You may find this shocking. But I began my high school career with a Sony Walkman and cassette copy of The Cult's seminal 1987 release 'Electric'. My escape from the cultural hillbilly hell of rural public education was to listen to Ian Astbury screaming 'Bay-bay-abay-bay-a-bay-bay' on 'Peace Dog'. I drove to my graduation ceremony listening to 'Automatic Blues' off 'Sonic Temple' on a Sony Discman. Two decades later, with their capsule release of new songs 'Every Man And Woman Is A Star' and the poignant 'Embers' via www.thecult.us, lead vocalist, Ian Astbury and The Cult have embraced the cutting edge of digital media delivery. The week prior to their third Detroit show in the last four years, the DRB had an opportunity to talk with Ian and discuss social networking, the rapidly changing technology of the music industry, and one of the biggest challenges he personally faced as lead vocalist for The Cult.
You've been performing with The Cult for most of the last twenty five years. If you had the opportunity to go back and speak to the Ian Astbury from 1984, what advice would you provide ?
Get a lawyer! Get a decent lawyer. When I was a kid I signed some bad deals, and still haven't received the royalties from my first record label. This industry is filled with people whose background is to exploit talented young artists in many ways. Unless you have a good manager, a good lawyer who's astute enough to watch your ass. It's a business. And, the business is about making money
Has it make you cynical ?
No. Generally, I'm optimistic person. It's just a human nature, to go with the self imposed middle man. And they're trying to sell you something or give you advice that ultimately they benefit from. It's amazing to see that an industry came out of what was really a forum of a talented young people, creative young minds. You know, the expression 'America eats it's young' ? Yeah, it's very much like that. If you wanna make it your business to be the critic or the guy in the middle who is benefiting from raw talent and raw vision, then, obviously you're gonna become an expert with that. I didn't start out in music to be a business man. So, it's cost me. It's cost me at times. Over the years, I've gotten a lot wiser. But, I'm driven by the music. The music comes first. Always has. Maybe to a fault.
Do you consider yourself an idealist ?
An idealist? When I think of an 'idealist', I think of someone like the Dalai Lama. Somebody who's whole life and goal is about a higher ultimate where everybody is becoming enlightened and human sufferings ceases. That to me is idealism. In many ways, I'm more of a realist. I deal with what, immediately, is in my field of vision. And, I try and do that with integrity and compassion. Obviously, over the years you learn to make better choices. So from that perspective, I'm definitely a romantic. I always look for the silver lining. I always believe that in any situation, no matter how difficult, there is a way through. But I'm guessing in that way I am an idealist.
This is your third visit to Detroit in four years. How long can the band continue touring at this pace?
How long can we sustain it ? *Laughter* Well, coming to Detroit makes it easier because, I grew up in Hamilton, Ontario, so I feel a connection to Detroit. The two most important American cities to me as a kid growing up in Canada were Detroit and Buffalo. And New York City. I grew up directly influenced by music on the radio and what was happening in those cities. So I feel a real affinity with a city like Detroit, a steel city, an industrial city, a city that was built on industry. I kinda' grew up in that environment. So going to places where I feel I have some kind of roots, it's sustainable in that way. It's kinda of like going home. In some ways, I'm a nomadic person, I don't really have a home. I haven't had a home for many years, a real home. I've been really traveling a lot and I think right now we're in a cycle. It's likely a virtue of the band's desire to perform. We have a great live band and we really started out as a live band. Recording was secondary, to this band, to The Cult, Billy and I. It was almost like something you had to learn, but the live experience was the more immediate experience. We really grew out of live performing and I think it's taken us years to learn about the recording experience. But I think right now we're getting to a cycle of spending more time in the studio, more time recording. The capsule format that we've visualized has really setup a lamplight for more focus on recording and really getting inside that animal. You see a lot of guys who've been around for decades, where their work kind of gets weaker as they get older. I'd like to think we're actually breaking into stronger, deeper, more layered, and more textured music. So we've actually learned something over twenty years. We've become comfortable with that process.
Does the advent of the Capsule format mean an end to Cult albums? Going forward, will The Cult only release singles ?
