[Q&A] The Cult's Billy Duffy on hard rock, post-punk, getting good-looking girlfriends, and, uh, taking a lot of drugs at the time

Let's face it-- nowadays we have popular musicians or buzzworthy bands but we don't really have rock stars.  There are still some left, though, walking the earth as proof of the existence of this once-glorious race of human.  What's so awesome about The Cult, though, is that they still manage to seem current and awesome, even as they enter what is now their fourth decade of sheer bloody rock.  Billy Duffy is one of rock's most iconic guitar gods: besides his iconic stage presence, his deft balance between stadium stomp, new wave hookiness and sheer experimental weirdness has always perfectly buoyed the band's pure rock heft.  I caught up with the always-fascinating Duffy by phone at his California home, as the band was in rehearsals for their current U.S. tour, their first in years, in support of this month's excellent new long-player, Choice of Weapon (Cooking Vinyl), produced by both Chris Goss and the venerable Bob Rock (I also talked -- for a very long time -- with Cult singer Ian Astbury, and you can read that conversation as well).  The band hits Boston's House of Blues on Tuesday, June 5th, and we featured the band in this week's print issue, but there was far too much that hit the editing floor-- here's the rest of my conversation with a true rock legend.

Have you guys started the tour yet?

Not yet.

Yeah, cuz I saw you guys briefly at South By Southwest...

No, the tour starts in May when the album comes out. Fortunately for us, the album was originally slated for April and then we kind of couldn’t get it together. It had to do with the mastering and the artwork and all that kind of stuff. The album is actually done but we missed a deadline-- which is kind of a drag because now we’re releasing the record at the same time as Slash and all that.

How was the approach on this record different than on Born Into This?

With Born Into This, the decision was made to capture what we had really quickly. We got Youth as a producer at the last minute and we had 20 days in England to record it, and when we got out of the studio we went out on the road the next day and heard the mixes while we were on tour. Which was interesting after an hour and a half of live rock and roll music.

But in some ways it’s better than the days of sitting around endlessly in a control room while a guy mixes your album, and the days of that are kind of long gone. So there isn’t necessarily wrong with doing it that way, but it was quick, and we wanted something else this time. Choice of Weapon had a longer gestation to it, and it’s given the band more of a cohesion that shows up in the album. I mean, these guys have taken some punches, we’ve played around a hundred shows a year, and it shows, whereas with Born Into This it wasn’t really like that.

With this one, we had two producers, and I think you know, in a way, making the album over a period of two years sporadically has allowed us to work out a lot of the kinks.

It seems like whenever you guys do something new, it’s either compared to Electric, or to the Love album, in terms of sound.

I agree that it is successful in defining the yardstick, like how the Love album kind of broke the band but not in the States, it broke us in Canada, the UK, etc. In the States, we were known by the Love tour, and a lot of bands that got bigger later were influenced by that period. Like the Seattle bands, I think the show we did with the Divinyls at the Paramount in Seattle in ‘86 was a who’s who of the grunge movement. I mean, all the guys from Mother Love Bone and Alice In Chains were there, and that album was influential but it didn’t have mainstream success.

The Love album in the States was a college radio album, and then Electric came out and that marked the shift to straight up rock and roll, which was in some ways personified by the success of Guns N’ Roses, who opened for us on that tour on our request. Ian found them, we went to see them in London, and we were like “We’ve got to get them on the road with us.” I think those two albums were milestones for us, and then Sonic Temple was the most commercially successful, and then the subsequent tour, when we were out for a year solid, was the year that most people saw us on.

The thing with the Cult is that we’re kind of journeyman. Ian and I are friends, rock fans, punk rock fans, who used the Cult and our relationships to experiment. In a way, we’re kind of doing what we were doing in 1986, in a sense.

New wave and alternative were, so often, alternatives to rock; you guys always kept that connection to rock and bridged a certain gap.

Well, we certainly weren’t metal, the Cult aren’t metal, we’re a heavy rock band and share a lot of the same influences as a band like Metallica but our journey led us to punk and new wave and post-punk. But you’re right, and that’s kind of like the Seattle thing, those bands kind of were able to look to the Cult and go “Ok, cool, it’s British new wave but it’s rock.” I know Jane’s Addiction were going around that time, because new wave was very popular in LA and we’d come into town and play and I think they opened for us in ‘84, at least according to Perry Farrell. I think, I can’t remember, to be honest, I was, uh... I was taking a lot of drugs at the time.

