The Last Of The True Believers: Ian Astbury Interviewed
, September 27th, 2010 12:46
The Cult will tour the UK next year and have released new material earlier this month. Our man John Robb spoke to singer Ian Astbury about the history of The Cult, working with Boris and how the Quietus got it so, so, so, so very wrong. (Tour dates at foot of article...)
Ian Astbury is the last of the true believers.
One of a select bunch of seekers who were energised by punk rock and set off on an idiosyncratic path through rock & roll.
He first appeared as the frontman of Southern Death Cult in the early 80s, poster boys of positive punk. Combining tribal beats with a soul searching power, they were somehow one part Joy Division and one part Adam and The Ants. Before that, Astbury himself had been a lost soul, spending his youth in North America before drifting back to Birkenhead following Crass on the road, and ending up in Bradford where he hooked up with the band.
He gave them their wide-eyed soul power and he became the pin-up boy for positive punk that was soon erroneously labelled goth and chucked into the hipster dumper. SDC - like Bauhaus, who they supported on tour - were ground-breaking musicians who have been written out of history by post punk historians who prefer the grey-faced to the beautiful. Both bands pushed the boundaries as much as The Fall or Gang Of Four, but have been edited out of the story.
SDC split, and Astbury called in the services of Mancunian guitarist Billy Duffy, who had once spent an afternoon writing songs with Morrissey in the legendary Ed Banger and the Nosebleeds before absconding to Theatre of Hate. The fractious relationship between the football-loving Duffy, who also taught Johnny Marr how to play guitar, and his idealist singer has been the source of The Cult's creativity ever since. When it works, like on the classic 'She Sells Sanctuary', sparks fly but the perfect balance is struck between terrace anthem raucousness and questing, yearning, otherworldliness. The Cult, in their pomp, were a fantastic rock band incorporating the groin exchange groove of AC/DC and no-nonsense production of Rick Rubin and Astbury’s spiritual rock trip: the yin and yang of rock possibility.
For a few years in the late 80s, The Cult sold millions of records and filled out stadiums, with supporting slots given to Guns N'Roses. They currently occupy the rock hinterland of big tours, interesting album releases and a position just beyond the big time. But that hasn’t stopped Astbury. He could have slipped into the comfy slippers of the rock veteran but for him, the quest continues. He controversially filled in for Jim Morrison in the 21st Century Doors tour, worked with UNKLE, travels the world and is currently causing a fuss working with key Japanese noiseniks Boris on a four-track collaboration that sounds fantastic in its collision of cultures and ideas.
Astbury is reclining in his hotel room in Paris explaining how the collaboration came about.
"I was pursuing them after seeing them play the Knitting Factory in New York in 2005. After Pink came out I approached their agency about playing with The Cult, but being Japanese there was a communication barrier in terms of language and we were never able to hook up together because we had different schedules. Eventually the booking agent spoke to Greg and Stephen in Sunn O))) who also run Southern Lord Records, and they kind of facilitated an introduction, but that didn’t come about for another three years. I met Stephen and Greg after playing Pasedana in Los Angeles and I was talking to them about the whole movement, really, and my enthusiasm for it, and they eventually contacted Boris. The next thing I know I get an email from Boris' management saying 'Do you want to do a collaboration?', which was kind of a shock really. They were the ones behind it all, the ones who had the vision to match my voice with their music, and that’s loosely how is came about."
Ian found out that the Japanese have a different mindset when it comes to music.
"Japan's not afraid of collaborations, which we don’t do in rock here, and I don’t mean celeb mates singing on a record. When we do it, it really works - like the Rolling Stones working with other musicians when they were doing their best work on Exile with Keith on bass, Jagger on guitar and Mick Taylor and Gram Parsons chipping in. It was like a loose jam. You can get trapped like when we made Sonic Temple. We could have made Sonic Temple 2 and you don’t want to, and you have a big fight with your musical partner. It’s what happens when it becomes a business and you have mouths to feed. That gets in the way. Those communal bands work great but as soon as they have success it falls apart.’
Were Boris fans of the Cult?
"The conversations we have had are through an interpreter and in broken English, so that’s not a question I've ever asked them! You will have to ask them that but they wanted to cover 'Rain' as a gesture of goodwill or as a thank you, a homage, which was really beautiful. I love Wata’s singing on it."
