Photo: Tim Cadiente

Hidden City to Hidden Cities: An Interview with the Cult’s Billy Duffy

Wrapping up a blazing tour supporting new album Hidden City, The Cult's Billy Duffy reflects on the band's dynamic, their style, and how best to irritate the critics.
The Cult
Hidden City
Cooking Vinyl

There is no other band quite like the Cult. From the unique rock and roll voice of Ian Astbury to the singular picking style of axeman Billy Duffy, there is no mistaking the Cult’s one-of-a-kind sound for any other band.

This is saying a lot considering the fact that the Cult is also one of the most diverse bands in rock. They’ve been called everything from post-punk to goth to psychedelic rock to heavy metal to punk to, well, you name it. From the band’s first incarnation (as “Southern Death Cult”) no two songs or albums quite sound alike, yet they all undeniably somehow sound like the Cult. If you’re a rock fan of any kind, there is probably a Cult album for you.

PopMatters spoke to Billy Duffy on the eve of the Cult’s latest tour and asked the famed guitarist if he and Astbury find themselves fine tuning their set lists for different audiences as wide and diverse as their fanbase has become. After all, after having just come off a tour with Guns N’ Roses, the Cult’s new tour finds them sharing the bill with bands as varied as Jane’s Addiction, Garbage, Avenged Sevenfold, Violent Femmes, and Alice in Chains.

“That’s a very good question,” Duffy admits. “We’ve never been the band who swaps songs around every night. It’s just not in our nature and we’re not going to change now, you know what I mean? We kind of find a body of work that we feel good about playing that makes sense to us at that time and that’s kind of where we’re at. We played ‘The Witch’ for a long time, now we don’t play ‘The Witch’ anymore. There’s certain songs that Ian doesn’t want to sing and then comes around to singing them. We’ve all got our favorites.”

“Obviously you want to make an impactful [show],” he continues. “There are some practical, pragmatic decisions made. If you’re playing to a crowd who are not very familiar with you, there’s no point of going too deep but we do always make sure we play a new song. Like on Guns N’ Roses’ [tour] we had fifty minutes which is ten songs all in. So, you know we just made sure that in those ten songs we played ‘Deeply Ordered Chaos’ which we’re proud of and it makes a certain statement. And it just alerts people to the fact that, yes, we have made a record in the last 30 years. You know and that’s a good thing. Psychologically, that’s the blood transfusion that we need. And we’re very mindful, we have a very loyal fan base. We don’t pander as you well know.”

As to the assortment of different bands that the Cult can tour with, Duffy has to smile. “It’s a nice challenge and I like it. I take a little bit of pride out of the fact that the Cult can do that.” However, he also admits that this is a double edged sword for these stalwarts: “The downside of that is there are bands that have been incredibly successful making the same album,” Duffy drones his next words “over and over again.” He laughs. “So, you know that whole thing, like ‘Jack of All Trades, Master of None’? I am confessing to a worry that we’ve never grasped any particular sort of fanbase by the jugular because we’ve always been like a bit cross-genre.”

That said, Duffy has nothing but praise for fans of the Cult, recognizing the quality of the fandom as opposed to the quantity. “I respect that and I really honor that type of fan.” Duffy explains. “There are many fans who are also like the Cult. They’re diverse, they like other stuff. A lot of odd fits.”

Duffy is similarly no longer brought down by rarely being the headliner even though his band is generally the most skilled on the stage. “Once, we were on tour with some band and we were the support, opening act, special guests, much loved but they were the headliner. And I was bumming and [Ian Astbury] said ‘Billy, don’t confuse bigness with greatness!’ and it cheered me up. Which is why he’s the singer, because he comes up with stuff like that.”

Still, Duffy and Astbury’s disparate musical catalogue is not exactly by design, simply honesty. “It’s not an intention. Me and Ian don’t sit down and go ‘Right. What we gonna do now?’ You know, it’s just how they work out. The goal is just to allow the songs to be tight, you know? It’s about the process and where we end up.”

It begins with the songwriting itself with Astbury handling the lyrics and Duffy and Astbury collaborating on the music. “He does lyrics, I do music but he does a lot of really cool music. And the art of my gig is to notice what Ian’s doing that’s really cool that I would never come up with.” Duffy explains. “I remember ‘Spiritwalker’. That was our big indie hit before ‘Sanctuary’, that established us as an ‘indie band’ in England.” Duffy recalls. “[Ian] was jamming on bass, so I said ‘Whoa! What are you doing? What’s that?'” Astbury dismissed it as a leftover and rejected bassline from the Southern Death Cult days. Duffy, however, was enamored by the music Astbury was playing. “I went ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa! Stop the phones!’ and that was ‘Spiritwalker’.” Duffy continues “I would have never come up with that. But the rest of it and everything else that’s going on has my footprint on it but that came from Ian. The bassline and the original riff to ‘Spiritwalker’.”

