Interview: The Cult’s Ian Astbury

Jon Wiederhorn

By Jon Wiederhorn

on 05.21.12 in Interviews

Without charismatic frontman Ian Astbury, there is no Cult. The band’s co-founder and longtime guitarist Billy Duffy understands this, which is probably why he has agreed to put the Cult on hiatus whenever Astbury has become disenchanted with the arena-rock world and needed a break. During these periods, Astbury has created a garage band, Holy Barbarians, a solo album, toured with the Doors and traveled halfway across the world on a quest for self-discovery. In some respects, the Cult’s ephemeral existence is the key to their continued longevity. Instead of burning themselves out, as they did in 1994 after 14 years of nonstop work, they’ve simply faded out when the climate was wrong, and resurfaced when times were better, and in doing so they’ve retained their freshness, primal energy and marketability.

The Cult’s new record, Choice of Weapon, is their first in five years and their loudest and most immediate since 1989′s Sonic Temple. It also contains some of the band’s most diverse material, including Stooges-style abrasion (“Honey From a Knife”), David Bowie-esque balladry (“Life > Death”), New York Dolls swagger (“For the Animals”) and guitar-blaring anthems in the vein of “Fire Woman” or “Love Removal Machine” (“The Wolf,” “A Pale Horse”). In addition, it’s the Cult’s most lyrically poignant and eclectic release, addressing political oppression, violence, female empowerment, isolation, depression, self-immolation and, ultimately, redemption. More significantly, it’s a record of survival — one that might never have happened had Astbury been unable to lift himself from a pit of despair and find a reason to keep living.

A complex and multi-faceted character, Astbury has often been categorized as a stumbling rock ‘n’ roll hedonist, and through his 20s and 30s, he lived up to his reputation, getting drunk, taking drugs, and crashing cars and motorcycles. But what many interviewers have dismissed as pomposity is his genuine compassion and artistic motivation — his burning desire to help generate change through his ideas.

As exciting as Choice of Weapon is musically, it’s a pretty dark album. On “Elemental Light” Astbury croons, “Every one of us feels alone inside/ Every one of us has forgotten our way,” and on “A Pale Horse,” he sings, “Mercy gonna cut you right where you stand.” About a month before the album’s release, eMusic spent 90 minutes on the phone with Astbury discussing his abusive childhood, the ethics of punk, the excesses and indulgences of the ’80s and ’90s, the injuries that almost led him to suicide and the spiritual path that guided him back to health.

In some respects, you have gone from a rock ‘n’ roll stereotype to becoming someone who has questioned the validity and ethics of the music business and found a greater purpose.

Think about it, mate. You’re a kid and you join a band, and certain lifestyle choices open up to you that you’ve never had before. Of course you’re going to indulge. Now meanwhile, unbeknownst to yourself, you’re being objectified from the outside by people who are not in your position with those choices available to them, and the judgments and observations that are being made are coming from somebody who does not have those experiences you have. And they don’t understand what comes with this lifestyle you’re living. Suddenly, you’re a highly visual person. In 1987, I once walked through Leicester Square in London in a full Mariachi suit because that’s what I wanted to wear that day. Some skinhead recognized me from the cover of a magazine and punched me squarely in the face. When you’re on the inside of it, this is your life.

Young musicians often feel like there’s a mythology of decadence to live up to that’s been passed down through the generations. Some of them reach or even exceed the extreme levels of behavior of their idols. Others turn into stumbling caricatures of themselves or worse, and die before they reach 30.

Absolutely — usually around 27. I think it’s inevitable. Everybody goes through that Messianic period, where you look in the mirror and become narcissistic. You’re on the cover of magazines, you’re being lauded left right and center, you’ve got bags of money, you’re being worshipped. And you go, “Yeah, it’s me. I’m that guy.” But my period of that probably lasted about seven minutes. I got slapped down so fucking hard. There was this idea that I was taking myself too seriously and I was too big for my boots. People saw me as this cocksure kind of kid, but in reality I was dealing with my father dying of lymphoma through the height of the Sonic Temple period. Between shows, I was flying back to my father, who was vomiting and sitting in his own feces. That was my reality. And before that, when I was 17, I was going through exactly the same thing with my mother. But the difference was when I was going through it with my mother we were living in squalor. I wasn’t on the front page of the music pages. I didn’t have millions of dollars. So I was very, very grounded in terms of having some sense of propriety in my life. So, the drunken antics are only part of the picture, and for some people who don’t get out very often, an exciting part. But then there’s a private part of the picture that I would never disclose because I didn’t think it was anyone’s business.

Were you spiritual at that point in your life or had you not discovered that side of yourself yet?