Ian Astbury doesn’t fit comfortably into the notion of the modern rock star. Too smart for the grunt and grind of rock; too rock & roll for the grubby raincoat of post-punk, and a denier of goth. He's antagonistic and questioning, and far closer to the original punk tribe - the misfits and outsiders who came to rock & roll in the late 70s fired by the possibilities of music, art and life. For many, these people seemed mad, bad and dangerous to know; "all the children are insane", as The Doors once sang. Astbury is anything but and tires of the assumption that he is a rock star dilettante and comical figure just because he dares to be larger than life in a culture that now seems as dour as the rest of corporate UK. Sometimes the press perception of him rankles and he is not happy with The Quietus's review of the Boris collaboration, even though it ended up being positive. Never one to shrink from confrontation, he dives in.
"By the way the guy who wrote the piece in The Quietus… Ben [Graham]? In the review he got a name wrong, that’s where he lost his footing in the whole piece - when you get things like that wrong, it shows you don’t know your subject material.
We can get that corrected.
"You can’t get some of other things corrected like calling me ‘a washed up charlatan and turgid tripe monger Ian Astbury’ [laughs]. It was saying 'Magickal Child' is a homage to Viking gods and Tolkein which is so far removed from what the song is about. It’s actually about a friend of mine who committed suicide so he got it wrong there. Really wrong."
"Sadly pieces like this are written and then a music fan that doesn’t know anything about me or Boris thinks, 'What is this? Why should I be interested in this?'. It starts off really negative and, as you well know if you know anything about me or my history, the perception has always been that I am some kind of bonkers performer two tepees short of a reservation who's completely up my own arse and lives in a fantasy realm. That perception has been propagated by writers for well over 30-years, but not one of those writers has asked me any personal questions. It's always been an outside perception based upon an image."
It's a fair complaint. Can rock really have got that conservative that Astbury can be made out to be eccentric or wacky? Is there no space left for the quest?
"It’s disappointing because I know the work with Boris is really good and I know the place where the work comes from. I know the subtext and I know the intention, and I know it's layered and textured. I know it’s completely sincere and I know it came from a very real and raw place. The last three years have been the worst in my life on a personal level so I know that emotive energy went into making decent music. It went into its recording so to have some journalist who doesn’t know his subject material and can’t see past the end of his own nose sort of write it off, like the fact that I'm some actor who's bumbling through his lines, is annoying. This recording has come from a very real place and that’s what is magical about this collaboration. That’s why Boris picked me and they didn’t pick a slew of other singers to work with from the West. They had their pick of whoever they want. Boris could pretty much knock on anyone's door and they would say yes, guaranteed - unless you’re a complete buffoon - and I know they have not extended that invitation to anyone else, even the American avant garde set. You know, they didn’t knock on Thurston Moore’s door; they came to mine. They see earnestness but then they are Japanese and they look for the emotive content, which we don’t do in the West. In fact, if we see anything that has an emotive quality we tend to try and pull it down. Especially the British."
"The British are very uncomfortable with their feelings. And, please, I’ve had bad reviews and I don’t give a fuck about that, its about getting the context wrong and at this stage of the game, it just becomes irritating and it’s sad because this is a great piece of work. It’s one of the best things I've ever been involved in. Working with UNKLE was an amazing experience as well, but the Boris collaboration is something very special. I really hope it gets to see the light of day."
The Cult were similarly misunderstood in their time. Their combination of the rock classic through a punk prism and Astbury’s soul searching and fascination with the frontier spirit was a bit too much to cram into one package for some people. Rock likes its singers dumb, and whilst The Cult were in tune with the primal, its singer was happy to wander to the fringes. It saw him treated as a madman by a confused press.
"I don’t think most journalists have more life experience than getting on a bus and seeing My Bloody Valentine once. That’s the extent of their travel and probably their extent of life experience as well. It’s very parochial, living in the same environment day in and day out and having that limited perspective. That’s why musicians may come over as being eccentric. They've travelled and they have had other experiences - maybe a broader perspective - and so in that way, they have a different spin on things and with all respect most writers don’t look further than the local pub. They stay in the same circle and in the same city and they don’t reach any of the world. They don’t make that same kind of internal exploration. Everything is about an outward response to an outward situation but never sitting quietly and listening to the inner voice. That’s more of an Eastern philosophy. It’s interesting a lot of musicians who reach a certain point feel that this is not doing it for me anymore, and they go to India or wherever just to find peace and quiet, or a place to look more inwardly, and that was what was wonderful about working with Boris because that is what their culture is all about. They are from a Shinto Buddhist culture where a lot of their processes are internal processes.
