Even in middle life, Cult frontman Ian Astbury flashes the wide-eyed bemusement of an adolescent punker struggling to identify with stodgy, sensible grown-ups. As his band of three decades preps the release of its 10th album of elegant hard rock, he’s a starburst of creative ambition and hyper-curiosity, frustrated by the fiscal realities of digital-age music commerce and the stylistic expectations foisted upon veteran acts.
“How can we move rock music forward? How can we shift the paradigm? How can we not go back to pastiche?” he mulls, black-clad and genially animated in a Los Feliz bistro. “Other elements are coming in; things are moving in a different way. How can we get some of that?”
Astbury has all sorts of ideas for getting “some of that,” citing stimuli from Travis Scott to Christian Dior, David Bowie to dojo, the Herald Tribune to Argentine soccer star Carlos Tevez. Yet he must function within the constraints of an industry where bands, their recording income slashed by digital streaming, are obliged to tour relentlessly.
“You’re forced to downsize your [concert] production elements,” he explains. “Now you’re sharing a space with tens of thousands of artists who are all out there trying to do the same thing.”
Culminating at Hollywood Palladium on Nov. 20, The Cult’s co-headlining West Coast tour with Primal Scream — a six-date swing that Astbury claims is only made economically viable by a Cult-only show at Coachella’s Spotlight 29 Casino immediately afterward — is a case in point.
“This initial run … is going to be way more raw and kind of like really greasy, lo-fi, high-energy,” he explains, punching out points with fist to palm. “As we progress, I’d like to have a production that captures all the beatific, erudite moments we’re trying to create … but [that] costs a lot of money.”
There’s also pressure on “legacy” acts to focus on past glories, in order to boost ticket sales. Accordingly, The Cult performed tours devoted to their '80s albums Love and Electric in 2009-10 and 2013, respectively. Yet, in contrast to many of their peers, they’ve stubbornly continued to release new albums on a semi-regular basis.
“'Cos the material’s there … we would not go into the studio and force it,” Astbury insists. “So many other acts are impotent … they’ve all fallen away into the Range Rover trailer park in Bel Air.”
Due on Feb. 5, The Cult’s new Hidden City collection explores Astbury’s lust for spiritual nurturing within what he perceives as a suffocatingly materialistic and often anonymous world.
“I think the No. 1 mantra for this record is ‘defend the beauty,’” he says. “Chasing material goals is going to fall away. It’s going to be about relationships; quality of relationships. Not only with others but with yourself. It’s got to be.”
The Cult has achieved enviable material goals. Emerging from the British post-punk scene of the early 1980s (initially as Death Cult), they clawed their way to a trio of million-selling, increasingly arena-friendly albums (Electric, Sonic Temple and Ceremony) and a slew of anthemic hit singles (including “Fire Woman,” “Sweet Soul Sister” and “Wild Flower”) at the turn of the ‘90s.
But, like a piece of metal bent by extraordinary trauma, The Cult could never quite regain their original shape after the gargantuan success of 1989’s Sonic Temple. Original bassist Jamie Stewart quit the business and drummer Matt Sorum joined erstwhile Cult opening act Guns N’ Roses.
“There were no rules; we’d never been through this experience before,” said Astbury, now an L.A. resident. “We drifted for a minute … we didn’t have a counterpunch.”
The Cult has been Astbury and guitarist/co-songwriter Billy Duffy, fleshed out with rotating sidemen, ever since. The follow-up to Sonic Temple, Ceremony, achieved platinum stateside sales, but subsequent albums have earned mixed reviews and relatively modest numbers, though The Cult has remained a solid concert draw.
Astbury “instinctively” tried to move the band in a different stylistic direction, writing songs like almost Madchester-baggy 1992 single “The Witch,” but found that The Cult “was such a big animal — to turn that around took a great deal of pulling.”
The Astbury-organized 1990 A Gathering of the Tribes festival was both a precursor to touring fests such as Lollapalooza and a bold expression of his ongoing fascination with genre cross-pollination. The event boasted an eclectic lineup ranging from Soundgarden to Queen Latifah, and today Astbury can reel off non–rock artists he’d love to work with, from Kanye West collaborator Mike Dean to L.A. beat producer Shlohmo. He fronted a reanimated Doors in the mid-aughts, collaborated with Japanese avant-gardists Boris in 2010, and earlier this year The Cult co-headlined shows with hip-hop pioneers Public Enemy.
Indeed, Astbury sees the PrimalCult tour as establishing what he terms a two-band “sub-brand” that he’s been eyeing for “well over a decade.”
“In hip-hop [such collaborations are] de rigueur,’ he says. “But rock bands don’t tend to do that as much.”
With Hidden City (produced by Sonic Temple architect Bob Rock) imminent and a newly keyboards-enhanced touring lineup enabling a “much more cinematic” sound, Astbury is in defiant mood. He views The Cult as an almost primeval dissenting thrust against an unsustainable culture of “Lamborghinis and sneakers.”
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“We’re standing on our hind legs and that’s kind of exhilarating,” he enthuses. “In some ways we’re like erudite barbarians — the barbarians at the gate.”
The Cult and Primal Scream co-headline the Palladium on Friday, Nov. 20. Tickets and more info.