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Author: Subject: Ian Astbury Interview
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[*] posted on 5-26-2003 at 02:22 PM
Ian Astbury Interview

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By Frank Correia
It's a typical sun-drenched afternoon on Sunset Strip when I meet up with Ian Astbury at a local coffeehouse. When the proprietor asks Ian how he celebrated the recent Fourth of July weekend, Ian stares hard and sarcastically snaps, "I'm English! I went out and shot some Americans!"

Being from Boston, home to a different kind of tea party, I feel obliged to point out that we won the war. He smiles, stirring, appropriately enough, a cup of tea. "Can you imagine if the English had taken over America?" queries Astbury, a current L.A. resident who also has a London apartment. "We'd all be playing soccer, drinking tea, playing cricket. We'd all be miserable. It'd be raining all the time. If the English took over California, it'd be raining out here."

While Astbury may not project the sunniest of dispositions, he is genuinely forthcoming and honest during our conversation. Fronting The Cult, he's seen his share of dark days as the focal point of a band that tasted success with 1989's Sonic Temple before crumbling beneath the weight of infighting, unsuccessful follow-ups and substance abuse. In '95, he'd had enough and walked out during a South American tour.

Yet in the post-grunge poptopia of the late '90s, Astbury found The Cult in his heart and mind again, and reunited with guitarist Billy Duffy for a brief tour in '99 that saw fans packing clubs for a sweet dose of Cult classics like "She Sells Sanctuary" and "Love Removal Machine." Last September the group was ready to add to its storied past with another album; this time via a new record deal with Lava/Atlantic. Not surprisingly, the group's former label, Beggars Banquet, also released a "definitive" collection of Cult singles and a box set that includes B-Sides, rarities and Peace, an album which the group scrapped in its entirety prior to 1987's Electric.

Beggars Banquet has also released Ian Astbury's solo album, Spirit\Light\Speed, after it was held hostage for two years when the studio demanded more money. While it may be capitalizing on the Cult buzz, Spirit does reflect Astbury's continuing love-affair with electronic music, a genre that he believes is an updated version of the British punk movement he immersed himself in as a troubled teen in Glasgow.

You were working in more of the electronica influence on your solo record, Spirit\Light\Speed. What inspired that?
I'm a fan of music, and I'm a bit of a slut for pop culture. When Rick Rubin was working with the Beastie Boys initially, I first heard him sample Led Zeppelin's "When The Levee Breaks" and AC/DC. When I heard the Beastie Boys' "Cookie Puss" for the first time, I wanted to know how Rubin did it. I was fascinated by the whole process of sampling. It was basically 22-foot tape loops at that time, and then they put it down on eight track because there wasn't digital sampling.

I was really fascinated by the fact you could go into the studio without a drummer, just a tape loop, and put a great track over the top of it. When techno and electronica evolved a lot more and sampling in digital aspects came into it, the process was accelerated. There was so much you could do to manipulate samples and rhythm tracks. I just became obsessed with it. I always had a burning desire to make a record like that. Probably from about '89 onwards. I wrote The Witch in late '89 and we used a sample on that.

Spirit\Light\Speed was completed two years ago, why is it just being released now?
The studio wouldn't release the tapes; they wanted more money. That went on for about eight months. By that time, I had been out traveling; I'd been to Cuba, but principally Nepal and Tibet. By that time my interest in the music industry had gone out the window. I wasn't interested in music anymore. I loved music, but it wasn't the main thing in my life.

The experiences I had while traveling put me in a completely different headset. I started to think about what was really important to me, and The Cult came up again in my feelings and my thoughts. I just felt there was a desire to go back and do that. I missed the volume, the dimension and the power of the Cult. At that point I started making inroads to talking with Billy [Duffy] and communicating with him. He actually came over in March '99 and we had a meeting. After that meeting he decided it was a band again.

So what is the status update on The Cult? Where are you at now?
It's taken a while, but it takes a lot to reestablish the relationship. Plus, I'm coming in saying that I'm really obsessed with things like Primal Scream and those electronica elements. Billy's much more interested in the riff-driven, guitar-oriented rock with a live band. I'm saying, "Let's incorporate some samples, some programming. With all your influences and all my influences, let's find some common ground." It takes a while.

It seems like Billy's very much a "rock" guy.
He's a very traditional rock guy. Billy's like basic meat 'n' potatoes rock guy.

