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Interview: The Cult’s Ian Astbury on 30 years of ‘Sonic Temple’, making nice with Dave Grohl, and all things sonic

Photo Credit: Michael Christopher
 
 

Though it was released during the peak of late-’80s glam metal, The Cult’s 1989 album Sonic Temple was hardly reminiscent of anything else their so-called contemporaries in hard rock were doing at the time. Sure, the band may have echoed the fashion of the era, but the music was a different story, fusing the best elements of their 1985 post-punk/gothic-rock masterpiece Love with the AC/DC-styled big rock on 1987’s Electric. The result was their best-selling and highest-charting LP both here in the States and in their native UK.

This past October saw the 30th anniversary of Sonic Temple acknowledged with a five-disc box set full of demos, alternate mixes and live tracks from the era as well as the original album remastered. Since late spring, The Cult, led by frontman Ian Astbury and guitarist Billy Duffy, have been concurrently celebrating with a tour dedicating a core set each night to the record along with songs from the rest of their catalog. Saturday night (December 14), the lengthy run comes to an end at Boston’s House of Blues, which is just about sold out.

Leading up to the gig, Vanyaland caught up with Astbury for a 617-styled interview — which Duffy participated in a couple years back — and talked about the draw of the region, the vulnerable courageousness of Joy Division and how some long simmering bad blood with Dave Grohl finally came to an end.

:: SIX QUESTIONS

Michael Christopher: Since returning from hiatus in 2006, The Cult have played in New England more than anywhere else – and that’s not just in the United States – but the world. You’ve been to up here 23 times; of course, that includes New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, but there’s gotta be something about this part of Northeast. What do you think it is for the band?

Well, they’re a pretty vociferous crowd — especially in Boston. Maybe it’s the Celtic connection with the Irish, I don’t know… there’s something in there. I grew up in Hamilton, Ontario, so culturally I grew up with a lot of references from a period that a lot of our audience probably grew up with as well. Perhaps they’re able to feel kind of a kindred connection in the lyrics and the music.

I think ultimately, it’s down to the fact there’s just a lot of devoted music fans in that area, which seemed to resonate. We had an early relationship with Boston, we had a great relationship with (local DJ legend) Oedipus and were a staple in the post-modern alternative world and that involved into hard rock and then back to some hybrid version of all of it and people stayed with us from that period. We return once more. It blows my mind that we’re still doing this in many ways, it’s incredible.       

The expanded edition of Sonic Temple came out this past October. When revisiting some of those old demos, particularly ones like “Yes Man” and “The Crystal Ocean,” did you have any second thoughts about leaving them off the album?

No [laughs]. Some of them are terrible; literally listening to them going, “Oh my lord…” But then I’ve got to flip back to the fact like, we were in our 20s. We were still formulating our opinions about the world and our place in it. I think it’s really quite endearing… we’re so earnest — you know? We were trying things musically and lyrically that make people uncomfortable in some ways, especially in the UK.

I think with those kind of demos it was just a really great, you know, fly on the wall as to what we were scraping around with and some of these things never got off the ground and for whatever reason they just didn’t make the cut. Perhaps if we had more time, we could’ve given some of these demos more attention and it would’ve evolved and it wouldn’t have sounded anything like the demo, which is usually quite traditional. And everyone goes back and says, “Oh the demo was so much better!” [laughs], which is always a critique like, “Yeah, but the sound quality isn’t there, and the arrangement stinks and the lyrics aren’t all there…” Demos are really interesting. To be honest with you, I listened to the [Sonic Temple] demos, I probably went through them maybe two or three times? Because there were some demos that were really, really, really, really, really basic tracks that we couldn’t share at this point — maybe later when we do another volume and sort of scour the basement for bits and pieces [laughs].   

When you look back on a landmark album like Sonic Temple, and tailoring the set of a tour around it, does it influence your creative process going forward? As in, will you draw on it at all for the next proper Cult record?

I’m sure we will. There’s been certain songs and certain moments that have happened in a live context that we’ve never experienced before. For example, having Damon Fox playing the keyboards — and adding vocals and percussion and sometimes guitars — it enhances the sound and kind of makes it go from an old school television experience to a 70mm cinematic experience, into letterbox format. There’s something about that that’s really opening up sections, and then we brought some strings in; we had a string quartet play with us in the UK like, three shows, so there’s been an arrangement done for “Edie” and later “Soul Asylum.” Hearing the songs fully enhanced in that area — and there were never strings on “Soul Asylum” — we’re playing it with live strings and a piano player, all of the sudden the scope of it changes and it takes on a different context in some ways; it kind of elevates it in some way.   

Several years ago, you called Ian Curtis “a modern-day Buddha.” Unknown Pleasures turned 40 this year. Does it still resonate with you, and how do you look back on its meaning to you after four decades?

