Interview The Cult: ‘Whatever The Term Was, We Were Still Playing Rock ‘n’ Roll’

Simone Scott Warren converses with The Cult’s Ian Astbury.

As an impressionable fourteen year old, my Saturday night entertainment was provided by the local under eighteens’ disco, Heroes. There, for no valid reason, it quickly became apparent you must make a choice; The Cure or The Cult. Each week, they would play ‘She Sells Sanctuary’ (or sometimes, ‘Rain’) and ‘Lovecats’ back to back, and you were meant to pick which to dance to, thus pledging your allegiance. Both had their own dance routine; for ‘Lovecats’, you would perform a bizarre box step move whilst jauntily wiggling your elbows, for ‘She Sells Sanctuary’, a strange intertwining hand movement whilst facially attempting to adopt an air of wide eyed otherworldliness, until you found yourself staring at your hands over your head, at which point you would start the whole thing again. We were, as I am sure you will agree, dead, dead cool.

I never really managed to pick between the two bands properly, both dance routines had their own merits and I could master them easily. Apart from having four letter names, both beginning with ‘C’, I also couldn’t see where the similarity came from. Now, with age, I realise we’re were picking between two bands perceived as being goth, but back then, that term meant nothing to me and I just didn’t understand the connection. I might have loved The Cure more than anything, but I was fourteen, I wasn’t ready to be exclusive, and besides, my friend Anna had the Cult’s ‘Love’ on repeat and it was really good too. Anyway, ‘Baggy’ was about to happen and we would soon be spending all our money on oversized trousers and forgetting all about the Great Jersey Goth Wars of ’89.

“The term Goth was kind of a joke term, it was David Dorell that coined the term, he used to write for the NME.” Ian Astbury, legendary lead singer for The Cult, softly laughs down the line from his Californian abode, “I mean, it was a communal joke, we were all living together in Brixton, and that sort of phrase sort of came up; gothic, gothic hoards, living together in a gothic mansion… David Dorell picked up the word Goth and applied it to everyone who was wearing black… It was pretty much, you’ve moved on from punk, it’s the next natural progression. All the boys adopted leather jackets, and all the girls adopted Siouxsie Sioux’s hair, and that was the uniform for the time. Whatever the term was, we were still playing rock ‘n’ roll.”

The story of Astbury, and The Cult’s rise to prominence is one of rock ‘n’ roll dreams come true; Astbury had led a nomadic childhood, emigrating to Canada in the mid seventies as a young teen, and returning to find a very different Britain from the one that he had left behind. “I had my first holiday back in the UK in ‘77, my family was in Birkenhead, near Liverpool. I remember the Queen just happened to be in Liverpool, she was going around the country I guess, and she was on a boat going down the Mersey. So the Mersey banks were lined with lots of people, you know, waving and cheering, and I remember looking across the banks and seeing all these punk rockers. I’d never seen punks before close up, it was kind of a shock. Going from the UK, to North America was a huge culture shock, and then coming back for a holiday was huge, because so much had changed in the UK, culturally and musically, which was kind of what I was interested in. I wasn’t really interested in the political stuff, I was 15 years old, all I was interested in was the music.”

That interest quickly turned to an obsession, with the punk scene, and with the seminal punk band Crass, in particular. Astbury, effectively homeless, travelled the country following them around. For a period of six months, he slept wherever he could, bus shelters, abandoned buildings, dossing on couches, until he met some likeminded Crass fans who invited him to stay with them in Bradford. As it turns out, they also needed a singer for their band; “They were practising in the living room, it was a punk band called Violation. They needed someone to sing, they liked the way I looked, and so they asked me to join the band.”

Violation morphed into Southern Death Cult, before Astbury disbanded that group, dropped the Southern and then the Death, and poached Billy Duffy from tour mates Theatre of Hate. The Cult quickly scored their first NME cover, “We were on the cover without even having a record out.” Ian tells us, sounding a little surprised, even to this day, “Literally, we didn’t have any music and we’re on the cover of the NME. That was so bizarre, because we didn’t even have a label at the time.”

It’s fair to say that The Cult’s worldwide success exceeded all preconceptions for a British band at that time. “The band did transcend expectations, but we didn’t have any expectations, I didn’t have any expectations, so I guess we didn’t transcend our expectations, because we didn’t have any. We were just putting one foot in front of the other. The UK has no expectations for it’s talent anyway. I don’t know what it is. Maybe it started in the war, or the kind of school system we have; when I was at school, teachers were always telling you that you were no good at things, I had very few teachers that were encouraging. I didn’t have that connection with an education. We culturally put down people who are successful at things, I don’t know why that is, it’s very perplexing to me. Living in North America, there’s more of a sense of optimism, and then coming back to the UK, with that sense of optimism, you have a different energy, definitely, people felt that coming from me. And you get criticised for it, criticised for being earnest, criticised for being driven in that way.“

Astbury’s relationship with the music press has always been that of a misunderstood optimist, so it might be safe to assume having taken a bit of a battering for the last thirty years, he’d be a prickly character to converse with, guarded and wary. Nothing could be further from the truth, over the course of our conversation, we cover everything from the Royal Family (“they’re a tourist attraction, but when you think about how they got in that position… they had to subjugate someone to get into that position, and subjugate them with what? With violence. So we come from a culture where there’s been that subjugation, the class system, upper class, middle class, working class, that’s just an existential way, isn’t it? We’re all creatures, we’re all human beings, we all have equal value.”), to Buddhism (“I guess in life, there comes a time where you can either do it your way, the way you’ve made up, or you can try and absorb some wisdom from other texts, cultures, experiences, that you can apply to your situation, and I found myself just going back to Buddhism.”) to the rites of passage we miss from our youth (“Phone boxes!”). Indeed, such an engaging conversationalist is he, that it takes us some time to remember what we’re here to discuss, the ninth studio album by The Cult, ‘Choice of Weapon’.

