Interview © Popmatters.com
von John Garrett 02. Juli 2012
Choose Your Weapon: An
Interview with the Cult's Ian Astbury
I was supposed to speak to Ian Astbury of the Cult for only 20 minutes and we ended up talking for over an hour. That’s longer than the Cult’s new album Choice of Weapon, bonus tracks included. Conventional wisdom dictates that I needed to get him to talk about this new album, but Astbury can’t help but put things into a wider context. And I just let him do it. It was early in our conversation where he dropped all rock star pretenses and I let go of my music writer cap. Calling him reflective is an understatement.
It’s been nearly 30 years since the Cult‘s first album was released and there is no shortage of life experiences within that time frame. The indie gothic staple “She Sells Sanctuary” signaled their chart presence, creating respectable sales for their sophomore album Love. Rhythm sections came and went; drugs and alcohol took their toll and the terribly fickle tastes of late ‘80s/early ‘90s pop audiences gave the band a flash of white hot success before serving up cold shoulder. Sonic Temple hit the radio like a tidal wave with ‘70s-esque rawk hits like “Fire Woman” and “Edie (Ciao Baby)”.
By the time they released the follow-up Ceremony, the rug was yanked out from under them courtesy of the burgeoning Seattle scene. Rudderless, the Cult went for broke and made an eponymous album that drew little attention but put a strain on the creative team of Ian Astbury and guitarist Billy Duffy. They disbanded mid-tour. Several years later, Astbury and Duffy eventually cut the crap, got back to work, and have been keeping the Cult name growing strong since with the albums Beyond Good & Evil, Born Into This and now Choice of Weapon.
The funny thing about that last one is that it wasn’t supposed to happen. Frustrated with the digital age’s destruction of the album as art, Astbury declared that the Cult would no longer bother with such things. After two Capsule EPs of new material, all business signs pointed to: Album. With producer/chum Chris Goss there to get the ball rolling and veteran Cult and Metallica producer Bob Rock there to add the finishing touches, Choice of Weapon has wound up as one of the more heavy and concise Cult albums available. It was, as Astbury notes, made with a level of instinct that was on par with their cornerstone album Love.
Regardless if anyone is paying attention or giving the Cult good marks for this, they seem to be in one of those healthy places that deflects criticisms. Prior to this interview, I took Astbury as a curmudgeon. Turns out he’s just rationally reacting to this screwed up world we call home, this place that sometimes makes no sense at all. His tangents are not condemnations from a soapbox but pieces of spiritual advice that he’s picked up along the way. And to my surprise, he recalls in vivid detail a venue just a few miles from my house. At the time I was deemed ‘too young’, and not allowed to attend the show, but my older brother did. And Astbury recalls it as a “pretty cool gig.”
The cover art for Choice of Weapon seems to mirror that of the 1994 “Black Sheep” album; a black subject with horns starkly imposed on a white background.
What was it that brought all of this to your attention at 11 years of age?
I immigrated to Canada. I came from the UK, and initially I was an immigrant kid, one of those of Anglo-Celtic descent. We went on a school trip to a reservation and I’d never seen indigenous people in their natural environment before. It’s a completely different culture and I became kind of obsessed with the culture. I wanted to know more and more about indigenous culture. I read everything I could, I was voracious about it. Initially I was reading about the French-Indian wars in Canada, the historical perspective, but then the historical perspective crossed through the philosophical perspective and that really fired my imagination. I’ve never left it. That’s what really drew me to places like Tibet, because of that fascination; the indigenous culture, stepping outside the Judeo-Christian motif.
Did you have a hard time establishing your identity as a kid because you were an immigrant that identified with indigenous peoples?
