Ian Astbury of The Cult – Interview

The Cult’s Ian Astbury (photo: Delissa Santos)

Read our Choice Of Weapon CD review in support of this interview here

May 18 2012 – Ian Astbury is the lead singer of The Cult – a band on the verge of releasing their 9th studio album titled Choice of Weapon (read our review of it here). The Cult had a trio of insanely successful albums Love (1985), Electric (1987), and Sonic Temple (1989) which were all certified Double Platinum in Canada (as can be searched on www.musiccanada.com). In fact even the band’s 1995 “best of” effort Pure Cult is also certified Double Platinum.

We had an opportunity to sit down with Astbury and hear his thoughts on diverse topics such as near-death experience, the state of commercial music, global politics and matriarchal energy. Astbury is a very philosophical man, and it was a very enriching experience to hear a major rock star openly share his views on deep existential topics as he has experienced them during his life. This interview was conducted a few weeks before Astbury’s 50th birthday on Wednesday April 25th. Please note – the interview is lengthy but is an almost direct transcription of the 30 minutes we had with Astbury. We feel that a true rock legend like Astbury certainly deserves a lengthy article.
T-MAK: Ian thanks so much for your time. You must have a hectic schedule coming out to promote Choice Of Weapon.
ASTBURY: I really wanted to show off this record and strangely enough it feels more appropriate. This (ed. referring to his 3 days of media interviews in Toronto) is the most intensive media I have done for the record. I’ve done a bit in the States but in terms of going somewhere purely for the purpose of doing media, this (Toronto) is the only one I’m probably going to do. I have been asked to visit the UK but it just doesn’t fit into our schedule, I should have done that about two months ago.
T-MAK: Fight in the trenches and get the word out as much as possible.
ASTBURY: Well in Canada especially because Canada in many ways is such a huge part of this record.  Part of what I am referring to on the record is wilderness regions and wilderness philosophy. The iconography of the record, the shaman, I imagine him coming out of super nature environments. I imagine walking in the arctic forest and the Arctic Circle, coming out of the mountains. And Canada really has that step off into wilderness, and you can just disappear into wilderness in Canada.
T-MAK: Very unique landscape.
ASTBURY: Yeah amazing and, of course the indigenous influence as well.
T-MAK: Have you spent any time in the arctic far north?
ASTBURY: No I would love to but, the furthest north I have been to is Yellowknife. My real connection with real wilderness, aside from a little bit in BC as I was living in Vancouver for a while, is the Himalayas and the California desert. But really the Himalayas, the mountains of the Himalayas and that energy of that area.
T-MAK: Is it more of an isolation thing or do you have an entourage with you?
ASTBURY: No it’s more about the experience of being there in heavy winter with the elements where there is nothing modern. I mean even the clothing I was wearing, I didn’t even have gortex, but even the modern clothes I had couldn’t protect you from the element. Nature is the ultimate kind of law and it doesn’t discriminate, it doesn’t care what language you speak, what ethnicity you have, what your education is or how much money you have. You bow down to that, you bow down to that law that we’re all gonna die.
T-MAK: Very humbling I assume?
ASTBURY: Oh yea, well you confront death in those environments. When I was in a whiteout snow storm in Tibet on a mountain pass there was nowhere to go. You just have to go through it and we did, we could have died up there, I was getting hypothermia, it was pretty rough, it was like 6 or 7 kilometers on foot and it took a couple of hours.
T-MAK: And did you actually feel your life was at risk?
ASTBURY: Oh yea totally, absolutely. I made peace with my gods, I never thought I would see my children again. Oh yea I made my peace with it. I had to, but you just keep going, and it’s profound and when you get through an experience like that its like “woooooow”. There’s nothing to say, I was with some of the people and we just stared at each other, we couldn’t speak about.
The Cult (photo: Michael Lavine)

