Ian Astbury on the Cult's new album, Choice of Weapon, his interest in Native American Culture and being a devotee of the Doors -- not just a fan
Since first emerging in the mid-'80s, the Cult (due tomorrow night at the Ogden Theatre) has gone through some lineup changes and been on a few breaks. Through it all, the band's core members, frontman Ian Astbury and guitarist Billy Duffy, have continued to churn out some heavy records, including 2007's Born Into This and their latest effort, Choice of Weapon, which hits stores this week on Cooking Vinyl. We recently spoke with Astbury at length about the new album, his interest in Native American culture, being a devotee of the Doors, his film production company and a whole bunch more.
Westword: When you recorded Choice of Weapon, you did it in various places like New York, L.A. and in the desert in California. What effect did the different environments have on the recording process?
Ian Astbury: The main studio we used was in Los Angeles; it's called Ocean Way. It's an old studio that's been around since the '40s. It's pretty famous for Frank Sinatra recording there. A lot of his original recordings were done there. It's one of the last great ones left. This room actually had orchestras in there. It's really got this great ambient sound that's great for recording live music. It's a room you can actually put the band in, as well. Most of the record was done there.
We kind of worked on the record and did some demos at a studio in New York. Then we did some writing out in the desert with Chris Goss in a small studio out there. Then we did some stuff at my home studio. The initial discovery of riffs and chords we did in the home studio with an engineer. We take that rehearsal rooms and then into the big studio. There were a lot of different environments. The desert's great because time kind of stops out there. Your imagination can be on fire.
Has the songwriting process with you and Billy changed over the years?
I think it's evolving. We're kind of getting into the groove. Initially, we'd take the stuff to a producer and have him work out what we're going to do, but we do that ourselves now. Billy used to bring his music to me, and I'd sit down and go through it, or sit with the engineer and go though the stuff -- riffs and chords.
Now you can transfer everything onto a cell phone. I've got an iPhone, and you can take that right away and put it into Pro Tools, and then you can chop it any way you want. I like Pro Tools for editing. It's great for putting out ideas before you even bring it to the band. So we do that ourselves before we get to the producer. We try and get a better idea of what something is going to be. That's kind of something that's evolved as technology changed the way we approach songwriting.
You've said this record is about going through a really dark, self-destructive period in your life.
Partially. Some of it's about actual experience. Some of it is observation, living through obstacles. But I think, for the most part, [it's about] where I'm at as an individual and where we're at as a culture. Unfortunately, a lot of what I see is quite dark, I guess, in some ways. But there's a lot of beauty in the world. The record, Choice of Weapon, it's kind of like the gloves are off. We're not trying to create a fantasy. It's just telling it like it is.
Even the name of the record could be construed literally or metaphorically. Would you consider your lyrics being a weapon of sorts?
Sure, absolutely, in a metaphorical sense. I mean, weapons don't have to be something used for violence. It could be like an instrument used for change. It's a symbol. In Tibetan Buddhism, they use tantric weapons to signify cutting through material attachment. Like the dorje thunderbolt that's used in tantric rituals to symbolize cutting through material attachment, which is one of ideas I had in mind when I was talking about tantric weapons as well as symbolic weapons. It was also reflecting things like we seem to really be at a point right now where there's a real shift happening in cultures. Take the Arab Spring, for example: People are picking up real weapons to overthrow regimes.
In the West, we choose to use cultural weapons -- technology; you can make films with your cell phone. John Sinclair, back in the early '70s, late '60s, was talking with the MC5 about the phrase guitars are the weapons of cultural revolution. I really like that symbol. So I was thinking about that, as well.
There's also the image of the shaman on the album cover. You've been interested in Native American culture since you were a kid, and it's been part of your lyrics going back to stuff like early material like "Spiritwalker."
I think what fascinates me most about indigenous culture is that it's very direct. It's really talking about the basic elemental human experience phenomena and their archetypes. We've gotten so far away from our original state in living cities, so disconnected from the truth that we're dependent on. We're dependent on organic sources and organic environment for our sustenance. Now we've got supermarkets.
Our food is neatly packaged. We don't actually have to hunt the animal anymore. It can be done for us and sorted out. Food is cultivated and grown and then delivered and put in a nicely packaged box. And here we walk around like peacocks in pre-made clothing. Our ideas are even cut out for us. Fashion and media pushes those things on us.
We tend to follow a structure of an idealized society that's been...you're born into this culture, which is what the previous album was talking about. The previous record in some ways talks about that aspect of that you were born into this society and this culture and this language. We tend to not really think about it until we get to events, especially death. Death to someone close to you can really open your eyes to the fact that this impression that we live in this solid condition, that we live in this structure that's immovable. And it's constantly changing and evolving.