That was one aspect, but one that I identified with really strongly was music, with the icons of the day. My biggest icon, even still today, was David Bowie since about the age of ten. He’s been the guiding star, the North Star. I’ve always gone back to Bowie, always. That was a fixed position, and I sort of charted my course based upon that. In terms of identifying with North American high school kids, it’s pretty well documented; you’ve got your kids that are pretty conservative, your athletes, your kids that are not good at athletics but are good at academics, and you got your kids that basically don’t do anything, the fuck-ups. And that was my crew [laughs]. I did pretty well at school, but I was pretty much an outsider and that’s where you found the kids that were heavily into music and that was their badge of honor. That’s what drove me to that community, and of course that exposed me things like punk rock very quickly. And then that was it. I got into that tribal identity and disappeared into it.
Is there a chunk of Bowie in the Southern Death Cult when you were just starting out?
Maybe the Bowie influence would be more in things like his influence on the new wave that we listened to in the day, the experimentation in Public Image Ltd. and Joy Division and even punk rock because the aesthetic of punk rock was influenced by Ziggy Stardust and glam rock. And that was influenced by cabaret. There’s kind of a lineage there. Their image was more of an aesthetic influence. It’s interesting because Bowie was in this folk period and entered into a rock ‘n’ roll period where he’s playing traditional rock ‘n’ roll, blues-influenced rock ‘n’ roll songs. Mick Ronson was in the band for The Man Who Sold the World. There’s a lot of rock ‘n’ roll in Bowie, initially.
And the Cult moved to a rockier edge with Electric.
Yeah, our lifestyle became harder. That’s pretty much what happened. We went from guys who were maybe a cultural influence of London—our daily domestic environment—and then you go on the road and become something completely different and the road becomes your daily environment. And that has a whole different set of conditions, like being on a different planet. For the shift between Love and Electric, we were in New York. It was the ‘80s in New York, 42nd street and Hell’s Kitchen were no-go zones. New York was a pretty edgy city; it wasn’t like Zurich like it is today. It wasn’t as gentrified as it is today. I think that all went into the record. Plus we were kids and we were having fun, high energy—that was 20-odd years ago. I don’t even know that person anymore. I tend not to look in the rearview mirror and objectify myself in that way, only when doing interviews when I get into all our yesteryears.
I read somewhere that you are not a big fan of nostalgia.
Not really. It takes away from the present moment. Maybe it’s interesting in terms of context. But in terms actually living and staying there? Can’t do that.
Getting back to the present moment with Choice of Weapon, did you recently have a change of heart regarding the album format?
It wasn’t so much a change of heart. I still very much believe in the Capsule format; it’s still a valid way of going forward. I just think we’re ahead of the curve on this one, again. There was a huge demand for more material from our audience; they loved the songs we were doing with [producer] Chris Goss. That was one thing; the other thing was that we had labels banging on the door. And probably one of the most influential things was the fact that we had become our own label, which is something we really didn’t want to do. We kind of thought “yeah, we want to be our own label,” but when we got into it, we thought “we don’t want to do this.”
We were entrenched in marketing, paper stock, production and we’re like “this isn’t fun. And this isn’t something we’re good at. We don’t have the expertise.” So we really had to come up to speed. One thing about the Capsule collection is that we wanted to release on a lot of different formats. Vinyl—we would have done the eight-track and cassette if we could, but that was my philosophy. It wasn’t sustainable. We just didn’t have the resources at that particular point. Demand was there, everyone was looking at me, the manager, Billy, so I capitulated. And I said “I’ll be back with the Capsule collections!” and they were like, “okay. Let’s go into the studio and make an album.” The material was there, the story was there.
What made you decide to work with Chris Goss this time around?
I’ve known Goss since the late-‘80s. We’ve got a long relationship. I’ve worked with him on the Unkle record War Stories, in fact I introduced him to James Lavelle. Before that I made a solo record with Goss in ‘96, ‘97 called Spirit\Light\Speed. We spent the whole album, out in the desert, six months doing that. It was a great adventure. He kind of worked loosely with the Cult for a while. And then I guess in 2010 we made a reality. We got in a room with Goss and we came up with those four songs; “Siberia”, “Every Man and Woman is a Star”, “Until the Lights Takes Us”, and “Embers”. And from there that was the foundation of this record. Those four songs were the reason people responded in such a strong way. Not only with our audience, but with labels, too. People thought there was something there that was really worth pursuing.
