There’s a first for everything, even a debut solo album for Ian Astbury, the lead singer of The Cult.
But nothing came easily for Astbury’s “Spirit\Light\Speed” (released June 20 on Beggars Banquet). It was born out of his frustration with the state of rock ‘n’ roll, as much as overcoming a battle with an addiction, the temporary breakup of the band he had fronted for 12 years and the agony of splitting up with his wife and only getting to see his children twice during recording sessions in the desert outside Palm Springs, Calif.
Then there were the lawyers. Astbury has had his fill of them.
“I wish the album would have come out when it was supposed to a year ago, but it’s better late than never,” Astbury said recently. “In some ways, it makes sense. It sounds a bit more contemporary now than before. Maybe it’s a little too adventurous; not too many records are made like that these days.
“But this seems to be the way of the music industry now. Everybody wants their money, you know. So when lawsuits come up and litigation, it takes ages to clear things through court. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have gone down the tubes on lawyers in my lifetime. But if you’re not in business, you’re not going to be a contender. That’s part of the price of success.
“Originally, the studio wanted more money; the record company didn’t want to pay it. Then I think it went through a series of lawyers; that was the initial holdup. Then it was the fact of artwork and mastering; I went in to remaster tracks and they wouldn’t pay the money for it, etc., etc. Then The Cult came up again, and I think Beggars Banquet felt dissed that The Cult came along and here comes my record sort of sitting there.
“In hindsight, I still made the best decision. That’s just the way things fell.”
Through it all, Astbury stuck to his guns, determined to marry electronica and rock music.
Commercialism be damned.
“Since I’m English, electronica mixed with rock is something I’ve been very aware of since 1988. It’s really strange, because things just don’t happen overnight; they occur infrequently, then more frequently and then they become the mainstream. For example, Kraftwerk started in the ’70s and over the years you can hear the genesis of electronica in that. That was always omnipresent around people’s record collections. I had that in my record collection; it was my phase of the week playing ‘Autobahn,’ then forget about it for a year.
“For people who grew up in the late ’70s with punk, we had those influences. America’s just now coming to grips with it, with Moby. It has its first recognized electronica artist. ‘Play’ is a beautiful record; it still emulates a lot of what’s coming out of Europe, the big beats and the sampling, but it has a very original quality to it.”
Much like “Spirit\Light\Speed,” on which Astbury takes expansive forays into hard rock, pulsating techno, sampling and piano-driven melodies. It’s a bold statement, especially on “High Time Amplifier” and a reworking of The Cult’s “The Witch.”
“(Co-producer-guitarist) Chris (Goss) helped me a lot,” Astbury said. “He was basically a conduit. He was there as my foil, but he would come up with a chord or an arrangement to smooth things out.
“The problem we had initially was that I had so much I wanted to say. It was difficult to keep things quite simplistic; it was a very complex process from the very beginning. We were running through studios separately. (Programmer) Witchman was in one studio cooking up beats and samples, whereas we were recording guitars and vocals on analog tape. But then again we got beautiful results from it.
“There will be more from me. It’s not like The Cult, made for the commercial realm. A lot of people I’ve played it for who are materialistic have listened to it and gone, ‘Well, you know, it’s very eclectic and it won’t sell a million copies.’ But I say, ‘You misunderstand. You’re missing the point entirely.’
“This is a vanguard record. It intimates real life and real spirit and real creativity.”
It’s also a deeply personal album for Astbury, who tried the best he could to pack away all his troubles for the sessions.
“I had definitely been through the first cycle, coming off a streak of being in a rock ‘n’ roll band for 12 years and then had been spun out around the other end,” he said. “It’s like the initial wave; if you survive that, you can pretty much survive anything.
“That was the whole idea, to get it out there. You have to go through that fire. If you want to be healed, you have to go through that fire and sit with your pain for a while in the mountains. It was cathartic, very healing. And it was great because I could capture it on tape as well. It was very naked emotions that way.”
Why then, after years of creative tensions with The Cult guitarist Billy Duffy, would Astbury go back to that hornet’s nest?
Simple, he says. He and Duffy aren’t the same people. They have matured.
“We have both evolved, without a doubt,” Astbury said. “It really was a case of art versus commerce, in a lot of ways. My spirit and my vision versus his desire to create an extremely successful monolithic rock ‘n’ roll band. That’s one of the attractive things about The Cult, we seem to embody so much. There’s a chemistry there that’s undeniable, and when it’s working, it works really well. When it doesn’t work, it’s awful. When it does work, we have great results, and we have had great results. And we’re having great results now.
