Ian Astbury has fronted The Cult, one of rock and roll’s biggest bands, for close to three decades. But he’s not your typical headbanger. The Cult’s latest album offers a myriad of cultural references while unapologetically rocking out.
Astbury is well-versed in all things art-related -whether it’s film, fashion, visual art, or music. He loves Kenneth Anger, Damien Hirst, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Andy Warhol; he has his own fashion label; he knows how to sew; he loves hiphop; he jives with the slow-food movement and the return of handmade crafting; he speaks glowingly of his time living in New York City. On The Cult's latest release Choice Of Weapon, his signature operatic-sounding voice howls happily alongside Billy Duffy’s roaring riffs. Could he be rock’s renaissance man?
“I have a signed Rauschenberg,” he says, sitting one sunny afternoon in a low-lit bar, a smile spreading across his handsome features. ”I have a few Futura pieces, and some Kostas Seremetis too. I pick up things when I can.” Astbury’s also a big fan of Damien Hirst. “I love Hirst. He understands the commerce of art, and the commerce of death in art. He really gets that.”
Death and renewal are big themes on Weapon Of Choice (Cooking Vinyl), the band's ninth album. Producers Chris Goss (UNKLE, Queens of the Stone Age) and Bob Rock (Aerosmith, Bon Jovi, Metallica), plus bandmates bassist Chris Wyse, drummer John Tempesta, and longtime collaborator and guitarist Billy Duffy have birthed a strong, deeply affecting piece of work that will please new and old fans alike. The album’s lead single is “For The Animals” and offers an edgy call and response riff, tipping a hat The Rolling Stones even as Astbury spits out lyrics about fortifying individuality in the face of adversity. It could be a metaphor for his life.
Of The Cult's immense success through the 80s and early 90s, Astbury (second from right) says, "I put my head down and didn’t look out until I was thirty-three years old."
Born in England in 1962, Astbury was an outsider because of his decidedly non-working-class tastes. “My clothes were very important,” he remembers. “Other kids were going toward Slade and blue-collar stuff; I was into (David) Bowie. I got thrown out of school for having blue food coloring in my hair and I was ten - it didn’t fit because I was a working-class kid. I was not embracing beer and football, I was like, ‘Oohhh, art! Poetry! Film!’“
Astbury’s identification with misfits was reinforced when his family moved to Hamilton, Ontario as a youngster, where he made friends with fellow outsiders. After returning to the UK and doing a stint in the army at the age of seventeen, he tried to return to Canada to be with his father, but found the doors shut. “I was told by immigration I had no status in this country,” he says sourly. “They kept me from my father. I just came out of the army and now I’m told I can’t come back to Canada. The taste was there. The dye was set.”
The Southern Death Cult, the early-80s precursor to The Cult, was formed from the ashes of that harsh, if inspiring time. “I found myself in with punk rockers in squats. I used to panhandle outside Covent Garden tube station. I’d sit there begging for money. It was literally the bottom of the food chain.”
Through those early struggles, Astbury continued to be inspired by the range of art swirling around late 70s/early 80s Britain. “I didn’t see any problem mixing Joy Division with Led Zeppelin,” he states, I mean… why not? It was Year Zero. There were the relics of a destroyed culture. We were going through the wreckage and making up our own thing.”
That “thing” defined much of the sound of hard rock through the 1980s and 90s. Between the release of 1985’s Love to 1991’s Ceremony, The Cult sold millions of albums, were filling arenas, and were rock radio mainstays with hits like “She Sells Sanctuary,” “Rain” “Love Removal Machine” and “Fire Woman,” among many, many more. 1987's Electric and its follow-up, 1989’s Sonic Temple, put them at the top of the charts and swung the doors wide open for even bigger success.
“At twenty-seven, twenty-eight, I was told, ‘All of this can be yours.’ We were on to the next level -we were playing arenas -and it was like, ‘The stadiums can be yours if you sign... here.’ I was like, “Ain’t gonna happen.” Then I went about destroying it all. I took a scorched-earth policy.”
Why? Along with a deteriorating relationship with Duffy, Astbury felt the music scene had become too image-obsessed. “MTV was God,” he says.
Worse still, the music industry was outright ignoring a hugely important segment of artists (and buyers) who weren’t being represented in mainstream culture. As such, Astbury was inspired to create A Gathering Of The Tribes in 1990, which later became Lollapalooza. “Nobody was reaching out the hiphop community,” he remembers. “The racial lines were very clearly divided. I was going, “This is all going to go down, so let’s help people up, like the helicopters in Saigon grabbing people as they were taking off. It was about getting as many people up as possible.”
"The tribes have blurred immensely," says Ian Astbury (second from right), referring to the current musical climate where genres frequently bleed over.
