Interview: The Cult’s Ian Astbury on touring ‘Electric’, the plague of cell phones at concerts, and why NYC band Cults should get a new name
The tour the Cult are on right now marks an observance of 1987’s Electric, a work that was controversial from start to finish. Coming off the wildly successful Love release two years prior, the band was well into recording Peace with producer Steve Brown when frontman Ian Astbury started hearing cutting edge sounds in the clubs that his own band wasn’t laying down in the studio. Brown was out and then-up-and-comer producer Rick Rubin was in.
The producer who thrived in the diversity of working with rappers Run–D.M.C. and thrashers Slayer – at the same time – helped shape what would become Electric, a raucous collection of rock that pulled from the past, delivered something for the present and still resonates over a quarter century later. To this day, fans are split on the stylistic change between the slick, goth-tinged Love and the stripped down, straight ahead blasts of Billy Duffy’s guitar and Astbury’s “I’m a wolf child girl, howlin’ for you” declarations on Electric.
Dubbed “Electric 13,” this tour will play Electric in full for one set and a second set of hits and band favorites. The first set is actually promoting Electric Peace, a recently released two-disc set that brings together Electric and, for the first time ever presented in full, Peace. The latter had ’80s written all over some tracks and its overproduction followed suit with what the artists of the day were embracing in full. The contrast is unmistakable, making for essential examination.
Vanyaland caught up with Astbury before a show in Orlando where the always forthcoming singer spoke frankly about the circumstances surrounding Electric, what’s in a band’s name, and Miley Cyrus being a reason they are still on the road.
It should be noted that the night before we talked with Astbury, at a show in Ft. Lauderdale, he supposedly got into it twice with audience members. The first time was with someone off to the side of the stage who was inexplicably eating a piece of cake. The other was a guy texting from the front row during the performance. Reports had Astbury spitting water on the tech-savvy concertgoer which led to an argument and an ejection from the concert. This is the only time to date that he has in-depth discussed what led up to the events and what got him so irritated in the first place.
Michael Christopher: What was behind the drastic shifts that Electric went through to reach the final product?
Ian Astbury: I think you have to give it context. It came out post the modern alternative scene. It came out of punk rock, post punk – some of these things that were taboo at the time. There were things like Blue Cheer, the MC5 and eventually you start getting into things like the Doors – who were very, very important, and influenced bands like Joy Division. You realize that this is incredibly vital music and it became an influence on us and we referred to it as we were moving away from post-modern chords; and that was the connection with Rick Rubin.
Now, the real story was we went with Rick Rubin because of hip-hop, and the Beastie Boys, because they were taking drum breaks from Zeppelin or whatever and incorporating them into the tracks. It was very interesting and how stripped back it was. Hip-hop was very basically produced and I thought that would be an interesting way of producing the Cult, because at that time records were very layered.
What do you think would have been the reaction if the album came out as Peace?
It was a completely different approach. Working with Steve Brown on the initial sessions, I was actually talking about Rick Rubin. I had heard “Cooky Puss” by the Beastie Boys and I wanted to get that sound, and Steve Brown was still into that textured, layered sound and had a different vision of what it should be. I felt that the music we were making, the lifestyle we were living and what was motivating me as a writer was much rawer.
I hear some dated-ness when I listen to the Peace album…
Yeah, you would [laughs].
A song like “Groove Co.,” the saxophone could’ve come right out of St. Elmo’s Fire [a 1985 film that epitomized the decade].
It was kind of an ’80s pop thing, like Spandau Ballet and maybe hearkening back to the ’60s and ’70s when brass sections were a big part of band’s sounds – even something like the Doors having a horn section on “Touch Me.” At the time it was real musicians picking up real instruments. Who is picking up a saxophone now? Nobody. I mean, Kanye West would probably be open to using brass.
Even though it came out of the height of the MTV generation, and you guys may have dressed the part, the music on Electric is still true to what would be considered the traditional rock and roll aesthetic.
Well the visual aesthetic, the way we dressed, that came out of Britain’s dandy culture, from the working class, much in the way today where kids in the inner-city are dressing in very expensive designer clothing – it’s a status symbol. Clothes were always very, very important in the way pop stars dressed. They didn’t dress like factory workers, they didn’t dress like guys working on a production line or mechanics; the whole idea of getting onstage was you were getting away from that and creating a different reality. Look at Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, Sex Pistols, New Order and David Bowie. When MTV came along all of the sudden you have this visual medium, and who wants to stand up there dressed in a pair of overalls? It just looked so commonplace. It made sense at the time, and there was always a strong visual effect during the Love and Electric periods.
On this tour, is it going to be Electric in full or are you going to mix in the Peace songs like “Love Trooper?”
That’s a good question. We’ve decided to replace “Born to Be Wild” [Electric] with “Zap City” [Peace]. When we came out with Electric we felt like we had to authenticate ourselves in some way as having rock and roll in our blood and thought that “Born to Be Wild” would be a good way to authenticate it. I said that it didn’t feel right, but Rick said to give it a go and I said, “Ok cool, let’s give it a go, I’m open to it,” so it ended up on the record. We didn’t need it, and it never felt right, but you’re kids and you try things out. And we’ve never really played it since [the initial Electric tour]. And “Love Trooper,” we’re not performing that. That’s a direct bite from the Stooges.
Why do this tour, why now?
