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The Cult’s Ian Astbury on the Doors, Bowie & why ‘classic rock’ is an insult

Ian Astbury (left) and Billy Duffy founded the Cult more than 30 years ago, but the band has continued to evolve. “Music is all about being in the moment: an exhilarating situation. It’s all different every night: different audience, different environment, different culture,” he says. The Cult play Thursday, Sept. 29, at the VooDoo.
Ian Astbury (left) and Billy Duffy founded the Cult more than 30 years ago, but the band has continued to evolve. “Music is all about being in the moment: an exhilarating situation. It’s all different every night: different audience, different environment, different culture,” he says. The Cult play Thursday, Sept. 29, at the VooDoo.

The Cult has been a band for more than 30 years. Founded by vocalist Ian Astbury and his collaborator, guitarist Billy Duffy, the British group has survived a few breakups and other interruptions, plus several personnel changes, sustaining fans who have followed the band since its post-punk days in the early 1980s.

Astbury has pursued other projects and interests, from fronting a revival of the Doors to exploring his spirituality. He recently talked to The Star about his band, which performs Thursday at the VooDoo; David Bowie, his “enlightened” mentor; the Doors project; and a near-death experience in the Himalayas.

Q: How is it, as someone in his 50s, to perform songs you wrote when you were in your late teens and early 20s?

A: You’re asking kind of an existential question. Music is kind of, it’s like: Give me a rundown on sex.

It’s very much in the moment. When you’re performing songs, it’s very much in the moment, that moment, every time you play it. So a song like “She Sells Sanctuary,” we’ve left it out of a set and walked away from it for a minute. But whatever is in the DNA of that song rejuvenates itself every time we play it. I don’t know what the metaphysics are in that song. I could probably go into it, but I don’t like to over-rationalize the magic of it.

Music is all about being in the moment: an exhilarating situation. It’s all different every night: different audience, different environment, different culture.

Q: Do album reviews, negative or positive, matter much to you?

A: First, I’m never satisfied with an album. For the most part, it always feels like we left something out or could have done something better as you’re doing it. But you’ve already had the opportunity to nail the best performance or lyric or guitar part at that moment, so you have to move on, otherwise you’d be at it forever.

I don’t read a lot of reviews. Occasionally I’ll read one that’s put in front of me, bad as well as good ones. You can learn a lot from a bad review. Sometimes critics, journalists, are very insightful.

But I’m always curious as to the background of the person speaking to me, like: their age, sex, their domicile, about their experiences in music and culture, what they’re immersed in, what they’re listening to.

I’ve done interviews that are 20 minutes long and the guy ends up talking to me about, I don’t know, REO Speedwagon or something and I’m like, “What? Who am I talking to?” Sometimes you get the guy who’s been at the paper for 40 years and his clock stopped in 1970 or whatever and they think rock ’n’ roll should never change or evolve and FM radio should reign supreme. But it’s always going to evolve and change.

Q: Rick Rubin produced your third album, “Electric,” which changed your sound, How did you end up working with him?

A: Hip-hop took us to Rick Rubin. It wasn’t rock. We went to Rubin because of the Beastie Boys. It was the cadence of (“Licensed to Ill”). It was how stripped-back it was. It was the atmosphere of the track. It was the intent of the performer. It was the break, this funk break. It has this incredible energy about it. It wasn’t overly reverent.

Rick asked, “Do you like Blue Cheer?” We said, “Yeah.” And I said, “I love Beastie Boys, and I love the Birthday Party.” And he said, “Let’s make a record that sounds like all that together.” It had a different context in that period. It was fresh out of the box, like a pair of Jordan 1’s. It was the jam of the moment, and we were immersed in it.

Q: What or who else influenced the Cult?

A: The Cult grew out of a lot of post-punk influences, Joy Division and Bauhaus. And we were discovering, because of movies like “Apocalypse Now,” the Doors and were always in love with Bowie and Iggy and the Stooges, and that led to being interested in young Led Zeppelin because they were so irreverent and so sexually violent. That was exciting, when you’re 19 and 20 years old. And we were mashing it all together.

A lot of bands at that time were very reverent. They stayed in their niche and kind of stayed in their dark wave or whatever and we were like, hell, I’m kind of into “Communication Breakdown” but I also kind of love “Transmission” by Joy Division. I love all of it.

I grew up in Canada and North America. I grew up with “Soul Train,” which was a religious experience for me. I watched it every Saturday morning. That was my jam. And the FM radio in North America — I lived near Buffalo so I got a lot of incredible FM radio: R&B, soul, rock, progressive rock, degenerate rock. I’d see the New York Dolls on “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert.”

