The Cult‘s Ian Astbury never set out to be a rock icon: “I was just walking down the street one day and someone said, ’D‘you wanna join our band?’” the singer recalls in a thick northern English accent. “I was just a kid following Adam and the Ants and Crass around, a homeless punk rocker, living it 24 hours a day.” That was 1981, and the band was Southern Death Cult, who quickly became darlings of the British post-punk scene. Astbury‘s debut show was filmed for a TV documentary, his fourth was reviewed in the national press (“We had all of six songs”), and within 18 months he had a major-label record contract on the table.

But Astbury walked away from all that in 1983 to form The Cult with Theatre of Hate guitarist Billy Duffy. “I thought Southern Death Cult would be a phenomenon, but I wanted something that was going to grow and go on forever. That was the whole vision with The Cult. When I saw Billy play, he looked like the most levelheaded, together guitar player. I realized that I needed someone like that in my life.” Soon Astbury and Duffy’s “opposites attract” musical partnership burst Britain‘s borders, and The Cult became a global rock juggernaut, kicking down doors with every new release and peaking commercially with the multiplatinum success of their gargantuan Sonic Temple opus, in 1989. That same year, The Cult relocated to Los Angeles, sensing that the U.S. was more receptive to their ever-stretching rock canvas.

“We had very grand ideas,” explains Astbury, “but music is a very grand thing. It’s not some shallow, complacent, pedestrian activity. I always had this great big vision of music — it meant that much in my life, and still does. But in England there‘s an incredible amount of cynicism toward anything with esoteric content — they like things to be very defined, stylized. I’m more about feeling than about trying to define an aesthetic. Some people see that as a contradiction. I see it as exploration.”

While the stateside move paid off in terms of sales, the yin-yang relationship that had created The Cult was soon pulling it apart. “There‘s a chemistry there that’s undeniable,” says Astbury. “I‘m into the heart and soul of things, whereas Billy’s much more pragmatic — that‘s why we work together so well. But when you have massive success, as we did with Sonic Temple, the great sensual adventure becomes tangible — we became perceived in a certain way, and there was real pressure to maintain that.” Basically, in the wake of their stardom Astbury wanted to move on to new things — he started dabbling with electronica and organized the Gathering of the Tribes festival — while Duffy was more concerned with creating another commercial blockbuster. Two predictably schizophrenic albums followed, and by 1995 Astbury had quit the band, citing physical and spiritual exhaustion. By 1999, he and Duffy had been drawn to reunite: “It’s family,” says Astbury, “being together so long and going through so much. I missed the energy of The Cult.”

Summer ‘99 found The Cult setting forth on a sold-out U.S. tour, where every show was a mutual appreciation society of band and fans. “It was like coming home,” Astbury marvels. “After all these years of feeling out in the cold, we realized that there were people who were sincerely engaged in our experience and felt something other than just being entertained.” A new record deal with LavaAtlantic followed, the first fruits of which are Beyond Good and Evil, a focused, thundering epic that reunites Astbury and Duffy with the Sonic Temple team of drummer Matt Sorum and producer Bob Rock. Yet while the new disc resembles Sonic Temple in its riff-heavy, majestic sense of scale, it at once evokes all of The Cult’s many eras. The band even revisited its early contemporaries — the Banshees, Killing Joke, Bauhaus — and solicited Rock to meld some of their tones into the mix. Perhaps more than any of the band‘s work, Beyond Good and Evil is a truly joint effort, with Astbury expressing a newly confident musical voice discovered during his hiatus.

The Cult, often ridiculed and marginalized by the music press, have delivered timeless, thoughtful rock songs for nearly 20 years. Ian Astbury is one of the genre’s most distinctive and underrated voices, and Billy Duffy a master of his domain. Even after all their achievements and accolades, they remain in touch with why they do what they do, mature in their craft yet youthful in its delivery. And there‘s still an unrequited popular demand for this no-gimmicks high-octane sound. The people are starving for “real rock”? Then let them eat Cult.

The Cult appears at the Universal Amphitheater Friday, August 3.

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