Monday, May 3, 2010

Ian Astbury (The Cult) interview (2010)


Sitting down to talk to Ian Astbury it's impossible to ignore the staggering sense of history in The Cult singer's words as he unfolds the story behind one of '80s most enigmatic records,
Love. The Liverpool based band's second album resonated with a mix of psychedelic and melodic power rock influences boasting a sound completely out of step with the then musical climate in the UK. 25 years later, Love is now recognised as The Cult's greatest work and so through demand alone, it was decided they would tour the set 'Don't Look Back' style. I start our talk by prompting Ian to take me back to 1985, and the circumstances surrounding his bands' most defining work.

"There was a lot going on at that time and because we made it, it's hard to have any real perspective in a way." He explains, "We didn't analyse it or check the process, but I do remember it being very intense and that we were just so engaged in it." Ian's voice becomes stern as he continues, "We were in the studio all of the time, you know, rather than just going in every other day. We weren't distracted at all from what we were doing, no one was on the phone or just hanging out, we were working very long hours with no breaks at all and experimenting with so many ideas." Astbury ads thoughtfully, "I think that's why that record has a constant unity all the way through, it was probably the most honest album we did, in that we had no career at that time. We were young and making music because we wanted to and everything was still so fresh."

Astbury unlike a lot of his punk peers was always practicing to become a better musician. His group – formerly known as Southern Death Cult – sat very awkwardly next to the bands usually recalled as defining England's post-punk sound. Californian psyche-rock influences – shockingly unfashionable in the UK at the time - were all over their album, yet its success was undeniable. Ian states; "Love definitely took on a life of its own, and we kind of become subject to its whims the more attention it gained. Let's put it in perspective though, I'm lucky to have had success at all, I mean a lot of people I grew up with who were also in bands are either dead now or just gone, they gave up and walked away."

The press at the time of Love's release weren't friendly, while some hardcore music fans took outright offense and, matters into their own hands; "I admit that what we were doing was fairly controversial at the time. It was controversial to be punk rockers and still love Led Zeppelin and to call an album Love in the aggressive post punk era was seen as potential suicide. These things drew a lot of heat from the media but worse still, I remember going out when She Sells Sanctuary got in the charts and some kid come up and punched me right in the face at a concert. There was so much hatred in his eyes, and all that was because we came from the streets in Brixton, we came from punk rock and I think this guy saw us as breaking the code by not pretending we couldn't play our instruments or for having success."

Ian claims his assailant helped him realise he was maybe on the right track with The Cult after all; "It was a wild time and everyone was very emotionally loaded and to cop a punch in the face for what I was doing in some ways was a great compliment, it at least was honest and it at least caused a reaction that is what good art does doesn't it?" Today Ian lives in New York and frequently tours with the remaining members of The Doors as Jim Morrison's 'replacement'. Perhaps he's living in the past a little, but it doesn't stop Astbury from having some strong opinions on what's touted as great contemporary music. So who deserves a punch, I venture; "I'm disgusted by Dave Grohl" He barks, "I mean it's just boring fucking jock rock. Guys like him were the ones that got into fights with the punks at school and were just plain thick." Ian ads, "What do you call them in Australia… bogans?"

It's clear that Astbury's fire is far from quenched as he begins explaining how playing live now the album that launched The Cult 25 years ago makes perfect sense; "I'm technically better, there's more weight to my character and I've had more life experience." He continues, "The good thing about the songs on Love is that they deal with things that are no less relevant now than they were then; life, death, sex, materialism, spiritualism; all the human experiences." He ads, "Because of dealing with a lot of personal issues myself over the years and watching my family growing and dealing with their own issues, I feel like now I'm more capable of fully understanding the weight of songs I wrote 25 years ago."

On a more practical side, Astbury is chuffed to be able to present the set live in a way, not possible at the time of its release; "The best thing is the sound systems we're working with now-a-days are vastly improved, so the songs will obviously be a lot better sounding. Also on the visual side of things, our backdrop screen isn't bad either. We've basically took a load of films and influential imagery, just things we've been into over the last 25 years, and made a huge collage; some of which is specific to the actual songs." He then ads, laughing, "Plus we've all put on a couple of pounds, so everyone can come and check out how fat we've become."

