LOL TOLHURST x BUDGIE x JACKNIFE LEE
The three-way ‘Los Angeles’ collaborative long-player was born out of a curiosity which just wouldn’t die. Made up of two of the most illustrious and inventive drummers of the post-punk era, The Cure’s Lol Tolhurst, and Budgie from Siouxsie & The Banshees and The Creatures, along with stellar producer and multi-instrumentalist Garret ‘Jacknife’ Lee, this unlikely alt-supergroup have spent the last four years spiriting up one of the most extraordinary albums to appear in 2023.
Perusing the tracklist, with its guest credits for, amongst others, LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, Bobby Gillespie, Civil Rights avant-gardist Lonnie Holley, Starcrawler wildchild Arrow de Wilde and The Edge from U2, you may rightly wonder just what the 13-track long-player holds in store.
The answer: a hard-hitting and compulsively exploratory 55-minute electronic headfuck, founded on unrivalled rhythmic expertise, fleshed out with an armoury of synths, guitars (Jacknife’s forté) and supplementary percussion (think: wooden teeth!), often overlaid with elite-class strings and brass, then universally twisted, manipulated and quite masterfully sculpted by Lee, with his super-producer’s hat on.
As per the title, ‘Los Angeles’ is a journey into the dark heart of contemporary LaLaLand, the city of its birth, a place of limitless possibility, yet also a diseased and consumptive hell-on-earth which, to quote Murphy’s lyric on the title track, “eats its children”, where pipe dreams shatter, racial inequality prevails and homelessness spirals.
Throw in the terrifying uncertainty occasioned by the global pandemic, which both interrupted and ultimately aided its genesis, and the ‘new Cold War’ terror that has ensued, and you get a record fuelled by fear and tension, but whose propulsive beats, mind-warpingly mangled instrumentation and exceptional vocal contributions provide release through the palpable joy of their creation. Far-sighted and visionary, it lands just in time for those Album of the Year polls…
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Square one for ‘Los Angeles’ was December 2018, when Budgie was passing through LA in esteemed singer-songwriter John Grant’s touring ensemble, and he and Lol Tolhurst met for lunch in a downtown diner.
Recalls Budgie, “As we were finishing Lol turns to me and says, ‘I think we should do something together.’ With these things, I usually go away and forget, but for once in my life I said to myself, ‘Yeah good idea!’”
After leaving The Cure in 1989, Tolhurst “found love”, married and in ’94 settled in LA. Budgie almost moved to the City of Angels in the mid-’00s, but eventually, he says, “fell in love, moved to Berlin, and family happened.”
When the pair reconvened in early ’19 to make music, says Tolhurst, they had a couple of sessions, first at a friend’s house up the coast in Morro Bay, then chez Mötley Crüe tub-thumper Tommy Lee, no less, “but it just wasn’t sounding right – we were falling into that trap of trying to paint ourselves as we once were”.
In what he describes as “a pit of despondency”, he went up to Topanga Canyon to visit Garret Lee, ten years their junior, but whose enviable production CV includes Taylor Swift’s ‘Red’, U2’s ‘How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb’ and the final two REM albums. His advice, in true post-punk fashion: rip it up and start again. “Once you’re starting from nothing,” he advises, “you can do anything.”
When Budgie returned to California between commitments with John Grant, the three kindred spirits first repaired to Yosemite for a bonding weekend, and thereafter recorded in Topanga for two weeks, with Lee cannily straddling the roles of musician and mentor-cum-producer. They’d drink coffee, play records, banter a lot, go for walks, share experiences, and out of all that came, this time, some inspirational music.
“One time, we were talking about Lol being in Chile,” Lee recalls, “and he was playing field recordings he made of some birds there, and that became the base of the song. Then, we were talking about standing on the top of pyramids, which led to a psychedelic record I’ve got from Uruguay. We put that on, then somebody is playing drums, we’ve got some loops going, we’ve got the birds singing. That way, music just happens. You’re switching off all the over-thinking, and getting back into the thrill of discovery and enjoying each other’s company, which is what musicians lose, I think, over time.”
A very special group chemistry emerged during those intensely creative sessions. Reveals Budgie, “Lol is very levelling. He calls himself a pragmatist, whereas I’m very impetuous, and it was like Garret was bridging the two, in his consultation room”.
