Nobody has mined the fault line between the underground and the overground better than Ian Astbury, 48, frontman for the British hard-rock outfit The Cult, whose commercial zenith hit in the late-’80s, just before grunge de-leather-pantsed every young male rock star. His vocal attack is equal parts Ian Curtis, Jim Morrison and Robert Plant. Hits such as “Fire Woman” and “She Sells Sanctuary” straddled alt-rock and glam metal, while Astbury’s interest in Native American culture infused every cosmic-inclined lyric and arena-ready guitar riff with a spiritual quality.
Still, even in those years when The Cult was at the top of its multi-platinum game, you sensed Astbury had bigger aspirations. “There have definitely been periods, particularly at the height of Sonic Temple, when the touring was extreme,” Astbury says. “It brought us beyond the point of exhaustion. That kind of compromise on the road can be life-threatening. Creatively, we love writing and being in the studio, but for a long time that was all placed in a secondary position. Compromise, for us, is touring. Yet you do it for higher ground.”
If you’ve seen The Cult live, then you know how inspiring that higher ground can be. The band, which now comprises Astbury, longtime co-writer/guitarist Billy Duffy, and three newer members (drummer John Tempesta, bassist Chris Wyse, rhythm guitarist Mike Dimkich), sounds reborn.
“The creative side drives us today,” Astbury says. “It’s more important than ever. The band is more of a band. It’s been four years with this group of guys, and we’re really tight. In terms of energy, the Cult is about as pure as it’s been, perhaps since 1985, and I like to think that we’re getting close to our best work.”
That work, which so far this year has only included the single “Every Man and Woman Is a Star” (a two-week iTunes exclusive), will see the light of day in unorthodox fashion. Astbury has a plan to deal with what he terms “the Wild West mentality of today’s so-called music industry.” Rather than release a proper album, he hopes to unveil “capsules,” or clusters of three songs released every few months, for a limited time, via the band’s website, along with a film. “The idea of going into a studio and making an album and then touring doesn’t work so much now,” Astbury says. “Who knows? Perhaps at the end of a [capsule-release] cycle, we’ll do a physical release.”
In addition to The Cult, Astbury has immersed himself in dark, aggressive music. Last month saw the release of BXI, a four-song EP, in which he lends his voice and lyrics to riffs created by Japanese sludge trio Boris.
“I personally get off on Boris,” Astbury says. “I have great admiration for that band, as well as [drone-metal pioneers] Sunn O))). Experiencing their live shows, I’m always in awe of what’s happening onstage. I took my sons to see Sunn O))), and they were still speechless two hours later. The ritual space of live rock is so important … it can have a profound impact.”
For all his thinking about music, Astbury insists you don’t need an overriding intellect to be an authentic artist. What you should follow first is instinct.
“I love to see a band, no matter how old or young, dying for it. I love to watch them, hands on their hearts, taking a leap of faith.”