The Cure's Lol Tolhurst, Siouxsie and the Banshees' Budgie on the true origins of Goth: 'We weren't sitting in the school playground with a Ouija board trying to summon up spirits'

"Music weeklies would try to de-fang the term by making light of it and fun of it. They would call it 'goff.' ... Any time people try to mock you, they're afraid."

The Cure's Lol Tolhurst, Siouxsie and the Banshees' Budgie in the 1980s. (Illustration: Yahoo News / Photo: Getty Images)
The Cure's Lol Tolhurst, Siouxsie and the Banshees' Budgie in the 1980s. (Illustration: Yahoo News / Photo: Getty Images)
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“Before I started doing our ‘Curious Creatures’ podcast with Budgie, I was thinking about doing this other podcast,” says the Cure co-founder/drummer/keyboardist Lol Tolhurst, speaking with Yahoo Entertainment along with his friend, podcast cohost, and new supergroup bandmate, former Siouxsie and the Banshees drummer Budgie. “The plan was once every episode, we'd play a game called ‘Goth/Not Goth,’ and we would just throw out different names. So, for instance: Michael Jackson? Probably Goth. But Lionel Richie? No, not Goth. And so on.”

Whether Michael Jackson’s music actually qualifies as Goth is still up for debate, although the “Thriller” video might grant him a pass. But Tolhurst’s point is made after he, Budgie and Yahoo play a quick lightning round of Goth/Not Goth with various bands — including Gene Loves Jezebel (yes), Cocteau Twins (yes), Nine Inch Nails (absolutely), the Cramps (“They were pre-Goth; they were Goth before we knew it,” says Budgie), Dead or Alive (“Damn skippy!” says Tolhurst), the Damned (“They were more cartoon Goth,” shrugs an indecisive Budgie), the Cult (“At one point, I think so,” says an equally indecisive Tolhurst), and Soft Cell (“Yes, although I wonder whether Marc Almond would agree; he'd probably say, ‘No, don't be silly!’” Budgie ponders).

The point is: Fans know Gothic music when they hear it. They feel it deep down in their bones. But for decades, the genre has been maddeningly difficult to define.

Siouxsie Sioux in the early '80s.  (Peter Noble/Redferns via Getty Images)
Siouxsie Sioux in the early '80s. (Peter Noble/Redferns via Getty Images)

Tolhurst has attempted to solve this mystery by literally writing the book on the subject, Goth: A History, with Budgie penning the foreword. However, both reluctant Gothfathers confess they have complex personal histories with the term. For years, they grappled with the Goth-or-not question when it came to their own respective seminal post-punk bands, even though the Cure and the Banshees are widely regarded as two of the most important and influential Gothic groups of all time.

“Siouxsie and [Banshees bassist] Steve [Severin] used to be asked, ‘Are you a Goth band?’ and they’d say, ‘No, we’re psychedelic rockabilly!’ I must admit, it’s taken me a while to come out of my own denial,” says Budgie. “My friend Lol has guided me out of my misgivings about the term — because I had to take a lot of flights of stairs to get to here.”

“I think it might be true that we didn't start out Goth,” says Tolhurst, “because there was no ‘Goth.’”

“That term was only used to describe architecture then!” Budgie chuckles.

“But [the Cure and the Banshees] are the fertile ground that Goth sprang from,” acknowledges Tolhurst, whose relatively recent embracing of the label prompted him to explore the subculture's origins in his latest book. “When the Cure first came to America, around 1980, people would ask us what kind of music we played, and [Cure frontman] Robert [Smith] would always say, ‘We just play Cure music.’ And yeah, that was a little flippant, maybe, but we never thought about categorizing what we did. … But the first four albums of the Cure are the ground from which the seeds of Goth grew.”

The Cure in 1987. (Ross Marino/Getty Images)
The Cure in 1987. (Ross Marino/Getty Images)

Tolhurst explains that the reason why the Cure, Siouxsie, and their peers long resisted the label was because back in ‘80s, Britain’s notoriously nasty “music weeklies would try to de-fang the term Goth by making light of it and fun of it. They would call it ‘goff,’ spelled G-O-double-F. That always made me a little suspicious, because any time people try to mock you, they're afraid.”