I’ve been a spiritual person since I was born. My grandmother was in a spiritualist church as a clairvoyant. But when I was 10 years old, my real spiritual awakening began when my father moved the family to Canada because he couldn’t find work in Britain, and I was introduced to indigenous culture, which I found fascinating. I’d get in some trouble in grade school and these two indigenous kids would stand up for me. I was bullied a lot because I was an immigrant. So my friends were all the outsiders, the indigenous kids, Jamaicans, Turks. And that gave me some grounding when I came into the music business. I had some different perspectives and a different philosophy and I went at it in a different way.

Many vocalists view their band as their calling and their identity is defined by their role in the group. You don’t fit that mold.

I never did because it wasn’t a career choice for me. I got asked to join the band. I was picked. The guys in Violation became Southern Death Cult. They looked at me and said, “We love your look. Can you sing? Do you know any Sex Pistols songs?” I said, “Sure.” They put me in a room in the basement of a house and I sang “God Save the Queen.” They went, “That sounds great. Wanna join our band?” I said, “Okay.” I was an unemployed punk. I had nowhere else to go. I had recently been homeless and I had just moved into this house in a room that was 10 pounds a week. I got 18 pounds on the dole. So, 10 pounds rent and I only had eight pounds left. I had to steal my food or else I would have starved. So I join this band and by our fifth gig we’re playing the Marquee in London opening for Chelsea. It was reviewed in Sounds; we had six songs. We’d been together for three months. It happened instantaneously. And that roller coaster went on for 12 years before I walked away off a beach in Rio de Janeiro in 1995. I sat in a hotel room in Miami for 24 hours. My mental fabric was torn. I knew that I was in rough shape. I was actually afraid for my own life and my own survival. I buried 12 of my friends during this time and I thought I might be next.

As a punk turned major-label rocker, were you rebelling against the conformity of or confectionary quality of the music industry?

I railed against it every stage of the way, starting from Southern Death Cult. There’d be points when I’d just walk away and embrace other musical genres and other friends. I started [the garage band] Holy Barbarians in 1996 and I did a solo album [which came out in 2000]. I disappeared into the acid-house scene for a while. I was around the hip-hop community a lot. I’d go to clubs that had nothing to do with rock music or postmodern music.

How did you end up singing for the Doors?

After 9/11, the industry began to collapse and the band began to age. Rock music was falling out of favor with the popular culture. An offer to sing for the Doors came along, and I jumped on that for a few years. And during that period I started wondering, “Well, what is this all about?” I’d been going through various cycles and I seemed to be repeating patterns. I wanted to get to the core of what I was about and I found out that a lot of it was hidden in the shadows of my childhood. A lot of it was hidden in broken hotel rooms through the derelict self-destruction of my 20s and 30s. So I got off the ride for a bit and went deep into the mountains of India and into Nepal and had a very cathartic realization that I didn’t have to go to a holy site in the mountains ofNepalto find out who I was. The head abbot of the monastery made me realize that I belonged back in the West and that was where I would have my spiritual awakening.

Being in New York wasn’t a particularly healthy period for you, was it?

It was a dark night of the soul. I went through a difficult relationship breakup and also a period of intense physical pain. I was in two major car wrecks when I was a kid and motorcycle wrecks later. And then through the years I’ve put a lot of wear and tear on my body. I actually destroyed my left hip. I had bone spurs. It was mushroomed. I’ve been carried off stages in tears. I had to have major hip surgery. They cut the ball part of the ball and socket in my left hip and capped the socket with a pound and a half of titanium. So here I am on the Upper East Side in Manhattan loaded up with painkillers. I’m alone in a hospital bed looking out the window at the snowflakes coming down. And I’m thinking, “I’m done. This is it.” I was about to cash in my chips. I was seriously looking at the abyss and considering jumping in.

What stopped you?

I had a very close friend who was going through some difficulties in his life at the same time, and he ended up committing suicide. So the bullet went past me, so to speak. Also, I have two incredible boys in my life, my kids. I looked at them and decided, “I’ve got to get through this and get to the core of this self-destructive gene, the self-sabotaging element that’s overtaking me.” So I let New York help rehabilitate me. I walked the streets. I lived in an apartment on my own. Yeah, I’d fly toL.A.and I’d work and tour, but I’d come back to New York and live a monastic existence. I spent most of my time at the Shambhala Buddhist Center on the West Side. I read a lot of philosophy and meditated at home in an old 19th-century building near NYU between the East and West Village. It had a huge wall, so I got a projector and started watching films by Andrei Tarkovski, Akira Kurosawa, all the things I’d wanted to see for many years. And I had incredible, life-affirming moments, like going to the Gagosian Gallery one morning when the new Richard Prince show was going up and there was nobody in there, and having an hour and a half of Richard Prince to myself. I’d go to the Guggenheim early in the morning when very few people were there and I’d walk the Bowery at 5 a.m. and visit Central Park in the snow.

