Sunday, 9 May 2010

Ian Astbury, singer

On the 26th of March, 2010, I did a telephone interview with Ian Astbury, the singer of the legendary rock band The Cult. He was in the USA (East coast I think). He was very happy to talk, and the interview could easily have been extended well beyond the one hour that it lasted. This is the first 28 minutes of the interview. When I have time I will carefully transcribe the rest of our fascinating conversation and post it here.

 IA: Hello

CBL: Eh, hello. Is that Ian Astbury?

IA: Yes.

CBL: Hi. This is Colin Liddell. I’m phoning from Japan on behalf of the International Herald Tribune Asahi Shimbun, eh, and I’m going to talk to you about, ah, your forthcoming stop in Japan.


CBL: Right, so, right now, you’re doing the, the Love Album Tour.

IA: Yes.

CBL: How far into that are you? How many, em, how long have you been doing it, and how long is it going to continue?

IA: Um, it started last, let's see, we did UK in the fall, North America in the late summer, um, we're doing dates in New Zealand, Australia, and one in Tokyo, which will probably wind it up actually. I don’t think… We're not taking South America. We'll see. We're looking at dates in South America right now, so possibly it will go on for a little while longer. But we're not actively… We came off the road and went back in the studio again, so, um [garbled]

CBL: Yeh, so, uh, so, you've done maybe about twenty or so shows?

IA: No. we've done probably more than that, more like fifty.

CBL: Fifty, aha, so how does it feel doing the same kind of set list like that again and again every night? How do you keep it fresh?

IA: Well, every night's different. Every venue's different. The audience are different, um, y'know, everyday's different. You get up differently everyday, I mean… It’s interesting coz, um… You know when you sort of think about it, y'know, think about the performance all day. When you're actually in the performance, you're kind of very present and, em, I think that’s how you keep it fresh – not to carry it around with you all day long, y'know.

CBL: Yeh.

IA: There's something about music. I mean one of the things that, y'know, that you never [garbled] see written – I mean a lot of what we know of music is, y'know, communicated by language or, em, in the written word, and people read a lot of reviews and things. These are communicated verbally, but [garbled] it's an intuitive form, so It's really more about the emotive quality and that can be…you really can't explain with language so a lot of the work is done… Y'know, when you step on that stage you enter a sort of place where it becomes more of an emotive process and you have to be in the right kind of emotional place to form songs, and the songs are really a framework that you hang your emotions, y'know, on. That's… I think that's how you keep it fresh, is being in tune with the emotive aspects of what it is you’re conveying, y'know. I mean the song writing I can access that whenever I need to.

CBL: Yeh.

IA: I've been at it so long.

CBL: So, it sounds like, then, that the, em, the show, each show depends on how you feel that particular day and what's going on, eh, around you.

IA: That's where the environment's key. The environment's actually key.

CBL: Uh, OK, well, sort of zooming in on that point then, eh, well, you’ve been to Tokyo before and, uh, so what sort of stimulus do you think Tokyo will give you?

IA: Well, for me, personally, I mean I...that going to Tokyo a lot… I have friends in Tokyo so for the past ten years I've been going, y'know, I was going at one point several times a year, three, four, five times a year, travelling to Tokyo, and, uh, what to do about art and fashion, as opposed to music, um, and though recently I've become friends with the band Boøwy [garbled] a Tokyo band who I admire greatly, um, but we played two shows in 1985. In Tokyo, we played, uh… Sorry, we played Osaka and we played Tokyo.

CBL: Yeh.

IA: Different venues, but…so I've had a long love affair with Japan, y'know, since 1985, I mean that's, what, 25 years?

CBL: Yeh.

IA: Um, I mean coming from sort of, y'know, growing up in the North of Britain, um, Scotland and England, and, ah, I think Japan was probably the most exotic, otherworldly – especially Tokyo – place we'd ever been to.

CBL: That's one of the reasons I ended up here, I guess, but, yeh, keep going.

IA: Yeh. It's like science fiction instantly, y'know. [Garbled] everything [garbled] about the East, was kind of…I mean, I wasn't prepared for, for, ah, I mean everything, oh my god, the architecture, the language, uh, food, em, culture, y'know, hospitality, the level of intelligence, em, I mean, I use to [garbled] in Japanese culture, and, um…

CBL: What sort of things in particular about Japanese culture intrigue you the most? I mean, is like the kind of Shintoism, the, ah, different mindset, the kind of technological aspects?

