The Cult’s Ian Astbury on their new album Choice of Weapon, The Doors, Buddhism, and more
Ian Astbury founded The Cult in 1983 along with guitarist Billy Duffy and the duo are still together making music together over 25 years later despite breakups and regular lineup changes. The group gained acclaim with their 1987 release Electric produced by Rick Rubin and 1989’s Sonic Temple produced by Bob Rock, which was certified Gold and Platinum with songs such as “Fire Woman” becoming Mtv staples. In 2002, Astbury joined two surviving members of The Doors, Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger, to become lead singer of the new group ‘The Doors of the 21st Century’ which played Door’s music exclusively. He also has contributing guest vocals on tracks such as UNKLE’s “Burn My Shadow” and Slash’s “Ghost.” The band has a new album entitled Choice of Weapon set for release on May 22 featuring the single “Lucifer” which was released via Rolling Stone magazine and on vinyl for this year’s Record Store Day.
So congratulations on your new album Choice of Weapon. I’ve been listening to it a bit and it sounds like it comes from a really dark but spiritual place. What kind of things were you going through when you were writing the songs?
Thank you sir, yes, that’s the answer to the first question, yes! And also, who isn’t coming from a dark spiritual place right now?
Everyone is feeling it. I mean, big things, you know…life and death, the big existential question, what is the meaning of it all, where do I fit in, what is the value of a human life, you know, very big themes but very kind of intimate themes as well, very much from where I was sitting, I wasn’t just pontificating about the world, it was more about things I had actually physically seen, you know, places I’ve been. I mean, I love that scene from Blade Runner, Roy Batty at the end of it, his final speech where he is talking about you “couldn’t believe the things I’ve seen” and he’s trying to explain to Deckard the profoundness of some of the things he experienced. It’s so hard sometimes when you are trying to explain, you know, you can’t always assume that who you are speaking to has had similar experiences but you try to connect in a way. There’s always an assumption, especially with interviews that there’s always an assumption that you kind of know what I’m talking about or even that I know what your experience in life has been because we never get to see the credentials of the journalists.
Yeah I know that’s true, I had read you said that and I thought it was pretty interesting because you don’t hear people talk about that often…
Sometimes you get a general feeling from a person and you know that they’ve, you just know, by the way they complement songs, the line of questioning but over a period of time you begin to, it’s like, you being to say, hey wait a minute, who’s running this thing, what’s going on? because I get the impression right now that the media people don’t even know what’s going on anymore.
It’s changed dramatically, I mean, you must have, you can really see that being someone who’s been around for so long and been talking to press for so long.
I mean, I think there was a time where, certainly in the music, journalists tended to be around the bands a lot more, it was a lot more integrated. Some journalists were in bands, around bands, I mean Patti Smith was a journalist; she’s a music writer. I think she wrote for Creem, Lester Bangs, “Legs” McNeil, you know and then in the UK we had people like Paul Morley, you know, the great writers who were really in the audience, you really got the feeling they were really in there.
Yeah, Dave Thompson and then those guys, absolutely.
Yeah, you really got the feeling, Dave Thompson, of course, I’ve known Dave for decades, but they were just such passionate fans of music and had such of a more broader appreciation for everything from pop to serious artists, you know, from pop to Leonard Cohen and everything in-between was appreciated for what is was because the idea was you’re going to get out there and be a performer. It took a lot of courage, even if you’re in a pop band, but then that kind of piousness crept in the doorway and elitism reared it’s ugly head and the pontification started and the experts came on the scene and it’s like, “okay, you’re an expert, you’ve been around for 5 minutes, you’re an expert now.” When you are speaking to young writers who are pontificating about Krautrock or punk rock, I just had some guy talking to me about The Clash, I was like, how old are you? I mean you had to fucking be there to see that animal!
Yeah, you know speaking of having to be there, one of the things I wanted to talk to you about is that you grew up loving The Doors and I know “The End” was said to be a religious experience for you and then you got a chance to sort of be in The Doors, in a sense, to step in Jim’s shoes. what was that like for you?
To perform the work with two living members, two of the principle architects and the principle song writer Robby Krieger was transcendent, it was profound. Nobody will ever get to know what I felt like.
And the music was great, it was nice to see those guys playing and I’ve been listening to your version of “Roadhouse Blues” and it’s been in my head for days.
Yeah, we used to do that song every night, I did 150 shows with The Doors, well, with Ray and Robby, you know they couldn’t use the name and I didn’t think using the name was appropriate anyway, referring to the project as The Doors, I was never comfortable with that. At one point they had MK-ULTRA which I thought was really good which was, the military experiment for LSD in the 60’s, MK- ULTRA, I thought it was cool. Manzarek-Krieger Group, I was cool with all that, I thought it sounded cool actually but you know the promoters kind of pushed The Doors of the 21st Century. Promoters didn’t want to book MK-ULTRA, they didn’t want to book Manzarek-Krieger, they would The Doors of the 21st Century which we shortened to D21C because obviously John took umbrage with it, which is more of a fraternal fight between them, it’s an internal spat. It’s one of the first of it’s kind in the sense that the way it’s approached with, it’s performing for me certainly, performing a classic body of work with great gravity, I mean, I took it very seriously, I mean I wasn’t showboating at all, I was very referential about it. I certainly think, in respect to anything critical, it was interesting when we first came out and John (Jon Pareles of the New York Times) came out and annihilated it you know, “Dionysus is not present” and I thought well what’s your experience of Dionysus? Really, John Pareles, Dionysus? I don’t think you know Dionysus if the energy of Dionysus punched you in the fucking face, with all respect, come on, you don’t even know what you are talking about, but just think, it’s an easy swipe but then I kind of took, you know, a look at his piece and I’m like, fair enough, easy, easy like shooting ducks in a barrel, show number 8, early days, real easy to rip this thing down but by show 30, it was a different animal, sort of something that really worked. We weren’t trying to replicate. It’s impossible. They waited over 30 years to do this and it wasn’t like all of a sudden, like hey lets go and you know, go out there and do this. They didn’t need the money, they were living very comfortably off the royalties of the original Doors, it was really about going out and performing the music, they really wanted to perform these songs because they were now in their 60’s and you don’t know how much more time you have.
