The Cult’s Ian Astbury talks about songs, ignoring the critics, and “sexual modality”
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In Set List, we talk to veteran musicians about some of their most famous songs, learning about their lives and careers in the process, and maybe hearing a good backstage anecdote or two.
The artist: With his long hair and leather trousers, Ian Astbury helped to define the look of The Cult, just as guitarist Billy Duffy’s monster riffs established the band as a rock ’n’ roll force to be reckoned with. Astbury’s lyrics served as an essential component of such classic singles as “She Sells Sanctuary,” “Love Removal Machine,” and “Fire Woman.” The A.V. Club recently spoke with Astbury about The Cult’s new album, Choice Of Weapon, taking him through the band’s entire discography as well as a few of his solo endeavors.
Southern Death Cult, “Moya” (from 1982’s Southern Death Cult single)
Ian Astbury: You know what? I probably had about two or three chords I knew at the time. [Laughs.] E-minor was one of them. I could play E-minor over and over again. I just loved the sound of that chord, especially on acoustic guitar. I don’t know where I got the rhythm. I’ve no idea. That’s a Southern Death Cult song we developed as a band. I remember Barry Jepson adding a chord to it, and Buzz [David Burrows] working on the arrangement, so it was a collaboration. We all worked on that song. Lyrically, it was wonderfully earnest and naïve and beautiful, coming from a very young spirit. But the sense in that song was definitely about dystopia, growing up in mostly industrial areas, whether it was Merseyside in England or Glasgow or Hamilton, Ontario, in Canada, it was certainly coming out of true punk rock. George Orwell’s 1984 wasn’t that far away from reality in the early ’80s in the UK, in Thatcher’s Britain. The references to Wounded Knee, that was my fascination with native cultures and indigenous cultures, which I’ve had since I was about 11 years old. That comes from living in Canada and being exposed to indigenous culture, then reading into it. So it was something I was very passionate about, and I guess in this song… It’s a montage of different emotions.
The A.V. Club: How did you find your way into Southern Death Cult in the first place?
IA: Well, through a series of events, I ended up homeless. I was following a band called Crass on tour, essentially sleeping out on the road for a few weeks, and the tour went through a city called Bradford in West Yorkshire, in the north of England. I met these kids, and they said, “We’ve got a room in our house. If you ever need anywhere to stay, come and stay here. We’ve always got a room.” And the idea of moving to Bradford… It was like growing up in New York and ending up in Oklahoma. [Laughs.] It was the furthest thing from my mind. But after continuing down the road for a few months and living in squalor, sleeping in bus stations, train stations, and abandoned houses, I was desperate for someplace to live. I didn’t really have a job. I was living on Social Security, getting maybe 15 pounds a week to live on, which was nothing, and I’d just be going from Social Security office to Social Security office. It was just soul-destroying. So I remembered these kids with the room in Bradford, and since they were my tribe—they were punk rockers—I decided, “Okay, I guess I’m going to end up in Bradford.”
So I took a bus from Liverpool; of course, to do that, I had to scrounge for money at the station just to get the fare. And this lady gave me £5 and said, “Get yourself something to eat, and get to wherever you want to go.” When I got to Bradford, I immediately went to this bar where I knew the people hung out, I found the house, they gave me the room, and there was a band practicing in the basement. The house was made up of musicians and artists and poets. It was a really cool house. [Laughs.] This band was rehearsing in the basement, and they asked me join as a singer ’cause they liked the way I looked. That was the beginning of Southern Death Cult. I was 18 years old.
Death Cult, “God’s Zoo” (from 1983’s Death Cult EP)
IA: That song’s so dilettante. This is a band of musicians who are really at the beginning of learning to play their instruments. [Laughs.] I think Billy [Duffy] was probably the most accomplished musician. Again, I just think it’s a young man who is trying to make sense of this world that he’s come into. Going back to that dystopian period in Britain, I remember when we were living in Brixton, which was a low-economic area that was the scene of riots and had a large West Indian population. There was a lot of racial tension. It was a very dangerous, violent place to live. Living in London in the early ’80s, living in a city that was pretty economically depressed. It’s dark, violent, and dangerous, but a beautiful city. Kind of like an empire in decay. Not much room for optimism. It wasn’t like we were getting a very positive message. The message was definitely Orwellian. I think the idea of “God’s Zoo” was based on being kept for the amusement of someone else, like a cosmic joke. I’d say it comes up in the same pool as “Moya” and all those early songs, where we were trying to break through the anxiety that existed for gadabouts and find a higher ground.
