Ian Astbury from the Cult : in depth interview about the new album
The Cult remain one of the most intriguing rock bands.
Ostensibly and, on the surface, a hard rocking outfit driven by Billy Duffy’s grinding crotch guitar and his innate understanding of the riff, The Cult are quintessential rock. They had moments when they were pure mainstream, on the way to being the biggest band in the world but seem better suited to being on the fringes. What makes them eternally fascinating is what possibly prevents them from being just another million selling rock machine- that much documented creative tension between Billy Duffy’s no nonsense six string workouts and Ian Astbury’s shamanic presence.
This unlikely combination is what always gave the Cult their edge. They would never have broken into the mainstream without it, and they were always destined to be like this- emerging from the punk and post punk scenes in the UK where the ideas swilled around and existential and revolutionary thinking was just as important as rocking out.
Their new album, ‘Choice Of Weapon’ is a dirty record for dirty times. Astbury is in great voice- he is one of the great rock n roll singers and the songs have an experimental edge without ever wandering too far from the hard rock template. Everything is cranked and filthy and the record is unapologetic. It’s a ballsy fuck you record for ballsy fuck you times, a record that somehow manages to play rock music that touches on AC/DC and Sonic Youth whilst remembering the bands roots back in the brave days of Southern Death Cult when skinny young men dressed like punk rock native Americans and made it look cool as fuck.
Ian Astbury is one of the great interviews. It reminds you of the quest by the inner core of people burned by punk. This was a punk rock that made up of people fascinated by everything and driven by an idealism and a madness the makes sense in these foul and dangerous times. Ian Astbury is an introspective thinker and a rock n roller, an LA shaman who grew up in Birkenhead and joined a band in Bradford. He can be pre LA Jim Morrison shamanic rock star but is still also the kid that hitch hiked around the UK following Crass- a fascinating mass of contradictions that somehow make sense and remind you of the power of the quest and the power of the pandora’s box of ideas and ideals that were sparked by the punk explosion in a way that the original progenitors of the form didn’t expect. perhaps it’s this that still makes the band feel dangerous in a time when rock can be so neutered, it’s this unpredictability and boundary pushing, that punk kicking against the pricks and tearing of the fabric that make the Cult more than just a rock band.
Mind you, they do a pretty damn good job of being a rock band.
JR: How is everything, ok?
IA: Yeah.. well, subjective, man! Is it ok? Is it safe? Yes, things are going over here, It’s chugging along.
JR: You’ve been touring a bit recently haven’t you?
IA: We’re doing a few bits and pieces. We’ve kind of been jumping in and out. We just did a couple of festivals. These days you grab it while you can. We did a couple of festivals in Birmingham, Alabama, and Memphis, Tennessee with Jane’s Addiction on the weekend and then we’re gonna start a proper tour on the 25th of May with Against Me! and The Icarus Line. That tour’s gonna go round the States. Then we’re gonna go to Europe to do a complete mishmash of stuff. We’re doing our own shows. We’re doing shows with what was supposed to be Black Sabbath but now it’s Ozzy & Friends, we’re doing shows with Guns ‘n’ Roses. And then we’re doing Roskilde, a few post-modern festivals, trying to mix lots of different genres. And then we’re going to hit the UK with The Mission and Killing Joke in the autumn, and then at some point we are going to Canada and do everything else.
JR: I just read about Against Me! today, that’s an interesting situation with the sex change isn’t it.
IA: Well, Tom is no longer Tom. It’s going to be Lucy (*LAURA). Yes, that’s breaking news. We have had transgender performers playing with the Cult before. I think it’s very courageous for him to come out and make that kind of statement.
JR: Very punk rock, the most punk rock thing I’ve heard for a bit of time.
IA: Genesis P-Orridge has been pushing transgender for quite a while.
JR: Pete Burns!
IA: Fuck man, Pete Burns! I saw Nightmares in Wax in Eric’s in Liverpool when I was living in Birkenhead in the late seventies. Pete Burns in Liverpool was such an icon, he was pre-Boy George. He had an incredible sense of style. That guy lived his life in a completely individual direction. He really embraced his inner daemon and went for it. I remember going to Probe Records in Liverpool where he worked behind the counter.
JR: He used to be scary, everyone I knew was tops cared to buy records and I had to buy them for them!
IA: Yes he was terrifying but then after a while I got talking to him and he was very sweet, a really cool guy. I’ve heard some amazing stories about Pete Burns. I always thought he had a wicked wardrobe. He was incredibly well-dressed.
