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Interview: Lol Tolhurst of the Cure

Interview: Lol Tolhurst of the Cure

“I don’t have precognition, I swear…”

We sat down on the eve of the release of Lol Tolhurst’s new memoir entitled Cured. Now based in California, we talked for an hour on magical creative properties of living in the suburbs, small-town America, how the Cure is still family to Tolhurst, and the merits of living in California over Europe. Tolhurst was open, frank and amicably conversational, making for easy conversation about more than just his career, but how the sun can maybe change one’s perspective, why California had captured his heart and where the term “Lol” came from.

The first question I have pertains to how introspective you felt about your views during the early years of being in the band. Did you think of playing music as a form of personal; expression or as an expression as a product of the time and culture that you were rooted in during its creation?

That’s an interesting question. I think when I look at what we’ve done in music is a much more personal reaction to events of the time. Especially for the Cure, what we were doing was a reflection of what happened in our daily lives rather than a commentary on society as a whole. I think that musicians commenting on society as a whole is a little dangerous. What we can; do is express the emotions that are pertinent to everybody. One of the reasons that the Cure became successful is that we picked a point where most people are going from children to being adults. It’s a very poignant time in a lot of ways because you’re discovering a lot about the world and yourself. And we were describing that time and our reactions to it. That is something that’s never wavered.

People that come to see the Cure now are still looking at that time. And people of all ages that meet me now still speak to that striking of a common chord. And that is something eternal and almost universal that the Cure speaks to, and I wanted to get that across in the book; the universality of the experiences that I had that others can identify with.

Well that tracks on this end. The Cure is my top influential band and is practically a lifestyle for me (which inspired the tribute band I’ve been in for 17 years now). And I really hear that universality because we were all 14 year-olds crying in their room over a breakup. The bonus that I have that you didn’t is that your music was what my generation was listening to!

Yeah, and that’s exactly true—it’s something that’s relevant everywhere. What made the Cure huge in America is that small-town experience that we had. In America, there are thousands; of small towns that that experience speaks to. The kids that lived there had that exact experience that we had, but only in a different place and time, perhaps. But the experience is the same, despite any of those differences. That transmitted across.

It seems that the setting of Crawley was also a major character, especially the weather, the nothing-to-do, and the barren starkness of the lack of culture and lack of connection to family. Can you elaborate on Crawley and how it was a player in the book and the crafting of your music?

The way I described it in the book—well let’s just say they’re not going to be giving me keys to the city any time soon. I’m probably not their favorite son. In the same way, its awfulness is what inspired us to want to do something. If we’d live in a nice, safe environment, we wouldn’t have wanted to get out of it.

lol-tolhurst2I was just having that conversation the other day with Porl Thompson [the Cure’s former lead guitarist and brother-in-law to Robert Smith, the Cure’s co-founder with Tolhurst]. We wouldn’t have wanted to escape if it wouldn’t have been so vile in so many ways. And also it was the actual place itself. You know you can go on Google Maps and look at the place from afar. I did that recently for the places I grew up in as a child that I haven’t been back to in some time. And as I was going down the streets virtually, to me, I completely understand, now, why we made the music we made. Look at those streets: that’s exactly the music for it. So, yeah, we were certainly products of that place.

I imagine London children had a vastly different experience perhaps?

Yeah, and it’s a much more busy place. Samuel Pepys said, “If one is tired of London, one is tired of life itself.” That’s very true because it’s an entertaining city. There’s plenty to do. And that wasn’t where we were.

So do you think there is a magic to being a teen in a nothing-to-do town? That allows for that serious creative energy?

Yes. I really do. Because the trouble. I look at some of my friends who grew up in London who are well-known artists and musicians in their own right. They’re reasons for doing things were quite different: Robert and I did it to get the hell out of where we were. It was our defense. It’s not the same reason others had. For us, it was a question of how to get out: you were either going to be a famous soccer player or a famous musician. And while Robert was pretty good at soccer, it wasn’t going to be my way out.

So you had to push him in the music direction then? [laughs]

Yes. Most definitely.

Tell me more about music in the ‘70s. That’s when everything was turning over and you didn’t have to have a degree in music to play. Did that make it more accessible or possible in your head to do it?