T-MAK: And of course nobody can relate with that except for the people that were there with you.
ASTBURY: No but that’s something like certain art, certain music, certain film when they reflect death in some way. The fact that life is finite, it breaks the spell. It breaks that spell that the media puts out there of the eternal fountain of youth, where we celebrate youth, that we covet youth that we attempt to obtain youth. Young and sexy, that it’s a Utopian place that lasts forever.  It’s nirvana, and its not reality. We all decay. When Keith Richards was asked about all these exciting new groups coming out –  “Keith what do you think about these exciting new bands?” and all he said was “they’ll find out”. I was like “dammmn, that’s it, they’ll find out”. But it’s all being run by cynical financiers anyways, old, old bushy guys on yachts with young women, etc, etc. The Rupert Murdoch’s of the world, you know the emperor. George Lucas got it right with the Emperor and the Death Star.
T-MAK: Ya I am a big music fan and I find it very frustrating because I will have to listen to what is fed to me unless I go out of my way to find and discover music I like.
ASTBURY: But those portals are trying to keep themselves open.
T-MAK: The portals are getting bigger though right?
ASTBURY: Oh yea the death stars are getting bigger.
T-MAK: I think they are getting bigger, I mean 10 or 20 years ago it was a totally different world.
ASTBURY: When you have things like Spotify and iTunes, etc, etc.  these become Death Stars, you either comply or you are out in the wilderness. And when you’re in the wilderness different sets of rules apply. It’s like the city gates have closed and you’re outside fighting for scraps. The post-apocalyptic ghetto. I mean you have to have a certain amount of sevance, awareness and taste. I mean I don’t think there are too many bands that came out in our generation that are still standing, still able to have even have an ounce of relevance, or to even understand the context of their work.  They’re trying to give it their “Hey hey look at me, it’s MTV, and I’m in my late 40’s but it doesn’t matter” (doing an air guitar pose)
The Cult (Ian Astbury is 3rd from left) (Photo: Michael Lavine)
T-MAK: A lot of fans have moved on, but a lot of bands are fighting trying to keep it alive. You guys on this album for example. When I heard it I was like “Hey this is the raw essence of the music that I love!”
ASTBURY: We’re holding – we found a place. We have really devotional partisan fans and its attributed to things like the Love album and in essence they have never left what we are doing. This records gonna  consolidate that. We’ve respected where we came from, definitely there were times where we got away from it, but very quickly, we never got really got caught up in the limelight too much, we never got caught up in that messianic , you know the belief, the narcissism that creeps in being a performer, and being lorded over. We never really got caught up in it; I always thought that was false. I was really interested in reading biography’s to see how artists evolved through the 30’s, 40’s and even the 50’s, and how they dealt with it. Well I was reading a lot of biographies of even actors of how they dealt with it and I took something away from that, and you always go back to the work or the relevance of the work and that was a very very important thing, and that was part of the subtext for The Cult – that people know there is authenticity in what we do.
When it was offered to us (the next level) after Sonic Temple it was all put in front of me, it was basically “Here are the keys to the city, we have a slew of songwriters that will keep you going for the next 30 years”, and I was like “No this doesn’t feel right to me.” I immediately went to Rick Rubin’s (ed. super producer of the band’s breakthrough Electric album) house and knocked. My father had just passed away in 1990, so it was a very difficult time. I did Gathering of The Tribes festival which was kind of one of the first public statements I was kind of making about where I was going. And I went to Rick Rubin and I said “I want to move forward in a different direction”. I had The Witch, it was called the Northern Man in the day and it was a reference to bands coming out of North England, such as Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays, about the renaissance in the North of England and I felt a connection with that movement. I did the Seeds of the Witch and I was pushing that but The Cult itself as an entity was just a truck that was rolling, I mean you couldn’t put the brakes on it. It was its own animal, and I can go away from it and it still would resonate, because of MTV and because of 3 platinum albums previous to that, it was a juggernaut, it was rolling. I walked away from it and I came back and it was still rolling, and I was like “Whaat?” 
We can sit here at this same place and as Ceremony came out as a part two of Sonic Temple, like the outtakes from Sonic Temple in some ways, and even when we were making that record I knew it was… (pauses to contemplate) … straight after that record was made I cut my hair off and went completely different direction. I mean we were still playing arenas, still playing through that period and Pure Cult came out and it was a huge success and we couldn’t get away from it. So with the 94 record we made with Bob (ed. Bob Rock – who also co-produced Choice Of Weapon)  we scrapped everything with a different rhythm section, but by then it was too late in the sense that the culture was moving forward, and we were in a different place and it just wasn’t the right timing. So I went away find out who I am again cause I’ve been doing this for 12 years and I have no idea where I’m at. So I did end up in Tibet, I did end up in the mountains. The journey through Holy Barbarians into my solo period and being around Tibetan freedom movement and a lot was going on in those 4 years.  Those wasteland years.  I had 2 boys also so there was a lot going on.
The Cult (photo: Michael Lavine)

But then when I returned to The Cult from that hiatus in 1999, a very different feeling was in the air coming back into the industry.  When I went away and did Holy Barbarians and Spear Light Speed, those had nothing to do with what was happening in the mainstream – those projects were in the fringes, in the wilderness areas. Coming back to Beyond Good and Evil (ed. The Cult’s 2001 album and first in 7 years) we signed with Warner Brothers in the United States , well it was Atlantic through Warner Brothers, so it was a big big deal.  Big record, big producer, big personalities, Martyn LeNoble, Matt Sorum, Billy Duffy and Ian Astbury – it was a big album. It was really a reflection of what we were feeling around us. There was this rise of Muslim fundamentalism, there were the oil wars, we had just been through the first gulf war, and there was this feeling of dystopia in the air, and the record really reflected that, we had songs like War (The Process) and Ashes and Ghosts and we felt very much that the record was of its time.

