Our friends at ZANI recently interviewed one of rock’s most intriguing front men ever - Ian Astbury of The Cult. He discusses the future of music, UNKLE, Damien Hirst, Hip Hop, Filmmaking, The Cult, The Doors and much more.
“When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, and religion. I shall try to fly by those nets”.
James Joyce – A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Your place of origin is an important piece of our psychosocial make up. It shapes our views, religion, behaviour and attitude. Staying loyal to your roots is commendable and the heritage of your municipality is passed down to the next generation, creating a sense of worth and pride.
Yet for some residents of a young neighbourhood, there is a yearning for escape. A classic ‘boys own’ story, of a lad who runs away from home to join the circus.
He dreams of a magical adventure full of weird and wonderful people and exotic places. Free of school, religion and mundane rituals; here he imagines he will spend each day feeding the tigers, learning the tricks and forging new friendships that are not based on geographic locations. What child wouldn’t want that? Certainly more inspiring thought than a Monday morning assembly in a cold school hall singing a meaningless hymn.
You could say that The Cult’s front man Ian Astbury is one of those runaway children. Like the child that runs away he takes a gamble with his life, and with a gamble there are only two outcomes, you either win or you lose.
OK, we all know that Ian Astbury did not become a success from performing in the circus ring. However he did ply his trade from an industry that is equally full of colourful characters and strange experiences, the music business.
Born twelve miles from Liverpool city centre in Heswall, Astbury spent a lot of his childhood in Glasgow, Birkenhead, Liverpool and Canada, and when he was old enough to fly the nest, became a nomad and homeless as he followed bands in London, Belfast and Liverpool. In a way he was travelling with the Circus. It was music, and in particular Punk that Astbury viewed as an escape and an art form to express himself.
Yet it was not until the early eighties, when he had settled down in Bradford, that he formed his first proper band, Southern Death Cult. A positive Punk band that would lay the seeds for his success as a singer, and in turn he would meet his kindred spirit in the form of guitarist supreme Billy Duffy, an axe man who has certainly forged his name in rock and roll history.
Billy Duffy was a guitarist in Kirk Brandon’s (Vocals and guitar) and Stan Stammer’s (Bass) post Punk rock band Theatre of Hate, a band that was notorious for hiring and firing under the strict regime of Brandon and Stammers. Duffy was fired during a tour of Scotland in the early eighties.
Astbury and Duffy have always remained the core members of the band with many musicians joining them over the years, on a par to Brandon and Stammers.
After a chance meeting in the springtime of 1983 in London’s Kensington Market (where Astbury had moved to and where Duffy was working) that they decided to join forces to form Death Cult, eventually evolving to become The Cult. Maybe it was the name change, or Astbury’s and Duffy’s move away from punk to rock that gave them the success that both of them had dreamed of since experiencing music for the first time. The Cult recorded and released their critically acclaimed album Love in 1985, featuring three hits singles: ‘She Sells Sanctuary’, ‘Rain’ and ‘Revolution’. It was not their debut album, having released ‘Dreamtime’ in ‘84, but it was the album that put The Cult on the map.
With Astbury’s powerful baritone vocal range, and Duffy’s beefy and mighty guitar sound, The Cult’s sound soon become highly distinctive, with echoes of Punk, a late sixties and early seventies rock influence, a streak of psychedelia and later on hip hop beats. Yet The Cult are far from retro. In fact they have a contemporary rock sound influenced by the past and present, with such credibility and style it is no wonder that The Cult have been successful over three decades across the world.
Like all credible musicians, Duffy and Astbury like to try out new sounds and in doing so they sometimes alienate their fans. When The Cult moved away from Sixties influence sound to a more rockier sound with ‘Electric’, the follow up to ‘Love’, many of the original fans were none too happy.
In 2009 The Cult played homage to the ‘Love’ album on their world tour, playing it in its entirety.
As well as having a distinctive voice, Astbury is a flamboyant dresser, prepared to speak his mind and be involved in other projects, perfect credentials for any lead singer. Certainly Astbury has not gone unnoticed by the world, and was even asked by Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger of The Doors, to perform with them in 2002, the first singer to do so since the death of the legendary vocalists Jim Morrison 3rd July 1971. Krieger and Manzarek took on vocal role until 1973 after Morrison. Yet Astbury was never seen as a replacement for Jim Morrison, since that would have been an impossible task.
With such presence in the world of music, ZANI were over the moon when Ian Astbury agreed to meet us at an airport whilst he was waiting for a flight. We discussed his life, his vision, The Cult, Hip Hop, film and much more.
