Ian Astbury of The Cult loves the songwriting process. Here's why | Phoenix New Times

Why The Cult's Ian Astbury loves the songwriting process

The English rockers are playing a concert in Phoenix this week.
The Cult (featuring Ian Astbury, left, and Billy Duffy, right) are returning to Phoenix with a sold-out show.
The Cult (featuring Ian Astbury, left, and Billy Duffy, right) are returning to Phoenix with a sold-out show. Tim Cadiente
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Sixteen-year-old me absolutely loved The Cult. In fact, their second record, 1985’s "Love," came out on my 16th birthday, and it was my favorite album by far that year. It was my junior year in high school, too, which is the year in which the more sophisticated male music writer’s taste in music truly begins to blossom.

Just kidding. It doesn't take a critical ear to know that The Cult rock. The band have cranked out 11 studio albums since 1984, as well as a good handful of EPs, singles and live recordings. It was Love, though, that solidified them as heroes to this writer.

Billy Duffy’s guitar work on that album was, in my opinion, god-like or at very least, rock-god-like. When he starts off the song, “Phoenix,” which I always secretly hoped was written about my hometown, it is, as the kids say now, “pure fire” (pun intended). To write that Duffy made the guitar cool for heavy, alternative bands is not an understatement. It is the truth.

Lead singer Ian Astbury seemed like an otherworldly, ethereal creature to teenage me. While he isn’t classically handsome, Astbury oozed attitude under his long, straight, black hair, looking a little bit like a cross between Jim Morrison of The Doors and Dave Vanian of The Damned. He and Duffy had swagger by the armload, and I wanted some of that feeling, so I turned the record up loud every chance I got. "Love" is still worthy of being turned up almost 40 years later.

I spoke with Astbury as the band prepared to play in Boise, Idaho, a few weeks ago. He was seemingly not impressed as I shared my secret hope that his song, “Phoenix,” was about our little corner of the world here in the desert and recited his lyrics to him like some babbling newb.

“Like the heat of a thousand suns that burns on / Rising ever higher / a Phoenix from a pyre / My eternal desire / I’m on fire…” is what I shared with him before reiterating that I always hoped he was talking about Phoenix, Ariz.

“No,” Astbury replied quite stoically, before he continued:

“I’ve actually spent a lot of time in Joshua Tree, which is really hot as well.”

My fandom was clearly not going to sway Astbury, so I let it drop. As it turned out, he had a lot to say. This was not surprising, as Astbury is the band’s lyricist and shares that he writes all the time.

“Sometimes I write on the spot, but ultimately, when it comes time to record, even if I don’t have a starting point, I jump in with a melody or a phonetic sound. Usually, I go off of the rhythm a lot, or the cadence of a piece of music, but it is a pretty intuitive process. I don’t really have a set way of working when it comes to lyrics,” Astbury says.

On The Cult’s latest record, "Under the Midnight Sun," Astbury and Duffy revisit the band’s earlier sound in a really satisfying way. Prior to becoming The Cult, Astbury fronted Southern Death Cult in the early 1980s, which later morphed into Death Cult (which Duffy joined in 1983). Their most recent material echoes that early pre-Cult stuff quite a bit.

“Being close to your personal truth, crafting songs, can be pretty daunting. It takes focus. I love the process. I like to scare myself sometimes and think, ‘How far am I going to go with this?’ We keep going, though, you know? We keep rolling. We are highly conscious. We pay attention. Nothing is lost on us. It’s not unique to The Cult, but it is certainly what we are. I know what kind of animal we are,” Astbury says.

As the only original members left, Astbury and Duffy are revisiting some of those Death Cult songs in their current tour which hits Gila River Resorts & Casinos — Wild Horse Pass in Chandler on Thursday. The band did a full set of Death Cult stuff and some Cult classics on Monday in Los Angeles, but Astbury says there's a possibility of Phoenix-area fans hearing some of those on the 26th.

“We’ll see how it feels. We rehearse every day. I think if we feel confident, we might play some of the [Death Cult] songs in the set. Southern Death Cult became the foundation of Death Cult which became The Cult. It’s all I’ve known since I was 19,” Astbury says.

I can only hope Astbury and Duffy, along with drummer John Tempesta (Exodus/White Zombie/Testament), bassist Charlie Jones (Robert Plant/Siouxsie Sioux) and keyboardist Mike Mangan are feeling frisky and bust out with a few old songs like Southern Death Cult’s “Moya” or Death Cult’s “God’s Zoo” or “Ghost Dance.” The teenager inside my brain would lose it almost as much as if the band played “Phoenix.”

The Cult. 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 26. Gila River Resorts & Casinos — Wild Horse Pass, 5040 Wild Horse Pass Blvd, Chandler. Tickets are sold out.
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