Ian Astbury of the Cult doesn't do anything unless it's epic; he's not going to just write a song, he's going to write a primal scream that will put him in a trance when he performs it live; he doesn't put together a Doors tribute band, he joins the fucking Doors; he's not going to take a break from his band and travel, he's going to drop out of society and journey to Tibet; and he doesn't have a quick chat to plug his band's new album (Choice of Weapon (Cooking Vinyl), produced by Bob Rock and Chris Goss and out this month), he has a two-hour conversation that veers wildly from the philosophical to the even more philosophical. We featured the band in this week's issue, in advance of their show next Tuesday at the House of Blues- and we also talked at length with Astbury's musical foil for the past three decades, guitarist Billy Duffy. But here is the complete conversation with Astbury that I had a few weeks ago-- it took place a day or two after the death of Beastie Boy Adam Yauch, so perhaps the grim news shaded the otherwise chipper back-and-forth on music and rock and whatnot. Death and the void, and death not being the end, such is the world of the astral traveller named Ian Astbury-- enjoy.
What inspires you to keep doing what you do after all these years?
Same thing that got us into it-- love of music. But at the same time it came out of a very tribal group, it was a lifestyle first before we were even a band. It wasn’t a casual thing. Also, music always started with something that was lifeblood, it was the central focus of our lives-- it’s definitely been the central focus of my life.
When did you realize that music was going to be your central focus?
Well, it has been since I was a little kid, pretty much, I’ve always loved it. It’s always been what I did in my bedroom, you know, listened to music, listened to the radio, every day. Every day I’d play records, every day I’d listen to the radio, it was a way of life, it wasn’t separate or exotic or otherworldly, it was very normal. I mean, when I was told to go to bed when I was a little kid, I’d immediately go up to my room and put my radio on under my pillow, so my parents couldn’t hear it.
The Cult were from this punk world, but you guys strayed so far and didn’t stick to the sonic tenets of that world. When you were into punk initially did you find it confining or was it your natural curiosity?
Well, honestly we were too young to be a punk band, when we started making music it was more post-punk. It was very chaotic, all the leaders of the punk rock movement were in different places: the Clash were in America and had become a big band, so many other bands had split up or gone in different directions, punk rock was evolving into New Wave, and then you had all the bands after that we really looked up to, like Joy Division, Public Image Ltd. And you look at a band like Joy Division, one of Ian Curtis’s big influences was Jim Morrison. I think people had just started to dig deeper into the roots of punk rock and they found the Doors, the Stooges, the MC5, the Velvets. And once you start reaching into that period you can’t help but notice other music from that period. I think the film Apocalypse Now was very important as well because it exposed people to “The End”, because that film came out in ‘79, and that film was a huge musical event film. I think a whole generation discovered that song and Morrison. And that you start discovering other things, like 13th Floor Elevators, Chocolate Watch Band, and Love, and then that reaches out to a broader group, like Led Zeppelin, who were kind of a very rebellious group in 1969. And you start listening to these records and you realize that “We Hate Pink Floyd” ethos of punk rock, which was really pushed by Malcolm McLaren to serve his vision of what punk should be, kind of got in the way of this music. And there were no real gatekeepers, except for some of the British music media, who kind of tried to police people to keep them in line and make sure that people saw musicians from the 60s as dinosaurs, out of touch with the man on the street. When in reality, this music would fill you up, and there were no rules.
The Cult have a really unique place, in that you guys managed to straddle a lot of aesthetics, it was almost an aesthetic split. Like you were a punk band, a new wave band, a hard rock band, but also an “arena rock” band.
Oh sure. But you know, nowadays, in essence, the Foo Fighters are an arena rock band. They aren’t really challenging anybody. Grandmothers aren’t rolling over when the Foo Fighters roll into town. You know, “Lock up your daughters, it’s the Foo Fighters!” I mean, what’s really dangerous? Hip hop, right. Although even that’s become a kind of pastiche. All of it, really, is pretty tame, compared to things that happened in music’s evolution.
But to re-answer the question: I grew up in North America until the age of eleven, so there’s the split. I grew up with a North American influence, I lived in Ontario, really near the New York State border, so the radio and television that I was exposed to was coming from New York State, which was influenced by New York City. And it was very progressive, even new wave-- things like Iggy Pop, the David Bowie “Berlin” albums, I heard those on the FM radio, you’d hear these tracks and it was really important. In fact, i didn’t really connect with bands like Led Zeppelin until the 80s because I was more of a Bowie fan and I loved anything that emanated from Bowie as the central source. And then bands like the Doors and even Hendrix was quite important; I had a Hendrix compilation that I loved. Hendrix, Doors, Jefferson Airplane, they were all crucial to me.
It’s interesting how, at certain periods, people tend to look down upon the past.
Because they weren’t there!
Right-- but I think with you guys, a large part of your aesthetic was tapping into the mythical elements of the past and making it huge.