We're not separate from nature. We're part of nature -- an extension of nature. There's no duality. There's no separation. The impression is that we're in control of nature or we're in control of life. If anything, we're getting more out of control. The further we get away from our natural state, the more chaotic our lives become, the more neurotic dystopia... that was kind of like a theme that I was really dealing with on previous record and that it's extended into this place, which is more kind of about observation and solution -- my individual experiences, what kind of choices I made: going to indigenous cultures, going to Buddhism, for example -- philosophies of living and ways of being.
It's quite multi-faceted. I mean, there are some primal elements like up straight up rock and roll, which is kind of...people talk about, "Well, what is rock and roll?" Rock without the roll is like the head without the sex. The primal act of making love is procreation. I mean, we've all at some point come out of another human being. We don't even recognize that as a culture. We don't even discuss that. The reproduction of the human being is something that just happens. Nobody even considers birth or death in this culture unless you see a commercial for diapers or a funeral home -- "Let us take care of your loved ones." It's like it's just so convenient. Slide in, slide out, done.
People seem to overlook those sorts of things unless something like death to a loved one happens.
We're all stuck in front of the screen as well. We tend to work it out through the screen, whether we're watching a film... film is very important to this culture. I mean, film is incredibly important. Film, television elements have become so important. I mean, the suspension of disbelief... we tend not to look at old people. We tend to look more and more at the youth, and the youth is sustained on the screen.
We're constantly looking at that as an ideal human. We tend to look at that as being the highest point of human life. We're looking at something that's sustained by some beautiful 23-year-old model, and as soon as they turn 27, they're put in the junk heap, and they're replaced by somebody else. It's actually a known truth, and it's the cycle of life. We tend not to look at our elders or look to our elders' experience.
I know that's a big part of the Native American culture to look up to the elders and respect them.
It's part of many cultures, where the elders are respected. There institutions of learning where the elders are respected. Obviously, at universities and colleges there are older teachers who are respected by the students. But in popular culture we tend to take our older artists and shove them off. They're given a tag and put away. I'm not really a great admirer of the term "classic rock."
It's like all of the sudden you take a genre and you put it into a time capsule and throw it on a shelf. These artists are still relevant. I think any artist who's living life making good music... Neil Young, for example, he's still making great records. Bob Dylan's made some great records in his sixties. Even though he's getting close to seventy, he still has plenty to say. Bruce Springsteen's made a great record recently.
I know the band has had a few hiatuses, and seem to recall that at one point you said you kept the band going because you still had a lot more to say as band. Is that accurate?
Yeah. I find it difficult to cynically state just going out and touring when there was really no purpose. We exhausted a cycle. You get to the point where you just kind of become cynical and then you walk away and do something else. But I think that's made the band stronger. I think that's made our writing relationship a lot stronger. It's one of the reasons that we're able to -- at this stage in our career, this stage in our lives -make this sort of album. We didn't just phone it in. We didn't just throw some shit together and throw it out there. A lot of consideration went into this record.
How is the band now as a cohesive unit?
It's about as cohesive as a dysfunctional family can be. I don't know any family that's fully functional. I don't know anyone that's got a fully functional family. But that's part of life. Nature is dysfunctional. There are thousands of years of philosophers and artists and scientific advances, and look where we are. We're still slaughtering each other. We don't really think about the numbers of the people who have died in the Middle East over the past ten years in this war: hundreds of thousands. We've lost a lot of military as well, but hundreds of thousands of civilians died violent deaths. Every month or so, some fucking lunatic is running around shooting kids in a school. Murder is still very much a part of our lives.
We've still doing horrific things to ourselves as well -- awful things to ourselves. I mean, look at some of the haircuts people have got. There are some pretty bad haircuts out there. Some pretty bad dress choices. I saw this poster for this movie that says, "Love ends in sweatpants." It's a cheesy poster, but you can have anything end in sweatpants. That's where a lot of people end up -- in sweatpants, on the couch, looking at some young, beautiful thing on the screen or some guy who's doing some incredible activity, like some action hero. They're actors. They're pretending -- to make believe.
I mean, these people can barely fucking get though a supermarket in real life. We tend to look at the veneer and the spectacle of our real lives. And the idea that people get into this kind of mindset that they're not capable of great things in their lives -- of course they are. They just haven't been given the opportunity or the education. It's sad to see those kind of those tear down.... somebody who's overweight or old or going through a rough time, we tend to tear that down in the media. There's a whole media devoted to that. It's pretty sad.
