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Choose Your Weapon: An Interview with the Cult's Ian Astbury

Prior to this interview, I took Ian Astbury as a curmudgeon. Turns out he’s just rationally reacting to this screwed up world we call home, this place that sometimes makes no sense at all.

I was supposed to speak to Ian Astbury of the Cult for only 20 minutes and we ended up talking for over an hour. That’s longer than the Cult’s new album Choice of Weapon, bonus tracks included. Conventional wisdom dictates that I needed to get him to talk about this new album, but Astbury can’t help but put things into a wider context. And I just let him do it. It was early in our conversation where he dropped all rock star pretenses and I let go of my music writer cap. Calling him reflective is an understatement.

It’s been nearly 30 years since the Cult‘s first album was released and there is no shortage of life experiences within that time frame. The indie gothic staple “She Sells Sanctuary” signaled their chart presence, creating respectable sales for their sophomore album Love. Rhythm sections came and went; drugs and alcohol took their toll and the terribly fickle tastes of late ‘80s/early ‘90s pop audiences gave the band a flash of white hot success before serving up cold shoulder. Sonic Temple hit the radio like a tidal wave with ‘70s-esque rawk hits like “Fire Woman” and “Edie (Ciao Baby)”.

By the time they released the follow-up Ceremony, the rug was yanked out from under them courtesy of the burgeoning Seattle scene. Rudderless, the Cult went for broke and made an eponymous album that drew little attention but put a strain on the creative team of Ian Astbury and guitarist Billy Duffy. They disbanded mid-tour. Several years later, Astbury and Duffy eventually cut the crap, got back to work, and have been keeping the Cult name growing strong since with the albums Beyond Good & Evil, Born Into This and now Choice of Weapon.

The funny thing about that last one is that it wasn’t supposed to happen. Frustrated with the digital age’s destruction of the album as art, Astbury declared that the Cult would no longer bother with such things. After two Capsule EPs of new material, all business signs pointed to: Album. With producer/chum Chris Goss there to get the ball rolling and veteran Cult and Metallica producer Bob Rock there to add the finishing touches, Choice of Weapon has wound up as one of the more heavy and concise Cult albums available. It was, as Astbury notes, made with a level of instinct that was on par with their cornerstone album Love.

Regardless if anyone is paying attention or giving the Cult good marks for this, they seem to be in one of those healthy places that deflects criticisms. Prior to this interview, I took Astbury as a curmudgeon. Turns out he’s just rationally reacting to this screwed up world we call home, this place that sometimes makes no sense at all. His tangents are not condemnations from a soapbox but pieces of spiritual advice that he’s picked up along the way. And to my surprise, he recalls in vivid detail a venue just a few miles from my house. At the time I was deemed 'too young', and not allowed to attend the show, but my older brother did. And Astbury recalls it as a “pretty cool gig.”

* * *

The cover art for Choice of Weapon seems to mirror that of the 1994 “Black Sheep” album; a black subject with horns starkly imposed on a white background.

[It’s an] iconic motif, a very natural, organic reference points. Obviously, Native American/indigenous culture has been a huge influence on me since I was about 11 years old and I've been obsessed with those images taken of Natives by [painter George] Catlin.

What was it that brought all of this to your attention at 11 years of age?

I immigrated to Canada. I came from the UK, and initially I was an immigrant kid, one of those of Anglo-Celtic descent. We went on a school trip to a reservation and I'd never seen indigenous people in their natural environment before. It's a completely different culture and I became kind of obsessed with the culture. I wanted to know more and more about indigenous culture. I read everything I could, I was voracious about it. Initially I was reading about the French-Indian wars in Canada, the historical perspective, but then the historical perspective crossed through the philosophical perspective and that really fired my imagination. I've never left it. That's what really drew me to places like Tibet, because of that fascination; the indigenous culture, stepping outside the Judeo-Christian motif.

Did you have a hard time establishing your identity as a kid because you were an immigrant that identified with indigenous peoples?

That was one aspect, but one that I identified with really strongly was music, with the icons of the day. My biggest icon, even still today, was David Bowie since about the age of ten. He's been the guiding star, the North Star. I've always gone back to Bowie, always. That was a fixed position, and I sort of charted my course based upon that. In terms of identifying with North American high school kids, it's pretty well documented; you've got your kids that are pretty conservative, your athletes, your kids that are not good at athletics but are good at academics, and you got your kids that basically don't do anything, the fuck-ups. And that was my crew [laughs]. I did pretty well at school, but I was pretty much an outsider and that's where you found the kids that were heavily into music and that was their badge of honor. That's what drove me to that community, and of course that exposed me things like punk rock very quickly. And then that was it. I got into that tribal identity and disappeared into it.

Is there a chunk of Bowie in the Southern Death Cult when you were just starting out?

Maybe the Bowie influence would be more in things like his influence on the new wave that we listened to in the day, the experimentation in Public Image Ltd. and Joy Division and even punk rock because the aesthetic of punk rock was influenced by Ziggy Stardust and glam rock. And that was influenced by cabaret. There's kind of a lineage there. Their image was more of an aesthetic influence. It's interesting because Bowie was in this folk period and entered into a rock 'n' roll period where he's playing traditional rock 'n' roll, blues-influenced rock 'n' roll songs. Mick Ronson was in the band for The Man Who Sold the World. There's a lot of rock 'n' roll in Bowie, initially.

