Interview with Ian Astbury from The Cult: Sharpening Their Knives

Hailing from Bradford, England, The Cult emerged as a dominant rock band in the early ‘80s. Led by vocalist Ian Astbury and guitarist Billy Duffy, the quartet has cranked out memorable songs like “She Sells Sanctuary,” “Love Removal Machine,” and “Fire Woman.” They’ve traveled the globe countless times, been through a slew of lineup changes, and became worldwide rock stars just a few years after their formation. They were on the up and up before coming to a screeching halt a short time later.

The Cult broke up in 1995 while dealing with problems behind the scenes, which included substance abuse problems. They got back together in 1999 before unfortunately going on another hiatus. In 2005, the band reunited and went on to release their eight full-length album, Born Into This, in 2007. Astbury went on the record to state that it would be their last CD.

But here we are in 2012 and The Cult is riding a wave of momentum that they don’t plan on getting off of anytime soon. They released a brand new album, Choice Of Weapon, on May 22, and it’s arguably their best work since 1991’s Ceremony. They’ve been on such a hot streak that the epic “She Sells Sanctuary” was in a Budweiser commercial that aired during the most recent Super Bowl.

I talked with the legend himself, Ian Astbury, about his thoughts on the new album, why they eventually decided to make another one, and what the future holds for the band. The conversation is below.

First off, I’ve just got to say that I really enjoy Choice Of Weapon. What have you been hearing about it as far as feedback goes?

I try to avoid it (laughs). It’s, you know, being in the game for a while, I hate getting in the head game. It’s like, opinions, and honestly, I try to stay away from it. I mean, people around me, management and Heidi [Ellen Robinson Fitzgerald, publicist], they’re getting great reviews and blah blah blah but I just gotta keep my focus on the mission, you know, the challenge of keeping my head together at the best of times. If indeed the record connects, amazing. I know we worked hard and I know we really went deeper and we really got to the bones of our…we went and pulled some skeletons out. We went pretty deep on this one.

What was it like working with producer Bob Rock again?

Well, working with Bob is always a pleasure. He’s a friend but he’s also a very strong taskmaster. He doesn’t allow for any whining in the studio. He will not tolerate any diva behavior, it’s like, you’re in there, it’s about business, it’s about getting down to brass tacks. I’ll say that Bob was very gracious in taking over from Chris Goss. Chris Goss really did kinda like the lion’s share of the work on the record. We worked through Chris for the Capsule collections, which we did in 2010 to 2011, and that’s what really helped [the band] make another album, because the material we were running through with Chris was so strong and we really just wanted to continue that relationship.

But the relationship was very, kind of like, much more in the realm of kind of gathering raw material and developing that into raw structures and there’s a point when it needed some kind of finessing, not polishing, but kinda more…needed some conclusion, needed to be completed. We were kind of like, out there for a while with Chris and we’d all pretty much exhausted the room and I thought there was only one person that could really get in here, get in deep with us very quickly, and that was Bob Rock because Bob knows us very well—this is our fourth record with him, so yeah.

Do you think this album compares with any others from The Cult?

You can probably compare it to everything if you wanted to. Maybe for comparisons for the perspective of being subjective and trying to explain it to somebody or share with it, but there’s no intention of trying to emulate any of our previous recordings. We were very adamant about going in, seeing where we were at right now, and we wanted to capture that as authentically as possible so the real focus was really on the now. It was really on the now and I think that’s one of the reasons we kind of like—we’ve been through periods, I think the period between Sonic Temple and Ceremony showed that when you kind of like, look in the rearview mirror a bit and there’s expectations out there and you start listening a little bit to those Twitterers, so to speak, that you can kind of get in the head game. You start second guessing yourself and doubting and you start making some choices based upon, maybe, external opinions or even assumptions on our part.

I think Ceremony was kinda like Sonic Temple part two or Sonic Temple the outtakes with so many good songs on it and I think that’s why when we did the ’94 record [The Cult], we basically scrapped everything, destroyed everything, and went back to kind of like, a garage record, for all intents and purposes. We’ve learned a lot over the years and I think this record is a really balanced, authentic document of where we’re at right now and it’s relevant, certainly in terms of its subject material, the tonalities, the sentiment of the record, the performances—it’s all done to the best of our abilities and it’s done, it’s in the can, and now we’re gonna go out and perform it live.

I feel like this album is much, much darker than anything you’ve ever done. Do you feel this way as well?

Oh yeah, totally dark (laughs). There’s some heavy stuff in it. I was speaking to some drive time DJ today and he’s like, “I’m scared, it’s really heavy.” He was trying to be funny, he’s on the drive time show, and I said, “What scares you about it?” I started talking to him like he was a little boy, I was like, “What scares you about it, is it scary?” I mean, how old are you? Do you live in a cave? Have you stuck your head out the window recently and picked up on the fucking rampant neurosis and anxiety in our society? I mean, are you paying attention here to what’s going on?