Do you see things getting worse, or is there any light at the end of the tunnel?
Nature balances itself out. One side seems to get more disconnected, more dystopian, more neurotic, and the other split side we're seeing some brilliant connections with... I think the Dalai Lama has purposely come to the West over the past twenty years, increasingly so. Every year he comes now. I think his presence has really brought an interest in Buddhism. You can see a rise in philosophy. You live in Denver, right?
You're probably close to the Naropa in Boulder. Naropa is a very important institution in Northern America. It was started by a Tibetan scholar Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman -- really important scholars. As long as institutions like that exist... We got a lot of young people being educated there. Some of that philosophy... Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, for example, you can get his work. It's very accessible, and it's very readable.
There are many, like Osho, the teacher Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, who's not so much a Hindu but Indian from India, a philosopher, brilliant man, absolutely brilliant man. The works of Terrence McKenna. He was also from Colorado, a brilliant psychonaut. He was an ethnobotanist. He sung the praises of ritual hallucinogens in ritual environments. There's an article in Newsweek about psychedelic tourism and people going to from the west into the jungles of the Amazon in South America and ingesting ayahuasca and having profound experiences.
The message coming back is that the solution is in plants. But it's not something everybody can do because not everybody has the right mindset. But certainly in a controlled environment. Some of the information that's coming back from people pioneering that work is absolutely profound and brilliant and really puts back in touch with the profoundness of being.
Aldous Huxley said it in The Doors of Perception: "When cleansed, everything will appear to man as they truly are...infinite." That where the Doors got their name from. It's all recent stuff though. You talk about the earth being around for over six billion years, and all this has been happening over the past couple of hundred years and a lot from the '50s and '60s onwards.
Going back to the Doors, obviously you're a big fan...
I'd say "fan" isn't the word, more of devotee. I consider the Doors to be an actual, holy group of a very high order of awareness, a very high order of understating the mysteries of being. Morrison, Manzarek, Krieger, Densmore -- they really considered what they were doing. They were very brave guys. They weren't just there sort of banging out the hits so that they could pick up girls and drive sports cars and acquire all the material rewards although there was an aspect of that for sure.
I spent a lot of intimate time with Ray and Robby, and my impression of those guys was that they were incredibly authentic in a sense that they really believe in what they were doing. They were ridiculed in certain areas by the "serious" media who really didn't understand what they were doing. They weren't trying to cognify what they were doing. If anything, Manzarek, Krieger and Densmore created this space that Morrison could really go deep into, almost like a trance state, a shamanic state certainly in some of the material.
What kind of experiences did you take away from touring with Robby and Ray?
I think just more of an awareness and a belief that pursuing the path that many would think would be hokum and hocus-pocus and kind of shallow -- the mystery path, the mystery schools -- is something that's just irrelevant or arcane or trivial. Actually the opposite is true. That's the real path to pursue. That's the place where the real knowledge is. I think the society in many ways doesn't want you to know this knowledge because once you access that you become empowered. You become really empowered. I think so many young people at some point come across the Doors.... That's why Doors fans are really not fans, like I said, they're devotees.
Having toured the world and having met so many so many people who worship the Doors, you can tell that every individual has a very strong individual relationship with that band and the material and certainly Morrison as an icon. And I'm one of those people. I was given the opportunity to be a part of it. Their songs will be performed after we're long gone. Few will. Theirs will. Their body of work is quite profound in what they did in a very short space of time. The body of work they created in four or five years is profound.
What I work for is something a lot more modest. I mean, the aspiration is to create something like that, but when you look at somebody like Ray, for example, who was playing Chopin as a young man. He was also exposed to the blues.
And jazz, as well, like Coltrane.
Yeah. And that's another thing. When we were in the rehearsal room and Manzarek's looking at me and going, "Think Coltrane." I'm like, "What?" because I didn't grow up with Coltrane. I grew up with David Bowie. I grew up with Sex Pistols. I mean, later on I did discover the Doors and then probably went more towards their blues influences. At the time, I was probably seeking out blues records. I'd try to go out and see the blues players and seeing John Lee Hooker and getting an idea of what that really was. But that's just one facet of the Doors was the blues. Jazz, blues, classical music and then make it contemporary in the form of rock and roll. They were real scholars in terms of their interest in music.
Going back the Cult, one thing I've always wanted to know about for quite some time was about the time after Love when you were recording tracks that would eventually make up Electric at the Manor House and then brought in Rick Rubin. The legend that I've heard a long time ago was that he sat you guys down, force-fed you AC/DC or something.
No. You can't be forced-fed that. It's like eating cake.