"It’s an emotive process. It's about sentiment and feeling and emotionality, and it’s not about having to over intellectualise why they do it. Atsuo is a visionary and a genius - and again I don’t want to bash Ben, but he got it wrong. He made a comment about Spinal Tap which came up and about walking a line between avant garde and silliness but there is nothing silly in there. Frank Sidebottom was silly! Boris are really serious about their intentions. They are not horribly serious; they have a wicked sense of humour but only when humour is appropriate and not when working in these kind of places. It’s an emotional performance and it’s got to be a safe place for an emotive performance. OK, there may be some bleeding heart on it, but it comes from a very real place and real experience. Ben certainly got it right in the sense that he's talking about a kind of pagan feel to it, which is definitely a trend... or maybe not so much a trend but something that is coming up in the culture everywhere. You see more and more people walking away from the internet and the society of the spectacle and Lady Ga Ga and saying, 'Really? Is that it?' Is that it! Is that where we have reached? Is that the cross roads that we have come to?'
"[It's] just rampant materialism. It’s not sustainable. People are fucking organic beings. I saw this thing on the BBC where they said that more and more people were going to Stonehenge every year - just regular families. They don’t know why they are going. They are just going. It’s the place to go. More and more people are going. It’s like they just want to get away from the materialism."
Away from the machine
"The machine, yes, thank you…"
This misunderstanding had already started with post-punk. Whilst Southern Death Cult were as inventive as their peers, they have somehow been removed from the history of the period. Listen to their album now and it sounds as fresh and inventive as when it was released. Modern rock culture seems to be in denial of the freaky and fascinating, and SDC have had their influence ignored and their imagination sniffed at. Astbury himself is in no mood to apologise for the experimentalisation.
"At the time we were kids. We were young. I was 19. I hadn’t developed. I was reaching for myself. I hadn’t found myself, so it was really earnest. If there is a criticism for being young and earnest then yeah, I'm guilty. I was young and I was earnest and I was going for it. I was exploring everything and I wasn’t afraid to put it into my music, from the way I dressed and the way I looked, and everyone else was following the pack. I was a year younger than most of my peers. I didn’t see the Pistols. I saw the Clash in '78 so I was a year behind. I was in Canada in '77 so I just missed out on that wave. Year zero for me was Crass and Joy Division, more so than the Pistols. It was more like second album Clash, Public Image, Joy Division. And mixed in with this was coming from North America because I’d spent five years there - I also had this FM radio upbringing listening to the Doors, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and also there was David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Patti Smith because you would hear these albums on the radio played in beautiful stereophonic sound.
"When I came back to England there was this horrible Thatcherite cynicism and dystopia, and I was coming out of a very optimistic culture in North America at a time when music had been very rich, like the Stones at their height. Bands like Queen were touring - they were considered to be dinosaurs but they were still doing really good work. It’s interesting now that we have gone away from punk rock and people can be really objective about that period. There was also the psychedelics, and what people were doing in that period ten years before me, ingesting psychedelics and exploring inward emotive space trying to get the meaning of it all. And then of course Spinal Tap comes along and they put up Stonehenge and everyone has a really good laugh. I was probably the only person who when Spinal Tap came along looked at everyone and said, 'You know what, we're fucked!' [laughs]
"That film was funny, but by the same token everybody is just going to look at the superficial elements of rock & roll and that’s just going to be it. It’s just going to be a big joke and sadly, it’s not a safe place any more to talk about those things. Some of those things that made rock music more interesting were in trouble and that’s what I love about Sunn O))), and that's what I love about Boris. That’s what I love about that new movement of drone and psych metal and hard rock. It’s not even hard rock; it’s avant garde and in many ways it’s a ritual space. It’s not one-dimensional. It’s not a band standing up there playing three chords for an hour and half, and there's no release like if you go to see Metallica - all due respect to Metallica - it’s very masculine and it’s very one dimensional. There’s no real sexual release. It’s all about sexual tension. It’s very aggressive. It’s very angry but when you go and see Boris it’s like an opera. It's operatic. It’s a compete spectrum of emotion and you go on a journey when you see Boris perform. When you walk out of their concert it feels like you’ve left the earth's plane in some ways.
"Sure, I like to be at the front at a three chord concert as well and have that kind of really urban, angst energy, but I think it’s a real blessing that Greg is doing this with Southern Lord records and Boris are in the world, and there’s a real place for them. And it would be really nice if these college educated journalists could get off their fucking arses and get out of their very small, myopic environments like Brooklyn or whatever - these small enclaves - and get out and experience more than some sort of hipster perspective which is very limited.
"It’s not nature to be set in these ways. Nature evolves and something that is set in its ways is shown to be broken. It doesn’t serve the human spirit very well. In that critique the guy put in there that I was like an aging old dear. [laughs] I mean really, wow, he's not that far behind me!"
The age critique, as we'll all learn, is thin ice.
