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The Process: Lol Tolhurst, Goth: A History, 2023

In which an artist discusses making a particular work
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The Process: Lol Tolhurst, Goth: A History, 2023

In which an artist discusses making a particular work

The Process: Lol Tolhurst, Goth: A History, 2023

Gray Tolhurst
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A month before my father officiated my marriage on a cliffside in Bolinas, California, my parents took me shopping for a wedding shirt in San Francisco. While we were browsing in a boutique in Pacific Heights, deciding between gray and blue, “Just Like Heaven” by the Cure began playing through the store speakers. 

“Do you know this song, Dad?” I joked. He looked back inquisitively, unable to discern the low-volume melody with his percussion-damaged hearing. Behind us, the salesperson said to her coworker, “This is definitely one of my top ten favorite songs.”

“Does the Cure still tour?” her coworker asked. 

“I’m not sure. They’re hella old now.”

We all know this song. We hear it in Ubers and elevators, grocery stores and train stations, on first dates and during heartbreaks, at bat mitzvahs and weddings. It is, by all definitions of the word, a hit. Unbeknownst to the girls behind the register, I know this song, too, because my dad helped write it.

Meanwhile, in the boutique, my father, blissfully out of earshot, handed me a shirt to try on; the clerk tapped her fingers to the sound of my dad playing keyboards in 1987. This shadow of influence—the work of artistic forebears—weighs heavily on the minds of aspiring artists. In my case, this anxiety is twofold in the sense that my flesh-and-blood patriarch is also my artistic forebear. Early in my career, I distanced myself from his scope of influence by a refusal of proximity. I learned guitar, but never drums or keyboard; went to graduate school for creative writing instead of touring with my band; and published poems instead of songs. I tried my best to distance myself and my work from what he had done, in pursuit of something he had no jurisdiction over, something that wouldn’t elicit comparison, where my last name didn’t matter.

If my father has taught me anything, it’s that avoidance breeds suffering, and in my early twenties, while I tried to focus on making chapbooks and finishing my MFA, I found myself playing in rock groups almost by accident, and eventually formed my own group, Topographies. As if by osmosis, the echoes of my father’s record collection pedagogy in my early years were in Topographies’ music—Joy Division, Can, the Fall. At the dinner table when I was growing up, we discussed the fact that Interpol borrowed from Joy Division (but more from the Chameleons). I was read Camus before bedtime. I was ten years old, and I didn’t know these were gifts: an upbringing in which art-making was regarded as a serious and reasonable life choice, and being given the knowledge that no one can escape the weight of the great artists who came before them. I, like most artists, am both buoyed and haunted by the artists I admire. But I hold the unique privilege that one of those specters of music history is often in my apartment for a weekend visit, playing with my dog on the air mattress, trying to find a vegan lunch option.

When my father first approached me about a possible collaboration, about doing the research for his book Goth: A History, which traces goth from its eighteenth-century literary roots to its flourishing as a subculture, I could sense in our conversation a mutual reticence. We love all the same things, but have never had much success in collaboration. Once, on a weekend trip to the Northern California coast, we tried making music together, but did so with such trepidation and caution around each other that we produced something unlistenable and resorted to hiking instead. However, after some deliberation, I agreed to be his researcher for this project because I realized that working together on this book was markedly different: we weren’t trying to create something new but were continuing a conversation we’d already been having my entire life. Like building a deck or fixing a car, working on Goth: A History became the intermediary for a deeper experience of connection between us, not only as father and son but as two artists with deep admiration for each other.

—Gray Tolhurst

THE BELIEVER: Why did you want to write a book about the history of goth? 

LOL TOLHURST: For me, this book was a chance to expand my writing capability. The first book I wrote, Cured [: The Tale of Two Imaginary Boys], was a memoir, and that was terrifying. But it was easy to write, because all I had to do was remember things and pull out the things that were interesting about those experiences and then figure out, well, if it’s interesting to me, will it be interesting to somebody else? But this book was a whole different beast. You know: Why write a book about goth culture? Does anybody really care? I mean, other than other goths? I wanted to do something that would make people care. I wanted to articulate how goths fit into the cultural framework. You helped me do that. You studied anthropology. I wanted this book to be a cultural anthropology of goth. Goth is not just entertainment—you know that. The movement was about how to understand what the hell was going on with me, with everything. Goth was the way I understood the world.