Well, the weird thing is that it wasn’t really that far in the past. I mean, I started Southern Death Cult in 1981, so Jim Morrison died in 1971. Ten years! Between Jim Morrison passing away and the Sex Pistols forming was only five years. Music was evolving and fragmenting at such an incredible pace, people were diversifying so rapidly. And between the Doors and the Pistols you had things like Kraftwerk starting Krautrock, so by the time that Bowie did Low and Heroes he was heavily influenced by Neu and Eno, and there was this subtext as well. So it wasn’t just like the Cult was just straight up AC/DC. I mean, we were kind of musicologists. That’s where our focus was-- the AC/DC Led Zeppelin Black Sabbath influence really served a lifestyle that we had at the time, when we were 25 years old in New York City. It was kind of a harder lifestyle because we were on the road-- I mean, I’ve been on the road since I was 19 and we grew up in kind of an extreme way and when you live that way you make different choices. And people observe it and go “What were you doing?” and I think “Wait a minute, what were you doing when you were that age?” There’s a lot that you see and hear, but there’s a lot that you don’t see or hear in the life of a creative person and it’s a whole different ball of wax in terms of your experiences.
Some critics really get that because they might be musicians themselves or spend time in those environments. But anybody and their dog can formulate an opinion about anything, anyone can make a blog and make it look authoritative and consult Wikipedia or Last.fm, and bam, you’re an instant expert! But what you miss is subtext, and perspective, and insight, the molecular experience. And I dunno-- in this period when we cut our teeth as musicians, it was all about experience. You had the music media, like NME and Melody Maker in the UK, and shows like Old Grey Whistle Test, and occasionally you’d get a punk or new wave act, and then the radio, like John Peel and Radio Luxembourg and pirate radio. But there were limited resources. And record stores-- the guy or girl behind the counter was kind of your connection, you’d go in there and go “Whatdyou got?” Now you go to, what, Pitchfork, or some blog, look around. I live in Los Angeles so I’ll go to Amoeba Records. Go on the Internet and listen to streamed tracks. There’s just so much access.
One thing that’s interesting about The Cult’s music is that it has so much space-- it’s really open, and uncluttered.
Well, you’ve only got four people in the room making the music! And it’s gotta sound good. And it was always plenty cluttered, physically! But I remember when Southern Death Cult recorded, with this guy Mike Hedges, and we wanted to add so many things, overdub after overdub. And we listened to it and thought “It sounds really swampy!” And Mike was like “Yeah, because there’s too much stuff on the track, let’s start to take things away.” And that’s how you learn about economy, to not put too much stuff on the track. And you could have multi-tracks in order to bolster one sound, but adding the french horn and the fire extinguisher with the drum stick and whatever we were doing... Then you go back to the records that you love and realize how sparse they are. Like old Led Zeppelin records, there’s very little overdubs on those records.
Yeah, a lot of first takes.
Yeah, it’s all about the playing and the musicianship, developing the craft. It’s more about an interior experience as opposed to cognition. We live in a very cognitively creative world, you know, where post-modern music is-- well, I don’t know if it’s even post-modern anymore!
What do you mean cognitively creative?
From the head.
Do you feel like that’s where you guys are coming from?
Nah! We were definitely like “Let’s do this!” and we’d hear a wah-wah pedal and go “Ooh, let’s get one of those!” We didn’t have erudite journalists going “Oh, you can’t do that, don’t you know it’s all been done by the band Frumpy in 1971?” Nonsense, nonsense, just absolute garbage. It’s so sad to see a generation just absolutely terrified to make a mistake or go out on a limb. Or if they do go out on a limb, it’s very self-conscious.
Do you think it’s about embarrassment? I feel like older acts weren’t as worried about being embarrassed.
Yeah, well, you just wore your heart on your sleeve and just went for it. And there’s so much scrutiny now and everybody has an opinion. Peer pressure is very important. But obviously I’m speaking in very general terms, there are those individuals who march to their own drumbeat, but for the most part that there’s a certain die that’s cast in terms of rules and regulations. For example, we were told that we couldn’t play the Coachella Festival, we didn’t fit in with their format. But they’re quite happy to embrace harder bands, Rage Against the Machine or whatever. Our post-modern credentials-- we’ve gone through a whole period of that, and then we were like “Okay, what’s next?” I mean, Southern Death Cult, Dreamtime, Love-- we love post-modern indie music, but we did it and kind of moved on. And with Southern Death Cult, we kind of thought at the time that we didn’t want to make records because we thought making records was kind of capitalist. And it was at the time really all about getting in a room and playing to your peers, it was a communal thing, a lifestyle choice. And then Beggars Banquet, and independent label, came along. And then it became all alternative, and we were like “Alternative to what?” I mean, with all respect to Nirvana, for example, they signed to fucking Geffen records-- come on! Come on!
You guys did Southern Death Cult, but by the time you were on a major label, you were a major label band-- you didn’t seem to put out records that apologized for being on a major label, which was so different from so many bands of that era and after.