“Spiritwalker” (from 1984’s Dreamtime)
IA: That’s paraphrasing a Native American prayer song that some anthropologist deciphered, a traditional song. I’d taken some of that and melded it with… maybe Buffy Sainte-Marie’s song “Starwalker.” That’s probably where the title came from, because I remember listening to Buffy Sainte-Marie at that time, and it was just so exotic and otherworldly. She was very present when she sang, and I felt very connected to her voice and her music. It had such incredible dignity, and it was so different from everything else we were hearing, where it was distorted and angular and violent and dark, and here was this voice with an angelic quality. I think that was part of the liberation and breaking through, and probably the optimism that went into things like “She Sells Sanctuary.” We found that optimism, but we had to dig for it. We had to dig for those jewels.
All around us, everybody seemed to be doing heroin if they could afford it, and if they couldn’t afford it, they’d be getting whatever they could get their hands on. It seemed like everybody I knew was high. But not in a very cool way. [Laughs.] Not in a bohemian manner. It was more like people wanted to disappear from the environment that we were surrounded by. But I went in a different direction. I went into books and music and film. I remember going to see American Indian Movement leader Russell Means speak on a lecture tour in the early ’80s. Twice, actually. When he came through the UK, he was trying to solicit support of European students for the American Indian Movement, and I found him to be an enigmatic speaker but very inspiring. Floyd Westerman was another guy who was an American Indian activist and folk singer. In fact, you’d probably recognize him from The Doors, where he played the shaman. It’s strange that he gave this dramatic portrayal as a shamanic influence in Oliver Stone’s film because he was a real mentor for me in my life. He was a holy man in real life. I had a sweat ceremony with him, which was very powerful, though that was a little bit later.
[“Spiritwalker”] really came out of a spiritual quest, although I wasn’t even really conscious of it. I wasn’t objectifying myself or thinking about what my process was. I just found myself being drawn toward certain energies and performers. I pulled information from them, and it came out in my writing. My writing at that time was just so naïve. I didn’t even finish school properly. I didn’t have a command of language. Sometimes my writing could be very simplistic. But I thought it was earnest, and it was authentic. I wasn’t trying to be clever or show off in any way. I was just being honest.
“She Sells Sanctuary” (from 1985’s Love)
AVC: It’s remembered as one of the band’s definitive songs, but “She Sells Sanctuary” was also the first time you earned any real success in the States.
IA: Well, it was the first real success we had anywhere. [Laughs.] It made it to No. 15 on the UK charts. It actually came out before the Love album was recorded. We’d written the song, it was released as a single, and it came out and did so well. It came out right in the middle of Live Aid, in 1985. I remember going to Live Aid, which was the first time I really remember being recognized as a performer. And what a place to be recognized! We eventually got to go backstage, and we met people like Bono and Roger Daltrey and Freddie Mercury. There were so many people that knew who I was because this song was in the charts. So here we are in a room with people like [David] Bowie, people I’d loved and admired, and they knew who we were! I thought it was quite overwhelming. And then I ended up going back to Brixton on the tube, thinking, “What just happened?” That was my first taste of celebrity, whatever that is, but it was a very powerful coming-of-age moment. Live Aid was a real beginning. Certainly, it was a turning point for U2 when Bono pulled that girl out of the crowd, which he probably did at every show from then on out because it worked so well for him. [Laughs.] But it was a good trick.
This was a coming together, where people weren’t thinking about their economic situations and the negative situations in their own lives. All of a sudden, we were asked to consider other human beings and their plight. That particular day was such an incredibly powerful moment, and we were right in the epicenter of it. We were coming of age right in the epicenter of that energy, and that affected me deeply because the potentiality of human beings when we get together to do something positive can be magnificent. We seemed to write an optimistic song at the right moment that encapsulated that kind of spirit.
“She Sells Sanctuary” was probably referring to the power of finding solitude in a woman’s arms and the matriarchal energy, whether it be an actual physical person or in a spiritual sense, the greatest matriarch, and thinking of the cosmos as a female energy rather than a male energy. These are archetypal things I was picking up from discovering things like Joseph Campbell and Buffy Sainte-Marie or even Jim Morrison. All these things were flying around, and the songs “Spiritwalker” and “She Sells Sanctuary” are quite similar, in a way. In fact, “Spiritwalker” was going to be a Southern Death Cult song, but they didn’t want to do it for whatever reason, so I said, “Fine, I’m leaving, and I’m taking my songs with me.” [Laughs.] That ended up being recorded by The Cult, and it really helped to define our sound.
“Love Removal Machine” (from 1987’s Electric)
IA: Yeah, we grew up in post-WWII Britain, and I think military conflicts and wars were very much part of our growing up. We grew up through the Falklands War; Vietnam had been romanticized through things like Apocalypse Now, so throughout our coming of age, there was all this military influence. I’m a huge history buff. It was my favorite subject at school, and I was always interested in wars and conflicts, possibly in a romantic sense. But when I saw Apocalypse Now, it had such a profound effect on me. It was like a religious experience when I watched that at 15 or 16 years old, and it became a part of the canon of areas I was going to write about.
