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CRACKING THE MIND OPEN: The Cult's Ian Astbury goes deep in advance of Rocklahoma gig

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Singer/songwriter Ian Astbury helped found The Cult in 1983.
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OKLAHOMA CITY – With its motto “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Rock,” the three-day rock festival Rocklahoma, which takes place each year over the Memorial Day weekend in Pryor, Oklahoma, has lured some of the biggest touring rock acts in America and beyond.

And 2018’s Rocklahoma festival is no different, as bands ranging from Poison to Godsmack to Cheap Trick draw enthusiastic crowds to the festival grounds in verdant Mayes County for hours-upon-hours of the hardest rock music around.

And in the mix this year is a British rock band that has had a serious and committed following for over 30 years – The Cult. Known for their mix of hard rock, goth, mystic metal and sounds and styles that bring to mind both The Doors and Led Zeppelin, The Cult have managed to record 10 studio albums over the course of those years, even as musical styles and interests change. Their fans are serious about the band and their prolific output, which includes noted heavy guitar-laden hits like "She Sells Sanctuary," "Fire Woman," "Rain" and "Wild Hearted Son," among many others. These days, the songs of The Cult take on even deeper meaning with songs like "Elemental Light," "Lucifer" and "A Pale Horse" from 2012's Choice of Weapon to Hidden City tracks like "Dark Energy," "G O A T" and "Deeply Ordered Chaos."

They are tri-headlining the first night of Rocklahoma this Friday, along with Stone Temple Pilots and A Perfect Circle. And in the summer, The Cult is tri-headlining the 20-city, "Revolution 3" Tour with two other rock heavyweights: the aforementioned Stone Temple Pilots and Bush.

With the core of the band being singer/songwriter/frontman Ian Astbury and guitarist/songwriter Billy Duffy, The Cult have had a revolving number of bass players and drummers, but the sound and vision of The Cult has remained the same after all of this time, even if the 1985 record Love is a far cry from their most recent record, Hidden City. A current of consistency and power connects them all.

And Astbury was kind of enough to spend a small portion of a recent afternoon to talk about his band, the state of the world, his time performing with key members of The Doors, and the plight of the Tibetan people, among other important issues.

When we spoke to Astbury, he had just celebrated his 50th birthday the day before and seemed to be in a very upbeat and positive mood. This, from a guy who would tell us over the course of the interview that he was not much for performing outdoors, under a blazing sun.

While Astbury could not recall a specific Cult show taking place in Oklahoma (they did play Tulsa's Brady Theater in 2016), when asked about the Native American imagery and lyrics incorporated into Cult albums over the years (specifically, 1991’s sublime Ceremony), he said that means a lot to him and that he and the band are looking forward to giving his all this Friday on the Rocklahoma stage, along with Duffy, bassist Grant Fitzpatrick, keyboardist Damon Fox and drummer John Tempesta.

The Cult's 2016 album Hidden City. (Cooking Vinyl)

RDR: "Hello Ian. Please share with us what folks can expect from The Cult on stage and where The Cult is now in 2018."

IA: “The show; five guys. Amplified. Real musicians. No samples. I don’t think we have samples, actually. We have used samples, but we rarely use samples."

That’s a tough one. I can only equate it to being an athlete. It’s like saying, ‘How’s the game gonna go? What’s your gameplan?’ And the gameplan is when we walk on that stage the whole thing reveals itself. Sometimes you walk out in front of audiences and you know, you know that audience doesn’t (always) know a lot about your band or the music. Which serves as a great opportunity for a fresh, fresh moment. And we have to work. We have to draw up into ourselves and draw up into the songs and really dig something special out, you know?

It’s about awareness. Practicing awareness is really important thing. You don’t walk into anything with a preconceived idea. That’s a big mistake. When we get to Oklahoma, they’re gonna love us. You know? Wrong! That’s not the attitude. My attitude is that we’re going to put together the best body of work that we can. We’re going to work together in our rehearsal space … and once you’ve been away for a minute – we’ve played one show maybe in five months – you need to kind of rediscover each other. The band is a really intimate situation."