For three years prior to recording the album, Astbury had been living in New York, in Manhattan, which was where much of his writing for the record was completed, and certainly, the influence of the city is felt keenly on the album; as Ian describes it, the record “emanated from experiences in New York and living there”. There’s a definite sense on the record that this is a band who don’t really care too much about what other people think, that they’re out to enjoy themselves alone, which Astbury concurs is the case, “It’s because you have that option. Certainly when you’re coming up, finding your place the world, you do have an awareness of where you are, and some of that does seep into your music. But as you progress, you get further and further into your own story. For this record, there was no agenda, there was nothing, we weren’t aiming for a certain goal, we just wanted to make this record the best it could possibly be. Let the heart rule the way.”

Which all sounds terribly tranquil, but Astbury and Duffy, well, there’s a certain reputation there, one of two musicians who can’t live with each other, can’t live without each other. We ask, tentatively, whether the issue of the two band leaders locking horns arose again, or whether it’s that very chemistry that keeps the band going after all these years? “Chemistry is where it’s at. You’ve got to have those elemental particles that oppose each other. Makes great art, makes great mileage.” Ian confirms, “Even the fact that I’m a singer and he’s a guitar player, there’s difference of philosophy in that. I think over the years we’ve come to appreciate each other for who we are, as individuals. And we get the most out of each other, we know the character aspects that we have, so if I get caught into a space where I’m, for want of a better word, becoming too esoteric, he can be very grounding. And likewise, sometimes he can be too pragmatic, and I can just completely destroy that. You just learn how that works, the balance, the dance, and try not to step on each other’s toes too much. It’s so easy to have a argument about things and just walk out the door, throw your teddy in the corner, but it doesn’t really fix anything. I think we both know that when we get together, we make a certain kind of noise, and that’s something you really have to appreciate.”

Certainly, as Ian discusses the writing process (“Crayon!”), and the recording process, you get the sensation that this record was born out of a much less tumultuous affair. “We recorded a little bit in New York, but then we moved it to a studio called Ocean Way [in California], which is like an old studio, the last great live recording rooms.” Ian enthuses, “There’s some very old recordings of Sinatra from there, Sammy Davis Jr, pretty much everyone and their dog recorded there; the Stones, U2, etc etc. It’s a great atmosphere, and for recording rock ‘n’ roll bands, it’s definitely the best, because you’ve got space to make up amps, they don’t just use a plug in on it. Everyone’s using plug ins now, you don’t even have to mic up an amp anymore, and there’s a real skill to that. There’s a real skill to mic-ing up drums, and very few engineers know how to do that anymore. The engineers in there really know their trade, but getting space in a room, it’s really important. Working on the record with Unkle, for example, [Ian appeared on Unkle’s ‘Burn My Shadow’ and ‘When Things Explode’] you’re in a control room, in quite a confined space, it gets to be a bit claustrophobic. Being in a big room, it’s got a certain atmosphere to it, you can really travel, whatever’s going on, you just drop it, it’s really magical.”

With ‘Choice of Weapon’ ready for release, the next logical step is a few live shows, and The Cult have lined up some pretty special tour mates for the UK leg of their tour; The Mission and Killing Joke. “The idea was we could go out and do a similar tour to what we’ve been doing, playing the Academies or whatever, or we could try and make it a little bit more of an event.” Ian confesses, “And originally when it was presented to us as playing with the Mission, I thought it could be misconstrued, bit of a nostalgia thing, but then we saw the Mission at a festival in Belgium, and they were incredible. I was blown away by them. So we thought that was actually a good idea, based on what they’re doing now. And then Killing Joke joined the party, Killing Joke’s a band I grew up with, I used to go see them play. So that was a bonus. And we thought that the three bands playing together had a value, you know, we could go play a bigger venue, create more of an event, do something different. We can always go back to the same old, but we’ve always tried to do something different with touring. We did the ‘Love Live’ tour and played the Royal Albert Hall, which was really important to us. It’s incredible, that’s somewhere we’ve always wanted to play, it was Billy’s idea, to play the Love album in a venue that we should’ve played it in back in the day, but we never ever played it.”

Ian sounds momentarily contemplative, “There are some parts of the British culture that are endearing and have certain merit to them, magic to them. In Los Angeles at the moment there are all these billboards everywhere, that say ‘Great Britain Is Culture’; with a picture of the British Museum. We’ve had this idea to go block out the ‘ure’, and make it ‘Great Britain Is Cult’.”

The Cult’s new album ‘Choice Of Weapon’ is out now via Cooking Vinyl.

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