The former drummer for the goth stalwarts on his new memoir, the band’s early punk inspirations, and why he’s glad he didn’t win his lawsuit against them
Lol (Laurence) Tolhurst and Robert Smith met aged five at primary school in Crawley, West Sussex, in 1964. Later, while at St Wilfrid’s Catholic secondary school, they formed a band – Easy Cure – with fellow pupil Michael Dempsey (with Smith on lead guitar and vocals, Tolhurst on drums and Dempsey on bass). In 1978 they changed their name to the Cure, signed to Fiction Records and released their first single, Killing an Arab, a two-and-a-half minute slice of post-punk pop inspired by Albert Camus’ novel L’Etranger. The Cure’s early, doomy phase brought them a devoted UK fanbase, with the band going on to huge international success with more pop-leaning albums including The Head on the Door (1985, by which time Tolhurst had moved onto keyboards) and Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me (1987). The band’s lineup changed often, with Smith and Tolhurst the only constants, until 1989 when Tolhurst, by then an alcoholic, was asked to leave the band. In 1994, he sued Smith for royalties and joint ownership of the band’s name and lost. The two have since reconciled and played a Cure gig together in Sydney in 2011. Tolhurst currently lives in LA where he records with his band, Levinhurst. His new memoir, Cured: The Tale of Two Imaginary Boys, is published by Quercus.
The suburbs of the 1970s are a vivid presence in the opening chapters of your book. Was forming a band a reaction to the bleakness of it all?
People forget that in 1970s England there was still a hangover from the second world war, postwar austerity was still around and that didn’t change till the 80s. The only thing for us to do – our only defence – was to make our society. In that way it was a good thing, because it stimulated people to do stuff. If you’re too comfortable, you probably don’t want to change things too much.
You and Robert found an escape in punk – what was it that appealed?
I can remember the first Clash album, and it was something completely different for us. We’d been used to either disco or overblown prog. But the energy of punk completely resonated, and that idea that something had to change. But then, of course, we put it through a slightly different lens because we were more isolated than somebody who was living in the capital; we took longer to register how things changed.
There are quite a few violent incidents in the book!
I look back on it now and I realise it was probably all quite dangerous, but it was something we were used to. We dressed in old mohair jumpers and jumble-sale trousers and walking down the streets in Crawley, people would always say things to us. And then sooner or later, someone would come out and try to take a pop. At one of our first proper gigs in Soho, we had a lot of skinheads there who had assumed something entirely wrong about us from the title of Killing an Arab. We were expecting them to lay into us but then the biggest guy, with a tattooed eagle on his chest, decided he loved us and after that, we were fine. Even at that age, Robert was able to make people feel somehow included.
You say Pornography (1982) was your favourite Cure album. Why?
The distillation of the sounds that we had built up by that time. I mean, any band that tells you they’ve invented this new sound is being a bit disingenuous – you learn it bit by bit – and for us we decided we would play the bits that we liked and disregard the rest. And gradually, by that time we got to Pornography, we’d got to the pinnacle, for us, of the sound we wanted as a three-piece band. And I think, in terms of emotional intensity, it’s really the most succinct and it works well in that way. I like other albums for different things. I mean, thank goodness, we have quite a vast catalogue, so there was a lot of room for that.
The Cure had huge success in the US, not always a given with British bands. Why?
The early shows, we played with this Boston band Mission of Burma, who were kindred spirits. We appealed to people who lived in small towns in America, the same kind of people as in England, and from very early on we played lots of small towns, for months and months at a time, in the kind of clubs where people would see their local bands. So we really connected with people. People still write to me from those towns that saw us back in those days; we’re like adopted sons. That’s what worked for the Cure.
You talk very honestly in the book about your descent into alcoholism caused by the stresses of touring…
It was a lot of pressure, although, let’s be honest, not the sort of pressure you face if you’re working in a factory. But you’re putting people together who every night have to be an extreme version of themselves and then you were doing long journeys and we’d just be bored. Also most English people drink in one way or another, and so that’s where we found ourselves. With that kind of intensity and sleep deprivation and everything else, in the end it’s going to turn things a little mad.
You describe your legal proceedings against Robert Smith as something you were regretting even as you pushed them forward.
I set it in motion because of my resentment [at being pushed out of the band] but once these things are started it becomes this unstoppable thing. I’m honestly glad I lost though. I would have had a little more money for a while and I would have had some kind of feeling of victory, but I would be back in a very bad situation, if I was alive at all.
You wrote to Robert years later to make amends. He wrote straight back. Did you expect that?
I didn’t not expect it, does that make sense? That’s what I wanted to explain in the book. I knew if I admitted completely to the part I played in the bad stuff, then anyone who is really a friend would say, “OK, I forgive you.” Sometimes people see a band in a different way and they forget it’s just people.
How did playing with the Cure again in 2011 feel?
I remember looking out into the audience and seeing somebody that I had perhaps seen before at a show maybe 30 years before. They were older, like me, but it felt like no time had passed at all, and that was a pretty wonderful feeling.
And do you think you will ever make music with Robert again?
The good thing about my life now is that anything is possible, whereas around 25 years ago, very little was possible for about a year or two, in any way shape or form.
© The Guardian