I think “Love Removal Machine” came out of man’s inhumanity to man; it talked about materialism and prostitution as being other aspects of the machine that takes away from the human spirit, then put it in a rock ’n’ roll vehicle that was very accessible. It came out during the Electric album, and we were pretty hammered in the studio. [Laughs.] Or at least I was! I remember being pretty hammered when we created most of the songs.
It came out of so many different things, but the energy of it… The chords are pretty direct, an amalgamation of The Rolling Stones and AC/DC, which is what we were really into. We were into the power of riffs, music from the waist down. We weren’t really over-intellectualizing what we were doing. We were in a place where we weren’t the naïve kids in Southern Death Cult or Death Cult or even [what we were] during the Love album. We were now seasoned veterans at 24 or 25 years old. We’d now toured the world; we’d been on several tours. We’d pretty much had a huge career. In fact, we had a bigger career by the time we were 24 than most people have over a 10-year period. We’d been through a lot. But “Love Removal Machine” is kind of an aggressive song. Maybe I was railing against rampant materialism and being aware that I was becoming an object, that I was becoming a marketable individual, that the band was becoming marketable. We had a price tag on our heads. Maybe “Love Removal Machine” is a reaction against all of that.
“Fire Woman” (from 1989’s Sonic Temple)
IA: Very similar to “She Sells Sanctuary,” in a sense, referring to the power of the matriarch. It’s a song of sexual power and spirited expression. It’s a very produced song. It came out of the same gene pool as “She Sells Sanctuary” and “Love Removal Machine.” If you look at all those songs, they have a very similar arrangement. I think that [producer] Bob Rock coming in at that time really gave us this… Well, Bob Rock’s production values were certainly quite different than Rick Rubin’s. Maybe more in harmony with Steve Brown’s, because these were guys who were musicians, they could play instruments, they could sit down with the band and play through songs. All the production values came up in many ways, I think.
The song evolved out of a desire to try and create something more than we’d created ever before. We wanted to create a bigger sound, a bigger statement. The title “Fire Woman” is quite a statement. It’s a very powerful, sexual, and energetic statement. I think we were feeling our youth and our prowess at that time, and that song really came out of that environment. It was a huge pop moment for us. Our biggest pop moment, in many ways. It was definitely a rock ’n’ roll song, but it had such popular success. I mean, it was never off MTV. I think we looked a certain way at that time. Well, certainly I looked a certain way: my hair was straight and black. I dressed in a certain way; I’d almost become like a character. People would mimic me, and they’d expect me to turn up in a cowboy hat, long, straight hair, and black leather trousers—which was pretty much my uniform. It’s what I wore every day: a t-shirt and black leather jeans. They got pretty stinky, but I used to wear them every day. I lived that life authentically.
It was our first real attempt at trying to create something for the commercial market. But not consciously, if that makes sense. We were definitely in a career at that point, and that’s when I felt that things weren’t… They didn’t really fit for me. It’s interesting, ’cause people still identify really strongly with that period and image, and they expect to see it when you come out. But then they see a guy in his late 40s that’s bearded and a bit burly. They go, “Whoa! What happened to the skinny 26-year-old kid?” [Laughs.] I grew up! I’m a man now! My balls dropped! I lived the life. And I’m still living the life, but you can’t sustain it at that level. I don’t know who can. That’s one of the myths of eternal youth, the whole “live fast and leave a young corpse” mindset. It would’ve been interesting to see what happened to Kurt Cobain if he’d lived on. Or Jim Morrison or Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones or Janis Joplin, etcetera, etcetera. Andrew Wood. How these guys would’ve aged and how they would’ve dealt with it. We look at our Bob Dylans and Neil Youngs and see how incredibly gracefully they’ve aged. They don’t seem to have missed a beat. In fact, certainly in the case of Neil Young, his teeth have gotten sharper. He’s like an old tiger. I mean, Le Noise is a phenomenal record. It’s such a scathing record. The sonics on it just pin you to the wall. And Bowie, he’s probably my biggest hero, and I look at him and the records he was making, like Heathen, which I love. It’s a brilliant record. I think, “My God, if that’s what lies ahead, then I’m down for this.” [Laughs.] I’m down to make noise like that.
“Wild Hearted Son” (from 1991’s Ceremony)
IA: I was talking to a previous interviewer about how formats create the intention and maybe the parameters of a song. Like, the 7-inch really pushed the single track. It fit for radio. It was a great format for radio: It played for two or three minutes, the DJ could speak over the introduction. So I think there’s a generation of artists who are writing very much for that modality and format. The thing I’m alluding to is: Here we are writing singles. You know if something’s a single. Why weren’t “Wild Hearted Son” or “She Sells Sanctuary” 12 minutes long? The Doors hit on something with “Light My Fire.” Its original incarnation was six and a half minutes long because they added a keyboard solo. But it’s a societal fucking format, so you start writing singles subconsciously, and I think “Wild Hearted Son” very much came out of that mindset. It was a muscle that we’d been flexing since “Spiritwalker.” You look at “She Sells Sanctuary,” “Rain,” “Love Removal Machine,” “Wild Flower,” “Fire Woman”… We had a way with this kind of three-and-a-half minute rock ’n’ roll song, a certain animal that just comes roaring out.