IA: I think it's, like, this idea that there’s no separateness from the nature, I mean, Japanese believe in a culture that really is in harmony with its environment. I know that there’s a lot of problems with modern Japan and the stress and everything, but…

CBL: Hopefully you’re not talking about bonsai trees.

IA: No. Em, what’s that, um, reclusive…

CBL: Reclusive people?

IA: Yeh.

CBL: The hikkikomori, who stay in their rooms.

IA: Hikikomori, yeh.

CBL: Who stay in their rooms, cut off from society, yeh?

IA: Yeh, yeh, and that’s a kind of interesting element, but, um, I don't know, certainly from an outsider's perspective, I mean like going to Kyoto and seeing the temples and the parks and… Japan feels just so much more integrated. Um, I was blown away by the fact that I never saw people eating on the streets. You don't see people, y'know… Like, even the transients, the area's completely orderly.

CBL: Yeh.

IA: I mean I saw these two kids walking down the street – I remember very distinctly – and one guy threw a cigarette but on the ground and his friend hit him in the shoulder and he's like "yeh, of course."

CBL: Well, yeh. The thing that gets me is the red lights, the red lights, when there's a red light, and there's nothing, there's no car in sight, and they all stand there waiting for the red lights to change.

IA: I'm not… It's just [garbled] I just love that in their culture, but, I mean, getting deeply into it, y'know, I’m a major fan of Japanese fashion, especially street fashion and, uh, from [garbled], Undercover and, must be Bathing Ape, and those guys, I must have known those guys for probably ten years, and the way of [garbled] the culture, the work ethic, their production values, what they actually create is just so immersed in the world of creativity and I just think they have an incredible work ethic and an appreciation for, for, um, craft, craftsmanship, um, real, incredible aesthetic, um, y'know, just incredibly gifted at putting things together and this, um, wonderful, um, way of putting things together.

CBL: But how about their music, eh, coz I always think one of the areas where Japan kinda lags behind a bit is musically, and they're very reliant upon the West for, y'know, a lot of their models?

IA: I mean I love Ryuichi Sakamoto, um, certainly to me, I grew up with Japan, definitely like being a huge Bowie fan, and I know that Bowie was like a major Japanophile. Uh, like I said, I like Boøwy, the band Boøwy, I think they're excellent. [garbled], I admire greatly, but, yeh, I can definitely see the influence of whatever Japanese [garbled: cult] Western music…

CBL: It must have been like…When you arrived in Japan, eh, originally, there must have been like a real reaction to you, coz this was like such great music coming from the UK, and so, y'know, like, people must have been jumping on that.

IA: It was that first wave. I think it was like the first wave of bands coming over to Japan was just beginning, in the mid 80s, and we were definitely one of the first bands to come over. Um, there was so much more orderly. I remember that there was like a red rope. It was like the velvet rope in front of the stage.

CBL: Yeh.

IA: And ushers, white-gloved ushers standing in front of that rope, and the kids, the kids wouldn’t jump around at all, y'know. And after every song, they’d give this pause of about five, six seconds, and then they'd burst into applause, then the applause would die down, and we'd start again. [garbled] "Whaaat!" It's just amazing how orderly the audiences were, and all the kids were immaculately dressed. I mean you could definitely tell who their role models were from the West that they'd studied, and their, their costumes, the clothes they were wearing were pristine and incredibly well researched and, uh, y'know, y'd see kids dressed head to toe in Vivienne Westwood. Immaculate!

CBL: Yeh.

IA: Incredible! I mean you would never see kids like that… You might see the one or two, but never the way the Japanese kids put it together. I was blown away by how those kids looked.

CBL: Well, y’'now, the good thing about Japan is, is that you don’t get beat up walking down the street for wearing funny fashions, y'know, so there’s a lot more…Eh, it’s a lot more tolerant environment about fashion compared to the UK, y'know what I mean, because dressing in certain way is asking for a fight in a lot of towns.

IA: I think that's one of the things, y'know, about the UK, I mean, like, we came out of pretty much, y'know, for want of a better label, a working class environment. We did, we came out of the industrial North West and Scotland, and, uh, we had a very humble view of the world, y'know. We used… Everything we learnt it came from either radio, TV, or newspapers, and word of mouth, y’know. If somebody had been to London and came back with an incredible pair of shoes or that album that we didn't get… And obviously, if there's somebody, y'know, be coming back from London, especially on a punk rock basis, and, uh, y'know… So for… Walking through the streets was like – in Liverpool or Glasgow – dressed as a punk rocker in 1978 or 79 when the Clash performed, you were taking your life in your hands.

