Ian Astbury is a rare breed. He is one of the last true rock stars. Astbury has spent the better part of three decades pouring his heart and soul into his craft and has amassed an impressive body of work in the process. He has managed to weather many storms, both on an ever-changing musical landscape and in the press. Along the way, he has continued to keep pace with the technological trends and blaze new musical trails, yet still maintain a mystique similar to that which surrounds many of rock’s most identifiable icons — which in a world of 24-7 media coverage is almost unfathomable. His latest musical endeavor sees him teaming once again with his bandmates in The Cult for their amazing new album, Choice of Weapon, which marks their first new album in five years. Written by founding members Astbury and Duffy, produced by Chris Goss (Queens of the Stone Age, U.N.K.L.E., Masters of Reality) and Bob Rock (Metallica, Bush and The Cult’s Platinum-certified Sonic Temple), and recorded in New York, Los Angeles, the California high desert and the band’s Witch Mountain studio with long-time members John Tempesta on drums and bassist Chris Wyse. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Ian Astbury to learn more about his roots in music, his longevity in the music business and his thoughts on what the future might hold for him.
The music you’ve been instrumental in creating over the years inspired many a talented musician. I was curious to learn more about your earliest memories of music in your life.
My earliest memories? Very vaguely are The Beatles. I grew up in Merseyside. There you have two cities, Liverpool, then you have the river Mersey, then you have a city called Birkenhead and a slight turnabout. Less than a mile separates these two cities. I grew up there in the 1960s. My aunties would babysit me and they would be playing things like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Those memories are rather vivid. I remember having “Yellow Submarine” collector cards when I was probably around 6 years old. It was very interesting. You know how here in America you have baseball cards with the stick of chewing gum in them? Well, in England and the UK, we had soccer players but we also had The Beatles. We would collect them and trade them at school at recess.
After that, very importantly, there was a radio station called Radio Luxembourg, which you have probably heard a lot of British people who grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s talk about. British radio was very commercial at the time with pop and Top 40. Radio Luxembourg was far more eclectic and played things that were way more progressive. The music was far more progressive and exotic. You would hear deeper cuts from [David] Bowie, Pink Floyd and The Doors and things that you wouldn’t really hear on terrestrial radio in the UK. We also had a TV show in the UK called “Top of the Pops” and a very influential show, a little bit later in the ‘70s, called “The Old Grey Whistle Tes.” But in those early years, I am talking about when I was 3, 4, 5 or 6 years old, I vividly remember The Beatles and The Stones.
Who would you cite as your biggest influences as a musician and performer?
Wow! Well, certainly the person that I have admired the most consistently would be David Bowie. I bought my first Bowie single when I was 10 years old. I have pretty much bought everything of his since I was 10 years old. I begged, borrowed and stole to get David Bowie! I know it sounds strange but Ian Curtis is really important to me. You know the myth and a lot of people probably associate me with [Jim] Morrison. But Morrison was something that came in a bit later for me. I didn’t become an actual Doors fan, like buying the records, reading the biographies and searching out bootlegs, until I was about 19 years old. Definitely in my early teens, it was Bowie, Ian Curtis, like I said, John Lydon, even though his vocal style was quite different. I don’t think anyone could emulate John Lydon’s vocal style! [laughs] But certainly in terms of his presence, his tension and his authenticity, it was something that really grabbed me. Iggy Pop is another one, especially “The Passenger,” “The Idiot,” “Lust For Life,” that period. Iggy Pop was very, very important. I think it was those singers, principally, along with Patty Smyth. I wouldn’t say I was influenced by her vocal style but more of as an icon and a presence.
I think that Bowie has been the most consistent along with John Lennon.
It all depends on the period of my life. You kind of go through different phases. I remember when I first heard “Unknown Pleasures” [by Joy Division], that was it! There was nothing else in the world to me! At that time, they were the most important band to me. Interestingly enough, I was too young for the Pistols in some ways, I was in my earlier teens. When I heard Public Image, Ltd.’s “Metal Box” and “The Flowers of Romance,” those records became so incredibly important to me. It was obsessive! Think vinyl, sitting there and putting on the vinyl and luxuriating over the music, the idea of sitting and listening to music as an activity without any other distractions, apart from maybe smoking a cigarette or something. There was no texting, no computers, no hyperactivity — just being purely engaged with the music.
Also, those icons were easily accessible in the sense that they were touring. I just missed Joy Division but I did get to see Bowie perform. They were accessible, you know. They were in the culture and in the media and would occasionally come on television. The UK media was pretty limited, we didn’t have a good outlet for music. However, I actually grew up in Canada from the period of 11 to 16. I spent five years there, so I had kind of a North American influenced musical life. When I came to Canada, we only lived about 50 miles from the New York State border, so a lot of what was coming through was coming from American radio and television stations. I would see things like “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert.” I remember seeing The New York Dolls and I remember being blown away by that. The quality of the radio was better as well, it was FM. In the UK, they had AM radio which was kind of tinny. All of a sudden, you had FM radio, which was in stereo and they played entire albums. There could be an artist with a brand new album and you would hear the entire album being played once the DJ got ahold of it. That was just amazing. The way in which music was put over with such reverence. Albums came out and DJs spoke about the albums with such reverence, like everything had to stop because you had to ground yourself as this record was going to be played and you would hear it for the first time on FM radio. It was an event. Nowadays, you get events that happen every five minutes. [laughs] It is a very, very different time. I think the gestation of living with music and having it be such an important presence is something which left an indelible mark on my life. I hope that answers your question.