JR: He looked amazing, he had a lot of that look very early on.
IA: He wore a lot of Seditionaries. I remember him wearing Seditionaries head to toe. He was one of the first guys I saw with the tribal look as well.
JR: Definitely the first one I saw with that look.
IA: That was definitely a big influence on me, no doubt.
JR: The new Cult album sounds really good- a return to the spirit of the older days, would that be true to say?
IA: Yeah, it’s more about getting in touch with the intuitive part of it rather than the cognitive part. I think once your band gets into a place where you get entrenched in the career, maybe you cruise a little bit and then you can get jolted into reality. I think the whole process started with making ‘Born Into This’ with Youth- talk about punk rock, that record was done in 15 days, we threw the songs down really quickly. Youth actually played bass on a lot of the tracks. I came over to London and he was already there in the studio laying down backing tracks. He was playing with his drummer, David, making up an incredible rhythm section. John and Chris, our rhythm section were like ‘what’s going on?”.
That album was like going back to core philosophy, punk rocky spontaneity, high energy, no real filter. There’s definitely a refinement to some of the things we do in the sense of our musicianship. I’m sure we could actually play three chords very well, we could probably fake it pretty good in terms of punk rock. But we’ve kind of gone off in a different direction and we wanted to evolve as musicians and try different textual things, different emotive spaces, cinematic stuff. But then again on this record there are a few songs that are definitely knife edge, like a New York City street, ‘Honey From A Knife’ and ‘For The Animals’- some songs that are more traditional in a way, three chords and a flick knife.
JR: Was that the definite idea when you started the album, did you sit down with Billy and say we have to work within these parameters?
IA: No not really, it was just kinda what came up. I went through a pretty intense three year period in New York, a lot of shit went down. There was a lot of great stuff as well, a lot of transitional stuff happening. I think I brought the energy of that into the room. I was pretty much gloves off when I came into the room. I came really out of New York with this record, and deeper places like the Himalayas desert. I was in these places, these were the kind of places I was coming out of, and New York City, which is pretty unforgiving still, even though it’s turned into Zurich it can still be pretty unforgiving. It’s the sheer mass of humanity on top of each other. You get a sense of the neurosis. People are quite neurotic and everyone is about to snap. That energy, you really feel it when you are on the street especially during rush hour or if you’re in the subways. Even going through London, being in environments like that, you really get the sense of people at breaking point. I think that’s something I really picked up on, the dystopian, people in the state of neurosis and no real way out. I mean what do you do, buy more things? Stream more content? Get a better mobile device? It doesn’t seem fulfilling, it seems to be more like some kind of spiritual…
JR: Is there a search for spirituality in the record?
IA: Maybe not so much a search, more like sharing where I’m at. The eternal quest, the existential quest; -what’s the meaning of life? what’s it all about? where do I fit in? do I fit in? Being around Crass was mind-blowing, Crass was one of the few bands that actually asked those kind of questions. They try to give some kind of context to the energy of the music and the times. I remember being at their house and them giving me “Black Elk Speaks”, the William Lyon book on the Lakota Sioux to read. As a very young man of 17/18 years old in their house, I was looking for that kind of stuff. I wanted more.
Punk Rock split my skull open and introduced me to a different way of being, breaking away from the mainstream. All of a sudden you were in this different field. There were amazing conversations I used to have with people. People used to think that punk rock was all about degenerates, anti-establishment, but there was a lot more going on than that. There was a lot of philosophical stuff going on, people were really exploring things. It’s evident in Crass’ work and some other bands that came out, like the Cro-Mags who eventually evolved into a kind of Krishna consciousness. There was a philosophical element to it. That’s something that always stuck with me through the years.
Also, when I was living in Canada when I was really young, I grew up around indigenous native Canadians. They were the most rebellious kids at my school. I was absolutely taken with these kids. They really had no respect of authority. They didn’t even have any concept of it. They had their own language as well. A different language and English was their second language. It was really interesting being exposed to that kind of culture.
Growing up with Bowie, Iggy Pop, Punk Rock, that’s where the philosophical part of it came from for me. I don’t want to cheapen it by giving it a tag, but maybe it was the quest or search or whatever that was. I was always really inquisitive- what’s round the next corner? I could never really just stay in one place, even musically stay in one place. That might appear to be schizophrenic but in some ways to me it is the only way. Once I have an understanding of something I want to try something else
JR: That sense of dislocation, is that because of your upbringing? You traveled a lot didn’t you.