Oh my god — it resonates even more. Describing the fragility of life and life in the shadows — or life in the mainstream — where you’re not connecting with other people… a sense of alienation, observation, you feel out of sync with the times that you’re in and then just the sheer, majestic, beatific beauty of the melodic lines… the cadence, the delivery, the sentiment behind — I mean, this man had his heart on his sleeve — literally. And that is just for everybody to see and I think that’s why the music is enjoyed for so long because he was so vulnerable, they were so vulnerable. They were so incredibly vulnerable in what they were doing, and that was so courageous — so incredibly courageous.

I nearly got to see them play, and it’s one of my biggest regrets that I never saw them play live. I did, however, see them on So It Goes [Joy Division’s 1978 television debut]. I was living in Glasgow at the time and when that came on TV, I remember I came home from school and it was on and I watched it. And Southern Death Cult used to rehearse in Joy Division’s rehearsal space in Manchester. So, Joy Division is definitely a muse that will continue, continue, continue. And of course, the artwork is — psssh — it’s one of the cornerstones of graphic design. It’s stunning. Closer and Unknown Pleasures… “Atmosphere” — please. Stop [laughs]. I can’t even. Sometimes I put Closer on and I’m just in tears.     

One of the groups you worked with that I’ve always been curious about is The Four Horsemen. I look at them as one of the best straight up rock and roll bands that never broke big, hitting a tragic streak of bad luck. How did you come to work with them, and what do you remember about that time?

I’ve got vague memories of Four Horsemen. Certainly, the bass player, Stephen Harris — Haggis — who was in Zodiac Mindwarp, came to The Cult, he was just in New York all of the sudden [where the band were recording Electric]. I was like, “What are you doin’ here?” and he’s, “Well, I’m leavin’ the band [Zodiac Mindwarp] and I’m hanging out.” Billy invited him, they were pals and all of the sudden he was in the studio with us — Haggis is hanging out. Through that, he was introduced to [producer] Rick Rubin, and Rick really loved him. And I’m not sure who put Four Horsemen together, if Haggis was one of the principal architects, it’s so vague, my memories of it, just literally I get flashes of it.

I haven’t even thought about Four Horsemen for decades, so it’s interesting you bring it up. I think in some ways you had other bands that were coming up, perhaps like Black Crowes; maybe? I don’t know… bands in a similar wheelhouse who were part of the Def Jam family, but I think Four Horsemen were also quite darker and a little bit more threatening. They weren’t as accessible; they were definitely leather jackets and lifestyle choices, shall we say. Plug in and play. Totally the authentic article.     

[Note: Astbury sang backing vocals on “Rockin’ is Ma Business,” a single on The Four Horsemen’s 1991 debut Nobody Said It Was Easy, and he played tambourine on the album’s title track. His distinctive singing style can be clearly heard on the outro chorus to the former.]

When you did come back, into the new millennium if you will, with 2001’s Beyond Good and Evil, there’s some Cult lore that says one of the demos from that record was titled “Bring Me the Head of Dave Grohl.”

[Laughs] I’ve got a vague recollection of that. I think Dave had said something inAlternative Press whereby he said something like, “I went to see The Cult on a dare, and that kind of music makes me want to put a gun to my head” — I’m paraphrasing. I think that at that time, we were not too pleased with that [laughs]. Especially from an artist like that who we actually admired. I mean, I admired him as an artist. I certainly didn’t feel an adversarial relationship with Dave Grohl; I thought Nirvana were amazing, thought he was an incredible drummer, and perhaps he was just finding his feet in the world post-Nirvana/early stages of Foo Fighters and he just needed to go out and make a statement like that.

But he didn’t even know anything about us, didn’t even know where we came from, didn’t know us in any way, shape or form; why we made the choices, why we made the journey we made — because we never spoke about them. We thought it was gauche to go out and say we were the best rock and roll band in the world or [sarcastically], “I came from working class, impoverished,” you know? Please — come on. Who wants to hear that?

At the time I think that kind of hurt. But fast forward to maybe two years ago, we played the NOS Alive festival in Portugal with like, 50,000 people and the bill was Foo Fighters, The Kills, The Cult, a few other acts. And straight after our show David Grohl walked into our dressing room, walked straight up to me and said, “Hi, I’m David Grohl. It’s really nice to meet you. Because I’m not sure what happened in the past, but hopefully we can put all that behind us, and I just want to say great to meet you.”

I shook the man’s hand. I have no problem with him. He’s an incredible artist. There’s room for everybody. If you don’t like it, don’t listen to it. But don’t put down a fellow artist — ever. I’m sure there’s been times when I’ve said slight things about artists and later have gone away and gone like, “Why did I say that? Was I jealous? Was it just a brain fart?”


:: ONE RECOMMENDATION

Here we ask for your recommendation of something —

I’ll do something from Boston. There’s a painter, from Boston, his name is Kostas Seremetis.

