Lol Tolhurst – keyboards, electronic drums
Cindy Levinson – vocals
Dayton Borders – synthesizer, keyboards, guitar
What’s old is new again. So many bands that have arrived over the last five years or so have a resemblance to styles in music that go back 20 or more years. The Sounds have a liken to Blondie, Interpol could easily pull off Joy Division covers, and The Rapture, who opened up for The Cure during their recent Curiosa tour, are definitely children of those new wave pioneers. Personally, I had mixed feelings about the birth of electro clash, wondering why I wouldn’t just throw on the real thing, be it Heaven 17, ABC, or even Flocking Seagulls. Then I started discovering acts like Fischerspooner, Miss Kitten and Ladytron, and I was hooked on the newbies as well.
Lol Tolhurst was one of those pioneers, being a part of the performing and songwriting team that wrote tunes for many generations while in The Cure. As new bands make a wink to the past, Tolhurst is moving into the future with his own brand of music in Levinhurst, a joint project with his significant other, Cindy Levinson and music veteran, Dayton Borders.
The result is Levinhurst’s first album, Perfect Life, which was released earlier this year. Draped with rich electronic textures and minimalist themes, there are many underlying expressions of Tolhurst’s life experiences. “Behind Me” is a perfect example of his reflection on the past and in the mirror, and his strength and experience that enables him to realize a new and Perfect Life, “I was so tired/Tired of the past…I’m not the person that I was before/Staring down the barrel of that gun/I’m neither lost nor found/but I am done/It’s all behind me.”
I got a chance to meet up with Levinhurst at a Tiki bar in Austin while attending SXSW. I would have ordered one of those umbrella drinks, but I wanted to be completely sober for this occasion, for the opportunity to pick the brain of someone with so much musical history in his pocket.
Kaffeine Buzz: So what do you think about the birth of electro clash and these bands that sound so much like what you and other bands were doing decades ago?
Lol Tolhurst: I don’t mind if they stick with the essence of things and try to make it their own. But anybody who just copies what’s been done, that’s just fake.
KB: How are you incorporating your past with your present these days?
LT: Music has always been a way to express my life. That’s the way it always was with The Cure. It’s a diary really. It’s funny that you mentioned people like The Sounds. When we first started The Cure it wasn’t ‘We like this band or that band, we want to sound like that.’ It was more like, ‘We’re not going to play like this or play that.’ What was left was what we ended up with. And it’s the same with us [Levinhurst] here. We started out with ideas of what we really enjoyed. There were a lot of things that really stimulated me, much like when we started The Cure. There’s a lot of freethinking stuff going on. So I thought, ‘How am I going to put that into what I’m doing now without sounding like the oldest teenager in town?’ Or worse, where people say, ‘Oh god, he’s stuck in the ’80s like Flock of Seagulls.’ [laughs]
So it was a detrimental decision to try and position where we’d be. Somewhere that’s accessible but also has some traces of references so it shows a continuous journey. I look at a lot of this as…there were periods during The Cure where we were trying different things and experimenting, especially when it was just me and Robert [Smith]. A lot of things have happened to me that also involved [Cindy Levinson], in the last 10 years.
KB: Like what?
LT: A lot of things have changed, and that’s what was involved lyrically. I don’t know, what do you think about when you hear the lyrics? What do you think it’s about?
KB: Some of the songs are more about a feeling or mood rather than just focusing on the actual lyrical content. I find it inspiring and having an uplifting affect. I was listening to it while I was driving, and while I was looking at flat, dull, nothing of Texas. So it allowed me to balance out my boredom with this visual imagery.
LT: See, the last 10 years have been kind of different. Things were not great. Things were very bad. So this [album] was like coming to terms with your life, it’s relenting. And that’s the visuals that you get. I’ve known a lot of people from going back into the early Cure days. A lot of people write to us and say, ‘You know, this sounds doom-and-gloomy.’ But I’ve found it to be uplifting. And I found a way through whatever was happening in my life. It’s kind of the sound track to it. I wanted to do that for people who also had a lot going on in their life. I wanted to put that experience across; that you can be a creative person and feel better about things. It’s not a religious thing, it’s just about working on your own existence.
KB: Well, most of my friends in my circle are recovering Catholics, including myself.
LT: Really, me too! There you go. [laughing]
KB: Exactly. And it doesn’t mean you’re not spiritual, and that from music, you can tap into things within yourself and outside yourself that really affects you…having that religious experience, but in a way that doesn’t involved any rules or regulations. It doesn’t mean we can’t tap into our own soul and continue to evolve until the day we die.
LT: See that’s the thing. To me, I want to keep evolving and learning until the day I die. That goes back to the thing I said early on, I don’t want to get stuck in the ’80s. I’m obviously not 20 anymore. I have a different perspective on things. Did you ever read The Tao of Physics?
KB: No. But that’s not saying much. I just don’t get a chance to read as much as I’d like.
LT: He was big back in the ’70s and came from progressive rock roots. I found something out about him, so I thought I would check out his website and read some things about him. He’s like 60 now, and he said ‘I can’t listen to a lot of my peers, ’cause these guys just want to go back to the ’60s and re-create what they did. I listen to hip-hop and electronica because their ideas are absolutely brilliant.’ Now I’m not him, but that idea I understand.