Yes, it definitely does. To what do you attribute your longevity in this ever-changing industry?
My longevity. [laughs] Probably being a Celt! Being Celtic in origin, having a hard skull and being able to take the hits! Sometimes you get knocked down to the canvas. Maybe being inquisitive. I have always been inquisitive, ever since I was a child. I have always wanted to find out what lies beneath the layers and how things work. Maybe it is the combination of that inquisitive nature and the hard skull is what got me through several decades.
What brought The Cult together once more for your latest album, “Choice of Weapon?” Is there ever some sort of a catalyst which makes you think the timing was right for a new album?
The thing with The Cult is, I don’t think there is any rulebook on how you should be in the band or how you should be as an artist. There is no actual rulebook, although, it is interesting when you stray from the path a little bit of what music fans and critics consider being the rulebook. They perceive you as having transgressed and have broken some unwritten rules. [laughs] It’s like the actual musicians, the people making the music, don’t really exist. For me, it has always been like, “If there is nothing to say, why say it? Go where the energy is.” With The Cult, we went through the initial period of 19 to 33, that is a chunk of my life, 12 years, where it was Southern Death Cult, Death Cult, The Cult and it was intense. It was album, tour, album, tour, album, tour and it was not sustainable. I was lucky to get out with my life. I walked for a while and went off into the desert, metaphorically speaking. I made two records, the solo record and put a new band together, Holy Barbarians with [producer] Chris Goss, I went to Tibet, etcetera, etcetera. I did all of that and then after a while I kind of felt enough of the molecules were reconstituting to where The Cult animal was appearing in front of me once more. I felt that was the place where I wanted to be and the idea I wanted to be around.
We did that for another two years before we took another hiatus, which I think was due more to the collapse of the record industry than anything else. There was a cynicism that existed around the performing cycle and what it had become. You have to understand, for us we have some depth perception in terms of coming up in the late 20th century. We actually got to see some of the Great White Buffalos in terms of the performers when they were alive and vibrant in the culture and they weren’t nostalgia acts. They were real acts that we could really access. For example, I went through punk rock and I went through the post modern new wave period. We actually saw these artists perform and they were accessible and then they became nostalgic and then eradicated from the culture, pushed to the side, to the margins and then you see these half-speed, homogenized versions come along. You see this and are like, “Whoa!” because as a kid, you don’t have that depth perception and when you are older, you have a little bit more experience. I think the second time around, we saw the cynicism of the industry and watching all of the parasites get their well deserved comeuppance within the industry. The amount of vulgar activity with the record companies and the record company executives, is in some ways it is the same thing that you have seen with Wall Street, although they deal with finances. In the music industry the executives deal with people’s creative lives as the commodity. They got busted and the whole thing fell apart.
Just as that was happening and it was all crumbling, The Doors came along, Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger. I thought, “This is definitely an experience I want to have and this is definitely a ride I want to be a part of.” So, I did that for three or four years. All the while, I was working on other projects. I worked with U.N.K.L.E. and Boris, I was writing solo material, I started work on a film, and I had a clothing line, so I was very, very busy during that period, as well as performing with The Doors.
Again, you know, it is kind of like unfinished business, The Cult is like our child and there was unfinished business to tend to. I didn’t feel like we had yet lived up to our potential. It was kind of like a Rubik’s cube and we were still trying to work it out. They was always that challenge of wanting to go deeper, We reconvened in 2006 and in 2007 we made a record, “Born Into This,” which we did in 15 days. So, the songs hadn’t fully been realized. Then we decided to become our own label for a while, which was an interesting experience because so much more time went into production, there was more concern about paper stock, ink and distribution, rather than pushing the art itself. But in terms of the music, we were very happy with what we were doing. We were working with Chris Goss. It was very interesting when Goss walked into the room because he said, “Some of these things which have become bad habits for you guys have to go away and we have to reinvigorate areas that you haven’t explored in a while.” And by that he meant the darker and more textural elements we had, during the Death Cult or the “Love” period and bring some more of those things to the foreground. He had this really wonderful depth perception and a really great intuition about our music with which he came in and we made these two beautiful, capsule records with film elements. Through that, there was a demand, immediately, from our audience as they started to feel those songs, that they wanted more of this. Then the two labels started knocking on the door saying, “We want an album!” So, we acquiesced and said, “OK, fine. But we reserve the right to change our opinion at any time we want.” For this new record, the timing just felt right and the body of work was there, so we started working on the songs, hence leading us to this point.
How do you feel you evolved as an artist through the years? Are there any misconceptions about yourself you see out there?