So it's pretty hard to sell him on the electronic stuff.
Yeah. But by the same token, I'm a bit of a hard ass in what I believe in too. I see a lot of bands play and I just find it very boring and sonically antique. We've seen it so many times. It's not so much what the song's about, but the format it's presented in is so tired. But then again, if I was 17 years old and I was seeing these bands for the first time, I might be excited by that. So I just guess it's where you're at in life.

Was that what prompted you to leave the Cult in '95?
I think we made our most progressive record with the last Cult album. It was more a lifestyle thing. I didn't want to tour anymore. I hate touring. I had a son; I missed my son. After 12 years I was a casuality; I just couldn't handle it anymore.

One of the last things that happened to me in the Cult was I was left in the lobby of a hotel in Rio De Janerio asleep on my luggage. Everyone just left me there. But by that time, no one wanted to deal with me anyway. I had become like a wayward child, I was a bit out of control. I was moody, I was violent, I was drunk, I was high. Performances were erratic. I would abuse the audience from the stage. All the classic stuff. It looks great when human beings are coming apart at the seams. It's like why people watch auto racing, you want to see the crash. I just didn't want to be a victim of that. Plus I had this burning desire to do something really creatively. I wanted something that was going to blow me away.

You went to Tibet after that?
No. What I did was go back to L.A. via Miami. I went home, took every single thing that I had that belonged to the Cult - platinum discs, anything to do with the Cult - stuck it in the barbeque and set it on fire. I was totally nuts.

Do you regret that now?
No I don't. It's what I had to do at that particular time, and it's what I did. My son, who at the time was about a year old, was standing there helping me. My son just thinks it's his crazy father, burning every thing that has to do with the Cult. I divorced myself from it totally, then six weeks later I started a new band, The Holy Barbarians, which was just as much about the rhetoric as it was about the music. Definitely more about the rhetoric, because I've always had a lot to say but sometimes the music didn't back it up.

Do you see a parallel between the electronica movement and the punk movement?
That's where the punk movement went. Essentially a lot of people who were caught post Brit punk rock, picked up samplers. I know Primal Scream did. They're all punk rockers. It's the whole thing of "Do It Yourself." You're in control of it; no one's telling you what to do. Plus, the great thing is, for very little money you can put together your own record. It's getting even more so that way, and that's fantastic. Of course, with the mass available to the masses, there's a lot more mediocrity. But by the same token, hopefully there's going to be more genius stuff coming out. That little genius in his bedroom in Pittsburgh is going to get heard. It's not going to be like he'll be a great local genius who never gets discovered.

Especially with the Internet capabilities, you can upload your song and distribute it.
It's genius. If you're not embracing it, you're definitely cutting your own throat.

What do you think of the rap-rock stuff?
In England it's called sport rock. Sporty-rock, like Sporty Spice. That's because it's kids wearing casual clothes and baseball caps. It's like jock imitating. It's cute in a way.

Not threatening? No, I don't think it's threatening. But I think they reflect the angst of culture and what a lot of people feel, especially young males. Eminem really reflects the fact that there area lot of young males out there who are really pissed off. It's like their forefathers - their older brothers and their fathers - told them about the great musical revolutions and everything they were a part of. And what did they get? The Gap. Thanks very much. I'd be pissed man. I would be fuckin' pissed, especially when you discover something like the Sex Pistols at 17. You're like, "I missed out on that? I'm angry!"

Is Native American culture still a big influence on you?
It's so much a part of my life that I don't even think of it as something separate from me. The thing about Native American culture is that my first real major exposure to indigenous philosophies was an introduction to many other things -- more earth-oriented philosophies, philosophies that were more about the spirit and the sensual nature of man. Whether it being Wiccan or paganism or Buddhism, mythologies. Through that I got to see the works of Joseph Campbell, who studies into mythologies. Then reading some actual mythological text and exploring different tribal cultures, traditional cultures. I'm as likely to be sitting reading Steven Pressfield's Gates Of Fire, which is a fictional dramatization of the Spartan-Persian wars of 489 B.C., as I am to be sitting reading a Daredevil comic or X-Men or whatever. My reading tastes are very eclectic.

What are you reading now?
Right now I'm reading about four books. I'm reading an autobiography of Kenneth Anger, an avant-garde filmmaker. We had his films on a loop at the studio all the time during Spirit\Light\Speed. His films are filled with symbolism and very striking images.

