A Chat with Ian Astbury, Ian Astbury interview, Lead singer of The Cult

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Ian Astbury has been fronting The Cult for a couple of decades now, belting out alt-rock classics like "Love Removal Machine," "She Sells Sanctuary" and "Fire Woman," and thrilling audiences worldwide. The band's been known to take the occasional break from each other, but 2007 brought The Cult back in full force, offering up their eighth album (Born into This) on a new label and finding the band on the road to support the release. Bullz-Eye caught up with Astbury on the road and asked him about the new record, if he has an opinion about being viewed as an alt-rock elder statesman, and how the memories of their previous album, Beyond Good and Evil, affected the recording of the new record.


Ian Astbury: Hello?

Bullz-eye: Hello, may I speak to Ian?

IA: Yes, it's me.

BE: Hey Ian, this is Will Harris with Bullz-eye.

IA: How are you doing?

BE: I'm doing great. Good to speak with you.

IA: Good to talk to you too, sir.

BE: Where are you guys today?

IA: We are in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

BE: Very nice.

IA: Oh, yeah. Have you been here?

BE: I have not. Well, I take that back: I have flown into the airport. But that's about as close as I've been to actually being there, and I don't think that counts.

"Beyond Good and Evil became a living nightmare. We decided to go down that road and it wasn't the right road, obviously. But, you know, everyone is an expert in hindsight. When you're going through it, you make choices on the field, and if we all knew that, we'd all be able to go bet on the winning horse."

IA: Okay, that doesn't count. (laughs) I can guarantee you that that doesn't count.

BE: How long have y'all been on tour thus far?

IA: We have been out…we've just come out for two weeks now.

BE: How's it going?

IA: It's going! (laughing) The shows are going great; the shows are going very well. Again, the touring part is challenging. The actual driving and the waiting around is always a challenge.

BE: Well, I've been actually listening to you guys since Electric, so I've been around for awhile, too.

IA: Cool.

BE: Actually, when I first bought that album, I hadn't even heard of you guys; I was straight-up mainstream Top 40. I had to start with your cover of "Born to be Wild" and ease into the rest of the album.

IA: That's right; there you go. That really is a cool thing.

BE: But I'm really loving the new album. It sounds like you guys pretty much picked up where Beyond Good and Evil left off, to a certain extent.

IA: Um, well, I don't know about that. I mean, in a sense, there was no reference point to Beyond Good and Evil when making this record. Perhaps, if you… (hesitates) The production values are very different. The production values for Born into This…like, that record was very drawn out; it was, like, almost overproduced in a lot of ways. This record was done in 36 days; Beyond Good and Evil was done in like…God, I don't know, 10 months.

BE: Yeah, from what I read, it sounds like the entire experience with that album was kind of excruciating.

IA: Yeah, Beyond Good and Evil, definitely. It became a living nightmare, that record. That was the choice that we made at that time. We decided to go down that road and it wasn't the right road, obviously. You know, it was a road, just not the right road.

BE: I know there were issues with Atlantic Records at the time, but how did you feel about the album? I mean, once it actually emerged and you heard the final product, how did you feel about it?

IA: What, Beyond Good and Evil?

BE: Right.

IA: I was disappointed with it.

BE: Really?

IA: Yeah, I mean, I felt…some of the songs I really felt connected with, like "War," "Ashes and Ghosts," and, I thought "Rise." Probably could have done without ‘Nico," but it's essentially a good-written song. And "True Believers." But, again, it was all overproduced, you know. If we stripped it down and had done it more like this one…but, you know, everyone is an expert in hindsight. When you're going through it, you make choices on the field, and it's, like, if we all knew that, we'd all be able to go bet on the winning horse. But the criteria really for us is not so much about the commercial success of the record, it's really about the quality of it. I mean that's how I judge our work. I thought the record we put out in '94, the Cult album, the self-titled album, was probably the best record that we made of that decade, and it's been pretty much overlooked.

BE: Actually, I recently downloaded it, it's on eMusic. It's been years since I have had it – I used to have a hard copy of it, but over the years and many moves, I don't know what happened to it – but I recently downloaded it and listened to it again.

IA: Yeah, I think it's the best record.

BE: So how did you approach this album? You guys have been, I guess, on hiatus for a few years after the previous album. I mean, did you feel reinvigorated?