"It is thin ice because we all end up there. I love what Keith Richards said in some interview. He was asked what he thought of all these exciting new bands, new music and haircuts and he just laughed, took a drag on his cigarette and said 'They will find out.'"
The Cult, with their ongoing battle between pragmatism and revolution, are a fascinating combination of personalities. How does it work?
"I'm working with a Mancunian for a start! So you can imagine!" he laughs.
The difference between the two of you is the key to the band. You’re our on your quest, and he’s the back to basics rock & roller.
"But that’s his thing, and he's honest about that. He's never had any air or graces about working with anything else. He's a working guitar player and in that way he's very much from that Mick Ronson school of playing. That’s his mentor, and Mick Ronson is the guy. And Steve Jones - they are working class guys who picked up Les Pauls and had an incredible natural gift for it."
An artful yobbishness.
"Yes that’s a good way of putting it. It’s not [puts on posh voice] 'I'm reaching for this'. It’s more 'I'm feeling this, I'm going for it' and there is something really endearing about that, because it’s like the underdog reaching out for the forbidden fruit, and that’s really what The Cult was about. We broke out of places like the north west, but then our background is not the pedigree of a normal band. I grew up in Glasgow, I grew up in Canada, I grew up in Birkenhead and Billy had stayed in Manchester and was very much in that world. I may have been more open to the esoteric but Billy is very much part of that stoic, bricklayer, blue-collar guy world. The guy who goes to football, the guy who likes to wash his car on Sundays - whereas I'm more likely to be happy in the Himalayas - but you put the two things together and it works. Also you've got to put into perspective that I walked away from the Cult for nine years, so out of that 25-years you have to realise that effectively The Cult has only been together for 16-years. We’re still working it out."
And the working out continues. The Cult have just been in the studio with the godfather of desert rock, Chris Goss.
"I had to push for Chris Goss to come into the room because I thought he would be one of the few producers that would understand both aspects of the band; both the linear plane and the [extra-]terrestrial plane, and make sense of those elements and how they work together. That’s what makes the music interesting."
It's that mix that defines The Cult, and when both parts are perfected, it really works...
"You need an awareness that you need both those elements to make it work. It’s like male and female within nature. There is a negative and positive, there is male and female. It’s about a balance. I don’t want to talk about it in conservative terms because it is a profound thing. It’s an emotive form. I remember being in the studio once having an argument with Billy and I said 'Dude, what we do is an emotive form and what we do is about emotionality and the braver you get and the more you get closer to your emotional truth, the better it gets.'
"It is fragile and it is dangerous, and emotionally you are going into places that are really scary. That’s why it kills musicians. There is a high fatality rate in music. A super high fatality rate. Lots of wounds. A lot of people come in to this emotionally damaged and the wounds are kept open. Working with Ray and Robbie from The Doors... whatever anyone may think about it, I learned a lot from that and we had some magnificent moments, and it was done for the right reasons, but it's easy to throw stones at that. Those guys work constantly in that space and because they had Morrison, who was a wounded kid, they were able to go into the most magnificent places and it’s evident in their body of work. That’s why the work is so good - they were fearless in that way."
Singing with the resurrected Doors must have been difficult. That was hallowed ground you were treading there, and there was some controversy, but you came away with your head held high.
"They were players and they would get in the room and play and play, and that would reflect in the language which is no longer about talking but about playing. And we would communicate through playing. It's a primal thing, your head turns off and you start to feel what’s going on and you start to pick up on rhythms and melodies and tempos and it comes from this space. They are just such masters. Manzarek [Ray, keyboardist] is like the master of the ship. He's able to guide the energy to wherever he wants it to go to. He can bring it up, take it down and make it more effective, make it more right in your face and even without [drummer] John Densmore there - who is a critical part of that, a crucial element - there was a level they got to performing together. There was long sections like in 'When The Music's Over' that were 10 or 11 minutes long when there was a lot of improvisation in it, so that space that came into the music and it came from a spontaneous moment. It came from me working with Ray and playing and the band playing in that framework. People talk about Morrison being really out there on the frontier, on the boundary, on the barricade and going beyond that but really the music took him there. Ray is the master, the band are the masters. John and Ray were into transcendental meditation. It was an introspective thing. Ray was in the army in the early 60s. He was in Thailand. He probably smoked opium and was dropping acid before Vietnam! These guys were heads. They knew exactly what they were doing. They were working in a psychedelic space."
Their music is timeless.