ZANI – Let us talk about the future of bands to begin with. From my research, you have adapted and embraced technology, and you say that bands should now perhaps extend their body of work from music to making films, and call that format-capsule collection-a collection of the above and a predecessor of the EP.
Ian Astbury – Part of the problem is that formats are being created and named by a generation that still uses the past as a reference. EP means Elongated Play, it’s no longer a relevant term in 2010 folks. To encapsulate a collection in all formats to me makes more sense .I have less time to digest and create an album, of course there will always be exceptions to the rule and I like the idea of release as you go. It keeps things fresh for the Artist and the audience. Add a film, book or article of clothing to the capsule these are things worth exploring. I am already editing my first short film that may or may not be a part of The Cult’s next release.
ZANI - We will talk about films later, I also understand that you feel that a band should go beyond the bog standard of a bass player, drummer, guitar player and a singer, but instead should be a filmmaker, computer expert and maybe an accountant.
As you said it’s not John, Paul, George and Ringo anymore. That is a strong statement, but rings true considering the technology we have at our disposal. Recording studios, film editing facilities as well as accountancy packages go hand in hand with the old trusty acoustic guitar in the corner.
Ian Astbury – I think the relationship of the creator to their composing instrument of choice will always be a time-honoured tradition. However so too are laptops, film cameras like the Canon 5D and 7D and the software Final Cut Pro puts you in the Director and Editors chair. All of a sudden you are in the film business.
Pink Floyd, The Stones, Doors, The Beatles, The Pistols and The Who have all made films. We live in a ‘Visual First’ culture. Why not embrace your inner Herzog, and the same goes for Graphic design and self generated PR through social networks. Ring tones seem more popular than the actual songs in many situations these days. It’s instant gratification.
ZANI -Very true about ring tones and bands making films. I suppose one of the bands that supports the above is UNKLE, who you have worked with and staying within the rap/hip hop scene I understand you are big fan of Die Antwoord, who have been described as a ‘next level rap-rave krew’. Please tell us about this band and do you plan to work with them?
Ian Astbury – James Lavelle of UNKLE to me is a renaissance man who has his hand on every aspect of his brand more like a Kubrick figure. He is always pushing the boundaries of his imagination; look at the diversity of artists he has worked with? James is certainly an innovator and is often misunderstood and harshly critiqued.
To Me, Die Antwoord are a band and a collective who have embraced the zeitgeist trans global melting pot; great hooks and original presentation .I am happy just being a fan.
ZANI – Well you’ve got me into them, and I would like to interview James Lavelle. The Cult made a legendary cross over with rock and hip hop, by using the production skills of Def Jam record founder Rick Rubin for your critically acclaimed album, Electric. How did that partnership come about and please tell us about the experience of working with someone like Rick Rubin?
Ian Astbury – I first heard Ricks’ production (Beastie Boys Cookie Puss) in a Toronto club in 1984 and immediately knew that we had to record with him. We originally approached him to remix Electric and he ended up re-recording the entire album. Rubin helped us strip down to the basics and to move forward. Later he recorded The Cult’s ‘The Witch’ in ‘93. Break beats and dirty bass with a Rock N Roll riff.
ZANI – Great track. In the mid eighties, there was a lot of collaboration with Hip Hop and Rock, The Cult and Rick Rubin, as mentioned, Run DMC and Aerosmith re-recording Aerosmith’s classic Walk This Way, as well as Public Enemy and Anthrax touring and recording on Public Enemy’s Bring The Noise in 1991. Initial reaction, Hip Hop and Rock collaborations don’t make sense, but to paraphrase Chuck D on working with Anthrax it made too much sense, and I think that pretty well sums it up, as both musical genres are powerful, raw, and passionate, would you agree with that?
Ian Astbury – You have to understand that there was a lot of camaraderie between the Hip Hop and Rock community; we were all underdogs coming up at the same time. Def Jam paved the way with LL Cool J, Run DMC, Public Enemy, Ice T, NWA and that’s one of the reasons I conceived ‘A Gathering Of The Tribes’, to showcase our generation and the multiplicity of it all. Of course this influenced Lollapalooza and the rest as they say is history.
ZANI - Are there any Hip Hop and Rap bands that The Cult would like to work with in 2010, because it would rock in more ways than one?
Ian Astbury – Well for me I would love to work with Quest Love, and I absolutely love Rza. I admire Jay Z. I did a session with Lupe Fiasco, so who knows if that will see the light of day (I even played the drums on a track and paved the way for him to cover Primal Scream’s ‘Destroy All Hippies’).
