Every kid goes through a rebellious phase — one where his parents are the objects of all his scorn.
During adolescence, there is a dogged, primal determination to forge your own path and reject all the things held dear by the people who raised you. This form of rebellion can range from the petty — staying out too late partying, for example — to the profound, like embracing a political ideology that runs completely contrary to your parents’ views. Either way, at some point in your youth, you tend to think your mom and dad are hopelessly lame.
But what if your dad is part of a legendary post-punk band, responsible for helping elevate the genres of shoegaze, goth, and new wave to mainstream popularity while retaining their artistic credibility? What kind of insight can be gleaned from turning your back on something beloved by so many?
That dilemma is one that Gray Tolhurst wrestled with for years. The son of The Cure drummer Lol Tolhurst, Gray voraciously imbibed the music world created for him by his father, while simultaneously avoiding his dad’s band to an almost surgical degree. It was an understandable approach for someone who wanted to create his own identity, but also one that deprived him of one of the greatest bands in history.
“For years, I avoided all that, I guess as a way to get from my parents,” Tolhurst says. “I always wanted to avoid playing in bands that sounded post-punk, because I was reticent of people drawing the comparisons. But then, something just switched in my mind, where I was like, ‘who cares?’ I’ve always liked this stuff — this is basically my upbringing.”
The result of Tolhurst’s philosophical U-turn is Topographies, a three-piece post-punk band from San Francisco that embraces the moody, atmospheric tenors of The Cure. As a scion of the legendary English band, Tolhurst is in the perfect position to glean all the best aspects of the group without basely appropriating the Cure’s signature sound.
That craftsmanship is on display in the band’s debut album, Ideal Form. Set to be released on Dec. 4, the record is a relentlessly assured document of glassy synth-rock, brooding new-wave and ambitious Britpop that feels like a lifetime in the making. It is also wholly of the younger Tolhurst’s making — an updated and personal interpretation to his father’s signature sound.
A native of Los Angeles, Tolhurst moved to San Francisco seven years ago to attend grad school at San Francisco State University, quickly immersing himself in the Bay Area’s creative scene. He started playing part-time in an indie-folk band called Gentle Spirit, where he met guitarist Jérémie Rüest. During a tour stop at the Treefort Music Festival in Idaho, the two bonded over their mutual love of many bands at the event, and decided to collaborate on a musical endeavor together.
They recruited Justin Oronos to play bass and synth and Lauren Grubb to play drums. Their first EP and singles showcased a love for shoegaze and dreampop textures that highlighted their tight live sound. However, Grubb soon departed for New York City, and after fruitlessly trying to find a new drummer, the group reoriented itself as a three-piece, shifting the focus to emphasize the electronic elements of the band.
“I’ve been in so many bands where we could never find the right drummer, and then Lauren came around and she was just perfect,” Tolhurst says. “So when she left, we really didn’t want to deal with that again. We just decided to take this different direction, and it ended up really changing everything. We spent a whole year just like learning music production and synthesizers and all this crazy stuff that really opened up a ton of possibilities.”
Tolhurst and company spent most of 2019 writing songs that adhered to their new drummer-less environs, leading to the nine tracks that make up Ideal Form. The first single from that album, “See You as You Fall,” is debuting today on SF Weekly.
A collage of shimmering, reverb-drenched guitars, extraterrestrials drum machines, and glowing synths, “See You as You Fall,” feels like a love song recorded at the edge of the planet. It is both warm and cold, as Tolhurt’s distant vocals give a feeling of detached resignation, but when he sings “I’m in heaven / But they’re running out of room,” the song is flooded with a sudden sense of pathos. Tolhurst may be a disembodied, floating presence, but even otherworldly beings have feelings.
“See You As You Fall” is just one of many songs on Ideal Form that marry blood and wires, fusing the icy mechanics of electronica with a warm, beating heart. That is why Ideal Form succeeds in so many ways — it takes the blueprint of icy post-punk while adding in plenty of vibrant, adjacent influences. There are the synthy landscapes of Kraftwerk, the beating krautrock of Can, cathartic flourishes of shoegaze imported from bands like Slowdive and Ride, and emotive slowcore components a la the Red House Painters. It all boils down to a beguiling mix of emotions, sounds, and feelings.
“We knew it wasn’t going to make any sense to try and be just like the Cure, Bauhaus, Depeche Mode or any other bands that kind of typified that classic ’80s sound,” Tolhurst says. “Those are all great bands, but if you want to emulate them, you’re just setting yourself up for failure.”
Because of Topographies’ realigned sonic setup, the band has been able to share new music ideas relatively easy during the pandemic, despite the trio not having been in the same recording space in months (for a while Tolhurst was living in an artists’ residency with 25 other people, meaning visitors were a strict no-go.) By relying heavily on drum machines, synths and other non-traditional instruments, the live recording process hasn’t been essential, although Tolhurst says they recently secured a recording space in the city.
Without the option of touring behind Ideal Form, Tolhurst says the trio will likely continue to make new music as a replacement for live gigs. If their follow-up album is anything like their debut, it will adhere to an inherent appreciation of somber, catchy and beautiful pop music — an appreciation that has been coded into Tolhurt’s genes, despite his initial reluctance to accept that gift.
“I avoided the Cure wholesale until about five years ago,” Tolhurst says. “I think at a certain point, I had to double check on the whole teenage rebellion vibe. I like this music. I find it inspiring and I’m happy to be inspired by it now.”