The idea of “Wild Hearted Son” was alluding to the outsider, the primal, the instinctual. Again, it has a very heavy Native American modality to it, but these are references that, when we look at indigenous people, they’re the ones that really do live closer to the way things really are. They’re much more in tune with the natural elemental environments, whereas we in cities and urban environments tend to live more dictated by media institutions, the policemen. It’s very different when you’re in a forest or in the mountains or a very natural environment, where different rules apply. There’s a wisdom and intelligence that comes with that. So I think what I’m alluding to is the awareness around that, and it’s about our value system as well.
AVC: Given that you were coming off the huge success of Sonic Temple, was there any pressure—either from the label or amongst yourselves—to come up with a similar-sounding follow-up?
IA: Absolutely. Sure there was. Everyone was like, “Give us more!” Believe me, the management we had at the time said, “Go do it again.” And there was even some of that internally. But for me, I was in kind of a weak place. My father was dying of cancer—in fact, he’d just passed away—so I was dealing with that. And I’d been doing it for 10, 11, 12 years by then, so I was dealing with attrition as well, and I think that song and Ceremony as a whole came out of that place. But I think it was a very important record for us to make because I think it’s probably the only record I can dig out of our canon where there was an agenda. We did that that one time, probably more so on that song. Actually, people love that song. We get requests for it all the time. But I think there’s a reason why it’s not in our set: Because we have far greater songs than that. That’s not to say that we didn’t put the energy and time into the song, but…
AVC: It was for the wrong reasons?
IA: Well, not for the wrong reasons. It’s different when you’re on the field and doing it. It’s only when you get time and objectivity you can really talk about it. You just don’t know. I’m sure there are times in your life when you take the easiest path. Like, if you don’t want to piss off your wife, you might forget to share something. Do you know what I’m talking about?
AVC: I’m sure I have no idea.
IA: Oh, everybody knows what I’m talking about. [Laughs.] Of course we do it. We all do it. Sometimes you just instinctually go, “You know what? I think I’m gonna take the easy way this time.” But when you’re writing music, if you take the easy road, you get hit with a stick. If you play by those rules, you’re gonna get hit by the same stick. We knew what we were doing, but we were lost, in a way. Jamie [Stewart] had left, Matt Sorum had gone to Guns N’ Roses, my father had just passed away; there was a lot of inner tension within the band. It was fragmented. We were pulling in different directions, and I was pulling more toward Rick Rubin. I thought that was the way we should go. So it was more like we had a Broadway hit, and we had to do a follow-up. I don’t know too many follow-ups that are as good as the original. The lesson at that point was, “You know what? Go with your gut. Go with your instinct, and stay with that.”
You go to any artist’s body of work, and you’ll always find those transitional records. For example, like with Neil Young, he’s got his computer-age album [Trans]. We tend to forget about that one, don’t we? [Laughs.] And we forget about David Bowie’s Labyrinth and all these other things because they’re transitional things, but they’re done in public. You’re doing your laundry in public. And there’s also the time pressure to create something, so you try out what you think is the best piece that you’ve got the time for. But then you go into the Ceremony album and you look at things like “Wonderland,” which I think is an incredible song, and “White,” which I also think is incredible and which we actually perform. You look at some of the songs on that record, and you go, “Wow, there are some really incredible songs that never really got to be fully worked through.”
We never fully realized those songs. But the way we play them live… The way we play “White” now, it’s one of the best moments in the set. When we made the Ceremony record, we had Charley Drayton playing bass and we had Mickey Curry, who played drums on Sonic Temple. So we had two session musicians plus Billy and myself, and it was very much like, Billy would play during the day, then I’d come in in the evening and finish it up. So we never really integrated on that record, whereas when we made the eponymous record in ’94 with Bob Rock, the band was on the floor. All of us were on the floor, and it was an integrated band. And certainly with this record we’ve made now, Choice of Weapon, that’s a fully integrated band, and you can see the difference. So this is how you learn. You learn in public.
“The Witch” (from 1992’s Cool World soundtrack)
AVC: Listening to “The Witch” immediately after listening to Ceremony, that song certainly seems to be the definition of the “transitional record” concept you mentioned.
