your back, you know, because the back is what gets most drummers. Every instrument comes with the associated malady. If you play the violin, you get boils on your neck! There's always something, but it's been really enjoyable to get back to music and thinking up ideas and it's exciting as well. It's three sides of music and the last side is something different, but is very interesting. I went for dinner at a friend's house the other night and he has this Macintosh audiophile quality set up. He played the album on it and it sounded just great!
OL: I look forward to hearing the whole album. To finish off, have you come full circle from where you started, going back to basics, playing with friends and just riffing off one another?
Lol Tolhurst: Yes, absolutely. It's definitely full, full circle. You know, here's the thing. When I was younger, I used to think life was: you go forward, there's another mountain; climb that one, there's the next one in the distance; head towards that. I've realised as I got older that life is really more like concentric circles and you keep doing the same things but as you get better, or life gets better, you go up one cycle. If you get worse, you go back down and have to do the other one again. I don't really expect to do very many different things in my life now, but I do expect to have a better experience of most of them, especially with this. I was telling somebody else today that when I first started with The Cure, I just accepted things as they came along. It was like, oh, we got on a bigger tour. Okay. Oh, we're going to play in America. Okay. I just accepted that's what was happening until suddenly it didn't happen any more. Then you have this almighty fall, and you have to figure out what to do. Both me and Budgie have had that. We've reinvented ourselves, reinvented our lives. Now, I will enjoy driving through the Midwest somewhere to play in a small theatre, or I will enjoy playing the bigger places, I will enjoy all of it, and I'll be happy to do it. I might not hear quite as well as I used to, but I'll enjoy it still.
OL: Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols was saying recently that none of us are really that important, even if we think we are, and every birthday represents another year lived and you never know how many more of those you will have, so you have to enjoy the small things as well as the big things.
Lol Tolhurst: That's absolutely true. A month ago, Ringo Starr played here, and I had never seen Ringo and don't go to many gigs these days, but it was awesome. We were probably the youngest people there! He had people in his band like Edgar Winter, who I remember from when I was 15 watching him on the Old Grey Whistle Test. He is 77 years old, but still has the long hair. I said to my wife, “Hey, if I go to heaven, I want God to look like Edgar Winter,” because he just looks so brilliant. Ringo is 81 and he was doing jumping jacks at the end of the show! I said to him, "Do you think you're 18?" and he said, "Well, I just do it because I enjoy it. What else am I going to do?" and he was right. So I look at it kinda like that as well.
OL: Let’s all aspire to be as fit as Ringo Starr at that age!
Lol Tolhurst: Okay, I'm gonna leave you with this. We went to the Latitude festival near you a few years back and what impressed my wife the most was that you go to concerts in America and everybody's pushing past each other, but there she said she saw this guy in a wheelchair stuck in the mud and six people pulled him out in his wheelchair and put him up at the front of the stage. So, there are still some good people in England.
Main image by LOUIS RODIGER
Goth: A History is available now on Quercus Books
Bourges 1982. Credit: Richard Bellia