IA: Yeah, I never had a real sense of identity in terms of cultural identity. My mother was Scots, my father was from Birkenhead, Merseyside area. And I was growing up in North America as well. Cultural identity or a sense of nationalism, maybe you can define it by language and ethnicity, but outside of that not really. SO I just made it up as I went along. But the guiding stars were always music. There was Bowie for so long and then the Pistols came along and then Crass was very important, Joy Division, Public Image was very important to me.
1984 was like year zero for me, the music that we weren’t supposed to listen to, like the Doors, Led Zeppelin, when you see these guys when they are young and pissed and driven, there’s a lot of similarities between the punk ethos and those bands before they became the super juggernauts. There’s a lot in that music too. I wasn’t really listening to the common wisdom at the time- the “I hate Pink Floyd” philosophy of punk rock. It’s really interesting now to see what kind of records really stand up in people’s collections. So many punk rockers that I grew up with listen to Pink Floyd now. More tripped out stuff, and they are exploring a more tripped out philosophy. One band I would say is Primal Scream, who encapsulated a lot of different elements and stepped off into hard lysergic speed driven urban philosophy.
JR: That was an amazing trilogy of albums Primal Scream released ion the 90s- the hangover records- the comedown after acid house.
IA: Yes totally, it’s interesting a lot of acid house kids are now going to those kinds of albums after having been to a rave, having been up for three days, they go to those kind of records. There’s definitely some kind of drug consciousness in those records, but in a good way. Not like it was self indulgent. The Cult have been criticized for maybe being a bit overproduced and grandiose at times, but I think we’re brave enough to go into those areas and try them out. This is where we are heading, let’s try this out. Sometimes Billy’s really driving something and guitars will be the most important dominant instrument. I’m always the one who drags it back down to ‘The Cult’ getting down to basics. I picked the producers for the last two albums, I was the one who really drove those. I was pushing to get Youth in the room and pushing to get Chris Goss in the room. I think it’s really served us well.
JR: Was this album driven by you or Billy or was this a shared one?
IA: It’s always going to be a collaboration. I write music too but when we work together I like to see what Billy’s got first of all. When we start he goes ‘Let’s start with one of yours’, and I say ‘You’re not getting away with that, what have *you* got?’. So I see what he’s got, and everything’s on his cell phone. It’s dead easy, he puts everything straight to his iPhone, he brings it, we try it out and see what we’ve got. I pick out what I like, and what I don’t like and we put it to the side. We pick out what resonates with me straight away . Then we work through it; give it a title, put a beat on it and some bass. What ever we’ve got right there we throw it down immediately. We do all that kind of stuff at a home studio we call witch mountain. Where I live is a hillside surrounded by trees and coyotes at night, so it’s kind of witchy, it’s an old 1920’s cottage.
JR: Whereabouts are you, you moved, didn’t you?
IA: Back on the West coast, up Beachwood Canyon. Beachwood Canyon is really interesting because that’s the place where the Theosophists congregated in the 1920’s. A lot of Aldous Huxley’s great books were written here. He had a huge influence on the county culture. A lot of intellectuals were coming here, there’s a Vedantic society here which is basically a Hindu Ashram, that’s been here since the 1920’s. The (????) society, the Theosophists, Huxley, Christopher Isherwood who wrote I am a camera which became Cabaret. They were all based here in this region. It’s really weird, you’re in the middle of a city but I’ve seen deer in my street, I’ve seen coyotes, there’s rattlesnakes, it’s pretty wild in the middle of a city.
JR: Did you pick that area deliberately because of that, or does that kind of thing just tend to follow you, do you just instinctively end up in those kind of places?
IA: Instinctively. When I was living in New York I was living on the cusp of the East Village. I lived in Hell’s kitchen as well, I’ve lived in Brixton and Belfast, I’ve lived in some pretty hairy spaces. We’re pretty much ready to get out of here to find somewhere else. The main thing about living here is you can go to the desert. Some days when you are driving on the freeway you can see the snowcapped mountains. The ocean is right there, so you’re surrounded by this super nature. If you really embrace that go into that it can be an amazing place to live.
I tend not to spend too much time in West Hollywood or that region. When people think of LA, they think of West Hollywood, Billy Idol and Harley Davidsons. That’s actually gone now, it’s mainly urban hip hop and film. All those rock ‘n’ roll guys are retiring now, they’re more gentrified and drive range rovers and stuff. It’s a different kind of mindset. I’m more over the East side where there’s still a lot of energy and progressive culture. Even if I tried, I couldn’t really fit into that kind of affluent thing. I tried for 5 minutes to fit into that but I couldn’t do it.