"I was talking to a friend yesterday about the difference between bands driven by organics and psychedelics and bands driven by alcohol and powders which is a very materialistic, narcissistic thing. Whereas the organic bands, I think they're better. They weather better. Bands like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and The Doors have stood up, I think, in many ways a lot better than the Stones. That’s a tough one to get into because I love The Rolling Stones, and you look at Keith and he held all that down. Also some of my favourite moments are when Brian Jones was in there and he was always experimenting. Like on 'Paint It, Black' when he got a sitar out."
Astbury the fan is still in awe of the past masters whilst moving forward.
"We need the balance. There is always this argument that its got to be the new face with the new idea and the new sound, but how about the new emotionality? How about holding that up? And that's what I love about Sunn O))). When you go to a Sunn O))) performance, you can't hum a piece of music by them. You just can't. It goes 'gggger' or 'uhhhh'. It's more of a ritual space. There is room for that. I kind of felt at some point, with all respect to journalists, that they started to go for the easy option and to support the bands that were goofy. It's like when sports fans picked up guitars; jock rock. They picked up tennis rackets and started playing them. That's when it started going wrong."
The press image of Astbury as the eternal Wolfchild amuses him.
"Yeah! The incarnation of Wolfchild! I was drinking beer and I was in New York City in 1986. I was a kid and I was drunk in New York City, for God's sake. I was running around with the Beastie Boys, Run DMC, Rick Rubin, Murphys Law - the whole posse. AC/DC was as relevant as Grandmaster Flash. It was a strange brew and we were part of it. It was real Americana and it was a different thing. There was also 'Aphrodisiac Jacket', but then again I was a kid! I didn’t have the college education. I was self-taught. I missed basic spelling at school so sometimes it could be a bit convoluted in some ways!"
Rock lyrics don't work written down and out of context.
"The lyrics without the music can seem like the most ludicrous thing. It's like the text without the emotionality. I mean, you see can Shakespeare done badly and you can see Shakespeare done really well, and the emotionality is just phenomenal. It can reduce you to tears or exalt you to the highest place and that’s like the best art: it makes you feel something when you experience it. It makes you feel something whether it's music or photography or film. You transcend and you walk into a space; you walk into a gig and leave two hours later and you are speechless sometimes, really. Ask any fan of music the lyrics of their favourite song and they will get it wrong. 'I thought he was saying... or she was saying...' and look at the lyrics and say they were saying that. We are so limited by language. British people are so used to hearing their language but go into another culture and hear another music, like when you are in the far east or in India, and you hear the music and you think, 'I don’t care what they are singing about, it just sounds amazing.' I just feel what they are performing.
"So again, to go back to Boris, I felt that they gave me the piece of music and I had to find that part of myself to go with it."
How much freedom did they give you to create?
"The way they work is interesting. Atsuo drives the ship. He's brilliant. You can tell by his facial expressions what he is thinking, whether he is smiling or nodding his head or it's tilted to one side and you just know. I know at this stage myself though what works... believe me, I police myself. I police myself like no one else does. When I walk in a room I don’t think let's do something wacky, witty and ironic so that people can guffaw at me. I'm clearing my head of clutter so I can let the feelings come up so the emotionality can come through. Sometimes there is no certainty because when you are in a recording environment, you can be hearing music for the first time or it could be the first time you're performing it. So I was not prepared for what would come out of my mouth. Sometimes you are not prepared for that space which you are given. Music is of the moment and every moment is different, and you try and keep it fresh so that when you walk in the room it’s the freshest perception of that piece that you have got, and not just written down before and do the same every time. I mean, I sang 'Magickal Child' with Boris once and that was already different from the recording.
"People say how can you sing 'She Sells Sanctuary' every time you play live, but that’s because every time I walk up to the mic I'm in a different headspace, a different environment, a different headspace, a different internal experience. Sometimes I will let the music wash over me. The other musicians there have a similar experience so collectively everyone has their heads turned off and let the music take over collectively. It's very interesting - that’s why people keep coming back to live concerts."
They seek the truth.
"You get a truth when watching your favourite band. It's just you and them. There is no filter."
Did you feel like an intruder working with a tight knit unit like Boris?
"I'm used to that space. It's about being comfortable in that space. It's about being emotionally bomb proof. I think when you get to that space as a performer, that’s when the best work happens. When you allow yourself to go for things and be really ridiculous, that's where the best work comes from. You really reach into yourself. At this stage of the game I will go for it because you can always re-record it. Sometimes when you try something you get a different result than you expected so you get a kind of accident; a surprise which is pretty profound.
"I recorded in a vocal booth that was behind the console and not in front of the console, so I was looking at a wall and I didn’t have any contact with anybody. I was in my own space and I learned how to do it in my own space. When I was a kid I used to think you had to put a carpet up on the wall and candles and create an environment, and that did help me a lot when I was younger. Now I can just close my eyes and go there. I don’t need anything. I don’t need incense or candles or my special little mojo, my special little totem that I rub before singing," he laughs.