BLVR: Yes, I totally agree. Goth is a countercultural movement. Goth: A History is tracing the continued history of that counterculture. It’s interesting to try to contextualize something so unwieldy as an entire movement in a single book, especially a movement like goth that is still living and evolving. When I read nonfiction, I always ask myself, What value does this perspective have? You know, like: What value does the perspective of this specific researcher, this specific journalist, have? I think there’s an implicit value to you being the author of Goth: A History because you were there at the origins of the movement, and you’ve done so much to shape the musical and cultural aesthetic. 

LT: Well, I can look very clearly and succinctly at the times when it was going on, the times when I was involved with it, and I do have a point of view about that. So that gives me the right to write about it, I guess. I mean, it doesn’t mean that I have the final word by any means, but that really wasn’t what I wanted to do, anyway. I wanted to write about where goth came from. I wanted to open a discussion.

BLVR: You wanted to expand the dialogue. You’re not trying to delineate. I mean, the way I view the book is that it’s not a project of defining or cataloging goth. That is the role of the archivist or the art historian or whatever, to codify and partition everything into little boxes.

LT: I always hated the idea that everything has to be categorized into a little box.

BLVR: Nobody wants to pigeonhole themselves into a single movement. But if you had to define it, what is goth?

LT: I believe the word goth was originally used to describe medieval churches where the central architectural feature was the windows that would let in light. I like this origin of the word because it seems like an accurate description of what goth music is doing too. Goth music lets the light in. I know goth music is associated with darkness, but I actually really do associate it with light. The best goth music illuminates the darkest corners of us. Goth is not somebody wearing bats on their head or, you know, sleeping in a casket. It’s a way of looking at things and perceiving the world.

BLVR: Would you say that it’s more of a philosophy than an aesthetic?

LT: Yes, it’s more of a philosophy because it is similar to the ethos of punk. I mean, one of the things goth got from punk was the do-it-yourself attitude, and the notion that you could actually be whoever you wanted to be. Back in the day, at the Batcave, not everybody dressed like what we perceive now as goth. There were some very, very normal-looking people, and some very outrageous-looking people, as well. You could be a little geeky, you could be a little strange, but you didn’t have to have all the right clothes to be accepted. Everybody was welcome. It’s much more of a philosophical standpoint than an aesthetic standpoint.

BLVR: Things like goth and punk get filtered into the culture as aesthetics of mainstream fashion. It’s their most visible aspect, and also their most consumable aspect. But it’s interesting that at the Batcave there weren’t tons of people that were visibly goth, because the aesthetic of goth was still in development. What do you think about the recognized goth aesthetic?

LT: You know this because you lived with me through your formative years. I subscribe to some aspects of the goth aesthetic. I don’t own many clothes that are not monochromatic. But I also feel that, like punk, goth has an aesthetic freedom and can encompass lots of different things. I think it was a natural progression that the aesthetic of goth, which was post-punk, was darker and gloomier than punk. You have to think of where it came from. Goth came from the end of the ’70s in England, which was pretty grim in lots of ways. It fit the national mood, especially in England. Goth is also less nihilistic and more serious and sensual than punk was.

BLVR: Would you say the aesthetic of goth is related to the political and social circumstance of late-’70s England?

LT: Absolutely. It came out of that culture and that history. The thing that drew me in and made it something I wanted to explore was the fact that it had more emotions in it than the straight nihilism of punk. Punk was really about kicking down the doors and destroying everything, and, you know, that didn’t last long, because obviously at some point you’ve got to have something to do. The postwar world naturally transitioned from punk to goth. I loved goth. It gave me a reason to be sad, but it also gave me a reason to be happy.

BLVR: It’s easy to subdivide and categorize this music, this fashion, this art, within the timeline of cultural history and art history. But when you’re in something like that, when you’re part of the movement, I imagine it’s harder to discern.

LT: Yes, absolutely. It is. It’s really unknown to you when you’re in the thick of it, because you’re living it. You’re not analyzing. That’s why it was good for me to wait until this point in my life to write about some things that happened forty years ago. Without that distance, I don’t think I could have made a correct analysis of it. I couldn’t have understood it.

BLVR: I also question how much dialogue there was at the time about this being a new thing or if people just thought of it as rock and roll. 

LT: No, I definitely think people thought of it as something different. I know that’s true because that change had come a little earlier, in ’77, ’76, with the punk movement. We definitely considered ourselves to be apart from rock and roll, even though, as you know, many years later, looking back, we saw we were influenced by certain aspects of what came before us. It was sort of de rigueur at the time to pretend the world didn’t exist before 1976. But, of course, the world did exist before 1976. Goth could not have existed without punk. 

