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Interview: Billy Duffy of The Cult

The Cult
7 October 2022

Photo by Tim Cadiente

2023 will mark the 40th anniversary of Ian Astbury and Billy Duffy forming a band that, by 1984, would be known as The Cult. Though there have been a few pauses over the last four decades, The Cult’s most recent reunion, starting in 2006, has produced four new albums and countless world tours.

With a catalog of hits dating back to Love (1985), Electric (1987) and Sonic Temple (1989), The Cult spent the second half of the year touring with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club with dates through the end of November. For younger bands, touring before a new album is available can often lead to blank stares and disappointment from audiences but Duffy explains The Cult has learned from their elders and understand that, for a band like his, the masses are more interested in hearing the hits than new songs or obscure B-sides. And, by all accounts, that’s what The Cult has been delivering.

Under the Midnight Sun lives up to its title. For a band that has explored many different styles, from goth to hard rock, during its lengthy history, the new album find Astbury and Duffy easing back on the blues-guitar based rock heard on 2016’s Hidden City in favor of more nuanced, mid-tempo, scene-setting songs like the singles “Give Me Mercy” and “A Cut Inside”.

I thought that I read that you lived in L.A., but am I talking to you in London now?

BILLY: Well, I’m actually in Spain at the moment on vacation, but I live between the UK and Los Angeles. I’m doing that kind of transatlantic Brit rock star thing. I looked to my elders and betters and thought, “How do they navigate it?” You know, I love Los Angeles. I’m not crazy on the politics in California right now. I used to love the freedoms. I left England to escape all that. How shall I put this? I’m not a political person really but you just should be allowed to live your life in a free way, make your own decisions and be responsible for yourself. I found that there was a lot of interference in the UK and I went to California and everything was very free and open and groovy and, like, “Do your California thing, man.” It was all great and then, as time passed, I’ve gotten older and it doesn’t seem to be so free and easy anymore in California. There seems to be a lot of rules put in for your own betterment by people who are telling you how to live and that’s not what I’m about. I go there, I enjoy it, I have friends there but I would hasten to sort of say I don’t really live there anymore. I go there to work. That’s my take on LA. What’s great in the ’80s and ’90s maybe, it’s got less great as time has passed.

Do you still get enjoyment out of what you’re doing?

BILLY: That’s a very good question and it’s often a topic of conversation as I’ve gotten into my early 60s. There is obviously a great danger of a cliché mind field. Put it this way, I’ll do the gigs for nothing, I just want to get paid for the other 23 hours a day.

Where you’re at in your career with The Cult, you’re afforded that benefit that you could tour this summer, you’ve got an album that’s not even out yet, and you don’t have to feel like you have to play the new stuff. The old cycle would be record the album, tour to support the album, record the next album, tour to support that album. But, now you can start touring before the album is out.

BILLY: Absolutely. We’ve been active as a touring band since we got back together in 2006. Other than during the pandemic enforced layoff, we’ve been out every year since 2006 and played somewhere in the world, some years more than others. If me and Ian feel like we’ve got enough good ideas to make an album, then we will. It’s not like a calendar thing. It certainly it not like it was in the day. Things have really flipped on their head. For example, when we signed to Sire/Warner back in the ’80s, we had a 5-album deal with our English label, Beggars Banquet, but with Sire/Warner, we’d already released one album so Sire/Warner insisted that we gave them another album because they felt they wanted a 5-album cycle to fully exploit our career. I don’t mean exploit in a bad way, that’s not a criticism. Whereas now, you get with a label and your label’s more of a partnership than anything else. You partner with a label together to put out music. It’s very different. I almost like the predictability of how it was. It was almost like a treadmill. You release your first single, it’s a rocker. It has a video. Your second single’s a ballad. You go out on tour initially and you support a band around North America and then you eventually go back around on your own and you play the same cities. That’s how you build a fan base. That gave us a very solid foundation which is one of the reasons what we can still tour now because of the work we did in the ’80s in that somewhat predictable way.

You guys toured to celebrate the anniversary of Sonic Temple. Did you play it in order?