Will working with Boris influence your work with The Cult?
"Everything I work on outside The Cult, I bring back to The Cult. Whether it's my work with UNKLE or even Tony Iommi. There's so many things I've done that I'm losing count because I love collaborations. I love working outside of the band. I did another song with UNKLE that hasn’t come out yet. I always bring these things back and put them in front of my partner and see what he thinks of this or what he thinks of that, and being a very working kind of guy like he is, it takes him a while to come round to things but eventually he gets it. It was like when I introduced Chris Goff to him. He wasn’t sure about him at first, but eventually Chris comes in and completely wins him over when he picks up the guitar and being the gifted guitar player that he is, it's amazing when you're in a room with a master. You think, 'Ok, I'm listening'. Billy's wise in that way. He listened, he knows, he's a smart kid."
But then Billy is not quite the three chord kid, is he? He’s much more than that. His playing is actually very sensitive and complex.
"Like me, he's grown up a lot. We are not the same people as when we made Love, Electric and Sonic Temple. They were records of their time. I think that nobody was prepared for the way that the music industry was going to turn after that. When the lawyers came and created a music industry that was more about controlling talent and picking talent that was easily manageable and not nurturing new talent... That's why rock music is where it is today.
"Traditionally rock musicians have been very difficult to deal with, with bad lifestyles, so it’s a lot easier to work with things that are pop or with a lighter, indie kind of feel, and that's why we are where we are with a weaker gene pool. But regardless of this there is an underground - especially in the Pacific north west of the United States, because it's such a remote place. And places like Australia where they are unaffected unlike in London, Paris or New York. They have their own organic optimism and the natural environment that influences the music. The mountains of the northwest and the trees and the forest really affect the music. There's something in the water in Seattle and Portland that really affects the music whole movement in that part of the world..."
It’s the same in the UK. A lot of the best art is made beyond the fringes, beyond the hipster parts of cities where the competition sometimes creates conservatism and there is a fear of stepping out beyond the sniggering irony.
"I think in many ways you are forced to create something far more of a polar opposite of your less hip surroundings, and there’s certainly no exotic quality to Merseyside and West Yorkshire."
Apart from maybe Pete Burns in late the 70s Liverpool you were running around in...
"I think Pete Burns is from Birkenhead or from Port Sunlight, strangely enough. I remember him being around before I went to Bradford, of course, but then saying that, most of the punk kids were from the suburbs of London. The punk bands came from the suburbs. It took someone like Malcolm McLaren who was an art student and was educated to have a cultivated eye to see that there was a shift in the culture, and be smart enough to define it in some way and guide it or coral it in the way that these wild animals running around understood. There was this shift in the energy, a shift in the culture and it was not like he tamed it, but he harnessed it. He gave it an identity and he coalesced it. He finessed it."
He gave it a space...
"Precisely, and it's that space and energy that I work in a lot, and so does someone like James Lavelle. He is always working for a sentiment or a feeling and trying to give it some kind of framework for presentation, because we are always trying to present it in a way that engages an audience."
It was one of those periodic returns to the primal.
"People are returning to a ritual space and people are returning to organic environments. Guys are growing their hair a little bit more and getting away from 'Let's get down Carnaby street and buy a pair of Beatle boots'. I mean, really, are we still doing that? Has that not been done too many times? The organic is where I feel the energy is moving towards. In many ways if Lady Ga Ga is as far as you can go with the manufactured machine then obviously there is going to be a balance of nature. It's always the way. Let's look out for where the light takes us.
"I was watching the film about Norwegian metal in a cinema in Manhattan and all these hipsters from Manhattan came in, in their skinny jeans and their little beards, and they were laughing all the way through the film. I was sat five rows behind them and they were totally missing the point. The film was completely earnest. In the film these kids were talking about being alienated from Norwegian culture with the Christianity and the conservatism. All of a sudden its McDonald’s and American culture and this globalised culture being thrust upon them and they were saying, 'No, we don’t accept this, we don’t feel this, we feel like something else'. They were saying look at where we live, we live with fjords and mountains - this is who we are and we react against it this way, and a load of city kids are not surrounded by this. How can they understand it? What reference do they have? It would look ridiculous if you lived in a city, I would guess. The kids that were laughing, they are actually really thick. They have a very blinkered perspective. We are all very organic, we depend on the sun. Cut off the water and they would get it pretty quick."
The self-styled elites - the sniggering and modern city hipsters are out of touch.