It was almost a very Zen experience. In fact, I went and studied at a Zen temple in New York as well. And as I was having this contemplative period, I was training in boxing at a club in Midtown. During this time, flashes of my childhood and my life as a musician came back to me. It’s a travesty what parts of my childhood were like. I was violently abused, sexually abused, alienated. I was always the new kid at school. Now, it wasn’t like I went around complaining about these things. It was just my lot in life. So, I started to write down these ideas and visions, and the molecules started coming together and became something. I was almost replenishing and regenerating myself during this spiritual break from the psychic wear and tear I had experienced.

Is that when the ideas for Choice of Weapon came together?

That’s where it began. And interestingly enough, some of it was happening around the time of the 2008 election, so there was a great energy in the city and great anticipation. It was November 4, 2008. That’s where the song “This Night in the City Forever” came from. It was about optimism and the feeling that anything was possible. The mantra, “Yes, we can!” really had some validity. It was like, “Fuck, we can do this! I can do this! I can be the artist I’ve always wanted to be. I can direct films. I can make the clothes I want to. And I can be a valuable member of society, and give back, contribute and carry my weight.”

Does the world need another musical revolution on the scale of ’60s folk or ’70s punk to effect cultural and political change?

It’s happening, just not in the same way. I see it in the rise of the heroine in a dystopian age, whether it’s Katniss from The Hunger Games or The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo. Major corporations are being run by women. We’re definitely in an age of feminine empowerment.

Do you feel women are more nurturing or is that just buying into cultural stereotypes?

Well, most stereotypes are perpetuated by men for their own reasons and for control. That’s what happened when organized religion started. When you go back to the hunter-gatherer time, men would go out and hunt and the women stayed at home and created a society. They developed language and communication and raised the children. So they’d stay at home and tend to whatever domestic livestock they were developing. But then the men came back and they saw the women actually had it better than they did. Women had the knowledge and power. What evolved out of that was organized religions and men’s clubs, and women’s knowledge and wisdom began to be suppressed. The domains of religion and spirituality were coveted by men, hence things like the witch trials, the Middle Ages. Even now you have fundamentalists debating abortion. A man can tell a woman what she can and cannot do with her own reproductive organs, yet these women can go to Afghanistan and put their lives on the line. If you go to Somalia there are young girls being subjected to genital mutilation. What the fuck’s that about?

Maybe it’s just another reflection of the savagery of mankind.

Exactly. Mankind. Because there still aren’t enough women out there. I’m not trying to be clever; it’s just that the events in my life have led me towards certain conclusions and actions. I’m working on documentary right now called Conquest, based on a book by Andrea Smith, who was in charge of indigenous studies atMichiganStateUniversity. It’s about the experience of Native American women over the past 500 years and it talks about sexism, racism, genocide and what women in these environments have experienced and what they’re experiencing right now. Some of the facts in this book are shocking.

I gave it to a friend, who’s a filmmaker and the wife of [electronic music producer] James Lavelle, who was making a film on UNKLE, and she read it and said, “I want to make this into a documentary and I want you to help me.” Next thing I know I’m a producer on the film and I’m driving to Yankton, South Dakota, to interview the head of the women’s health institute there. I’m sitting behind the camera while she proceeds to fucking school me about what their experience is really like today with forced sterilizations, sexual abuse, the decline of the family. It’s a closed society, so the energy goes inward and they rip each other apart. Not all families are like that, but the community is really destroyed. These indigenous people hold a very valuable resource, this information that we in the West don’t have. We’ve gotten out of contact with our original balance and our original nature, but the indigenous people still practice that.

Is there still a fire and ice relationship between you and Cult guitarist Billy Duffy?

We’re very different guys and that’s part of the beauty of the chemistry of The Cult. Sometimes I go off into the mountains; he can pull me back and ground me. If I wasn’t working with Billy I don’t think there would have been a “Fire Woman” or a “Love Removal Machine.” Those kinds of songs wouldn’t have existed. They were very pragmatic, economical pop songs that he was the principal architect of. What I added to them was raw, earnest emotion and sensuality. He’s definitely been a great balance and I respect him. I love him. He’s my brother. I care for him very much.

Has he been understanding of when you’ve had to disappear for a while and put the Cult on hold?

He has shown his true colors as being a friend and really caring for me. His attitude has been, “Okay, when Ian’s ready for me, I’m here.” That’s been cool. But he definitely plays more the west side of L.A. and I play more the east side of L.A. It’s a different kind of crowd we grow from. Our friends are very different. And that reflects in the music. There’s music for the everyman and then there’s something deeper. There’s something there for everybody.