On ‘Choice of Weapon,’ The Cult create apocalyptic sound
In Chinese astrology, Ian Astbury is a tiger.
“A tiger moving through the forest,” the singer for The Cult clarifies. “That’s a hunting tiger.”
Astbury pauses before finishing the ethos by which he stakes his live performance: “I like the idea of waiting for your prey in the shadow, and then striking at the right moment.”
The right moment has come yet again for The Cult, the veteran U.K. band whose icon status is once again reaffirmed with last month’s release of “Choice of Weapon.” Braiding the disparate strains of predecessors like Led Zeppelin, Joy Division, David Bowie and The Doors with the aesthetics of Native American mystics, The Cult’s near-30-year sound continues to mature on the new release.
“Choice of Weapon” hits an elusive sweet-spot where an established band can brandish experience without rehashing old successes — and where the physical and artistic results of age become a sharpening stone upon which their music is honed. Against the familiar chorus-drenched riffing of founding guitarist Billy Duffy and the hammering rhythm of drummer John Tempesta and bassist Chris Wyse, Astbury’s unmistakable voice — a liquid vibrato thrown against weather-beaten leather — has rarely sounded better.
Astbury spoke with the Metro during soundcheck about the new album, the lessons he brought into it from his time with The Doors, multidimensional art and the importance of not overdecorating a room.
Metro: Congratulations on the new album and tour. How’s everything been going?
Astbury: Good. We’re sitting in a bus in Pittsburgh right now since about 9 am. We do quite a few drives. We did a 17 hour ride from Denver to Chicago, so you know, life on the road.
A lot of critics are calling this album a “return to form.” What happened in the studio that helped you guys hit the mark so well? Was it a more experimental process or a traditional recording scenario?
There has never been a traditional way for The Cult to work. I’d say we take things we learn and we apply them to the situation. One of the most important things about this record is that we spent a lot of time on the pre-production; setting up microphones, building foundations, and we did that with Chris Goss. It was really important to work with Chris. And also, previous to the album, we released four songs as capsules, effectively the EPs of the 21st century. That was an important aspect because it gave us more time to consider directions to take songs in and the development of the album. Whereas, with the previous record, we recorded it in 15 days, which is pretty much all the songs on the record. So, there was no real time to develop the songs. We had three writing sessions for that. Do you have any idea how much time it takes to make a record? We’re talking like 17-hour days. 15 days of that kind of work — it’s hard work. It’s not like tampering on a computer with ProTools. Just being in a room with a band and writing and recording them is a lot on the plate. It’s pretty difficult to do that, it’s virtually impossible. To take that much time you usually take at least three months. Just doing mic placement on drum kits takes hours. And getting the right sound with organic instruments, sometimes something sounds a bit salty — maybe the drumkit has a screw loose, so you have to find it, fix it, tune it, replace it. It’s a laborious process. So, it’s kind of unheard of that we did it that way. This time we wanted to really make sure that was taken care of ahead of time.
And that was Chris’s role? I understand Bob Rock was involved with the production as well.
Right, Bob came in towards the end and finessed it — he’s a finesse guy. In many ways, Chris Goss was the architect. In his designs, he really built the building and environment, and we really exhausted Chris in many ways. We got every single ounce of wisdom out of him, which is evident. One thing that I’m finding is that people who are reviewing the album have only listened to the first two songs, and rather cheekily thinking that they’ve heard everything the album has to offer. I saw it in a review of the album in Uncut magazine, the writer inferring that we’re just a pastiche, that we’re a pastiche of Jim Morrison in a car crash with Led Zeppelin.
That’s not a bad crash, to be honest.
To me, that sounds like a great car crash — so what’s the problem with that! Pretty much a lot of contemporary music is ‘I have an ironic subtext,’ which I guess is an attraction and a detraction. But for The Cult, we’re deeply rooted in punk rock. I wouldn’t even really say hard rock, I never really thought of us as hard rock. I mean, I appreciate hard rock, but I don’t, for instance, consider Led Zeppelin to be a hard rock band. When you actually listen to their records, they’re quite empty. The sound might be aggressive, but you actually might hear more aggression on a Jack White record if you put them right up against each other. A lot of times if you listen to Jimmy Page’s stuff he’s actually just playing through a small combo amp, maybe a single stack. He never played through a wall of Marshalls. It creates a very specific tonality. It’s more about tonality and finesse with them. But of course, there’s so much lazy journalism where they don’t know their subject, and they move right across something and pretend to have a grasp on a genre’s nuances. There are a lot of amazing guitarist of that era who contributed to hard rock, the formulation of hard rock, who are also just playing through a basic combo amp – one cabinet, one head. It wasn’t like multiple walls. That didn’t come along until later.
