There are only a few musicians or artists that can crumple me into a ball of nerves before I even have them on the phone. Incidentally (and perhaps not surprisingly), it tends to be artists that I grew up listening to or have an immense fondness for.
The Cult is one of those bands.
In the early days of Muchmusic, it wasn’t abnormal to see their videos for “She Sells Sanctuary” or “Rain” played at random intervals.
It was their 1987 album Electric that changed the game for me. They had evolved from the psychedelic-rock inspiration of their previous works to embrace a raw, guitar-driven sound that leaned more upon hard rock than what I had come to know of the group.
I was hooked. Their 1989 album Sonic Temple only deepened my love of the band. Even with the arrival of grunge in the early 90’s, The Cult soldiered on, releasing Ceremony in 1991 and a self-titled effort approximately three years later.
And then it was radio silence from the Cult until 2001’s Beyond Good and Evil, an album that was a promising return to form for the long-running group. Unfortunately, fate had other plans:
The album was a casualty of a record label shuffle, but other significant factors were at play as well. There was the imminent collapse of the music business courtesy of Napster, as well as the understandable uncertainty of the post 9/11 world, factors admittedly beyond the group’s control which nonetheless contributed to the album’s premature expiration date.
A hiatus for the band ensued during which time Cult vocalist Ian Astbury performed upwards of 150 shows with surviving Doors members Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger under the name The Doors of the 21st Century (later known as Riders On The Storm).
The Cult subsequently reconvened to release Born Into This in 2007, following that up with the powerful Choice of Weapon in 2012, all while undertaking international tours, playing high-profile festivals like Coachella, among dozens of others.
Inevitably but expectedly, that brings us to the present day. This past Friday, The Cult released their 10th studio album, Hidden City. While virtually every band is likely to tout their newest effort as the best release of their career, this cliché actually rings especially true for The Cult, which sees the group simultaneously hold true to their ideals while also not being afraid of venturing down new roads.
Having previously spoken with Cult vocalist Ian Astbury in 2012, I rightfully anticipated another engaging, insightful interview with the well-versed singer to discuss Hidden City. What I could not have prepared for, however, was the shocking passing of David Bowie just two days prior to my chat with Astbury.
In the occasionally emotional, 35-minute conversation that ensued, during which we touched upon Hidden City, Astbury also didn’t hesitate to share his innermost feelings on the impact that Bowie’s oeuvre had upon his life, both as a fan and as an artist.
Although I shouldn’t have been surprised, I was still taken back by just how significant David Bowie’s passing was to people from all walks of life. What did Bowie and his music mean to you?
The first record I bought was “Life On Mars” when I was 10 years old. When I got that album, the world changed for me. Regular programming just didn’t exist after that. He served as one of the most formative teachers in my life.
I met him when I was 24 years old. At the time, The Cult shared a manager and publicist with him. We had the opportunity to perform with him at a racecourse outside of Paris in front of 80,000 people on the Glass Spider Tour. After our show, I was asked to go visit with David and got to spend a good hour with him just chatting. It was the first time that I had an artist that, to me, was an otherworldly person acknowledge me as an artist, a performer and young person who was looking for guidance, looking for acknowledgement. In that moment, he immediately put me at ease. He spoke to me as an elder, father, teacher; everything you’d ever want in a mentor in some way. He was the first one to actually take the time to be present with me and acknowledge where I was, the place I was in and that it was okay.
Up to that point, my teenage years were pretty disruptive – immigrating to Canada was a huge part of that. When I came to Canada at 11 years old, his music was something that I held close to me. Here I was in a new country, in a new society where the rules I had grown up with in the U.K. didn’t apply anymore and I had no real grounding other than the music I brought in with me. It had a sacred value to me and was deeply woven into the DNA of who I became as a person.
I just can’t explain how much he meant to me. When I found out about his passing, it was as if the sky had fallen.
I would have only been five years old when John Lennon was shot, but since Kurt Cobain’s passing in 1994, I don’t think I have seen a musician’s passing have such a significant impact on such a wide group of people as what we’ve seen with David Bowie.
Absolutely not. When John Lennon passed away, I was at a pub in Liverpool called The Grapes where The Beatles used to drink in between playing their sets at the Cavern Club. A guy walked in and told everyone that Lennon had been shot in New York, but I didn’t feel the same loss. With the loss of David Bowie, it feels like something sacred has been eradicated.
Even while we were in the studio making this new record, we had numerous conversations with [Producer] Bob Rock about Bowie’s work. We weren’t deferring to “Heroes,” we were looking towards Scary Monsters, Heathen and The Next Day and would just talk amongst ourselves like, ‘How does he do that?’
Turning towards the new Cult record, right from the first notes on Hidden City, it’s evident there remains a passion running through the music you’re creating. It’s truly a solid record from start to finish, and, frankly, is the type of album that just seems to get better with each listen. That has to feel good at this point in your career.
I’ve married myself to this band in many ways, for better or worse. The Cult is the collaborative vision of myself and [guitarist] Billy Duffy, but it is also Bob Rock’s vision as well.
One of the biggest things with this new record was that I pushed the piano into the room and said, ‘We are going to go to the piano and start writing in a different space.’ In the past, it was used as more of an accent instrument, but with this album, I wanted it to be front and centre, a big part of which I believe stemmed working with [The Doors members] Ray [Manzarek] and Robbie [Krieger] and having played upwards of 150 shows with them.
I want The Cult to get better and I want the band to last. We are the kind of band that is going to prove to be a late bloomer. I like to think we have made the transition from the 20th to 21st century, where some bands have kind of gotten stuck or failed to evolve. I feel Hidden City is rooted in the now. It’s the kind of record that, as you spend time with it, there is many different layers to peel away. Hopefully people will find gems in there that will draw them in. There is a lot in the DNA of this record; it’s the kind of thing that we should probably have a companion guide to go along with it.
It’s refreshing to hear the band playing as though you’ve still got something to prove.
We made this record in different spaces, which was great as it allowed the music to gestate a little bit more. The most important thing going into the making of Hidden City was having a vision for the record.
The lyric videos we’ve released for a few of the tracks on the record – “Dark Energy,” “Deeply Ordered Chaos” and “Hinterland” – help to explain that vision, and, as the record evolves, and as people digest it, I hope we can make more in the way of visual statements. People tend to move on fairly quickly these days. I only hope the record has a life of more than a few days.
Do you think there is a possibility of The Cult returning to Atlantic Canada in support of Hidden City? I saw you perform at the Moncton Coliseum in 1989 when you were touring Sonic Temple. I completely understand the logistical headaches associated with mounting a tour anywhere, but I’d like to think we’re overdue for the band’s return to the region.
Yes, I’d say you are well overdue [laughs]. It really depends on how the record evolves, but there is no question that we would really love to get back to Atlantic Canada.