IA: Yeah, I mean we were never really on hiatus; I mean that's kind of like a business term, you know. Instead, The Cult…we do The Cult when we feel it. It's not like…we went through the period of when The Cult became, you know, a brand and a business, and that became really cynical, because outside factors started to determine how we approached the creative process. Whereas now, we're more about making records because we want to make records; playing songs and writing songs because that's what we do. We started playing again in March last year, and it just…we have an awareness of each other; we kind of know, it's almost like seasonal, you know, we can kind of sense when it's time for Cult business, Cult music again. We started playing again last year, we put together what we think is a great band, and we demo-ed "I Assassin," and we knew that that was the tip of the iceberg. We knew there was more. So we pursued…I had some commitments with The Doors, and from February…I left The Doors in January, and then from February, I committed myself to The Cult, and we went straight to demo studio, February this year; we spent 21 days over a period of, like, two months, and we put together about 18 or 19 pieces of music and then went to England for 15 days and finished it off. So the whole thing was made in 36 days.

BE: Which I'm sure adds to the freshness of it as well.

IA: Well, absolutely. It's kind of like bottling at the source as opposed to out of the tap; going through the process. That's why I think it's a really strong record, because it was bottled at the source, so all those natural ingredients are still in it. That's why I think a band's first album is so good; they had like 20 years to make the first album and then about eight months to make the second one, you know.

BE: Oh, yeah, as a critic, I get to use that phrase all the time.

IA: But there's a truth in it. There's absolutely a truth in it.

BE: I know that when you guys did first get back together, you re-premiered the band on the "The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson." I was just curious if there was any specific reason why you chose that show.

IA: Um…

BE: I mean, had you been fans of his?

IA: Yeah, we love Craig Ferguson, right. Scotland.

"We went through the period of when The Cult became a brand and a business, and that became really cynical, because outside factors started to determine how we approached the creative process. Whereas now we're more about making records because we want to make records; playing songs and writing songs because that's what we do."

BE: I know you work with Youth on the new album; did you have any experience with him in the past?

IA: We had met Youth a few times in the day, but I really was aware of his work. I mean, I realize the work he did with The Verve and Primal Scream, Embrace, you know, I was pretty much aware of that work, and I just thought he would be a really appropriate producer for us, based upon the fact that he was English. He knew our history and he's a very contemporary person in his production values; he's constantly…he's very present as a producer. He's involved in contemporary music, he performs contemporary music; I mean, he works for anyone diverse…like Paul McCartney through electronic music through, you know, Primal Scream, he just produced their last album. So I like the idea of working with someone who is very, very current, and, you know, the idea of working with somebody who was kind of from our cultural background as well was a plus.

BE: Did his style in the studio of production mesh pretty readily with you all?

IA: Yeah, definitely. (The sound of an electric guitar suddenly cuts through the conversation.) You know, it's amazing: somebody just plugged in a guitar,
it's about 200 yards away, and I can hear it.

BE: I know, I can hear it, too.

IA: Isn't that amazing? That's how sound carries. I thought I would come and sit over here because it's quiet.

BE: How is Roadrunner treating you as a label?

IA: Roadrunner is treating us extremely well; they definitely have a very high work ethic, which is quite rare in the music industry these days. They actually work. Roadrunner actually works, you know, they'll put you in the office and sit there and we can fine tune. They're like a real, honest, no-frills record label. We had other opportunities, but we thought this would be the best for us; we really wanted to be with somebody who took us seriously and took the music seriously and was prepared to go fight for it. I mean, Roadrunner is kind of known as a hard rock label but one wouldn't consider The Cult to be a hard rock band, although we sort of dabble around it. We sort of fall in between the cracks, in between the alternative and rock and roll, you know rock bands. I mean, essentially, we're a rock band, but we sort of defy categorization at times, which is very confusing for writers and for programmers; they don't know what places…programmers are, like, "Can we play this?"

BE: Yeah, especially in this country, which is so niche-oriented.

IA: Yeah, yeah, precisely, but we hold on.

BE: Does it feel weird kind of being the elder statesmen of 80s rock now?

"I just thought (Youth) would be a really appropriate producer for us, based upon the fact that he was English, he knew our history, and he's a very contemporary person in his production values."

IA: I don't even think about that. That's not even something…I don't wear any particular hat or prescribe to any particular philosophy. I don't know, go ask Morrissey; go and ask Michael Stipe. I don't know.