Right. It was more about a visual/theatrical muscles. Half the time those were painted cardboard boxes anyway.
Yeah, precisely. So, I think it’s more of an ’80s thing. Hard rock.
I think it comes out in the way that the guitars and vocals are produced. I noticed on the new album, your voice is sounding very rich and matured. There’s a throatier character to it and a lot more low-end, and that newer sound seems to have inflected the songwriting.
Thank you, I would hope so! When you’re a kid and you go out there, you’re incredibly earnest. Your adrenals are screaming. And when you’re in front of an audience, when you get out there for the first time, it can be so incredibly overwhelming and exciting and you respond to that. But over a period of time, you begin to understand the finesse, the control, how to really ground yourself as a performer. And after that, you can really get so much more out of different energies, which is a really important thing that we have evolved. We have evolved, as musicians and performers. It’s almost surprising to hear some journalists, who hear the album and say “Oh! Oh… how did they do that?” And what we did is we paid attention, and we applied what we’ve learned, and we grow. The album’s been out for weeks, my God, and there have already been volumes of reviews. It really is interesting. You do something special and all of a sudden it fires up the media. I got married two weeks ago: It was in People Magazine! It was interesting to suddenly be back all over the news cycle. Because you’ve done something that the critics are giving a bit of acclaim to. That’s the communication world that we live in. Being an organic band, in that sense, time, energy and effort going into recording, spending time in the studio, finessing … real care goes into it. For a lot of other bands that spend their time in a ProTools environment, they aren’t spending as much time with banalities, mic-ing up equipment, placement. We recorded at Ocean Wave Studios, which has been around since the ’40s I think. Sinatra recorded there.You can imagine Frank Sinatra with a 64-piece orchestra in there. Phil Spector recorded in there. That whole period has almost got that sepia-toned quality that the 18th and 19th centuries have. Now even the 20th century is starting to feel sepia-toned.
It’s in the process of being sonically filed away.
Right, well said. So in many ways, we’re like an anomaly. We still have that essence. We were lucky enough to be on the tail end of the great super-predators. We kind of got around before the land was turned into mega churches and strip malls, we got to experience the wide open spaces, and see some of those performers in their prime. It really had a major effect on plugging into an original source, which allows us to create in the way we have.
Space is an integral part of this album. There’s a definite vacillation between dense, urban, rocky, punky moments like on “For The Animals” and moments like “A Pale Horse” and “Wilderness Now,” where you’re actively pushing against crowding — there’s a tight control of the tempo and concision. In fact, the whole album seems to be sliced up in dichotomies — life and death, light and dark, urban and wild. The open sound of the record really works for both exploration and keeping a familiar sound.
Thank you. It’s actually tough to do because you have to be so present all the time. It’s so easy for the tempo to get away from you and to layer and layer tracks, and add things. You can get lost in that if you’re not conscious of it. It’s like overdecorating a room.
I read that when you played with The Doors, one aspect of your performance you really had to work on was staying still on stage, reducing your movement. High energy performers have had that critique before — Jimi Hendrix famously addressed it with Machine Gun. It can be powerful when those performers resorb that energy. Is what you learned with The Doors coming into play now?