BILLY: No. We just played the tracks off it that we liked. Ian’s fairly allergic to doing things in a predictable fashion. He’s not one to look at the calendar and go, “Oh, it’s the 25th anniversary.” But, we did Love in 2009 and Electric in 2013, just because I think Ian liked the way it looked – Electric 13. Then Sonic Temple was interrupted by the Covid thing but we did that in 2019. More of that is down to Ian. I’m sort of a fairly predictable character in that I would do them on the 25th anniversary just like everybody else does. But, Ian has his ways about him and he has his beliefs and I’m too old to be bothered arguing with it. As long as we do it, I don’t really care. I personally don’t mind the idea of an anniversary because it’s a proven thing that the audience relates to. It resonates with the audience but it’s a minor thing. We do them anyway. But, we didn’t play the whole Sonic Temple album. We did with the Love album, we did with Electric. But, by the time we got to Sonic Temple, there were just a few songs that me and Ian just couldn’t be bothered playing.

My suspicion is that your set list, after the album comes out, you’ll probably play one or two new songs but it’s probably going to be older songs.

BILLY: Yes, exactly. I look to our peer group. I’ve always looked to my elders for what to do and what not to do when we’ve played with all the bands. We’ve had the privilege of opening for a lot of great acts. I’ve observed how they do things and why they still retain their relevance or at least their popularity. The Stones don’t go out and play half their new album. They’ll play one song off it. The audience likes to hear it, great. Certainly I wouldn’t consider doing more than a couple of tracks off the new album until the new album’s been “out”, whatever “out” means these days, but, readily available. Also, things have changed with the amount of people who record shows and do things on their phones, it’s impossible to do anything new and try it out live because it could be on the internet within 15 minutes and then there won’t be any trial at all. I’m not saying it’s all bad. I’m not necessarily, in any way, saying things were better in our day. I think there were some better things in the past and there’s some great developments now. It’s really six and half a dozen, really.

The first album, the second album, when you go play live, you’ve got a limited set. You’re probably going to play most of the songs you’ve released on those two albums. At this point in your career, there’s going to be songs that you never play live. Does that bother you at all as a creative person to say “I put the time and effort into doing this thing and I’ve recorded it for posterity sake but I’m not going to actually get to play it for people”?

BILLY: That’s a very reasonable question. We have a rotation of songs. One thing I’ve learned is that you can’t please all of the people all of the time, at the risk of another cliché alert. Obviously, fans would love us to play every obscure B-side and The Cult, as an entity, is a partnership between me and Ian. The reality is, we’re just not the kind of band to suddenly jump up and say, “You know what, we’re going to play 17 of our most obscure songs and we’re going to play a pub in South London. It’s going to be great.” We’re just not those guys. I know there are people that have that kind of energy and organizational capability but, between me and Ian, it’s just one foot after the other. We don’t often argue about songs. We have a fairly good common ground. We realize a majority of people want to hear the hits and it’s nice to throw in the odd obscure song once in a while.

I know you’re a motorcycle enthusiast, so I’m wondering if you were to listen to the new album start to finish, what would be the ideal ride? Would it be along the beach front? Would it be riding through mountains? Would it be driving through the desert?

BILLY: That’s a really interesting question. That’s an interesting way of looking at it. I’ve never thought about it in that context. I mean, certainly our music, I would say, is what I would call driving music. I don’t know so much as a motorcycling analogy. Personally, I never listen to music when I ride a motorbike, I’m too worried about crashing. So, I keep all my senses. But, in the car, I think that’s an interesting one.

The problem I have with Cult records is being one of the creative elements making that record, it takes me quite a long time to not listen to it as being nuts and bolts and sections and blends and layers. I’m not enjoying the meal, I’m still focusing on the ingredients and how I prepared it. It takes me a while to have that objectivity. Doing interviews and the album coming out and time passing, that begins to give me that sort of distance where I can be objective about it and not hear it as bits or “Oh, that idea” or “I remember when that was something else.” I haven’t quite got a clear picture. I would say the album is not one you’d want to take down cruising down the Mississippi Delta.

I was often jokingly saying it’s kind of a blues-rock-free zone, this record. It’s quite European in a sense that while there’s a lot of guitar, we made a conscious effort for me to not lean on the more rock n’ roll bluesy, rock based riffs that have served us very well in other periods. There was a conscious decision using Tom Dalgety as a producer and a mutual agreement that we would try to focus, not on the early Cult, because I have repeatedly said to Tom Dalgety, “You’re trying to get a 60-year-old guy to play guitar like he was 24. I can’t undo what I’ve become but I do understand what you would like me to try and look at in terms of the way I contribute to the guitar playing on the record.” So, we were looking for a more contemporary, less rock n’ roll, sound if you know what I mean. Less blues rock. I think we achieved that. I’d say it’s more of a European sounding record. If I was taking a motorbike ride, I’d probably take it through the UK or through the Alps or maybe into Northern Italy.