IA: Well, not for me. [Laughs.] “The Witch” was very much my baby. I mean, I was really into break beats and distorted bass. I was and still am a devotee of Peter Hook. I think Peter Hook’s a genius bass player and really drove Joy Division and New Order. I love nothing more than putting on the bass and flicking on the distortion and just grinding it out. If someone’s putting out really great break beats, I can stay there all day long. I love hip-hop for that reason, especially when you get someone who really understand how that moves you. I love R&B as well. There’s some Barry White stuff that kills me, that just floors me. [Singing.] “Keep on doin’ it. Right on, right on doin’ it...” That drives me. I go mental. I hear that stuff, I fucking go crazy. And with “The Witch,” that dirty bass is just like dirty sex. Raw, animal. And that’s really where I was trying to drag The Cult. To that place. Because that’s what I was feeling. You know, the pomp and ceremony of Sonic Temple and the whole arena-rock place that we’d gone into, the MTV profile... We were pop stars. We had a pop moment. We weren’t really a pop band, but we’ve definitely had that life, where we’ve had singles and pop success and been on the front cover of magazines and all that. But the real business for me was going deeper and fatter and getting right in the grind of things.
So I was trying to drag it in that direction, and with Rick Rubin in the room, he’s like, “Yeah!” You listen to that and you listen to “99 Problems,” and they’re kind of similar. They’re in the same food group. But what came first, the chicken or the egg? That bass line came before “99 Problems,” I know that for sure. And I kicked that out. It was just a moment. And I think I scared the shit out of everybody with that. [Laughs.] But that song, when we play it, it just comes across as, “Okay, dog’s off the leash.” I dunno, maybe it is something you could make a whole album of. I felt it was. But, again, it was great because we were able to go to a place that we'd never been before, and now we have awareness, an internal reference point, so I can say, “Okay, let’s lay down something like ‘The Witch.’” In fact, you can hear some bass lines on the records that I’ve actually written. I’ve been very involved in writing the bass lines. Obviously, Chris [Wyse] is the main bass player, but there’s something very distinctive in my playing. I have a certain way of going about it. Also, I get off on it. [Laughs.] I totally get off on it.
“Coming Down (Drug Tongue)” (from 1994’s The Cult)
IA: That one’s got a fat bass line on it as well. [Laughs.] A really fat bass line. That song was something that I felt was really strong, and you can see the influence of “The Witch” on that. You can see the rawness coming back in, the dilettante aspect. Again, it’s in that sexual modality, music for the waist down. The verses are pretty dark. There’s one line in there that’s like, “Your horses terrify me / Girl, the things you say / Are not okay.” I’m talking about someone who has dominance over you. “Drug Tongue,” I think, is a reference to lies, to deceit. Or duality. You’re saying one thing, but you actually mean something else. I think “Drug Tongue” is a really great song, and I loved the video for it. We’ve played it live. It’s strange, ’cause “Star” works a whole lot better, ’cause it’s straight up rock ’n’ roll, but “Coming Down” is just... We’ve got to be in the right place and right mindset to play that song, ’cause we want it to come off right.
Making that record was really cathartic for me. My son was born, my first kid. We were in Vancouver, which is an amazing city. You’re away from the distractions, shall we say, of New York, Los Angeles, London, etcetera. Although, believe me, you can find distractions in Vancouver. [Laughs.] But it allowed us to open this thing up. We were working with Bob every day—in fact, Bob sat there with a guitar on—and I think U2 was making Achtung Baby at the time, so it was like dirty, urban modality was something that was coming into the times that we were living through. We had grunge, and it was almost the first time we saw the cracks in the institutions. It was like we’d really hit the wall, culturally speaking. There was a lot of cynicism around.
I’ve been involved in things like A Gathering of Tribes, which became Lollapalooza, and there’s a tribal mentality. Seattle was very important in that. There was kind of a pulling-down, with the saccharine mentality of MTV and the encroachment of a bit more cynicism. It’s a bit darker. If you listen to that album, there are songs like “Black Sun,” “Universal You,” and “Saints Are Down,” which I think was a real moment for us. That song is just sets me off in the right way. We played that live recently, on the last tour, and it was such an incredible moment to play that song. We’re doing these songs the way we’d intended to record them. If we had a time machine, I’d go back and say, “Right, we’re doing them this way,” the way we’re doing them now, because we’ve got more experience now. We’re not trying things out anymore in the way that we did when we were younger. We’re locked into something now, and we’re staying with that.
Holy Barbarians, “Magick Christian” (from 1996’s Cream)
IA: Holy shit. Now you’re really challenging me. I haven’t listened to that record since 1996. I couldn’t even tell you how it goes. But if you want me to talk about the era… Wow. Uh, what’s that film where Jeff Bridges was in a plane crash? Fearless? That was that period. [Laughs.] I’d been in a plane wreck, and I was walking around like I hadn’t been scathed or touched by it at all, but I was very much in shock, and I had no idea what was going on. I was like a dead man walking and wasn’t even aware of it. I just needed to stop. I needed to take a break and just take care of my business, and I did it. In public.