The Cult broke up in 1995 and reunited in 1999, before going on a two-year hiatus in 2002 and reuniting once more. Through this time, Astbury’s creative curiosity found a number of different expressions: collaborations with Boris, UNKLE, and Lupe Fiasco (among others); producing John Patrick Shanley’s play “Savage in Limbo” in New York; touring with The Doors (aka The Doors Of The Twenty-First Century); forming his own fashion label, LAMF. He’s currently producing a documentary about the abuse of native women based on Nobel Peace Prize-nominated author Andrea Smith'sConquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide as well as two short films, “We Defy” and “Ruins.”
Cinema has long been a great love of the singer’s. His visual sensibilities were formed when his father took him to see Lawrence Of Arabia as a child. “It had a profound effect on me,” he recalls.
He’s an especially big fan of the work of experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger. “It’s the metaphysical symbolism in his work,” Astbury says, “his awareness of that realm, his awareness of (Aleister) Crowley not as this “666” evil beast, but as Crowley, stepping away from a Judeo-Christian model, to something far more primal, and exploring that realm, which took a lot of courage.”
Was Anger was a prophet of our current cultural climate?
“Yes, he was, in many ways,” the singer quickly responds. “And the Kenneth Anger on (Choice Of Weapon) is really about Lucifer as the light-bringer.”
Astbury describes the genesis of the tune, offering a typically cinematic image. “”Lucifer” is supposed to be louche, like, ‘You’re workin hard for the devil...,’” he explains, his eyes growing wide, “you’re sitting there, some big Russian guy, smoking a cigarette, watching girls work, watching the human flesh machine being worked, collecting the money... like Jabba The Hut. There’s a sort of “America-eats-its-young” kind of vibration.”
That theme embraces Anger’s work, particularly his filmLucifer Rising and, more recently, the 2009 billboard Anger made for surfer Bunker Spreckels in Los Angeles connected to his movie about the surfing legend, My Surfing Lucifer.
“Like, are you kidding me?!” Astbury says with awe, “I’ll take that straight away!”
The song has the satisfying hard-rock bite of Alice In Chains’ hardest, darkest material, but adds an extra ferocity that recalls the muscular aggression of Can’s “Halleluwah.” Other songs on Choice Of Weapon are equally as epic -and rock every bit as hard. The gorgeous “Elemental Light” has strong echoes of U2’s “Vertigo” with its soaring guitars and symphonic bombast; “I run to those wild places... and I feel so alive...” sounds like a sort of prayer as Astbury revels in a hard-won redemption. The album is full of animal imagery too, what with “For The Animals” as well as the insistent hard rock drive of “The Wolf” and the snarling “Pale Rider.” The final song on Choice Of Weapon, “This Night in the City Forever,” is a whole-hearted yearning for this primacy, offering a mournful meditation on loss and renewal, beautifully encapsulating the theme of the album, and noisily capturing a Brel-like moment with electric ambiance.
Choice Of Weapon's cover art combines pagan and street cultures in one menacing image.
Astbury’s fascination with the mythical is visually reflected with the album cover, portraying a horned, warrior-like figure whose eyes are barely visible beneath a full, animal-like cloak. The image is part-graffiti-esque, part pagan, reflecting the band’s embrace of old and new cultures. “I like tribal stuff. I like the idea we’re running together,” Astbury states. “That’s the idea of more of the iconography of the record. The horns are the crescent moon; the bull is the ancient deity. The horns, the crescent moon, they reference old pagan cultures.”
The title of the album has a more recent cultural reference.
Civil rights cultural figure Gordon Parks is perhaps best-known as the director of Shaft, but he is also celebrated for his photo essays that were published in Life magazine. In his 1967 autobiography, A Choice Of Weapons, he writes, “I choose my camera as my weapon against all the things I hate about America: Racism poverty, and discrimination.” That idea affected Astbury in a profound way.
“I liked the essence of what he was talking about, about choosing the camera as his weapon,” he says.
He was equally inspired by what MC5 guitarist John Sinclair had written in his influential workGuitar Army in 1972: “Rock and Roll is a weapon of cultural revolution.”
“Then I read about tantric weapons in Buddhism,” Astbury explains. “These confirmations were coming up... and I thought, okay, ‘cultural weapons...’ I liked how it resonated.”
What’s marvelous about speaking to someone like Astbury is how curious and hungry his mind is. He’s constantly asking questions, even when he’s probing into deeper issues in the hectic, frequently-dangerous intersection between high art and dirty rock and roll. And he knows what he likes, and what he wants to explore further.
“At this stage in my life there is no ambiguity,” he says. “I’m going, ‘This is it, this is where I’m coming from; I’m coming from a very particular place with a very particular focus (and) I’m going in this direction.’”
Does he feel the weight of history of as one of music’s most identifiable rock stars? He responds in a flash. “Four- year-old girls are rock stars; accountants are rock stars; it’s an energy drink.” He smirks.
“I never considered myself to be a rock star. I’m a fan, more than anything.”