A lot of religious images?
Mostly of an arcane nature more than a cult nature. A lot of things about sexuality - mostly male sexuality. But that wasn't the main point of his films. It was the arcane, and forbidden knowledge, and there's a higher purpose to what he did. I felt very elevated by looking at his work. His name is coming up a lot more now. Marilyn Manson's into him, so obviously Anger's name is bound to come up. There's a great biography of him called Anger that I'm reading right now.

I just finished Sonny Barger's biography, which I enjoyed immensely. He was a Hell's Angel. I have a lot of admiration for him, he's a true survivor. He came from a broken home and found a lifestyle and stayed with it. He's loyal to his brothers. He's got something to really be admired, that loyalty and determination and focus, even though the reputation of many outlaw motorcycle gangs seems to be thuggish. In a lot of ways they set themselves up, and by their colors they're showing you who they are.

They're also like very stoic males, and there's very little of that in the world. They seem to have a great amount of integrity. Really, what do you do for male role models now? Pick one. Find one. Could you say there's one adult male that you look up to besides maybe your own father? Or even if you do.

I definitely do, because he worked his ass off to give me and my brother and sister the best he could. He worked his way up through life and supported us. That's amazing. A lot of people find themselves in that place where their fathers work their fuckin' balls off to feed and clothe you. And really for nothing for themselves. In terms of male mentors, even role models, who do you look at? Rock 'n' roll stars? Come on.

Answering the same question, there was a point in my life in my late twenties, I was desperately looking for some sort of mentor. And I was meeting people - Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Robert Plant, Mick Jagger; all these older musicians. Few of them if any could take the time out to see that there was a young man who needed some special attention; I was in pain. We were cut from the same cloth, we were in the same fraternity in a sense. And you'd think that somebody would have had a bit of compassion in them, just say a word or a sentence. Some did. Iggy did. Robert Plant did.

What did they say?
"I've been there. I understand what you're going through. Stay with it; keep your head down and stay with it -- you're going to do fine." That's all you want to hear really, to know you're on the right path and doing okay. Because sometimes you meet special people who come into your life and really help open your mind.

Did traveling help you?
Immensely. Because when you travel, the blindfold comes off and you see things as they really are. I remember sitting in traffic in Lisbon, Portugal. It was Wednesday night, rush hour, the sun was coming down - beautiful city, beautiful architecture. You know you're in a foreign country - the cars, the smells, the people's gestures. People were freaking out in traffic, they were hitting their horns and swearing. I'm looking up out of the bus window, watching the sun come down on this really crappy apartment block. I'm looking up, and there's a woman with a kid in her arms just preparing the table for dinner. That was very beautiful. I thought about how simple it was, and how beautiful. Everywhere you go, people are doing the same thing; they're working, they've got families, they're raising children. It was just a very beautiful image. Things like that enlighten you immensely, as much as like going to a rock concert and meeting a beautiful woman or having your first altered experience - chemical or whatever.

There definitely seems a unity in watching a rock show as well.
There is. You're all there for the same purpose. There seems to be the collective mind of the audience. All your personal judgments and aspirations and whatever go out the window and you have this collective experience. I try and tap into that when I perform; to incite people, to abandon judgment. I say to people, "Get up and dance." Because the guy next to you doesn't give a shit about what you're doing. If you are fat or overweight, tall or short, black or white - nobody cares. You're safe here, nobody can hurt you, nobody can pass judgment on you. And if they do, they have to answer to me. And I'll tell them they're fuckin' wrong.

Beggars Banquet is putting out a Cult box set, right?
They're putting out a thing called Rare Cult in December because they have the rights to the back catalog, so they can do whatever they want with it. It's basically a lot of remixes, B-sides, some unfinished tracks from albums.

Aren't they also including the whole Peace album?
The Peace album is basically the Electric album - the first version of it. It was recorded and mixed and was put on the shelf because we didn't like it.