CBL: Yeh.

IA: Um, we're just incredibly violent, and, y'know, going to Tokyo, by the time… I don't know if you've seen how we looked in 85, but I had shoulder length hair. I was, like… I was really, really into, like, Brian Jones, psychedelic rock, I loved Jimi Hendrix. I was into Morrison and the Doors, so the look that I kind of affected was like y’know straight from 68, y’know, I used to get a [garbled] accepted, so when I arrived in Tokyo, it was amazing, because kids would come up to me and talk to me about my clothes. They were so into my haircut and my clothes, and they were like in a way how fascinated they were…

CBL: So, so, around that time, like, you were, sort of like wearing frilly shirts and, em, bandanas, or what sort of look did you have?

IA: Ah, more kinda like [garbled] I used to seek out, kind of, um…y'know, I mean I used to have, like "granny takes a trip" original velvet hipsters with that, y'know, 28 waist [garbled] I mean, this is what people in England didn't want anymore: an old Salvation Army jacket from the late 1800s. Um, I mean I really studied kinda like what the kids were into in 67, 68, 69 – that look was just amazing to me and it just seemed sort of Dandyism and kind of Romantic attitude to the kind of Symbolist poets and like Byron and Shelley, that kind of Romanticism.

CBL: Well, it's sort of invoking a lot of stuff, wasn't it? And that, probably, kind of fed into the music as well, I’m sure.

IA: Yeh, absolutely, I means it was escapism if you go back to that period, y'know, being young and growing up in that period, and basically year zero, it's like punk rock had finished, um, the major rock stars, the Stones and the Beatles, and all those guys, either as individuals or groups, become unobtainable. They no longer spoke to individuals on the street really, except through their music from when they were younger, but… There’s not…We didn't really have that many, that music for ourselves. It's like the fans had picked up, the fans had become the musicians, I mean the fans of the Pistols and the Clash had become actual musicians so, y'know, most of our heroes had kinda disbanded and we were almost abandoned in some ways, I mean, I think Ian Curtis would have been very important had he stayed alive but, um… [garbled] I was in a band at 19, so maybe I had a different perspective, y'know, maybe, I'm… Thinking from an audience… I still have Bowie. I still love Bowie immensely, Iggy and Bowie, and I still have those guys and they're still making. I mean I love "Serious Moonlight" whatever…

CBL: Sorry, what's that?

IA: "Serious Moonlight" - David Bowie

CBL: Oh yes.

IA: I mean I love that record, amazing. I love "Scary Monsters," um, an incredible record, um, for me I went back to, like, I was just discovering music from late 60s and early 70s, then going deep into things like psychedelic rock, Thirteenth Floor Elevators, Chocolate Watch Band, Music Machine, all that kind of stuff, and then like early Floyd, Syd Barrett Floyd, and then stuff like, y'know, Krautrock.

CBL: Yeh.

IA: [garbled] uh, [garbled], y'know, just…

CBL: This is all stuff that really made it into the "Love" album, then, in one form or another?

IA: Yeh, I mean, [garbled] rock is that car crash between, y'know, like, late-60s sort of type influenced rock, I mean, the amateurish-ism I love to kind of develop that aspect of being punk rock kids using three chords and very limited language to express ourselves. I mean [garbled] it always amazes me when critics go, "Well, the lyrics are always very waspish." Absolutely, [laugh] y'know, where do you think we went to school? I didn't go to Eton. I didn’t go to Eton, y'know. I was, like, my father worked in a refrigeration factory, and my mum was a nurse. I grew up, like, a blue collar kid. I didn’t have the benefits of that kind of education. I mean, what I’ve learnt over the years, I taught myself, I mean, pretty much, but my vocabulary was pretty poor. I was quite well educated I would say, but I mean…

CBL: But that can be an advantage because if you’re overeducated, to sort of p-put it that way, y'know, that can get in the way, and, y'know, when you’ve got less words, y'sort of make them count for more.

