Since dropping the “death” from their moniker nearly 30 years ago and replacing the gothic tones of their psychedelic brew with ever increasing amounts of heavy metal thunder, The Cult has been treading upon uncommon ground. It is not every band that has just as much in common with Bauhaus as AC/DC. With singer Ian Astbury calling on a bevy mystical imagery with his booming voice and guitarist Billy Duffy creating a backing swirled with haunting notes and bombastic surges, records like the breakthrough Love and the Rick Rubin–produced Electric firmly established the band’s unique sound and won them a diverse fanbase.
After six albums, the band split up in 1995, only to reform in 1999. The Cult’s activity has been sporadic in the new millennium, but after a couple records and line-up changes, they have seemingly finally gotten it together for their latest, Choice of Weapon, released last week by Cooking Vinyl. The record has some of the demon fire of old, with Astbury and Duffy tapping into that untangible shaman magic that has fueled them for so long. I caught up with Duffy on the phone to discuss the new record and how things have changed over the years.
It’s been about five years since your last album and six years between records before that. Is it just a matter of not needing to make a record as frequently or is there always a question of whether there will be another Cult album?
Billy Duffy: It’s a bit of both. It’s a collaborative endeavor—a Cult album is Ian and I writing together—so you have to get two guys lined up to get together and want to do it. Then we have to feel that we have enough material and be on the same page emotionally and psychologically.
We did the Capsules, so it’s been five years between albums, but we released the Capsules with new music two years ago. And we’ve toured every year, so it’s not like we’ve been hiding. We’ve been moderately active. It’s just a question of wanting to have enough good songs, like all bands. We don’t really give it that much thought, it just kind of happened that way and has taken a couple years to get this album together. I wish we could do it more spontaneously like in the ’80s, when we were constantly on the road with the band and lived it 24 hours a day. It’s harder when you come off the road and you’re an adult and have responsibilities. It’s harder to get down to the business of musical creativity. Hopefully, we can break that cycle. I’d like to get into something new fairly soon.
I read something where Ian said you bring ideas in on your iPhone. Is that indicative of you capturing ideas whenever the inspiration takes you?
BD: Yeah, if I get a riff in my head or whatnot, I record it on my iPhone. Then we get together and make some demos with a drum machine and construct the songs that way. I just don’t have the energy to knock things around in soundchecks. My ears need a rest, so I don’t necessarily want to spend a lot of my day hammering away onstage when I have a gig that night. Once in awhile we do, but it’s just a different way of doing things. I used to record on a cassette recorder and now my iPhone is handy.
Going into this album, did you have any big ideas in terms of concept or sound?
BD: Not really, but I wanted to assert myself again as a guitar player. On Born Into This, I took a passive role and didn’t really fight as hard as I have in the past for guitarmageddon. So this time, I made sure I pushed to get a lot of guitar on the record, which I think was lacking a little bit on Born Into This. I might be wrong, but it seems like we got the balance right this time between all the elements.
Yeah, I don’t know if numbers-wise there are more guitars, but the sound is bigger.
BD: Born Into This was almost like demos that had been enhanced. We did a bunch of demos in Los Angeles early in 2007 and by the summer we got Youth to produce the album in England. We had been sending him files over, and we only had 20 days of recording, then it was mixed while we were on the road. That was classic—we’d listen to mixes after we’d been onstage. I’d get to the hotel room and my ears would be bleeding and I’d be asked to listen to a mix. It was very stupid, really, to do that.
You said you were fighting for more guitars this time around. On the other side, as far as lyrics go, do you give Ian carte blanche to say whatever he wants or have there been times when you’ve forced him to edit something because you didn’t like the the sentiment or the idea?
BD: No, I’ve been lucky because I dig what he does. My personal peccadillo—I wouldn’t swear if I was a singer. Occasionally he feels the need to swear, but other than that, he does his thing and thankfully I dig it. I encourage him to sing in a higher register. I know he’s more comfortable with a baritone and he has a lot of character in his voice, but he’s still got a lot of range and I always encourage him to go up there because he can and not many singers can when they get to his age. Not that he’s ancient—he’s 50—but he’s got a great gift. I personally like the timbre of his voice in the high register. For example, if you listen to the track “The Wolf,” he starts low then he kicks in halfway through the verse with the supercharger. He’s got that capability in terms of his delivery. I’m not so concerned about what he’s saying these days as much as the emotion. Obviously, a lot of it is my music, so it’s the icing on the cake I made, and I want it to be a certain way. You don’t want the wrong frosting, you know what I mean? But I’ve been lucky that I dig it.
You mentioned the Capsules earlier, and the bonus disk to the record has songs from those releases. Do you see a particular relationship between those songs and the new album?
BD: They’re the first songs that we came up with during this writing session that ultimately culminated with the record as you know it. Right up until we finished the 10 tracks that became Choice of Weapon, we were still debating if we should include songs from the Capsules in the album. We listened to what we had and the consensus was that the 10 songs that we had were strong enough as an album and diverse enough that we didn’t need to integrate songs from the Capsules. So what do we do with the Capsules? We decided to make it a bonus disc because I want people to hear those songs. They’re not in any way lesser songs. I like them just as much—I like some of them more—but they happen to have been recorded earlier. I didn’t want those songs to get lost.
Have you abandoned the idea of the Capsules?
BD: No, not at all. I keep pushing to get in the studio sooner. You get so bogged down with promoting the record you made, but we should be engaged with getting some new music together in the next six months. There’s a caveat to that, which is Capsules don’t make business sense. They’re not cost effective, so you have to find a way to put them out there so people can buy them, without losing the house over it. Making an album isn’t a profitable enterprise, and that’s a bit of an understatement, so you can imagine making a Capsule that can only sell for a few bucks. It doesn’t make a lot of financial sense, but that’s not the only reason for getting music out there. So if we can navigate around that and find a way, then it would be important to do some more songs.
Did going out and doing the Love Live Tour have any influence on making this album?
BD: Yeah, maybe. It was one of my favorite tours. I really enjoyed the format and playing that record. That album is very special to me. It put us in a mindset of what established us. Playing it repeatedly and putting us in that zone helped as a first step creatively. It’s not easy to go back 25 years, but it was much more pleasurable than I’d ever imagine. But we’re fortunate that we’ve got a great new album, and in the five or so shows that we’ve done, it’s gone down pretty well. Now, the only question is what to leave out of the set.
With the changes with the band over the years musically, was that just indicative of where your interests were at the time?
BD: Yeah, absolutely. You go forward and backwards and sidewards, and then there’s what going on around you. The greatest artists always reflect their environment. Commercial success doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve made a great record, and you can make a great record that isn’t commercially successful. Hopefully, we have a bit of both with this record.
Well, I think you can crack the Top 100 selling like 3,000 records.
BD: Yeah, because it’s impossible for people to actually buy them. I’d be scratching my head to know where to go and buy my own record in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, the trickle-down effect to that is you can’t afford to spend as much time or money on making records because they may not sell and someone has to write the check.
I read an interview where you said you thought the band hasn’t gotten the respect it deserves. I was thinking about how Guns N’ Roses, a band that opened for you, just got inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Is that how you hope to be recognized some day?
BD: I don’t know. I think I was just getting to the fact that certain bands always remain underground. We’ve mostly been on independent labels and we’ve never had much of the old boys club behind us. A lot of that Grammy nomination and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is about who your manager knows. Obviously, you have to have had some kind of career, but a lot of it comes down to the relationships within the music business and how well connected you are. I’m okay with that. I’ve had plenty of respect from other artists who have been influenced by The Cult’s music, and I’m pretty happy with that, so whatever comes down the pike, great.