The Cult are rock royalty. Billy Duffy has been co-piloting The Cult for almost 30 years. He and Ian Astbury are the driving shamanistic forces behind this amazing UK born band whose sound has never been pigeon holed to just one sound. This year marks the release of the bands 9th official studio album, Choice of Weapon. It's their hardest hitting record, closely resembling the classic Sonic Temple, in many ways including production values and writing styles, but still moving the band forward with a distinct sound that can only be described as The Cult.
I spoke with Billy Duffy about their almost 30 years together and the making of the new album.
JC: Hey Billy, how's it going today? Thank you for taking the time in talking with us and happy belated birthday! (May 12, 1961) Your birthday is the same as my brother's birthday so it's easy to remember.
BD: Is it? Thank you very much. Well I bet he's a great chap. (chuckles)
JC: He is for sure. Did you do anything special for it?
BD: I actually did. I went to England to watch a soccer match.
JC: Oh that's right, you're a big Manchester City fan. You even had their logo on one of your guitar picks (and current pick is the team's powder blue color). I guess it comes from being from there too right?
BD: Absolutely. It was the day after my birthday actually. It could have been the worst birthday of my life or the best one and it was nearly the worst with about 30 seconds away from disaster.
JC: So did they win?
BD: They won the Premier League title for the first time in 44 years. It was quite a phenomenal, emotional experience and of course the irony was that if we hadn't won that game, our deadly rivals, Manchester United, the world famous, Yankees of Soccer, would have won their 20th title. So it was really intense to be in England, in Manchester of my hometown for that, with all my friends and family. I was a guest of the club. I was with one of the guys from Oasis and my mate Johnny Marr. We all went together. So, that was my birthday.
JC: Sounded very cool for sure. Well, hey, let's get into this. I know you're not so keen on interviews...
BD: (interrupts) NO who said that?
JC: Well you know, I've read and seen a couple interviews in the past where you've eluded to where your not really comfortable with them and have made reference to that interviews are not your favorite things to do.
BD: Well it depends really. I mean if they just go, "So, tell me about your new record?" It's like, Oh, OK. Or, "What have you been doing the last 7 years?" Oh, nothing much. You know what I mean. Doing that kind of interviews that are for obvious reasons tiresome.
JC: Yep, I hear ya. And I'm going to try my best not to make one of those. I don't want to read one of those, so why would I write one? I'll try my best sir.
BD: Cool. So, fire away mate!
JC: It's seems like quite the tour so far. I mean with the birthdays and wedding on the road all within the first few weeks of the tour. How was Ian's wedding in Vegas? (Saturday May 26th, 2012 at the Little Church of the West) Was that a planned wedding or did he get caught up in the "Vegas Moment?" I'm guessing you were the best man?
BD: Yeah, yeah, he surprised us all. He went off and got married in Vegas.
JC: Was that an unplanned deal?
BD: It was certainly a surprise. It was a very private thing.
JC: And were you the best man?
BD: No, he had nobody there. He made the decision not to have anybody there, just him and her. Just completely the two of them private. That was his decision so I respected it.
JC: That's very cool and I'll have to ask him more if I want to know anything I suppose. (chuckles)
Well, hey, I've been following you guys since the release of LOVE, in 1985. I'm a fan and got to say, really have dug your history all the way through to this new album, Choice of Weapon. Growing up with your music, especially Sonic temple, really played a memorable part of my teenage years.
BD: Oh cool you like it? Great. Thanks.
JC: I'd like to talk to you briefly a little about that amazing history and lead up to where you are today. There are a few things our readers, your fans and myself, would like to know about how the Cult came to be, what it is today, as well as were it's going tomorrow.
BD: Yeah OK sure.
JC: So let's start a few years back and go through a few key moments of the life of the Cult. You've been playing together for almost, hard to believe, 30 years now. Quite an achievement for any rock band today with radio waves dominated by one hit wonder dance/pop hits and reality TV, studio fabricated stars. You are definitely rock royalty.
BD: Yeah, it's nice, on and off I guess. I think if you kind of stay around that long you kind of get that respect sort of by default I suppose. That you still stayed in and kept swingin.
JC: And you guys have absolutely proven that.
In that time you've had an amazing run of 9 full-length featured albums and numerous ep's, box sets, greatest hits compilations and ultra rare Capsules 1 & 2, not to mention a seemingly endless bought of world-wide touring. It's a pretty incredible journey so far and anxiously looking forward to seeing what comes next.
Almost since the beginning, you've had a continually rotating backing band of mates for both the studio and live performances. What are the reasons why you don't have full time drummer and bass players for the Cult?