Duffy is remarkably deferential to his songwriting partner of 30 years, crediting him with the creation of such songs as “Deeply Ordered Chaos” from the 2016 album Hidden City and the hit song “Edie” from the band’s signature album Sonic Temple (1989).

Ironically, although considered something of a guitar god today, Duffy never even took a lesson on guitar until after Sonic Temple (and then very informally). In fact, he only picked up the guitar in the first place somewhat by accident.

At around the age of 15, “a guy I sat next to in high school was a drummer and his friend was a bass player and we just both loved music and he said ‘We need a guitar player. We want to do a band.’ So my dad let me buy a guitar. That was seriously how that happened. And that was that in a nutshell. “

It wasn’t long before the chance encounter with the six string would become a career. “In the band I was in before [the Cult], Theater of Hate, we would do gigs with a movement called psychobilly which was basically rockabilly mixed with punk that went on in London in the late ’70s, early ’80s right around the time the Stray Cats came over. There was a whole movement after punk into rockabilly and I just love rockabilly. Aggressive rockabilly, you know. So I had a phase and it was very hip to wear the clothes and you know. I actually met [Stray Cats Drummer] Slim Jim Phantom in 1980 when I was working in a clothes shop in London. I saw the Stray Cats a couple of times and they were a great band. They were the first band after punk rock that blew me away. The Stray Cats live.”

On the subject of styles of dress, Duffy’s image has changed over the years as much as his musical style has. From the punk to the rockabilly to the new romantic to the leather and studs style of the heavy metal days, Duffy has always had a different look, however he bristles at the thought of image having anything to do with the Cult or that record companies pushed for control over the music or the look of the band.

“There’s never, ever been any record company pressure for the Cult ever,” Duffy says. “We’ve always been with indie bands and indie labels. We’ve always had complete artistic freedom.” This explains a lot as the band’s music and style often bucked trends of the day. “I just think that when you’re young and you’re poor that’s how you can express yourself. Because you can’t get a really nice car because you don’t have any money, but you can hustle together an outfit and get creative and dye your hair and do stuff. So it’s basic just kind of tribalism as the natural order of things.”

Again, Duffy uses his most famous bandmate as an example. “Ian’s always been into visually depicting where he’s at mentally,” he confirms. “When I met him he had a mohawk and chaps, like North American Indian chaps he’d made himself with a blanket and all this shit. Even bells on his shoes. But he had a punk rock hairdo. Well, he had a Mohican. He didn’t have a punk rock hairdo. He had an actual Mohawk Mohican. Like an Indian. It was proper like, not a weird punk cut. So he’s always had an interest in that visual display.” He goes on: “And when he started growing his hair and getting into, like, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix I remember him revealing some psychedelic shirt at a gig.”

Of course this Native American look for an Englishman was not a mere affectation on the part of the front man. Duffy tells me that while the guitarist lived in England during the actual punk days, his singing collaborator was elsewhere. “Ian was exiled in Canada to his everlasting frustration.”

Frustrated or not, this long stay across the pond impacted the young Astbury and without this era we would not have the Cult. At least not as we know them. “[Ian]’s well known for his kind of affinity to native peoples from when he was living in Canada and the whole First Nations thing up there. As a British immigrant to Canada he kind of gravitated towards the Native American kids, ’cause you know, if you’re different, anybody different in school gets picked on, right? That’s what school’s about, creating character.”

In fact, it was this affinity that led to the very naming of the band. Astbury borrowed the name from an alternate branding for the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex of the Mississippian culture. Formerly described as “The Southern Death Cult” the young Astbury found this to be an ideal name for a burgeoning goth band. Duffy explains “I know it was an anthropological term. I thought, and I might be wrong, that it was the tribes that worshiped death and had burial mounds in the South. The story is that somebody must’ve been researching for university purposes North American Indian, Native Culture and that’s how that name came about.” Although this was before Duffy joined Astbury (he came aboard as the band was rechristened “Death Cult” before finally being shortened to “The Cult”) he is familiar with the naming of the band, which he calls “a good story.”