Hah! It seems like in a lot of ways the key to your sound is all the space you leave, sonically. It kind of seems how you developed your signature sound.

The evolutionary trail, you can kind of hear it from the pre-Love album, especially in Dreamtime. Like songs like “Spiritwalker” or “Go West”, they were the songs that Cult fans were wild for, and they weren’t known in the States. And that stuff was like, “How can I make my own mark?” At the time, there were all these great guys, like Marco Pirroni in the Banshees, and after seeing the Stray Cats doing that punkabilly thing, I was fishing around for my own sound. Like Geordie from Killing Joke too. These were all influential people who often don’t get the credit. And Charlie Burchill from Simple Minds. Everybody was searching for a sound that wasn’t like the Pistols and the Clash. They were great and all, but how do we make our own sound that isn’t like third rate punk?

I sold everything to get the Gretsch White Falcon, I made myself penniless, when I joined the band before I was in the Cult. That was our sound, we had Gretsches and we were kind of going for that cinematic Ennio Morricone guitar twang with doses of Roxy Music and Bowie, that whole melodic glam rock hooks thing. That was kind of the gene pool, with tribal beats and whatever. That’s kind of where the Gretsch started and that sound led what I was doing. The real moment was I was playing at a soundtrack with this band and I did Jimi Hendrix, badly, with a fuzz pedal or whatever, and it stuck in Ian’s mind. A couple of years later when I was fired from Theater of Hate for having opinions several levels above my pay grade-- and rightly so, because I still love that band, and everyone should listen to Theater of Hate, great band-- but I was fired for being a mutinous dog, and Ian found me in London and searched me out and referenced that moment when he heard me play the Gretsch. And you know, this was post-punk, we don’t play Hendrix!

But Ian loved all that, because he lived in America and Canada and he missed the initial thing with punk, and had been exposed to FM radio. I hadn’t because that didn’t exist in the UK. And from that point on, we were just trying to do crazy stuff, like “Phoenix” or “Love” from the Love album, like if the Stooges were playing a Hendrix song, or if the Sex Pistols were playing a Free or Bad Company song, what would it sound like?

Right-- you guys had a lot of the properties of post-punk but weren’t afraid of hard rock and classic rock.

We kind of just stepped against all of that-- good’s good, as far as we were concerned. I wasn’t that into thirty-seven minute songs about castles and wearing a cape or anything, so that wasn’t exciting. But I think in some ways the baby got thrown out with the bathwater in a very Orwellian way with punk. I mean, all the original punk bands loved Mott the Hoople and the Stooges and Roxy Music and Queen. They all had their guilty pleasures but they were also doing something very important, and being around it really did change my life for the better.

But I try with the guitars. I’m never gonna be a shredder, even though I really really practiced a lot at some point and I got a bit fast. But I always want to play cool guitars, I play Les Pauls and Gretschs and they aren’t easy to shred on. I guess someone like Brian Setzer kind of shreds with a Gretsch in his hand, but he’s had that guitar in his hand since he was three of age. But yeah, I don’t want to play a horrible pointed lime-green monstrosity guitar, something that looks like a child’s toy. I got into guitar to get good looking girlfriends and have a laugh, you know?

There’s a lot of restraint in the Cult’s music-- it kind of makes the music sound larger.

Yeah, we’ve definitely-- we’re not afraid to be big. If every song is a visual thing, some of them are landscapes, some of them are intimate portraits, some of them are charcoal sketches. There’s a lot of fear of musicians not to attempt stuff and we’ve really tried to put our own character in the music. Ok, so a song might channel some of the best elements of Zeppelin or AC/DC, but it’s also about putting ourselves in there too. We probably do wear our heart on our sleeves, a lot-- I wouldn’t consider us clever, and I know a lot of guys who are a lot more studious about how their stuff will be received. We tend to be too caught up in having a good time and being free spirited, which is what I thought it was all about really, not sitting home studying your next maneuver. Life is too short for that, but I do know guys who agonize over what shirt to wear because that’s going to make a statement. And we did do that ourselves, like Ian going out in flares and growing long hair ruffled feathers in the UK, especially journalists who thought they owned punk and thought they had the license on being important. We opened a door to another room of possibilities that those people couldn’t control, and they got really frustrated because we sold tons of records and the media response to the Cult in the 80s was mostly negative. But the more they did that, in a sense, the bigger we got.

