The Cult: ‘The 80s was all drink, drugs and handcuffs’

Duffy pulls no punches as he talks 80s excess, his band’s part in the birth of grunge and the state of modern music.

Billy Duffy on stage at Coachella Festival in 2014 with The Cult – Loaded
Duffy note Billy on stage at Coachella Festival in 2014. Image Photo by Jason Kempin

The Cult guitarist Billy Duffy is sat in a west London pub flanked by a large white teapot.

As a waitress brings a serving of honey to accompany Duffy’s tea, it’s a far cry from the rock & roll excess he and The Cult singer Ian Astbury were famed for in their 80s heyday.

Reflecting on a vintage tour with fellow The Sisterhood – the Sisters Of Mercy offshoot of The Cult’s fellow goths – Duffy explains: “That was lots of handcuffs and leaving hotels with police escorts. We were all having it large with drink and drugs. Imagine putting two bands on tour together with one bus and one road crew now – it was mayhem round Europe.”

The Cult’s Billy Duffy with Ian Astbury – Loaded
It’s behind you Duffy tries to ignore the uninvited guest.

Born in Hulme, south Manchester, 54-year-old Duffy hasn’t lost an ounce of his Mancunian twang, despite living in LA since moving at the peak of The Cult’s commercial success in 1988.

“We were all having it large with drink and drugs – it was mayhem round Europe”

The Cult have just released their tenth album Hidden City, their third since reforming in 2006 after a five year break.

“It’s a good time to be in The Cult, as we’re one of the bands that are still reaching creatively,” he explains. “We don’t just get up and play She Sells Sanctuary, which we could quite easily do.

“There’s a lot of bands on the road that are just doing it to put their kids through college”

“We’re all financially secure, so we don’t need to do it for the money. And that changes how you approach it. There’s a lot of bands on the road that are just doing it to put their kids through college. They really shouldn’t have reformed, as they aren’t out there for the right reasons.

“I heard about this album being ‘the rebirth of The Cult’. But it’s not a rebirth to me. It might be for people who don’t live it 24 hours a day like we do. It’s just that it’s garnered people’s attention a bit more this time.”

Ian Astbury of The Cult on stage at Coachella Festival 2014 – Loaded
Don’t mention the rebirth The Cult’s singer, Ian Astbury, on stage at Coachella 2014. A show that is a highpoint of the band’s reformation so far. Image Photo by Frazer Harrison

Garnering attention is something the band have had massive fluctuations with through their career. Following success in the 80s, born from their distinct brand of gothic post-punk, The Cult went on tour with the likes of Metallica and Aerosmith – as well as being supported by a then-unknown Guns N’ Roses in 1987.

But as quickly as their juggernaut built pace through their first four mega-selling albums, the wheels fell off. They tried to reinvent themselves as arena rockers on fifth album Ceremony in 1991.

“Ian was bored. There was no Sheriff of Nottingham, so he couldn’t be Robin Hood”

Ceremony alienated a large part of their fanbase, and, landing at the height of grunge, didn’t spark their yearned-for American takeover.

“That was probably the low point for me,” Duffy explains. “We’d just come out of our biggest album Sonic Temple, but Ian was bored and wanted it to change. He’s a punk at heart, so he needed something to rail against. It was like there was no Sheriff of Nottingham in his life, so he couldn’t be Robin Hood.

“I couldn’t see why we’d want to change after all the success. That’s where the tension between Ian and I started. Up until that point it had been fairly harmonious, but that’s when the band split into two camps.”

Billy Duffy on stage with The Cult – Loaded
Feeling light headed Duffy on stage at the Midtown Festival in Atlanta, Georgia, 2001. Image Photo by Scott Gries

Ceremony, and their eponymous follow-up album in 1994, were lost as Nirvana and Pearl Jam had taken over.

“If you’re going to last 30 years, you’re going to have ups and downs,” Duffy explains. “Nobody is always on the up. It’s impossible. But it all came at a time where Ian and I were arguing and had run out of ideas creatively.”

