Join us this Friday, October 28th as KEXP welcomes Laurence “Lol” Tolhurst, founding member of iconic post-punk band The Cure, and author of the new memoir, Cured: The Tale of Two Imaginary Boys, out now on Da Capo Press.
Tolhurst and Robert Smith began their friendship at the age of five, holding hands at a bus stop headed to the first day of school. In this deeply moving and engaging memoir, Tolhurst reflects on their lifelong friendship, their breakthrough to success, and his own return from the brink of self-destruction as he battled a growing alcoholism that would destroy his place in The Cure and nearly end his life.
I was able to chat with Tolhurst in advance of the event, covering everything from The Cure’s early influences to Disintegration, his final album with the band. Excerpts have been airing all week long on The Afternoon Show with Kevin Cole, but here’s the full chat below:
Let’s start at the beginning. You and Robert met at five-years-old, and then reconnected when you were a little bit older, in the school library, over a love of Jimi Hendrix. And, then later you went on to cover “Foxy Lady” on the debut, Three Imaginary Boys. I think listeners would be surprised to hear that, coming from a post-punk band. When you listen to that album, can you hear the Hendrix influence in there?
Not so much. I think the thing was is, we just took stuff that we liked. Most people when they start a band, they try and copy their heroes. They listen to people they like and try to copy it. We didn’t really do that, we went the other way a bit. We said, well, what don’t we like? And what was left is what we played.
My mind was blown when I read that during your first American tour, you felt a kinship with Mission of Burma. Again, I think readers will be surprised to hear that. Or to make a connection from Seventeen Seconds to Nick Drake, which is also mentioned in the book.
To me, they seem a bit more obvious (than Hendrix), but I can see how they might be a little bit different. For us, the first time we came to America, we played in Boston, and we met Mission of Burma because they opened for us at The Underground in Boston, where we played. We became sort-of admirers. We sensed they were a similar kind-of version of what we were doing, but just American, so there was a kinship there… With Seventeen Seconds and Nick Drake, if you listen to the overall sound of Seventeen Seconds, there’s a mixture of that, and also David Bowie’s Low. That came out in 1977 — I don’t know if people realize that, it came out the same time punk was raging… it was very contemporary for us, really.
During that period — Seventeen Seconds, Pornography, Faith — well, especially on Pornography, the drum sound is really distinctive and striking. Can you talk about what you did in the studio to achieve that?
Part of that was my obsession with David Bowie’s Low, because on that album, Dennis Davis, the drummer for that album, has a great sound that — I didn’t really learn how Tony Visconti, the producer, I didn’t really learn how he got that until much later on, but I tried to get my own version of it. For that, we made everything very, very large for the drums. We recorded in this very big room, and took everything out of it, and just used the natural reverb of the room to make it as huge as it was. Because it was just a three-piece, you get to occupy a lot more space, sonically, if there’s only three of you. Just naturally, you have to. For me, Pornography is really the pinnacle of that three-piece Cure sound. The best distillation of that, as far as I’m concerned.
After the “dark trilogy,” as some people call it, The Cure became a duo of just you and Robert. And you guys entered into what you call the “pop singles” phase. These songs are so exuberant. Was there a similar vibe in the studio?
Yes and no. I wouldn’t say the atmosphere in the studio was much different, really. It was more… perhaps, less tense, I think is the best way to describe it. But it’s the same atmosphere that’s always in the studio with The Cure: one of discipline and work, but in a rough, sort-of pub atmosphere. Which is kind-of strange, I suppose. But everybody’s working away, and we work long hours. We worked for a long time. We’re perfectionists with a lot of things, but, y’know. Still like going to the pub as well.
The videos that came out of that period, with (director) Tim Pope — there’s a tiny, twenty second blooper reel of you and Robert with the beach ball for the “Let’s Go to Bed” video. It’s just such a sweet moment. You can just see how connected you two were. The songs from that period, the videos from that period — It must have been really fun to work with your best friend like that.
Yes, absolutely. We had done like four albums at that point already, but then everything just kind-of exploded, and we were left with this sort-of framework. And we just said, “Well, we’ll get on and do something that pleases ourselves and makes us happy.” That’s always the best way to make music anyway.
This was also the period that you switched from percussion to keyboards. Were you surprised when Robert made the suggestion, or were you the one who came to the studio saying, I really want to do this?
It was both of us, really since it was just the two of us. Back in that time, there wasn’t too many sequencers and laptops that were capable of doing the stuff that you can do now with electronics, by yourself. So, we thought, how can we incorporate something that’s a little bit more modern with the new electronics stuff that was coming out, but without turning ourselves into Soft Cell or something. I thought, well, okay, I always liked how sounds are made electronically. I had a great love of old electronic music going back to the ‘30s. So, it just seemed like a natural transition to me. And Robert said, yeah, that’s good as well, let’s do that. We just went for, to make it interesting to ourselves as well. And it wasn’t until we had done a couple of things that we thought, if we go out and play again, we’ll have to be more than two people, ‘cause otherwise we can’t do it. So, that’s when we kind-of expanded the band again at that point.
Was there ever a point that you missed doing percussion?