RDR: "How is it working with guitarist Billy Duffy these days, after more than three decades of making music together?"

IA: “That’s really based on just the language. The language is really about the music. The sentiment of the music. We don’t really need to communicate so much verbally. A lot of it is done through the process of writing, what comes through the speakers, you know? That’s just an understanding. You play with someone long enough and you have kind of a second sense of where they’re moving or what their intention is. So, we work well off of each other that way.

"And that’s really the core of our relationship. In a crazy situation. In a performance situation. That’s our real relationship. Outside of that relationship we see each other infrequently. We have very different lifestyles. We’re quite different people. It’s great. There wouldn’t be much energy between us if you came in and had the same ideas about everything."

RDR: "Tell us about your interest in Tibetan Buddhism and the plight of the Tibetan people."

IA: "Well, certainly with Native Americans as well. Right now we’re in a spiritual crisis. We are in an existential spiritual crisis. We are definitely caught up in a very cognitive world where every action is described. Where every moment is documented and we live in a false perception of material. If something is material then it’s forever and it’s black and white. It’s not how it works. There are a lot of shades in between. Nuance in life. And breath. And between the breaths. One of the foremost tenets of Buddhism is the focus on the breath and what happens during a breath. Being fully present. Taking in the real information.

"In Native American traditions of oneness with your environment, with your surroundings, with the ecosystem. And that, again, bring that into Buddhist philosophies of being present in your environment. Awareness of life, the cycle of life. So many layers, but again, it is moving towards spiritual technologies as we get more immersed or caught up in everything from the information wars to opiate addiction to racial wars to societal poverty. All these issues are so overwhelming to so many others. I don’t know, I’ve chosen to focus on to really contribute as an individual to be the best possible version of myself. I want to serve others. I want to raise others up. I want to raise up the environment and awareness and consciousness and promote diversity. And awareness of other cultures of other lifestyles of other individual choices and individual rights.

"So, a lot of that comes from Native American philosophy or from Tibetan Buddhism and not just just Tibetan Buddhism but original schools from India and from Nepal. And that started when I was very young, probably even before I was 10. Gateway things for me were things like Bowie and being an immigrant, living in Canada and being exposed to Native American culture. Being exposed to other cultures, period. Being in other people’s homes. Other cultural lifestyles. Out in northwest Britain I found myself immersed in a culture that was way more diverse and I was exposed to friends who were from different countries.

Plus, you’ve got the music there as well. Like Bowie is a touchstone. A guide. Leading us out of this cognitive prison."

Tibetan ceremony. (Google images)

RDR: "I think Bowie will be remembered hundreds of years from now when most of us are long forgotten and they’ll be talking about Bowie. He had that presence that quality that few others have had. And Bowie, like you, was interested in Tibetan Buddhism as well in his early years."

IA: “At a very early age, yeah. He had a Rinpoche, a teacher, very early on. And he maintained a relationship with that teacher, I believe, through the decades. And very quietly, well, not so quietly, did some shows for Tibet House in New York, in the early 2000’s, I believe. He did songs for Seven Years in Tibet and always had a respect and awareness for Tibetan Buddhism. That was definitely one of his influences for sure.

It sounds like, really, it’s tough, because I start talking about esoteric or philosophical ideas and you can just feel people rolling their eyes in the back of their heads or stepping back. ‘It’s scary, it’s different, whatever.’ It’s just the philosophy of living. It’s not anything heavy.”

RDR: “With our publication, we discuss these esoteric and interesting ideas that you are very interested in yourself.

IA: “Well good. Then I’m at home (laughter).”

RDR: “I just wrote a piece about John Dee, the alchemist …

IA: “Fantastic!”

RDR: “And there was a show called Requiem that was on the BBC, and is on Netflix and talks about the (angelic) Enochian languages …

IA: “Yes, and this information is so available to us and it’s like it started a movement … there’s a movement of people moving to South America and going into the jungle and having these incredible experiences. We’ve got a society that is fragmented. And yet you’ve got people like (Twin Peaks director and high-profile Transcendental Meditation practitioner) David Lynch out there with his meditation and his Festival of Disruption and meditation.”