Goss took us from a barren place; all of these songs are rooted in what we did with Goss. The way he works is, he’s a musician; he puts on a guitar, he stands in the room and he plays with the band. Not that [co-producer] Bob Rock doesn’t do that, but Goss is just much more of what you would refer to as esoteric. Not much is said, he keeps rolling the ball back, and he’s not very pragmatic. I think the way he works is much more energetic. He’s certainly intuitive, the kind of space he works in, which was great for us because we broke a lot of bad habits. We did that for three months and it was just an exhausting process and at the end of it all we had kind of worn it down and we really needed to finish the record. That’s when I called Bob Rock, because we needed somebody to come in and be pragmatic. And what Bob brings in is craftsmanship; he’s really great at finessing. So he kind of came in and helped us finish these songs and he contributed quite a lot in terms of taking these songs to a different level. It was very gracious of him to come in at that period.
They both really helped us to complete it. There’s no one-size-fits-all Cult. Billy and I are quite different in our approach to music. We make it work as best as we can together but having an objective third party helps us to maximize potential. When you’re on the inside sometimes you’re too close and you can’t see it. Having the experience of Goss and Rock made this record what it is, they’re the ingredients. Most people seem to have a lot of producers on their records now; I know Kanye West has six or seven producers. U2, how many do they have? They have the three or four they talk about and the other ones they go through in the background. I heard they started the last album [2009’s No Line on the Horizon] with Rick Rubin, then they got rid of him, and then will. i. am., then they got rid of him. They’re still with Lanois and Eno, I mean, c’mon, for God’s sakes! Some of the best producers of all time, it’s great when you got that and you dispose of them. But this is the first album where we’ve worked with multiple producers on the same record.
Did Chris Goss or Bob Rock get Billy Duffy out of a comfort zone? Because there are some really fast and flashy guitar solos on Choice of Weapon when before he was never much for using solos for flash.
I think over the years Billy’s become more a better player, maybe more confident in his playing. Solos are something he gravitates towards, and of course, guitar solos became gauche through the ‘90s. The grunge generation killed the guitar solo, I think partly because they couldn’t play them, because they couldn’t really play their guitars very well! [laughs] But also I understand the railing against the bourgeoisie. Guitar solos seemed to be kind of flatulent and excessive, but I think these are very tasteful guitar solos. I mean, I love the way Neil Young plays. I love his solos; I think they’re just fucking barely hanging in there. His solos are magnificent and Le Noise is an incredible record.
If we live in a collage culture, a Cliff Notes culture, then [that's] what we get -- a collage and Cliff Notes.
I think with Billy, its just more confidence in that department. On “Life>Death”, we were sitting there at the end of the session and Bob and I were thinking about the end of the song and Bob’s thinking “what we can possibly do is some kind of expressive line, not a traditional solo, but something.” He looked at me and said “where do you think it should go?” And I just counted it off “1, 2, 3, 4, now”, pointed at Billy and he just played it. Just fucking played it right there in 18 seconds. It’s what came out and we kept it.
First take. And on the spot. Not like “we’re going to record it”, but right on the nail, on the head. There was no pre-conversation, nothing. We barely had the conversation and recorded it all in the same moment/instant. So that’s something I never experienced before, and that’s amazing. That kind of shows where he’s at as a player because he was just able to switch that on straightaway. He was just so alert and connected, so present.
If anything, these guitar solos are homage to Chuck Berry, that rock ‘n’ roll guitar solo on “Honey from a Knife”. A traditional kind of rock ‘n’ roll solo which is cool because, when you look at the bands that we love, especially the early ‘70s bands and even what Bowie was doing in the early ‘70s, they were all paying homage to the ‘50s bands. It’s all kind of derivative of Chuck Berry, pretty much. Chuck Berry really isn’t a reference point for this generation, for better or worse. I’m not one of these older guys who are like “all these young people…!” Bullshit. That’s nonsense. I think great art is of its time, great art reflects the time it’s in and the time we’re in is dystopian, disconnected and frenetic. And if we live in a collage culture, a Cliff Notes culture, then [that’s] what we get—a collage and reading Cliff Notes. You know, behind the keyboard.
