Q&A: Ian Astbury of The Cult
The Cult frontman Ian Astbury doesn't like to hear that a journalist's favorite songs on his band's latest album, "Choice of Weapon," are the two "obvious choices" -- "The Wolf" and "For the Animals."
"They're probably the most instantaneous songs," Astbury told SoundSpike via telephone from Birmingham, AL.
"They're instant. There's no question they have very strong melodic characteristics. Once you listen to the record, though, it goes so much deeper than that. They're the points of entry. They give a flash of color. They give a flash of a knife. They indicate an intention. When you go deeper into the record, other layers are revealed. That's kind of really the epicenter of this record. That's why this body really resonates. We didn't go into the studio with the intention of recording singles. The format of recording singles is virtually destroyed rock music."
"For the Animals" and "The Wolf," however, helped "Choice of Weapon" debut at No. 34 on The Billboard 200 album chart. "Choice of Weapon" made impressive entries on the UK charts (No. 20) as well as the Canadian national charts (No. 15). The album was written by Astbury and guitarist Billy Duffy, and produced by Bob Rock and Chris Goss.
The Cult recently wrapped up a U.S. trek with Against Me! And The Icarus Line supporting. They'll play a few more North American shows later this month.
Astbury spoke to SoundSpike about his never-ending tour, the evil that is the 3-minute pop song and how he never looks back.
How's the tour going?
It is. We're never off tour. I haven't been off tour since I was 19. It's weird. I'm bored with all those terms -- tour. It's just our lives pretty much. I'm tired of the "We Can't Think of Anything Else to Name It Tour," "I'm So Happy I Could Dance Tour." It's almost like you live your life in segments. Then what happens in between spaces, you're in the supermarkets, domestic life. This is our lives. This is what we do. It's going.
I love your album "Choice of Weapon." What inspired it?
Oh man. What inspires a life? A lot. You'd have to guide me into a question, really, about it. There are so many different aspects about it. There's not one particular theme. It's so multifaceted. It's so difficult to really reveal. [sighs]
I think my favorite song on the album is "The Wolf."
Really? Why so?
I'm not sure. "The Wolf" and "For the Animals."
Interesting. How many times have you played the album? I'm intrigued to know.
Everybody robotically goes out and makes songs that are 3 minutes long, 3 1/2 minutes long. They get played on the radio. It's almost like a very bad habit. That's why the magic doesn't happen anymore in music -- because everybody's making cookie-cutter stuff or attempting to make something that fits into certain framework that's been determined by the format. It's just a bad format. For us, making that observation, what is wrong? What is wrong? What is the neurosis that we've gotten ourselves into? That was it. I was going, "Man, that's incredible." We've grown up with that, too. We grew up with the 7-inch single. Then we grow up. Every time you make a record, what's the lead cut? What's the lead track? There is no radio anymore, pretty much. There are very few stations that program their own music in the United States. So then you're competing with another 10,000 artists for a very limited amount of airspace. Why bother trying to fit your music for the format?
What was the goal of the album?
The way we approached this record was to try and throw all that in the garbage and come with a different perspective. That's why we have songs like "Life>Death," "Elemental Light," "Wilderness Now," "This Night in the City Forever." The flipside to that formatted philosophy. The arrangements are not really arrangements you would make for radio. They're arrangements that are made for the song. The mantra was "Serve the Song." Probably the song that has the most radio ability is "The Wolf." I'm intrigued when they find "The Wolf" to be the most important song, because having lived and loved music since I was born, I think I have a pretty good idea on what is average, what is good and what is great -- and certainly from what we do. I think "The Wolf" is good, but I think "Life>Death" is great. It may not necessarily be a radio song, it may not be instantaneous. It's something you have to live with. Something you have to let it find its way into you and vice-versa. It's a song you have a relationship with. It's one of those songs that kind of maybe goes by at first and after three or four listens it draws you in. It's very hypnotic. It's different. I think it's more readily in society to go with something familiar than we are to go with something that's different or unique or new. It's a very personal kind of relationship. We 're very economical about how we do things. We're in a very limited time frame. Sometimes you hear bands going, "We've got 40 songs." "We've got 60 songs." And you're going, "Are any of them any good?" I could sit here right now and write 60 pieces of music, no problem, all day long. Then you have to determine what's good, what's strong, what's really resonating with you. With us we decided this time around, instead of having 20 to 30 pieces of music, we wanted to cut it down and have it lay the focus on the songs. We pretty much were working on 11 songs, maybe 12 at the most. Then we had four songs from the previous capsule. All the layers and textures of these songs, these songs have been played through by the band on the floor in the studio. They've been worked through by Chris Goss and Bob Rock. It's been a real process, whereas our last album was made in 15 days. We had 18 songs that we'd written in 21 days. Then we had to complete the opposite: 18 songs in 21 days, and then we had to cut it down to 10 songs to record in 15 days. It's like insanity. Go in the studio and cut everything -- drums, bass, vocals, backing tracks, all the overdubs. Bang. We just throw ourselves into a situation where we're contractually obliged to deliver a record at a certain time. This record was the opposite. We did some demos in New York in 2009. We did some stuff in 2010. We did the capsules in 2010, which are the four songs with Chris. In 2011, we did probably around about late January, February demos for this record. I like to call it "discovery" because then you "discover" what you've got. That's the point when you put all the paint on the canvas. You are looking at like 30, 40 pieces of music. Very quickly we had to put it up listen to it, and cut it down to those 10 songs. Instead of thinking you cut maybe 20 songs and you work on all those songs, we immediately went to the 10 songs. That was the album. That was the body of work. The interesting thing is when you really focus on 10 pieces as opposed to 30, that story of those 10 songs they really begin to influence each other -- lyrically, sonically, energetically. That's when you have a great album they grow up together. They influence each other. They evolve together. Because you can't work on one song for, like, three or four days in a row. You work on it. You don't do the same exercises when you go to the gym. It's the same thing with a song. You work it until you've got nothing left on it. Three days, you come back to it. It gives the opportunity for the songs to really develop. It might not make sense, if you have any understanding of the songwriting process. I think from the outside it's very different than what really goes on in the inside with bands and artists in the studio. People talk about the process, it's such an internal process. What I'm sharing with you is only part of the puzzle. A whole 'nother thing goes on with your own psychology. It's vastly complicated. Why certain words, you'd probably have to go and ask a psychologist. That was a very long-winded answer to a very short question.