KB: That’s really interesting that you bring that up, because it seems like a lot of people in our generation seem to be stuck like that also. They still listen to the same music they listened to in high school. And aside from mainstream stuff like Dave Matthews or whatever, they have no idea what’s new or evolving in music. The ones that do are the ones that never stopped searching for new music and adding more and more styles to their music collection. So it’s not just the actual musicians that get stuck in a time warp. The fans do too.
Cindy Levinhurst: They never moved out of the town they lived in their whole life. It’s scary.
KB: I also think it’s a shame when people limit their listening choices to just one type of music, when there are those brilliant artists in hip-hop, electronic, or whatever.
LT: I’ve got a great story for you. A couple of days ago when we were coming in here, we came across this guy. He was about 75 years old and he used to play with Elvis Presley. This guy was sharp, still in love with music, still in love with playing. And he wanted to come out to see us.
KB: See, I always joke that I’m still going to be going to shows when I’m like 85 years old.
CL: Hey, I’m still going to go!
KB: Hell yea. It was great to see The X still had it at the 20th Anniversary of 91X in San Diego. This was like, four years ago I think. That was such a great thing for me. They pulled it off, no problem. In getting back to your album, I can pick up on that gloomy mood thing. But there’s also some pumping club beats in there. And there are some songs that could be construed as Goth, but you’re vocals (referring to Cindy) go in contrast to that.
LT: Right. We wanted to change people’s perceptions, because my past is a double edge sword. In some ways it opens doors and in other ways it may already make up people’s minds about things. Having a female vocalist distants things [from The Cure] straight away. Having a voice like Cindy’s as well, which makes it even more different. We’ll have some electronica in there, then there’s this wild, crazy guitar stuck in. There are things that you don’t even know are guitar, but they are.
KB: Wow, really? I didn’t pick up any guitar.
CL: Oh yea. There’s a lot of guitar on it.
KB: What did you do to make it sound different?
Dayton Borders: Well, I’m also a keyboard player and a synthesist. With all the things that are available today and the technology, I run my guitar through synthesizers. So when you see our show, you’ll see me twisting knobs and even doing analog stuff. A lot of old school stuff. There are a lot of sounds that really, would take a lot to decide what it really was. But we wanted it that way.
LT: It’s like some of the early German electronic, like Kraftwerk or CAN. I always loved those guys because the envelope was always getting pushed musically. They have different ideas about things, and that’s part of how I wanted to do things different.
KB: So how did you come into the group?
DB: Through mutual friends. One of them said that I reminded them of what these guys were doing, and that was that.
LT: To me I’ve never worked with anyone I didn’t like. To me it’s not important…well, they have to be able to play, obviously. But that’s not the only reason to work with somebody. You have to have that meeting of the minds somewhere in there. Otherwise it’s pointless.
KB: So you’re going on this tour…
KB: Not to look farther than a year, because who knows where any of us will be at that time.
LT (laughing): No kidding.
KB: What do you want to happen in that time?
LT: Well, we’ll do this tour and kind of work the kinks out of sorts. Then head home for a while and get to work on a remix album of our songs.
KB: Yes! I read that. That makes a lot of sense. There are some definitely tracks that I could see getting played for the dance floor.
LT: It’s going to be fun. We’ve got several things in the works. I talked to Robert about three months ago and asked him to work on a remix, and he said, ‘Sure.’ Robert and I have become friends again in the last few years. The door is still open, so somewhere along the line we’ll do something again. The remix would be something to start off with. Then we’ll tour some more and over to Europe.
KB: I’ll admit I didn’t know you guys weren’t friends for a while.
LT: Well, he’s someone I’ve known since I was five years old. So it’s like family, you know? He’s the person I’ve known the longest in my life. My parents were gone long ago. And just like family you don’t always get along.
KB: No kidding. I think we all know that pretty well.
LT: There was a sign that I found that was really wonderful yesterday. I ran into three people I haven’t seen in like 20 years.
LT: Yea, here! It was at some U.K. showcase thing or whatever. Like Mike Hedges, he did the first album with The Cure. It was amazing.
KB: Well, that’s what this thing [SXSW] is all about. I met Jay [Frank, their tour manager] like six years ago at CMJ and didn’t realize it was him until we just met in the bar. And Michael [Gellman, our photographer] I just met last night. So it’s a beautiful thing. I first went to this conference years ago, and I still feel like a kid every time I come because it’s such a high to be surrounded by all these people who have such a passion for supporting and making music.
LT: The most important thing, and we have many conversations about this, is I don’t dislike any music. My only criteria is: it has to have some passion and honesty in it, not some great marketing plan. All those things have their place, but when that’s the only reason they’re doing it, then it’s pretty suspect.
KB: Well, I saw a recent interview of Prince who was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame. And the one thing he said about some of today’s artists is they aren’t musicians. They don’t know how to play anything. They’re just divas with a dance crew and outfits.
LT: That’s right.
KB: He was talking about sitting down with Beyoncé and teaching her how to play the piano because that’s where a lot of musicians write their music, or even with a guitar. They have amazing voices and they look real pretty, but there are all these people making millions and they can’t play a lick.
LT: They’re product.
KB: Exactly. Air-brushing shouldn’t be a part of a performer’s rider.
LT (laughing): That’s funny. Yea, keep it old school.
You can check out a few tunes from Perfect Life at the group’s online jukebox at http://www.hyfntrak.com/levinhurst/AFF6059/. Levinhurst performs this Thursday, August 26 at Cervantes with Orbit Service and Siren Project.
You can check out Michael Gellman’s 2004 SXSW photo essay at www.theironmike.com/sxsw2k4/