“It was a name that, legend has it, somebody saw it on a little piece of tape” from an old style label maker on a folder. “Somebody was walking past a library in Bradford, England and that was there, The Southern Death Cult.” Perhaps in tribute to this moment, years later the band’s “Coming Down” single was adorned with both title and band name on label maker tape.

It was more than band names that changed form for the duo. The Cult’s evolution through albums like Dreamtime (1984) and Love (1985) firmly set the band among the new wave of punk bands playing their own form of goth rock. But by the time the band was ready to follow up these classics with the planned album Peace, the Cult had changed yet again. “The Love album kind of captured a great moment and Peace was quite logically going back with the same producer but the band had toured for about a year. We spent a lot of time in the States, Japan, we’d been to a lot of places and kind of were evolving into a more rock type band.” Duffy continues: “The producer was a very positive guy, Steve Brown, who had done the Love album and he’s a great producer and he just bullied it through.”

However, “I think if we released that album we probably wouldn’t be talking here now,” he admits. Giving examples of the band’s changes he goes back to Love. “The last two songs written for the Love album were ‘Phoenix’ and ‘Love’. Now if you take those two tracks off that album and put in a couple of the tracks that we took off for it, like, B-sides, that would’ve had a completely different complexity in terms of the heaviness. So it’s kind of like right at the end of the session with the Love album, we put a marker down the way we wanted to go. It wasn’t something that happened necessarily on the road after we’d released the album. The intent was there.”

Lucky for the band, as Duffy informs me, producer “Rick Rubin comes in and says ‘I’ve got a plan!'” and thus Peace became the much heavier sounding album Electric (1987). Of course, the dismissal of Brown and the Cult’s then familiar sound also came with the price of alienating some longtime devotees. “We lost fans with Electric. goths and people [said] ‘Oooh, what is that about?’ but, you know, we definitely knew which way the wind was blowing if you look at what happened at that time.” Billy Duffy’s attitude at the time was “Basically it was like the death of punk. punk’s done. It’s really done. It was great, but it’s done! That was what the Love album [and] Electric was for us.”

This alienation hit especially hard for the band’s British fans. “Somebody on British radio decided they wanted to make ‘She Sells Sanctuary’ a hit so I’ll be forever grateful to that radio programmer in Radio One, whatever his name was, I never met the guy, but he took a chance and went ‘I want to play this song by this unknown band the Cult ’cause it’s a good song.'” Duffy remembers.

As grateful as he is for that break and the listeners in England, by the time the band had changed for Electric Duffy had found that punk had become too restrictive to his creativity. “It was like the Gestapo.” Duffy explains. “You can’t do this, you can’t do that. We’re telling you.”

At last Duffy had his fill of the restrictions and responded “All right, enough. punk is actually dead! It’s been great, but, like, it’s ten years ago. You know, nobody’s telling me that I can’t do a guitar solo. Nobody’s telling me what my hair should look like.” And as much as the guitar and voice still sounded like The Cult, many on the British Isles reacted angrily. “It was like literally half a dozen journalists in a couple of pubs in London running the music press and they crucified you and they did. So the more they slagged us off, the more we went in the other direction and actually got more popular.”

One of the best examples of this new sound was found in the single “Love Removal Machine”, a hard rocking and bluesy number that raised a small bit of controversy itself due to its familiar sound. Some consider the main riff to be a dead ringer for a certain Rolling Stones hit. “This is going to sound ridiculous,” Duffy tells me with a laugh, “I know that It’s a bit like ‘Start Me Up’ but I’m not a Stones guy.” Duffy explains. “I’ve never done Stones tuning.”

It’s not that Duffy dislikes the band, however. “It’s just personal taste-wise, I’m not as big a Stones fan as a lot of mates of mine are. I’ve kind of gotten more into them later in life,” he admits. However, on the Rolling Stones themselves he becomes more enthusiastic. “I love, I love Keith Richards as a man — I’ve actually jammed with Mick Jagger — but I’m not a massive Stones guy so I wasn’t sitting there thinking ‘How can we do something Stonesy?’ It just came out and we just kind of blundered our way through it. To be totally honest I don’t know where any of the riffs come from. I honest to God don’t know. You know, they just come and sometimes they don’t come, which is even worse.”

Regardless of the origins of Electric, this musical change in direction paved the way for the Cult’s next album. Led by the blistering single “Fire Woman”, Sonic Temple became The Cult’s biggest selling album and the Bob Rock production put them squarely on the hard rock charts. To this day “Fire Woman” and Sonic Temple on the whole remain staples of AOR radio and classics in the genre.