Maybe it wasn't being force-fed, but I remember hearing he had you guys listening to a lot of AC/DC.
We were willing participants. I mean, we chose Rubin, he didn't chose us. We approached him for a reason. We really liked the stripped down sound of the way he was recording. Part of that was when you start stripping down the sound and getting away from that really textural music... I mean, AC/DC was definitely an aspect. So were the Stones very much on that record.
It was just the way of stripping it down because there are definitely some straight up songs that were influenced by AC/DC and the Stones, and then there's stuff that's more influenced by the Doors -- more psychedelic things, a bit like "The White Album" even. But they're just influences because as some point you just step away from your influences and your own voice comes into it.
For me, it seemed like a major turning for the band because you're losing the shimmery, chorus-y guitars and then you really just started to rock out.
Yeah. That was very important. We really kind of realized that to create really powerful music the rhythm guitar became very important -- straight up rhythm guitar. We recorded a Steppenwolf song on that record.
Yeah. "Born to Be Wild."
Yeah. That was Rubin's idea. He said, "You should record this song because it's very much in harmony with where you guys are at." You know, we looked at things like Blue Cheer as well. It's like bands that were really kind of driving and raw. That's something you can at a certain time and that was the right time for us to break into that. You know, we'd already made the Love album. We'd already done Dreamtime. For us, we were just discovering all this music as well, and we were trying to get it down. That was the perfect time and the perfect fit. We made the right shift at the right time.
You started a film production company a few years ago, right?
Yeah, absolutely. It's something I've become more involved in, the idea of working more with visual elements. I'm developing a script right now. It takes so long to research and to develop something. It takes so much time to put something together. Right now, I'm developing a treatment and a script for a documentary. I'd like to make more films... certainly the Cult was very involved in the video that we made.
So that's something that over the years has become very important. As radio is kind of fading away, people are seeing music, you know, seeing something before they're actually hearing it as opposed to other way around where you hear something on the radio and then you'd have to see what it looked like. We live in a visual-first culture so that does become very important.
When you write lyrics, do images come to you in a visual sense, almost maybe in a sort of cinematic sort of way?
Yeah. Sometimes. Most of the time there's a visual element. Imagination helps you get a visual picture. But I like the word "cinematic" to describe certain songs because you have that scope of looking at something on a big screen. But, then again, the environment you're talking about is pretty big. Whether it's the Himalayas, New York City -- they have cinematic vistas to them.
And cinema is such an important part of our language. Usually when you're in conversation with someone, if you're using a reference, you always say things like, "Just like in that movie." We don't really say, "It's just like in this book." People tend to use films more as a reference than books, and in some ways that's a travesty.
There's that line in the film High Fidelity where they're talking about the movies you watch, the books you read and the music you listen essentially makes up who you are.
Sure, absolutely. There's definitely truism in that. Everybody has their favorite music. Everybody has their favorite film. People that read have their favorite book. They certainly identify with cultural objects like that because we identify with the archetypes and maybe identify with the characters, the story line and the visual elements.
It's amazing how Star Wars has become almost a religion. I know that people put their religion down as "Jedi." Why not? Probably as much thought has gone into Star Wars as went into the Bible. When you think about what went into Star Wars and the same amount of philosophical consideration... I mean, Joseph Campbell was a principle influence on Star Wars.
Joseph Campbell was represented by Obi-Wan Kenobi. George Lucas was very tied into Hero With a Thousand Faces, and Joseph Campbell spent his entire life studying world mythology. So that was a huge influence on Star Wars.
Maybe that's one of the reasons it works so well is because George Lucas could understand the mythological archetypes and brought them into the film and into the writing of the film, except for Jar Jar Binks. I don't know where he fits in, or if it's indeed a he. The gender of the character is a little bit challenging.
I know the characters of C3PO and R2D2 were inspired by Kurosawa's Hidden Fortress.
Absolutely. Kurosawa was a huge influence on George Lucas. Kurosawa is someone who really doesn't get any props. You don't hear of people really referencing Akira Kurosawa. Even the advent of the western came from Seven Samurai and the early samurai films like Sanjuro and Yojimbo. I love Kurosawa very much. You can definitely see those...
And that comes from legend and folklore. An incredible amount of consideration went into that. I think they gave him an honorary academy award in 1990 or whenever that was and was presented by Spielberg and Lucas and Coppola. The three of them honored him -- after they'd stolen all his ideas. And Martin Scorsese talks about Kurosawa as well. It's interesting because when you go back to the Doors, those guys were versed in cinema.
They met at UCLA film school, didn't they?