"Like Catch 22 - it's like the serpent catching its tail. It's personified with people like Ann Wintour at Vogue magazine who observed that celebrity culture was going to happen and she put celebrity on the cover, and everybody followed suit. Everybody follows suit to be part of it. There is this amazing book about New York called The Warhol Economy: How Fashion, Art and Music drive New York City by Elizabeth Currid, who was an art professor, and she talks about how New York became modern New York because of the abstract impressionists like Pollock, Rothko and then Warhol through CBGBs, then Basquiat and the Lower East Side and modern New York, and that’s why everyone went there. The bank managers just wanted to put a Warhol on the wall and turned New York into Zurich and all the real artists have basically left. They have gone back to where they have come from. In fact they are more likely to stay in their small towns instead of going to New York. They are more likely to stay in Portland or Poughkeepsie. It's not happening in these urban environments any more - in fact, it's more likely to be pastiche."
"I just spent three years living in New York and explored it thoroughly. I lived in Manhattan. I was always in galleries and art shows - it's very similar to London in that way. You pay for your bohemian experience like in Starbucks where there's a Norah Jones record in the background and it's kind of a bit bohemian, you go up to the counter and you can have an exotic drink from South America - it's all surface, not depth. I'm more for revamping the Stonehenge festival than that, it would be amazing.
"Interestingly, I’ve been hanging out recently with Penny Rimbaud from Crass, who was instrumental in putting on the early Stonehenge festival with the late Wally Hope.
"Penny is like Arthur, Arthur Ritter [laughs]. I saw those guys 36 times. I used to follow them. I was a devotee of Crass and it had a huge, huge influence on me. I remember being at their squat - Dial House - and being given a book on the sacred rights of the Oglala Sioux called Black Elk Speaks by John Neinhardt to read while they were having a band meeting and I sat there and read it. I was an 18-year-old kid with a Mohawk sitting in the Crass house. Steve Ignorant was sitting in the tepee outside - how can that not have an effect on you! It's now that people understand Crass and what they were doing, like with that big piece in Vice magazine.
"Maybe you have to go through a few life cycles to understand that it's not just shouting - that superficial explosion is really exciting but you have to keep seeking. And you have to remember that it's not just those three months that count. People always said that if you were there for those three months then you weren’t there. They said that you had to be there for the summer of love in 1988 or that if you weren't there for the summer of 77 then you were not experiencing the real thing, but to me that's just a 'just get in the door moment' that leads to somewhere else.
"The energy is always there. We are made of atoms and if you split the atom the energy is always there - of course the energy is always there! The culture has been appropriated by college-educated people who put themselves up as the custodians of the culture. They set themselves up with their blogs saying 'I am now a cultural critic, here's my blog: I am an authority and the format is right in front of you'. It's got some nice black and white graphics, it's all copied and cut and pasted. Basically, that’s where the experience stops. I mean, the people who are out there really doing it are not reporting it, they are just getting on with it. There are exceptions to the rule but I think it's about getting out there and getting amongst it, and that’s why I really hunted down Boris and hunted down Greg and Stephen at Southern Lord, and when I hunted them down it wasn’t like I was saying I'm a big fan - it was like I was saying I absolutely admire what you are doing, and I want to know more, and I want to have a discourse about it. I want to get deeper into it and I've immersed myself into their world now. For me, Southern Lord is one of the most important labels right now. It's so important and influencing a generation of musicians and artists like Jim Jarmusch who has used Boris on his last film soundtrack for Limits Of Control."
Are you still disappearing to the Himalayas?
"Not for three years. There's been another crash at Lukla airport, the gateway to Everest - the second one in two years. It's hairy up there. The Himalayas are unforgiving and the weather systems up there chop and change. You have to have your wits about you, and I love that. I feel really grounded there. That's why I just moved back to California because I was missing the mountains and the desert and the ocean. The desert is going to be a very important part of the next part of the story for me and my music and creativity. I'm excited about that and I couldn't access that in New York.
"I had a HD projector and I would project films against the wall by Jodorowsky - a lot of very languid, organic films - and also a lot of Kenneth Anger films, and I thought 'Why don’t you just go back to the mountains?' because I’m not getting it in New York. In New York, because of the buildings, you are in canyons. The city is an amorphous thing and it has its own energy. The city is part of everybody's daily conversation. It's a living, breathing entity but having said that, it's this machinery of culture and commerce. You ask these artists who they are and where they come from and Warhol came from Pittsburgh and from Poland before that,and Jackson Pollock was from Wyoming. Patti Smith came from deep in new jersey. The people who made New York [into] New York - they were refugees ,and New York was were the refuges came into.