I mean, really, we’re in this incredible time right now, we’re in this incredible precipice. Everyone is staring at the spectacle, the car crash, we’re watching the bombs fall out the bag. The CEOs are running around, they’ve already got their bags packed to Rio de Janeiro packed with gold. They’re out of here, they’re gonna leave us here holding the bag kind of thing. These are challenging times and obviously artists have an antenna—we travel, we see, we’re emphatic, we pick things up, we report, and I’d like to say that some of the darkness on this record is from going through some of my own personal obstacles, a station in life, a period I went through—a challenging period for about two years, which is really about deterioration.

I had a really bad hip injury—I had come off a motorcycle about six times and I actually got hit by a Porsche when I was 16, which kind of started the problems I had with my hip for many years. But I was an athlete, I used to run a lot. There was definitely a period where I was drinking or whatever but for the most part, I’ve always been pretty active, doing martial arts, playing soccer when I wasn’t suffering from a hangover or whatever, and the wear and tear on the body, performing on concrete stages, jumping off stages, and once the hip was gone, I had to go and get a resurfacing operation. So I was lying in a hospital bed and watching the snow come down, it was like March snowfall, looking out and just feeling completely—like, the doctor’s telling me I’ll never run again and I was just, destroyed. I was just like, what’s the point?

I mean, I was going through a very rough, difficult time. I was going through a relationship breakup at the time as well and everything was being thrown at me. I was like, questioning, is there any relevance? Is there any point to this? Just kind of having that kinda moment of self-doubt and dark for the soul and I packed on a lot of weight because I couldn’t exercise and just generally feeling pretty shitty, kind of depressed. But then I was in New York and I always have this monastic existence. I’d walk the streets, day and night, making notes, sitting, reading, eating. I very rarely saw people. I got to L.A. where I got with the band and stuff, but it was very isolated.

You previously stated that Born Into This was likely to be your last album yet here we are with Choice Of Weapon. What made you want to record another CD?

I don’t know, it’s like saying you’re not going to have another kid. It’s like, that’s it. And I think it was really my reaction to the music industry’s demise. We decided we’re going to take the reins into our own hands. I wanted to create a format for the 21st century so I came up with the idea of the Capsules—releasing music every three months, two new songs, two new live songs recorded and a visual element on all formats and I thought it was a great way of releasing music. I thought that could be the new standard of releasing music, a new precedent set.

But then, in some ways, it was ahead of the curve, and we didn’t have the infrastructure to support it. We didn’t have a label, we were doing it ourselves, a lot of industry was going into it and it was just so much industry. You think you release a record, it’s easy. You release it and it goes out, but somebody has to do publicity, somebody has to do marketing, etc.—the fact that we’ve become a label, we were looking at each other going, “This is just a lot of hassle.” And then we’ve got people banging on the door saying they want to do an album, labels, and then we have hardcore Cult devotees going, “This is incredible, we want more, we want it now.”

So then we’re in the room with Chris Goss and Chris is going, “I’m going to keep going with you guys, did you want to keep going?” And we’re like, “Okay, cool, let’s do it.” So I capitulated, threw up the white flag and said, “Okay, I know I’m going to take a beating for this but…” And it was actually really cathartic, it’s more difficult to say yes than it was no, so I said yes. I made the difficult choice and I felt like I was going back on my laurels in some way but then once I got in the room with Goss and we started doing things like “Life > Death,” “Elemental Light,” “This Night In The City Forever,” “Wilderness Now,” we were getting into deep songs and I was like, “Whoaaaa.” We’ve never been here before and this is exciting so I was like, we’re staying with this. Let’s see where this is going to go.

Do you think Choice Of Weapon could wind up being the last Cult album?

No, I don’t…who knows. I could get hit by a bus tomorrow. I’m in L.A. right now, there could be an earthquake. I don’t know, I mean, that’s one thing. You talk about two truths: one truth is you’re going to die—fact—second truth is you don’t know what time death is—fact. So what do you do with your time right here? And being present, engaging in the present moment, you know, I’m very grateful for what I have in my life, worked really hard to get it, and it’s the first time in my life where I actually feel like I’ve got some ground under my feet. And that’s been quite a while coming and I’m very grateful for what I have, I’m very grateful for the gift to be able to perform and people are like our benefactors. Our audience who are there to support us and support our music and support our livelihood and, man, I never thought, I never dreamt when I was a kid starting out when I was 19 that I’d be here, still in the game and actually doing something that’s, you know—the knife is still pretty sharp and we’re beginning to use it and we’re kind of getting into our power and it’s really exciting.


The Cult will be at Terminal 5 in NYC on June 8 and at the Electric Factory in Philly on June 10. Their new album, Choice Of Weapon, is available now. For more information, go to