Interview: The Cult’s Billy Duffy talks soccer, rock and roll memoirs and avoiding the nostalgia act
The band is back in town Wednesday to perform at The Wilbur on the tail end of a brief summer jaunt before heading back to the studio to work on album number 10. Vanyaland caught up with Duffy at his California home while on a brief break from the road where we talked soccer, his longtime relationship with the Gretsch White Falcon guitar, and what rockers really do before heading out on tour.
Michael Christopher: The last time we talked was right around your birthday and you were headed off to see Chelsea and Manchester City play for the championship with Johnny Marr and Liam Gallagher.
Billy Duffy: Oh yeah! [laughs] It ended up being just me and Johnny going and we had a good time. It was very nerve-wracking the whole thing because of the way it went down; the team hadn’t won a championship for so many years, it was like the curse of the Red Sox. They subsequently won it and then won it again last year so it’s a little bit… different, you know? But it was crazy — I think I aged about 10 years.
You know, Boston had a curse and you hate the Yankees, but imagine if there were two baseball teams in Boston and one had the curse and one didn’t, and you supported the one that had the curse? That’s what it was like being a Man City fan when the other team [Manchester United] was winning everything. It was kind of brutal for a while. Very character building stuff.
What did you think about the World Cup?
This year was good, yeah, I really enjoyed it. It was a really good vibe, good atmosphere and mostly good games. It was a good advertisement for the sport, because there’s such a big push for soccer in the USA now.
Much has been made about the connection between you and Morrissey and introducing him to Johnny. Have you had a chance to read Morrissey’s autobiography that came out late last year?
When it came out, somebody sent me the pages that I’m in and I have to say that I thought I came out quite favorably. There was certainly nothing negative, which I’m glad, because don’t think there was anything negative, it was only a positive in being associated with Morrissey — or Steven as I knew him.
I’m just delirious that he and Johnny found each other and became what they became. I found Ian Astbury, who became my sort of muse and the right guy for my style and Johnny found Morrissey and the world got two great bands out of it.
Are you a big fan when it comes to rock memoirs?
It depends, because there’s so many of them. It’s a bit like trying to find the weeds in the chaff — that’s my dilemma… sorry, I’m having some drapes installed, that’s why I’m a bit distracted. That’s what us rockers do before we go on tour! I’m not scoring heroin — I’m having new fabulous drapes installed in my house. That’s what the modern rocker does, my friend.
I take out the garbage, I used to pick up the dog poo when I had a dog, I still sweep up the yard – you know what I mean, as well as riding a Harley into the sunset [laughs]. Speaking of rock memoirs, it would be great to read one, “Then I got nagged by the old lady, and I lost my keys, and then I got a bad stomach and couldn’t get out of the bathroom.” Instead it’s like, “Yeah…I injected heroin and died 20 times!”
I enjoyed Keith Richards’ [book]. I was never a big Stones guy but I like his attitude. He’s basically like a blue collar guy from London and he does have an incredible way with words when he describes stuff. But I do think he was a bit brutal when it came to Mick Jagger. When I read it I was like, “Ouch — really?” I couldn’t believe I read that.
These past eight years is probably the most the Cult have toured, at least here in the Northeast. You’ve come through two, sometimes three times a year.
There’s really no science to it. It’s a very fluid situation with music these days. It really is a very different world now and you have to kind of throw the rulebook out. But it’s not all doom and gloom, people like to go see live music, and speaking of Boston, I went to see Aerosmith the other night in L.A. Obviously I’ve toured with them many times and they were really great. I got an injection of kind of like; I went in with no expectations and was really impressed with the effort and the show they put on. It was very life affirming.
Recent tours have had a theme where you played Love in full and most recently Electric.
And we had the new album tour in between with Choice of Weapon. I think that’s the balance that we’re trying to do as a band where we do nostalgia with a lowercase “n,” and that’s why you’re not going to see us out with five other bands from the ’80s.
A couple weeks back, at the venue you’re going to be playing in Boston, a package tour came through town with Quiet Riot, Faster Pussycat, BulletBoys and Gilby Clarke, and there couldn’t have been more than a hundred people there.
Yeah… and God bless all those bands; some people you just mentioned are actually personal friends of mine and it’s like… you just kind of have to watch what you’re doing and sometimes not playing or saying “no” is the right move.
It’s a matter of not getting slotted into a particular category and being stuck there.
It’s not like a nostalgia-fest with the Cult, and that’s the great thing about Ian; he constantly challenges me and pushes forward. He’s provocative; he’s a bit of an agent provocateur, and that’s what I love about him. He doesn’t take the easy path. He’s genuine. He’s the real deal. That’s why I enjoy working with him — he’s an authentic guy, warts and all. I don’t agree with all of his decisions, but I respect his authenticity and the thought he puts into things. We don’t always agree, but there’s a respect there.
Ian’s echoed those same sentiments about you to me on multiple occasions. The last time I talked to him was right after he got into it with a fan who had been texting the entire show, right in the front row down in Florida. I wanted to get your thoughts on that, because he called it “a disease of people not being present” at shows.
I was right there, I saw it go down and that’s a particularly extreme example. That particular person, he wasn’t cool. And I don’t understand why you would want to stand for hours in front of a venue waiting for us to come on to not be present. That’s what makes humans interesting species — they’re all weird.
I’m supportive of [Ian] on that. I think it was a good point actually. It’s funny, a lot of the time with Ian he seems to crack a walnut with a hammer, but I think it opened up a debate. You walk out on stage every night and you give something to the fans, and they’ve got to give something back. That’s why live music is still valuable, it’s a unique experience.
Which relationship in your life is more intense, the one with Ian or the one with the White Falcon?
[laughs] That’s a good question. It’s gotta be Ian. The Falcon’s benign, it is what it is; it’s more symbolic than anything. The relationship with Ian is constantly changing. My relationship with the Falcon is pretty much the same, although I did put it in the cupboard for a few years in the late-’80s because I just couldn’t find a way to use it.
In all fairness, you put Ian in the cupboard for a few years in the ’90s.
Well, he put himself in a cupboard really. He went away and did other stuff. I think he wanted to be liberated from being in a known band. It seemed like he was, “I can’t do this anymore,” but then he was out with his own band shortly afterwards. I think he enjoyed that break.
It seemed to be a healthy thing in retrospect.
Yeah, I mean, we did that album with the sheep on the front [1994’s self-titled album] and then it was our era to duck and cover and duck and cover we did.
The sound of the Cult has tended to shift noticeably with each album, for better or worse. Are you far enough into the new one where you have a sense of what it’s leaning toward? Is it going to be more guitar heavy or is it going to be something more like Born Into This?
I don’t think it will be like Born Into This, I think it will be more guitar heavy. That was a “guitar light” album for a lot of reasons that I won’t get into, but it seemed a little guitar shy for a Cult album for my ears — but I am biased.
We’re not far enough in it; we’ve got completed songs, but there isn’t really enough of a cross section of material to figure out what it’s gonna be like yet. I don’t see it being a quantum departure; I don’t think it’s going to be too bonkers. I don’t know — for all I know Ian wants to make an electro dub dance album.