ZANI – They would be interesting. But are the fans going to be treated to a new album this year, produced by Chris Goss (QOTSA/Masters of Reality). Is that true?
Ian Astbury – No album plans right now. I’m trying to push the Capsule Idea. It’s already happening here and there especially in the fashion community. They are making films to present the sentiment of the clothes, most magnificently the Ryan McGinlay and Tilda Swinton Pringle short film ‘Yes Pringle’. We already have four songs in the can and I’m editing a short film so it’s all about how we roll it out from here on in.
ZANI - Look forward to it. Didn’t you recently say that the album is dead, and young artists don’t have to make albums?
Ian Astbury -The album has been cannibalized by the single tracks for sale model and down load (but really works in a vinyl context when its good work of course). People should embrace digital down loads.
ZANI – The Cult have worked with a variety of great producers from Youth (Killing Joke) to Rick Rubin as mentioned. Do you approach each album with the view of changing the recording processes so, as a band, are you challenging yourselves and evolving?
Ian Astbury – It’s really about plugging into what we are experiencing at the time of recording. To express what we are hearing, seeing, feeling and having the producer facilitate that vision. We are taking so much more time with Goss to fully realize the songs. Youth only had two weeks in the studio to record the band. We arrived with demos completed in eighteen days of pre-production. So we burned through that session and something got lost in the hustle, but some songs will be discovered in the future as Cult nuggets. Perhaps.
ZANI - Moving away from music for a while, like a lot of conscious artists, you have many interests outside of this field, one being the theatre. You produced John Patrick’s ‘Savage in Limbo’; please tell us about the play and if you intend to do more theatre work?
Ian Astbury – Living in NYC there is an amazing theatre scene, as there is in London. I just became drawn into acting and the energy of live theatre. I found myself in the position to work with a group of actors who where passionate about putting up Savage and just needed a producer to help out. That’s where I came in. So now you can add theatrical producer to my credits – legitimately!
ZANI – Were you attracted to the work of John Patrick, because he came from a working class family from the Bronx, and like many great artists he was self taught and driven by his passion?
Ian Astbury – Absolutely. There is a raw animal in John Patrick’s work, an untamed quality but also great sensitivity and depth with sharp wit and vision.
ZANI - Have you ever considered directing a play, and if so, which one would it be and why?
Ian Astbury – I would love to be involved in something like the ‘Master and Margarita’ by Russian writer Mikael Bhulakov. A stage adaptation of that would be incredible! Also a play of ‘1984’ using Bowies’ ‘Diamond Dogs’. Dante’s ‘Inferno’ set in Afghanistan could be intense. I love Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’ too. I am writing some original screenplays that may work well in a theatrical setting.
ZANI - Another big interest of yours, is film, which we have briefly covered and I see you are becoming more involved. One project is a documentary called ‘Conquest’ with Andrea Smith, which is based on her book ‘Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide’. Please tell us about the book and the author herself, because it sounds a moving story.
Ian Astbury – This is a deeply layered and dense subject that’s difficult to encapsulate in this format but I shall try. The indigenous women of the world retain wisdom and that is one of our most precious resources. That wisdom is desperately needed in our society as the patriarchal system isn’t working and we need to readdress the balance quickly. Indigenous women hold the key.
ZANI – Another film is ‘Moorish Dreams’, which is about child trafficking in North Africa
Ian Astbury – I have since walked away from that project as it became too involved and conflicted with ’Conquest and Ruins’ that goes deeper into the abyss.
ZANI – I am sorry to hear that, but do you think the above fits in with the recent vogue trend of adopting children from Africa, and more recently ten American Baptists having been charged with children trafficking after the earthquake in Haiti.
Ian Astbury – It’s sad that children are adopted like exotic pets when there are beautiful children in our own communities with no family. When I was a little boy my best friend was an orphan I still remember going to his sixth birthday party, it affected me profoundly.
The idea that children are abducted into sex slavery or as soldiers or as exotic pets is a travesty. Of course there are wonderful people who step in and really give these children a loving home but it’s an incredibly complex situation. Native American kids are the least likely ethnic group to be adopted in the USA.
ZANI – It must be such a frightening experience for any child of any nationality to be taken from their country of birth for adoption or even worse.
Ian Astbury – Children have no voice in the matter. I do think that the women in their community should be consulted.
ZANI – You come across as a very conscientious man who cares for other people and especially those who have suffered. That is a wonderful and admirable trait to have. Have you always had this caring side, or did you start off as an arrogant rock and roll singer after the chicks, the dollars and the drugs?
