Ian Astbury of The Cult

by Dan MacIntosh

Ian Astbury has plenty of sensational stories - near-riots, brushes with local authorities, manic drug abuse, Madonna saying she was jealous of his hair - but we're here to talk about the music, what Ian calls "a weapon of the cultural revolution."

Living in Bradford, England, Astbury formed Southern Death Cult in 1981, which two years later became Death Cult with the addition of guitarist Billy Duffy. By 1984, they were simply the Cult, with Astbury and Duffy teaming up to write their songs.

Their 1987 album Electric was produced by Rick Rubin, who had recently worked on Run-DMC's Raising Hell and Beastie Boys' Licensed to Ill. Rubin tightened their sound and pushed Duffy's guitar out in front on songs like "Love Removal Machine" and "Lil' Devil." Their next album was Sonic Temple (1989), which contained "Fire Woman," "Sweet Soul Sister" and "Edie (Ciao Baby)." The Cult didn't survive the Grunge era, and in 1995 they abruptly split after a show in Rio, canceling the remainder of their tour.

As a kid, Ian lived in Canada and developed an interest in Native American culture, which was a huge influence on his songwriting and his spirituality. Like Jim Morrison, he realized the transformative power of music and became a wildly charismatic frontman. When original Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek and guitarist Robby Krieger formed The Doors of the 21st Century, Astbury was their choice to replace Morrison, which he did from 2002-2007.

Fortunately, Ian's stark raving passion doesn't power down when he sits for an interview. When he speaks about writing and performing those Cult classics, he does it with the fervor you see on stage.

Recalling his time with Manzarek and Krieger, he speaks of The Doors as part of a lineage of great composers from Beethoven to Lennon/McCartney. So we'll skip the story about jumping off stage to attack a baseball team in Canada, and let Ian talk about his songs, as he takes us through the musical evolution of the band into their 2012 album Choice of Weapon.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): I wanted to start by talking about the new album. The new single is called "For the Animals." I was hoping you could tell me a little bit about what inspired that song.

Ian Astbury: Okay. Let's see. It's really referring to the outsider. I think when you're a kid, you go to school, you find your peer group, you find your social group very quickly. And it becomes evident what kind of path is going to be laid out for you. I went to like 12 schools when I was a kid growing up, so I always found myself on the outside of the group. The typical definition is like the jocks versus the nerds - that's the classical boundary. But it's a little bit more complex than that.

I immigrated to Canada when I was a kid, so I had quite an experience in school being an immigrant. They weren't really concerned about the color of my skin, my ethnicity, it was more about the fact that I was an immigrant. I was just thrown in with everybody else. I had one friend from Turkey, Ankara. I had another friend form Kingston, Jamaica - Leroy. There were native kids I used to hang out with, Iroquois kids, these two brothers. We used to hang out together, and that was my peer group. So it's about being the eternal outsider. I know where that place is.

Songfacts: Being that you're a rock star, does that change you or do you still feel like inside you're still a bit of an outsider?

Ian: Well, I've never really considered myself a rock star, whatever that means. I really don't even know what it means. I think it's kind of a commercial tag... I mean, by modern standards, everybody's a rock star. I'm seeing advertisements, you're on a flight and there's a copy of The Economist there and you open it up, and there's an accountant who's a rock star. Six-year-old girls are rock stars. They do well at their ballet class, she's like a little rock star. It's a worn out term. It's pretty awful, actually. I actually find it pretty abominable. Pretty awful term.

Songfacts: Let's talk more about music. I did college radio in the '80s and so I remember Southern Death Cult. And I wanted to just hear it from your lips, when you started working with Rick Rubin on the Electric album and then especially on Sonic Temple, you sort of changed your style. I recently read it described as "heavy metal revivalist," whatever that is.

Ian: Where did you read that?

Songfacts: Wikipedia called you that.

Ian: Yeah. There's something about Wikipedia pages, anybody can get in there with whatever horseshit they want.

Songfacts: That's why I want to hear it from you.

Ian: I'd love to know the person who said that and I'd love to know what their credentials were. Now what's their experience of anything? I'd even like to know if they could make a fuckin' sandwich. You know what I mean?

Songfacts: Yeah.