BE: How much of the set is a straight-up greatest hits set, or do you delve into album tracks once in awhile?

IA: No, we play a lot of material from…like, we play like "Nirvana," "Horse Nation," "Spiritwalker." All the material we're playing on this tour…we're playing "Savages," I mean, we're playing like four songs right now from the new record. We're playing "I Assassin," "Dirty Little Rockstar," "Savages" and "Born Into This," and, you know, we play "The Witch," we play things like…occasionally, we'll play "Sun King." I've played "Wonderland." We mix it up every now and again.

BE: Is there anything from the back catalog that you haven't brought out yet that you're tempted to?

IA: Um, to be honest with you, no. It's, like, it's strange, because we live so much in the present. My main focus is this album. I mean, I don't think there could be a Cult show without "She Sells Sanctuary," it just wouldn't be the same, either for us or the audience. That song is really fresh. Every time we play it…I've played it probably over a thousand times…it's always fresh. Depending on your geographical location and your mindset and everything and, you know, your audience and everything, that song seems to go across very well.

BE: I heard that you recorded a second solo album; is that still kind of in limbo as far as getting a release?

IA: Um…I haven't recorded a second solo album.

BE: Oh, okay. Dammit, I know you can't trust Wikipedia, but on Wikipedia, there is a report that you had recorded a second solo album that is just sitting in limbo waiting.

IA: Wikipedia is the worst propaganda bullshit. It is so wrong on so many accounts.

BE: Yeah, and I get burned every damned time I do any research on there, and I don't know why I keep going back to it.

IA: Because it's there in front of us, and that's just us as human beings. We just don't look any further than the end of our noses.

BE: Well, that is true.

IA: That's why the culture is in such a shitty situation. We believe what we see and read and hear, so…I don't know.

BE: Well, I'm notoriously naive, so that might have something to do with it in this case.

IA: I don't know what to tell you. It's frustrating, not just for The Cult, but for…I just think we're lazy; that's all there is to it. We're spoiled and we're lazy. People say, "Well, that's not a fair thing to say." Well, get off your ass and work harder, or drop what you're doing if you don't like it and move on. I've been to India. I've seen real poverty, I mean real poverty. People walking around in their own feces, with dead animals lying on the side of the road, and believe me, because they're not white and they don't speak English, they will be in those villages for the rest of their lives…but, man, are they happy. I've never seen bigger smiles anywhere, you know, just amazing. And that's really given me an incredible amount of humility, being in India. Yeah, I'm sitting here watching this freeway; I'm in Oklahoma, I'm seeing, like…I'm watching Mercedes go by – here goes by a Mercedes! – and really nice big SUVs, everyone's driving beautiful SUVs, Mustangs. Big cars out here, big expensive cars. Well, interesting. Anyway, sorry, I digressed.

BE: Not a problem, not a problem. So, uh, how long will you be touring the album in the States?

"Roadrunner is kind of known as a hard rock label, but one wouldn't consider The Cult to be a hard rock band, although we sort of dabble around it. We sort of fall in between the cracks, in between the alternative and rock and roll."

IA: Well, this initial run is going to be 35 dates; we're about show eight now, I think, show eight, show nine. So we have 35 dates on this tour, and then probably come back in the summer; go back around again in the summer. We're going to head to Europe in February and Far East, and, yeah, we'll see how it goes.

BE: Where do you find that your biggest fanbase comes from? I mean, as far as the reception? Is it alternative radio, or is it mainstream rock radio? Are they still embracing the band? And I ask this because I'm kind of in my own world as a writer; I know who I like, and I listen to them, so I don't have to go seeking them out.

IA: It's a lot of word of mouth. It's still a lot of word of mouth, especially with this record. We're seeing, like…yeah, sure, you can spot people in their late 20s to mid-30s, you know, the majority of the crowd, but there is also like a much younger…and I see a lot of younger people come to our shows. It's an interesting time. It's like a transitional time for us, sort of seeing our audience change. And that's gratifying to know that we're bringing so many…such a diverse audience.

BE: But do you find it frustrating that there aren't as many outlets as there used to be, or as ready to embrace the more experienced bands?

IA: Oh, the experienced bands. (laughs) I don't think it matters what your age is, as long as you're good.

BE: Oh, absolutely, I just mean that, a lot of times, the media loves to focus on the fresh face, and that gets frustrating, I'm sure.