Well, the mountain was there to be climbed. It was like there’s the mountain, you don’t stop, you get to the top, and you think “I don’t like this, this sucks here.” And maybe that was me, I was like “I don’t want to stay here.” So it was like what do you do, tear the whole thing apart? Which is a pretty miserable idea. So then we made Sonic Temple. It was all there for the offering. Believe me-- I was offered it all.
In what sense?
In the sense that that was the point where I was selling a ton of records and Mr. Man came along and said “D’you want to continue the myth? Because here are the compromises you will have to make.” And I looked at it and I was just like “Nah, I can’t do that.” At that point, other things become more important than the music, your waistline and teeth become more important than the creative process. And then you start getting in rooms with professional writers, professional people who tend to your success, help you make better business choices, smart savvy business moves. I think it’s possible to retain your integrity and have great success, in commercial terms. But for me, I was just so much more of a feral kind of kind. I used to get onstage, the music had to be loud, I had to be intoxicated, and it was really about ritual space and performance. Actually, going into the studio was kind of a secondary consideration, it was much more performance based, it wasn’t really about cranking out erudite records. I think I became more about recording later, in my thirties, when I thought that this was a craft and discipline that I wanted to perfect. And that probably didn’t really start until 1994 with the album The Cult that we did with Bob Rock, which was in some ways a new beginning, a new cycle for the band. But by then things had changed, children had been born, parents buried, friends dying, so much stuff going on. I mean, by that point I’d been doing it for 13 years and it was a good run, and in my early thirties I wanted to do things: go to Tibet, make a solo record, start a new band, be around other people, enjoying things like having a life outside of the Cult. Because the Cult was always touring or making records, and you miss major events. People think you do all this great stuff and it’s like “No, I was just on the road.”
People tend to not get that being in a band is not just drudgery but filled with tunnel vision.
Drudgery is a very good word for it, especially in the 80s! When we couldn’t go in nice hotel rooms or whatever. I mean, it’s not every day, when you’re touring, that you’re in Prague or Tokyo or Paris or Chicago or New York; for the most part you’re touring places that-- well, it can be interesting if you’re in a medieval city in Eastern Europe-- but you just get stuck in some place and you put every ounce into a show, you do a bunch of shows in a row, and you just want to hole up in your room, and you get used to it. And that’s what crushes and kills a lot of musicians, the downtime, the choices you make when you’re not in that performance mode. You perform, you have this adrenal thing going on, you concoct this formula to become this performer, and then it all dissolves and you have to fill that space with something else. And if you don’t know any better, you make some unhealthy choices. We all have at some point, it’s different for everyone. I heard that Justin Bieber is a real player-- he likes the young ladies. But you know, whatever, you have to do what you have to do to get through the night.
It’s fascinating talking to someone like you who has been doing this for so long, because when you’ve been doing music for a long time you have to figure out what keeps it all going, because it isn’t always its own self-evident reward.
Well, you’ve got to love the music, haven’t you? The thing that I came to peace with over the years is that The Cult was a vehicle, and there was chemistry between Billy and myself, and I don’t want to say it has its limitations, but I guess it’s constricting to a certain degree. And the Cult could never fulfill all of my kind of interests and dreams. And that’s why I’ve gone outside of the Cult-- I mean, at one point I thought I had to leave the band and walk away and do all these other things, and then I figured out that I could do both, that I could be Ian Astbury of the Cult and then go do these other things, do records like the Boris record. And of course, that was almost like a holy experience, a taboo. It was very polarizing, although working with them in Tokyo wasn’t about making something polarizing, it was all mutual respect. Their drummer kind of engineered the whole thing, he’s brilliant. I learned so much watching the way he works, he’s fucking unbelievable. And you meet people, Western musicians, who talk about how dedicated they are to stuff, being around those guys it’s amazing how industrious they are. They put out two albums last year, and that guy, he does all the artwork, he’s down to the wiring of the effects pedals. I’m just humbled by the amount of industry and integrity they have. Plus anything to do with Southern Lord, I’m a real huge devotee of Southern Lord. I think Greg Anderson is one of the last great entrepreneurial people out there who really loves music so much. They just re-released Dopesmoker, which is very exciting. And the way they roll it out, it’s like “Look at the packaging, look at the vinyl!” You can feel the excitement.
And you compare that to “Me and my girlfriend started a band and we have two haircuts and it sounds like two cats being fucking hit with a stick with a nice cute little drum beat behind it.” But then you look out the window with what’s going on in the real world and it’s just awful. It’s just fucking-- I mean, you can go through a litany of recent events and maybe in some ways, having something that has more of a sweet or saccharine tooth is a form of escapism, and maybe that’s a form of rebellion in a post-modern ironic disconnected way.
People of my generation, your generation, have grown up with this idea that music has to be dangerous.
