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.