Ian: For God sakes, come on. We assume because something's written on Wikipedia they're an expert. Nonsense. I've known so many people that have gone like, You kidding? Heavy metal - just nonsense. I don't even know what that means.

Songfacts: Here's the question I want to get to, though. Whatever you want to call it, your style did evolve right around that point. Was that what you brought to Rick Rubin and said, "Here's what we want to sound like," or did he collaborate with you? How much impact did he have on the change of your sound around that time?

Ian: Rick was very much about stripping it back to raw basics. He knew that we were young guys who were pretty fired up, full of adrenaline, and we were pretty raw. We'd been on the road for quite a while. In Southern Death Cult I was 19, 20 years old, so I started early in that way. By the time I got to Rick, we'd only been doing it for a few years. It was in '86, so I was 23. And at 23 I was a veteran: been on the road, we'd already made 3 or 4 albums, more than most bands - most bands don't even have careers that long.

We were working, we were pretty frenetic - I was torn and frayed. Rick really loved that energy we had, and he said, "That's what you should be doing. Just be what you are." He knew that we wanted to get away from the kind of postmodern, English scene, which had become this level of elitism - a postmodern crowd that looks down upon blue collar music. Rock and hard rock were considered to be a low form.

Songfacts: I fell into that camp probably when I was in college.

Ian: But then I found that the hard rock music and rock music was so much more honest in the sense that it was more about an experience from the waist down. Energetically it wasn't just a domesticated house pet. I really felt that the kind of postmodern crowd had become like these domesticated librarians.

Songfacts: I like that term.

Ian: It's music from the neck up. You can pontificate and sit in your little erudite cloak, but reality was getting out there and playing some rock and roll in front of frenzied audiences without having to define what it was. That's one thing about the postmodern: constantly defining what they were and what they weren't. Pontificating about "look at it now, good job." So we railed against that. I was like, why can't you like Led Zeppelin? I mean, even The Doors were kind of frowned upon in some way. Why can't you like this kind of music? And semi-hard rock music, like AC/DC, for example. People consider AC/DC a Neanderthal group and AC/DC's still going, they're incredible.

Songfacts: They're amazing.

Ian: That's the funny thing: all those kind of postmodern elitists, now they'd probably rush to a Led Zeppelin concert. Or an AC/DC concert, because they want to see their animal.

Songfacts: Do you and Billy write all the songs?

Ian: Yes.

Songfacts: How do you write? Do you bring your individual parts together or do you sit down in a room and hammer out songs?

Ian: Well, it changes. Sometimes I bring in songs myself. But the way I really like to work is to go to Billy and see what he's got. I'll say to him, "What have you got?" and he'll pull together whatever he has. It's usually not the complete idea - there's a bridge and a chorus in there, it can be a riff orientated piece or it could be chordal, a chord structure. So I take whatever he's got and I start to rearrange these pieces. It's whatever I pick up in my ear very quickly. I like to see what I connect with immediately, and take the things that I find I resonate with the most and then craft them a bit, then we start to compile them. I like working with break beats. It's a lot easier to work with sampling and break beats.

Songfacts: Really?

Ian: Yeah. I'm talking about the very initial, initial, initial stages. This is just when you basically go, "What have you got?" I mean, literally, as soon as that sentence comes out of my mouth, he'll give me something - I'm talking within minutes - put a break beat to it, put a tempo to it, give it something. You don't want to lose that moment, the freshness. I want to get it down as quickly as possible. That's one of the wonderful things about technology is you can do that now.

Songfacts: I don't want to get too mystical here, but do you feel like fate brought you and Billy together? You two have just been able to create so much magical music together for so many years.

Ian: Chemistry, I guess. I don't think you could have written it. It's how things evolve, the molecules evolve. I think one thing that Billy gives me is he grounds me - he's a very pragmatic person.

Songfacts: Oh, is he?

Ian: He's very pragmatic, and as a writer he's very economical, and he's very humble. I never see him go out and boast about what he's written. He's not a braggart about his musical accomplishments. I think in some ways it's healthy, it's okay to go out and blow your trumpet every now and again. You know, "I am the greatest!" Some bands go around like they're the most important band that ever came out. Some of the young bands do that.

Songfacts: "Prove it," though, right?

Ian: "Go for it." Yeah. Absolutely. Go at it. Have at it. Should be a bit like that when you're a kid.