Despite grunge’s apparent part in The Cult’s downfall, Duffy argues the band had more to do with the birth of the genre than they’re given credit for

“I wouldn’t say we invented grunge .But there are a couple of facts that can’t be disputed”

“I wouldn’t say we invented grunge,” he says. “But there are a couple of facts that can’t be disputed. The first track on our album Love is called Nirvana. And the only city that She Sells Sanctuary was a big hit on the radio was Seattle. Also, if you look at the first scene in Pearl Jam’s documentary Twenty, they’re at the back of a The Cult gig trying to get in.”

In essence, grunge came at the wrong time.

“By that point we had ‘Fuck you’ amounts of money. And when you’ve got enough dough, you’re suddenly not going to do something you don’t want to. So that’s where we broke up.”

Billy Duffy and Ian Astbury of The Cult stood in front of a dark church – Loaded
Did something move over there? Duffy tries to keep his cool outside a dark church.

This was the first split in a tumultuous relationship between Duffy and Astbury, exacerbated by years of heavy boozing. A number of break-ups, reformations and hiatuses followed, but the one thing that’s always remained is, as the name would suggest, The Cult’s status as an outsider band.

“Anybody making music for that long is going to battle against each other,” he admits. “For 12 years, there was nothing but The Cult in our lives. Looking back at the break-ups through the 90s, it eventually made us appreciate what we had. But it also made us realise that we needed the break. It was getting pretty grim back there.”

“Now indie’s just a label that means you’ve got a weird haircut and drink a certain type of coffee”

Coming out the other side has allowed Duffy to reflect on the band’s 90s change in direction, as well as how the music scene has changed since their first inception as a band.

“People moan that we became an arena rock band. But why wouldn’t you?” Duffy questions. “In football, fans want their team to get promoted and have a go. That’s what we did. We had a go. People should take a chance and push to do better. Occasionally you’ll fail, but if you don’t have a swing, you’ll never know.

Billy Duffy on stage at Coachella Festival in 2014 with The Cult – Loaded
High times Duffy says the band’s break ups have made them appreciate what they have. Image Photo by Jason Kempin

“But because of that change, people forget The Cult’s roots were always indie. And that wasn’t a label like it is now, when indie means you’ve got a weird haircut, drink a certain type of coffee and live in Hoxton.

“Indie meant you paid to make your own record, then used the money from that to make your next. Now, indie has become like everything else: a bit of a cliché. And because of that, the music business in England – which is run in about six pubs in London – is eating itself.

“The Brits is like watching a cannibal holocaust of bitchiness, where everyone’s just stabbing each other in the back”

“The Brits and the NME Awards are like watching a cannibal holocaust of bitchiness, where everyone’s just stabbing each other in the back. But Bruce Springsteen, Bon Jovi and Bryan Adams, who are widely ignored by the British music media and its cliquey scene, are still filling football stadiums.”

In their continued plight to see where The Cult fit into that scene, the band went back into the studio with legendary producer Bob Rock to work on Hidden City. Rock has been a returning feature throughout The Cult’s history since producing Sonic Temple. And the new album is something Duffy has been looking forward to getting out on the road.

“I’ve always been a live musician first,” he smiles. “And it’s always the gigs that mean something to me looking back. I remember getting a telegram telling us our album had gone platinum in America; it was just another day on tour.

“Those things don’t mean as much as the shows. Gigs are much more significant, as they’re something you can taste. Musicians would much rather get a load of cash in a brown envelope for doing a gig. We’re simple people like that.”

The Cult are on tour at:

Aberdeen Music Hall (March 3)
Glasgow Barrowlands (4)
Dublin Vicar Street (5)
Belfast Mandella Hall (6)
Leeds University (8)
Newcastle City Hall (9)
Norwich UEA (10)

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Loaded reporter Robert McCallum has written for many leading culture magazines and websites about music, sport, science, politics, fashion and arts. Follow Robert at @therobmccallum

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