Absolutely. I’m spending more time really grounded. It’s not so much the idea of having to be a high energy band and run around and jump off PAs. These are things you do when you’re a kid. It’s just not sustainable. It’s just one station of life. As you mature, you become more grounded. In the Chinese astrology, I’m a tiger. A tiger moving through the forest. That’s a hunting tiger. I like the idea of waiting for your prey in the shadow, and then striking at the right moment. Not the idea of running around crazy, wearing three hats and riding a unicycle. You’re just self-imploding every moment as a performer. It’s almost like histrionics. Some front guys actually play the guitar, so they have to stay still pretty much. But when you’re a lead singer with no appendage or encumbrance, you just have the microphone, then it’s very easy to get caught up in running around. There were times when I was younger and people would say that I didn’t sing all of my songs live, and we’d listen to recordings and there’d be missing lines, and I’d recall, “Oh, that’s where I was jumping into the audience, that’s where I was throwing the microphone stand.” I’m more interested now to be that kind of animal that’s more grounded and focused. That’s maturity, I guess. And maturity isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We tend to venerate youth or the idea of youth as the eternal place of wisdom. Youth has very little wisdom. It’s a very difficult choice to say, “This is who we are, this is where we’re at, this is what we’re doing.” It’s much easier to listen to popular opinion of what you should be and then to try to replicate that. If I spent more time concerned about the way I looked than the music I was making, our music would be quite different. That time and energy goes into the creative process. And the physicality of the performance is different. I had a bad hip injury, and I’ve really had to fight to get my physicality back as a performer. The muscles we develop are our creative muscles. I’m also growing up. I had a pretty spotty education, I went to 12 schools. I missed a lot of basics. There’s so much I heard on the British media about language and grammar and it’s correct usage, and I missed out so much in school. I was changing my mother’s bedsheets when I was 15 and she was dying of cancer. So, I was largely self-taught. I didn’t have the nice middle-class background that Jim Morrison had. He came from quite an affluent upbringing and was well-educated. So, The Cult has had to fight so many misconceptions about our music and the band, from the beginning, that we’re kind of railing against people or projecting some sort of pastiche, and that’s because early on we took on big things, we weren’t afraid to come out and say, you know, in the post-modern music being created in the mid-’80s, “You know what, I love Joy Division and I love Public Image, but I also love The Doors and I Love Led Zeppelin.” It was almost like “OH! SHOCK!” In the U.K., you could NOT mention Led Zeppelin, it had moved so far away. But now, it’s back at the point that when Jack White and The Edge sit down with a guitarist, they sit down with Jimmy Page. Why is that? Why is it Jimmy Page? Why is it not Peter Buck or someone like that? It’s because he’s undeniable. The actual savantism of Jimmy Page as a guitar player. Prolific, profound, incredibly gifted. My God. The world could do with a young player like that right now.
Do you feel like there’s space for that now? You spoke about the age of the megafauna being behind us.
I don’t know, because it’s the types of hours you put in, in the bedroom. Especially since there are so many distractions — video games, for example. It’s really interesting with the demise of the music industry that nobody really talks about the effects that video games have had on it.
How do you mean?
Well, we talk about file sharing, but we don’t talk about video games. Video games cost what, $60 apiece? And they create a multi-billion dollar industry. It’s absorbed a number of musicians who want to be involved in that. It’s probably even more important these days for a musician to associated with a successful game than it is to be associated with a major motion picture. The New York Times reviews video games on the front page of its art section. It’s a sign of the times. I’m not opposed to video games, though. I would, of course, advocate not falling into the wormhole. There was a video game I fell into the wormhole with called “Metal Gear Solid” which was developed by a Japanese guy called Hideo Kojima. I was so obsessed with Kojima, I was so fascinated with him because it’s such a brilliantly created universe — these characters and story — absolutely brilliant. I was in Tokyo, and I knew somebody who worked with him and I got an introduction. I went to his compound which was in a black tower block — almost like a CIA location.
That sounds totally fitting.
As I was arriving at the building, a Black Hawk helicopter was taking off from the roof, and I was like, “Whoaaaaa!”
It was probably Snake! He was dropping in for a visit.
Right! So, I’m very selective about video games.
That was a great game — the most recent one, Guns of the Patriots. I thought it was such an amazing move to build in physical limitations to match his aging body.
Yeah, they even take into consideration that he smokes and there’s a tradeoff with that. It’s brilliant. At that level, it’s like being able to not only read a novel but interact with the environment. That’s another thing, with the near vision of the future in the 20th century, we drew everything in such a linear fashion. But now, we actually have a multifaceted, multidimensional way of receiving information. It has to affect the way you create are as well. I was asked recently “What advice would you give a young musician?” and I said “Learn how to use a camera.” Learn how to document what you do visually, because the visual element is becoming as important as the sonic element. We’re all enticed by something that interests us visually, especially since we’re all in front of our computers. I think it’s important, having an awareness of technology and an understanding of old world confinement — learning an instrument or a craft or a skill — and knowing how to apply them together in a modern idiom or modality. We’ve had to learn to adapt and overcome the environment. There’s also the cultural age consideration — the age prejudice. After you hit 27 or 28, there’s prejudice.