Absolutely. Before punk came along in the 1970s, it was an impossible dream to become a musician; it was just so far from our reality and it looked like something that other people did. The thing that was good for us being reasonably close to the city [approximately 2 hours by car to London] is that when the Clash came out, we could see that we could do that. People always say it’s about being at the right place at the right time; there’s a certain truth to that because  we were certainly at the crossroads of some kind of popular culture—the summer of 1976 to 1977 that was just when we came of age and it was just the right time for us.

I’m curious about personal relationships, which I feel you adequately cover in the book. One person in particular I always have wondered about is Michael Dempsey [The Cure’s original bassist]. Where does he fit in your life and the Cure family? You allude to him leaving based on musical difference [in 1979] and working with him later [in Tolhurst’s band Levinhurst], but where has he been with you in between those times?

I’m still very much in contact with Michael. In fact, when I was just over in England, I stayed with him at his house for a week. When we were growing up there was a dynamic between the three of us. There was me in the middle, and I was friends with Robert since the age of five and I was friends with Michael, who I met in middle school when we were 11. I’m the intermediary between those two characters, still. In some ways, they’re very similar in character. I think Michael has mellowed more as he’s gotten older, whereas Robert has done quite the opposite. I’m still the in-between person. They still talk to each other through me, even to this day in their 50s. That’s how it was in the beginning and that’s the dynamic that persists to this day. So Michael has always been somebody that’s been my friend and always will be and who is family. He lives a quiet life now, but he’s always been involved in the arts.

How did you get the nickname Lol? Where does that come from?

Well it came about two-fold. 1) It is actually a shortened version of Lawrence in England, like in the band 10CC: the singer is called Lol Creme. It’s the same thing, but it isn’t very common, even in England. And 2), when we were in our teens, Robert and Michael called me that because it rhymed a little bit with my last name. And you have to remember that in the punk scene, everybody had a different name. It was like a teenage nickname that just stuck, for better or for worse. And it was certainly better than being Larry!

In the chapter about Fiction, you reflect on a couple of very powerful things. When those at Hansa rejected your songs and your playing, and Robert asked for the rights back, how did you feel? Glorious? Strategic? Vindicated?

Well, for us it was really actually quite frustrating. We got signed with Hansa and thought it a little surreal. But we didn’t have anything to gauge it against. But it very soon dawned on us that they didn’t really like us because of the music. They liked us because we were a bunch of young guys that looked reasonable and we could probably carry off some kind of musical stuff for them to hang a marketing plan upon. Once we got to that point, it was a little disappointing.

And I remember that once we did get the material back from Hansa we were kind of miserable. We were like, “Is that it? Is that all that is going to go on for the record business?” Initially, it confirmed our worst sort of feelings about the old style of doing things.

Was there a vision you guys had that you felt the late ‘70s industry was overlooking because of the youthfulness of the punk culture? Was that a part of the frustration: No one was getting it?

Yes and no. Because from our points of view, people weren’t getting it that were older than us, and we didn’t expect them to get it. That was the beauty of punk at the time. And like the Jam said, “It’s about the young idea.” And that’s what we were trying to do. It made us more determined, I guess. It was tough to start out with, but it gave us more a glimmer of hope and we could see some others who were becoming successful at the time. So we could do it.

Who was your biggest support? It seems you had love for Mrs. Smith and how they supported their son. Did you have that anywhere?

I did a little. My mother was supportive, but more than anything else, it was the Cure itself. The Cure was like a gang, and they were my family. And it still is to a greater or lesser extent today. They’re still like family. And it’s funny, because when Robert and I meet now, which we do from time to time, the first thing we do is talk about family. We don’t talk about business or music or anything else. We talk about the people in our families because that was always the connection.

The other stuff, like the stuff with my dad—I was talking with Michael about that the other day. He said, “That was something I didn’t really realize about you and your dad. I knew he wasn’t very communicative, but all the times when I would see you at your house, I didn’t think that his alcoholism was in any way going to influence how you would become.” It’s a big part of how things came to be. The saving grace for me was having the Cure as family.

