Ian Astbury has played in rock bands since he was a teenager, but you don’t get the sense that he identifies exactly as a musician. The frontman of The Cult is more of an explorer, someone committed to teasing the edges of the inner human experience, and he just happens to have found his vehicle through music.
“I don’t really want a career as a career musician,” says Astbury over the phone from Los Angeles, where he now lives with his wife Aimee Nash of The Black Ryder. “I didn’t want to have an A&R guy dictate to me how I should perform and behave as a commodity. I chose the adventure instead.”
That adventure has steered him through decades with The Cult, who will release their 10th studio album, Hidden City, on Friday. Though it hasn’t been a smooth journey — Astbury has quit the band a few times over the years — it’s been an intense and rewarding one, a long-lived collaboration with guitarist Billy Duffy that keeps producing insights into human spirituality and the existential predicament of happening to be alive.
A few weeks ahead of Hidden City’s release, Astbury was still reeling from the death of David Bowie, a figure he described as his “north star.” In addition to the new record and a few “highly educational” near-death experiences, we spoke about Bowie’s immense legacy and how meeting him in the ‘80s helped Astbury choose the path he still finds himself on today.
Congratulations on the new record. Did you record Hidden City in Los Angeles?
It was recorded mostly in LA, in a few various studios — mostly one studio called Boulevard. It was previously owned by the manager of Liberace, and they spent three months doing The Wall at this studio. It’s kind of a little oasis in Hollywood, because you walk into it and you get the feeling that the studio could be in any time from the late ’50s onwards. It’s set up for analog recording as well. The owner of the studio is a devotee of John Lennon. He’s got every single instrument John Lennon probably ever had his hands on in the studio. A lot of the time, I’m picking guitars off the wall. Once you enter that space, it feels like you’re stepping into a different time or a different energetic value. LA can be pretty frenetic with traffic and whatnot. It’s great going into that place. You get a sense of grounding.
Does that historic value affect your music? The idea that you’re sharing this space with great musicians of the past — does that factor into what you’re making in the moment?
Environments are really important. A lot of studios get toned down. You walk into a room, and it feels clinical — it feels cold. It’s almost like going to a hospital. Like, how do people get well in a hospital? They’re the least nurturing environments. It’s really important to find the right environment to work in. If you can feel comfortable, you can open up a bit more. Recording is almost a process of self-analysis as well. To be the patient and the analyst — how far do you rip into yourself? How many layers are you going to pull away? Sometimes it’s like open heart surgery. You walk in the room, and if you feel safe enough and the environment’s good, then magic can happen.
Do any moments from this recording process stand out in particular?
One thing I knew before I walked in the door on this session was I wanted piano. I felt it was time for piano. All the musicians I’ve loved have used piano. Piano is a central instrument, whether it’s Bowie or [Ray] Manzarek. Piano is a core. And The Cult are essentially a rock band, so lead instrument’s guitar, and the guitar is only capable of certain reach and certain sentiment. But piano has an otherworldly quality to it. It’s quite naked. You sit down with a piano and a voice, and you’re stripped bare. It’s a really vulnerable space to be.
I’m in a station in life where I just wanted to start there, start in a very vulnerable space with something that wasn’t as familiar to The Cult as guitars. So that’s where we started, and immediately things started to happen. The song “Sound and Fury” came through pretty much immediately. Parts of “Birds of Paradise” came through immediately. It really fit in with the sentiment of the record, or at least what my vision was. I had the title very early on, what I wanted to achieve from this record. The Cult’s a collaboration with myself and Billy, so it’s not all one vision. A lot of times we polarize each other. But in the spirit of a collaboration, usually we facilitate each other’s visions. Billy has a vision for a certain piece that’s much more guitar-driven or riff-driven. I’ll go with that, and I’ll get my interpretation of that energy or that sentiment. Whereas if I’m sitting with a piano … for example, on “Sound and Fury”, there’s barely any guitar. Guitar is more of a texture than a lead instrument. I was very grateful that I had the opportunity to do that.
I bought “Life on Mars?” when I was probably nine years old. At the end of it, there’s a telephone call and a piano. It’s somebody saying, “It’s for you, David!” You get the sense of this environment, a very intimate environment. Regular life is going on, but this piano just haunted me for so many years. That’s something that has been in my life since I was a child. [pause] I’m kind of all over the place. Bowie’s passing has been pretty profound.
It was a big moment for a lot of people. Ever since I was a teenager, the idea of him dying seemed impossible. It was such a shock. I’m sure it must have been very profound for you since you’ve been with him since you were nine years old.