IA: I think again, y'know, like on paper you can pull things apart, but, again, seems to me, what makes a great performance, a great piece of music, even a great [garbled] is, em, the emotive quality, that truth, that kind of like authenticity from the performer. That’s what I really respond to. I don't care how flowery or prosaic or whatever the words are, or, y’know, well thought out, unless there's that emotive quality. That's what I really connect with. And I think that the language is so limited anyway. And I think it’s really harsh right now, I mean you've got such… Some of the critiques I’ve seen of bands now, you're going like "really unbelievable" [garbled] you're taking, you're taking off [garbled] of something that should be treated more with kid gloves and, y'know, really harsh critiques from college and university educated 'experts'…

CBL: It’s all ego-driven sneering, a lot of it, isn’t it? A lot of music criticism, I have to say…

IA: [garbled] feeling's better for your head and the sad thing is there's so much space out there. There's room for everybody, and there's plenty for everyone to go round, and this idea of coveting something like it's yours, y'know, intellectual bourgeoisie kind of coveting this what, coveting like the language, coveting, I don’t know, the intelligentsia, fashionistas, all that kind of stuff. I hate that kind of snobbery, and that, in a lot of ways, has killed the arts to a great degree and that’s why we have a…

CBL: I tell you, that's something that's very typical of Britain, especially, I mean British culture's very geared that way. Probably it’s a bit different as you travel round the world though, I should imagine.

IA: I don’t live there [laughs].

CBL: You're living where now?

IA: I live in New York.

CBL: Aha, and, uh, Duffy's in Los Angeles. Is that right?

IA: Yeh, he’s in Los Angeles, yeh.

CBL: Aha, doesn't that make it a bit hard to sort of work together sometimes? How close is your working relationship at the moment?

IA: Well, we just came out the studio cuz we just did four songs with Chris Goss [garbled] and I would say that it's our most….together, harmonious work that we've done for… I couldn’t even put a time-line on it. The thing is we went in with the intention of creating… I was letting the songs dictate, following the songs, serving the songs. Er, we have no agenda in terms of career. We have no agenda in terms of fulfilling record company contracts, fulfilling expectations, or [garbled]. It's become irrelevant for us, y'know, it [garbled] the state of the music industry is. I'm sure it’s that. So, we went in and make a record that, y’know, was essentially Cult 2010, 2011, and I'm really, I'm really excited about…

CBL: Is it a full album?

IA: No, I mean this is one thing where I have personally have looked back and I've thought, if you have a whole album worth of work in you, I mean, I can only speak for myself, I feel that if I have an album in me and I wanna go and record that, I'll do it. Right now I don’t. I mean I could put an album together out of all the material that I've got, but the Cult don't. What I think the Cult do have is we write great songs on the spot. So, instead of, like, you write two or three great songs and then put another seven songs around it and dress it up as an album, why not put those two or three great songs out, y'know, and then go away and have experience and have some other things come into your life, where you fill up again, and then when you've got something to say, release it again? And that’s the whole idea of working with the idea of what I call a capsule, [garbled]. Not an EP, it's a capsule, the idea that it's a capsule collection, which I borrowed from fashion, which is when I used to do a collaboration, y'know, through companies like, say, Jun Watanabe [garbled] and Comme des Garcons'll do it. Collaboration together and do, like, four or five pieces and a pair of shoes and a négligée some perfume and call it a capsule collection. I thought that was brilliant, but some of the idea, like two new songs, a rerecorded version of an older song, maybe mixed differently or a song with different lyrics or carved differently, arranged differently, then a cinematic version of a song, a song that's mixed with all the vocals out of it, maybe putting strings and piano, whatever, make it sound more like a film soundtrack, and then, along with that, a short film. Not a video. This is film, an actual film.

CBL: Yeh.

IA: A film that has its own… Y'know, the songs’ll be used as a part of the soundtrack but the film [garbled] integrity of the film is the piece itself…

CBL: This is very reminiscent of the cinematic ideas behind some of the Doors music as well.

IA: Absolutely and that's something that's really… Honestly how can I be with Ray and Robbie, y'know, for nearly four years of my life and then not be influenced by, y'know… I mean, one of the most profound moments when I was a kid was going to "Apocalypse Now." When I seen it, I was up in Glasgow, and a bottle of wine, into it, y'know, about halfway through… I mean when "The End" came on at the…y'know, the destruction of Kurtz's camp at the end – a religious, it was a religious experience for me.

CBL: Just for the record, was that a bottle of Buckfast wine?

IA: Was it Buckfast?

CBL: Yes.