I find it impossible to not prompt Ian to reminisce on the song that earned him that fat lip – She Sells Sanctuary. Of this powerful beast of a song, he reveals; "Sanctuary came together very easily in fact, I took the bass line from a song called Spiritwalker, which was one left over from our Southern Death Cult days. Billy (Duffy) came up with the melody, and we worked out a vaguely psychedelic guitar sound which seemed to fit it well - we were heavily into '60s psychedelic music like The Doors, Hendrix and early Zeppelin – Also the producer, Steve Brown, had had a lot of pop success, so he really knew how to structure a song." Ian sighs and adds "It's funny, you write a song like that were everything comes together far beyond what you could've expected and then you spend the rest of your life trying to write another one as good."

Without a pause, Ian responds when I ask why is now the time to revisit Love and why he thinks it is still so widely championed; "Because of its earnestness, its honesty and depth." He ads, "It's the album that made us, so why not claim our rightful place in the legacy of alternative rock music." Once the tour for Love concludes, I can't help wondering if the album that launched The Cult will also to be the one that ends it. Ian is a keen film maker and producer these days and works more with The Doors than his own band. He explains. "We'll take this show to Australia, Eastern Europe and Japan but after that, we're done with it. I mean there might be enough demand for us to bring it back in a few years time, but I'm not thinking about that now because we're actually recording some new Cult material right now. We're moving forward at the same time as looking back I suppose." He says laughing, "We've got four new songs done and when an album's ready it's going to be coming out in a format called capsule." There's silence on the phone as I'm taken aback by Ian's statement. He waits a few beats before adding. "Do you know what I mean by capsule?" All I can offer in response is the time variety. "No it means it'll encapsulate relevant multi-format articles. It will have music, a film, an object such as a book or a T-shirt and you'll be able to buy it electronically or tangibly, USB, vinyl, CD, DVD, cassette anything." I'm not sure if Ian's joking, but his ambition to expand his next album's release to include cassette has me grinning like a fool. I think of The Cult's early fanbase who remember with excitement Love's original release, making room on their dusty cassette shelves for the next chapter in this unique band's catalogue.



  1. Never a Liverpool based band. See Manchester and Heswall (Merseyside) for core members. See London (Theatre of Hate) and Bradford (Southern Death Cult) for the Cult's roots.

  2. Hi Brian thanks for reading my article and for your comments. I was under the impression that Ian was born in or close to Liverpool, and moved to Bristol and Manchester following the burgeoning scenes. It wasn't necessary to ask him directly and so I went with what I had read. Are you a relation?

  3. Ian was born and raised in Heswall, about 12 miles from Liverpool. Then moved around a bit. Canada, Belfast, Glasgow. Then joined the army and left after a couple of weeks. Moved to Bradford and the rest is history.

  4. Liverpool, Manchester, Bradford all you can say for sure is that they were both born in the North West of the UK; where it all began ... most Cult fans would say Bradford (SDC), but both Ian and Billy have musical roots that go back further. Do you count the formation and their 'base' of when they originally met or when they first composed or recorded ?

    None of the above was meant as a derogatory or 'insulting ... I know best statement' They just went up and down the country A LOT :-) the important thing is the current activity of the group which the article covers nicely.

    All the best peeps.

  5. If anyone wants to get their hands on some awesome cult collectables I have just listed my entire collection on e*bay as a bulk lot. It took me about 15 years to collect it all. It is item 300459111517 you won't be disapointed.

  6. Is The Cult's "White" is about a cowboy dying in the snow?? I'm not sure, but it's a perfect live Cult song, with Ian emoting all over Billy's soaring guitar to absolutely myth-making effect. It's a free download, direct from the band:

  7. What part of Canada did Ian live in when he was growing up, since his dad was a sailor was it Halifax or Vancouver?