BD: Well, that's a fair question, but if you actually look at it we had the same bass player from like 1983 to like 1990, Jamie Stewart. That was a consistent line up, we just had drummer problems. If you look at it from that time of it, it was the three of us from almost the beginning. And since 2006, it's been the same line up with me and Ian, and Chris and John. It's really more of a myth that we've had a lot of people come through. There's a lot of musicians who've guested with us and sat in and stuff, but I think that the period where you got really deeply into the band say around Sonic Temple, we had a falling out with our drummer at the time a guy called, Les, who played on Electric, and we brought in Bob Rock to produce and he really wanted to use Mickey Curry, who he knew from Brian Adams, and felt he was a really good match for The Cult and we just got into the habit through a couple albums of using Mickey. We had Matt Sorum join the band for the Sonic Temple tour. Which was like 12-13 months of solid, solid touring. Then Matt was gonna stay in the band, but then a little band called, Guns n' Roses came up and made him an offer he couldn't refuse. And I was like, "Can I join?" You know, I would have joined Guns n' Roses at that point. So whilst that actual facts were probably a little more pragmatic than the legend that there has been a million guys, there's been a lot of guys who've come through and played as guest and stuff, but there's defiantly been a thing with drummers for a while, but we're not the only band to suffer that you know.
JC: That is true and being a former drummer myself, understand where you're coming from. So what are the process for recruiting drummers, bass players and back up guitars? How does that come about?
BD: It's just out of necessity really. I mean Chris Wyse actually played on 2001's, Beyond Good and Evil. Bob Rock worked with him when he was the bass player for another band and we brought him in to play bass on that album. We had a couple festivals on tour down in Brazil and didn't have a bass player. So he sat in and at that time, didn't feel like, at that moment, he was right to be a touring member for the band. There's just certain road mentality that you need to be able to jive and he wasn't quite ready yet. But then me and him stayed good friends and later on we played together in a fun side project cover band called, Cardboard Vampyres with Jerry Cantrell from Alice in Chains. Then we just kind of stuck it out when The Cult got back together in 2006, I brought him in and that was it. I mean, it would have been easier to keep the same line up, I hate having to do auditioning and all that crap.
JC: Yeah, I've been there myself growing up with my bar bands. Finding that right team is tricky. (ha)
DB: And John Tempesta, funny enough, tried to auditioning for The Cult in 1994. And me and Ian didn't show up for the audition because I think we had already hired somebody up the day before and we just forgot to show up the next day or whatever. He tells the story that he went for the audition and nobody was there.
But it's not like he didn't find a good gig after. He did White Zombie, Testament, Rob Zombie and Helmut ya know. I saw him play with White Zombie in the late 90's and they were phenomenal.
JC: Well you've got a fantastic band of guys right now that seem to be jiving very well.
BD: And you can kind of tell it on the new album which is kinda why we're out there. We're out here pushing the new record and the fact that they've been around on the road since 06 playing all the older Cult stuff. They've kind of absorbed possibly the vibe and experience and stuff of the Cult. They kind of channeled all those different elements, they kind of ingested their homework as to what it took to get The Cult to a certain place musically. They hopefully know where go with their playing to get that cause they're obviously excellent musicians and could play with anybody but that's what I feel has contributed, amongst other things, to making the new album, kinda good.
JC: Yeah, it absolutely does work. It's proving to be very good.
Now, one of the many cool things, about the Cult, has been the visual imagery. The mysticism. The album artwork has always been something that catches people's eye. Sonic Temple's red and green speckled album cover with you striking a guitar pose and Ian's hair whip was so memorable. It's one that you can show anyone who's into music just the artwork and they immediately know what it is.
BD: It was our intention to do something. We worked with a great sleeve designer, Nick Egan whose a British guy was knew who's done stuff with Depeche Mode and many other various bands and it was intentional to go for an iconic rock image. Whether that had been me or Ian or whatever and we just hit upon me with the arm in the air and the guitar and it was almost like the Air Jordan image before Air Jordan I mean it just said, Rock n Roll. We were looking for something almost iconic and I think we found it with that one you know.
JC: And is that how you come up with album artwork and layout designs? Working with an artist and collaborating on an idea?
BD: Yeah, yeah, I mean lately we got a girl who's kind of our internet designer. I think she started off as a fan really. She kind of a hip, art chick workin' outta New York, called Sonya (Koshuta) and she works with Ian on all the artwork now. What's kind of happened now is that there has been a division of labor between me and Ian in terms of the mechanics of running a band which is in fact like running a business. I tend to deal more with the business side of it and Ian has really gotten deep into the artwork and imagery and stuff. And it seems to work best. I use to contribute a little bit and still do, it's not like anyone's stopping me, but that's kind of roughly how it boils down now ya know.