Well, it wasn’t so much that the music was dangerous as the environment that we were in. Like in Southern Death Cult, it was so intense. There was no difference between the person I was onstage and off, I’d walk straight offstage and wear the same clothes. It was the lifestyle, we were still running the gauntlet from skinheads to police, living in very violent environments. The Cult started in Brixton in London in the early 80s; it had just had the riots and there was racial tension and it was a very dangerous place to live. I mean, if you were walking through central London, even Soho, which was very bohemian, with some asymmetrical haircut, you were going to get punched in the face. In some other cases, I’d been stabbed or one time I had eight or nine guys beat the shit out of me and threw me in front of a bus. I had a broken nose, two black eyes, the rest of it, just because of the way I looked. That was the environment that we were in. There was a very very real connection between the stage and the lifestyle, it was all the same thing. We were part of our audience, we were part of the community.
Do you feel like that changed as you hit a certain threshold with the band?
I think it really flipped over in about 1987 after playing with Guns N’ Roses-- although we were very similar, one of the reasons we toured together was because we had so much in common. And Metallica too-- I met Lars in 1986 at an Ozzy Osbourne show and he had Master of Puppets on a cassette, studio mixes, it hadn’t come out yet. And we were in a bootleg taxi in London and we put it in the cassette deck. It was a community, but the whole thing was diversifying, the tribe was diversifying, punks were falling away and becoming a more marginalized group, we watched that wind down as the band got bigger. Punk rock got marginalized; there were certain enclaves but for the most part the culture had moved on. And certainly MTV had a lot to do with that.
Oh most definitely-- and for heavy music, things became really solidified around branding.
Yeah, the logo became so important, it went from something you put on the back of your jacket to the marquee on the front of a store. And when you entered that store, you knew you were going to get that particular product. Marketing and branding became very important, it was very visual because of MTV. Visual elements in general became important then-- there’s a really great book, it’s the 33 ⅓ book on Radiohead’s OK Computer, and in the opening chapter the guy is talking about the effect of the format of music on the musician. Like you had the baroque period, which required a certain amount of music, with sheet music, so you’d write to that format. And then they’d have bigger environments which meant bigger orchestras. And then the opera came along and you had popular songs and people went to sing the popular songs and so the sheet music was sold, and then people would sing around the piano. And then you had the victrola, and that led to travel and recordings of African music, and then the seven-inch single, and people are writing three minute songs to get on the radio. And the format always drove the music, the sensibility is pre-programmed. I mean, I saw David Bowie do “Life on Mars” on Top of the Pops, and that was three minutes. And then punk rock was all about the singles as well, the short songs. And then albums became singles, like Pink Floyd and the Doors.
Choice of Weapon was written, in many ways, as an album. There’s still that kind of dyed in the wool thing, you write single tracks but that isn’t the driving thing. With the MTV generation, especially when we did Sonic Temple, there was definitely a lot more thought about focusing on a song like “Fire Woman”, because of the format. I mean, I was much more interested in what was deeper in the record, I was more interested in tracks like “American Horse”, looking for that cinematic moment, that transcendent moment.
With this record we worked with Chris Goss, and with Goss it’s all about serving the song, whether it’s twelve minutes or two. It’s almost like he’s a mantra, a sage, a seer, but then you get to a certain stage where you’re so out there in that place that you have to become grounded and come back to the real world.
And that’s Bob Rock?
Yeah, that’s where Bob Rock comes in. Bob definitely goes into wilderness areas-- he’s always considered Apollonian, as opposed to, um...
Yeah, Dionysian. Goss is very Dionysian. But yeah, the crafting, the erudition, the refinement, that’s all Bob. And he’s also aware of not trying to get too much refinement in the song-- and the songs had already been constructed in a way that you couldn’t really fuck them up. So he came in and was like “Ok, with this song, this is perfect, I’m not fucking with this.” Like the track “Embers”-- I mean “Embers”, we play that every night now, it’s an important part of our set. That’s the song, that’s the moment, the most theatrical moment in the set.
Working with Goss on this record was really different; in some ways we went off in areas where he was asking Billy to, in some ways, not be Billy. Because it was all serve the song, serve the song, serve the song. Sometimes the song didn’t require a Les Paul through a Marshall; maybe it needed a Telecaster through a Supro amplifier with a certain effect on it. Which was out of his comfort zone; not to say that Billy doesn’t occasionally play different guitars, but Chris really pushed him toward the Gretsch White Falcon, push him away from the standard tools. It’s like how everybody buys toolkits but just uses the screwdriver, the Phillips head. With Goss, that’s completely opposite.
For me, Billy has always been in the Cult, but I’ve gone off and done other things: Ray and Robbie, Boris, Slash and Tony Iommi, Trent Reznor, so I’d gone off and learned a lot more about my craft, I guess. With Ray and Robbie, I learned to work harder developing craft and being a musician. The main thing I learned with Ray and Robbie was space. Space.
In what sense?
