Ian Astbury is the last of the true believers he is still searching and still entranced by rock n roll.
He first appeared as the frontman of Southern Death Cult in the early eighties. The band briefly carried the flame for a version punk rock- a flame passed from the Pistols/Clash to Adam And The Ants to Southern Death Cult- a flame that burned bright in the eyes of young idealists who would travel up and down the country to see the band.
Astbury defined that youthful idealism and soul searching and had the perfect platform with the band’s tribal beats and melancholic power. A lost soul who had been brought up in Canada and Birkenhead, Astbury had found a home in punk rock- following Crass on the road and ending up in Bradford joining the Southern Death Cult.
He gave the band their wide eyed soul power and he became the pin up boy for positive punk that was soon erroneously labelled Goth and airbrushed from the musical narrative.
The band, like fellow travellers Bauhaus, were ground breaking musicians who have been written out of history by post punk historians who prefer the grey faced to the beautiful- both bands pushed the boundaries as much as the Fall or the Gang Of Four but have been edited out of the story.
A band like this could never last and they fell apart and Astbury called up the services of arch Mancunian guitar gun slinger Billy Duffy- who had once spent an afternoon writing songs with Morrissey in the legendary Ed Banger And the Nosebleeds before absconding to Theatre of Hate.
Duffy, who also taught Johnny Marr how to play guitar and remains firm friends with the fellow Wythenshawe guitar hero, was the Man City supporting, meat and potatoes, six string riff monster whose fractious relationship with his idealistic singer has been the source of the Cult’s creativity ever since. When it works like on the classic She Sells Sanctuary sparks fly in the perfect balance between terrace lad anthem and questing, yearning, other worldliness.
The Cult in their pomp were a fantastic rock band incorporating the groin exchange groove of AC/DC with the no nonsense production of Rick Rubin and Astbury’s rock trip- the yin and the yan of rock possibility.
For a few years in the late eighties the Cult were million sellers and filling stadiums. They currently occupy the rock hinterland of big tours, interesting album releases and a position just beyond the big time. But that hasn’t stopped Astbury, he could have steeled into comfy slippers of rock veteran but the quest continues., he controversially filled in for Jim Morrison of the 21st century Doors tour , worked with UNKLE, travels the world seeking knowledge and working on experimental rock side projects with frontier bands like Boris.
It’s January 2011 and the Cult are on the road in the UK. Like all the best bands they are a contradictory beast- a hard rocking band who quote AC/DC and esoteric philosophy, rock hard and are still enthralled by Crass.
They are on the UK leg of a world tour. It’s not the big venues any more but still sold out comfortably large halls. They will play mixture of rabble rousing anthems, some new material and some off the wall moments. They are a rock band nearly three decades down the line. They don’t sell millions of records these days and should have slipped comfortably into the working band syndrome like most of their contemporaries.
This would be the case of the didn’t have Ian Astbury as a frontman. Astbury grew up out of punk and has bounced around the edges of rock n roll ever since then- one part trad rock frontman, one part Crass fanatic and one part flailing shaman, Astbury talks a million ideas in an interview and is a seeker surrounded by the stale belch of rock n roll.
Here is a rocker who can talk about magik, punk rock, the counter culture, Led Zep and the Himalayas in one quote with an emotive conviction and a glint of mad genius in his eye.
Astbury’s itinerant seventies childhood, where he moved from Birkenhead to Canada and back to the UK was immersed in pop culture was made sense of by punk rock.
Following Crass on the road he fell in with like minded souls in Bradford and joined what would become Southern Death Cult- a band whose first album stands up to the test of time with its intense passion and inventive tribal/punk songs.
”ËWe were kids. We were young. I was 19. I hadn’t developed. I was reaching for myself and I hadn’t found myself so it was really earnest. If there is a criticism of me for being young and earnest then yeah! I’m guilty! I was young! and I was earnest! and I was going for it. I was exploring everything and I wasn’t afraid to put it into my music. The way I dressed and the way I looked was different, everyone else was following the pack.’
The punk flux changed lives. It was a savage discourse and the young Astbury, arriving back into the UK after spending his early teens in the USA, was captivated by the strands of intense pop culture all around him.
”ËI was year younger than most of my peers and I didn’t see the Pistols. I saw the Clash in ”Ë78 so I was a year behind. I was in Canada in ’77 so I just missed out on that wave.
Year zero for me was Crass and Joy Division. More so than the Pistols it was second album Clash, Public Image, Joy Division. But also coming from north America- because I’d spent five years there growing up- I also had this FM radio upbringing, listening to the Doors, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and also David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Patti Smith because you would hear these albums on the radio played in beautiful stereophonic sound- so I would be very familiar with this music as well.’