JC: And I'm sure that had to come to play a little bit when the Ceremony album cover become a lawsuit with the young Native American boy model's family suing and I'm sure causing quite a bit of hardship?
BD: That was an unusual legal situation that pretty much put the nails in the coffin for the band. Along with kind of general fatigue of constant work since 83'. By the time we got to the era were we got hit with that lawsuit, you know what I mean, the irony of that was that we got a very good example of we didn't get justice, we got the law. And we specifically didn't use another photo on that sleeve because we couldn't buy the rights to it. We thought the Smithsonian had it, so we found this other photo, this is the irony, we found a similar photo of what we wanted that was owned by a photographer in Phoenix. That was the one we used. We purchased the photograph from the photographer. We had the receipt, the contract and everything that stated we were going to use it for an album cover and he said he owned the photo. Turns out, he hadn't gotten a written release from the subject. The photo was done from an assignment for Camel Cigarettes in South Dakota on Indian kind of spiritual meaning. But the problem was when the image was cut down to just the kid and not the mother and surroundings, for the album, the actual subjects of the photo found themselves a lawyer and came after us like we were The Rolling Stones. I mean it was numbers like 60 Million. So you might say, well you had a contract with the photographer, but the problem was that he didn't have it right with them and they went after both of us and Time Warner and it was a big grizzly mess.
JC: I can't imagine.
BD: It was definitely a learning curve so I wouldn't want to got though that again and I mean frankly, I would have been happy to put the album out in a plain, brown paper bag had I known, I don't think it would have affected it. A little grizzly tale about the law and the copywrite biz. I mean, we thought we was doing something right by buying the photo of a photographer and it turns out, not so much.
JC: Yeah, that really does sound like it was horrible. And that also must have contributed to the break up around that time or shortly after.
BD: Oh very much so, we were tired and all, but you know, that was then and now we've got this great new album. That's what I'm really excited about.
JC: And speaking of new Cult and moving on to the present, this past American football season, the Cult made a surprise audio appearance at the Super Bowl with a new commercial featuring a classic Cult song with a twist. The Flo-Rida mash-up.
BD: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
JC: How did "She Sells Sanctuary/Good Feeling" come to be? It's created a lot of buzz since it's Super Bowl release.
BD: I think that was just a manner from heaven man. Somebody thought that would be a really interesting mash up to take that Cult riff of the song and going with that kind of interesting, you know, he was the number one guy of pop of his particular style we thought it blended very well with the moral uplifting nature of that song. And it was great man, I mean, I'll take any breaks I can get and if it can get The Cults music out to hundreds of millions of people, I mean, you know, what's the possible down side. It's cool, because me and Ian say it's cool. We wrote Sanctuary and we like it and what he did was great. Those kinds of things just happen sometimes. We knew we had a great album in the can with Choice of Weapon and we though hey, what a brilliant way to get The Cult on the radar of people in general. Not just Cult fans, but music fans in general. And that's kind of what we hoped to contribute to the awareness of the band. And you get paid. You gotta eat. I don't cost you any less to go out on the road anymore, I can guarantee you that. Gigs are not as well attended as they were even three years ago. So any help you can get to sort of get fuel into the band is great.
JC: I was wondering if that might have ended up on a sort of b-sides, or special download or even maybe on a Capsule 3.
BD: Well at the time you'd have to get a lot. We looked at doing something like that, but I think that Flo-Rida's people didn't want to confuse his fans with his own stuff because he just had something new out and in the top 10. So there was a bit of resistance on his side and obviously they would have to be willing partners as much as we would. It's too bad and a bit of a shame really, but I'll take what we got outta it.
JC: That could have been cool. Or maybe something down the road who knows right?
This new album, Choice of Weapon, (as I already stated, is simply fantastic) but almost didn't happen. Before recording of it even began, Astbury was quoted as saying, "the Cult would not make another album... It's a dead format, we don't have the attention span for albums". Further adding that after spending so much time and effort in the studio, only to have it leaked and spoiling the efforts they put in, isn't worth it.
BD: Yeah, he said that, I didn't say that, but that's what he felt at the time. I mean that was very much his personal opinion and I very much understand where he was coming from. I think it's pretty obvious now where he was coming from. I mean, I think he realized that it IS a dying format. I wouldn't even know where to go buy my own album from now. There is like one record store by me now and the rest are all gone. So unless you're in the top 40, which luckily The Cult are this week in Billboard, good luck.
JC: That's awesome. Congrats!
