Ian Astbury talks about the return of Death Cult

The Cult’s Ian Astbury and Billy Duffy are commemorating 40 years of their collaboration by revisiting their band’s initial incarnation, Death Cult. In a sole US performance on October 23, followed by a UK tour, Death Cult will draw from their EPs, material from Astbury’s prior band, Southern Death Cult, as well as music from The Cult’s first two albums, Dreamtime (1984) and Love (1985).

Southern Death Cult had formed in 1981, releasing a self-titled album posthumously in 1983. That year, Astbury and Duffy teamed up as Death Cult, releasing two EPs that would later be combined for CD release. In 1984, the band became The Cult and has since released 11 full-length albums.

In a phone interview, Astbury discussed the return of Death Cult.

What made you decide to revisit Death Cult?

Ian Astbury: A few reasons. One is that it’s obviously been four decades where we’ve fallen into this natural cycle where… The way we’ve been billing it [this tour] is 8323. This moment will never happen again. So we decided we should acknowledge this because it’s a huge part of our DNA. I think in a lot of viewpoints of The Cult people don’t understand what our actual roots were and how we evolved into what we evolved into and then devolved again and are now making records that sound more like a hybrid of Death Cult through, I guess, records like Sonic Temple.

The last four albums have been far more… We were out of the corporate record system; we were no longer part of MTV. We were banned from everything. We got banned from Rolling Stone; we got banned from the BBC; we were ostracized from MTV. And then we just kept making music.

Death Cult, also, to me, is when we look at Orwell’s 1984 and dystopia. To be just on the cusp of digital technology because 1984 was the year that Apple did a massive commercial with Ridley Scott. It was around the Olympics in Los Angeles. It was a really poignant moment when science fiction was becoming a reality.

And we were kind of like the last generation to experience, really, a much more intimate way of communicating. MTV created certain stereotypes, and it was nascent at that point, but still, the DJ was really important; the radio DJ was really important. The publications were really important, certainly in Europe. And my experience of it in the United States was that because the United States is so big, it was very regional.

But that’s another acknowledgement of Death Cult. It also has a Buddhist context, which is impermanence, the idea of impermanence, that there’s a finite point to life. We don’t know when that’s going to occur, but within that, how do we conduct ourselves?

But there are many, many themes to Death Cult. It’s surely not a nostalgic trip down memory lane. Really, to play this music you have to be present. I don’t sing like I sang when I was 20 years old, 21, 22 years old, and some of these songs we haven’t played for four decades. We’ve been rehearsing them, and they sound incredibly fresh and really poignant… and lyrically poignant. That’s really gratifying to know, that some of it stands up. I think it’s just really appropriate for this moment that we’re in that we’re doing this.

We’re doing it for a very limited run unless there’s some sort of incredible demand, I suppose, to go and perform because, already, we’re doing one LA show; we’re doing about 14, 15 shows in the UK, and now people are saying, “Will you come to Berlin? Will you come to Buenos Aires? Will you come to Sydney? Will you come to Tokyo? Will you come here? Will you come to Oslo?” We didn’t even consider that. But other people around the world are aware of Death Cult’s music and would love to see that, to have that experience. So maybe there would be some sort of annexed version of The Cult.

Are there any particular songs that you had been wanting to perform again that maybe did not fit into the normal Cult shows? Are any particularly exciting for you to get back into?

Ian Astbury: “Butterflies” is incredibly profound. Although that song was written during Death Cult, we didn’t record it until Dreamtime, our first [Cult] album. But we wrote that as a Death Cult song. In that period, “Flower in the Desert” came from Southern Death Cult. Playing songs like “Spiritwalker,” “Horse Nation,” “Ghost Dance,” songs like “Resurrection Joe”; I can’t remember when we last played that song. Again, another song that was written during the Death Cult period, but we didn’t actually record it until we became The Cult. We were only Death Cult for about nine months.

Once you got into rehearsals, was there any challenge finding a balance between how the material originally sounded and what you are today? Was it something you even thought about?

Ian Astbury: Not really. I mean, that’s an impossible task. You can’t replicate the environment; you cannot replicate the environment those songs came out of. There are parallel environments now, but the way we approached it was we listened to the songs, we got basic arrangements, and then we just played them with the four musicians: myself, Billy, Charlie, and John on drums.

We have to connect on the songs, and now it’s beginning to feel like we’ve done a decent amount of rehearsing; we haven’t over-rehearsed. I still feel there’s going to be that element of high adrenal… A certain amount of anxiousness about getting through some songs.

But there’s a whole emotional component to it as well. We’re accessing some profoundly intense, emotional moments and rediscovering that within ourselves because you don’t forget cellular memory. Reactivating some of those events that are held in the body and held in your spirit… That’s been really profound, that the genie comes out of the bottle where we play “Christians” or we play “Brothers Grimm.” “83rd Dream”… We play that as well.

You’ve been on a US tour as The Cult. Has preparing for these Death Cult tours influenced these shows at all?

Ian Astbury: That’s a good question because it’s always in my mind. But it’s all familiar territory because it’s me that’s doing it; I am doing it. That music came out of me then; this music comes out of me now. But when we play things like “Mirror” or “Vendetta X” and “Under the Midnight Sun,” there are a lot of parallels between that and Death Cult in terms of the sentiment and the shadow quality, the romantic quality, and some of the existential subject ideas. Occasionally, I’ve been a straight shooter in songs, but everyone goes, “The song is about this,” and I go, “Well, that’s your interpretation, but it’s actually about something else.” It’s about something else that inspired it. The universal language of music.

Looking back at the time Death Cult emerged, it was definitely an interesting time musically. Was there anything about that era that particularly shaped you as an artist?

Ian Astbury: Well, there was a generation of musicians who were not… Some had previous tutoring, but most of us were self-taught. But everything was happening intuitively. If you could play an E minor chord, you wrote a song around it if you could hold those strings down. When I wrote “Moya,” the whole song just kind of came out of it. I could slide up the neck, and it just evolved. But that’s how a lot of bands, even Joy Division, were making music. Punk rock came along and basically said, “This is for everybody.” You’ve got Sniffin’ Glue fanzine, three chords, go start a band. Which is what all the people did.

For more info on The Cult, visit thecult.us.

Death Cult Tour Dates:

October 23 Los Angeles, CA The Theatre at The Ace Hotel

November 6 Belfast, UK Telegraph

November 7 Dublin, IE 3Olympia

November 9 Sheffield, UK Foundry

November 10 Liverpool, UK Guild of Students

November 12 Glasgow, UK Barrowland

November 13 Nottingham, UK Rock City

November 14 Birmingham, UK O2 Institute

November 16 Bournemouth, UK O2 Academy

November 17 Norwich, UK UEA

November 18 Manchester, UK Albert Hall

November 20 London, UK Brixton Electric

November 21 London, UK Brixton Electric