Ian Astbury – My story is like many a series of events that led me into a place of action and compassion. I experienced the alienation of being an immigrant in a new land, I watched my mother die a slow death from cancer and later my father, directly associated to toxic pollution from a steel works. I watched my family be torn apart by this, not to mention the violence and poverty that we also experienced. The more successful I became the more self-destructive I got. It didn’t compute, it felt alien to be idolized in any way. I have since done a lot of soul searching and arrived at a more positive place.
ZANI – Going back to film, you recently purchased a Canon 5D camera and started working with it, Have you got any examples of work you will show soon or is it just for personal use ?
Ian Astbury – At present everything is under wraps. There are many great examples of peoples work out there and some cynics have rushed out films to have the bragging rights of being first. I’m taking my time. When it’s ready, it’s ready. I shall definitely share it when I am done.
ZANI - I understand the recent move into filmmaking is because you feel we are moving more into a visual world, which I agree with. More people are using the Internet for their news, and a visual world can be exciting.
Ian Astbury – I have had an intense love of film since I was really young and now have the resources to attempt my own visions. I have dabbled in the videos, adding ideas but this is certainly more involved.
ZANI – The Internet is certainly an exciting thing, and most definitely in it’s infancy. However my concern is that people will be become lazy and get the information that is readily available, such as Wikipedia, which we all know, does not have all the correct facts. Does that concern you?
Ian Astbury – Humans have always chosen the path of least resistance. I say cover all bases with Wikipedia and the blogs but also make sure your home base is on point. We are overhauling The Cult site right now. I can only speak for me, as I tend to get my news and insights from different sources. Travel, books, films, the street, the net, blogs, magazines, friends, galleries, clairvoyance, shadows and whispers – just pay attention to it all.
When everyone was going on about Tibet, I just went and saw with my own eyes. It was a profound adventure. The people I encountered were genuinely grateful for the presence of Westerners who came to Tibet to spread the word of what’s going on within their country.
ZANI – Did you know Wikipedia are now highly ruthless with links being placed in their articles? For instance, if this interview goes live and you approve it, I will put the link on your page or The Cult’s page, and it will be taken off within about ten minutes. In the US many music blogs are being closed down. Why? I don’t really know. That is censorship, wouldn’t you agree?
Ian Astbury – Its all fear of litigation especially in the US where the lawyer is King or Queen. Reinterpretation of the law in the US is a multi billion-dollar industry. I tend to answer to the greater laws in play-nature.
ZANI – I understand that you were involved in directing The Cult’s music videos, and as you said, you have written a screenplay. Will we see Ian Astbury the film director one day?
Ian Astbury – I tend to have strong visual ideas and you can see my hand in the graphics and videos we have made. I would love to direct a full-length feature one day. I am working on several ideas for screenplays. No rush; it’s a process I enjoy. I have always loved history and research is something I love, especially going to the actual location of past events.
ZANI - Research is key. Before you became a singer, did you find yourself in the cinema thinking about a career in film?
Ian Astbury – I loved film as a child especially the epics like David Lean’s ‘Lawrence Of Arabia’, which fired my imagination. I was also an ABC minor in Glasgow. The Saturday morning cinema. Kids ran riot whilst mothers did the shopping. It was absolute anarchy, usually the ushers were pensioners and the kids just threw shit, fought and chased each other around, but I actually like to watch the films Chaplin, Keaton, Flash Gordon, old John Ford westerns and Tom & Jerry of course.
ZANI – On the subject of dreams, it would be fair to say that Jim Morrison was a hero of yours, and you performed with Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger of The Doors for their reformation, who were studying film before they became musicians. OK, I know you have been asked this before, but how did you feel before this project took off?
Ian Astbury – Danny Sugarman originally asked me if I had any interest in performing with The Doors in 1989. He actually approached me on behalf of Oliver Stone who was casting for The Doors film. We all went out together and had a few cocktails. Oliver and I spent most of our time talking about the indigenous situation in North America, so this was something that was long in the making.
Danny and Ray convened a meeting at Danny’s house to discuss if I was interested in doing several shows. It ended up being 150 nearly as many as Morrison. They were serious right from the get go and I knew that if I didn’t say yes I would regret this missed opportunity. I was nervous and excited. I knew it would be controversial as Doors fans are extremely partisan.
ZANI – All fans are.
Ian Astbury – Yes I know. The first ten to fifteen shows where shaky and I was ripped down by the New York Times in an early review and I received heated emails and cat calls but after show fifteen things began to click. I, at no time, was under the delusion that I was replacing Morrison or even trying to emulate him. There was and always will be only one Jim Morrison.