Yeah, it is abbreviated. But then again, every generation comes along thinking they’re reinventing the wheel while the older ones sit back. Keith Richards was asked a question in an interview, and I think it was during the time of Britpop in the UK, and they were asking him “what do you think of the exciting new bands like Blur and Oasis?” And he just turns around and says “They’ll find out.” They’ll find out? Fucking…I heard that and I was like “aw, shit, that’s amazing.”
And you watch them drop. We’ve been through about two or three generations. Different waves; we came out punk, went through new wave, went through death rock, gothic rock, whatever that was, into a ‘70s rock revival in the late ‘80s, through grunge, through acid house, digging through post-modern, post-modern alternative, now we’re into…I don’t know where we are now.
I don’t know either.
I liked “abbreviated culture.” that kind of works. I know someone’s going to coin the phrase at some point.
On to the lyrics on Choice of Weapon; who are the “fucked up children”?
The abandoned. All of us. I think culture and society has abandoned all of us. It’s like the ladder has been pulled up, pulled up by those who sit in their ivory towers and deem what we should and shouldn’t like. The ones that control the airwaves, the ones that control the seats in institutions, churches, state, etc. etc. There is a one percent. I know plenty of 42-olds that are abandoned children. Their parents disappeared on them; the parents are still trying to figure out when they were born. Mine certainly were.
When you say that “each of us has forgotten our way” on “Elemental Light”, it shows how on the one hand we are abandoned children but on the other hand, we have led ourselves astray. It shows how your lyrics balance personal and universal struggles.
Sure. For me, I’m just reacting purely from my own conclusions based upon my own research/discovery/experience. It’s led me as far as Lhasa, Tibet. It’s led me into sweat lodges. It’s led me to lysergic experiences. It’s led me into cathedrals and monasteries all over the world. Plenty of rooms at seven o’clock in the morning, talking about crushing universes between our fingers [laughs]. It’s beyond comprehension, it’s transcendent. When you’re talking about “forgetting our way”, it’s not a cognitive remembrance. It’s not about cognition, it’s about an experience; an essential connection and awareness to our original nature. Because all of this has been thrust upon us—morals, ethics, language, conditionality of the culture. We could easily have been born in India or China and we’d be speaking Hindi or Chinese with a different set of culture cornerstones, and here we are. Kind of abandoned, no sail, no charts. Scientists are coming back saying “We really don’t know what’s going on with these particles that are disappearing. We don’t know where they go.
And now we’re discovering particles that travel faster than light.” Churches are coming back and saying “wow, were we wrong about some of this stuff.” Science is beginning to prove the God particle coming up. And there’s a whole generation going out and discovering DMT. Newsweek did an article on psychedelic tours and people are having profound experiences, coming back and going “What we think we know, we know very little.” We’re so stuck in cognition, definition, defining, marginalizing, keeping ourselves in line. In line with what? In line with complaisance? Complaisance to who? To what Machiavellian, one percent, etc. etc.? I’m not a conspiracy theory person. You can talk about the Illuminati and all that. It’s like, Okay, great, it’s always been there. So what? Big deal. What are you going to do about it? What are you going to do about it, in your lifetime that you’ve got? Which is finite? When you have the youth and the ability to go out there and experience it, are you going to take your time to protest against it? “If we all get together we can change things.” We’ve seen that modality for millennia.