RDR: “Lynch brought the idea of the tulpa into the wider viewing community on television through the latest Twin Peaks reboot.”

IA: “Absolutely. What a great entry level experience, through Twin Peaks to discover, you know, cracking the mind open.

"I think we’re in a renaissance right now. We’re in a renaissance because we’re no longer an industrial society in the sense of what we used to have with the factories and mines and people are kind of out of that place of heavy labor. Yes, people do still work in those environments. My family were part of that environment. My grandfather was a steelworker. My father worked in factories and they were part of that, working long hours and getting paid minimum wage.

"We’re kind of redefining what it means to be a human being. I think a lot of the older values are falling away and now we’re moving into a new society and we’re actually now in a situation where maybe not our immediate children, but it could be (their children) could be going to Mars. (laughter). Going to other planets. We are leaving this planet. It’s profound! Let’s not get left behind. Let’s not get caught up in social media.”

RDR: “One other question I had for you Ian was your work with Ray (Manzarek) and Robby (Krieger) of The Doors of the 21st Century and did you feel Jim Morrison’s presence while you were doing those songs?

Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger and Ian Astbury in The Doors of the 21st Century. (Sydney Morning Herald)

IA : “I’ve been asked that before (laughter). Presence of Morrison? It’s so … there’s definitely … when I was playing with Ray and Robby, or more prominently when I was at (Pillar?) show with them or at Jim’s grave, there’s definitely a sense of something greater than self, obviously. Being in this moment. There’s a real sense of connection with the spirit of Morrison.

"There was an essence of Morrison, especially when Ray and Robby would lock into a certain space. I actually had the privilege of experiencing, directly, something that he would have experienced in terms of being that intimate with Ray and Robby. You know, that was an intimate place. A sacred place I stepped into, which was at first incredibly intimidating, you know. I’d be a liar if I didn’t say it was intimidating but it was intimidating. Walking into that space and being in the direct influence of Manzarek and Krieger. It wasn’t like anyone could have walked in there and did a job. It demanded so much more awareness around the space. And that’s what Ray had ultimately shown me, because he felt that, in his words, I had that  ‘Celtic-Buddhist archetype’ and I was like, ‘Wow! That’s an incredible accolade. And now I have to live up to it.

"The eighth show we did was for a Rolling Stone retrospective, with James Brown and Lenny Kravitz and The Strokes … and the band wasn’t very together. It was our eighth show and it was a bit shabby and we got absolutely destroyed by The New York Times. Ripped it to shreds. That was the moment when it was ‘tighten the belt,’ okay? Or loosen the belt. Let go of a lot of preconceptions. And at that time I was also singing from a music stand because I wanted to have reverence for Morrison’s lyrics. And after that show Ray said get rid of the music stand, (Morrison) would have hated this. Let’s get the ‘too much reverence’ (out of here). This is a real, living entity. This is a body of work that is alive, vibrant and releavant to the present. We have to perform in the moment. So, that was a real awakening of improvements. And I really respected Ray as a teacher and mentor. To really be present in this moment. To be present in the music, the lyrics, the audience."

RDR: “It sounds very Buddhist.

IA: “Yes, well little beknownst to a lot of people, Ray was in Southeast Asia and he did a stint with U.S. American forces and this was pre-The Doors. And he was talking to me once about seeing Buddhist monks in Thailand riding elephants. And I was like, ‘What? What?’"

And John and Robby were practitioners of Transcendental Meditation with the Maharishi Yogi and so they came from this platform of ‘enlightened, European/Eastern cultures' and traditions and African cultures and traditions, too. Immersed in African music and Eastern philosophy and immersed in European folk and so many … they were so fully formed when they first met. It was such an incredible catalyst of influences.”

RDR: “It’s really interesting that you say that in light of the fact that they meet and then suddenly they are fully-formed band in 1966. I just wrote a book on the music of 1966 and The Doors play a role in the music of that year."

