The '80s post-metal rock veteran sharpens their 'Weapon'
By Phil Freeman
Special to MSN Music
Ian Astbury may be the last non-embarrassing shamanistic rock frontman. One only has to look at Glenn Danzig or Perry Farrell to see how age can take a toll on formerly magnetic personalities, but Astbury, who just turned 50, has managed to stay thrillingly vital, sharing his instantly recognizable baritone with Japanese art-metal trio Boris, Ray Manzarek and Robbie Krieger of the Doors, and the U.K. electronic act UNKLE.
And it gets better: his band the Cult have just released their best album in 20 years. "Choice of Weapon" blends the band's patented crunching hard rock with a raucous clatter reminiscent of 1970s Iggy Pop, as Astbury's lyrics call out for a re-engagement with nature and exhort the listener to turn his or her back on a decadent society, and turn inward. As he said during our conversation, his advice to members of the Occupy movement is "Occupy yourself."
MSN Music: The video for your new single, "For the Animals," shows you passing something to a younger person. Do you feel you have something to communicate to people younger than yourself?
Ian Astbury: You know, it's weird: We talk about things as clearly defined, like there's some kind of border between generations. Maybe you can do that on paper, or in a conversation, and use it as a kind of existential marker, but in reality it's just different phases of life. I think what happens is not so much a direct, forward, linear motion; it's more of an expansion. Einstein refers to the universe as expanding and contracting. So life expands and contracts. And your consciousness expands. Hopefully your consciousness would expand throughout your life. If you're looking out the window and you're missing everything as you're going by, and you get to the end of it and the driver says, "Well, here we are, end of the line," and you go, "Oh s---, I missed it all. Can we go again?" It's happening right now, folks. This is not a dress rehearsal. It's called life.
What made you choose that as the first single?
Well, it's got to be the sacrificial lamb, I guess. It's the way things are cynically structured. I've been going on a rant about formatting affecting the way people write, the fact that subconsciously you find yourself writing these shorter songs because that's the way it's been since the '50s, the radio single. I guess, to answer your question, "For the Animals" just seemed to make sense. It's an instant song. We've been playing it out live and it goes over a storm.
The piano on "For the Animals" reminds me of 1970s Iggy Pop -- "Raw Power," "Lust for Life," albums like that.
It is. It's completely an homage to that. But then, where did he hear it? Probably Jerry Lee Lewis or something like that. We've done it before; I'm trying to think of another song we've done it on, but we're huge devotees of Iggy Pop and the Stooges. That was one of the first things Billy [Duffy] and I did, when I moved to London in 1984 and we started the band: We went to see Iggy Pop near Victoria train station. I loved "The Idiot" and [the track] "The Passenger" and "New Values" as a teenager.
Listening Booth: Hear the album
Your stage persona has changed somewhat over the years. You were a goth, then you were a psychedelic hard rock guy, then you were an Indian, then you were Jim Morrison. How does the theatricality of your presentation affect your songwriting? Do you write in character, so to speak?
I'm not a character. It's not like I'm role playing; I'm not an actor. Even when I was playing with Ray [Manzarek] and Robbie [Krieger], I wasn't playing a role. It's my voice. My mechanism. I think you're just in different places. Of course you're going to behave differently in the grocery store -- or maybe not. It depends how much you've had to drink. We're stuck in that neurosis of definition. The biggest companies in the world are the psychotropic drug companies and the media. It's all stuff to keep us in our place, keep us civilized, keep our energy suppressed.
That's what William Burroughs talked about -- the addiction to control.
Sure, and people like Guy Debord, talking about the society of the spectacle. We're just going to sit there and watch it. We're not going to participate. We're not going to be participants, we're going to be observers. Burroughs was a wonderful observer, but not a great participant. And I love people of action. People who live their lives dynamically and just blaze a trail, and you're like, "What the f--- are they doing now? They can't do that." And that's kind of the way I've lived my life. People said, "You can't go from postmodern to hard rock," and I was like, "Well, we're doing it." And this is where we're at right now.
Everyone's pontificating about where we're at, what's going on, who's wrong, Occupy -- really? Occupy what? A public square? Put up a tent and play hacky sack? What does it mean? I think the message really is, occupy yourself. Plug into that. Because once you get quiet with yourself, the stuff that comes up is amazing.
Is that how you write? Are you introspective in that way?
For me, the best material is within, it's not external, and maybe things were happening with me, in terms of my emotional and spiritual life, which is what I was really listening to, so whatever phrases and images came up -- there's definitely a sense of mourning the destruction of the wilderness, metaphorically and literally.
There's a song [I sang] on the UNKLE album ["War Stories"] called "When Things Explode," and the final line of the song is something like "We watched it burn together." I just had this image of a couple standing, holding hands, watching the whole thing burn to the ground and being utterly powerless to stop it, while people like Rupert Murdoch were running around in the flames, trying to shove more money into every available orifice. Like a Goya painting.
It was a nightmare, and I had to erase it and say, "I can't be in that place. I have children." Everywhere you turn is a new incongruity, and how do we fight against that? Look away -- don't look at the man behind the curtain, look at the spectacle. Keep your eyes focused on the veneer culture. Keep your eyes focused on the glamorous icons we see on the covers of our magazines.
Phil Freeman was the editor-in-chief of Metal Edge magazine from 2007-2009, is a former contributor to Revolver and Metal Hammer, and writes regularly for Alternative Press, the Village Voice and many other outlets.