Oh yeah, absolutely. And if we fast-forward to 2011, when I did The Reflections tour with everybody, I was doing both, both keyboards and percussion. I like doing them. For me, drums are kind-of two-sided. They have the very obvious physical part of it, but there’s a much more cerebral part, which is almost like meditation. And if you do it right, it can be almost a dancing meditation. I always loved that. That was always a good place to be, playing drums. Every instrument has its own attraction, I think, but for me, definitely the mantra of the drums was something I’ve always enjoyed. In the midst of a lot of insanity, it kept me pretty sane.
I did some research and looked up KEXP’s Top 5 Most Played Cure Songs, and, y’know, the hits are at the top, but I was surprised that, coming in at number 5 was “The Blood” off The Head on the Door album.
I know that during this period, your illness begins to take hold. But do you have any fond memories of making this album?
Yeah. In the book, because I basically have to go through 40 years in a few hundred pages, it’s not as extreme on a day-to-day basis as it might sound. The Head on the Door is when we were back into being a bigger band, and Simon’s back, because you know, Simon was always the bass player for The Cure. He was always meant to be there. And he’s still there now, which is great.
So, this was kind-of the beginning of your alcoholism really taking grip. And the albums that followed, you were even more so in its grasp. And then, with Disintegration…
Yes, then I started to disintegrate, yes.
Is that a difficult album for you to listen to today?
Not today. It was for a while, cause there’s this… what I was able to contribute was much less than I contributed before. There’s really only one second that I look at it and think, okay, that came from me. But, now, a lot of time has passed, and bridges have been mended. Relationships have been repaired. I listen to it, and I really love it. And I really loved it back then, but because of my disease and stuff, I was incapable of making anything for it. I would spend a lot of time of my day outside the studio, listening to what was going on in the studio, because in my head, it wouldn’t allow me just to step a few yards back into Cure-world. I was kind-of stuck in this strange place outside, which was totally inside my head, but, was very, very powerful force that was stopping me. That was frustrating enough to me anyway. To actually hear that something really good was made, as well, was difficult to take at the time. But, not so now. Now, I really love it.
During that dark period, was it hard to find creative inspiration when you were in the studio? That must’ve been very frustrating.
Yes, the thing about alcoholism is, it’s the kind-of disease that convinces you that you don’t have a disease. That there’s nothing wrong with you, and you can sort it out tomorrow. It never gets to that point, unless you take some drastic action. But I didn’t know how to take drastic action at that point, and it wasn’t ’til a little while later that I actually found out the truth about it, and was able to access the stuff that I needed. But, when you’re actually in it… Most of the problem with alcoholism is not really about the drinking, it’s about how you think about things, your thought process, and how you react to situations in life. And, really, the alcohol is the actual symptom, it’s not the thing that’s wrong with you. And so that’s what makes it very difficult to cope with. And at the time, I wasn’t aware of what was wrong with me. So, it was frustrating because you’re swimming blind really, you can’t really see what’s going on.
I read an interview with Robert where he said, he felt like he didn’t know who you were anymore.
I can go along with that. I don’t think I knew who I was anymore. And I’ve seen it happen since to other friends. And even with the knowledge I have now about it, sometimes you’re not able to save people from it. And that’s a very frustrating thing to me, and I can imagine that for Robert and my other friends, Simon, Porl… it was very frustrating for them, too.
And as an artist, as a musician, not being able to have that outlet. Or not even having the spark to inspire you to make music.
What happens is, at a certain point, you decide you want start creating again, and you might do something — you might write music, write some words, lyrics, do something. And then you review it later on and realize they’re not as good as you used to do. It becomes a vicious circle. You can’t get the relief that you need, so you’ll go back to the medicine, which is killing you anyway. Vicious circle.
On to a happier ending, which is that twenty-two years later, you join them on stage again to perform the first three albums in their entirety. Was there a particular song that you felt especially proud to play again?
I think I enjoyed playing the whole of the Faith album again, because I remember making it thirty years beforehand. It was a very intense record to make. At the time, we were so young. Robert and I had had a lot of conversations about death, and how it’s kind-of an abstract concept until it happens to you, to somebody close that you know. Really, it was kind-of a meditation on that, Faith. At the time, Robert’s grandmother died, my mother became terminally ill and passed away. So, I think the whole of the Faith album was great for me to play again.
Looking back over thirty years with The Cure, is there a period that you feel especially good about?
When we started, when we knew we could do this full-time. One of the reasons I ended up in California was, I remember the first time I came over — it was probably ’80 or ’81 — I had such a good experience of the place that I just wanted to come back again. When I had the opportunity to, when things changed in my life, I thought, alright, where was I the happiest? And so I came back here.
Do you feel, if you had stayed in England, that you would’ve made the same progress?
I think that, without sounding too melodramatic as it’s going to sound, I don’t think I would’ve survived if I had stayed in England. I think I would be either be a very sad person sort-of mumbling in the corner of the pub, or I wouldn’t be here. I think I would’ve passed away. I think it’s as extreme as that. I had to make a big enough change, to reinvent myself. And really, the book has come from that, completely.
This Friday, October 28th, hear more about Cured: The Tale of Two Imaginary Boys as Lol Tolhurst joins us on stage at KEXP. Tolhurst will present videos and a multi-media presentation, with an audience Q&A to follow, and then a signing. Elliott Bay Book Company will be on hand to sell books. This event is FREE and All Ages, from 6:00 to 8:30 PM in the Gathering Space.