Well, you know, as a musician, I think it’s always one of the really unfortunate things that happens, when things end and you want to go out there and play, you know and some times you don’t have that opportunity.
Yeah and is this your integrity, and his to decide it’s not for us outside to decide and it’s really for the individuals to decide and I’m very grateful that Ray and Robby came out and preformed and if I had not been performing with them I would have been kicking myself and also I would have known had I gone to see them with another singer I would have been seething with envy that I wasn’t up there doing it you know, I would’ve been like gosh I wish I would’ve been doing it and then I also would have went to see them. I absolutely remember going to see Arthur Lee when he came out, even before Forever Changes, in fact we had the opportunity to play with Arthur Lee at Street Scene in San Diego.
You guys played with Love?
We did “Forever Changes” with the orchestra and everything, it was Arthur Lee with Forever Changes with D24C, which was an amazing evening. It wasn’t meant to be in the mainstream, it wasn’t a commercial vehicle, it was really for Ray and Robby and for people who wanted to see that body of work performed. No litany going out to see concerts performed by their composers. In fact, it’s venerated, but what we are seeing here, is people, these incredible musicians who are interpreting works that were done a hundred, two hundred, three hundred years ago and they are venerated in the culture like there is some erudite, fucking, high priest in the classical music scene and it’s not even their music so why can’t you do that with rock and roll? I mean, Pavarotti was lauded over and didn’t write a single note. I think it’s really about the performer, the quality of the performance you know?
Yeah, that’s got to be tough.
Yeah sure, it’s got to be a little bit rough but there’s so much nuance though, that you can’t really do in rehearsal. We had to learn that. It had to come over time because the relationship that they had, what you hear in The Doors records is a very tight knit unit. They were playing hundreds of shows before they even came out and made records, which is the same with The Beatles, they kind of cut the cheese in Hamburg and the Doors were cutting themselves in nightclubs on the Sunset Strip.
Didn’t you grow up in Heswall? I believe the Beatles were around there?
No, I spent about 6 weeks there, but I did grow up in Merseyside, between the Merseyside, Birkenhead, Liverpool area and yeah, my god!
So it must have been Beatles madness there for a little bit, right?
It was just, yeah absolutely.
Were they a big influence on you?
I think they are a big influence on everyone.
Yeah, it’s tough to take them out of the game.
You can’t take them out of the equation. What I’m really interested in is the influence of people like Allen Watts and Allen Ginsberg and Michael McClure on rock and roll music. I mean we never talk about these guys.
Yeah, like Ginsberg’s huge, Ginsberg influenced Dylan, who influenced everyone.
Yeah, you know to take it back a little further than that, the guy, the high priest of San Francisco was Allen Watts. Allen Watts was the man. He was the guy, he was an Anglican priest in the UK, he moved to that area, he denounced, well he didn’t denounce, he disrobed himself from the Anglican Church, he became a devout Buddhist and he started you know, there’s a book by a guy called Christmas Humphreys on Zen Buddism, D. T. Suzuki translated it and Allen Watts read that book and kind of became a Buddhist and Allen Watts influenced Jack Kerouac in that area and Jack Kerouac became a Buddhist. Of course that influenced Ginsberg, Ginsberg influenced Dylan, Dylan influenced Lennon, etc, etc, the whole thing seems to emanate from D. T. Suzuki’s book on Zen Buddhism so, interesting now we have Lady Gaga, so?
Do you consider yourself a Buddhist these days?
Depends on what your perception of a Buddhist is?
Yeah, I traveled to Japan a few times recently and I hope to travel to India and I know that you were a bit of a spiritual nomad for awhile so you have a better understanding that it changes from place to place.
I would say we all are, really what is home? Define home. They say “home is where the heart is” and I kind of believe in that, absolutely.
Well, there’s a strength in that too I believe.
It’s understanding that phenomenon, being okay with it, being okay in your own skin, it takes awhile, I wouldn’t say I was there yet, that’s the goal.
Well, I know you are going out on tour and we are going to see you in New York soon I believe, right?
Absolutely, yeah, actually, that place feels like home.
You were here for awhile weren’t you?
Yeah, I lived in NY on 3 occasions, the last period being 3 years.
That’s interesting because it changes so much, the city, it’s an evolving beast.
Absolutely, in 1986 I lived there for a long period when we were doing our album. We first went to NY in ‘84, and then it would’ve been ‘98 I lived there for 7 or 8 months and then late 2006, early 2007 through 2010 I lived there for 3 years and who knows, I may move back there in another 10 years time.