"It was where people came in the first place but then the people like the Rothschilds and the Vanderbilts, the Guggenheims and all the families, they would capture these immigrants and their visions of the future and then take it and stick it in a gallery and sell it. And the next thing the artist is dead and they are sitting on top of a lot of expensive art that they didn’t create themselves. It’s a machine - it just absorbs humans. It's amazing, you see people just getting spat out by New York. If you’re looking for spiritual awakening then New York is not the place to go.
"Well, maybe it is in a way - I had a spiritual awakening in New York and it made me want to go back to the mountains. I went to New York because I was looking for a more intellectually stimulating climate than California and I came to New York and I thought, this is too much. What it was really about was what laces you have in your sneakers and how your hair was cut…"
You have lived in America for years. Do you ever want to come back to the UK?
"What you have to remember is that I have actually spent more time in North America than in the UK. I had already spent a large part of my youth there. It breaks my heart to see so much cynicism and self-loathing in the UK. I think we Brits are hard on ourselves and that really breaks my heart when I come back and see that. It's difficult to come with a very open heart and a very earnest intention and be fully understood. What we do with The Cult has never been embraced by the British music industry. We have never been asked to an award show or never been asked to The Queen tribute or the Mojo awards or the NME awards or any of that. We have never been embraced by the British music community ever, so in that way I feel like an exile. The only people I go back for is our fans and the barren places like Cornwall, Wales and Scotland."
The Celtic fringes...
"Yes, the Celtic fringes. That's what I'm drawn towards and that quality in the island is still apparent and can be tapped into at any moment. That's something that is really exciting and perhaps if we can start a movement to get Stonehenge going again we may connect with that. Billy was really funny. He said to me 'You want to start doing these folk festivals now don’t you?' and I'm like 'Ah uh'.
"Reading and Leeds or T In The Park? I mean, really, come on. Please. No, enough. No more crap hamburgers, crap toilets, people pissing all over each other in the rain. Come on! [Laughs]. I want a more different festival now, to find a different culture for us. The right place and not the conveyer belt - where people don’t even know what band are playing, they don’t even care. I know, I've watched it happen."
Why don’t you put your own festival on again?
"I attempted that once with 'Gathering Of The Tribes'. It was an altruistic, heartfelt vibe. I thought the musical community had to represent itself for once. It was getting very corporate at the time and labels were becoming bigger. It was a time of the super companies, the super signature. They were using the leverage of Michael Jackson's contract which affected everybody. So my reaction was - because I was a big fan of hip-hop at the time - my idea was to see Guns N' Roses and then NWA on the same bill. And the journalist response was, 'We don’t really understand this, we don’t get it'. And I was saying, you don’t have to get it, just experience it. It could be a good experience or a bad experience - it depends on how you feel. Then the idea got taken and it became Lollapalooza, and other people got the trophies of mine that end up in their trophy cabinets, but again, that’s just the way it rolls. I have to get beyond that or be a bitter old man."
And end up sounding like another old time punk rocker who can’t understand the current scene?
"A lot of them get caught up in facade. Sometimes people say that about Rotten but I've met him and he's a really good guy, and now he's just starting to realise it.
"The sad thing is that the majority of people out there are not even watching anymore. There is a massive video game industry worth 80 billion dollars a year which I read in the Financial Times ,which has become my latest banding about figure. My other one is when people asked what happened to the music industry and I always say that 'The bottom came up'. Everybody and their dog is now an artist. People who really want to do it do it now, and if you can hang in past three albums you will be ok. It's not a boy band having a haircut and being cute or being son and daughter of celebrity... there seems to be a lot of celebrity kids out there now. It's more than that. It has to be.
"That period from '68 to '73 ,there was so much music getting made and it was so eclectic. Pink Floyd, Can, Stooges, Doors, Bowie, Parliament, Sly Stone... so much going on. I was lucky to go to Detroit for Rob Tyner's benefit and a lot of these people came out like Fred Sonic Smith... it was an incredible evening. Things like that are few and far between, but enough. I don’t want to sound like the old boy."
Ian pauses for breath for the first time in an hour and laughs.
"I have to leave. Tell Ben that when I see him he will get a tomahawk in his skull…"
The Cult will play the following shows next year as part of their UK tour:
January 18 O2 Academy, Leeds
January 19 O2 Academy, Bristol
January 21 HMV Hammersmith Apollo
January 22 Corn Exchange, Cambridge
January 23 O2 Academy, Bournemouth
January 25 Rock City, Nottingham
January 26 Civic Hall, Wolves
January 27 O2 Academy, Newcastle
January 29 02 Academy, Glasgow
January 30 Academy, Manchester