I don’t know, it depends on who is asking the question. Name some misconceptions! I have pretty much heard everything said about me. [laughs] I have been celebrated, I have been denigrated. I feel there has been a witch hunt on The Cult for years, certainly from the UK, with the idea that we were too big for our boots or above our station in life. Who makes up these rules and regulations? I want to see their credentials. I think it is time to call people out on the carpet and say, “What are your credentials for asking these questions?” The artist is always put on the spot where they have to, maybe not defend themselves, objectify themselves in a way to try and communicate, you know? It is really interesting in the blogosphere and the commentaries, now that everyone comments on blog posts, the amount of hate, jealousy and envy that is spewed. It is unprecedented. I have never seen such an acerbic display. Then you bust people by posing the question, “What are your life experiences? What have you achieved? What have you actually done?” It is like being a sports fan watching some event and you are screaming at some guy on the sidelines. It’s like, “Okay then. Get on the field and play the game.” It is completely different when you are on the field. You only have what you have in front of you and you don’t have that 360º perception. Basically, you make the choices you make, when you make them based upon what you have going on in your life. There are so many other factors, apart from being performers, there is life that happens off of the stage and life outside of the studio and it really does effect you as an artist. I think the real thing is being able to keep your head together, staying focused on what you are doing and trying to be as authentic as possible. I think the closer you come to your truth, and that comes with age, the deeper you can go.
I think, things changed drastically in the MTV years. When MTV came, all of a sudden someone put you in front of a camera and you have to do something. It is like a Pavlovian response, you dress up in a ludicrous way because you are now a performer and are on camera! [laughs] Then in hindsight, you look back and think, “Wow!” It was a moment and now I think we have some more awareness around it. It took a while to get used to that, being objectified in that way, especially by MTV. I guess the media model was expanding and all of a sudden you had to be versatile and proficient in so many areas. Whereas now, you have to really understand the concept of visual elements, aesthetics and language. Language is changing dramatically! It is interesting how easily you can date someone by their language, the way they speak and certainly the way they dress. People go around and say things like [in a Southern California surfer like drawl], “It’s hip, it’s really hip!” You get that so often in the music industry where people are trying to use the cool phrase of the day. When we were around New York in the 1980s, everything was “cool” with a New York drawl to it. That came from hanging out with the hip-hop and urban artists. We were picking up their vernacular and brought it back to the UK. It was just the way we spoke. You would be talking with a British person and say, “Cool” and they would look at you like you were from another planet. In fact, some people were so offended they would want to challenge you — violently! [laughs] All because of the way you were speaking! You could be sitting there with somebody and say, “Yeah, that is dope” and they would say quizzically, “What’s that?” But certainly, if you are over 23, you shouldn’t be saying “Swag!” [laughs] Although it does pop up when I am goofing around with my kids.
But it is amazing how the vernacular, the context of language, is changing so dramatically and the 20th century is becoming so far behind in the rear view mirror. It is interesting seeing it that way. I think there are some archetypal elements that will always be there. A human being with whatever form they are using, whether it is computer or an instrument, the idea of a human being with a tool creating something is an archetype. Maybe when we have implants it will be different but like I said before, there is no rulebook. I think when Bowie hit his mid-50s, people were saying, “What are you going to do now?.” He said, “We don’t know. We haven’t even been here before. This is brand new. We are building this road.” Look at musicians like Keith Richards or Lou Reed, who is approaching 70. You look at their body of work and think, “Wow! They are still going!” and still doing some amazing things.
What about you? Have you given a lot of thought to what the future holds for you as an artist?
Certainly not that far down the line but I have immersed myself in the sense that film, visual elements are very, very important to me. The Cult was one of the first bands to make a digital record. We made a digital record in 1985. We recorded it on an FSL disk, when there were maybe three of them in the world, so we have been around digital technology for a long, long time. It is nothing new to us and I think we have always incorporated the technological advancements of the day. When we did the “Sonic Temple” record in 1989, the actual cover was produced on a thing called a paint box. This was way before Photoshop and it was almost the size of a huge table and was something like $3,000 an hour to rent this thing. Again, there were only two or three of them in the world. It was computerized and you could manipulate certain things and colors, move objects around and change textures. It is so archaic but it was state-of-the-art at the time. Those sort of digital graphic elements and digital recording elements of the late ‘80s were very much a part of our vernacular. I guess when it comes down to our playing, we are very much of our time. I like to think that we are of our time. Some of my favorite artists didn’t even really peak until they got into their 50s like Stanley Kubrick or Mark Rothko, the painter. The work they were doing was maybe living that life. You have life experience and you start pouring that into your work and then there is this fight against the clock. That is one thing we tend to shy away from in this culture — life is finite. There is a finite length and a final point. We tend to shy away from that in our culture and we tend to piss away what life we do have until the end where we become reflective and maybe give it a go next time around!
Thank you so much for your time today, sir. You have been more than generous and we appreciate the look inside your world.
Thank you so much! Take care!
* For all the latest news and tour dates from The Cult, visit the official site at www.thecult.us. You can connect with the band on Facebook at www.facebook.com/officialcult and follow them on Twitter at www.twitter.com/THE_CULT_.
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.