Tolhurst elaborates with a wry laugh: “But we weren't sitting in the school playground with a Ouija board trying to summon up spirits! That wasn't our motivation. Our motivation was to discover a different way of living from the one we'd grown up in, that very sort of strict, religious, Catholic upbringing. That's really what we wanted to get away from — not necessarily be secular, but to be our own people.”

Tolhurst also debunks another long-held misconception about Goth music: That it’s a bad, even dangerous, influence. “We were always drawn towards the darker side of things for good reasons, not for nefarious reasons,” he stresses. “And people have come up to me, and they still do, and said, ‘I had a really bad time a few years ago, but I listened to this song, I listened to this album, and it helped me through it.’ So, therefore, to me, it's very positive. Dark music is not a primer to go out and do bad things to yourself or others — it is completely the opposite. It's a way of understanding who you are, and then perhaps you have a better knowledge of yourself so therefore, you can be healed. I think that's the best thing about Goth. … It's not clean and it's not pretty, but it's real.”

Tolhurst says the first music he heard that he’d classify as Goth was Kate Bush’s haunting and ethereal “Wuthering Heights,” inspired by the Emily Bronte novel that is most definitely mentioned in Goth: A History’s “Goth in Literature” chapter. Meanwhile, Budgie says, “My personal altar was the first Black Sabbath album, that chiming of the bell. That was my dark private world. I think Ozzy’s got a lot to answer for!” Artists like Kate Bush and Ozzy Osbourne — or Soft Cell and the Cramps, for that matter — don’t seem to have very much in common. So, what exactly is the through-line when it comes to Goth acts?

“The through-line is a look,” theorizes Budgie, who along with Tolhurst grew up under the influence of Bolan, Bowie, and “sartorial gentlemen of a certain age” like Sherlock Holmes, Gomez Addams, Dr. Who, and Adam Adamant. “It's a real close attention — with intention — to how you present oneself.”

Robert Smith in 1985. (Brian Rasic/Getty Images)
Robert Smith in 1985. (Brian Rasic/Getty Images)

Certainly, Robert Smith and Siouxsie Sioux’s signature looks — Sioux with her graphic Egyptian eye makeup, which Budgie says was inspired by her heroines Theda Bara, Julie Driscoll, Dusty Springfield, and Cleopatra-era Elizabeth Taylor; Smith with his spidery fright wig and bleeding lipstick scrawl — eternally defined Goth style. Tolhurst amusingly recalls that by 1982, when Ollie Wisdom of “underrated” Goth band Specimen was running legendary London club the Batcave, Smith and Sioux had so thoroughly set the template that their many black-haired doppelgangers would try to jump the Batcave queue and get VIP treatment by impersonating the two singers.

However, Budgie recalls that Smith’s crimson lippy look dates back to ‘79, when Tolhurst and Budgie first met on the Banshees’ Join Hands tour. The Cure were the opening act, but then Smith ended up playing guitar in the Banshees lineup, alongside the quickly recruited Budgie, after Banshees guitarist John McKay and drummer Kenny Morris suddenly quit the group. The Cure and the Banshees spent a lot of time together on the road, and Budgie laughingly recalls, “Siouxsie went up to Robert in the dressing room one day and said, ’Oh, try a bit of lipstick!’ — and just smeared it on.”

“My abiding memory of dressing rooms around that time was the smell of burning hair with the crimping,” Tolhurst chuckles. But he says the Cure’s iconic Goth look — which for a while even involved Smith getting a perm — didn’t fully come together until they released their relentlessly bleak fourth LP, 1982’s Pornography, which Tolhurst considers to be the most Goth (and his favorite) Cure album. “Pornography changed a lot of things. The music was very intense, so we couldn't sort of go out just looking very demure like we did. And so, we upped the ante a bit. Also, I think we were fairly deranged, let's be honest. We’d slash [red makeup] across our faces because we wanted to be confrontational.”

Incidentally, Budgie cites Siouxsie and the Banshees’ own fourth album, 1981’s World War I-inspired Juju — with its bass-driven “undercurrent of menace” that he says permeates and characterizes all Goth music — as Siouxsie and the Banshees’ most “quintessentially” Gothic release. And Tolhurst agrees, saying the Juju track “Night Shift” is “still, for my money, one of the most terrifying Banshees songs.” Juju, of course, also features the spooky-season classic “Halloween,” which Budgie says was inspired by Sioux and Severin’s “huge video collection” of cult horror and slasher flicks. “It's funny that we were dipping into the imagery of Goth even then, but still avoiding the terminology of it,” he muses.

