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The KROQ Weenie Roast in Irvine, California, is the last surviving progeny of the carnival sideshow atmosphere made famous by Lollapalooza. Each year hordes gather to brave an always intense heat and watch that year's hottest bands play to a baked crowd. Surprises have been plentiful: In 1998, for instance, Billy Idol made a cameo and jammed with Third Eye Blind. Later that evening Third Eye bassist Arion Salazar got kicked in the nuts by Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong when Salazar made an uninvited appearance during Green Day's set.
This June, the Cult's Ian Astbury provided the roughneck theatrics. In the scorching midafternoon heat under a cloudless SoCal sky, Astbury snapped. In the midst of the band's ferocious 45-minute set, he leaped off the stage at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater and wind-sprinted past 17,000 gawking fans to the top of the venue. There he surveyed the scene of rock faithful who showed up to see decidedly un-Cultish acts such as Papa Roach, 311, Staind, and Blink-182. The faces were 20-odd years his junior, but that didn't matter. He took a deep breath, then ran back down to earth.
At the foot of the stage, adrenaline pumping through his veins after hearing the roar of what was the largest crowd for which he'd played in some time, Astbury grabbed a 15-foot boom camera and tried with all his might to topple it over.
It wouldn't budge.
So Astbury did the next best thing. The cameraman, thrown from the boom, began yelling obscenities at Astbury, who charged and started swinging. A slew of roadies and event staff members were needed to pry the 39-year-old self-proclaimed rock star off the technician.
"You don't put a band like the Cult on at four o'clock in the afternoon," Astbury barks during a recent phone interview. "We're a big animal. We're not like kiddies anymore."
Hardly, since Astbury began his quest for the upper echelon of apocalyptic goth-tinged metal way back in 1981 with the Southern Death Cult. After reducing the name and m.o. as much as possible, the Cult hit its stride in 1985 with the bombastic power-chord frenzy of Love, followed by 1987's Electric. (The latter marked the beginning of Astbury's love affair with the words whoa, woman, baby, and fire, which is still in effect today.) Guitarist Billy Duffy's appropriation of Angus Young/Jimmy Page riffs and Astbury's quasi-mystical lyrics rode the gravy train into the mid-'90s, when the pair suddenly remembered that they couldn't stand each other. Now, reunited with Duffy after the guitarist's recently aborted solo trajectory, Astbury is more likely to mix it up with hired mosh-pit police than his old mate.
"I really like moving the crowd, and I like people to express themselves," he explains, recalling a 1995 New York City show where he had to jump into the crowd to come to the aid of a pair of skinny, black-clad white boys. "I hate seeing security guys steam in and close people down. It happens a lot -- the overzealous testoronic [sic] mission to slow a show. A Cult concert should not be a place for security guys to work out their personal neuroses."
He moved the crowd that night -- in fact, after the show, a pair of hot-damn groupies solicited Ian for backstage behavior befitting a rock star -- yet he flat out rejected them. "I have no time for that shit anymore," Astbury growls. That's because these days he's strictly on the humble, having kicked drugs, booze, and after-hours intercourse when the band's career took a nosedive in the late '90s. Astbury says he's sworn off substances since then.
In traditional Cult fashion, the workingman's band is currently on a worldwide whirlwind tour. And while the band members are not the trendsetters of rock that they were in the late '80s, if for no other reason than the fact that their dated, gun-metallic sound is not considered "hard" by contemporary standards (coupled with the fact that most Cult fans are in their midtwenties to early forties), Astbury and company are still the yardstick by which rock stars measure their worth -- in their own minds, at least.
The band is touring in support of its current album, Beyond Good and Evil, its first studio effort in seven years and debut album for Lava/Atlantic Records. This particular vintage has more than a whiff of familiarity as well as the same long, oaky finish: Duffy pounds out thunderous riffs in the spirit of old chestnuts like "She Sells Sanctuary." Ex-Guns n' Roses drummer Matt Sorum is like a reserve battalion rushing in to replenish the frontline. Granted, Beyond Good and Evil's songs won't be blasting from car stereos or frat parties the way "She Sells Sanctuary" once was. There's no power ballad like "Edie (Ciao Baby)" on this one. The slowest things get is "Hey Nico," and even that has gorilla balls. The first song, "War (The Process)," rocks as hard as any lead-off track on any Cult album you care to name. And the anthem "True Believers" could well be Astbury's ode to himself: "I want to be immortalized/Living in forever skies/ Want to live forever/Got to move on."
Right now, however, Astbury is too concerned with matters at hand to evaluate his chances of immortality.
"To tell you the truth, I'm so wrapped up in the tour that I haven't had a chance to think about anything," he says. "I'm doing between four and eight interviews a day, and then by the time I'm getting ready to do a show, I'm pretty fried."
By the bored tone in his voice and the humdrum way in which he answers the obligatory questions (How's the tour going? What can we expect when the Cult descends on South Florida? How are you and Billy getting along?), one could assume that Astbury has finally had it with rock stardom. He still wears the famous frilly shirts and nut-hugging black leather pants, but he's shaved his jet-black mane. The skull and crossbones cowboy hat comes off the shelf from time to time, but the baby face is gone. The sole remaining constant in Astbury's stage presence is that piercing, cacophonous rattle that runs through his wails and moans.
Astbury is the ever-searching journeyman, more consumed with the getting there than the being there. "I learn stuff every day," he says from a tour bus in "riveting" Kansas City. "I speak to people every day. The people who come along really forward my culture."
Still, some shows, Astbury says, are insane. A recent gig in Montreal comes to mind. Others, like the KROQ one, are a wash. He has some advice for South Florida concertgoers when the band plays Pompano Beach Friday:
"For God's sake, you paid the money," Astbury pleads. "A lot of our audiences stare at us like frightened animals. We never really had that problem in Florida. Florida's pretty cool. I mean, look: I ain't here to party. I'm serious about what I do. I don't dick around. When I get on-stage, I put my guts into it. We're not like kids trying to find their way around the bedroom. We know where everything's at, and that's the intensity of the band. I don't have time for hitting on girls or scoring drugs. That's for little boys who think they're badasses. I read books, I study, I do martial arts. I'm a serious motherfucker."
Yet Astbury condones moderate violence (as long as it's done tastefully) and examines the profundity of life's little mysteries. Remember to breathe, he advises.
"A venue that's run by people who love music, who understand it -- that's the ideal show," he says. "They understand that there's going to be a certain amount of behavior which might not fall in the parameters of lawfulness. People are going to get in activity that might not be legally correct. But it can be morally correct. People can get ripped up. That's fine. For me, as long as nobody's getting hurt and as long as people keep it to themselves, that's cool. I quite like a mosh pit. I like aggressive behavior."