When not to do anything, when to leave things out, when to let that, you know, dum dum dum dum [hums “When The Music’s Over”]. I mean, we’d play “When The Music’s Over”, it could be nine minutes, it could be twelve minutes, fourteen minutes, depending on where people want to take it. And they were looking to me for cues, they’re so used to looking at the singer for cues. And I’d get very gentle head bow and go “Ahhh, come in now.” It was a revelation to me how much of this back and forth there was.
Goss was my choice-- initially it was going to be Youth, and that would have been more of that post-modern sound. You know, where the bass guitar is the lead guitar, like Peter Hook and the way he was the lead guitar in Joy Division. And of course Killing Joke, with Youth. Bringing those elements is like bringing in definitive elements. But we didn’t go in that direction.
Do you think you and Billy compliment each other?
Oh sure, I’m Dionysian, he’s Apollonian, he’s far more pragmatic than me. He stayed in the West, I went to monasteries in Tibet. That’s very much what it is; obviously we ground each other. I drag him off in one direction, he grounds me in the other. We can get it horribly wrong, and it’s like “Ooh, what’s that noise?” But the thing is we’re willing to try, especially on this record. He was very gracious because I think working with Goss was-- well, I wouldn’t say it was terrifying but it was way out of his comfort zone. And I think he discovered that he has far more colors and expressions available to him. So now you see the Telecaster and Gretsch White Falcon come out on stage, and I think “He’s growing up, at last.”
Is that something that you guys have fought-- growing up?
Well, sometimes you get that stubborn thing, like when you’re a kid, like “No, this is it.” But like I said, I had to go outside of the Cult to have broader experiences, and then gently nudge the Cult along. My time away, my endeavors have helped the Cult to grow.
It seems like it would be so easy to make the Cult record that people expect, but you guys really tried harder on this album.
Yeah, we did, we put the time in. But when you say “Try harder”, sometimes “try harder” means doing more and using more muscle, sometimes “Try harder” means just sitting, looking at the mixing desk, waiting for that moment to come. It’s not always grinding it out, it’s more about creating different environments. Like you’ll be listening to the track and you get inspiration and you go and listen to a film soundtrack that you love and it helps you solve something. Or you might find a record that you really love, and you wind up bringing up some krautrock stuff and you’re like “Check this out, this might be the right missing ingredient.” It’s about being open to influence, trying things out. In many ways, Goss took us to that realm in terms of exploring things rather than playing through them. Different sounds, different effects, and that’s how we got songs like “Elemental Light” or even the sludge-y sound of a track like “Lucifer”. I mean, I don’t think we’ve had those kind of sludge stoner sounds on a Cult record. It’s almost like the cadence of it is like contemporary hip hop. The tempo, that sort of thing. And all of that is part of the process of being willing to go “Fuck it, let’s try it.” And the result is that every single song on the record sounds different. Like you’ll have a song like “The Wolf”, which really harkens back, with that signature Billy sound, but for me I’m singing different emotionalities, different values. They aren’t ten songs coming from the same perspective, they all come from different worlds. That’s why we’re excited, that’s why we’re waving around going “Hey, we’ve found something, we did it!”
Yeah, and I think even a track like “The Wolf” only shares the most superficial elements with older Cult-- the song itself is very different.
The Arabic modality of the verses, yeah.
I feel like for any band that’s been around awhile, it’s a constant challenge to re-confront what you sound like and who you are. It’s an existential battle.
Absolutely. A lot happens in that existential space, it’s where cognition and thought drops off. You have to work in a place of transcendence and feeling and there is no language in that space. There’s so much language and talking but it’s hard to get people to have an experience. Experience is a different sense, and that’s what’s wonderful about performance, because that’s where it all falls off, and to me that’s the evolution of human beings, we all evolve into a place of intuition. You know, the whole movement, New Age or whatever, or Occupy which talks about the architecture of society, the financial architecture, the tactile architecture. But then there’s the spiritual side, existential stuff, what is the meaning of life stuff, what fills up that hole. You see people drift off into the Amazon, ingesting ayahuasca.
I think you’re seeing more metaphysical content in the culture, whether it’s Harry Potter, they maybe fill up that place of imagination. And that’s kind of everyone looking at each other and going “Hey, wait a minute, this material thing isn’t working.” And we’re all feeling this disconnection.
Is it fear? Alienation? Or is it something more primal than that?
I think it’s primal, but I think it’s mysteries that we’re never going to be able to articulate. but we’re all so caught up in the material world. Like you go to the supermarket and the meat is wrapped in cellophane, even the blood is out of the meat to a degree. You don’t experience the animal being slaughtered. Slaughterhouses are something that happens outside of the city, you don’t have the smell, you don’t sense the fear of what it’s like for animals to be slaughtered in that way. I’m not a vegetarian but I’m just saying, there was a time when there was less population and you had the grocery store and the butcher store, and you saw the carcass hanging. Now, you don’t see that so often, you don’t go in to your butcher and say “I’d like to pork chops” and see it being cut right in front of you. Now you see a pre-packaged thing with a happy little animal on the front. And that’s just a minor example, but we’re all so disconnected. Especially in cities, in metropolises, we’re so disconnected from how things are.
