The Cult: Interview with Ian Astbury: Cult Culture

Formed in 1983, The Cult gained popularity over the decade with prolific songwriting and successful albums like Love (1985), Electric (1986), and Sonic Temple (1988). Chart-climbing hits such as “She Sells Sanctuary” and Sonic Temple’s “Fire Woman” kept the young band on a steady touring schedule. Now, over two decades since its release, vocalist Ian Astbury and guitarist Billy Duffy have taken Love on the road again, playing the album from start to finish both here and abroad. In a recent interview that delightfully outgrew the typical Q & A format, Astbury spoke with me about the band’s tour, his evolution as a filmmaker, about critics, and about the nation’s state of affairs.

Astbury on 2009’s Love Live tour and the album’s longevity:

Reception’s been amazing. It’s a really intensely partisan crowd we’re playing in front of. It’s amazing to see how people are so invested in a record. It’s really gratifying. The audience is really engaged. And one thing about the album is that the art and images inspiration behind it are still pretty much the same source of influences I have now.

I think it’s there’s simplicity to the songs. They’re not overblown. They’re very simply arranged and the chord structures are pretty simple. They sound fresh and youthful and were performed in incredible earnestness. There’s no contrivance on the record; what you hear is what was going on. Sometimes as you progress in your career you get a little more professional or whatever and lose a little bit of that naiveté. That’s one of the aspects of this album that makes it so endearing.

Astbury on film, visual culture, and working with The Doors:

I’ve loved film since I was a kid and it’s just kind of something that’s evolved through the process of making videos with the band and seeing the whole process and how it’s possible. I think perhaps the way the record industry has gone, I started to find myself becoming more self reliant in the sense that I was doing things away from the band and discovering myself more, creatively. When I was younger I was so wrapped up in touring and performing and making records that I just didn’t have time to do the other things I wanted to do. Whereas, now, the whole idea of actually making films, directing and writing films, is so much more possible in my life. And I guess, with the death of the album and touring circuit, that whole spell is gone so it gives me more time to indulge in other things. I just find myself all of a sudden behind a camera. And then I’ve written some short films because, with the death of the album, I don’t know, it just kind of fell into the idea of ‘Don’t make albums, make films.’

We live in such a visual world; everything seems to be visual first. You have to end up using technologies for home entertainment and for video games. There was a point when it was radio, radio, radio and now it’s visual then sound. It’s a real testament to our culture. People want to be spoon-fed. Exploring that medium has been a natural thing. The idea of spending a year and a half making an album is kind of a bore to me. By the time you’ve made it, it comes out and it’s irrelevant, it’s been leaked, and people pick at it like a buffet. The integrity of that body of work is kind of decimated. The gestation period for that kind of work just isn’t there anymore in our culture. It’s instant gratification. My philosophy now is such a response to that—I guess I’ve just found myself evolving into it. We’re just a society for spectacle, you know? Some people have the strength to turn away from that and create their own reality.

One of the models I really looked at and loved to be involved with was The Doors. When you look at The Doors, they’re film students, well Ray (Manzarek, keys) and Jim were, so they have a very visual context in the way they put music together. It was like they were writing music for film, for films in their heads, like for ‘The End’ for example. I think that’s one of the reasons why The Doors are so endearing. Their major revival, of course, started with Apocalypse Now, which was a film. Fascinating that they’re such a futuristic band. Of all the bands of that period, I think they really stand up as being a future band. The model of The Doors really works so much in line with what they were doing and what’s happening now, with electronics and keyboards. To me a band is filmmaker, computer expert, a savant of music, and maybe an accountant. That’s a band. It’s not John, Paul, George, and Ringo anymore.