Cult frontman Ian Astbury says his band is an outsider act in some ways, defying genres and scenes. For more than three decades, the group has delved into multiple styles of music, including hard rock, alternative, post-modern and post-punk.
Ahead of the band's Red Rocks appearance on Sunday with Stone Temple Pilots and Bush, Westword spoke with Astbury about the trilogy that made up the Cult's last three studio albums: 2007's Born Into This, 2012's Choice of Weapon and 2016's Hidden City.
Westword: Hidden City was the third album in a trilogy. Looking back at the three albums, what were you going for originally with the trilogy?
Ian Astbury: I think the trilogy was an observation that came afterwards. That was more of an observation after Hidden City was recorded. There definitely was a trilogy in a sense that there was a narrative that went through. Born Into This was made after the Cult had been on hiatus after three years. I’d been performing with Ray Manzarak and Robby Krieger [in the Doors of the 21st Century]. We took a minute to reset. Especially after the kind of collapse of the industry in the early 2000s, we found ourselves in a situation without a label, and we were kind of part of that crunch that came when Warner Bros. got bought by AOL and Time Warner, this huge merger, and they basically cleared the decks. They fired all the staff. They dropped a lot of bands. So that period was just a time to evolve into Manzarak and Krieger, and I went out and performed those songs with those guys — 150 shows.
So coming back was almost like starting over fresh again. The initial reaction was to kind of go back to roots in the sense of the post-modern, post-punk period. A lot of things were influencing us from that period, and much more like 21st century influences, as well.
We went and made [Born Into This] with Youth, the bass player from Killing Joke who’s also produced Pink Floyd, the Verve and Primal Scream. We went into the studio with Youth, and that was a very short space of time, but we knocked out that record. And that record was done really instinctually. We did that record on the fly. We had 21 days. We had nothing. After 21 days we had eighteen songs, and then we immediately went into the studio with Youth. So it was done really concisely and really impulsively.
And then with [Weapon of Choice], we took a bit more time. We started with Chris Goss, obviously a very respected producer and incredible visionary, probably best known for Queens of the Stone Age. That said, we worked with Chris and it was evolving in a certain direction, and we brought Bob Rock in to kind of close it out, to finish the record, finesse it. With Chis we were definitely exploring some new territory, working with pianos and a lot more atmospherics, and Bob kind of came in and was just able to bring it all together.
Then Hidden City, we started with Bob, and the way Bob works is pretty much we take in our material. We have the songs and we pick out what we like. It’s a bit more evolved process, a bit more refined process. It took a lot more time for the songs to evolve, and eventually we went into the studio and worked on the best songs we had at the time. And here we are. It’s like it went by really quick.
You talked about Born Into This and working really quickly. Was that kind of a new thing for you? Do you like to take your time and let things marinate?
There’s a lot to be said for spontaneity and being impulsive and spontaneous; there’s a lot to be said for that. But I think that somewhere there’s a balance between maybe coming up with material in a very spontaneous way and then refining it or letting it evolve into its natural…where it’s going to go to, progress into its natural state. That’s time. Sometimes you don’t have time. You’ve got heavy touring schedules or whatever, and you just cannot stay away for too long. And it’s really important for us to maintain creative…you know, if you don’t use it, you lose it. It’s the idea that you’ve got to create continuing momentum. Like even now, this thing’s going on creatively, processes we’re engaged in.
There’s a lot to be said about being spontaneous. I like both. I really enjoy getting chord structures or whatever and very quickly putting a picture together. For things to really evolve, it’s great to have some time, and preferably in a studio, where you can try things out on any level. But then it’s not really cost-effective. You can spend a lot of money very quickly in studios.
Also, looking at the three albums, do you see a particular theme that runs through the three records, or a thread that ties them all together?
The 21st century has been pretty heavy so far in terms of social-media opinion, and a lot of very difficult events occurring in the world. It doesn’t seem like we’ve got it together yet. It seems like we are working towards it, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. So individual empowerment, individual growth, individual realization, self-realization and not being dependent continually on outside environment. That’s definitely something I practice in my life — to try and be a better person every day and try and be aware of my environment, relationships...all these things. They’re all apparent in the record. They’re all apparent in the album and in the lyrical content, the sentiment of the songs — solutions, ideas. Putting some ideas out there that may be beneficial. Maybe experiences I’ve had myself that have led me toward a conclusion or other ways of doing things, practicing lifestyle choices…
And just again, revealing a lot more about myself and intimate life, my own experiences and visions and views. It’s all in there. There are layers and layers. I mean, if you look at those three albums, there are so many layers. I think in some ways the Cult evolved into a very different space. I never thought we’d be in this space where we’re making these records that are so lush and layered, very nuanced in places. We’re kind of an outsider group in some ways. We don’t really fit into any one format or one space. I mean, no genre can quite claim the band. We’re been everywhere from hard rock to alternative, post-modern, post-punk, whatever you want to refer to it as. Mainstream. We’ve had a moment in all these different genres and different areas and platforms. We just have our own sound.
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You’ve said with making albums that you’re never quite satisfied with them, like you might have left something out or that kind of thing.
Sometimes you hear something and you start out with a certain intention, and it ends in a different place. And sometimes you can get really [good] results from that, and there are other times, in hindsight, you go, 'I wish we tried this or tried it in a different way.' But for the most part, I think it’s the amount of time, energy and effort you put into an album cycle, especially with a conventional band, you know, bass, drums, guitar and vocals. It’s a huge undertaking to do that in the studio — to mic it, to record it, to write it, the whole thing — and the idea of writing tracks and dropping them a lot more often, that was really much more interesting to me, because the songs are out there fresh.
You come up with an idea; you record it; you put it out. It’s fresh. It all happens in a very short space of time. And I think that’s attractive to me. I like the idea of not going into a two-year cycle and dropping an album at the end of it. I’d much prefer to put out…like, originally the idea with the Capsules in 2011 was to put out two new songs, maybe two live songs and a visual element, like a video clip. And that was a vision. That was my vision to kind of drop these — they’re not even really EPs, because EP means elongated play, which is a twelve-inch vinyl or 45 RPM, usually with three or four songs on it. We don’t have that format. Well, we do have that format, but we’re really not dropping EPs. We’re dropping digital tracks. It’s a different format. So I thought the idea of Capsule can kind of encapsulate a thought or a vision, an immediate moment that you dropped. That was way more effective to me. I’d like to push that idea forward. Maybe at the end of a cycle, you could put them all together and drop an album. Add some new songs to it. That could be a cool way of doing it.
Red Rocks Beer Festival and the Revolution 3 Tour, featuring the Cult, Stone Temple Pilots and Bush, 5:45 p.m., Sunday, August 19, Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Morrison, $50-$250.