I have some friends who aren’t with us anymore who were Bowie devotees, and I feel like going to the grave and sharing the news with them, because I know even in the grave they would weep. It’s that profound. I’m sure you’ve observed some of the UK media that’s like, “Well, we can’t have this. That’s enough blubbering, now. It’s getting childish.” No, motherfucker, the sky fell. The sun went out. Feel the weight of this. He was a sentinel, exploring the human condition — the spirit. Science and Nietzche had put us in a place now where we were considering our experience in a very different way, but the church and science couldn’t explain everything. So here we are in modern society, in our glass and concrete buildings, all of a sudden going, “What’s going on? What is this? What is this longing I have?” Robert Blythe said it very eloquently. He said, “When men and women lost touch with wild animals, that’s when things started to go awry.” If you don’t feel the weight of that, then you have no heart. And here’s an artist who came through leading that parade of individuals that were feeling that sentiment and giving us a text to live by. I’ve been raised by David Robert Jones. He was my father, the father of many of us. He informed our spiritual beliefs, our dress codes, our philosophies of living. Maybe a year after I heard “Life on Mars?”, I’m at school with blue food coloring in my hair, being thrown out of class.
When I was a kid, I would play that record over and over and over again. It was the only record I had that I wanted to hear. I had my own little record player, and I would play that record over and over and over. I would just play it for hours. I’d watch it go around and watch the needle move and reset and go back down again. Every time it started, I was in. I had no drugs, but I had that.
The first time I saw [Bowie] was in ’83, ’84. I did get to meet him — in fact, we opened for him in ’87 at Racecourse in Paris, on the Glass Spider Tour.
Wow. Was that just one date?
That was one show. We playing to about 8,000 people, and I’m just a kid. I’m 24 years old. The Electric album has just come out. We’re up there doing our thing, and this audience is so evidently not into us. I wouldn’t be either. Just typical me at that time, I’m climbing over things, and I just drop my drawers and flash my ass at the audience. And he’s standing there, watching beside the stage, laughing. Just doubled over laughing. And I was like, whoa, I’m being checked out! Afterwards, our assistant came and took me to the dressing room to spend time with him. He was just so incredibly present and inquisitive. I was talking to David. I wasn’t talking to any of his iconic characters. I was talking to a person who was speaking to me as a person. That actually was the first artist I’d met of that stature who was actually interested in what my thoughts and feelings and ideas were. So we had this beautiful conversation. After about an hour, his road manager came to tell him 15 minutes, and he was like, “I’m talking right now.” I’ll never forget that.
I met him on several other occasions after that, but that was very important for me as a new musician, because at that point, the British media were very harsh with the band, and especially with me, with the way I looked. I don’t know what it was: the things I was speaking about, what my interests were, like indigenous Native American spirituality. I grew up near a reservation as a kid and my grandmother’s in a spiritualist church, so I had certain influences that I wanted to express through my music when I was very young and very earnest. I left school when I was 17, so at that point I felt really like I was out of my depth in terms of what this life was. And here we are, playing with Bowie, and I felt in many ways as if I’d been seen by somebody I admired. He reciprocated an energetic value that made me feel that I was in the right place, that I was on the right path. That was really amazing.
Spirituality is a vein that has run through your work with The Cult. Do you find that your ideas are clarified whenever you go back and start writing new songs?
Another layer of information comes through, or another experience, and I observe it. My programming — my upbringing, my conditioning — runs forward to judge it. It’s very analytical. And then the spirit goes and smash, just breaks right through it. Like, what are we doing here? This is good information. I’m feeling this. This is authentic. Nothing external can discount the authenticity of this insight. I’ve had several near-death experiences. Those have been profound and highly educational. Being in the Himalayas in a white-out snowstorm, waist deep in snow with hypothermia and altitude sickness in a region where it’s well documented that people die without the right equipment. The weather changes very quickly in the Himalayas. And then we got through a five-kilometer walk to a village. That was pretty profound.
When did that happen?
Probably the late ’90s. I was on my way to Tibet through Nepal. It was actually the worst winter on record in Tibet. They lost something like 80% of the yak herds. The weather conditions can change very quickly, and if you’re out in the open without any shelter … if we stopped, we would die. There’s no question. You’re in that space like, “I could die here!” It’s really profound. But in those situations, I experience the profoundness of being — how precious life really is. They’re educational moments. That opens the door with authenticity and truth, and that goes into the work. That helps me be more vulnerable in writing. When you’re a kid, you come up so earnest, and then all of a sudden you hit this brick wall. Many of our young artists have fallen to shreds. Why do we do that? Why do we feel the need to tear young people to shreds? What is that?
I love being in the pool of other creators and thinkers, people who are pulling for a more enlightened perspective on the human condition. That really interests me. Wherever the work is done. It doesn’t have to be just in music. It can be in film, it can be in literature, it can be in somebody walking down the street. I’ve seen some of the most creative people in the streets of Los Angeles dressed up as the Statue of Liberty swinging those signs around to point to new real estate or insurance discounts. Some of the performances I’ve seen are phenomenal. These are people fully engaged. Joseph Campbell said, “When one is alive, you dance.” When you feel alive, you express it. You don’t piss on somebody else’s dreams. That’s the most horrible thing you can do to another person: piss on their creativity. That’s their expression. We’re in this together.