By Noah Hubbell
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For a man whose band is attempting to recapture a spot atop the hard-rock heap after nearly a decade of commercial doldrums, you might expect Cult singer Ian Astbury to work every press opportunity like a twenty-dollar hooker on speed. Instead, he devoted a seemingly inordinate portion of a recent phone interview not to such meaty matters as his band's rise, fall and nascent resurgence, but to his fascination with that piece of American tonsorial tomfoolery known as the mullet.
"Billy Ray Cyrus has got a lot to answer for," Astbury opines after breaking away from the interview to point out an especially egregious example -- "all business in front, party in back" -- to his traveling companions. "That is not an attractive haircut on anyone -- man, woman or child," he continues, surmising aloud that a photo of the specimen sitting before them might be worthy of inclusion in the band's scrapbook.
"In America," Astbury states, "you find these cultural ambiguities which are quite entertaining. The mullet is definitely one point of conversation. It doesn't matter who you're going to see, either."
One certainty of Yankee culture at the dawn of the new century, Astbury postulates, is that you're bound to see at least one member, and probably more, of every crowd sporting the 'do.
Aside from its entertainment value, the comedic coif might provide Astbury with a form of reassurance -- which may be exactly what he needs at this stage in his band's trajectory. The Cult has careened from college-rock curiosity to coliseum-crunching juggernaut and back to relative obscurity in a manner that would make producers of VH1's Behind the Music cream their Calvins. The band's '80s-era excesses, Astbury confesses, were "endless," noting that he personally burned through millions during that time.
"There've been plenty of arrests, drunken incidents, violence and outrageous behavior," Astbury offers, "but that's all par for the course. We're not really looking in the media to be vilified or say we're an authentic band because we behave badly. [Because] without the music, forget about it. It doesn't matter how many TV sets you throw out of hotel rooms or how many times you OD on the road. You can be a clown all you want. There's a lot of circus and not enough good music going on" in today's market, he says.
Granted, the Cult hasn't fully outgrown its taste for high-wire antics. "There's been incidents on this tour already," says Astbury, including a mosh-pit melee at the previous night's gig. Even before that, there was a dustup between guitarist Billy Duffy and bassist Martyn Lenoble that resulted in the latter's being replaced with Brit Billy Morrison just prior to the completion of the band's latest long-player, Beyond Good and Evil.
Nor is Astbury himself treading the straight-and-narrow path. When asked if he's living the sober lifestyle that provided subject matter for most of an eponymous 1994 CD that justifiably stiffed, he replies, "I live my life the way I choose to live it, you know? It just is as it is. I do what I want to do when I want to do it."
Luckily for Cult fans, what Astbury really wants to do these days is sing. This news should come as a relief after rumors in the mid-'90s that his sometimes-straining vocal style had ruined his pipes to the point that touring was no longer an option. In truth, he claims, "We took a four-year break because we were just exhausted." As for his vocal woes, he blames these on fatigue and the phlegm produced by his sensitive upper-respiratory tract enduring air conditioning and other hazards of life on the road. "I've been to a voice specialist," the singer adds. "I have no nodes, no polyps, nothing."
Of course, skeptics might scoff that the Cult's reformation has less to do with Astbury's clean bill of health than with his and his bandmembers' empty bank accounts. "I'm broke," he confesses cheerfully. But when asked what role this fact plays in the band's reunion, which began with a series of 1999 concerts that included a date at Denver's Fillmore, he claims, "It's pretty obvious it's about the music. If you're joining a band to make money, forget about it, because very, very few actually do make money. And very, very few actually hold onto it."
One thing the Cult has hung onto, however, is its fan base, an unlikely amalgamation of alt-rockers and aging leather boys and girls for whom chafing, one assumes, is a way of life. Regarding the reunion, Astbury states, "that was probably the most surprising thing, the overwhelming response from the audience and just how partisan our audience was, how passionate people were about the band. It was very exciting."
Granted, such devotion can come with a price. Should the combo -- which includes former Guns N' Roses pounder Matt Sorum on skins -- neglect to play a hearty helping of hits such as "Fire Woman," "She Sells Sanctuary" and "Edie (Ciao Baby)" in any given performance, Astbury reveals, "we hear about it. People go absolutely berserk. They demand to hear those songs." As such, he says in a tone that bears perhaps as much resentment as appreciation, "we have to placate our audience, also."