The Cult have just finished supporting GNR on some of their monster international reunion dates, which is poetic, seeings as how the frontman gave the LA rockers one of their first big breaks when he recruited them to support The Cult on tour back in ’87.
“We’d be here forever, we’d be here for days [if I told you],” he laughs. And he’s not exaggerating.
My chat with the legendary Cult frontman stretched on for close to half an hour and traversed a galaxy of topics — touching on music stars from GNR to Kanye West to INXS’s Michael Hutchence to David Bowie to Sia, navigating some deep universal truths about life and death and coming in to land on the band’s forthcoming Australian tour — but it still barely scratched the surface when it comes to the insight this rock n’ roll icon has racked up over his many years in the bizz. I could have chatted to him for hours.
Astbury’s wisdom and creativity comes pouring out of him like water from the sky during his band’s recent gig with GNR during a massive lightning storm in Mexico City, an anecdote the frontman uses to highlight how The Cult are still able to thrive in challenging live environments.
“We were all just drenched,” he reminisces. “There’s no way that in the US or Australia or wherever ,you could have a concert where there’s lightning coming down and the show isn’t cancelled. When there’s 60,000 people in a lightning storm and you’re walking onto a stage that is slick – I mean this rain is coming down torrential, on an angle – pelting rain… you can see the lightning hitting the ground not a few miles away.”
“Surely someone’s gonna come by and say ‘This ain’t happening!’,” he laughs. “But it was really magical. And one of the most important moments of that show was playing a song off the new record called Deeply Ordered Chaos, which really seemed to work so well in that environment — it was just a really heightened, dramatic environment. The energy of the audience, the anticipation of the event… I mean, there were armed policemen outside in full riot gear — so the environment was really tense. It was this cauldron, kind of a little bit dangerous, especially with the weather.
“These were GNR’s first shows outside of the US, they’d only done three shows [since getting back] together. But we hit that stage in front of their audience and we cleaned house, we came off that stage and everybody was just exhilarated.”
While a lot of bands have a tendency to phone it in live, finding a way to engage with the audience has always been top priority for The Cult, and Astbury reckons it’s something that they and GNR have in common.
“We’ve got a long relationship, in some ways you know, it’s like an extended family,” he says. “They’re survivors, they’re fighters, they’re always striving for something more in their music, and I think that’s something that’s evident in bands who stay around for a minute, is that they’re always pushing and challenging themselves.
“They’re playing to win, you know? They’re not playing to entertain. Although it is supposedly an entertainment experience. There’s something more at stake. What the band stands for, what the lyrics stand for, what they represent.
“Obviously you fall down, you make mistakes, you’re fallible, you know? You have things happen in life. I’ve buried maybe 12 of my best friends over the years, you see people fall and you fall yourself. But you pick yourself up, dust yourself off and you re-approach it.”
“I saw him a week before he passed away and yeah, that was a tough one, because we used to run together and hang out together,” Astbury says.
“He was such a beautiful person, such an incredibly, incredibly sensitive, generous… badass,” he laughs. “He was incredibly charismatic, there wasn’t a single woman he didn’t turn the head of.”
At this point, Astbury seems to slip into a wistful reverie, adding, “Yeah… It was electric being around Michael.”
When prompted about whether he has any particularly vivid memories of Hutchence that stand out above the rest, Astbury says, “Oh yeah,” and begins laughing hysterically.
“Oh man, I think the first time we got together we went back to his hotel room, and we had a tea party after [INXS had] played with Queen (at Wembley Stadium in 1987). I think we kind of got in trouble because the bathroom door ended up out the window,” he chuckles.
“Yeah, it got pretty trashy. But it was all in good spirits. That’s the thing about [Michael], it was never malicious, it was always well-mannered chaos.”
And Astbury promises that the INXS icon was definitely not one of those “dick” rockstars you hear about all the time and see portrayed in the movies.
“He was just a gentleman, an absolute gentleman,” The Cult singer says. “But then again, a lot of the real ones that you encounter are, because they come from humble backgrounds… or they come from places where it’s kind of gauche to blow your trumpet, you know? (puts on an American cowboy voice) ‘I’m the greatest ever!’ It’s like, well, let the people decide.”
Ian Astbury hanging out with Michael Hutchence & Iggy Pop/ Image Via Tumblr.
But despite this, Astbury is still a big fan of serial bragger Kanye West.
“I think he’s a really sensitive guy,” the rocker says. “I mean, I get the impression that he really cares about what he does. He’s a creative person. And I think that he’s just very passionate and I think that he actually steps up.
“I mean, when you look at the body of work that he’s created, I don’t think you can argue with that. If you’re a fan of that kind of music, if you’re a fan of pop-rap, and he’s transcended those genres.
“Right now [Kanye’s] out doing shows in the US and the shows are just bedlam! He’s coming out on a blank stage & performing in that way without a band, just him.”
