For Ian Astbury, iconic frontman of the Cult, life is about the experiences. From his time as a member of the influential post-rock group, Southern Death Cult, to penning mega-selling hard-rock anthems as the frontman of the Cult, Astbury has experienced just about everything the music world has to offer.
Astbury's contributions to the canon of rock stem far beyond his work with the Cult. The singer has played the role of surrogate Jim Morrison for his heroes, the Doors, made a criminally underrated EP with the Japanese sludge-rock titan Boris, and has done it all with an air of mysticism and eloquence that defines him as a member of the dying class of true rock stars.
The Cult is currently knee-deep on the Electric 13 tour, one that celebrates the fan-favorite Electric with performances of the record in its entirety, as well as a set of mixed classics and newer fare. When we spoke with the loquacious rocker, we discussed the infamous Killing Joke debacle, his distaste for Pitchfork snobbery, and just how sad the state of music has become.
New Times:For a now classic band that still puts out new material, and one with an obvious mind for its relevance based on Weapon of Choice, the Cult has a real reverence for its past. Do you enjoy performing the sets featuring the classic material as much as performing the newer stuff, or is it more for the fans?
Ian Astbury: First of all, its very difficult to go about playing it if you're not into it, but with the Electric album, we haven't played some of these songs ever, so, it's really fresh, you know? People have asked, "How is it possible you can play songs you've been playing for decades" and you realize that it's a real action. Music is an action and you have to perform it. It's best experienced live, and in the moment, every venue is different, every mindset is different. So, every moment is unique when performing and totally different, and that keeps it fresh.
Was it a challenge to relearn the old songs, particular those that have never been a part of the band's live repertoire?
No, because we're usually pretty simple. Some of the arrangements are strange. One song, "Memphis Hip Shake," has an unorthodox arrangement, but the rest of 'em are pretty straight ahead for us.
You and Billy Duffy have worked together for such a long time. Has the creative bond between the two of you changed much over the years, or is it similar to where it began?
Yeah, I think it's evolved in many ways. We've both evolved in our own craft. I mean, I've had a lot of experiences outside of the band which I bring back to the songwriting. When we first started out, we didn't know very much really but playing basic chords, primary lyrical ideas, but that's evolved. We've become far more complex and like, the last record we made, it's kind of dense in many ways -- lots of overlapping layers and different themes and I guess experience shows.
There are a lot of new bands referencing some of the dark psychedelic themes that have always been in the underpinnings of the Cult, and more specifically Southern Death Cult. I know your wife's band (the Black Ryder) performed at Austin Psych Fest this year. Any thoughts on the new wave of psych?
I think one of the most authentic, kind of untapped guitar genres is psychedelic rock music. It's definitely not a mainstream genre, but it's been around for what, forty years? That festival is unique in that it's a real curated event, and it's definitely an event that's more about the music. Great internationalism, but not a profit rendering thing.
We took a lot of slack and a lot of heat for what we were doing. We took a lot of slack, a lot of heat. There's references to psychedelia all through the Cult's history.
There was a distinct commercial change for the Cult at a certain point when things got big...
Beyond big. But, you know the industry was different. You could sell millions of records. It was a completely different environment. It was also a different century! Pre-social networks, pre-internet phenomenon -- which in many ways kind of decimated the uniqueness of the live experience, because now everybody can get in on the act. What was once an alchemical, mystical process, is now accessible to every individual.
For my money, there is no YouTube video that can replace a true, live experience. Like you said, every moment is different.
I don't think this generation has actually had that experience. They haven't looked any further than sitting at home with Ableton or whatever, they just haven't had that experience. There's also a gestation period of actually sitting in a bedroom, putting on a vinyl record, sitting there with your guitar, trying to work out the chords, trying to work out the melodies, smoking a cigarette -- really getting involved in the whole process. A meditative connection.
I mean, the idea of putting on music purely to listen to music -- it's not in the background, it's not something that is coming out tiny speakers on your computer or headphone bugs --it's actually a spiritual experience. At home, I only listen to vinyl, I barely listen to anything else, and I'm always waiting for new releases to come out on vinyl. And, that's not so much being a purist, it's just the best form -- to me anyway.
What is next as far as new releases for the Cult?
We've got some scraps of songs right now which we're going to start turning over and it's kind of like a composting period. It's about turning stuff over and just getting an idea of what you've got and then going in and nailing it. We try to keep things fresh, but the Cult will have something out next year.
I followed the controversy between the Cult and Killing Joke last year pretty closely, but your band has never made much of statement other than to take the high road. Would you like to comment on that situation now that some time has passed?
Yeah we took the high road. (laughs) Vice magazine decided to make an adolescent parade out of it like it was some kind of ironic witty joke. They had no clue. They didn't know what was going on. Jaz was on holiday, he didn't know what was happening. It was just some guy in their camp that made some comments and the funny thing was, they were booked to do a private show at our studio in London at 200 pounds a ticket, and about the same time the announcement was made, so it's completely contradictory and it was really a storm in a teacup, no big deal.
I love Killing Joke, I used to go to Killing Joke shows when I was a kid. I've got nothing but respect for Killing Joke. I think in many ways, this is the kind of thing that you're never going to get in the United States. But if you're considered to be a British band, and you have success outside of the UK, that's when they turn against you. They become envious and jealous and they've always thought we abandoned the UK in some way because we went to the United States and had huge success, so any opportunity to put the band down, even 30 years in, is full at it! But, the reality is I grew up in North America, I've spent more time in North America than I have in the UK, so I'm actually more North American!
I did read that Vice piece and it was pretty ridiculous.
It was just silly! That's one of the things that is sad: Everything's been reduced to a witty, ironic belly laugh at somebody else's expense. Really, the sad thing is that the people who are really missing out are the people that are perpetuating this continuous evaluation of the experience of live music, of real music, of earnest music, and that's why it is the way it is!
Everybody is terrified, terrified, to get a bad review in Pitchfork!
They're self-imposed savants! What are their credentials? You never see their credentials revealed. It's a brilliant format, and in many ways it's a great platform for presenting new music, so why not just do that? Why the need to be like intellectual bullies, you know? And then you get commercial sponsorship for that, which is contradictory. So, they've become the new bourgiosie in many ways. They all go through a cycle, and they go through that life cycle and they will realize there is more to life than being 24 and cynical.
The person that wrote that Vice article had to be a fan, though...
Oh! He was! I actually know who he is! I had a friend of mine contact him and go 'what are you doing, you love this guy!' He's a huge fan and he was mortified when he found out! He actually tried to remove it and he couldn't, so he's done.
There's a difference between knowledge and wisdom. Just because you think you know about music doesn't mean you have wisdom or the experiences to process the music. It's not one size fits all, and I'll go to toe to toe with anyone, you know? Let's really stack up the chips in terms of life experience. What is the basis of your experience? What, reading 33 1/3 and Wikipedia?! That's the sad thing, there are no real authoritative figures. And the New York Times... Really? They're decrepit. They've been fucking chained to those desks since they were 19-years-old. They are impotent. They've never seen a fraction of the things we've seen as musicians out here; they will never experience that.
I stood at Morrison's grave with Ray Manzerek and Robby Krieger, I've watched the sun set on Everest, I've been present at the birth of two of my children, buried about 30 of my friends in this industry. So, for me, it's been a different experience. So, please continue with the witty cynicism and the repartee!
The Cult, Electric 13, HOB Anniversary. 7 p.m., Tuesday, August 13, at Revolution Live, 100 SW 3rd Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $28 in advance plus fees, and $30 day of show. Visit jointherevolution.net.
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