Most classic Goth bands — and certainly many of the bands that warrant several pages in Goth: A History, like Bauhaus, Joy Division, Sisters of Mercy, the Mission, And Also the Trees, and All About Eve — hail from rainy and not-so-jolly old England. (“It’s where Jack the Ripper hung out,” Budgie notes, laughing.) Says Tolhurst, “If you walk around London, it's in the cobbled streets. It's in the mist coming in off Thames in the morning. It's kind of naturally there. … And the English, if we have one attribute, which I quite like, it's being non-conformists generally. That’s where the idea of ‘English eccentrics’ came from.”

So, it might surprise fans to find out that Tolhurst has actually lived in sunny Los Angeles for the past 30 years, and that the debut album by the above-mentioned new supergroup, Lol Tolhurst x Budgie x Jacknife Lee — fittingly coming out this Halloween week — is titled Los Angeles. But L.A. has always had a dark side. In the ‘80s, there was the deathrock scene, led by bands like Christian Death and Kommunity FK and inspired by Old Hollywood’s decaying glamour, what Budgie calls “schlock horror stuff,” and Californian teen tragedy songs of the ‘50s and ‘60s. These days, the city is home to a thriving darkwave scene led by bands mentioned in Goth: A History’s final pages, like Cold Cave and Drab Majesty. Tolhurst and Budgie both visited the city of reinvention when, as Budgie puts it, “life as I knew it had come to an abrupt halt.” (Tolhurst had been dismissed from the Cure and was separating from his first wife; Budgie’s marriage to Sioux was ending.) “Los Angeles was a kind of savior in a way,” Budgie, who now resides in the Gothic metropolis of Berlin, recalls. “You could just disappear, almost.”

“L.A.’s contradictions is the reason I stayed, because when I first came here, a lot of people said, ‘If you go there, either you're going to get discovered or you're going to get destroyed.’ And neither of those things happened to me. I found acceptance and I found love and a lot of understanding. I was able to reinvent myself quite a bit,” says Tolhurst. “And so, listening to the [new album's] tracks that we’ve done, it just makes me feel like that's part of the journey.”

Lol Tolhurst x Budgie x Jacknife Lee’s Los Angeles project was originally supposed to include another legendary Goth drummer, Kevin Haskins of Bauhaus/Love and Rockets, but after Haskins left to tour with the reunited Bauhaus, those recordings, produced by longtime NIN collaborator Danny Lohner, were shelved. “The stuff we haven't released is very Goth!” Budgie laughs, while Tolhurst adds drily, “Yeah… it kind of sounded like what you would expect a record by the Cure guy, the Banshees guy, and the Bauhaus guy, produced by the guy from Nine Inch Nails, to sound like.”

Budgie, Lol Tolhurst, and Jacknife Lee in Los Angeles, 2023. (Pat Martin)
Budgie, Lol Tolhurst, and Jacknife Lee in Los Angeles, 2023. (Pat Martin)

Instead, Tolhurst and Budgie started over in U2 producer Jacknife Lee’s Topanga Canyon studio, which Tolhurst calls “a very special place, a real crow’s-nest hideaway with fairy lights,” and they worked with a bunch of all-stars that don’t get a “yes” in a game of Goth/Not Goth, including U2 guitarist the Edge, LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock, and Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie (although Primal Scream’s XTRMNTR era might qualify as Goth-adjacent). However, Budgie assures dark-hearted fans that the triptych-style music video for “Uh Oh,” a track with Starcrawler's Arrow de Wilde and IDLES' Mark Bowen, is “most definitely Goth. It’s like a crucifixion from Francis Bacon.”

And so, the Goth spirit remains immortal, no matter how far its originators stray from its look or sound. “For me, I think it is more the fact that the feelings one extrapolates from Goth are always there for most young people; therefore, it's a proven formula for dealing with those feelings,” says Tolhurst. “Most young people, when they first come across music, they understand very quickly what's real and what's not, what they're being pandered to and what's sincere. So, I don't think Goth is going anywhere soon. It has been around 40 years. It's not going anywhere fast.”

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An extended version of this conversation will air on the Totally '80s podcast/TV show at a later date.

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