If you take all of the great philosophers, all the great cultures, the great artists and visionaries through millennia, and look where we are—still ripping each other’s throats out. We’re still consuming more than our fair share, more than what’s necessary. There’s very little giving or consideration of trying to achieve balance and harmony. This is just where life has taken me, so I’m not saying it’s for everybody, I’m not saying that everyone should turn on, tune in, drop out. But we are seeing people dropping out. We are seeing a generation discovering DMT, going to the Amazon, getting more into that material, things like Daniel Pinchbeck’s Reality Sandwich. This is stuff that is not on the far fringes of the culture, it’s accessible. Terence McKenna’s The Archaic Revival, these are recent texts. Even [Timothy] Leary and Allen [Ginsberg], Alan Watts and Joseph Campbell even, it’s all quite recent. The Dalai Llama coming to the west, that’s very recent. Here we are in this incredible time of evolution and human conscious, consciousness, what an exciting time to be alive. It’s the best time in the western times. So, occupy yourself, make it a journey, and enjoy the ride because there is an end to the ride—in this [in]carnation, anyway.
It’s a short ride for some.
It is a short ride for some; I’ve buried a few of my friends down the road. People who were so full of life would just enter the room, the guys that I’ve known who were just, like, This guy’s going to be Zorba the Buddha when he’s ninety, he’ll always be there! Nope. Many of my friends didn’t make it. And the quality of life, the men and women who seem to have it all? Apparently they don’t have it all, according to reality television and our constant obsession with celebrity culture. Watching them not have it all, their marriages being torn apart, having public embarrassments, aging disgracefully—it’s amazing that the most prominent icons in our culture are actors. We’re all going to age, but I’m sure we’ll work it out at some point. I’m sure there will be some pill or cream, but what happens to the spirit? Who knows? It’s not for me to say. I deal with what’s on the plate. [Laughs] I’ll be a seventy-five-year-old man saying “with pure death!” but then “now I’m stuck in a 75-year-old body! Why would I want to be alive?” You can go crazy thinking about this stuff. That’s why I like the Buddhist texts; it’s about being present, being grounded, being aware, pay attention, be in the moment, be the most powerful you can be in the moment.
Going back to original nature, I’m going to talk about the Cult’s second album Love; an album, you claim, was made with no pretentions, no agenda, no game plan, just guys playing songs. Can popular music, as a unit, ever go back to that kind of place?
I think we were living unconsciously, not being in the moment, trying to define ourselves, trying constantly to define things, I think it’s with Love that the Cult became, to an extent, popular because we were trying to define what we were doing. And I think over a period of time we drifted away from that. Electric and Sonic Temple were made with a lot of instinct, but they were also made with an awareness of what we had become. The Love album didn’t have any of that; there was no awareness of what we had become. We just did it. And that’s something that’s really exciting about youth. That’s why youth is able to just run in the room and do what it does. It’s fresh, naive, earnest; it hasn’t been beaten to the ground yet. It hasn’t had to go through all the hoops and turns that life can throw at you.
And then you get so far away from that you end up in a very cynical phase and I think Ceremony in some way a very consciously made record. It was Sonic Temple Part 2. The answer to that was to make the record in ‘94 which was basically to strip, destroy everything, tear it all down, set it on fire, get rid of all of it, starting right from the beginning again. We’re going to get back to that place, the earnestness, that original place. I think if anything, this album has a lot more instinct in it. It’s a lot closer to the Love album in that there was no real set agenda when we made this record. We’re so far outside of the culture anyway; we’re definitely not a mainstream band. We’re not in the charts. The billboard doesn’t say “Kanye West, Arcade Fire, Jack White, and Ian Astbury & the Cult.”
So it’s possible for older musicians to lose their awareness and channel the young spirit?
I think it is possible. It’s just about having that awareness of being fresh and in the present moment. You have more experiences in life. And with your cognitive activity, there’s a lot more noise in the skull. It’s about being able to go past that, transcend it and not listen to it. Get quiet with yourself. Get into quiet environments and the fresh energy of the moment. And react to that energy immediately. As soon as a thought pops up that’s contrary to what you’re doing, you’re done. First thought, best thought. Be impulsive, be first, go with your instinct, stay in that place and be fresh. That’s the philosophy for this record. And that’s why Chris Goss was in the room because he is eternally the well of youth in that way. That’s the way he works. He’s incredibly fresh; the moment is the moment, he’s in there. That’s something he brought into it and that’s what I was referring to by the band having some bad habits.