Also, from the beginning of this book until the end, I feel that alcohol is as much a minor character in the book as Robert is throughout it. From the sots in the pubs in Crawley to the agent of blackout who causes you to wake up, Memento-style in terraced gardens or wrapped in a carpet, it feels like Alcohol could be its own character. Can you maybe tell me about this character and how it is that you saw through Him and overcame His grips?

To me the first time I met Alcohol, I had no idea that the reaction I had to it wasn’t normal—that others didn’t have the same relationship or experience [Lol is a blackout drunk, most of the time]. I didn’t get that part for a long time. As things went on, and as my life started to spiral out of control, I didn’t make the connection that Alcohol, and my relationship to it, had any bearing on that. I just thought I was going mad for a couple of years. I thought I’m going to wake up and this is a family thing and everyone does this. And in a way, it was true. I grew up with my dad being the way he was, and I didn’t realize that until I became sober that he was an alcoholic.

He never recovered. He died in the disease. And when I started putting those things together… I had a neighbor who counseled me and let me know that there may be a different way than how I was going on. And eventually I went to rehab and found some people that understood what I was going through and was wrong with me. Once they started showing me their experiences, I could see that as something that I had to sort out because otherwise It was going to destroy me.

Once I figured that out, it was funny—it was similar to how we started the Cure. Then, it was us against the world. This time, it was me against the disease. And then the lines became clearer for me to see. And I knew what I had to do and that I couldn’t ignore certain sides of me. It became easier to understand what I had to do. And it all clicked into place, and it is the reason that I’m able to sit here and talk to you now.

Violence is also a minor character in this book. I was actually shocked at how much violence there was in the book, from the incessant late-‘70s/early ‘80s skinheads to the riots of Buenos Aires and Athens to the minor scuffles in simply getting paid. Do you feel that was a product of the time, a product of society at the time, or simply a part of being weird and young and English?

I think to be honest, it is nearly all those things you said. I was talking with Porl about this as to how we grew up in such a violent place and he was confirming everything I remembered about it. It was a lot like what is going on right here, right now with this polarization we see in Right and Left. That’s the kind of place we grew up in. There were all these people that were far Right and they didn’t want us around. We offended them just by being, which led to violence. After enough of that, we learned to stand up for ourselves, because if we didn’t, we were just going to get annihilated. That’s one of the things we learned to be, as we grew up. And the whole time is similar to how it is now.

On one hand, that’s really sad, but perhaps it means that there will be a really great band that comes out of it. There has to be because it’s a crucible.

Do you feel that punk rock was an extreme art form? Was there an extreme Left wing that was battling with the Right at these shows?

I think if you wanted to look at the extreme Right and Left, I would say that the Clash was one of the bands on the Left in that way. And when I saw them in Crawley, it was very strange. They had an American band opening for them, Suicide, and a whole bunch of skinheads came to the show and decided they didn’t like what was going on. A couple of them got up and started a brawl. And I remember Strummer coming and remonstrating with them and saying: “Hey, you have to leave these guys alone. They’re our guests. If you don’t like them, you can leave, but you can’t do anything to them.” Strangely enough, he had enough pull with the far Right and Left that they listened to them and stopped. But that was a normal event at gigs in Crawley. We’d watch this go backwards and forwards.

I feel this book really paints a ripe picture of the times: the 1980s were tumultuous to say the least and I feel that they were healing from the wounds of fascism and WWII. A lot more right-wing, hardline viewpoints held sway at the time, and you allude to it in both of those recounts of the concerts besieged by riots. You also mention the police-states of Britain and Berlin. I’m curious now, approximately 30 years later, do you feel the world is waking up and getting out of this—is it getting any better?

Hrm. I don’t know. At the moment it doesn’t feel any better. The idea that someone like Trump with such an insane view of humanity can even run for president blows my mind. I read an article by Henry Rollins about a year and a half ago that predicted Trump’s rise. And I thought: “Henry, I normally like what you write, but this, this is way off the mark.” But he was absolutely right. Let’s just hope it doesn’t get any worse.

When you moved to California and then reflected on it, I really felt some kinship there. Can you tell us more about how the “colonies” have impacted your life over the years?