So how do you feel about them releasing it?
Actually, the Peace album came out on this thing called the Manor Sessions, but that was nearly 10 years ago. There was only a very limited amount. I think only 10,000 of those were made. So how do I feel about it? I feel that it's crass exploitation in some ways. By the same token I think that there's an interest there. I don't want deny fans - I hate the word "fans," it's so patronizing - but people who are into the band a chance to see what we did and where we came from. Some things on that are really embarrassing. I was listening to it going, "No! You've got to be joking!" One thing I like about it is the beauty of it, there's a lot of naivete in there. I forget that when I was 24 I was this very na€ve kid. I'd try things with my heart on my sleeve and fully believe in them. Like the first time I sung "Baby," I was all shy about it. I thought, "You can't sing that, hippies sing that!" But then you realize it doesn't matter, it's more about you and what you cultivated.

In one respect we're very familiar. There's bass, guitar, drums, vocals. It's rock, there's power. But on another level there's like something else happening. There's a different chemical ingredient. I wouldn't say mystique is the right word, but there's certainly something that goes beyond the veil of everyday living. That's what I personally try to reach into. I convey that realm through the music to the listener. I know that everybody experiences that. Whatever you want to refer to it as -- God, the soul -- that realm or that aspect of consciousness is what I really try to cultivate in my life.

Do you remember your first album?
The first single I bought was David Bowie "Life On Mars." It's genius. The first album I bought, I think it was Slade Alive or something. But I remember records changing my life. I remember getting Sex Pistols Never Mind The Bollocks for Christmas in '77.

For Christmas?!
Yeah. I begged my mom for this record - please, please, please - I couldn't afford to buy it. So that was my only Christmas present, the Sex Pistols' Never Mind The Bollocks. My mom said, "Why don't you stick it on?" All the family and friends were over. I put it on and she said, "This is great, why don't we play it later." The grannies were all a bit upset.

They didn't like "God Save The Queen?"
I was 15 years old, you know, but I knew that it had something very special. I took it up to my bedroom and played it and played it and played it. I just kept playing it. I went through a very hard time in my late teens with my family. My mother contracted cancer and died, and my father attempted suicide. I was in the army and my brother and sister were arrested. We were in a fire. It was really a very heavy time in my life, and I had that album. That music meant so much to me.

I was in Glasgow, Scotland, which is a pretty rough place to grow up. It's very violent. I was in the army for about a month. I left. I was lucky because I was under the age of 17 ¸, so I could leave. It was a trip. Literally I was in school, and my mother died, and two days later I was in the army as a professional soldier. Paid as a soldier, that was my job. It was so surreal. But then I was lucky enough to get out. I thought I could go back to it if I wanted to, but I didn't.

As soon as I got out I started to get into punk rock. There were no real pubs or bars for punk rockers in Glasgow. There were a few record stores; we used to hang out and bum cigarettes. But as soon as I started hanging out with punk rockers in Glasgow that was it. I was gone. I'd leave home and I wouldn't come home for three or four days. My father just gave up on me. He used to lock the door. I used to sleep outside the door and he'd step over me in the morning on the way to work. That's the way it was. I didn't belong anymore. I just ended up going on the road, and followed punk rock bands...

You followed the band Crass.
That was amazing. We really felt that this was actually a revolution, and we could change the world with our music and the way we looked. I was walking around with a mohawk and my nose pierced. I was 18, it was like 1979 or '80, and there weren't many people who had Mohawks. There was a handful. People would come along and say, "There's this kid in London who's got a Mohawk." So everybody knew that there was a kid in London with one. Everybody knew the Mohawk kids, because they were the most radical kids. There was a handful in London, there was a kid in Middleborough, a kid in Bradford. We all knew them, it was like the Mohawk kid police. And you'd meet them and ask,"Where you from? Oh, I heard about you."

It was a very small community. There was a sense of camaraderie there and the bands we'd go see, and the violence. We used to be always fighting with the skinheads, the Nationalist Front skinheads, the fascist skinheads. There were these wars going on. And then there were wars with these older rock guys who were into Elvis. It was fuckkin' weird, but that's England. Now it's like all homogenized. Everything's mixed in - beer boys, ravers, rockers.

Do you think it was better segregrated?
I liked it. You knew what was going on pretty much. If you saw one group coming down the road, you knew when to run. It was just tribal identification. There's a lot of that now with certain musical groups who were certain styles of clothing and stuff. The thing that's really important to me is spirit - get in touch with what's real. Who wants to be a miserable old person full of regret? You want to be able to think you've lived life. It's like [Jim] Morrison said, "Have you lived a good life? A life you could make a movie about or write a book about?" Just for yourself. I suppose it's up to the individual.

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