It keeps coming back to Crass though. The anarchist band’s beyond the fringe gigs were powerful affairs and the young Astbury would bunk round the country to see them play.
”ËI saw those guys 36 times. I used to follow them. I was a devotee of Crass and it had a huge, huge influence on me. I remember being at Dial house- the squat where they lived just outside London- and being given a book on the sacred rights of the Oglala Sioux called Black Elk Speaks by John Neinhardt to read while they were having a band meeting. I sat there and flicked through it as an 19 year old kid with a Mohawk sitting in their house. Steve Ignorant was sitting in the tepee outside- how can that not have an effect on you? It’s only now people understand them with articles in the media.’
Crass were, for many, the true spirit of punk and certainly for Astbury’s generation who arrived on the scene after the initial punk burst they were everything.
”ËPeople always said that if you were not there for those initial three months of punk then you weren’t there atall. Like the second summer of love in 1988 the summer of 77- if you were not there then you were not experiencing the real thing but to me they are just a get in the door moment that leads to a movement. The energy is always there- we are made of atoms and if you split the atom the energy is always there- of course the energy is always there. Unfortunately the culture has been appropriated by college-educated people who put themselves up as the custodians of the culture. They set themselves up with their blogs- ”ËI am now a cultural critic, here’s my blog- I am an authority.’ It’s got some nice black and white graphics. What I mean is that the people who are out there are really doing it are not reporting it. They are just getting on with it.’
The UK in the late seventies was a shocking place to arrive back in.
”ËWhen I came back to England there was this horrible Thatcherite cynicism and dystopia. I was coming out of a very optimistic culture in North America at a time when music had been very rich- the Stones were at their height, bands like Queen were touring and they were suddenly considered to be dinosaurs but they were still doing really good work. It’s interesting now that we have gone away from punk rock and people can be really objective about that period, bands like the Killers can be influenced by Bruce Springsteen or Queen.’
For Astbury the long and eclectic trip had started.
”ËYou put all that into my music and my love affair with the Doors and Jim Morrison and the psychedelic period and what people were doing in that period with ingesting psychedelics and exploring inward, emotive space and trying to get to the meaning of it all. Then, of course Spinal Tap comes along, and they put up Stonehenge on the stage and everyone has a really good laugh. I was probably the only person, who, when Spinal Tap came along- looked at everyone and said, you know what- we are fucked (laughs) because that film was funny but at the same token everybody is just going to look at the superficial elements of rock n roll and that’s just going to be it. It’s just going to be a big joke and it’s not a safe place any more to talk about those things, those things that made rock music more interesting, textured, layered and deeper.’
It’s this earnest love for the true heart of rock n roll that has left Ian Astbury open to ridicule- especially in these ironic times. But it’s also this quest that makes him more fascinating.
When Southern Death Cult burst onto the scene in a flurry of Mohawks, native American imagery and dressed up splendour they swiftly became the house band for the disaffected Ants fans and punks looking for an escape route from the increasingly narrow confines of punk itself. The scene was called post punk at the time before post punk itself has been re-written to not include the likes of the Cult.
John Peel loved them though and their music was challenging- breath taking even- that debut album really stands up as a highly original piece of music forged in Bradford and youthful idealism.
They were an exotic flurry emerging from the grey satanic mills of post industrial Bradford.
”ËI think in many ways you are forced to create something far more of a polar opposite of your surroundings and there’s certainly no exotic quality to Merseyside and West Yorkshire (laughs). I remember before I went to Bradford and I was living in Birkenhead and the same happened there. The punks were really exotic.
I think Pete Burns is from Birkenhead, or from Port Sunlight strangely enough and he looked amazing, The punk bands came from the suburbs and it took someone like Malcolm Maclaren, who was an art student, to make it happen. He was educated to have a cultivated eye so that when there was a shift in the culture he could be smart enough to define it in some way. He could then guide it or chorale it. These wild animals were running around and there was this shift in the energy and a shift in the culture and it was not like he tamed it but he harnessed it. He gave it an identity and he coalesced it and finessed it.’
He gave it a space.
”ËPrecisely and it’s that space and energy that I work in a lot and so does someone like James Lavelle. He is always looking for a sentiment or a feeling and try and give it some kind of framework for presentation. We are always trying to present it in a way that engages an audience. Those elements are very important. People are returning to a ritual space and people are returning to the organic environments- guys are growing their hair a little bit more and get away from ”Ëlet’s get down Carnaby Street and buy a pair of Beatle boots!”Â
I feel the energy is moving towards the organic in many ways. If Lady Ga Ga is as far as you can go with the manufactured machine then obviously there is going to be a balance of nature. It’s always the way- look out for where the light takes us.’