Holy Barbarians was just… From the get-go, everything was very up front. I know there are some very melodic moments on that record and some very melancholy pop moments. There was something happening in the UK, this harkening for another period. People were talking about a return to past glories. I know “Magick Christian” talks about, “That’s when football was football / That’s when we ruled the waves / Take it easy on yourself, my friend / You’re just a mortal / Not a super man.” I’m kind of paraphrasing it, but it was… Well, it’s just like being a human being. I’ve been through this period where I’ve been venerated, but think about it: You’re just a kid, you come out of a raw environment, then all of a sudden you’re on a stage and people are objectifying you and treating you like an object, you don’t even know who your friends are. They think of you in a certain way because they’ve seen you perform or seen a photograph, and that’s the relationship they have with you. They relate to that object, not the person. And you live inside of that for 12 years. No wonder it kills people, man.
It’s a lonely place to be, ’cause nobody really gets to know you, and you never really get to know yourself, because you’re constantly in something. Believe me, I never really took a break during that period. I just rolled straight through. So going into Holy Barbarians was kind of fearless, and maybe the beginning was a bit like making the eponymous Cult record in ’94, but the turbulence was starting, and I knew this thing was going down, and I didn’t know if I was going to survive or not. But I came through the back end of that, and then through making that Holy Barbarians record, I got to go do my solo record.
Ian Astbury, “Tyger” (from 2000’s Spirit\Light\Speed)
IA: That was very much like the aftermath of the plane crash, where I was beginning to come back into my body, remembering who I was and my original personality. I was going into a very inward journey, going to the desert, and working with [producer] Chris Goss was so cathartic. I got to go into some very beautiful places on that record. I remember it being very dreamlike and very cinematic, with moments like “Tyger,” which I love. Such a beautiful song. And “High Time Amplifier” and “Back On Earth.” And “It’s Over,” that’s actually the only song on there with real drums. We tried to make a Pro-Tools record before Pro-Tools even existed. [Laughs.] We worked with a guy named Witchman and used an Akai drum computer, an MPC 5000 or whatever sampler it was. We were trying to do digital through analog. The process was unbelievable. We were taking digital files, trying to make them analog, and then making them digital again. It was a nightmare. But during that period, I needed the time to work through those things. What I got from working on that record was a sense of myself as a songwriter. We never really pushed it, never really tried to market it. It’s interesting, ’cause the record got some really positive reviews and really connected with a lot of people, but The Cult came back into my life again. Also, while I was making the record, I was very much involved in the Tibetan freedom movement and eventually ended up in Tibet. So maybe it was the reintegration of myself for this second phase of my life which kind of came out of Spirit\Light\Speed.
AVC: So was it the return of The Cult that caused the delay in the release of Spirit\Light\Speed?
IA: Yeah, and there was some contractual stuff that I got caught up in as well. Basically, when the record label got wind of The Cult’s coming back together, they pressed a conciliatory 10,000 copies and walked away from it. They were like, “What’s the point in us putting money into this record if he’s gonna go and start The Cult again?” So it’s a hidden gem in many ways. I do have an intention of going out and performing songs from that album at some point. And believe me, there’s a lot more where that came from. You can hear some of the stuff on that record popping up more in The Cult. Certainly on Choice of Weapon you can hear elements from Spirit\Light\Speed more so than you can actually hear elements of the ’94 album. It’s interesting. It’s like the second phase of The Cult is a different animal.
“Rise” (from 2001’s Beyond Good and Evil)
AVC: Ironically, the first album after Spirit\Light\Speed sounded more like an attempt to return to the sound of Sonic Temple than a step forward.
IA: That was the sound of a big animal knowing its power. [Laughs.] I think once you fire up that animal, you get in a room with it and realize it’s something a club cannot contain, a small environment cannot contain. It really does require an amplified larger environment. Working with Bob Rock again, we wanted to make something that was very much of the time. The record is prophetic in many ways, certainly on “War,” “Ashes and Ghosts,” and “Rise.” We were beginning to get into the Internet, and there were different factors. It was all pre-9/11, but we could sense it was in the air. We were, like, de-tuning our guitars; it was getting darker and heavier… [Imitates guitar riff.] But then you always had this high melodic thing. That was us trying to put something beatific in it.
It’s very interesting how we interpret that record now, because we have been playing “Ashes And Ghosts,” “War,” and “Rise.” “War” in particular is a very anthemic song. We’ve been at war for a long time. It’s been 20 years since the first Gulf War. We forget that we’ve been at war in the Middle East for that long. That’s longer than World War II and Vietnam, but bodies are still coming back, and people are still putting their lives on the line. It’s a reflection on human nature. I think we said what a lot of people didn’t want to say. Or were afraid to say, or didn’t know how to say. But we were picking up on something very dark, something coming out of left field that’s dark and coming fast and gonna bite your fucking ass if you don’t pay attention. And that was a preview to the decimation of the record industry, the [decline] of culture, the fragmentation and the fall of the Church, the fallacy of science. That was all previewed in that record.