It really feels like Astbury is something of a reverse Noel Gallagher — full of praise and respect for his fellow artists in other genres. Not only does the good guy rocker dig on Yeezy, he also very much vibes Australia’s own songstress Sia, reckoning her 2016 Ye collab, Wolves, is a goddamn masterpiece.
“It’s stunning,” he says. “That’s like hairs on arms stunning.”
“Sia is incredible, I love Sia, big fan, I’m a great admirer of hers. Put the two of them together? Double threat. Now that’s throwing down! I say to guys in rock bands, like” ‘Check that out, that’s the bar’.”
Watch: Kanye West – ‘Wolves’ feat. Sia & Vic Mensa (Balmain Campaign)
But despite his admiration of Kanye, you’ll never catch The Cult bragging about being the world’s greatest rockstars, or releasing their own brands of cologne.
“The thing with The Cult is we’ve never been great self-promoters. I mean, there haven’t been any books on the band, there haven’t been any documentaries on the band, we’ve never really self-aggrandised, which is what it’s like right now, it’s like everybody’s grabbing turf right now.
“We’ve been in those rooms with the guys choking on their Cuban cigars and everything was laid out on the table. And it was basically ‘If you just do this, all this can be yours’. And I looked at it and I went like “hmm… no. That doesn’t feel right to me. I don’t wanna be told when and where I can take a piss as an artist. And how I should piss’.”
“And that’s something that’s been a real difficult thing,” Astbury continues. “Because sometimes you rub up against people in the industry who – you know, they want it a certain way. I’ve been told I’m ‘particular’, has been the phrase. [When I was talking to] my manager the other day… I’m like, ‘Am I difficult?’ and he says ‘No, you’re particular.’ But then again, [David] Bowie was very particular, there was a side to him that people didn’t get to see, he was very particular about things, he wanted them in a very certain way. If he didn’t, he’d let people know.”
In life and in death, Bowie has been a huge inspiration to The Cult frontman, who’s been blasting The Star Man’s posthumous Blackstar album on repeat, in addition to a healthy dosage of hip-hop, classical radio and music from one of his favourite Aussie acts, a Sydney duo named The Black Ryder.
Watch: The Black Ryder – ‘Seventh Moon’
Astbury has had plenty of time to kick back at his LA home and enjoy some of his fave tunes recently, with The Cult taking a month off to recuperate before kicking it back into live mode and heading Down Under for their big tour in honour of new LP, Hidden City.
“This record is a live experience, and having it weave with the iconic material, it works really well,” the singer explains, giving some insight into what Aussie fans can expect from the band’s forthcoming shows.
“We’re playing songs from Electric Love, the new album Hidden City, we’ve kind of curated our set so that it works really well, we’re playing a lot of material people are really familiar with, all the iconic songs. And so from that point of view, people are going to be really familiar with the set.
“Last time we came to Australia was with [the Electric 13 tour], we played the entire Electric album and then we played a set based upon the album after that with an intermission. This time around we’re gonna play a full set. If the audience are really good then we’re gonna keep playing.”
He continues: “We wanna do something special for Australia, we’re looking at playing some songs we haven’t played outside of Australia for a while, and possibly asking fans what songs they would like to hear. We’re working out right now a kind of social media thing to take suggestions from fans about what songs they would like to hear.”
And now with ten albums’ worth of material, putting together a setlist is no easy task, but Astbury says it’s all about crafting a kind of “live narrative”.
“I mean, we kick arse when we kick off a set straight away with Wild Flower, which is an iconic song we did with Rick Rubin. Straight away, that pretty much sets the tone for the set – an hour and a half plus of – you know – blood, sweat and tears. And this is the best band we’ve ever had, this is the best lineup we’ve ever had.”
Watch: The Cult – ‘Wild Flower’
As well as new bassist Grant Fitzpatrick, The Cult’s tour will also see them joined by a keyboardist — Damon Fox — for the very first time.
“He’s great,” Astbury says. “One thing about bringing in a keyboard player is we can fully visualise the songs… we’re able to perform the songs in the way that they were recorded. The songs are way more enhanced, and we’ve done eight shows this year so far, so we’re pretty well-oiled, the band’s tight.
Astbury’s passion and enthusiasm for his craft is never more evident than when he talks about playing live, which — after more than three decades — is still a thrill for both The Cult and their audiences.
“You’ve just gotta kind of throw down,” Astbury explains. “Once the interim music starts, the lights go down, we hit the first song – bang! We’re right in that song, right in that moment, right in that venue, right with that audience. It’s very much about being able to be present in the moment, and that for me is the thing that The Cult has, is that we’re a very strong live band. We can pretty much play anywhere with anybody at any time.
“And we love playing Australia, we always have great shows, we’re really excited about coming. I like Australians, I have family there.”
So he’s basically one of us?
“Oh yeah,” Astbury laughs. “Aussie Aussie Aussie.”
Watch: The Cult – ‘G O A T’
The Cult kick off their Australian tour this month. Head here for dates and details.