The Cult got together in 1983—and founding members Ian Astbury and Billy Duffy would go on to make a huge mark on the music world.
After a breakup in 1995 and a short comeback from 1999 from 2002, The Cult reformed in 2005 and have been together ever since. See the band in action at Spotlight 29 on Saturday, Nov. 21.
During a recent phone interview with guitarist Billy Duffy, I had to ask about his sometimes-troubled relationship with frontman Ian Astbury.
“I don’t necessarily think there’s anything different with us as far as the band goes,” Duffy said. “We’re just older guys now, and we have more gratitude and are maybe a little less selfish, at least for me; I can’t speak for Ian. It’s possibly a side effect of me being in my 50s. I think I get a little bit more gratitude from playing and seeing the audiences still showing up to see us. I get off on that more than I did in the early days, when I was asking, ‘Where’s the party?’ and saying, ‘Let’s get this gig out of the way and go find some fun.’ Ian has always been more of a heart-on-his-sleeve kind of guy, and he’s into his lyrics and beliefs and how he incorporates that, and he’s always been that way. I think there’s a consistency to The Cult, and I think we get off on it now that we’re more mature.”
The Cult did a lot of things differently than the band’s contemporaries. The music has always included a bit of pseudo-mysticism, with songs referencing various spiritual subjects, including the darker side. Nonetheless, “Fire Woman” and “She Sells Sanctuary” have become rock-radio staples.
“We’ve always felt like outsiders. We’re the band who can do gigs with bands like Metallica, and we’ve done gigs with Franz Ferdinand (and) Keane,” Duffy said. “I guess it depends on what aspect of The Cult you want to focus on: the indie band, psychedelic band, or goth band, or the hard-rock more kind of AC/DC side to us. It’s been very eclectic, and I think we’ve always sort of been literally an outsider band. We never really fit in with any particular pitching hole.
“You have to have hit songs. No one would be into you if you didn’t have a couple of songs that people like, but I think we very much issue a policy of nostalgia with a lowercase ‘n.’ Of course we play the old songs, and that’s what people pay their hard-earned money to see, and occasionally, we’ll rest a song if we’re not feeling it. We didn’t play ‘Fire Woman’ for a couple of years, because none of us were into it. We’re playing it again now, but we kind of rest things, and we understand people want us to play certain things, and we’ll do the best we can to accommodate them and challenge ourselves by trying to make new music. I think that’s the process, and breathing new blood into me and Ian.”
The Cult will release an already-finished new album in early 2016.
“We’re probably not ever going to write something like ‘She Sells Sanctuary’ again, and we probably don’t ever need to again, but it’s a fun process to come up with new songs,” Duffy said. “It can be a lot more perspiration than inspiration in later life. I think most musicians who have been around for a lot of decades will tell you that. I think all musicians have a golden era where you can’t do any wrong, and it all comes naturally. Then there are times you have to roll your sleeves up, get in the trenches and make it happen. … We were lucky to have had the albums where it really kind of worked, but even then, we had to struggle a bit with our third album, Electric, after already doing an album twice. You have to take the good with the bad in the writing area.”
In 1995, The Cult broke up while on tour in South America. In 1999, the band returned and made a handful of live appearances while preparing the group’s 2001 comeback album, Beyond Good and Evil. The first live performance of the comeback was at the 1999 Tibetan Freedom Concert in East Troy, Wis., at the famous Alpine Valley Music Theatre.
“We played during lunchtime in a rain storm, but it was good, though,” Duffy remembered. “We didn’t play that long, and it was actually a bit of a surreal experience. It was sort of a weird experience because it was strange weather, and a lot of the other bands were having trouble getting to the venue. I remember it being a bit funny, and there were bands there like Blondie and Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam. … I never thought we’d get back together.”
The critical response to Beyond Good and Evil was positive. However, the comeback was derailed due to a catastrophic event that caused the record company to cut back promotion on the album and curtail the tour.
“We had a bit of problem, and the problem was Sept. 11,” Duffy said. “It happened eight weeks after the album came out. That was the end of the music business part 1, and no one was on tour. To cast your mind back, that was somewhat of a global shift on a lot of levels. But I’m proud of that album. It was an extremely gothic album. … To me, it just reflected some sense of doom that was kind of coming. But I like that album; it has a really heavy sound.”
During the ensuing hiatus, Astbury sang with a reunited version of The Doors that featured Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger. A lawsuit from former drummer John Densmore made them change the name from The Doors of the 21st Century to Manzarek-Krieger. In 2005, Duffy and Astbury announced they were reactivating The Cult.
Do Duffy and Astbury have a better relationship today?
“Better? I don’t necessarily think it’s better—well, there’s a lot of water under the bridge,” Duffy said. “I think it’s a workable relationship, and it’s a lot more give-and-take nowadays, but I would say you have to kind of get along to move in the same direction with a band that has been together as long as we have in order to make it work. We get along, but we don’t hang out a lot when we’re not working. We’ve spent a lot of time in our lives growing up together. In that way, it cements a level of a bond. It’s functional.”
To this day, The Cult remains in high demand.
“I’m very honored that people still bother to show up in sufficient numbers,” Duffy said. “There are bigger bands than us and smaller bands than us. We’ve pretty much gotten to do whatever the hell we wanted to do musically. We’ve always been on indie labels, and they say, ‘We like what you do; make us a record that doesn’t suck.’ We’ve made some bad decisions like everybody has, but I think we’ve made more good decisions than we have bad decisions. Ultimately, we we’re in it for the right reasons. The Cult was formed by two guys who wanted to make good music and not follow trends. We didn’t accidently fall into a band together because there was nothing to do. We formed the band out of a respect and admiration for each other.”
At the same time, Duffy admits he was once frustrated that The Cult didn’t sell as many records as Metallica and Guns N Roses. However, he said Astbury helped him put things in perspective.
“Ian once told me, ‘Billy, don’t you confuse bitterness with greatness.’ That’s why he’s the lead singer and writes music that’s quite profound,” Duffy said. “We just do what we do because we love it. We were in the major leagues for a while, but because Ian and I have punk rock in our DNA, it’s a bit of a hindrance to totally embrace being in the big time and in arena rock. For me, it’s not hard, because I’m a guitarist, but for Ian as a frontman, he’s always struggled with being a global rock star, and the negativity that comes along with that can be a hindrance at times.”
The Cult will perform at 8 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 21, at Spotlight 29, 46200 Harrison Place, in Coachella. Tickets are $45 to $65. For tickets or more information, call 760-775-5566, or visit www.spotlight29.com.