“Dirty Little Rockstar” (from 2007’s Born Into This)
IA: Oh, yeah! [Laughs.] That’s the sound of a dire wolf in the woods showing his teeth. It’s cheeky. It’s a pop song. It was taking a snap at the pretty boys with their beautiful haircuts and their hip-slimming photographs. I mean, really, these kids couldn’t stand up to us when we were their age, and probably not even the generation before them that they were mimicking. They were so caught up in their own vanity. A generation of the entitled arriving when the road’s already been built, so there’s not really anything for them to do except pose around. And look where most of ’em have gone now. They’ve disappeared. Where are they now? For them, it was a hobby. They’re day-trippers. It was just a way to get cute girls. They weren’t invested in it. It was just something to do. It’s not a hobby for me. It’s my life. I’m invested in this. So I think I was just taking a little bite out of the young pup. Having a bit of a snap at ’em. Letting ’em know. Fucking pissing on ’em. Keith Richards said it very eloquently when he was asked, “Hey, Keith, what do you think about all these exciting new bands coming through?” He just cut him off and said, “They’ll find out.” And they fucking did find out. They’re posers. I mean, how many of them are around still? I rest my case. [Laughs.]
“Every Man and Woman is a Star” / “Embers” (from 2010’s Capsule EPs)
IA: “Embers” was a real moment. I lived through that. It was a very intimate moment, a very honest, authentic moment. The thing I love the most about that song is the space in it. All joking and histrionics aside, there you are: raw, open, vulnerable, and intimate. Breath on breath. When you’re that close to someone, breathing in their face, the energy between two people, you’re not even speaking. It’s a space that’s really difficult to get to. If you can get to that space and work in that space, powerful things can happen. Chris Goss was the one who created the environment for that to happen.
“Every Man and Woman is a Star” is… Well, it’s the thing I’ve talked about before, growing up with Bowie and T. Rex and the 7-inch singles. That’s just the kind of format we got into, writing those three-minute pop songs. Then, I tacked on Aleister Crowley’s statement, “Every man and woman is a star.” I love that sentiment. Everyone has equal value. It breaks my heart when you see people come up and say, “I don’t really have anything to offer.” You’re like, “Dude, stop, you’re killing me. Of course you do.” To go back and talk about those dirty little rock stars, they think they’ve got everything to offer, and they’ve really offered nothing. In fact, they haven’t even been real with themselves. They’ve scammed us with their pretty faces and their tight trousers. [Laughs.]
But human beings are all very vulnerable, and I think that if we can show that vulnerability to each other and put the fucking stick down, we don’t need to beat each other. We can build each other up. But how often does that happen? We go into the fear modality very quickly. So we always celebrate that. And that’s why people like The Cult, and why we rub people the wrong way. I think it pisses off the critics and social commentators that I come out with this constant earnestness about building people up. ’Cause people don’t want to hear it, they’re so attached to their fears and prejudices. And I’m like, “No, c’mon, stop. Please. We’re done. Why are you still fighting? We’re done here. How much more do we need to do? Let’s start getting into it and start building this thing back up. Let’s work together and share that energy. Enough. No more.”
AVC: The implication around the time of the Capsule EPs was that there were to be no more Cult LPs.
IA: Yes, that was my implication. [Laughs.] I’ll hold my hand up for that one.
AVC: So did democracy win out in the end? What happened?
IA: No, it was just the Capsule EPs were a very valid statement, in the sense that I thought, “What’s the point in making albums? People are just gonna rip them to shreds, anyway.” If Mr. Social Commentator doesn’t like it, it’s done in six weeks, but you’re still out on the road for six to eight months, grinding it out. And if the radio stations—what’s left of them—aren’t playing it, then you’re out in this kind of cultural wasteland, where people are picking and choosing songs. Who decided that singles were worth 99 cents? Who decided that my art is worth 99 cents? I didn’t decide that. I don’t think any artist did. And who decided that it was a good idea to give music away for free? Which fucking genius came up with that idea? Even prostitutes get paid!
What comes out of that is a feeling of, “Okay, let’s take this back, let’s put this over in a way where we know we’re gonna connect. Let’s give ’em two songs instead of 10, but let’s do it over a period of time so we can spoon-feed our audience.” And it was good for us. We didn’t have to pressure ourselves into coming up with 20 songs. I thought it was great. But you’re putting the same amount of energy and effort into each of those Capsule EPs in terms of promotion and marketing, artwork, film elements. It was a very ambitious thing to do. Meanwhile, people are banging on our doors with deals. We’re getting offered different deals, different denominations, agents coming in saying, “Hey, we’d love to sign you guys, but for $25,000.” This is a major label! It’s like, “Are you fucking kidding me? You can maybe get away with that for a band of 23-year-olds and just rape them, but, no, dude, c’mon, we’re worth way more than that.” Actually, we can’t do anything for $25,000. That’ll barely keep my missus in panties for a week. [Laughs.]