What did Bob Rock bring to the band?
In this instance, Chris Goss was the real father of the whole record. Chris Goss is probably the less recognized producer of the two. Chris works more intuitive. He puts on a guitar. He's a real player. We get on the floor and he plays. He plays with the band. He doesn't really talk through a solution or an idea. He plays it for you. You play through it. It's a different process. He also is someone who works with intuition. Bob is much more of a craftsman in the sense that Bob really has lived and breathed in the studios for well over 25 years. He's a great engineer. He can actually set up, place a microphone, EQ the sound. He's an incredible engineer. The sound that he has in his head is the song that he gets. He's brilliant with structure -- structuring harmonies, structuring melodic passages, structuring arrangements. Chris is kind of the esoteric spiritual Buddha. Bob is the erudite scholar. He's more the guy that refines that spiritual energy. ... Working with the two of them was something we had never done before. That's why on one level you do have things like "The Wolf" and then another level you do have things like "This Night in the City Forever" or "Life>Death."
How do you feel that "Choice of Weapon" fits in with the catalog?
I don't know. You guys have to decide that one. I [determine] very much in the present. When I walk out the door in the morning I don't define myself by what I've done yesterday. I'm very present with what we do. Again, it's that objectification you get people objectify you in a certain way. If everyone had to be objectified in a similar way where somebody pulls out the high school yearbook and says, "Hey, you're this guy." "No, no, no, that's somebody else. I don't even know who that person was. I certainly wouldn't be wearing the same clothes." Hopefully you've evolved. I like to think this is more evolved where we're at right now. In many ways, there will be a lot of similarities between the songs because we're the same people doing it. I like to think it sits right nicely with "Sonic Temple," "Love" and "Electric." It feels like one of those epic records that we've made. We made a couple of records that were kind of personal or maybe we've made a few -- "Beyond Good and Evil" and "Born Into This" and the '94 eponymous record. All those records were made in a raw way that weren't realized. They weren't really produced. They produced themselves. They're more like sketches or unfinished works. But they were done intentionally that way. There's no real place in many ways. We were just expressing ourselves. But this record's been given a lot more consideration. I think that's kind of evident in the production values.
Why did you choose to do the album that way?
It came to that place. Maybe the focus from within the band, the focus from within Billy and I. Sometimes you have a creative idea and it's not fully formed. It's an instinct. You gotta kind of grab it very quickly, if you don't get it initially, it's going to wrestle and get away from you. You might only get the essence from you. But sometimes you can get an idea and it comes up, you get it you get it and you wrangle it and you've got hold of it then you really have to bring it home. That's when the work really begins. In this instance, we were able to grab these ideas very early on and have a very clear kind of in terms of feeling where it was going to be where it was going to go. If you work with someone like Bob Rock, he's great at taking an idea and very quickly giving it some kind of form and naming what it is. Then you work toward that. As opposed to you get an idea then you just kind of let it have its own rules and regulations. Eventually it ends up at a certain destination. You don't even know where you got there. That can be cool, too, it's a different philosophy of recording. Either way, you put the time in, you turn up , do the hard work. People say how can making music be hard work? It's not hard in terms of manual labor. It's hard in terms of an emotional process. That's how you challenge yourself. You have to be out of your comfort zone. You start getting some emotional territory that's difficult, challenging then you find yourself. One of the hard things is being honest with yourself. The closer you get to that, that's where the real excitement begins. Especially for me. I really like getting to that place. You have to build an environment in the studio to be safe. The people you're working with have to be supportive. It's much like making films. The set they're there not to goof around but to build a certain scene with a certain intention. Very specific lenses have been used on the camera, very specific lights, costumes, it's all there for specific intention. Similar thing with a song, the only thing with the song is you're not doing an internal visual. The medium isn't visual. You have to go inward, it has to be a safe environment in that way. I think you feel the results.
19 - Concord, CA - Sleep Train Pavilion at Concord (with ZZ Top)
22 - Vancouver, British Columbia - Commodore Ballroom
28 - Regina, Saskatchewan - Brandt Centre
31 - Toronto, Ontario - Phoenix Concert Theatre
11 - Newcastle upon Tyne, England - Metro Radio Arena
12 - Sheffield, England - Motorpoint Arena
14 - Manchester, England - Manchester Arena
15 - Birmingham, England - LG Arena
16 - London, England - Wembley Arena