The other instrumentation came naturally. Back in his Cure days, Tolhurst switched from drums to keyboards circa ’83, and Budgie, too, was grappling with early synths through that era, so it was only natural that ‘Los Angeles’ would be brimming with synths. For Lee, with two elite drummers aboard, it was an opportunity to break from the grid-locked inflexibility of contemporary electronica.
“Electronic music has got very straight and formularized,” he maintains. “It lacks groove and doesn’t have that spontaneity, because it’s trapped within a strict framework of time. It’s too quantized.”
As the record evolved, there would be instrumental contributions from noted guitarists, including The Edge and Idles’ Mark Bowen, but the rest were handled by Lee, and often digitally distorted beyond all recognition. Further visitors to Lee’s Topanga hideout were master orchestrator Davide Rossi (Goldfrapp, Coldplay) and brass specialist Jordan Katz (Father John Misty, Ghostface Killah), whose taut arrangements were similarly manipulated, and even run at half speed, for maximum disorientation and weirdness.
Come March 2020, they were fairly certain they were just about done recording an instrumental album, “which was the original intention,” says Budgie, but as he flew home to Berlin just as COVID-19 was forcing the whole world into lockdown, Lol had taken the step of contacting post-punk superfan James Murphy with a vague idea of him voicing on one or more of the tracks, and in those first fallow weeks of isolation Lol put feelers out to a few other friends and admirers, to see if they might also be interested.
“Adding some vocalists that we like,” reasons Lol, “was obviously going to make it more attractive to people, so over the space of about 18 months to two years, we got a whole bunch of them in, and as far as lyrics went, we just said, ‘You make something up!’”
Amongst the first was Bobby Gillespie from Primal Scream, a Banshees obsessive who nailed three tracks – ‘This Is What It Is (To Be Free)’, ‘Ghosted At Home’ and ‘Country Of The Blind’ – within a few weeks, pinging ideas back and forth digitally to help shape the music. When it was decided that ‘This Is What It Is (To Be Free)’ required a choral section, hardly practical mid-COVID, Lee became the choir, stacking up tracks of his own voice into a vocal throng. Lyrically Gillespie set a tone of political dysfunction and existential emptiness which harks back to the Scream’s ultra-toxic turn-of-the-2000s ‘Xtrmntr’ era.
Murphy, on the other hand, took a few months to come through, though the longer wait proved worthwhile, as the LCD leader’s caustic New Yorker’s take on California dreamin’ on ‘Los Angeles’, says Budgie, “pulled it all together for us, what the album was about, and even what the overall title should be.”
True to the original intention, four tracks remain as instrumentals, each unguessable, unsettling yet ineffably beautiful. Two – the motorik-propelled ‘Train With No Station’ and scuzz/gleam tussle ‘Noche Oscura’ – feature those doctored parts from The Edge, whose rarely-mentioned pedigree as an experimentalist stretches as far back as 1983’s ‘Snake Charmer’ album, alongside PiL’s Jah Wobble and Holger Czukay from Can.
“He was doing some pretty radical stuff even then,” says Lee, who has worked often with U2, “and he said yes straight away. I was expecting him to send us something that was Edge-like and heavily FX’d, but he just sent us acoustic guitar through, so I did the noise later. He was great with it, and really helpful.”
The finale of ‘Los Angeles’ arrives with ‘Skins’, another mindblower featuring James Murphy, here voicing in an unusually high register. “The words are dark,” Tolhurst explains, “but then in the final section everything becomes hopeful. James sings, ‘We’ve got a ways to go’, and I’d recorded some birds on my phone in Buenos Aires’ biological gardens in a rain storm, so we thought we’d put them on at the end. ‘Pornography’ [The Cure’s masterpiece from ’82] was like that, this wall of sound for the whole album, then at the end it’s like, ‘I’ve got to fight this sickness, I’m going to find a cure – there’s hope!’ Even in this death and destruction, hope is swimming past for you to grab onto.”
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After plunging into the unknown with their own music-making, then navigating the unplannable chicane of Coronavirus, it’s frankly a miracle that Tolhurst, Budgie and Lee came through four years later with an album so coherent and hard-hitting – about freedom and slavery, beauty and decay, hope and despair.
Plans are afoot now to take ‘Los Angeles’ into the live arena, and spread the word far and wide about this miraculous record: future-facing, empowering, and on its own terms thoroughly triumphant.
Contact: Shazila Mohammed