ZANI – I agree, and you never came across that you were.
Ian Astbury – I knew I had a responsibility to the band and the fans to do an authentic performance of Morrison’s vocals. So I spent a lot of time getting inside the words and the performance space. It was the adventure of a lifetime. I could go on here but I’ll leave it for the book.
ZANI – Did you feel you ever got a sign of approval from Jim Morrison or did you visit his grave in Paris for a sign, sorry to sound like a wanker, but I am so intrigued by this project.
Ian Astbury – No, but probably the biggest compliment came from Dorothy, Ray’s wife, who was present for many performances and she knew Jim before Ray. She took me aside and told me I was honouring the legacy. As did Michael McClure, a famous beat poet, who was a friend and influence of Jim’s. You know at the end of the day the armchair critics were divided. I certainly used to say to my detractors please step right up to the mic! No one ever did.
ZANI - Whilst we are on the subject of The Doors, and film, their song ‘The End’ certainly worked well with ‘Apocalypse Now’.
Ian Astbury – For me seeing Apocalypse Now changed my life. It was an epic, exotic other world. I was sixteen years old, a friend and I went to see it in Glasgow. We sneaked in a bottle of cheap wine each and proceeded to get drunk watching this profound tale open up before us and by the time the Kurtz compound scene arrived, I had become Willard. The opening scene in the Saigon hotel room is something I have acted out in hundreds of isolated hotel rooms around the world.
ZANI - I know the one. Are there any plans to work with them again, or maybe you and Billy Duffy with Ray and Rob?
Ian Astbury – I would love to play with Ray and Robbie again.
ZANI – If The Cult needed a new singer, who do you think would be worthy to step into your shoes?
Ian Astbury – I have never thought about that. I would like to think someone charismatic with a killer baritone, boy or girl.
ZANI -I heard that another band you are a big fan is Sunn 0))) who are seen as an experimental band, what is about this band that you like?
Ian Astbury – I wouldn’t say they are experimental. Their ideas may come from experimentation but they have a specific vision. I worship Sunn 0))). Pure ritual space transcendent. Damien Hirst’s paintings and art do the same thing to me. It’s a ritual space of the highest order there is no language to explain the experience of attending a SUNN O))) Mass.
I love the fact that Damien Hirst addresses mortality in his work and the more profound elements of life and death. He is our most important living artist and our biggest rock star.
ZANI – I also understand you have your own clothing range, and that you like the clothes made by designer Rick Owens. What do like about his clothes and what is your own clothing range?
Ian Astbury -Rick Owens is more of a fine artist. He cuts clothes in a unique way that reflects the utilitarian and operatic scope of modern times.
ZANI – OK winding down now, I understand that a director you admire a lot is Russian film maker Andrei Tarkovksy, who died in 1986. I am not familiar with his work other than his film ‘Stalker’, and that he was badly treated in his home country, which led him to leave and make films in Italy. What do you like about his work?
Ian Astbury – What’s not to love? Beautiful languid drawn out shots, painstakingly planned, evoking a deep emotive catharsis, ‘Mirror Solaris’ is amazing.
ZANI - As a well-travelled man, would I be right in thinking that your favourite place in the world is Tibet?
Ian Astbury – One of them, I have many places that I love for many different reasons; Tokyo, Vancouver, Montreal Paris, London, New York, San Francisco, Florence and The Highlands of Scotland.
Well Ian Astbury has certainly come a long way from home, where as a child he was captivated by the magic of music and film. His inner strength, talent and belief has taken him across the world and opened his mind.
Astbury will always remain the front man of The Cult, and may return to The Doors, even though Brett Scallions of Fuel seems to have that role for now. Yet at ZANI we believe in the near future that we will see more film and theatre related projects from him
Ian Astbury is a highly intelligent, deeply conscious, caring visionary; a thoughtful man. He digests information and studies the world around him, which he uses to improve his life and his Art. Astbury reflects on the past with fondness, and relishes the future. He seems to resist fame, yet in the same breath appreciates where it has taken him
From speaking to him, you can sense that underneath this man is a fighter who is willing to stand his ground for all he believes in. A Modern Renaissance man
Ian Astbury may not have run away to join the circus, but from entering the world of music he has certainly flown through all the nets of nationality, language, and religion, to become a remarkable person who will continue to inspire and enlighten us for many more years to come.
© Words – Matteo Sedazzari/ZANI Ltd
Additional material – Tracey Wilmot
Published with kind permission – view interview at original Source
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