There’s been lots of talk about the appropriation of rock ’n’ roll: Nobody appropriated anybody; it’s all cultural influence. Everybody got influenced. When the Stones fell in love with the blues, they brought Muddy Waters out to a wider audience. They toured with the Ronettes. They were culturally incendiary and they brought African-American music into the foreground. They supported those artists.

And now we have a very rich, vibrant, diverse culture, and it’s exciting. I hear it when I listen to Frank Ocean’s “Blonde” or Young Thug’s “Jeffery”: Those are great records. But so is “Soused” by Scott Walker. It’s an incredible body of work. Or the new Savages record. Or Black Star.

There’s so much incredible work being made. Not just good but staggeringly brilliant records. The Nick Cave record that’s about to come out, “Jesus Alone,” is breathtaking.

Q: You have expressed a lot of reverence for David Bowie. Talk about his influence on you.

A: In the Tibetan tradition, he’d be considered a rinpoche, an enlightened master. The first record I bought was “Life on Mars” when I was 10. It informed my entire life. I got thrown out of school for having blue food coloring in my hair because of Ziggy Stardust when I was about 11. I could always go to Bowie. It has always been Bowie or Buddhism.

I had a few brief, intimate moments with him. He was actually the first artist to kind of ordain the band in the sense that he was the first major artist that I encountered who gave us some kind of recognition. We played with him in Paris in 1987 and got to have an audience with him. It was a powerful and important moment for me.

That led me into not just music but it really spun me off into more existential pursuits. It led me to Tibet. It led me to go deeper into contemporary art. That all stemmed from Bowie. He was the catalyst.

Q: In the late 1990s, you endured a harrowing experience in the Himalayas on your way to Tibet. How did that affect you spiritually and creatively?

A: We were in a situation where we were crossing over a pass and the weather changed very dramatically and we found ourselves in a very precarious situation. But we managed after a few hours to get to a small village and were absolutely depleted, exhausted and elated to have found a safe haven.

We had a guide with us, and even he was tripping out. When I saw him lose his cool, I thought, “Hmmmm. This is not good.”

We encountered these yaks who blocked the trail. It was a very bad winter in Nepal, one of the worst they’d ever had, and about 60 percent of the yak were lost. These are animals that are used to the terrain. There was a bull yak that was protecting the females, and he reared up and kind of attacked the group that we were with, about six dozen people. I remember being thrown to the ground and this bull yak stomping around, snorting, while I’m lying on my back, just kind of tripping, lying there in this white-out, freezing, thinking, “This is it. I’m done.”

I tell you, man, you never feel so alive in moments like that. Afterwards, it was exhilarating. You have such gratitude for everything.

Q: In 2002, you became part of the Doors of the 21st Century. What did that experience mean to you?

A: I thought it was necessary because Ray (Manzarek) and Robby (Krieger) really wanted the opportunity to play these songs one more time.

So when I was asked, I immediately said yes, and I knew immediately it wasn’t going to be an easy ride. I’m going to get beaten to the ground because people have such a reverent and personal identification with Jim Morrison and the Doors. I knew it came with a huge responsibility.

And being a Doors fan/devotee, it meant a lot to me. So I immersed myself in the music and in the subtext. I had Ray and Robbie kind of mentor me.

Every show, every rehearsal, every encounter was a learning experience, even just having dinner with Ray on my own, for example, was a learning encounter. He was a mentor, a friend.

I did 150 shows with Ray and Robbie, and it reached a point where I felt that everything that could have been done was done. We toured the world, I had the experience and I felt it was time to move on. But it was very hard to leave, knowing I’d never perform those songs again. It was like, take one of your favorite experiences or most incredible romances and rip that from your heart and never do it ever again. It was an incredible sacrifice, but I knew it was necessary. I had to get out and move on from that.

It was a whole other life. I got to do songs like “L.A. Woman,” which, obviously, Jim Morrison never performed live. There were so many memorable and intimate moments.

It saddens me to see what’s happened to the legacy. It’s been discarded. The commercial machine moves forward, as it should, and it evolves. So many incredible musicians and artists have been pushed aside or marginalized. I find the term “classic rock” abhorrent, a derogatory term, especially for musicians who are still inquisitive and are still pushing it, still trying to be the best version of themselves, like Neil Young. He just won’t stop making excellent records.

Timothy Finn: 816-234-4781, @phinnagain


The Cult performs Thursday night at the VooDoo at Harrah’s North Kansas City, One Riverboat Drive. Show time is 8 p.m. Tickets are $35 to $55, available through Ticketmaster.