A true believer, Astbury is dumbfounded by the snickering hipster ironics of the big city.
”ËI saw that ”ËAnvil’ film in the cinema in Manhattan and all these hipsters came in their skinny jeans and their little beards laughing all the way through the film. I was five rows behind them and they were totally missing the point. These kids were also talking about this other film about the death metal bands in Norway- about the bands being alienated from Norwegian culture of Christianity and the conservatism which all of a sudden is now McDonalds and American culture and this globalised culture being thrust upon them and they were like, ”Ëno we don’t accept this. We don’t feel this. We feel something else. Look at where we live. We live with fjords and mountains. This is who we are and we react against it this way with our dark metal.
A load of city kids, who were talking about the film and who are not surrounded by this were not getting it. I was thinking how can they understand this? what reference do they have? They are actually really thick. They have a very blinkered perspective. We are all very organic. We depend on the sun, cut off the water and they would get it pretty quick!’
Rock culture has become an ironic T shirt slogan- Ian Astbury disagrees. Violently.
”ËIt’s like catch 22. It’s like the serpent catching its tail. It’s personified by people like Anna Wintour at Vogue magazine who observed that celebrity culture was going to happen and she put celebrity on the cover and everybody followed suit. Everybody from the bank manager to the editors, everybody follows suit to be part of it. There is this amazing book about New York called the Warhol Economy written by Elizabeth Currid who was an art professor. She talks about how New York became New York because of the abstract impressionists like Pollock, Rothko and then Warhol/CBGBs and then Basquiat and the Lower East Side crowd and that became modern New York and that’s why everyone went there. Everyone from the bank managers just wanted to put a Warhol on their wall and it’s turned into Zurich and all the real artists have basically left. Gone back to where they have come from- infact they are more likely to stay where they came from instead of going to New York. They are more likely to stay in Portland or Poughkeepsie because they know that it’s not happening in these urban environments- in fact it’s more likely to be pastiche.
I just spent three years living in New York and explored it thoroughly and I know. I lived in Manhattan. I was always in galleries and art shows, it’s very similar to London in that way. You pay for your bohemian experience- like in Starbucks where there’s a sort of Norah Jones record on in the background and it’s kind of a bit Bohemian. You go up to the counter and you can have an exotic drink from South America- it’s all about surface- not depth. I’m more for revamping the Stonehenge festival than that- that would be amazing!’
But there are, according to Ian Astbury, pockets of resistance.
”ËThat’s what I love about groups like Sunn O))) and that’s what I love about Boris. That’s what I love about that new movement of drone and psyche and metal and hard rock. It’s not even hard rock- its avant garde. In many ways it’s a ritual space. It’s not one dimensional. It’s not a band standing up there playing three chords for an hour and half and there’s no release like if you go to see Metallica. It’s a performance and with respect to Metallica- they are very masculine and very one dimensional. There’s no real sexual release. It’s all about sexual tension. It’s very aggressive. It’s very angry but when you go and see Boris it’s like an opera- it’s operatic- it’s a complete spectrum of emotion. You go on a journey when you see Boris perform. When you walk out of their concert it feels like you’ve left the earth plane in some ways. For sure I like to be at the front at a three chord rock concert as well and have that kind of really urban, angst energy and we get plenty of that from rock and hip hop as well but I think it’s a real blessing that Greg Anderson is doing the Southern Lord label releasing bands like Boris and Sunn O))) . With the label there is a real place for them and it would be really nice if college educated journalists could get off their fucking asses and get out of their very small, myopic environments like Brooklyn or whatever small enclaves they live in and get out and experience more than some sort of hipster perspective which is very limited.’
Getting out of limited environments is something that Astbury himself does quite literally with his jaunts up the Himalayas.
”ËI’ve not been there recently. There’s been another crash at the airport at the gateway to the Khumbu Trek to Everest. It’s the second one in two years. It gets hairy up there (laughs). The Himalayas are unforgiving and the weather systems up there chop and change. You have to have your wits about you up there and I love that and I feel really grounded there. I need nature. I just moved back to California from New York because I was missing the mountains and the desert and the ocean. The desert is going to be a very important part of the next part of the story for myself and my music and creativity. I’m excited about that. I couldn’t access that in New York. I had a HD projector and I would project films against the wall by Jodorowky and Auosky, a lot of very kind of languid organic films, a lot of Kenneth Anger films as well and I thought why don’t you just go back the mountains because I’m not getting it in New York.