But when you get older, you see people’s psychological and physical lives start falling apart. Some people take their own lives, some people get diseases. Like Adam Yauch dying the other day, forty-seven years old; What? Why? Why him? For God’s sake, no no no, he’s supposed to be around forever. I mean, forty-seven is older than twenty-one, but still. I remember I heard this interview with Keith Richards, the interviewer was like “Keith, what do you think about all this exciting new music, what do you think of this great new guitar music?” And Keith just goes “They’ll find out.” And I was like “Damn!”
So you look at everybody out there that’s taking the piss on-- well, Pitchfork is one of the biggest offenders in many ways.
Maybe because they’re really all about judgment?
Yeah, they’re all about judgment, but they’re not about acknowledgement of where it’s come from. I mean, they’ve inherited space in the culture built on the blood and the bones of artists and crazed people who are dead, insane, evaporated. The people who built that road, there are a few people around who were present in the building of that who are still doing vital art, making vital artistic music.
I think the point where this whole culture, this whole thing really stepped over the line was when they pulled down Lou Reed and Metallica. Because to me that was like “Whoa whoa whoa, you can say what you want about me, about projects I’m associated with, but you cannot touch Lou Reed, as far as I’m concerned.”
Yeah, plus I feel like no one was really fair to that record.
No they weren’t. How can you judge a man who is nearly seventy years old? How can you judge that experience?
Plus I thought the record was interesting.
Yeah, at least. You can defend moments like “Junior Dad”, and the performance of Lou Reed on it, it’s one of his best performances.
And the lyrics are very well written, if you actually listen to the lyrical content it’s very well written. He chose Metallica to be his muscle, his exo-skeleton, and I think the choice is brilliant.
I think it’s that thing where people are afraid to be embarrassed, and he wasn’t afraid.
He doesn’t give a shit, it’s not in his lexicon, he doesn’t give a fuck, he really doesn’t. There’s a difference between saying you don’t, and really not. I mean, you hear someone say “I don’t give a shit,” but really they do.
A lot of times, it’s a defensive posture.
Sure! I’m guilty of it as well. “I don’t care!” Of course you care! We all care, we’re all crying around a campfire with acoustic guitars holding hands looking at the dystopia going “How did we get here, why are we the generation who inherited this.” When I was seventeen I lost my mother to cancer, we were living in this steel city, Hamilton, Ontario. There was a lot of industry, a lot of pollution and cancer. My family was devastated, we were watching my mum slowly die, it was hard, we were blue collar, we were on welfare in the ghetto. And then punk rock came on, and it wasn’t just abotu urban decay and the fall of society, it was about the existential thing, railing against the church, what kind of control they have of our spiritual lives. Because they were supposed to be taking care of those questions, and we found out that they weren’t.
I saw this amazing campaign in the UK, when Rage Against the Machine were running around with Che Guevara images, in the early 90s, the church in England did a poster of Christ with the Che Guevara iconic photo as part of it, trying to appeal to young people. I saw that and I thought “This is getting all mixed up!” I mean, he was a Socialist, he didn’t care about all of that.
Every generation seems to have a musical movement that goes to great lengths to rewrite history and position themselves at year zero.
Don’t let the elders come in.
Yeah-- do you feel, when you look at new music, that people are engaged in this thing now, and is it good or bad for society?
Well, it’s definitely something that’s perpetuated by those that benefit from it most: promoters, the media. People that benefit from hanging that sense of disbelief that youth is eternal, utopia is eternal. The film industry has done that, suspending disbelief. But these moments come and go, and that’s something that the culture doesn’t really reflect. It tries to hold these moments for as long as it can and extract every single nutrient from it and sell it back to you. That we can control the fabric of the universe, that we have control over nature, control over the great mystery. No matter how much you try to control it, you can’t control decay, the body will decay, this life will end, this vehicle will fail you at some point. So the spiritual life is-- but we’re beginning to see and feel that some people are coming forward to talk about these things a bit more. Or maybe I’m just looking in those areas because that’s what fascinates me. Especially when you go to places like India or Tibet, where for them, the cycle of life is right there, death is right there next to life. You go there and they are burning bodies right out in the open while people are bathing, children are running around, life and death are right there and you see the whole thing for what it is. It’s not just one thing, one facet. We’re focusing on one thing, youth youth youth, youth sexuality youth virility. And that’s not the whole picture.