JR: Is that because of your spiritual side, or because of the punk rock roots?
IA: It didn’t feel right with my soul. I just couldn’t embrace it. I mean I love material things, computers are amazing, cell phones are amazing, being able to stream content is amazing, I love that kind of aspect of the culture. I’ve always been a bit of a clothes horse, I love records, vinyl, but then again at the end of the day it’s just stuff. Having a rich interior life is really important as well. Ultimately it breaks down to that. When you find yourself up against it, that’s what I go to. Material stuff doesn’t fill me up when I’m trying to move through something. So I try to find a balance. As I get older I flip more towards the philosophical spiritual realm as opposed to the material.
JR: Do you find it difficult to get the spiritual and complex thought process into a rock ‘n’ roll band? Do the audience get it at a subconscious level?
IA: Once we stop talking and defining we get into an intuitive thing. That’s what’s great about live music. Live music is usually so loud that you can’t really have a conversation. You just have to become involved. If you let it happen, if you’re really connecting with some music it can be a transcendent experience. You can’t explain it to people. You can’t explain that kind of euphoria.
You know what it’s like, you walk out of a rave or a concert, if people say ‘How was it?’. ‘It was amazing’, you can’t articulate the experience because it has to be experienced. You can only really show somebody what it’s like. As John Lennon said, you can’t explain the taste of raspberry jam, you just have to eat it. I think that it’s having an awareness to access. That’s why a lot of stuff gets done at nigh. There’s not so much stuff going on. There’s not so many distractions at night, so your imagination can travel, your spirit can travel. You connect with expanded consciousness- there’s no separation, no duality. It’s all integrated. We’re in a pretty neurotic state where we have to define everything and label everything. ‘Right, that’s that labeled, next’. It’s not that simple. There are no literal containers. Nothing can be contained. Even these containers they’ve built for uranium, they’re going to dissolve at some point. It all dissolves. It’s just energy. As soon as you jump into that it’s ok, it’s cool.
One thing I hate is intellectual bullying, where you’ve got one individual who thinks they know it all who says you have to be this way. Live and let live, there’s room for everyone. When you are trying to live a conscious life, you do what you do. I’m gonna make the choices I’m gonna make, and if people don’t like it then that’s fine, you have the choice not to engage in something or be subjected to something for the most part. There are ways of avoiding even in totalitarian regimes. There’s ways of having freedom or a different reality.
That’s what happened with punk rock originally. It grew out of that kind of psychic hole in the culture. People just filled it with colour and expression. It was very DIY. Until the Oi punk came along and everybody was wearing leather jackets, it was very individualistic. Everyone had completely different ways of dressing, thinking and being. Class wasn’t important, race wasn’t important, gender wasn’t important. If you were a punk, you were a punk. That was it. it didn’t matter where you came from. I didn’t even ask people. If I had a bottle of cider, I’d share that, no problem. We used to be trading clothes and stuff, records, that stays with you.
JR: What do you think the role as a rock ‘n’ roll singer is, to present these ideas, or just create the space where people can have that kind of wildness?
IA: I don’t consider that as an official role. It would be naive to say it doesn’t come with some kind of responsibility. I think there is a responsibility there in the sense that now you have engaged an audience of people who are looking to you for certain integrity or what ever, it’s like a relationship. You have to build trust. I know at times we’ve maybe for whatever personal reasons walked away from it and not been able to maintain that relationship, because it was too intense, but I think as you get older you see more and more the value of that relationship.
Some people depend upon you in some ways. You should have an awareness of what you do can affect somebody in a certain way. I have so many people who come to me and say your music has effected me in this way or that way. It’s always really profound when somebody says ‘I moved through a very difficult period of my life’, or ‘I fell in love to this’, or ‘this is the music I listened to when I was traveling through India’ or what ever, you begin to realize that you’re such a part of people’s lives.
I don’t really feel I’ve got an official role. Career is kind of a cheap word to use in an artistic or creative profession or what ever this is. I never really look back unless people pull me up, usually when you’re doing a retrospective, an ‘all our yesteryears’ kind of piece where people want you to talk about what it’s like to tour with Guns ‘n’ Roses, having too many drinks on stage. Great, have you never fell down drunk somewhere?