I think those formats, those terms, 'single', 'album', 'EP' really belong in the 20th century. They describe a specific arcane format, and the industry is still holding on to some of that 20th century pre-internet communication, really traditional way of doing things. It's up for debate if there's still an audience who are quite happy to indulge in those formats. But having said that, the idea of Capsule as a 21st century format. . essentially with the capsule you can make it whatever you wanna make it. You can make it 20 songs, we can make it 1 song or a film, we can make 4 songs and a book. . I mean, were gonna see the Capsule application as being the new format for release of a body of a work. Maybe the word album will go away and we'll just say, 'have you got a new app by so and so ?'. Applications are coming, no question, and artists will (eventually) release their music through an app format. Apple is pushing that app format heavily. And who knows where that's going to lead ? A subscription module ? Maybe you buy the band's app and then you update it with new material or new products. I think websites will probably go away or probably go to applications again, whereby you have to sign up. You have to pay a fee just to be a member of the fan club. Or, you at least have to give up your e-mail address. That's really what people are interested in, getting your e-mail, personal details. So then they can inundate you with requests to buy the wonderful things that we create.
I actually enjoy being inundated with Cult requests on Facebook.
Facebook! We were late bloomers, we really didn't embrace the social network. I think individually we may have embraced it. I certainly did, but as a band we really didn't jump on it. Ultimately at the very core of this band is punk rock ethos, even though we've been through so many incarnations. We came out of punk rock. We had The Ramones and The Clash in the 70's, they were our blues artists. In the same way that Mick and Keith had Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, we had Joe Strummer, Joey Ramone, and Johnny Rotten, and even Bowie and Iggy to an extent. So it's very much DIY. I mean, being bad at your instrument was a badge of honor! We came over with the generation where being a musician wasn't important. It's really interesting to see Keith Richards biography come out recently and Mick Jagger's response. The way they talked about what they came out of and how they had to make their stand. We didn't come out of that. We came out of something very different. We came out of a generation that was neglected by those kind of artists. Those artists weren't interested in what younger artists were doing. They were only interested in what they were doing. They're were only interested in taking as much as they possibly could for themselves.
When you hear the back and forth banter between Keith and Mick, after all those years together, does it give you a good feeling in regards to the kind of relationship you have with Billy?
Well, ultimately at the end of the day we're very different people, but we have a mutual respect. There's a underlying respect and we're able to travel and work in the same environment. If we've got something to say to each other we say it. Even though we may have completely different perspectives, under The Cult umbrella, we work it out. Sometimes that can be very uncomfortable, it can be very heated, but there's no lack of passion there. Over the past a few years we've been making the best possible music we can make and whether or not we're (achieving) that, it's definitely our intention. That's what we're going for, and sometimes, you end up doing your dirty laundry in public. But, I'd like to think were both mature enough to have the balls to get in the room and have it out with each other. It's not high school. High school finished a long time ago for us. This is our life, I mean for life, and we're fully invested in it. I'm under no delusion that we're a brand like the Rolling Stones or even U2. We come from a completely different ethic, ethos, where at the end of the day it's blue collar punk rock. There's a real grounding in that. Were under no dilutions that anybody's gonna give us anything, we're gonna have to fight. We're not the kind of band to go looking for accolades either, and we're not great self promoters. We usually call it like we see it and that's the generation we came out of. I think maybe when we were younger and we went through the 'Sonic Temple period', it was a very intensely commercial period, it grew into that. It was like, we keep making choices until we were in a culdesac, and then we broke out of that again. We broke out on that with the self-titled album in '94. . . When you sign to a major record label and there's always a set of conditions that revolve around that. It was a high investment and high expectation and a high return. So we end up being in the studio with . . there's always the outside influence of the A&R guy who's monitoring your progress and really does affect ecosystem of a band. I guess we also kind of grew out of a different thing. We grew out of more of a single ethos as opposed to an album ethos. We grew up with the 7 inch single as the resident product in the market place. Because we didn't have any idea there's any longevity in this. It's about making one song at a time, but then you get in the business of making albums, getting that more commercial element. It becomes a very different animal to contend with on a daily basis, when going out and doing 200 dates a year and releasing an album. Coming off the road, then going right back in the studio. If you do that for 12 years and you've only buried about 5 or 6 people, you've done okay.
Speaking of that more commercial time, was the law suit over the photograph (on the cover of the Ceremony album) the low point ?
