Interview: Ian Astbury, The Cult


With internet downloads, I-Pods, and other technological breakthroughs, the attention spans of fans and the vinyl-defined parameters of rock are under constant attack these days. The classic cycle of album-and-world-tour every few years, which has defined the careers of almost every rock act, could well be history in a few years. This is something Ian Astbury of legendary rock band, The Cult, welcomes, even as his band tours the world playing their classic 1985 album Love from beginning to end.

"That's just the calling card," the English-born singer explained in a recent interview by telephone from America. "That gets us in the door. To go on the road, you've got to have something that's going to draw the audience in. With us, it was reintroducing an audience to an album, which we felt was probably the purest and most earnest record that we ever made. We basically perform the Love album, then, we take a break, like two separate sets, distinguished by different looks to the set. In the second part, we will play whatever we want to play that night."

After their 1984 debut Dreamtime – a mixture of post-punk tribal rhythms and Goth echo – had gained them a following, the more psychedelic rock of Love took the Cult to the next level. Driven by Billy Duffy’s killer riffs and Astbury's shamanistic singing, hits like She Sells Sanctuary and Rain, had a big influence on late 80s rock, including rising bands of the time, like Guns N’ Roses.

Despite its international impact, the music was very much the product of grim, post-punk Britain, a time when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's attempt to restructure the economy led to mass unemployment.

"They were saying, there's nothing for you," the singer recalled, with a hint of bitterness. "There's no work. There's no future. It's year zero, 1984, George Orwell, Thatcher. You're going nowhere. You're nothing. Don't even think about being anything colorful."

Astbury's response was to reject the bleakness through exuberant street fashion and idiosyncratic rock.

"I was like 'granny takes a trip.' I had original velvet hipsters, an old Salvation Army jacket from the late 1800s. I studied what the kids were into in 1967, 68, and 69. That look was just amazing to me, dandy, Romantic."

He also rejected the commercial, business-driven values of Thatcher's Britain. The irony of this was that it led to more success than a working-class kid from Liverpool could ever hope for. Following the success of Love, the band found itself on the global album-tour-album treadmill, with Electric (1987) and Sonic Temple (1989) upping the workload even more.

"By the time of the early 90s I was ready to bail out. I was just exhausted, literally exhausted."

This led to the band "breaking up" in 1995, to be "reformed" in 1999 followed by a subsequent "break up" and "reunion," as well as a stint fronting The Doors. But this apparent stop-go approach was more a reflection of Astbury and Duffy's rejection of the music business's tendency to relentlessly overwork successful musicians, than a real rift between them.

Astbury has also been reported as saying that the Cult may never record another album. This is yet another misunderstanding of someone who doesn’t want to fit into the usual molds.

"Instead of writing two or three great songs and then putting another seven songs around them and dressing it up as an album, why not just put those two or three great songs out?" Astbury explained, saying that he is simply more interested in applying the fashion business's idea of "capsule collections" to music using new digital media.

"You could do, like, two new songs, a re-recorded version of an older song, maybe mixed differently, or a song with different lyrics, arranged differently," he explained. "Then along with that, a short film, maybe. Not a video, but an actual film."


C.B.Liddell
International Herald Tribune Asahi Shimbun
9th April, 2010
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