We started second guessing ourselves. When you start second guessing yourself, then you’re open to trouble. It’s just like in sports; if the player has a second thought about the way the bat’s going to come down on the ball, then he’ll miss it. If there’s any kind of hesitation in boxing, you can get fucking punched in the face. Activate the animal, work completely instinctually. And that kind of comes from a sense of faith and confidence. Confidence is really faith facing something greater than yourself. Greater than your cognitive make-up and ego, whatever that is, going beyond that. Just reaching for things with no fear, just going for it. A song like “Life>Death” is reaching for something, a moment, something very deep and very fragile.
And it addresses youth.
Yeah, it addresses the commodification of youth. It addresses the fact that youth culture is being coveted, controlled and sold back, manufactured; this idea that the spectacle is going to be eternally youthful. And that’s watching all of the people try desperately to stay young with surgeries, colonics, hair, and all the rest of it. Aging is something we’re trying to eradicate in this culture. We’re trying to sustain that eternal youth. Even in death, you see what a lot of morticians do to bodies, trying to be eternal in death. The spirit’s already gone from the body, I’ve seen several corpses. There’s no spirit in them. It’s just a vehicle.
ou know what, motherfucker? Take some responsibility.
There’s incredible stuff to delve into; The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Bhagavad Gita—Tibetans gave it great consideration. The Book of the Dead is not a fucking work of fiction, they actually observed the stages of death and life. I actually saw Sogyal Rinpoche, he wrote The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, this prominent Tibetan Buddhist scholar and enlightened person. He comes out and says “Why is everyone so down? Why is everyone so concerned about death and decay?” Then he said, “Don’t worry about that, you’re going to do that fine. You’ll get top marks!” We’ll all be equal. No one’s going to have a Mercedes. It’s the living we want to worry about, let’s get into the living. This life that we have and what’s left of it.
I recently turned 50; it’s a signpost, a milestone, I drove right by it. I didn’t even look at it, just kept rolling. There was an awareness of the finite since I watched both my parents pass away and several close friends. It’s amazing, Robin Gibb died yesterday and there’s Donna Summer, Adam Yauch. Adam, from the Beastie Boys, that was…wow! I’ve been around that guy since we were 25-years-old. The Beastie Boys used to come into the studio when Rick Rubin was making Electric, they’d be fucking jamming on our gear in the studio and we would throw them out. They were making Licensed to Ill. Everyone on Deaf Jam used to hang out at the studio when we were making that record. That was an interesting period. The Free Tibet movement, that was probably the last time I saw him. We didn’t see it coming.
I knew he was receiving treatments for cancer, but I didn’t know how advanced it was.
Cancers are expanding in our culture, becoming more and more commonplace. Some of the antidotes are out there in nature but drug companies control what we can put in our bodies and what we cannot. Mmmmm, I didn’t vote for that. You come out into a society that always has rules and regulations established. By who? Can you show me your credentials please?
A cloud of people.
Precisely. In the UK, everyone’s going “Yay, the Queen! So good! She has her Jubilee!” whatever it is. At some point the royal family used violence to subjugate another caste. There’s nothing worse. Manifest destiny in the United States. Think about the amount of Native Americans that were killed so you could put your strip mall in. We’ve all got blood on our hands, all of us, even the indigenous. They fought their tribal warfare for centuries. We all, at some point, culture and society, got blood on our hands. Our tax dollars that went to the military paid for bullets and bullets. I’m sure we probably purchased a bullet with our tax dollars. It was fired out of a gun. In some ways we’re all kind of complicit with it. Unconscious, maybe, but we’re all complicit. If you walk around thinking about those things, [laughs] you’d be neutralized! You won’t be able to function. These are huge, profound issues. So we can keep looking at the screen and everything will be okay. It’ll be taken care of for us.
