Extended Interview with Ian Astbury of The Cult

We ran an interview with Ian Asbury of the Cult about a month ago which was edited down heavily to fit the constraints of print as he and writer Andrea Seastrand talked for what must have been over an hour about, well, everything. As The Cult’s coming back around to Montclair’s Wellmont Theatre this coming Tuesday, Nov. 10, we figured we’d use that as an excuse to print the talk here in its entirety.

I recommend getting a cup of tea now before you sit down with this.

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 interview format, Astbury spoke with me about everything from the band’s tour, to The Doors, raspberry jam, and nearly all in between.

On the summer tour you’re playing The Cult’s Love album from start to finish. How has that been received?

It’s been amazing, quite surprising actually. 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.

Why do you think the album has had such a long shelf life?

I think it’s the simplicity of the songs. They’re not overblown. They’re very simply arranged and the chord structures are pretty simple. They sound pretty 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.

But there were only a few years between the Love album and Sonic Temple.

Well, we had Dreamtime in ’84 and Love in ’85, Electric in ’86, which we recorded twice. Then we recorded Sonic Temple in ’88. And touring in between all of that.

I read an interview you did on Billboard.com. It sounds like you’re still very active in The Cult, but with other projects as well such as The Doors and quite a bit of film endeavors.

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 sudden behind a camera. Like, at the moment I’m producing two films. One’s a documentary—

Is that the film with Andrea Smith?

Yeah, Conquest. I’m involved in production with that film and, also a film called Moorish Dreams which is like a cross between City of God and Slumdog Millionaire, deals with child trafficking in North Africa. It particularly centers around one little girl who’s an orphan and she’s trying to get to Spain to see one of her heroes play his last game of soccer. The backdrop really is the shadier side of the fact that children are taken off of the streets of North Africa and end up in brothels in Europe. 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. It seems like all our information is becoming more visual all the time. There was a point when it was radio radio radio and now it’s visual then sound. Exploring that visual 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.

I think a lot of artists and writers are going to go through a similar evolution. Even with novels, people would rather see the film adaptation.

It’s a real testament to our culture. People want to be spoon-fed. You know, a minute-twenty seconds of ‘Man Decapitated By Donkey’ or fucking whatever it is. Nonsense. We’re just a society for spectacle, you know? Some people have the strength to turn away from that and create their own reality. I guess the idea of film is just totally natural for me, anyway. Again, don’t make albums, make films, and then create the soundtrack to go with that film and do it fresh, while it’s happening. For example, writing songs, writing capsules (you can’t really call it an EP because EP means Elongated Play which is a vinyl reference), call it capsule collections. In fashion they talk about capsule collections whereby it’s like a little consolidated collection dropped for a limited time, then it disappears. I guess that’s more like the philosophy for the model I’m interested in, capsule collections for music and short film with two or three songs dropped, small, with more releases but shorter and more packages. Instead of releasing the whole meal, it’s released in bite-sized chunks. Like U2’s album, No Line On the Horizon for example, that came out with so many formats. Every single format was available with different artwork, different configurations and packaging, then versions with a 45-minute film by Anton Corbijn. It was just like they gave the whole meal away, there it was. It was so available. How can you ingest that? I think over a period of time No Line On the Horizon will prove to be one of the best albums they’ve ever made. But perhaps the availability of it and the need for a record like that to be ingested…you have to stop what you’re doing to be able to absorb a body of work like that. It’s a strong body of work. It seems like the public are more interested in the veneer of things, not by any fault of their own, just by the sheer virtue of the culture. But the idea of film is relevant in that they made a film with Anton Corbijn or Jon Glazer made a film for The Dead Weather.

What you’re describing is exactly the opposite from the way it used to be before, when it was album first, then video.

Sure, a byproduct of making a record. An afterthought. Exactly. 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. For example, I worked with UNKLE on the album War Stories, and James Lavelle wasn’t particularly a musician but he kind of came at that age when guitars weren’t important. I mean, guitars were important for people growing up with punk rock, but just on that cusp after that, when electro and hip hop started happening, and that was the new ‘get in’ part for music with film starting to get more technological. He grew up with Star Wars and electro and hip hop and things were starting to get so much more 21st century. Then the advent of Japanese clothing becoming part of the underground and Nike and Adidas developing more kind of niche driven sneakers, not so much about functionality but made more for a particular market. Lavelle came out of that so film was very important for him. It all went together, an integral thing: film and clothes and music. And that model is what UNKLE is really driven with. To me a band, now, isn’t a bass player, drummer, guitar player, and a singer. 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.