Morrison and Manzarek met at UCLA studying film. The fact that Francis Ford Coppola used "The End" in Apocalypse Now is tied into that group of thinkers. That's a great mix of mythology. Things like T.S. Elliot's "The Waste Land" and putting the "The Waste Land" together with "The End." And Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and putting all of those elements together.
It's pretty brilliant. And obviously it was visually influenced by Kurosawa and those mythologies. One incredible piece of work. It's something to go back to, like Odysseus. All of those incredible archetypes. And the more you go into them, the more you kind of reveal something as a muse you can find yourself. Being so drawn into those works that it draws things out of you as well.
What are some of your favorite films?
I like Andrei Tarkovsky very much, like Solaris. Not the George Clooney one. Obviously Star Wars, Apocalypse Now, Seven Samurai. I love Terrence Malick as well. Thin Red Line is brilliant. Film is a whole other world to me. It's really interesting what they're putting out there. We recently did a show where Terrence Malick was filming, kind of like around our show and backstage at our show for a new film that he's got in production. So the idea of us moving further into that, deeper into that, I think is really important for us. I'm looking forward to The Dark Knight Rises.
But there is a lot of really poor stuff being made. It's amazing how some of this stuff gets made. I saw this article about how a lot of studios have deals with chain movie theatres to fill out a certain amount of screens so they'll make all these films just to fill that obligation. So when a blockbuster does come along they know it will get stocked by a certain cinema chain.
That whole thing is changing anyway because people are streaming everything. The blockbusters are getting to be more blockbuster-y and people are putting a lot of energy, time and effort into making things that are more compelling that people are going to want to watch at home, whether it's like Game of Thrones or The Killing. Just things that have a bigger reach than things that probably have a lot more money spent on them.
When you consider the amount of money that is spent on film and visual elements as compared to music... wow! How do you compete with video games and film. Even the price point of a video game is like $60. People are giving their music away.
It seems like some record companies are putting a lot of effort into licensing songs for films, video games and commercials to make up for poor CD sales.
Unless you're like a marquee brand act, of which there are very few around, the licensing fees are going to be minimal. They're going to be conciliatory. They're almost like... it's a pittance of what you're really worth. I mean, if you're lucky you get a commercial every now and again, and that can keep the bread on the table and keep the machine moving.
To put a machine like the Cult on the road costs a lot of money. We have a lot of people... a lot of mouths to feed and a lot of wages to pay and fuel costs are going up, etc. People ask, "How come your ticket prices are going up?" Well, when the fuel prices go up, the ticket prices go up. It affects everything. It affects everybody all around. It affects that the guy who's going to the venue to do his basic work. He needs more money because his fuel costs are going up as well. Same for the caterers and everybody involved. So the whole thing gets spiked.
People look at a CD and they go, "Well, that's not really... it's kind of like a small, little thing that's like widely available." They don't really consider it to be something that's a cultural object that's very important when you can just stream your music or download your music.
And it seems like people are more concerned with singles rather than looking the entire album as a whole.
For the most part, that's why the industry is driven more towards hip-hop and pop. That's why hip-hop and pop are more popular in the culture because they're formatted more for what's left of radio. What's left of the culture in that way is a quick easy soundbites. If you're making an album, like a serious body of work, it's like where do you fit that in? I mean, there are people that take the time to go out and listen to it. It's becoming less and less.
You have everybody banding together on festivals. Festivals are popping up everywhere. You actually lucky if you can out and tour and do individual shows, but more and more artists are trying to move into the festival circuit and protect themselves in those environments, and even they're struggling. In Europe, there's just so much traffic. I mean, you have so much cultural traffic, especially throughout the summer.
People can chose whoever they want to go out and see. Certain festivals are always going to be popular, like Glastonbury in the UK or Roskilde in Denmark or Rock am Ring in Germany. Those are huge festivals. In the United States you've got things Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo, Voodoo Fest, Coachella. There are festivals springing up all over the place. It's an interesting time for musicians.
It seems a lot tougher than it used to be.
It is. Absolutely. But in some ways that's great because it pushes you harder. The ones that really want to be here are going to be here by any means necessary. Music is always going to be my first love. It's going to be what I put my energy into. I have no intention of stopping. I mean, I may go away from it if I have nothing to say, but I have no intention of stopping.
I think there's a lot of energy in this band, a lot of energy in this songwriting partnership, and also we have the freedom to go do whatever we want. I don't tell Billy what he can and cannot do. He goes and does whatever wants. He can go and do other things if he wants to. I might not necessarily agree with all of them, but it's his choice. He's an adult. I go off and do other things. I think when we come back it makes us stronger.
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