BD: Which is kinda cool for a band of our size and age and genre and all. It's cool. But I think what it was, was like, people were asking why we were doing Capsules and not albums, and his answer was partially contained in that quote. I mean, he didn't want to stare down the notion to writing 15 to 20 songs only to whittle them down to the 10 that would have gone on an album. Doing Capsules was an intresting exercise that didn't make much financial sense what so ever. But what it did do was give us an immediacy that got us into the studio to get stuff out the fans, then going to play live. The album process takes years, the Capsule process took months. In fact, it had the opposite effect, by him saying that he didn't want to do an album brought us more closer to doing an album. The response we got from the Capsules and live tour of the new songs was like, oh wow, yeah, there's a demand for the new Cult. So we got into the studio and ended up with Choice of Weapon. So, funny how things turn out you know.
JC: So Choice of Weapon wasn't going to be a Capsule 3, it was set out to be a full length, stand alone album?
BD: Yeah, exactly, we just didn't think there was any mileage on doing a 3rd Capsule. At that point Ian has started thinking about doing this new album. Actually, those Capsules got us the new record deal. The Capsules were done with a partner, not a record company. It was like an experiment. They were almost like commercials and we found ourselves with a couple different choices of labels who were willing to take a chance on the album. And we ended up going with an English label called, Cooking Vinyl.
JC: Why did you guys choose to go with Cooking Vinyl Records instead of staying free agents or someone else?
BD: They reminded us very much of our old label in England called, Beggars Banquet. A lot of them are ex-employees. So far it's been good. Kind of like coming home.
JC: And the recording of this album was started at Witch Mountain Studios, then moved to Hollywood Recording Studios.
BD: Yeah, Witch Mountain is Ian's house, I mean, I wouldn't want to over blow it. It's like, Witch Mountain is Ian's living room.
JC: Gotta love home studios. But it was produced by two pretty incredible people. Originally by Chris Gross, then ending with Bob Rock. What was the reason / process / theory behind that?
BD: Yeah, very much so. Chris did the Capsules and in certain editions of the albums, the Capsules are included as a bonus. But I think that there was a time when we all as a team just kind of ran outta steam. Chris did all the foundation work to Choice of Weapon, but me and Ian made a decision that we were kinda running outta time and money and we were spending more time in the studio and achieving less. Then we as a band made the decision that we wanted to try and bring in Bob Rock to kind of accelerate the process in trying to finish it. And that's exactly what happened. So it was a collaborative effort. We probably could have got it done with Chris in time, but we just didn't have that time. So Bob came in and brought in another whole different kind of skill set. I could list the analogies and clecies, like icing and cake, but you know, Bob brought in that. The top line adding more hooks and vocal stuff he encourages us to do. Bob has a more pop, rock n roll ear for that.
JC: And that combination really works. It's been proven before. It would have been a shame if this album didn't come out.
BD: It's really sweeter that we got there in the end. I mean, l get what Ian was saying, you know you go in and do all this hard work to get something out and no one is buying it anyway. I think a lot of people kinda get where he was coming from. It was taken almost a little to literally, but you know it's cool.
JC: Well I can say I'm glad it happened and I think from the Billboard chart stats, others do as well.
Well, it's still hard to believe, but yes, next year 2013 will mark The Cults 30th Anniversary. From the early days of Dreamtime, through all the highs and lows, to where you are today with Choice of Weapon, you guys have made some rock n roll history.
JC: What plans, if any, do you have to highlight that landmark achievement?
BD: We tend to go from nostalgia with a lower case "n." I mean we did do a Love tour apparently to celebrate something, I can't really remember, but I remember that I really just loved that tour. I just "Loved" doing that album if you'll pardon the pun.
JC: That had to be for the 25 anniversary of that album release right?
BD: Yeah that must have been it. I'm sure there will be something for Electric. I wouldn't say it would be completely far fetched to see the new album energy roll into some sort of we've proved that we can make great new music, so we're happy and comfortable to go back and play some old music and do that maybe as something. So I would very much see that as being something in the cards for 2013 for The Cult. It's definitely been talked about. But its kind of contingent on us enjoying this tour and all. You get a great deal of satisfaction of writing new music and getting it out and getting into the top 40 charts at this stage of the game. It's great.
JC: That it is. Well, I know you have to go, so thanks again Billy. It's been a real pleasure talking with you. Looking forward to seeing you live again here in Chicago at the Congress Theater on June 1st.
BD: Thanks mate. It should be a good'un. See ya there.
The Cult are back and with a vengeance. In my opinion, Choice of Weapon is the strongest release since Sonic Temple. A few tracks on this record sound like they actually could have been written at the same time as Electric or Sonic Temple. If I didn't know it, I'd swear they were lost tracks. That's not to say that it's a rehash of the old, but more of a revisit sonically, with an update here and there.
Weapon of Choice is available now and highly recommended for any Cult fan, new or old. It's their hardest hitting album in years. This is classic Cult back doing what they do best, RAWK!
For more information on the band, the tour, the albums or merchandise, check out their website, www.thecultus.com.