In New York you are in man made canyons, the city is an amorphous thing and it has its own energy. Infact the city is part of everbody’s daily conversation. It’s a living, breathing entity but having said that- it’s also this machinery of culture and commerce.
The people who made New York into New York came from elsewhere. You ask these artists who they are and where they come from and Warhol came from Pittsburg and before that he came from Poland and Jackson Pollock was from Wyoming. Patti Smith came from deep New Jersey, Jean-Michel Basquiet came from Haiti. They were refugees. New York was where the refuges came into. It was where people came in the first place but then the people like the Rothschild’s, the Vanderbilt’s, the Guggenheims and all the families would capture these immigrants and these visions of the future and then take it and stick it in a gallery and then sell it and the next thing the artist is dead and they are sitting on top of a lot of expensive art that they didn’t create themselves.
New York is a machine. It just absorbs humans. It’s amazing- you see people just get spat out by the city. If you’re looking for spiritual awakening then New York is not the place to go. Well maybe it is- I had a spiritual awakening in New York and it made me want to go back to the mountains (laughs). I went to New York because I was looking for a more intellectually stimulating climate than California but it is really about what laces you have in your sneakers and how your hair is cut.’
Ever want to come back to the UK?
”ËI’ve actually spent more time in North America than in the UK and it breaks my heart to see so much cynicism and self loathing in the UK. I think the Brits are hard on ourselves and that really breaks my heart when I come back and see that and it’s difficult to come with a very open heart and a very earnest intention. The Cult have never been embraced by the British music industry. We have never been asked to an awards show and never been considered to be a part of any of that world. We have not been asked to the Queen tribute or the Mojo awards or the NME awards or any of that. We have never been embraced by the British music community ever, so in that way I feel like an exile. The only people I go back for is our fans and the barren places like Cornwall, Wales and Scotland.’
The Celtic fringes.
”ËYes! The Celtic fringes. Actually that is what I’m drawn towards and that quality in the island is still apparent and can be tapped into at any moment. That’s something that is really exciting and perhaps, if we can start a movement to get Stonehenge going again, it will make that difference.
Billy was really funny. He said to me, you want to start doing these folk festivals now don’t you? and I’m like, ah uh! Of course! Reading and Leeds, T In The Park, I mean, really! come on! Please! No! enough”Â¦no more crap hamburgers, crap toilets, people pissing all over eachother in the rain, come on! (laughs). All coked up, no! ugh! There’s a lot more different festivals now. You can find a different culture there. For us the right place is not the conveyer belt- where people don’t even know what band are playing. They don’t even care.’
Why don’t you put on your own festival again.
”ËI attempted that once with the Gathering Of The Tribes. It was an altruistic, heartfelt vibe. I thought the musical community had to represent itself. It was getting very corporate at the time and labels were taking over. There were the super companies, the super signature- using the leverage of Michael Jackson’s contract which affected everybody. So my reaction was, because I was a big fan of hip hop at the time- my idea was to see Guns n Roses and then NWA on the same bill. The journalist response was, ”ËI don’t really understand this and we don’t get it’. And I was saying you don’t have to get it- just experience it. It could be a good experience or a bad experience- it depends on how you feel. The festival I put on became Lollapalooza and other people got the trophies of mine that end up in their trophy cabinets but again that’s just the way it rolls.
I have to get beyond that or be a bitter old man (laughs).’
And the music scene itself? It’s changed massivly since the Southern Death Cult emerged in a time of confusion and idealistic hope.
”ËThere is a lot of getting caught up in facades. The sad thing is that a majority of people out there are not even watching anymore. There’s a massive video game industry, an 80 billion dollar a year industry. I read that in the Financial Times- that’s my latest banding about figure and my other one is when people asked what happened to the music industry- I say the bottom came up. Everybody and their dog is now an artist- it’s the people who really want to do it. If you can hang in there past three albums then you have made it. It’s not just a boy having a haircut and being cute or being the actual son and daughter of celebrity.
That period from ”Ë68 to ”Ë73 there was so much music getting made, it was so eclectic from Pink Floyd, Can, Stooges, Doors to Bowie, Parliament, Sly Stone- so much going on, wow!
I was lucky to go to Detroit for Rob Tyner’s benefit and a lot of these people came out. It was incredible evening. Things like that are few and far between. butI don’t want to sound like the old boy going on about the past. I’m interested in the future.’
And it’s this endless quest for whatever is at the heart of rock n roll and the future that keeps the Cult alive. On one level a great rock n roll band with the simplistic bump and grind of rock nailed down and on the other this idealistic twist and the thirst for more knowledge. In short, the quest.