“It was, to us, the ultimate rock album. We felt it was, you know, the journey that started with ‘Phoenix’ and ‘Love’ off Love into the Electric album, finally getting into ‘Fire Woman’ and ‘American Horse’, you know, all that shit on there. ‘Sweet Soul Sister’, you know, the heavier we got. And you know it was a journey. We were aware of what we were doing and what we were feeling and the gigs we were doing and the life we were living. So we wanted the sleeve to sort of [reflect that].”

That awareness of direction led the band to look at other classic albums for inspiration. “There was Queen’s first album with Freddie Mercury in a spotlight. There was obviously the image of Pete Townshend holding guitars in the air. Maximum R&B. The idea of the rock person as an iconic thing. We just went with the guitar because Ian was like ‘It’s a guitar album.'”

Indeed it is and the cover succeeds in conveying this fact. Duffy stands in front of a psychedelic image of the singing Astbury, feet apart, preparing to strum a black Les Paul in solid black leather with an open leather vest.

“The sleeve was done by a mate of ours, an English guy called Nicky Egan and he’d done Depeche Mode. It was just circumstantial and we just kind of knocked it off together.” Duffy explains. “Somebody had seen a picture of me on stage where I was doing that kind of arm in the air, windmill kind of thing and we just used that kind of image for it.”

The photo that inspired the pose did not make the actual cover, however. “We wanted to own the image because people like to sue people in America. A lot.” Duffy laughs. “The photo session wasn’t at a gig, it was in a studio. We had to do it as a session to own the image. So that was embarrassing, standing up trying to look like a rock star in a photo studio, but that’s why they call it show business, I guess.”

Billy Duffy is, of course, best known for playing hollow bodied guitars, specifically Gretsch’s White Falcon and Black Falcon. Currently Duffy has his own signature model of the guitars. However, it was indeed a Gibson Les Paul used on the cover of the album. “I’d moved away from using the Gretsches. I used the Gretsches and obviously, you know, I still do. But it’s a bit like, you know, a Gretsch is an SUV and a Les Paul is more like a car. And you use them for different purposes. And so at that point with the way music was I was doing more and more rock shows and rock material. It’s just the Gretsch wasn’t making sense, so I would only use the Gretsch for the Love album stuff on stage.”

Instead, Duffy chose the black Gibson Les Paul for the cover. This further captured the Cult and Billy Duffy at a particular point in time. “The reason why it was black was that I hadn’t had a chance to take the finish off the front to reveal the wood because I was going through the Mick Ronson phase at that point. So the guitar is black on the front cover. Not only is it black, it’s got gold hardware and the wrong kind of tuners,” Duffy says. “The goal was always to do the Mick Ronson wood front. That was my kind of [statement]. ‘Ronno is my hero and that’s what I kind of want to represent.'”

Duffy has no shortage of affectionate stories about the Cult and Ian Astbury. Of course, any article about The Cult focuses on those two names as this duo comprises the only official members of the band, which is as it has been for years. There are, however two exceptions. Former bassist Jamie Stewart and former drummer Matt Sorum.

Stewart joined the band early on and stayed until Sonic Temple which was Sorum’s first stint with the band. In the beginning of Duffy’s tenure “We found a drummer fairly quickly, a guy called Ray Taylor-Smith and he was on the first Death Cult EP but we couldn’t find a bass player.” After auditioning almost a hundred potential members Taylor-Smith brought forth an alternative idea.

“Ray was in a band called Ritual. They were kind of a post punk gothic whatever band as you could probably tell by the name. He said ‘Our guitar player wants to try out. His name’s Jamie.'” Although Duffy was sure that Stewart would be more content remaining the lead guitarist, the music of the day was a bit different and Stewart brought this difference to the music of The Cult (Death Cult at the time). “You know, bass in the kind of post-punk era was kind of a semi-lead instrument. If you listen to Joy Division and New Model Army, even Killing Joke you know, a lot of the bass was important. It wasn’t just something in the background that was covered up by everything else. It was an integral part of the sound. So it wasn’t a bad gig.”