Then of course we had the music industry fall upon itself and we also had 9/11. We played New York a month or so after 9/11 like November 9th or something like that, and there was something about that moment, where the United States as the citadel of the West had now been pierced in a way that the whole house caved in, and we don’t live in this hermetically sealed world anymore. Of course there were the terrorist attacks in the UK as well, but it was something about the United States and especially New York City, because NYC is the mecca of culture, the Empire State Building for so many years has been the beacon of what America represented;  the new world, freedom of thought, democracy.  There it was, its biggest financial symbol destroyed. We felt that.  We felt the weight of that and that we were in a very very different place. People said to me “what did you do through those years” and I was like “whatever it took to survive”, and many people didn’t make it through it. Now we are at the back end of it.
T-MAK: Are we truly at the end of that?
ASTBURY: Well I think the locomotive has hit the wall and now the carriages are coming, but we are all in that energy. That neurotic dystopian place where things are ever shifting – we are kind of used to that neurotic anxiety space. We are kind of in that hermetic place and people are prepared for anything. I mean I’m sure if it went down tomorrow, people would very quickly transcend into post-apocalyptic mode. I think you’d pretty much see people come to savagery right away. The barbarian isn’t too far away from the gate. It’s like the fall of Rome in many ways. If you want to get to politics though the East won’t let the West crumble entirely, they will keep it propped up – there’s too many natural resources for god’s sake. You know Canada will be OK.
T-MAK: Until there is a time for the balance of power to shift perhaps?
ASTBURY: We won’t be here for that. I doubt it. They say in 2016, China will be the world’s biggest economy in the world but I think they already got that down. It does affect how the media and the arts are driven though because a certain lifestyle is available to everyone on the Internet. So the work force that used to be the industrial work force that were educated in a certain way and kept in a certain place in culture have access to everything and are very quickly adapting. Someone said the bottom came up, or the top hit the bottom or whatever analogy you want to use, but there it is, it’s a clean playing field. So anybody can do anything, and people are, and it’s just nuts. Facebook, Instagram or whatever.

The Cult (photo: Michael Lavine)
T-MAK: You see shifts now, you see bands having success because they have 30 million Youtube views and that’s what defines success.  Let me ask you before we wrap this up though… you have this new album coming out. How are you going to personally define success for it? Is it sales, is it the number of people that provide positive feedback, or an inner feeling that you are quite happy with what you have accomplished?
ASTBURY: Well from that perspective I already feel it’s a successful record because I feel very committed to this record, I really believe in it and it’s a great Cult record and it stand next to the other great Cult record that we’ve made. It’s got this great resident quality. However I think seeing your work reflected in the culture, where you see the cultural relevance of it where it stands alongside everything else and there’s a place for it in contemporary culture. It’s not just a band that’s been around for 20 odd years that is just playing its past laurels and for nostalgia. This is something that resonates now, that evokes and inspires and becomes a cultural touchstone today, and that to me would define the success of it. Does it have any – impact is maybe a strong word- but does it resonate, and is there a place for it. And for this record I really believe there is.
We have to be very clever about how we roll it out, we aren’t trying to sell ourselves, I’m the lead singer in the band but I’m not selling myself. I’m putting across a body of work, the idea of The Cult as an entity and subtext is very important. If you’re a rock and roll fan straight up,  and just forget the thematic and philosophical elements of the record, it’s a damn good rock and roll record. I would throw it down (ed. challenging any young band) and if you think you can stand up next to what we’re doing then go for it – have at it! We really know our business, we’ve held our ground and and can stand up against anybody. We will go out and do those shows. “Postmodern rock and roll band”, “hard rock band” whatever you define us as, it’s tight, the band has been playing together for 7 years and its really really tight so the gloves are off in that department. And in the other department –  if you’re into something slightly more esoterical, there is something more in there for you as well.

Terry Makedon and The Cult’s Ian Astbury
I’d like to think we can connect with women as well and I’m not talking just in a sexual way but more of a philosophical way because I feel that matriarchal energy is really on the rise and women are really getting into their power and I like to think that is reflected in the record.  So it’s not just about coming from a masculine perspective and just going to the men in the culture this is for women as well, this record was made with women in mind and the consciousness about feminine energy and observing how women are moving forward in culture and coming into more areas of power and dominance. Nature will find a way; men are trying to work out what’s going on and its men talking to men about what’s going on. You ask a woman what’s going on you will get a very different perspective. It’s really interesting.  In fact the young woman that sat down with me before you came in and made references to Kenneth Anger (ed. known to us as the filmmaker that had a falling out with Jimmy Page over his movie Lucifer Rising) and Damien Hurst (ed. prominent British artist) and I said “you understand the subtext of what I’m putting out” – that’s The Cult. There’s something there that people can’t put their finger on it, especially in the UK.  The only thing the UK can do is come up with sardonic, whimsical, witty put downs because they can’t put their heads around it. For them I’m from Bradford (which I’m not I spent 2 years there) Billy is from Manchester,  and we are working class guys and we should be making straight ahead, easily defined music in other words pop rock. And if your speaking about anything above your station like philosophy, politics, art, culture whatever, it’s like “no no no, you’re a rock band you’ve gotta stay in your food group”. That’s not who we are.
Ask me when I’m 60. I don’t know I may not be here.

T-MAK: Well I sure hope so. Ian that’s all the time we had, so thank you and best of luck on Choice Of Weapon.

Well there you have it, we hope you enjoyed this and we thank Ian GREATLY for his time We leave you with the lead off video from Choice of Weapon called “For The Animals”. Crank it!

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