A lot of people in the States got exposed to the Cult on the Electric album, which was a certain period in our lives where we were being produced, or as Rick Rubin said, “reduced”-- that was him, George Drakoulias and Andy Wallace, the holy trinity there. We were in Electric Ladyland where AC/DC had done Back In Black, and Beastie Boys and Public Enemy were happening, Def Jam was cooking.

We literally came into the studio once and the Beastie Boys were jamming on our equipment, and it was like three little chimps rocking out. We were like “What’s going on, Rick?” It was brilliant, a snapshot of a moment of time. And obviously all of us were massively influenced by AC/DC. I saw them in 1979, and I used to see Bon Scott out and about in London. I think I might have seen him the night he died-- I have a feeling, this recollection, I was out seeing this band that I subsequently joined, and I went to this show and I believe I saw Bon Scott with his tour manager out on a Monday night, doing the nightculb crawl, hitting the bars, having a few cocktails. I think it was true, I was definitely in London then.

But I digress... But yeah, the Love album had been an underground success in America, but we’d been on the road and we wanted to rock the sound up and beef it up. Towards the end of the Love album, the songs had gotten heavier and we couldn’t quite capture that balance in the UK with the same producer.

AC/DC also employed restraint to great effect.

Oh yeah, AC/DC were definitely all about less is more. But yeah, Electric was the result of the Cult coming to America and spending time here, meeting American bands and fans, listening to American radio, and not being closed off. A lot of British bands are closed off about that sort of thing, and then they complain about how they never make it in America. Ian already had a disposition towards America from having grown up in Canada. But we were getting slaughtered in the music press in England, and we observed that historically a lot of bands succeeded going west, U2 had just done it, and so we focused on America. And Electric was the result of that, it ended up that way. We needed a template for common ground for Rick Rubin and it was early Zeppelin, early AC/DC.

Do you find it a challege fitting in with modern rock nowadays?

The challenge is always having a blank piece of paper and coming up with something. Ian and I always write riffs-- it’s not like I sit down at a desk and write guitar riffs for ten hours, I just have stuff collected and he has stuff collected and we marry the two. And we like to reflect what’s going on around us, we don’t live in a bunker, but we don’t want to copy-- I mean, Ian’s a massive Bowie fan, and like him he feeds on inspiration as a fuel but he also has enough of a sense of himself and that inner self-confidence. And there’s eras where people are aware of what’s going on, but it’s not like in the 90s we used samplers and drum machines or anything. And one thing we never talk about, which is a massive influence, the elephant in the room, is the Doors. I had L.A. Woman on vinyl when I was a kid, and “Riders on hte Storm” is one of my favorite songs of all time, ever. Those songs and that dark sinister brooding kind of shit is as important as AC/DC; they both inhabit my iPod! And obviously Ian wound up singing for the Doors, which was funny and ironic. But you know, the Doors were a massive influence on bands in the UK: Echo and the Bunnymen, Teardrop Explodes, The Cult.

The Doors were also a big goth influence as well, like anyone making music that is at all dark winds up owing them.

People started listening to Doors albums in the post-punk days: you couldn’t argue with AC/DC, and similarly, bands like the Doors had a timeless quality that you could revisit. And that’s kind of being said about The Cult. I remember in the 90s Howard Stern played the Love album, during the grunge period. And they listened and they were all like “That’s pretty good, what’s that?” And he was like “That’s the Cult, that album came out ten years ago.” And to me, we’re not the band that’s ever gonna win a Grammy or win an award or anything-- we don’t really hang out with the right people. We’re actually kind of like a cult: we exist but we’ve never had any recognition from the music business. It’s always been the best kind of recognition, other musicians saying great things and being influenced.

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