BLVR: When the Cure was making music, who were you thinking of as your forebears? 

LT: There’s a psychedelic feel about a lot of the things we made. But it was in a less blues-based kind of way, I think. We came into it more out of the three chords and the truth-telling of punk. If I look at bands that came before us, like Can, for instance, they sounded technically quite competent and equally technically incompetent. And that’s actually what made them good. I mean, I loved drummers like Jaki Liebezeit because he was very brilliant at what he was doing. But it wasn’t of the time either. It was a different style. And he wanted to create a different style, to be something different. What’s his famous phrase? I think he said: “You must play monotonous.” And I understood that, because that’s where I wanted to go. I didn’t want to fill out the drums with a lot of different fills. And even though I listened to people like Billy Cobham and others who were very intricate drummers, that wasn’t who I saw myself as then. I saw myself as pushing things in a more minimal way. That minimalism really started with Seventeen Seconds. We thought of ourselves as being experimental, not like the next thing after Gene Vincent. I look at myself playing and I know I got some things from Ringo. I see where I get the hi-hat from him and Charlie Watts. So there are things that came down the line. I can’t deny they did. There was a time when we naively thought we had escaped the past. I don’t think you can escape the past.

BLVR: All the people you name—like Ringo, Charlie Watts—none of those people are particularly goth. Would you agree?

LT: They weren’t goth, but I felt they had a germ of it. It’s not even originality; it’s that they believed in what they were doing. They were genuine. And that’s what I was looking for. I was looking for something that was genuine, that felt good to me.

BLVR: What was it like working with me, your son, as a researcher and collaborator on this book project? 

LT: There are fewer opportunities in the modern world to work with your children, or with your parents, than there used to be. Pre–Industrial Revolution, that used to be the thing—you were destined to do what your father or mother did, and that was who you were. The world works differently now, and that’s probably for the best, but I valued and enjoyed the time I spent working with you as your equal, as a fellow artist. It’s exciting for me to engage with somebody I love on that level. Some fathers and sons work stuff out on the golf course or at the basketball hoop or something. But I think it was important for us to find that connection in this book. It was mystical and wonderful. Can I flip the tables? How was it for you?

BLVR: It was challenging for me to work on this book with you, because I think I have this natural desire to want to do better than you. I had to transcend that. There was bound to be some tension because we work in the same fields and are interested in the same things. I’ll admit there was a period, when we were working on the book, when I wanted to beat you.

LT: Like physically beat me with the book? [Laughs]

BLVR: No. I wanted to best you in it. 

LT: You wanted to have your own thing.

BLVR: Prose writing was a wonderful medium to collaborate in because it’s something we both do, but at same time it’s not our primary medium.

LT: It’s more of a primary medium for you because you’ve been trained in it. You were able to put together the research for Goth: A History in a way I could not do.

BLVR: Well, that’s because you didn’t go to an American college. I did attend a graduate writing program, but in many ways writing can’t be taught. By collaborating on this book project, I think, we were able to take our egos out of it. It helped that the book was a history of goth music. It’s not a transcription of your life. The book is about the movement that you helped found and shape, but it’s one step removed from you. It wasn’t like giving you my song or something, or vice versa, and us trying to cocreate an entirely new piece of art together. I think cocreating at that level is difficult with any other person, really.

LT: As your father, I always wanted, and I still always want, for you to just be doing the things you are good at. I want you to eclipse me. And that’s not because I’m not proud of what I’ve done. I didn’t have this kind of relationship with my father, because I wasn’t in awe of him. I’m not saying you’re in awe of me. I wanted to be better than my father too. Sure. But I didn’t want to be better than him at what he would have thought was better than him. He was a very damaged person in lots of ways, so the last thing I wanted to do was imitate his path. I didn’t want to be him. I didn’t want to go into the navy. I didn’t want to be the kind of person that he became in the latter part of his life. I didn’t want to be as unhappy as he was.

BLVR: Yeah. I mean, even though I think of your life and what you do as cool, I still do not want to be you.

LT: No, of course not. I want you to be self-actualized, which is one of the reasons I never went out at the very beginning, calling up all the managers I knew, and all the people I knew, for you. I wasn’t going to do any of that, because that is unnecessary for you, because you are strong enough. I’m in awe of the way you go about some things. When I came to see you recently, you had a hundred pieces of music you were working on—I’m in awe of somebody that can be so purposeful about composition. Composition is happenstance to me. I don’t have a method. You seem to be building on your method all the time, which is awesome, because I don’t have that facility. 