Mostly what I’ve love about being here is that there is a sense of possibility here. The difference being in England, and perhaps in Europe, there is a sense that things have been going on so long, there is no way to essentially effect change. With tradition, people have a reservation toward real change. “Oh well, you don’t want to change that—we’ve worked that out already and we’ve been at it this way for 600 years, so there’s no reason to change it now.” Whereas in America, there were things that were very liberal and very Puritanical, and there’s enough friction between those two that creates a way forward. It’s gotten more extreme, but in general, that’s what attracted me to the place. “We’ll try this. Maybe it will work.” You have that freedom here.

lol-tolhurst3And do you think from moving here, you had SAD from the weather in Britain? Does that sunlight really have a major impact on your psyche?

[Laughs] Definitely. As Dempsey said to me, “The thing I like about California and if things don’t feel great that day, you can go outside and take a walk for 20 minutes. And it’s probably going to be sunny and it’s probably going to be okay after that. You’re probably going to have a different viewpoint.” And it’s very true. Having just come back from England, I love the place in lots of ways, but there’s something about the weather that I can’t have any more of. And it’s funny, because I was just there a couple of weeks ago, and it was the hottest weather they’ve had in years. And I went swimming in the sea. And when my friend suggested going to the beach, I habitually said “Really?” because that’s not something we normally do in England. This was the first time I ever swam in the North Sea. That was something I’ve never done in my life. And I said to him, “If you can guarantee me three or four months of this weather every year, I’d come back three or four months!” Because everything else about the place I quite like, the people, the scenery and the things you can do. But the weather killed me every time. You can’t beat the weather in California.

During the recording of your albums in France and your times in France, it seems that place has a special place in your heart. I’m curious as to why you didn’t move to France instead of California?

There is a point for that. I could have easily gone there. I was just talking with Boris [Williams], the drummer for a time, and he’s been living in the south of France for several years now for the same reasons I’m living in California. But I think it could have turned out one way or another. I lived in France for about a year, and I was half way between the south and the Paris. Had I been there longer, I could have stayed. But in the end, my heart was meant for California.

You shared in the book your visit to Figueres, Spain to visit the Dalí museum. I’m wondering if you still have a connection to art, to Dalí in particular, and how those influences factored and still factor into your life and/or creative process.

Well, Dalí’s one of my heroes as an artist. And I’ve also been to his museum in St. Petersburg, FL. I saw Hallucinogenic Toreador there. And it was stunning to see that in real life. And surrealism has held sway with me my whole life, since discovering it as a teen. And there are other artists that I love as well; the greatest American poet is Sylvia Plath, and I’ve always had that in my head as well. You take the artist of different eras and you distill out what you can and adapt it as you can.

One of my favorite parts about the Cure is the constant evolution, which you allude to in the book. I was heartened to hear that you were the electronics buff and that was a source of inspiration. I also feel that level of creativity and change in society has sort of plateaued: there are no rat-tails anymore, there’s no “new DX7″—everything is sort of played out, done, recycled. Am I limiting myself in this viewpoint, or do you see potential for another band that can do what the Cure did?

There are always people that will always push things forward. At the moment, I think the problem is seeing it as a way to live your life. Music isn’t held as high regards as it was in the ‘80s, you know?

I do, which leads me to my next question…

I don’t have precognition, I swear…

Do you think it possible for a band now to actually make it like you guys: to live on the road, to live off their music–or is the fragmentation and model for the music industry degraded so far, that it is almost solely hobby?

I think it is very hard for bands to make it now. One of my good friends is head of digital production at Universal and I talk with him about things like this. And it really upsets me that some of the arguments that the Spotifys and Pandoras of the world use. They are actually making quite a lot of money without fair recompense to the artists. And when we were starting, there were probably 500 to 700 bands that were starting out like us touring in America at the time and who could actually exist and make a living playing music to people. I don’t think that’s a possibility anymore. And for bands to have to submit their material to these ridiculous streaming services that don’t benefit them at all, I think it makes it harder for them to see it as the way out that we were fortunate to get.

Thank you for all you’ve done. For your heartfelt piece, and for baring your soul and perspective with us. And I look forward to seeing you in your upcoming DJing tour later this month.

Have a great evening. Cheers.

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