We love what we do, we love this process; art, creativity – however you want to refer to it, the way of life. We do it not because we have to do it but because we want to do it. With Electric 13, we didn’t have to tour, we didn’t have to go out; we could’ve just sat in the studio and worked on an album for next year. Part of it is we want to maintain this energetic space we find ourselves in and maintain our connection with our audience – that’s really important. If you go away, even if it’s for a few months, you’re almost eradicated from people’s memories.
You’ve been replaced by a kitten flying an airplane or Miley Cyrus is dropping molly and performing fellatio in the bathroom of a nightclub somewhere. You just become irrelevant, especially if you’ve been around as long as the Cult has been around.
Let me ask you about the show from last night. You apparently got into with an audience member who was texting…
What’s the story behind that?
Initially the guy was filming the whole show – he was filming everything.
With his cell phone.
Yeah. It’s kind of a disease that we have where people aren’t present and after while it kind of trips you up, it becomes a distraction. Usually you don’t let things like that trip you out, but when it’s right in front of you doing it… one guy was sitting on the side of the stage eating cake [laughs] and that tripped me out too, but I went over and ate his cake.
So the barricade was very close to the stage; and I think the subtext of this is, as musicians, we’ve seen our so-called industry be decimated to the point where the expectation level of individual fans raises to the point where you’re doing them a service, this idea that musicians are now the bottom of the food chain. When Spotify is paying 0.00004 of a cent per play – a million plays will get you 5,000 dollars. Who listens to a track a million times? Nobody. You wait like three years to get a royalty check for 18 dollars. It’s getting worse and worse and worse.
The only thing you have control over is the performance environment. When you have habitual filming going on, it’s disruptive to the performance. When you’ve got someone visualizing the show through a cell phone, that action spreads out through the crowd.
And this genius, first of all, I politely asked him to stop filming; I don’t mind if you take pictures, that’s cool, filming little bits – but don’t film the entire set; enough’s enough. At first I was kind of amused, but the next thing, he’s texting during a song. That’s incredibly disruptive, watching people in the front row so disconnected from the process – not even present. You might as well stay at home.
I commented to this guy, “Will you please stop texting?” He didn’t pay attention.
I had water in my mouth, I sprayed it right next to him, and he just exploded – exploded; trying to climb over the barriers, trying to get into a fight with me, he’s flipping me off, he’s screaming at me, “Fuck you…” And I was just like, “You’re rude. This is our house, you’re behaving disrespectfully, you’re disruptive, you’re affecting the functioning of the whole evening, and you’re disconnected – so why bother coming?”
When it goes on YouTube, it looks like shit, sounds like shit – you missed the moment. We didn’t spend blood sweat and tears creating this music to be snubbed in that way.
Stay at home.
Obviously it’s not just at music events.
I’ve been at performances on Broadway where the actors stop to say, “Turn off the cell phone. Stop texting. You’re breaking the spell. Be present.” If you want to do it, go to the back and text – almost like smoking at the airport, you should have a texting area.
If you feel like you have to? Then you have a little area you can go do it in. It’s amazing how possessive people are of their entitlement in these environments. Don’t poke the animals in the cage – you will get bitten.
Some people say, “You’re being self-righteous and indignant, these people paid to come to the show they should be able to do what they want.” So if you invite people into your home, and it is our home for the evening, would you expect them to piss on the floor and shit in your flowerpot?
Initially when we walk out onstage, pretty much 60 percent of the audience had a phone up. That’s pretty much just the way it now, upfront, and that’s cool, we have no problem with that. But when it bleeds into the entire show and you’re doing songs like “Embers” for example, which is a very intimate song, a very revealing song, and people are just really disconnected and it does break the spell. It’s like a cancerous cell of disconnection in the room.
I wanted to ask you the last time we talked but the conversation went on its own path as it sometimes does. Originality. There’s a band based out of New York, and I’m sure you’ve heard of them, called “Cults.”
And so many articles I’ve read about them say something like, “Cults – not the Cult, Cults.” Does that bother you? Or do you think it’s strange that a band would name itself something so close to your band’s name?
I mean, in many ways it shows the generational lack of connection to, like, the Cult or even knowledge about the band. People always refer to [us] as “an 80s band.” What does that mean? It means you sold three million copies of an album in 1989? When we came out, I remember Blue Oyster Cult were like, “Hey – we’re ‘The Cult!” And we’re like, “Actually, no…you’re ‘Blue Oyster Cult.’”
We came out as Southern Death Cult; it’s a word that’s in everyday use. Obviously we weren’t saying that we were Blue Oyster Cult, the same way that Cults aren’t saying that they’re the Cult. But it’s probably more to their detriment to have a name that’s so associated with an iconic band that goes out, with nine studio albums, and is still relevant and current and performing.
Eventually, in the long run, they probably would’ve been better off choosing a different name. With all due respect, I don’t know if they’ll make nine studio albums – maybe they will – but they’re kids, they’re a pop band.
It’s funny, when we first came out people called us The Cure. [Puts on a stereotypical radio DJ voice] “And nowwww… we’re gonna speak to Billy Duffy and Ian Astbury of the Cure…”
We’re like, “Cult.”
“Oh yeah… the Cult, right! Sorry!”
Or it was, “You can’t be “The Cult” – we’re not saying that!” [Puts on a mock Southerner DJ voice], “You devil worshippin’?”
And we’re like, “What?” It’s actually short for “culture,” if anything.