BLVR: What is your creative life like?

LT: My life has been in three distinct periods. There was the period before you were born, the period when you were born up until the day you left home, and then this later time we’re in now, in which things seem to have come back in a way where I can make things again, because for a long time I was making stuff, but it was very small and minuscule, because the thing I really wanted to do was to be your dad.

BLVR: This can really spiral into a whole different conversation about art-making and child-rearing that I am fascinated by, but I think that will take up too much space in this interview.

LT: I’m quite happy to have white hair and to be this age and to be a little saggy. I’m enjoying this part of my life because I get to enjoy conversations with you as a man and as an artist. The fact that you’re my son is just an added bonus. This closeness is not an experience that my father—your grandfather—and I ever had. I feel very sorry for him that he didn’t have it, because I know it must have made him feel very, very sad and lonely. And I know that won’t be the case for you and me. I think the whole striving thing is a good thing. It helps me up my game. It helps you up your game. As long as it’s not done in an oedipal flurry of nonsense. Obviously, I’m coming from the aspect of fatherhood, but I can’t come from any other aspect. I can’t come from your aspect, because I didn’t feel close to my father. I didn’t know him well. He was not available to me emotionally. I hope I am available to you emotionally.

BLVR: You are. Do you think you can be a practicing artist and a father simultaneously? Do you think being a father and having that experience has fundamentally changed your practice as an artist?

LT: The answer to both those questions is yes. I feel fatherhood was the greatest stimulus in my artistic life, because instead of being constantly mono-focused on my feelings and my emotions and my tribulations, fatherhood forces you to experience life through the eyes of another that you love and care for. I tend to think that everybody is all one thing, and I thought that for a long time, but I really thought it once I became a father, because I realized all I’m seeing is a reflection of myself, a reflection of who I am and who I could be and all those things. Pre-parenthood is like only seeing things in 2-D—it’s like the medieval period before painters discovered perspective. The older I get, the more I realize there has to be some kind of celestial plan, because everything fits together so succinctly the older you get, and you realize, Oh, that’s why that was. Having you, having a child, was a very good bridge into other parts of myself that I never would have discovered otherwise. I know it’s going to sound a bit hokey, but after you were born, I was no longer alone with my own thoughts. I had to involve somebody else’s thoughts and feelings. It’s been a different trip.

BLVR: Pretty psychedelic, man.

LT: [Laughs]

BLVR: I don’t yet see the world as making so much sense. It’s a sort of fragmented, primordial stage for me, even at thirty-one. I’m still not sure where it’s all going. Through art and music, I’m trying to make sense of that fragmentation, but the meaning is very amorphous to me.

LT: Even though I see some things clearly now, there’s always some stuff that’s not clear. But the difference is that now I don’t care that it’s not that clear. It’s not that important to me for it to be clear. It’s not important for me to understand the world completely. It’s important for me to accept that it is.

BLVR: This is where I wanted the conversation to go. I wanted to go in this direction, expand outward and into these broader ideas about art-making. But I just want to wrap up with a few quick structural questions about the book. Who is the most goth band of all time?

LT: It has to be the one with my friend Kevin Haskins. It has to be Bauhaus. 

BLVR: Because?

LT: Just because.

BLVR: [Laughs] OK, we’re going to leave that in there! What was the most goth Cure album? You’re going to say Pornography, probably?

LT: Yes, yes. And Faith. Pornography is more despairing, but hopeful. And I see Faith the other way round, more hopeful with a little despair in it. Faith is like tea and cakes with lace curtains, and Pornography is a Francis Bacon painting gone mad. 

BLVR: I like those two very English references. What’s the most goth Cure song? That’s a little harder.

LT: “Cold.” Yeah, but just the beginning. Because the beginning is just the most lurching slab of goth. I can still see Robert in the studio with the cello on his lap, playing it like a guitar with the bow for the beginning and then the drums—one of my favorite drum parts ever, you know, just lumbering in like a big tank or something. 

BLVR: We’ve got less than a minute on Zoom, so I’m going to get off, but I think we have plenty of info.

LT: Oh, gosh, we got material for a great article.

BLVR: Yeah, thanks, Dad. I love you.

LT: I love you too. That’s how we end it. I love you.

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