Is that what you were talking about in “For The Animals”?
No, that was more just about everybody. We’ve all been abandoned. We’ve all been abandoned by these institutions that are supposed to take care of our spiritual welfare, our social welfare. There’s very little consideration. It’s every man for himself. The help we get is marginal. Here we are. I’m referring more to disparate elements, the erudite, self-imposed Illuminati of taste, the arbiter of taste, cultural, savants. I’m singing that what we’re doing is not for them, it’s not for the “Cliffs Notes” generation of intellectual bullies. It’s for people who live real lives. Not in the spotlight. Don’t want to put themselves in the spotlight, but remaining on the outside. Those ivory towers are self-serving and they shoot their arrows and they try to take down … they’d love nothing more than to take down a band like The Cult. They think they can wound us, but who we are and where we’re coming from … we’re coming out of the forest, and we have some information for you. We were young once as well. But with the elders of state, if they release a record, I will sit down, and I will consider that record. If Neil Young releases. Bob Dylan. The masters. I will sit down and I will consider that record. They’re very important musical avatars, and you should listen to them. I don’t really get off on Aesop Rock or Odd Future when I hear their music, I don’t really get the cultural reference points. Those kids used to hang out in L.A.; they used to get me coffee. They called me Sir. The whole thing is flipping over. We’re not really self-promoters, we never went out and said, “We’re the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world!”
A lot of people have.
Right, a lot of people. We try to be more reverent than that. But you still see people on the cover of Rolling Stone wearing a T-shirt that says “Corporate music sucks”.
I wanted to ask you briefly about Boris and your relationship with Southern Lord. It seems like there’s a poetic attraction between the dense, menacing, unknowable musical work on their albums paired with some lush, open, natural sounding soundscapes. Is that the sort of thing that drew you to Boris. Your youth wasn’t Southern Lord, but now that it’s present, it’s obviously enticing to you.
Greg and Stephen from Sunn O))) are at the very center of the forest I’m talking about. If anyone is holding the perimeter, they are. They really have a connection to an emotive space and sentiment that is almost the essence of the times we live in. What’s in the air, the soil. What’s in the neurosis of people’s fractured, fractured spiritual lives. Of the decimation of the environment. Of our disconnection from our own true natures. If we could take that sound, it would be Sunn O))). When they perform, they create such an incredible space, it’s so profound. When I first came across their music, I was hit by the aesthetic — I saw the record sleeves, and the cloaks, and the band’s name, and I was like “What the f— is this!” And when I put “Black One” on, I was like… “ohhhhh…” I couldn’t believe it. I would drive around in my car and listen to it and just bathe myself in it. It really really got inside me. I didn’t even know that Boris was on Southern Lord when I found out about them. I saw them at the Knitting Factory in New York on the Pink tour and I just thought “Are you f—ing kidding me?” I was absolutely blown away by them, as a fan. Now I’m obsessed. Now I’ve gotten to know them as friends, and I’ve gotten to see their creative process. They’re in the kitchen, almost like alchemists, and they want to dissect and understand and apply it to what they do.
I like that they publish their experiments, rather than hide them.
It’s a very open process with them. They’re incredibly prolific. They really care about what they do. They’re not farting around. The messianic complex hasn’t gotten to them. They go to work, they don’t have any time for that nonsense. They also have strictures — no opulence, small studios.