IA: Oh, God, no! [laughs] Buckie, no, I’ll stay away from there. It was probably like something really crap, like "Olde England Sherry" stagecoach or something like that, y'know. Some real 99p, y'know, three cans of larger job, em, that's what it was, y'know, the carry out, eh, in the plastic bag, or actually stuck in a schoolbag [laughs], y'know, stuck it in the schoolbag, uh, Sauchiehall Street ABC, or whatever it was, um. That was a religious experience, seeing that. I was [garbled] there, saying, "What was that?" and then I was just so transformed after that moment. I never saw the Sex Pistols but I saw "Apocalypse Now" when it was put on general release in the UK.

CBL: Was that the first time you heard a Doors song, though?

IA: No, I mean, see I grew up in North America as well, I grew up in Canada. I spent 5 years in Canada, and, um, the thing about America and Canada, they have the FM radio.

CBL: Uhu.

IA: So, FM radio's this incredible... You get like this beautiful stereo mix. I remember this station in Toronto called Q107 maybe, and on the weekends they would play the entire album, the entire album. They'd go like, y’know, "And that was the first side of 'Dark Side of the Moon' and now I’m going to play the other side." No commercials, completely uninterrupted, y'know, and they'd play, like, they'd play Roxy Music, and I remember hearing entire Bowie albums, Roxy Music albums, T. Rex, Floyd, Zeppelin, I mean, just the whole record! I mean it was just unbelievable to sit there as a kid with the radio and just sit... I was really drawn into that, really like reclusive, in my bedroom [garbled] I just wanted to go home, wanted to go back to Britain. I missed it so desperately. My parents decided to emigrate, so the music really kept me, y'know, I had a passion for that as a kid. Film and music, strangely enough, since I was a kid, since I was young very, very young.

CBL: About your time in Canada, how old were you at that time?

IA: I moved to Canada when I was about 11 and a half and I left when I was 16.

CBL: Uhu, and was like somewhere in the middle of nowhere or one of the big cities or what?

IA: It was Hamilton Ontario, which is, um...

CBL: Oh yeh.

IA: ...just South of Toronto and it's [garbled] steelworks, the steelworks, [garbled] Stelco, and all the steel that they used to make there used to go down the Great Lakes to Detroit and the automotive industry, and that’s where my father worked in that kind of industrial area, and both my mother and father contracted cancer in that city and both subsequently died of their cancers, so...

CBL: Yeh, sorry to hear that.

IA: [garbled] y'know, talk about some industrial, ur, some industrial communities, and then I’ve experienced that, y'know, first hand, because my family was decimated, y'know, by the industrial society and the consumerist society, so, at that age it was all grooming me to become, y'know, I guess a voice, to express myself in that way. I mean I had a lot of pain because of what we went through. We all seemed to be just above the breadline. I mean... Sure we had a roof over our heads and everything and we had a car that worked but... Y'know we had the basics, the bare minimum to keep us going. Not a Dickensian [garbled] by any stretch of the imagination, but [garbled] heartbreak...

CBL: I'm, I'm just thinking a lot of the things you’re talking about there, a lot of people of the same generation, eh, were obviously going through that too, and a lot of that kind of fed into what happened in the 80s, really, musically. There was a bit of escapism, eh, there was a lot of grit, y'know, there was a lot of interesting things in the 80s, wasn’t there? I mean, mean, I think personally I think it was a very under-estimated or under-regarded musical decade.

IA: Yeh, actually, I think a lot of those kids, those kids in those bands, post-punk bands. I mean, starting off with Joy Division and several lead bass guitar bands, certainly what Factory were doing and [garbled] and then you’re going to things like Public Image, people were like refugees from, y’know... We were like... I mean I was born 17 years after World War Two. We were still in this kinda like refugee Britain and so, y'know, they had the Summer of Love, but that had all fallen away and y'know it was Pistols'd became just a total dystopia. And it was basically people saying there’s nothing bound for you. There’s no work. There's no future. It's year zero, 1984, George Orwell, Thatcher. There it is. Banned, you’re going nowhere, you're nothing don’t even think about being anything colourful VIC. Everything was just, y’know, what did we have, like, the Socialist Workers Party and the NF, all those people on the streets being active and violent, really vile. It was horrible, and, yeh [laughs].

Transcribed up to here.


Anonymous said...

Post the other part of the interview!!!

Anonymous said...

I dunno when this was posted but I enjoyed the transcript. Thanks for posting!