IA: “I hope you put Arthur Lee (of Love) in there.”

RDR: “Arthur Lee of Love, yes, of course. He plays a role in there as well.

IA: “Arthur Lee was incredibly important. And Love was singing the praises of The Doors to (Elektra Records head) Jac Holzman. I had the privilege of meeting Arthur Lee a couple of times and I have a dollar bill signed by him saying ‘God is Love’ on it.”

RDR: “That’s great.

IA: “Yeah, they’re both very important, Love and The Doors. The Doors will always be the quintessential, archetypal American band of all time.”

RDR: “And I cannot argue with that one bit.”

IA: “I’ve had those arguments with other people but then again there’s different generations, different bands, different performers. So different. Like right now, Childish Gambino is a lightning rod. He has the floor right now and rightly so. It’s an exciting and compelling body of work. Not so dissimilar to what The Doors were doing. In the day of using art as a platform for, you know, touching upon social and philosophical issues of the day and trying to affect change and enlightenment and wake up their brothers and sisters everywhere.”

RDR: “Ian, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about any new material The Cult might be working on in the near future. An EP or something?"

IA: “Right now there’s talk of recording and where there’s smoke, there’s fire. There’s always something going away. I always like to say it’s been turned over. I always like the idea of songs … I don’t like the idea of songs lying dormant in the corner, you know. Left somewhere. I like to pull things out and work them over a bit and not put them away. When I get an idea for something, I get a storage of ideas and lyrics and titles and chord structures and textures and so that process is always ongoing. The kitchen is always turning things over, cooking up new recipes.

"It’s very interesting, with this tour we are going to do, because with Hidden City, which is slightly past so we’re moving into new space. So whatever the narrative is with The Cult, however we are set together … we now have 10 studio albums to choose from, so we can actually pick . There’s a lot of information in some of our albums that we’ve never played before. So hopefully we can pull some songs that maybe haven’t been as heard as iconic songs of that period. That’s not to say that the sets we’re going to play, going forward, will feature material people don’t recognize. We’re always going to play the real important bangers in the set, that really work in a live context. Songs from Love, Electric and Sonic Temple, we’re always going to bring that material into the set."

RDR: “I hope Ceremony is going to come into it.”

IA: “Ceremony is an album that comes up every now and again. I always considered Ceremony to be a winter album in some ways. It feels more like a winter/fall record. Whereas Sonic Temple feels more like a summer record and Electric feels more like a summer record. Love feels more like a spring record. You know, Hidden City feels to me more like a winter record. So, what’s happening seasonally, we pull the songs that way.”

“It’s also when it was made and the environment when it was made. Part of the DNA of the songs. There are definitely exceptions to the rule where we can play songs any time of year. As long as it’s a nighttime, darker environment. We work well in darker environments I think.

RDR: “I kind of sensed that.

IA: “Yeah, I kind of have an aversion to the sun as a performer, you know? It can be quite brutal. We once played a concert in Italy and for some reason they decided to build the stage facing directly into the sun. It was like the hottest day of the summer, like June 21st. And the sun was just hitting us so directly. We all came off the stage with a sunburn. We couldn’t see anything particularly, the sun was so intense."

RDR: In the final moments of the interview, Astbury was asked if had any final thoughts on where The Cult is today and about the band’s legacy.

IA: “The Cult is a living, breathing band. We’re immersed in what we’re doing now. This is our life and our lifestyle. I hope we’re getting better. And you know the way the rock culture is changing and evolving in the culture and the whole way the culture is evolving and changing, we’d like to think we’re evolving with that and responding to our environment and what we bring to live performances is the best possible version of who we are today.

"I’m not going get up there and patronize. When I walk up on that stage I’m going to give it every thing I’ve got. I’ll leave it up there. Everything gets left up on the stage. I learned that fairly early on that audiences are our benefactors and without our audiences we don’t get to do this. So, I’m very grateful for having that in my life.”

For more information on The Cult, go here. And for more information on this weekend's Rocklahoma festival, go here.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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