We had actually played together in Australia, at a noise music festival organized by Lou Reed. And Atsuo’s looking at me and says “You’ve sang with The Doors?” and I said yes. And he said “You sing ‘The End?’” And I say no. And he just says “You sing it with us.” And I thought, uhhhhhhh. He looked at me in a way that just said “You are going to sing this.” Dead serious. Not as a challenge, but just… You’re doing this. I thought, OK. Another time we played it was in Brooklyn at the Masonic Temple, and some f—ing hipster shouts, “Oh no he didn’t!” And my immediate reaction was to go to a place where I thought “My God, you have been so brainwashed. You’ve been so incredibly brainwashed. The narrowness of your ability to receive…” I don’t consider myself to be anything special, but I know that Boris is special. And if they chose me to do this with them, then there must be something in me worthy of being in that place. Same with Ray and Robbie. People have been throwing rocks at me for so long. Take it up with Ray Manzarek, take it up with Boris, take it up with Southern Lord. These people don’t just invite you into their homes if they don’t have some kind of respect for you. I never intended to go out and create pastiche. I wanted to go straight to the core of everything, a place of real power, and access that. That’s when you get the ridicule, though. It makes people afraid and causes fear, and so they have to say something to diffuse it. I’ve been in pretty bad shape recently, I had hip surgery. Psychologically, I wasn’t at my best. But, I got to be in a photograph with Boris and Sunn O))) and they allowed me to be in a photograph wearing a robe. That, to me, was it. What an accolade. That means more to me than getting some f—ing award for flatulence and shows with $20,000 tables, where we can all go and self-congratulate.
I have very mixed feelings about it all. I have a lot of respect for people who have been inducted and I understand their willingness to be complicit, and be good sports. But, I think these artists deserve better. My new feeling is to walk on stage and say “Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve now become prostitutes of the entertainment industry.” Who decided to give music away for free? With all respect to a lot of the major artists who have given their music away for free, how dare you? How dare you? Take responsibility. You’re not even considering new generations coming up. You’ve devalued them. Your actions are costing them a livelihood. It’s so self-absorbed. Artists should be rewarded . They don’t necessarily need to have a diamond jewelry collection on display at all times, it’s pretty gauche, but far lesser individuals have been rewarded at a far higher level. That’s why I love people like Boris, because they’re so incredibly humble. When we played All Tomorrow’s Parties a few years ago, Atsuo had to sleep in the van because the accommodations were so abhorrent. And that’s Boris — I was shocked at how shabbily they were treated. So, I’m grateful for what we have and I’m grateful that I get to keep making music and keep enjoying music.
Has the way you listen to music changed at all?
Well I can’t listen to compressed music very much at all anymore, I can’t even really enjoy CDs. I get everything I possibly can on vinyl. It just sounds so much better. It’s organic and it’s necessary to create a real aural experience — the only way you can top it is experiencing music live. I spin stuff at home. Even stuff like “Watch The Throne.” I tracked it down on vinyl even if that wasn’t how Kanye West had intended it.
It’s great that smaller labels are curating their artists with nice release packaging and vinyl.
It is, it is, but they do it at the expense of the band, largely. Bands on smaller labels receive basically no advance whatsoever to record an album. So they’ll have pristine packaging, limited edition stuff, and they’ll get buy having a reputation for having great product — product being the operative word. But the more money that’s spent on that, the less is available for the band. You know, in Canada and Australia, they give grants to bands very often, to aid the creative process. If you look on the packaging of Broken Social Scene album, it’ll say something like “Paid for with the help of the Canadian Government” or something like that. And that’s fantastic.
You’re touring with Against Me! and there’s been a lot of press around
Tom Gabel and his sexual reassignment and debut as Laura Jean Grace. Do
you have any perspective on it?
I completely support Laura’s choice to be any way she wishes to be. What
I’m really surprised about is the amount of attention it’s gotten, with
raised eyebrows. I mean, my God, it’s 2012. Are we really that uptight?
People are so easily scandalized. She’s such a beautiful person, and
unbelievable musician. She has a beautiful family, and the band is so
gifted and has amazing connection. He’s very special.
She’s very special. I absolutely respect her wishes. It’s beautiful. The
tour in some ways has been a well-kept secret. The people who are being
rewarded are the ones coming to the shows. The people who saw her
perform that first night saw something truly exceptional.
Has it been good to be back in a touring paradigm as opposed to doing more festivals?
We do whatever we can when we can. Whatever it takes it survive. With The Cult, you could have one day playing at a hard rock festival in Europe where Avenged Sevenfold and Iggy Pop are on the same stage. The next day we’re playing on a bill with Animal Collective and Dead Weather. That’s the nature of The Cult. It becomes very difficult to pin things on us. We’re fans of music and we do things that fascinate us.