And the Cult moved to a rockier edge with Electric.

Yeah, our lifestyle became harder. That's pretty much what happened. We went from guys who were maybe a cultural influence of London -- our daily domestic environment -- and then you go on the road and become something completely different and the road becomes your daily environment. And that has a whole different set of conditions, like being on a different planet. For the shift between Love and Electric, we were in New York. It was the '80s in New York, 42nd street and Hell’s Kitchen were no-go zones. New York was a pretty edgy city; it wasn't like Zurich like it is today. It wasn't as gentrified as it is today. I think that all went into the record. Plus we were kids and we were having fun, high energy -- that was 20-odd years ago. I don't even know that person anymore. I tend not to look in the rearview mirror and objectify myself in that way, only when doing interviews when I get into all our yesteryears.

I read somewhere that you are not a big fan of nostalgia.

Not really. It takes away from the present moment. Maybe it's interesting in terms of context. But in terms actually living and staying there? Can't do that.

Getting back to the present moment with Choice of Weapon, did you recently have a change of heart regarding the album format?

It wasn't so much a change of heart. I still very much believe in the Capsule format; it's still a valid way of going forward. I just think we're ahead of the curve on this one, again. There was a huge demand for more material from our audience; they loved the songs we were doing with [producer] Chris Goss. That was one thing; the other thing was that we had labels banging on the door. And probably one of the most influential things was the fact that we had become our own label, which is something we really didn't want to do. We kind of thought "yeah, we want to be our own label," but when we got into it, we thought "we don't want to do this."

We were entrenched in marketing, paper stock, production and we're like "this isn't fun. And this isn't something we're good at. We don't have the expertise." So we really had to come up to speed. One thing about the Capsule collection is that we wanted to release on a lot of different formats. Vinyl -- we would have done the eight-track and cassette if we could, but that was my philosophy. It wasn't sustainable. We just didn't have the resources at that particular point. Demand was there, everyone was looking at me, the manager, Billy, so I capitulated. And I said "I'll be back with the Capsule collections!" and they were like, "okay. Let's go into the studio and make an album." The material was there, the story was there.

What made you decide to work with Chris Goss this time around?

I've known Goss since the late-'80s. We've got a long relationship. I've worked with him on the Unkle record War Stories, in fact I introduced him to James Lavelle. Before that I made a solo record with Goss in '96, '97 called Spirit\Light\Speed. We spent the whole album, out in the desert, six months doing that. It was a great adventure. He kind of worked loosely with the Cult for a while. And then I guess in 2010 we made a reality. We got in a room with Goss and we came up with those four songs; "Siberia", "Every Man and Woman is a Star", "Until the Lights Takes Us", and "Embers". And from there that was the foundation of this record. Those four songs were the reason people responded in such a strong way. Not only with our audience, but with labels, too. People thought there was something there that was really worth pursuing.

Goss took us from a barren place; all of these songs are rooted in what we did with Goss. The way he works is, he's a musician; he puts on a guitar, he stands in the room and he plays with the band. Not that [co-producer] Bob Rock doesn't do that, but Goss is just much more of what you would refer to as esoteric. Not much is said, he keeps rolling the ball back, and he’s not very pragmatic. I think the way he works is much more energetic. He's certainly intuitive, the kind of space he works in, which was great for us because we broke a lot of bad habits. We did that for three months and it was just an exhausting process and at the end of it all we had kind of worn it down and we really needed to finish the record. That's when I called Bob Rock, because we needed somebody to come in and be pragmatic. And what Bob brings in is craftsmanship; he's really great at finessing. So he kind of came in and helped us finish these songs and he contributed quite a lot in terms of taking these songs to a different level. It was very gracious of him to come in at that period.

They both really helped us to complete it. There's no one-size-fits-all Cult. Billy and I are quite different in our approach to music. We make it work as best as we can together but having an objective third party helps us to maximize potential. When you're on the inside sometimes you're too close and you can't see it. Having the experience of Goss and Rock made this record what it is, they're the ingredients. Most people seem to have a lot of producers on their records now; I know Kanye West has six or seven producers. U2, how many do they have? They have the three or four they talk about and the other ones they go through in the background. I heard they started the last album [2009's No Line on the Horizon] with Rick Rubin, then they got rid of him, and then will. i. am., then they got rid of him. They're still with Lanois and Eno, I mean, c'mon, for God's sakes! Some of the best producers of all time, it's great when you got that and you dispose of them. But this is the first album where we've worked with multiple producers on the same record.

Did Goss or Rock get Billy Duffy out of a comfort zone? Because there are some really fast and flashy guitar solos on Choice of Weapon when before he was never much for using solos for flash.

I think over the years Billy's become more a better player, maybe more confident in his playing. Solos are something he gravitates towards, and of course, guitar solos became gauche through the '90s. The grunge generation killed the guitar solo, I think partly because they couldn't play them, because they couldn't really play their guitars very well! [laughs] But also I understand the railing against the bourgeoisie. Guitar solos seemed to be kind of flatulent and excessive, but I think these are very tasteful guitar solos. I mean, I love the way Neil Young plays. I love his solos; I think they're just fucking barely hanging in there. His solos are magnificent and Le Noise is an incredible record.

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