Ian Astbury Spirit, Light, Speed If you didn’t know better, you’d think Ian Astbury was sitting on a beach somewhere, counting his royalties while reminiscing about his long-gone days as the lead singer of The Cult. But while a vacation like that might sound good right about now, Astbury has actually been very busy lately. His first solo album, Spirit, Light, Speed, has just been released, and waiting in the wings are both a new album (due out in October) and a boxed set of rarities (due out in November) from the reunited Cult, who got back together last year.
Which is why, instead of lying on a beach, Astbury is lying around a San Francisco hotel room, trying to write lyrics. “I don’t think it’s going to be as inconsistent as the last album,” he says, comparing the as-yet-unfinished new album to The Cult’s 1994 eponymous collection. “There were almost three or four different genres on there, but this one will sound like a concise vision, like a natural development from Sonic Temple had Jamie [Stewart, The Cult's original bassist] stayed with the band.”
Not surprisingly, it was conditions that led to the eponymous album’s inconsistent vision – i.e. Astbury wanting to push The Cult in different ways, much to the chagrin of guitarist Billy Duffy – that led Astbury to quit The Cult in the first place. “I just felt that I was evolving in a different direction,” Astbury explains, “and The Cult didn’t seem to facilitate that. The last Cult album was experimental, there was a lot of arrangements and sounds that weren’t traditional to The Cult. But Billy was a bit reluctant to do that. I had to drag Billy by the collar, ‘this is where we’re going.’ So I felt suppressed and just thought it was the time to do my own thing.” Despite such feelings, though, he did finish the album, but then quit in the middle of the subsequent tour.
Though more abrupt than he might’ve planned, his exit wasn’t a complete surprise to Astbury, who confesses that he, “probably starting thinking about doing [a solo album] during the recording of the last Cult album.” But then, neither was his quick return to band life, albeit to a different band. “Within a month,” he admits, “I desperately wanted to get back to it. That had been my lifestyle for so long that I was just itching to get back into it. So I just crammed together the Holy Barbarians [his post-Cult group]. Though once I did that album and tour, I realized that what I should’ve done was the solo album.”
Following the Barbarian’s tour and subsequent dismantling, Astbury finally got to work on Spirit, which, Cult fans will notice, sounds a lot like the band’s eponymous album, though with a bit more consistency. It was while he was waiting for his solo opus to come out, though, that Astbury rekindled his friendship with Duffy, which eventually led to The Cult’s reformation (and, most likely, the delay in releasing Astbury’s solo album until now). “Billy and I had seen each other socially,” Astbury explains, “and it just felt really good to see him. Gradually it just became more evident that there was no reason not to play together again.”
“When you spend as much time with someone as I have with Billy,” Astbury continues, “there’s a certain amount of blood there. Most of our adult lives have been spent together, there’s a real bond there. I really missed playing with Billy. And after doing this stuff on my own, I felt I was ready to go back to The Cult.”
For Astbury, wanting to go back to The Cult didn’t mean wanting to go back to the way things were. “Because we hadn’t been together for like five or six years,” the singer explains, “it was suggested that we work with some different songwriters. And at first I was like, ‘We are not writing with anybody else.’ But then we thought that maybe it was that negative energy that had caused everything to fall apart. So let’s just say yes, we’re open for business, and start opening our minds and enjoy the experience.” This, Astbury says, is when things got a little weird. “The name Mick Jones came up. But when I said, ‘That’s the guy from Foreigner,’ everyone went, ‘Yeah, but it’s not what you think.’ So we sat down with him, and wrote three songs in three days. And I was absolutely blown away by his ability to take what we had as raw material and knock it into shape without really adding any ideas that weren’t in harmony with what we were doing. He understood that for us to make an album, we have to be ourselves.”
Admittedly, for Astbury to be himself, he is still going to come up with ideas that aren’t right for The Cult. Which, he says, is okay, since he’ll no longer have to drag Billy by the collar, he’ll just have to save ‘em for his next solo album. “I think I need to do that,” Astbury concedes. “That was an understanding we had between us when we started putting the band back together. I’m still going to write and want to do things that aren’t right for The Cult, but I’m not just going to throw songs away.” Of course, The Cult were never know for throwing songs away before, hence the numerous ones they put on the backs of singles and in other places. Which is where the boxed set comes in. Tentatively titled Rare Cult, the six-CD set is also slated to include b-sides, outtakes, radio recordings, demos, and the unreleased Peace album, songs from which were rerecorded for Electric. It’s just the latest in a series of Cult collections and reissues to be released recently, which have included the best-ofThe Singles: 1984-1995, reissues of Love, Electric, and Sonic Temple, and the first appearances in the U.S. of their albums, Dreamtime, Live At The Lyceum, and the debut EP they recorded as The Death Cult, which has been augmented and renamed Ghost Dance.
With so much of their past work being given new leases on life, it’s hard not to do some looking back. But when he does, Astbury doesn’t see just one of the great rock bands of the late twentieth century, he sees a band that was often looking more towards the twenty-first. Or knew a good fortune teller. They employed producers Rick Rubin and Bob Rock before they were household names, combined industrial and hard rock in their song “The Witch” when such combinations were unheard-of, and gladly had their songs remixed at a time when such things were only done to dance tunes. But as Astbury explains, “We did stuff very naively, but we also did it very sincerely. We never though, ‘Oh, if we do this it’ll be seen as a clever and we’ll reap financial rewards.’ It was just what we wanted to do. Everything was done with a pure heart.”
— Paul Semel June 20, 2000