IA: Well, no. It is what it is. I mean, I don't think any cry-babying is going to change any of that, really. It really isn't. I mean, it just shows you people are prepared to buy into it, so that's fine, I mean, the rock star kind of comments on the video culture, but every single one of those young people will age. Brittany Spears will get old, you know, she will age; she will have an arc of a life. Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, all those girls. But it's interesting when you look at the film stars because, you know George Clooney, Brad Pitt are in their 40s. You know these cultural icons we have that are film stars, you know, males in their 40s, and there are others and they are considered to be in the height of their careers, so why not musicians? I mean, it's really interesting, I think you've got far more to say as a writer when you're in your 40s than you do when you're in your 20s. For sure, you've got more experience. So it's interesting of the cultures. In the Far East, for example, age is respected and venerated. People defer to their elders, they don't rip their elders down. But I think people involved in the commercial industry want to keep turning things over, keep it fresh, and they're the ones who keep selling to the 15-year-olds who are experiencing life for the first time, so who wants to go see their dad, you know what I mean?

BE: I do. Well, I'll close with two quick questions. The first one: do you have a favorite song that didn't get a lot of love either from either the media or fans that you always thought deserved more praise personally?

IA: I think there's songs on The Cult, the '94 album, called "Universal You," "Saints Are Down," those two songs are amazing to me. "The Witch" I think is a really important Cult song, but because of the nature we released it, we released it in a film soundtrack…I mean, it really blew up in Europe, but in the United States, it really wasn't paid much attention to. We put it on our Pure Cult record, but I don't think there was much of a reference point for it. It was really a transitional track and if you put that up against "99 Problems" by Jay-z, and it's a Rick Rubin production, you know, and "The Witch" is definitely a signature Rick Rubin production. It's stripped down, great beat, filthy bass on it. But again, in hindsight…well, I don't live my life in hindsight, so I don't constantly think what should have been. I'm really concerned with…I've got plenty on my plate right now to deal with.

(On being an elder statesman of ‘80s rock) "I don't even think about that. I don't wear any particular hat or prescribe to any particular philosophy. Go ask Morrissey. Go ask Michael Stipe."

BE: Well, then, I hate to ask one more question to look backwards, but who would you say is the most unlikely band The Cult has every toured with or played with?

IA: Probably Metallica or Aerosmith; one of those bands. I mean, we really don't have much in common with them. Metallica, we've got more in common with the people in the band than the musical style. But I like some of Metallica's music. But I'm also drawn to…I'm English, I like David Bowie. He's kind of, like, my all-time favorite artist.

BE: Did you enjoy playing with The Who recently?

IA: Yeah, The Who was amazing. Playing with The Who was unbelievable. I tell you, they put most people under the age of 60 to shame. Nobody could hold a candle to that, you know. I would love to see any 20-year-old go up against that, they couldn't, just…the body of work alone. And they still got it.

BE: Do you think you'll still be doing it at that age?

IA: That's not that far away, is it?

BE: I guess it's not.

IA: How old are you?

BE: I'm 37.

IA: Thirty-seven. Believe me, if you live a life…who knows, maybe you'll be writing when you're 60 or 70.

BE: I would like to think so.

IA: I mean, I don't think like that. I'm not comfortable projecting out with…why are you projecting out what you're missing out on this present life. Then you're lost. To me it's, like, you've got stuff to do -- get it done, so just get it done.

BE: Well, I'm as successful in my career as I have ever been in my life, so I'm pretty happy with the present level myself.

IA: That's great. Good for you, man.

BE: Well, it's been a pleasure speaking with you. I don't know if you're going to get to the Hampton Roads area – that's where I'm based out of – but if you do, I will certainly be there to see you.

IA: Thank you. I don't know if we're getting over there.

BE: Last time I saw you guys, I was actually on vacation in England in 1992, at Finsbury Park.
 
IA: Wow. Do you have any idea who was opening for us?

BE: It was at the In The Park '92 festival, in Finsbury Park.

IA: Who was on the bill?

BE: It was Pearl Jam and Ned's Atomic Dustbin; it was a huge festival day.

IA: Oh, yeah! And L7?

BE: Yeah, yeah, exactly.

IA: Yeah, it was interesting. Special times.

BE: Well, as I said, pleasure speaking with you. Good luck on the rest of the tour.

IA: Take care.

BE: You too. Thanks.

IA: Bye.

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