Songfacts: Since this is Songfacts, I'd like to talk about a few of your songs. Maybe you could give me an overview of what comes to mind as far as the creation of these songs. The song that has been going through my head since I've been preparing for this interview is "Love Removal Machine."

Ian: Yes, sir.

Songfacts: It has an addictive quality in my mind. Tell me about creating that song.

Ian: Well, that was done in the studio, Electric Ladyland, 1996, Rick Rubin, George Drakoulias, Andy Wallace. We had Back in Black playing in the studio, as Rick was listening to it every day. He was obsessed with it, no doubt. AC/DC definitely had an influence on that record. But "Love Removal Machine" was that AC/DC influence where you're getting down to things in their very elemental form, instead of waxing lyrical and getting prosaic.

Songfacts: Is it fun to sing?

Ian: Oh, yeah. It's like getting on your favorite motorcycle. That's really what it's like.

Songfacts: That's a great analogy.

Ian: I could sing about anything. That's just what came to me. Just the phrase came to mind. That's what it felt like, a love removal machine. It could have been a motorcycle. That's like "Lawless," it has that element to it. There's no rules to that song. But fuck it.

Songfacts: So it's all about the feel?

Ian: Yeah. It's all about the feel. It could have been called anything.

Songfacts: You write a lot about women. And that's probably what 99% of rock and roll is about.

Ian: It's all about that. Doesn't matter who you are, it's all about that. It's what it all comes down to, right?

Songfacts: But you write about specific women. Do you ever have issues where maybe you write about somebody and they say, "Oh, are you talking about me?"

Ian: No, usually people are very flattered.

Songfacts: Who is the Fire Woman?

Ian: That's more of a universal symbol. More of an archetype. It's about elemental primary symbols. That's definitely a universal symbol.

After Jim Morrison died in 1971, the three remaining members of The Doors - keyboardist Ray Manzarek, guitarist Robbie Krieger, and drummer John Densmore - released two more Doors albums as a trio before spitting up in 1973.

In 2000, VH1 staged a Storytellers special where Manzarek, Krieger and Densmore were joined by various guest vocalists (including Astbury, Scott Weiland and Perry Farrell) to perform some of their classic Doors songs.

In 2002, Manzarek and Krieger started performing as The Doors of the 21st Century with Astbury and Police drummer Stewart Copeland. They hit resistance from Densmore, who along with Morrison's estate sued to prevent them from using the "Doors" name. The Doors signed an agreement when Morrison was still alive granting veto power to any member when it came to business affairs, and the courts found in favor of Densmore, who said he was simply trying to preserve the legacy of the group.

Manzarek and Krieger continued as Riders On The Storm, with Astbury as lead singer until 2007, when Brett Scallions from the band Fuel took over, leaving Ian more time to work with The Cult.
Songfacts: I've never seen The Cult perform, although I saw you when you were with The Doors. And I don't know if you remember this show, but it was I think the 100th anniversary of Harley Davidson. And you guys were on a bill with Los Lobos and Earl Scruggs. (This was the Harley-Davidson Open Road Tour, September 6, 2002 at the California Speedway in Fontana.)

Ian: That was the very first show. You know what was interesting about that show? Danny Sugerman (Doors manager) called me and the VH1 thing had happened. I think they really loved the experience - I know Ray and Robby loved the experience. There was a bit of friction with John, but I know Ray and Robby, once they tasted that again, they were like, "We want to do this." So then, after that experience, I was invited to Danny's house and sat down with Ray and Robby, and we discussed doing a show together. And it's like 100 years of Harley Davidson, it's not something you'd really associate The Doors with. But then again, you could associate The Doors with that, because they do really belong in the American outlaw canon in the same way Hunter S. Thompson does, in association with the lawless. I mean, the motorcycle outlaw is definitely an American icon, and in many ways the cultural outsider. So there's some sense made in that way. But it wasn't like it was a run at some erudite theatre in New York. It was going to be like 20,000 bikers in a field. And in the desert. Ray was like, "Well, if not now, then when?" If we're not going to go for this opportunity now, then when are we going to do it? Going to wait another 30 years? They said to me, "So you'd be into doing it?" I was like, absolutely. I was very nervous because I knew what I was letting myself into in terms of heat and the mudslinging.