I watched the interview you and Ian did with Steve Jones. You told a story about Johnny Thunders giving you a guitar pick without ever saying a word to you. Has that ever happened where you’re the one giving a guitar pick to somebody who, 10 years later, came back and said, “I’m in a band and you gave me a guitar pick”?

BILLY: I’ve had many pleasant experiences with people who, while they haven’t out and out said that, I certainly like to think that me personally, and maybe The Cult as a band, helped bridge the gap between old school rock and modern rock. We were maybe a band who kind of had a foot in both camps. There was a traditional element to us and then kind of onward. I like to think we’ve helped. I certainly know we had quite an influence in the grunge thing. I’m not saying we were in any way responsible but I know having met and played with a lot of the guys coming out of Seattle, all of them have Cult records as well as many other bands. I think we were a big influence on that scene in that it was rock but it was modern and there was also a metal component to it and a lot of other punk stuff. I think we were in the mix there if you’ve seen the Pearl Jam documentary and know the guys from Alice in Chains. I know Layne Staley was a big Cult fan because Jerry (Cantrell) told me. Jerry was more into metal and Layne was into The Cult and The Cure and that’s how Alice in Chains became that kind of thing.

I was a 17-year-old kid who loved Sunset Strip hair metal. The Cult was one of those crossover bands for me because you’d be on Headbanger’s Ball and I’d be like, “Wait a minute, who is this band that doesn’t wear spandex?”

BILLY: Spandex-free zone!

The Cult was a gateway drug for me to discover bands like Soundgarden. Maybe not directly but being open to the fact that there’s other music out there that lives in the same universe but is not necessarily the same song styles.

BILLY: The Strip stuff was a lot of fun and I was in Los Angeles while that was going on. I had a great time but I was never wearing clown makeup. I had a couple of dodgy haircuts in the ’80s, as we all did. That was a scene, we hung out and had fun with but we were more like denim. I identified with AC/DC and Led Zeppelin and early Aerosmith. We weren’t really about the metal. As much as I appreciate Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, I never wanted to be them. I dug it as a thing but it wasn’t my thing. It’s obvious a lot of influences in The Cult – punk rock, Bowie and stuff like that. We wore our influences on our sleeves occasionally.

It’s really cool for me to think about the environment you came from. I’ve heard you talk about Morrisey and Johnny Marr and Boy George. They were all part of your intimate universe when you were a kid.

BILLY: It’s just what happened. I fear that I go on about it like some old guy talking about war stories. But, honestly, it’s just what happened. I just tell it like it was. It was circumstantial. I’m not going to deny it happened just to try to be super cool.

I watched Jakob Dylan’s documentary about Laurel Canyon. I loved his stories about Frank Zappa hanging out with Mickey Dolenz. The people you don’t imagine hanging out together are hanging out together and are friends.

BILLY: You’d be very surprised about how people interact on a social level. Even though your audience projects a lot onto you because of your music, particularly in the UK, it’s like “Well, if you like this band, you can’t possibly like that band. You have to pick a tribe, but your tribe won’t have any appreciation for the tribe down the street.”

I had a very soft spot for that whole Laurel Canyon scene, even though it’s not really relevant or visible in any of our music. I really loved that whole hippie scene, that whole West Coast California sound. It always smelled of jasmine and cool evening breezes of spring in California. I used to ignore the smog and the crime and the drug overdoses but I love, and still hang out in, Laurel Canyon when I’m there.

My place, when I’m in LA, is very close to Laurel Canyon and I’m always hanging out there. It’s got a vibe, not as much of a vibe as Topanga Canyon. Literally, a few weeks ago I was visiting a friend who’s a clothes designer, with our bass player Charlie, and, next door, he’s like, “You know that’s the Graham Nash house where we lived with Joni Mitchell and they wrote ‘Our House’. That’s our house!” I was parked next to it. I like that sense of history. I responded to it even though I was right there in England and my scene was punk rock, I always had a little secret soft spot for that sound like The Mamas and the Papas, all of it.

The way you appreciated that is the way I’ve appreciated this conversation. I’ve been a fan for a long time and it’s a real thrill to be able to talk to you.

BILLY: Come catch a show. We’re in a good period at the moment. We’re a happy band. We’ve had a couple of years off. We’ve re-energized. New music is always good. Ian’s skinny and very exciting to watch. Anything could happen with Ian nowadays. So, it’s a good time to catch us if you can.

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Listen to the entire interview with Billy Duffy on the CHIP CHATS podcast