Oh yeah – he’s the one who did the artwork for [The Cult’s 2007 LP] Born into This!

Yes, yes. Kostas is a highly accomplished painter, filmmaker, sculptor – he’s an incredible artist. And if you have the opportunity to see his work, or even purchase his work, because his work is increasing in value. I have several pieces; I have a painting in my office of his. His star is rising – fast. Look into his work, explore his world. I think that would be really enlightening and inspiring.


:: SEVEN OF SOMETHING

You’re celebrating the 30th anniversary of Sonic Temple. I’m going to give you seven sonic-related phrases and tell me the first thing that comes to mind when you hear them.

Sonic Youth

[Laughs] I have an anecdote about Sonic Youth. We were at a TV station — I don’t know where it was — it could’ve been Germany, it could’ve been in the States, and Sonic Youth were there. They’d just come out of this interview and I was introduced to them and said, “Oh wow, it’s so great to meet you, I’m such a great fan, I just got Daydream Nation,” blah, blah, blah, blah. Huge fan, gushing, so excited to meet them and went in there [and said to] the interviewer, “Sonic Youth — that’s amazing, they’re incredible.” He said, “Yeah, we played them your video, for ‘Fire Woman.’” I said, “Oh, did they like it?” He went, “No.” [Laughs] I was like, “Ahhh,” I was so deflated, you know? But I met Kim Gordon later at a fashion show in New York and she was really sweet, she was really cool. And yeah, I admire them greatly.

***

Dead Boys — “Sonic Reducer”

[sings] “Sonic reducer / Ain’t no loser.” Favorite cover [by] Guns N’ Roses. Something that was on the turntable for — that was a going out song. Going out in London, that was a song that would be put on repeat to get you hyped to go out in the evening. What a dope, dope piece of music. Incredible.

Seattle Supersonics

I think you’d think of Jeff Ament from Pearl Jam, because he’s a massive basketball fan. And definitely going through Seattle, we went there pretty early on, ’85 to ’86, and “She Sells Sanctuary” was actually in the Top 40 in Seattle. It was one of the few cities in America where we had a song that charted in commercial radio. We were playing a much bigger gig, I think we played the Paramount Theatre the first time in Seattle, and a lot of people were at the show were influential in the Seattle music scene, like Andrew Wood, who was the lead singer of Mother Love Bone. I became friends with all those guys, and of course when they became Pearl Jam. I love Seattle, I love the Pacific Northwest. My kids grew up there. I go there often.

Sonic booms being heard over Area 51 — is there anything to it?

Well they’re testing jets out, so they’re breaking the sound barrier…[or] are we talking about aliens? Absolutely [laughs]. Absolutely. Absolutely. I’m fascinated. I mean, who built all that stuff? Who built the pyramids? How did it all get here? I love Ancient Aliens — it’s one of my favorite shows.

Sonic the Hedgehog

Sega Genesis. I love the soundtrack. Sonic Temple[laughs]Sonic the Temple Hedgehog; yeah, the music is just drilled into my cerebral cortex ‘cause my kids used to play it all the time. So yeah, Sonic the Hedgehog: dope. [He’s] a good role model.

Oasis – “Supersonic”

Oh yeah. Anecdote about Oasis: Billy got a demo because he’s great friends with Johnny Marr and Johnny’s brother Marcus I believe was representing them at the time. And we got a demo, a four-track demo, before anybody had heard of it, and put it on and we’re like, “What?! What is this?!” I remember going to see them at the Kentish Town Forum I think it was, really early on. This place holds maybe 2,400? 2,600? The place was packed, it was rammed.

This was pre-Alan McGee, this was pre-Creation [Records] as well. It was evident that they were going to be huge because songs were so incredibly anthemic. You could sing the choruses, incredibly melodic and the sentiment of the delivery of Liam Gallagher. The way he puts a song over, he puts it over with such gravitas. He’s in it — I love his spirit. And Noel was at one of our shows, when we played a soccer stadium in Buenos Aires in the early-’90s, and he was a roadie for Inspiral Carpets at the time and he came to one of our shows.

Finally, I’ve named my fantasy football team “Somerville Sonic Temples” and have only won a single game so far this season.

Lifestyle choices. Obviously, you’ve got to make better lifestyle choices and really focus on the tactics. Yeah. You’ve got to get yourself… you might have to go clean up a little bit — clean up your act. Then you’ll destroy the competition.

And there’s always next season.

There’s always next season! So, to hell with this season. Burn it to the ground.  

THE CULT + SPIRIT ANIMAL + RUBIKON :: Saturday, December 14 at The House of Blues, 15 Lansdowne St. in Boston, MA :: 7 p.m., $40 in advance and $40 day of show :: Advance tickets :: Facebook event page