So we took the bull by the horns, took control, and it was good for awhile. But then we got more people banging on the door, Cult fans going, “This is amazing, we want more,” and we’re like, “Oh, are you fucking kidding me? Now we’ve had the chance to breathe and got space to create things like these songs, they want more.” So it was like, “Oh, okay, fuck it.” Because the thing was, the material was there. So all of a sudden, what was going to be Capsule 3, 4, and 5 became Choice Of Weapon, which isn’t to say that there won’t be a Capsule 3, 4, and 5. Because I think it’d be a great way for us to segue into another album. If we decide to make another album, which is looking pretty likely. We’re all very excited now, because we’re like, “Oh, we’re smart, we’ve created this Capsule format, we can go to that any time we want.”
“For the Animals” (from 2012’s Choice of Weapon)
IA: It’s pretty hard to encapsulate that song in a sentence. I think it’s just an observation. For me, rock ’n’ roll was never beholden to any authority. Rock ’n’ roll came out of social situations, a liberation of spirit as the institutions began to fall down in the early part of the 20th century and individuals started to move up the class system. [Laughs.] Barriers were thrown away or broken—racial, sexual, spiritual—and it’s interesting now, because with the Internet, everyone’s now an authority. Everyone’s a cultural policeman; everyone believes that their opinion is the best opinion. And I’m saying this in very general terms, but there are a lot of institutions that set themselves up as being the arbiters of a cultural high ground, and we don’t ask for their credentials. We immediately accept that somebody who’s set up a website and uses erudite language must know what they’re talking about, that we must defer to their wisdom. But we don’t ask for their credentials, and it’s interesting that we’re finding ourselves with art that seems to get more and more anemic. We have a Pavlovian response to culture and media. So my retort is coming out in the kind of music that we make.
The kind of things that I’m interested in and the kind of energy that I’m drawn toward has nothing to with these self-imposed cultural savants. It’s not for them. I’m not creating it for them, I’m not trying to get onto their blog, I don’t care for or need their approvals. We continue to lead our lives the way we lead our lives and make the choices that we make, but it’s amazing how many people pander to get in good favor with certain cultural editors. It somehow feels that being associated with a certain website or editor will give them the approval that they’re worthy of, some kind of accolade or attention in the culture. It’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Everything that comes along that’s got a nice, new haircut and a shiny keyboard, people jump on. And then five minutes later, they jump onto something else. So it’s interesting to see a lot of the more traditional bands that came out of the late 20th century still soldier on. They just continue to live the life.
Another thing that’s pushed in the culture is that youth has the only voice and perspective that’s worth listening to. It’s been shoved down our throats. But that’s actually a fault. We tend to shy away from our elders and their experiences because maybe they’re not fresh and exciting, but it’s interesting: Things don’t stay on the grill very long. Things are turning around so quickly. So I guess “For The Animals” is my way of saying that there’s more wisdom in the wild state, where you get really authentic individuals who live a life with great authenticity. It’s not something that can be quantified or boxed up or branded. So that’s reclaiming some of that for us and everybody else out here who don’t respond to those kind of “experts.” [Laughs.] I’m not going to name any of them. You know who I’m talking about. Fuck ’em. That’s what I say.
You know, as we’ve been doing this… It’s kind of strange being on the other side of things, when you’re asked to objectify the decades. It’s not “the years” anymore, it’s “the decades.” Someone will say something to you like, “Remember that thing you did with Debbie Harry [on 1989’s Def, Dumb & Blonde]?” And you’re like, “What? Oh, shit, wow, yeah…” But it’s been interesting doing things outside of The Cult. Like working with Tony Iommi, for example. Or working with Boris or UNKLE. Or stuff I did with Trent Reznor that never came out, or working with Gordon Raphael, who was producing The Strokes, which never came out. I seem to get around quite a bit. I’m like Forrest Gump. [Laughs.] It’s interesting, ’cause even singing with Ray [Manzarek] and Robby [Krieger], going back to those cultural advocates, you read what they’ve got to say, and you wonder, “Were you not paying attention? Why would these people have me in the room with them if they didn’t think I had something to offer?” Maybe part of it was the fact that we weren’t complicit. Or I wasn’t, anyway. I wouldn’t kiss the ring, so at least I know I can sleep at night. I know there are many who can’t. Not that I take any kind of perverse pleasure in that. The Cult just keeps right on going.