I do like what you’re saying, but I don’t think it’s the generation so much as the marketers. These twisted old men on their yachts, the Rupert Murdochs of the world, it’s like give it up grandad! But then there are plenty of people who’ve lived their lives-- like I remember in the 80s we’d have guys who worked for us who were vets, they were drivers, security guys, and being exposed to Vietnam vets, like the war wasn’t that far away back then. And I was exposed to these guys, and they were all in their late 30s early 40s and they’d share their experiences. I went one time to the Vietnam Wall in DC with a bus driver we had, and he was older, he was like 40, to me he was an old guy because I was like 25. He said he’d never been before and we were in DC and it was 3 or 4 in the morning and we just went, and he was crying his eyes out, he found all these names of these guys he knew when he was my age or younger. He was telling me the stories and you realize that he was a young man at one point and his generation had to go through all this when he was my age, and I was like “Holy shit.”
It is what it is, it’s human, it’s where we’re at. But people say “What do you think?” and I’m much more likely to say “Terence McKenna or Joseph Campbell got into that, look at the archetypes that exist.” Campbell was very eloquent, with rich and brilliant wisdom of mythology and how it applies to human life, the cycle of life, the philosophy of life. And you know, we were talking about the format for music: what about the format for life, for living? Where do you go for that? Some people go to the Bible, the Koran, or now we go to blogs or popular sites that we pull information from that.
A lot of artists can’t even articulate it. I remember sitting on the panel of the Tibetan Freedom Concert with all these artists, and-- we had to fight to get on the Tibetan Freedom Concert, because they said we weren’t cool enough to be on there. They put us on at one o’clock in the afternoon, the only reason we got put on at all was because I said “Look, I’ve been to Tibet, so you better get us on the bill or there’s gonna be a shitstorm, I’ll let everyone know how inauthentic you guys are!” So many of those artists had never been to Tibet-- they might have gotten their picture taken with the Dalai Lama.
Like Adam Yauch?
Well, Adam was involved more deeply-- he was completely authentic. I met the guy, spent time around him, although we spent time around his group in the 80s. But on that Tibet panel, with the Eddie Vedders of the world, the brightest and the best with the highest integrity and the most respect, none of them could answer questions about Tibet because none of them had actually been there. You know, you have people getting out of limousines, the food backstage, the cameras, and I thought “Wow, that again.” But whatever, that’s all gone away.
And what are we up to now? I think nothing. Nothing is really going on. I’ve been going to a lot of indigenous communities, especially in South Dakota, and I’ve been producing a documentary in that area. If you want to get involved in things, look no further than the reservations of the Dakotas in the United States. And it’s not so much that you go there and say “How can we help you?” Like, you know, we’re going to help them. It’s more like we go there to ask for their help. Like “Sorry you’ve been treated so badly but help us, we’ve fucked it all up.”
Right-- your position of privilege gives you the ability to see all these people.
Maybe; I guess it’s privilege to have the financial resources, but then again it’s not really that difficult to go to these regions of the world, it’s not that expensive to get to India or Nepal or Tibet. It’s not that expensive, it really isn’t. Mostly it’s the flight, once you get there you can live on twenty bucks a day. So mostly it’s about restriction of imagination, the idea that you put up your own obstacles. One day I woke up and I was like “I’m going to Tibet.” I was just like “I’m doing it, I’m doing it now.” The next day I got a plane to London, next day to Nepal, then two weeks in Kathmandu, then I got myself a truck and went to Tibet and that was it. It didn’t cost that much, it was more about dropping out. If you put up obstacles and go “I can’t do it,” because of, you know, conditioning, then it won’t happen.
It’s conditioning. We’ve been conditioned to think a certain way. It’s our language; you take away our faculty of language and how would you explain things to people?
You’d use other means.
Other means, precisely. So drawings, gestures.
So much of what we communicate isn’t actually in words anyway.
Well, sex communicates in all languages, everyone knows what that means. And certain archetypes-- that’s the thing about music, it communicates in all languages. I mean, if you have a concert and people are singing along, they’re fucking making up their own words anyway. It’s like when I sang with the Doors, I thought I knew all the words, and I got in the room with the lyrics and I was like “Oooh, so that’s what that is.” Of course it wasn’t just the words, it was the nuances, the points of origin. I kind of thought “Uh, maybe this wasn’t such a great idea”, but then I got in a room with those guys and they said “You’re the right animal, we just need to refine you a bit.”
What did you take from that experience, playing with the Doors, to the Cult, especially with this new album?
Well, I mean, I’m still out here doing it, still making records like this one. Creative projects I’m involved in. In some ways, I feel that I’m just getting going here, I really feel that. “Life > Death” is one of the most important songs I’ve ever been involved in, I want to see that song evolve, grow, connect. You know? I can go deeper into it, there are new revelations coming into it that I get everytime I listen to it, it reveals so much about myself that I didn’t even know. And not myself but this band as an entity.