Yeah, that was a witch hunt! That was a very low point, that was a witch hunt. You have to understand that broke my heart. That nearly finished me off, because since I was 11 years old, I had a love affair with Native American culture. The whole intention of that image on the (Ceremony) album was to show solidarity with the indigenous North American people. We chose the image of a young person because we wanted to pay homage and respect and indication for future generations that indigenous natives are still alive on this continent and their culture is rich and vibrant. And also there is so much we can learn from them. I mean that came out in 1992, it was to reflect 500 years of native resistance. But we acquired the rights through a photographer and we were given a guarantee that he retained the rights to those images and that actual image was already used on Coors beer calendar. So if you're talking about taken to task in terms of integrity, the fact that the actual image was already used in a Coors beer calendar, which we found out later. Coors beer actually sponsored the rodeo circuit and you know the problems Native Americans have had with alcoholism. But again, I'd like to think it wasn't maybe so much the family, it was outside influences in the community that were, you know, on a witch hunt and we were an obvious target. There was just never any dialogue between the community and the band about what our intention was. We made it very clear what our intention was, in fact we played the International Native American Treaty Council event in San Francisco which was probably one of the only major musical events to even recognize Native American rights, Native Americans spirituality. Also in 1990, I created 'Gathering Of The Tribes', and the first group that I invited was the North American Indian Dance Theater. My philosophy was, if were going do a major cultural festival in the United States, we should at least invite the indigenous representatives of the community, out of sheer respect! Those wounds have since been healed, but at the end of the day it cost Billy and myself hundreds of thousands of dollars in defense fees. Far more! The American legal system is crazy!! And who got the money ? The lawyers got the money. So it was an awful experience and it was a very low point. I think between me and Billy, it was a difficult time as well. You say, maybe there IS an example there, of me being an idealist. But I still push for that, I still push. Maybe it's because of what I went through with my family when I was growing up. I lost both of my parents to cancer. Both of my parents died because of the pollution in Lake Ontario. They contracted cancer because of the steel works in Hamilton, Ontario, one of the most toxic environments in North America.
Would that be the catalyst of why you don't consider Hamilton, Ontario home? Or why you describe yourself as a nomad ?
No, it's not my home. A lot of people say 'Well, you're from the UK?'. Well, yes and no. I go back there, but I don't identify with the UK. I left when I turned 11 years of age. I've spent more time in North America than I have in the UK. In 1973, I moved to Canada and came back to North America in 1984, after about 4 years spent in the UK. I feel very connected to North America, but the one place I feel very comfortable is when I go to the Himalayas. I feel really at home with Tibetans. And I feel really at home when I travel through the plains of Canada and United States. I feel really at home in the mountains and I feel really at home with the indigenous people. I mean, I've been working on a documentary recently, that's taken me to South Dakota on several occasions now. And I've spent some time there in Yankton, South Dakota, and Pine Ridge and Rapid City. And, you know, it's still a love affair of native culture and a recognition within the matriarchal foundation of the culture. There's this incredible resource that we haven't exploited in our society. I really do think there's some great information and some great wisdom that we can incorporate into our social structure. As long as we have greedy male lawyers and politicians, we're going nowhere. We're going nowhere but down. So I think we need to change the whole gender and the whole philosophy of how government is structured, of how our spiritual lives are structured. I watched my parents both die a very slow, painful death through cancer. That was directly because of an industrial, material society. That was a real source of fuel for an angry young man, and that's why I was so self destructive and driven as a kid, as a performer. I never once asked to look at my bank account balances, I wasn't interested. I was interested in getting on stage and performing, in getting in the studio and making a noise, in getting better as a writer. I think my earnestness is one thing that's gotten me in the room with people like Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger, Rick Ruben or Trent Reznor. But, I think there was an assumption certainly from the media. I'm not saying everybody, but when people saw the Fire Woman video and the way I looked, they just sort of pinned me off as fluff.
Not everyone in the media.
Yeah, but there was definitely a lot. I'd walk into some rooms with my peers and you could cut the atmosphere with a knife.
At the time, The Cult had been lumped in with the hair metal movement.
I think everybody had long hair, but the thing was, I had the best long hair. Nobody had better hair than me. And they were all try to mimic it. I mean, Axl Road was wearing MY bandana that my girlfriend at the time put on him. Straightened his hair out, put my bandana on him for a Queen photo shoot, that was MY look.
What about the famous skull and crossbones cowboy hat ?
Jim Morrison. Someone threw that hat on stage in Miami, in 1970, and he wore it. I saw that hat when I was kid in 'No One Here Gets Out Alive', and was struck with that powerful image. It was an old World War I, nineteenth century skull that was worn by German horse troops. There are a number around because veterans would bring them back as trophies. It wasn't aNazi image, it was a pre-Wiemar republic military image. It's also symbolic. For me it was a Buddhist concept. The Buddhists incorporate death in their philosophy and the illustration that life is finite. The truth is that we will all split this mortal coil at some point and the time of death is unknown. So using that iconography wasn't so much a morbid or negative context. I took it as a positive remembrance. And I actually found one of those skulls. In fact it was really cheap, I found it in antique market in England. I could't believe it was something like two dollars. I put it on the front of my hat,and now that hat is somewhere crashed. I don't know where it is.
for the DRB
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