Lol Tolhurst: ‘The Cure really connected with people in small towns’

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


In pictures: The Cure behind the scenes

Photographer and designer Andy Vella has been working with Robert Smith and his band for over 30 years. His new book, Obscure: Observing The Cure – published by Foruli this week – prints a plethora of his photos for the first time. Here, Andy gives XFM a sneak preview of some of the unseen gems from the book.


Andy Vella first worked with The Cure in 1981, teaming up with the band’s guitarist Porl Thompson to form the design partnership Parched Art and producing the sleeves for classic albums such as Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me and Disintegration. “I’ve been working on the book for quite some time now,” he says. “Robert said to me a couple of years ago, ‘You must have loads of pictures and artwork from over the years, you should do a book, I’ll help you with it.”


Andy says: “I was a student at the RCA at the time and used one of their studios in preparation for the sleeve of the Head On The Door album. But the idea went drastically wrong, so I used the remaining time to shoot some photos of the band. The book is my observation of The Cure in certain situations – as Robert says, through the ‘Vella lens’.”


For the climax of the famous Close To Me video, a wardrobe calls off the cliff at Beachy Head, leaving the band to be submerged in the sea. This shot was taken before the watery chaos began. “There’s a shot in the book of director Tim Pope in Speedos. I would go along to the video shoots to try and get some shots of the group for the single sleeves. I’m glad what comes across in the book is that they aren’t a gloomy band – here they were definitely having a good time.”


The underwater wardrobe scenes for the Close To Me video were shot in a studio in London. Andy says: “It was quite a scary scene, actually, with lights everywhere. As you know, water and electricity don’t mix. Very chaotic – but the chaos came through in the finished video.”


One of the most iconic shots of the Cure singer was shot by Vella during the making of this video, the famous Robert Smith silhouette. “You never know quite what you’re going to get, but luckily I got in there before they started filming. I remember Tim Pope was stood behind me, breathing down my neck. I’ve seen that shot on posters and tattoos all around the world. It’s really quite wonderful to see it appear in different places.”


“I had been on the set standing in for Robert while they did a focus check. As I was doing it I was pretending to be him, saying ‘Oh I’ve got spiders in my hair’ and so on. Unbeknown to me, Robert was standing behind me, which is why everyone is laughing.”


Mad fancy dress fun for the clip for this Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me single. “[Director] Tim Pope would say, ‘You can have the band for five minutes, but if I give you what you want, you have to help me. So on this video for instance, I painted the backdrop for him. It was a whirlwind of getting things done, but I was very lucky to be given the time. Robert kept that furry suit on for most of the shoot. He got VERY hot.”

© Andy Vella &