“Jamie auditioned and he was great. He basically, ceremonially, handed over his two effects pedals and said ‘I guess I won’t be using these anymore.’ And I took ’em, I said ‘Thank you very much!’ [laughs]”

Stewart was there for the rise of The Cult and was featured in the band’s videos and was listed as an official member on the albums. That iconic Sonic Temple cover featured Stewart along with Duffy and Astbury on the back. “We used a session drummer [Mickey Curry] on Sonic Temple because of Bob Rock’s insistence, which was his prerogative as a producer,” Duffy says. The success of Sonic Temple would soon lead to huge tours for the band meaning, of course, they needed a drummer.

Duffy set his eyes firmly on drummer Pat Torpey, saying “Oh, I’d love a drummer who could play like that.” However the band was still just on the cusp of hitting it big, selling gold, but not yet platinum albums and Torpey was content to remain with his own band Mr. Big (which also featured dynamo bassist Billy Shehan). Finally Duffy caught wind of a potential lead. “Somebody said ‘There’s a guy hanging around LA. He kind of plays a bit like Pat Torpey, his name’s Matt Sorum.’ We auditioned him and Matt got the gig.”

This began a long term friendship for Duffy as the tour went on. This also marked the beginning of the end of The Cult at least for a while. “Jamie left the band because he just couldn’t do the touring lifestyle anymore. He kind of retired,” Duffy remembers. Meanwhile Guns N’ Roses found themselves having problems as they worked to complete their two Use Your Illusion albums. “Slash and Duff [McKagan of Guns N’ Roses] came to see us play and hung out and they saw [Matt Sorum] and they were desperate because they were in a bind with Use your Illusion and [original drummer] Steven [Adler] couldn’t really deliver.”

“Matt left amicably,” Duffy is quick to clarify. “The Cult will survive.” Duffy remembers telling Sorum at the time along with “Take the gig,” and “You might kick yourself for the rest of your life.” Sorum was reluctant to leave but Duffy was insistent that Sorum not pass up the chance.

With no ill will between them, Sorum did go on to a long career with Guns N’ Roses (though, somewhat ironically, he did not appear with either band on their recent tour). After two more albums The Cult called it quits and seemed to be broken up. This was until the band was reunited, in part, due to the very same drummer.

“Me and him are still friends and have always been friends since ’88 now. Me and him were hanging out in the ’90s just because I was living in England and I’d come back to Los Angeles and needed a place to stay and he gave me a room for, like, a month … a few times and we kind of got to talking and he was like ‘The Cult ain’t together. What’s going on with The Cult?’ and I’m like ‘Well, I dunno.'” This uncertainty lasted throughout the second half of the 1990s. “And finally the time was right for Ian and when Ian wants to do it, I’m always available. And that was all. So that was sort of the intent of Matt, you know, he definitely helped for sure.”

In fact, the Cult’s reunion album, 2001’s Beyond Good and Evil and its supporting tour featured Matt Sorum as an official member.

Of course, there have been many differences in the music industry between Southern Death Cult and Beyond Good and Evil and just as many between that album and the most recent Hidden City. “When you get to a certain size as a band you can plan, like, a year tour, a two year tour. But back in the day we didn’t actually have to make money. Money came from other areas so we used to have a jolly old time on the road and not actually make any money. So these days things have shifted somewhat so you actually have to try and make money on the road. So the dynamic shifted a little bit.” This is especially in the post-Napster, iTunes age.

As Duffy looks to the past, even though he is proud of the changes they have made since Electric it is still Love that seems to draw him back. In spite of the fact that Duffy takes no credit for Cult lyrics, he does say “The title of the song ‘Love’ and the album Love — that was mine.” He explains the background of this heavy later addition that ultimately gave the album its name: “[It] was definitely a ‘fuck you’ to the music press, I assure you of that, at the time. It was like ‘What is the most annoying, Hippie thing we can say?'” Especially in an era of brooding goth rock, the title Love stood out.

It still stands out for Duffy. Although he rarely listens to the Cult’s library unless it is to prepare for a tour like this one, he does go back to a favorite from time to time. That favorite has not changed. “Jonesy [former Sex Pistols guitarist turned radio host Steve Jones] on Jonesy’s Jukebox just played ‘Love’ from the Love album and that’s my favorite Cult song,” he tells me proudly. “I actually got, I have to admit, a teeny bit of a goose bump because it just captured exactly what I wanted to say with that kind of haunting rock. Kind of swaggery but not heavy, it’s got … “Duffy searches for the right words to express his emotion at hearing the song from the outside, “I mean nobody … I don’t know who makes music like that!”

The answer is nobody. Nobody makes music quite like the Cult and if you are a rock fan, there is definitely an album for you.