We are seeing people questioning authority—not the actual authority of the institution but the actual authority of the authority. What are your credentials? Who gave you your tag/badge/station/position? Just because you went to Harvard or wherever, does that justify the position you’ve been given? Is it based upon experience? It’s good to see institutions where you can really learn about life experience because when we have people with life experience coming forward and telling you things, they’re usually marginalized and pushed out to the fringes.
I was watching this documentary the other day about Ishi, the last wild Indian. He died in 1916. He was taken by the Museum of Anthropology in San Francisco and the media called him a “caveman”, that he was “backward”, that he dragged women off to the bushes and so on. It was so heartbreaking that our culture can be so naive and cruel. Yeah, we’ve still got a way to go. Even as individuals, there’s plenty of work you can do on yourself. I think it takes courage to step into it. You see so many people being courageous. It’s amazing now, with the blogosphere people are terrified to do anything because of criticism.
The criticism is getting more harsh.
It is. It’s brutal. I’ve seen some stuff on the blogosphere that’s fucking brutal. When the Lou Reed record came out with Metallica [Lulu] there was some brutal stuff written about it, especially from a younger generation. First of all, Lou Reed is, what, seventy-years-old now? I’d say an elder. He’s had experience; I’d say he’s got an incredible body of work. So who would you defer to, Lou Reed or a 24-year-old critic whose life experience is very minimal? Who are we to question his choices? Who are we to question an artist?
To me he gets a hall pass. Not just a hall pass, he gets a seat. He gets a seat at the table of one of the ones you want to listen to. I’d rather hear him speak than a 24-year-old speak about what they think they know about the world. I want to have access to Lou Reed. I want to hear his insight, his words of wisdom and his brilliance. When the man’s speaking everyone else should be quiet. You may learn something. So I kind of felt bad that the culture came out and jumped down his throat. I was like “Really? Wow.” It’s just disrespectful to ourselves.
Have you seen that documentary on the New York Times? [Page One: Inside the New York Times]. David Carr, who is quite a colorful journalist for the New York Times is interviewing Vice magazine and they were talking about the staff of Vice traveling to Africa somewhere, a very poor area where people just go and shit on the beach. They filmed all that, this disgusting human behavior. The guys from Vice were alluding to the New York Times not being aware of the realities of Africa. David Carr straightens them out saying “You do not get to criticize our journalists who put themselves on the line. We’ve been reporting on genocide for decades. You don’t get to do that here.” Put them right in their fucking place.
All that post-modern, ironic, witty, whatever culture got a big slap. You know what, motherfucker? Take some responsibility. We don’t need any more irony. It’s beyond tiresome. But like Keith Richards said, you’ll find out. And it’s a travesty because you’re missing out. I think it’s just fear because people are so brutal out there. People are so cruel to each other. I read the blogosphere, I’ve seen stuff written about me and it’s just fucking brutal. But I laugh at it for the most part. People have no idea of what your experience is. I’m not talking about how much Wikipedia you’ve been through or whatever.
But like you said, the people with the most life experience get ignored.
“Yes, he’s the babbling fool from the mountains!” That’s kind of why we used the iconic image of the shaman on the cover [of Choice of Weapon], we wanted someone representative of What is that Energy? Something that represents forgotten knowledge. That’s homage to the demonstrators. You see fears in the protestors’ faces; they’re scared of direct repercussions. The rebellion is anonymous. Rebellion is not even rebellion, it’s a reaction to the dystopian times that we live in. People are feeling it. When I travel, I definitely see that people are feeling it. How many more kids are going to walk into school shootings? The cracks are appearing. Your kid might go to school and not come back one day. These are institutions of learning. They’re not even really respected. It’s not something that people are excited about; it’s like something you have to do. You have to have your GED to function in society. So you can get a service industry position? There are no factories, anymore.
