February 5 will see the release of The Cult’s tenth studio LP, Hidden City, via Dine Alone Records. Closing out a trilogy of albums that includes 2007’s Born Into This and 2012’s Choice of Weapon, this latest effort was written by Ian Astbury and Billy Duffy, produced by longtime collaborator Bob Rock and is, in Astbury’s words, “emotionally and spiritually loaded”.
I recently chatted with Astbury about the new record and how The Cult has evolved over its 30-plus-year career.
As you mentioned, Hidden City is quite emotionally heavy. What are some of the themes of the album and what was on your mind as you were writing it?
It’s more sentiment of the times, you know? I felt that, especially in the tumultuous times we’re living in, the piano was a very important voice. So the piano arrived in the room very early on.
Then there was this kind of “erudition in the wilderness” idea. Existential spiritual crisis, metaphysics, the meaning of life, science, conflict, consumerism, celebrity worship, the worship of a veneer culture, the worship of shallow culture, narcissism, confusing chaos, longing, searching, melancholy, a constant need for external validation…self-validation and how to do that. How do we access that? All these questions, ideas and images. This record was made of experiences, from recording at Hansa Studios in 1983 to staring at the sunset on Everest. To being kicked, beaten and bleeding in a bathroom stall in some Budapest nightclub. All fragments, Polaroids from my life and then woven in through the voicing of the instrumentation.
It’s quite rich – but you’ve got to live that stuff. You’ve got to live through it and then you put it into your music. So that’s why this record is pretty loaded – it’s loaded with experiences.
I understand it’s the completion of a trilogy – did you know when you first started this project that that’s the form it would take?
(Laughing) No, that’s like an afterthought…an “after-observation”! Someone in our camp said “it’s a trilogy, right?” and we started to muse on it. It wasn’t intentionally so, but in some ways it is. I think you’ve got 20th century and then post-20th century. So it’s quite appropriate that Beyond Good and Evil came out around 2000, the turn of the millennium. The dystopian, Nietzsche-an record of chaos and the collapse of the industry, the war in the Middle East, the Twin Towers falling…and then fast forward to 2006. With Born Into This, it was almost like a rebirth; like we were 19 again. We made that record in 36 days, and that’s front to back. And it sounds like it, too. It’s totally more a record of sketches and ideas and un-fully realized things.
And then with Choice of Weapon, we were metaphorically talking about weapons as symbols that we choose to use through creativity, through expression – not necessarily actual weapons of destruction or that exude violence in any way. That record was very much about a dark night of the soul. Really trying to get into the dirt and the muck of things. There was so much going on when we made that record.
People are saying this record is dark in some ways – this is actually the record where the sun comes out.
At this stage in my life, I’m not trying to recreate what I was doing when I was 24 or 34 or 44. I’m not trying to do a pastiche of Love or Sonic Temple. People will say “This sounds like Electric” or whatever…we could never recreate those conditions.
We could never be 24 years old in New York City, when people were having gun battles in the streets and 42nd Street was all triple-X theatres. Drug dealers on every corner and just chaos. But we lived through that and it was amazing.
You’ve been in the industry for so many years and seen it change immensely. What were some of the biggest challenges you encountered?
I think the wear and tear is very difficult, especially when you’re on the road. Isolation is very difficult to deal with…there’s a lot of that. You have to be good with being with your own company. Some people aren’t and have to be around others all the time; I either wanted to be incredibly isolated or I wanted to be around a lot of people, those were usually the two extremes.
You’ve got to be good with travel – physical movement. On a plane, on a ship, on a bus, in a car…it gets nauseating after a while. Then you’ve got to keep it all together to get on the stage and perform to the best of your abilities. And sometimes you didn’t! I’ve seen things where people say “they used to be my favourite band and then I saw them and they sucked”…and you’re like “yeah, we did!” We sucked. But they don’t take into consideration that you’re human beings; this is a live performance and you’re going to see live people.
I think that just that wear and tear of travelling is probably one of the most challenging things. I mean, look at the fatality rate in music and performers. Pretty high fatality rate, right? Especially around 27; people just implode. Death by their own hand or misadventure or whatever. I was certainly volatile when I was that age. But then you make it through and break into new territory – responsibilities.
What can fans expect from this upcoming tour?
We’re really taking time to curate the set, and it’s been difficult. I’m pretty tough to work with and will say “we’re not playing this” and “we’re not playing that”…with some of the songs, I’d felt they were worn out and tired and we’d lost an enthusiasm for them. They needed the vitality re-injected into them. Like “Fire Woman”, for example. The poor song was tired. We played it, a thousand times, ten thousand times. So I decided to take it out of the set for a while. I said “this needs to go away and we need to let the song breathe a little. Let it come to life again for us.” And it found its way back into the set.
But then there’s a song like “She Sells Sanctuary” which we play and it’s an iconic song. And every time we play it, it regenerates itself. I don’t know what the DNA of it is…it’s effervescent.
We’re pulling from ten studio albums, and we’re going to have a set that will be fulfilling. Some people just want to hear songs that are familiar to them from a certain period – and we play those songs. But we play them in a way where we’re present. It’s taken decades to learn that craft. Because for many years we were a band that was “adrenal-based”…sometimes we’d finish our set by the seventh song because the drum kit was in the front row. We couldn’t continue because I’d pulled out all the microphone cables, speaker cabinets were demolished and somebody was flung off the front of the stage! Chaotic affairs. Certainly from where we were, it was like “yeah, that was good”!
So there’s a lot that’s gone into rehearsals and crafting these songs in a way that has us performing them to the best of our abilities. I think that the band’s got better over the years. I mean, I went through a bit of a rough patch and a difficult, challenging period for a while. Especially around the time of making Choice of Weapon, I went through some really challenging personal things and I’ve come through that. Now I’m in training and am in way better shape than I was.
But as I’m getting older as a performer, I’m striving to get inside of that performance craft that David Bowie had and then bring it into the show. And it’s less about haircuts and tight jeans than it is about being present as a performer and conveying the weight of this material in a way that is impactful for our audience.
The Cult will bring the Alive in the Hidden City tour to Rama on March 31.