And it is a band-- John and Chris, we’ve been playing with these guys for nearly seven years. The Cult hadn’t been a band for many years when we started with them, we didn’t have the band, it had fallen apart. The first drummer couldn’t really play a straight beat, the second drummer became a drug addict, third drummer couldn’t handle the limelight, fourth drummer went to Guns N’ Roses. We had another drummer, Michael Lee, he ended up going to Plant & Page. People jump ship, different lifestyles. But now with John and Chris we have this unit that we’ve had for nearly seven years, it’s kind of the first time the Cult has really been a band, so to speak. There’s been different incarnations, and it’s always been Billy and myself, but John and Chris, they contribute, they’re willing conspirators, and that comes across. There’s this cohesion to it.
I think, being in a band, it’s hard to find purpose in the whole thing, and it’s impressive that you guys are still searching, still doing it.
You know, again, you say “still doing it”, but that’s depth perception based on the moment we’re in. You know, for us, we get asked so many questions about the past, but I don’t live in the past, I don’t wake up and it’s 1987. I don’t wear leather trousers and behave like I did when I was twenty-five. I could maybe conjure it up and maybe for a second hold some kind of disbelief. but molecularly, the molecules in my body are different, different environment, different station in life. It is what it is, the way that we actually perceive life. Then you start getting into stuff like quantum physics to make sense of it all, but god, we live in such a narrow frame of perception. It’s like a train, a narrow path that we, terrified, cling onto. Like if the lights go out in a city, people go mental, raping and killing.
I interviewed Robyn Hitchcock once and he said “Reality is a membrane of the banal spread over the inconceivable.”
Yeah, absolutely, I concur. I find myself drawn towards Buddhism and Eastern philosophy because there’s something there that’s been given great consideration for millennia, and it’s inherent in the Dharma and the Buddhist teachings that all these aspects are covered, all the existential questions are-- there’s a belief, there’s a symbol for it. Right now I’m reading Bhagavad Gita for about the fourth time, you know, and I’m still like “Holy shit.” You read this stuff and then you’re out in the street, in the supermarket, whatever, and you’re just like “Pffft.” It’s just a completely different mindset. But this is the knowledge that they have tried to keep from us for so long, and once you get the knowledge, once you bite the apple, you’re not controllable. You know what I mean? And there are many ways to bite the apple, like when Western musicians got into African music, it’s like “Oooh, naughty naughty.” It’s that sexual injected switch, that went on and that sensuality turned on and society moved off in a different direction. Now that great white man in the big house is being kind of kicked out. You know, In God We Trust-- not anymore! Your life will change with that stuff, but look at the people who are hanging on, just white-knuckling it. And not just America, if you look at fundamentalists all over the world, they’re white-knuckling it as well. Ouch!
One thing I will say is I’d like to see more musicians on the covers of magazines and for actors to get the fuck out of the way. With all respect, and there are some incredibly gifted and crafted actors out there and I respect their craft, but musicians for the most part are articulating their own experiences. So could we have that back, please? Because I really think the connections that we really need to have, especially right now. People that are grounded in their own experiences, in the front line of answering the existential questions, now is the time that we really need to explore that now that we see what we’re facing, at the precipice. I don’t need Harry Potter to better my spiritual life, we really need the best and the brightest at the front. I mean, I see people like Salman Rushdie, who I admire greatly as a writer, but I see him always hanging out with models. There’s always pictures of him at dinner with models, and people go “Oh, but he’s a great brilliant writer,” and I go “Wait a minute, he’s just fucking partying!” I was trying to solicit, recently, an A-list actress to do a voiceover for a documentary and I was asking her involvement in things and she said “Yeah, I go to dinners and I go to these meetings.” But actually if you took the money from the cost of the big dinner and put it towards the community it would probably have a better effect. You know, people say “Don’t worry, we’ve got it, we’re gonna have this big dinner and make a big display,” to say that we’ve got it. The pageantry is falling and you can see the cracks. That’s not “Yes We Can” anymore is it? What is it now, what is it this week? “Hope”?
I believe it is now “Forward”.
Ah, “Forward”! I think it should be every way, what is “forward”?
Our modern obsession with progression?
And linear time. I mean, if you keep moving forward, you’re gonna end up in a fucking box.
Right, well we’re obsessed with efficiency and getting to where we’re going faster, but if that’s the case then what’s “The End”, as Jim Morrison sings?
Precisely. And that’s something that Tibetan culture, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, is actually-- they celebrate death, actually, it’s not something that’s spooky or scary. It’s something that they have some kind of knowledge of. The phenomenon of death-- what is death? Death is something that we’re all going to do very well. There’s a TIbetan teacher, Sogyal Rinpoche, he’s brilliant, he’s fucking incredible, and he says “Why is everyone so worried about death? I guarantee you’ll do that so well. When you die you will do brilliantly, don’t worry. Worry about the living.” Don’t worry about what you don’t have, worry about what you do have. We’re so terrified of what we don’t have, we don’t have the perfect body or whatever. Thom Yorke said it very eloquently, didn’t he, “I want a perfect body. I want you to notice me.”
“I want you to notice me when I’m not around.” Talk about wanting to succeed in death!
Right, feel my presence, that I’m worthy, even at the very end.