“The reason we put the band back together again was because there was so much unfinished business. The chemistry between him and me was one aspect of my life and it was really important. I really missed that creativity. I missed him like a brother, as a writing partner and a friend.
“I think we’re a lot more aware of each other in the sense that we don’t try to take too personally some of the attitudes and exchanges between each other. We’re really fighting for turf, and it’s not out of a lack of respect for each other because we have immense respect for each other. It’s more like we’re fighting for the same things but from a different perspective, so we get interesting results. Already we’ve accumulated a lot of songs of great quality. We want to make a major statement when we come out.”
Astbury says there was a lukewarm response from record companies when word got out that they had reunited and were shopping for a deal. The label executives changed their minds after seeing them perform last year on a U.S. tour, which closed with a performance at last year’s Tibetan Freedom Concert.
“After the tour we did last year, basically everybody and their dog wanted to sign us,” Astbury said. “It was a real feeding frenzy, which we hadn’t experienced since we were like 19 or 20 years old. It was kind of cool being the center of attention like that. We’re also very wise, we’ve been through it before; there’s a lot of charlatans out there, so we were able to see through the people’s deceit.”
They went with Lava, impressed with president Jason Flom’s commitment to the band. Their first album since 1994’s “The Cult” is expected later this year, but in the meantime, fans can feast on “Pure Cult,” a recently released best-of, and can hear a sneak preview of their new material: They cut the Dianne Warren-penned “Painted On My Heart” for the “Gone in 60 Seconds” film soundtrack.
For the new album, they chose producer Michael Bienhorn, but they changed horses in the middle of the stream, siding with Mick Jones.
Mick Jones of The Clash?!
Nope, Mick Jones of Foreigner.
“I love Michael, he’s a genius,” Astbury said, “but the chemistry wasn’t right between him and Billy. Fair enough, we moved on. So we’ve been writing songs with Mick Jones.
“That really sets people off. It’s like, ‘Dude, how can you do that? Mick Jones? It’s the worst thing you can do.’ I go, ‘Wrong.’ When you actually get to meet people and get to know them and you really see what they’re about, you learn something.
“Everybody makes snap judgments. That’s the way we are, we’re human beings. If we see a guy with a pair of shoes we don’t like, we go, ‘He’s an asshole,’ but he might turn out to be your best buddy. That’s the way we are. I’ve learned to be open-minded. I would like to work with Mick Jones from The Clash or Mick Jones from Foreigner. If I like what they bring to what we’re doing, I’ll work with the toilet cleaner; I don’t care who he is.
“I know we’re going to have to defend Mick Jones to a certain degree, but ultimately if we make the record that is what I envision it to be, I don’t think anyone will really care how it was recorded.”
THE FIRST RECORD I EVER BOUGHT: ” ‘Life On Mars’ by David Bowie, when I was 11. It had a profound effect on me. I got thrown out of school for having blue food coloring in my hair. I wanted to be a star child like Ziggy Stardust. I had a Bowie haircut and I wore purple parallel hips to flair trousers. This was an English school, and we’re talking about 1973. It was a working-class environment, and that wasn’t the sort of thing you should be doing. I was so ostracized by the other kids, forget it. I was just an eccentric kid, I loved the music. I loved T. Rex, Roxy Music and Bowie.”
THE FIRST CONCERT I EVER WENT TO: “Nazareth at the Glasgow Apollo in 1978, and then the following week I saw the Stranglers at the same venue. It was a very, very violent concert; the bouncers in Glasgow were notorious for their violence, and we’re not talking about just shoving someone’s arm behind their back. We’re talking about them breaking arms and legs and noses. They would hit people with blunt objects. There was a huge fight between (bassist) Jean-Jacques Burnel, who was a martial arts expert, and the bouncers. From there, I would go to concerts pretty much on a weekly basis. I saw The Damned, The Clash, Stiff Little Fingers, the Banshees, the Ramones. Now that’s an education in music, that and I was a stagehand for U2 in 1980.”
THE LAST CD I BOUGHT: “Probably Primal Scream’s ‘XTRMNTR,’ for like the fifth time. That’s one of the most important released in the last 10 years.”
BWF (before we forget): Fans can worship The Cult on the Web @www.purecult.com. … The Cult album discography – “Dreamtime” (Beggars Banquet, 1984); “Love” (Sire, 1985); “Electric” (Beggars Banquet, 1987); “Sonic Temple” (1989); “Ceremony” (1991); “The Cult” (1994); “High Octane Cult” best-of (Warner, 1996); “Pure Cult” best-of (Beggars Banquet, 2000).
More updates: Joe Henry, Marcus King, Lily Kershaw, Poliça, Sarah Brightman, Jerry Leger, Simple Minds, Grateful Dead, etc