I think our spiritual lives and our philosophical lives are something that really need a little bit more consideration. That goes for the arts, the passion for the arts. The arts in America—if they took all the funding from the military and put it into the arts, could you imagine what a phenomenal cultural leader this country could be? There are so many incredible, brilliant people in the United States. And the United States has been responsible for a lot of progressive culture in the world. It’s been a place of disparity. “Come to the Americas. We’re free, we’re young. You’ve got a place here.” And that seems to be becoming more and more conservative. Now we have these reality shows where your talent is judged…by a…panel of…talented people? [Laughs] Self-imposed cultural icons. These people are just desperate for work.
I’ve never been so desperate for success, for fame! Never. In fact, when it was put upon me, I didn’t like it. In the Sonic Temple period, when we were at our zenith of public success, whatever that was…the things that were asked of me! “If you want to stay here, these are the things you’re going to have to do for you career.” And I was like “Are you kidding me? I’m not staying.” So that’s why the Cult has had a very erratic life, a very erratic career. We’ve tried to maintain the balance between commerce and art, and it is an industry. It has been a struggle, especially over the past decade with the fall of the music industry. You have to make it up as you go along. I think this time around we had been playing together as a band for seven years, we went into the studio with Goss, we did a bit of discovery, and there are a lot of beautiful things that came out. I think we made a great record.
What has held you and Billy Duffy together for all of these years? A solid partnership is hard to come by.
We respect each other. He respects me for being the way I am and I respect him for being the fucking salt of the earth guy he is. I know where he’s come from, there’s no bullshit about Billy. He’s from Manchester. He was at the Manchester Free Trade Hall to see the Sex Pistols. He snuck in to see Patti Smith at the Rainbow Theater in London. He’s a dyed-in-the-wool music fan. He’s the real deal. He loves music and that’s what tied us together. When we were kids in Brixton, we sat around with his record player, listened to records and discussed them very passionately. That’s what brings us together. I know where he comes from. His dad was a worker as was his mother, as were my parents. So we identify with each other culturally. Even though I had a whole North American element, which is completely different from what he experienced, but maybe that’s what adds to my esoteria, whatever you want to call it. The British are funny, they think they got me pinned. They think I’m some [in an American accent] Johnny Rocker that went to L.A.! You kidding me?
Nice American accent.
Yeah, well I immigrated to Canada in 1973. Everything I saw culturally came from New York. I literally lived forty miles from the New York state border. All the TV shows, all the music I was hearing on the radio came from the United States. Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, Saturday Night Special, all that. We saw the New York Dolls on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert in, what, ‘75? Yeah. The Ramones. We used to watch channel 17, which came from Buffalo, New York. There was a lot of great stuff on public television. Public television was responsible for a lot of my education, to be honest with you. Cable access stuff too. The Sex Pistols, in 1978 when they couldn’t get into the United States initially because they were stuck in transit. It was all over the news in Canada. I was actually back in the UK in ‘77 for a three week holiday to see my family, BANG, right in the middle of the Queen’s Jubilee and “God Save the Queen” was number one in the charts.
That was the big year, wasn’t it?
Oh yeah, I was a punk rocker, [just] like that. Punk rocker, immediately.
When you were singing for [revived Doors lineup] Riders on the Storm, were you ever temped to autograph Jim Morrison’s name?
Naw! That would have been really presumptuous. I was aware of what I was getting myself involved in. I didn’t have any delusion I would be filling Morrison’s shoes. Sitting down with Robbie Krieger and Ray Manzarek and them personally asking me to do it, was pretty profound, pretty powerful. I went in on it because I’m a huge Doors fan. I knew it was going to be done, I knew somebody was going to do it, and I knew that if it wasn’t me I’d be kicking myself for the rest of my life. So it came as a huge responsibility. And there’s a lot more than that to it; as I went in to it, I thought of new lyrics and I’ve done more studying on that [anything else] I’ve done in my entire life. Not just learning lyrics but reflecting the subtext, the intention of the songs. I had to go very, very deep into that work. It was very deep in terms of getting the subtext right for these songs. A lot of soul went into that. I have too much reverence for Morrison. I never took an ounce of his space. I always made that very known. I wasn’t replacing Jim Morrison or filling his shoes or anything like that.