Songfacts: You were perfect, though. I mean, if I were a casting director, I would have picked you to play Morrison. Except for maybe the British accent.

Ian: Well, Morrison is of Celtic origin, so just tell them we hailed from the island. I've been a baritone; there's certain things that fit in terms of mechanics of it, but I certainly didn't have the education he had growing up, that came later for me. But I can really say that for me it was authentic. It wasn't something I was doing as a career move. It's something I did because I was an absolutely venerated devotee. I put them in a very, very high place. They were in a pantheon of artists, musicians, and to be honest with you, their name does resonate next to Mozart, Beethoven, Delius, Shubert. They're going to be in that air space. After all this is gone, late 20th century, early 21st century, there will be very, very few composers who make that grade: Lennon/McCartney, Jagger/Richards, Lou Reed, Patti Smith - there will be very few, and The Doors will definitely be there.

The music will be performed for young men and women who discover that they're coming of age; they'll discover the mythology of Morrison and the Doors, and lead off into other tributaries of exploring the inner realm. Probably the greatest gift that they gave was to plant that seed of illumination inside of the listeners, which so many modern performers just don't do.

Songfacts: Well, I remember one time hearing on the radio Ray Manzarek explaining "Light My Fire" and all the different elements that went in there. Like there's some Bach classical elements, and all these different things. He said this was not just a rock and roll song, it was a composition, like you were saying when you named Mozart and Shubert. There was more to it than just three chords and the truth.

Ian: Yeah. And he probably got that from somewhere else.

Songfacts: He probably did.

Ian: Being in the room with Ray and Robby... you know, when Ray Manzarek turns around and says, "More like Coltrane"... I didn't grow up with Coltrane. But I can tell you, you could ask ten postmodern illuminated musicians about Coltrane and they'd go, "Oh, yes, Coltrane. Of course." They blab on about it. But the reality was I never grew up with Coltrane. I grew up with glam rock, punk rock, and then discovering the bands, anybody from The Doors to The Stones - late '60s icons. And then it was only later that I began to get into the molecules of their influences and what they actually meant and the resonance of that.

Ray had seen Coltrane perform in the south side of Chicago, and Ray really understood the blues. I mean, Ray really was around all that, even though he was a classically trained musician. He was from the south side of Chicago - Muddy Waters, Chess Records - he experienced it, and all of that went in there. I mean, my God, where are we going to go for that now? Justin Bieber? With all respect, I mean, I know he's a neat kid. But it's amazing how we lord these icons now, we just lord all over them, because they're what? Because they're cute? Not because of the content, the molecular structure. We celebrate the veneer. We celebrate the best of us led by the least of us.

Songfacts: I enjoy listening to you, because you really think about what you do.

Ian: I love what I do. I mean, it's going to kill me, this journey. This path has led me to some of the darkest places I've ever been, but I think that was already in me, anyway. I think being a musician you get the opportunity to work it out. I'm very grateful for that, of having this life, because it's led me to meet some amazing people and led me to an amazing place in my life right now.

Songfacts: Well, I'm glad you're still making music. I read somewhere that you considered not making more new albums, and Choice of Weapon shows that you're back.

Ian: It's like Samuel Beckett said: "I can't go on, I'll go on." Like one of those moments, where you're looking at it all and you're going, "I can't do this anymore." And you go, "Well, you keep going."

Songfacts: What else are you going to do, though? It's who you are.

Ian: Precisely.

We spoke with Ian Astbury on April 21, 2012. Get more at thecult.us. Photo (2): facebook.com/officialcult
More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 5

  • Jagmk2 from Liverpool83 best song(sanctuary),always thought The Cult were Canadian when I worked there.Proud to be part of the 'British invasion'
  • Miss Demeanor from ScotlandThe Love album was there last great album. The rest were full of meaningless lyrics.
  • Dave from VancouverDope article. Growing up in the 90s, Pure Cult was like a right of passage for me. Thanks Ian
  • Anthony from AustraliaNo......not sonic temple..."electric"
  • Shawnerz from Any, MdIf Ian reads this, he'll probably be pissed-or maybe he'll be flattered. But Sonic Temple has to have been their best CD. Ian you are the quintessential Rock-n-Rolla! You rock dude!
see more comments

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