"I don't like nostalgia,” states Ian Astbury, lead singer of seminal rock band The Cult. It's a somewhat paradoxical position to hold, when we're on the phone to talk about The Cult's impending Australian tour in which they will play 1987's Electric album in its entirety. Electric is famous not only for the singles Love Removal Machine and Wildflower, but also for being the album which, under the wing of visionary producer Rick Rubin, transformed The Cult from pasty British, pirate-shirted goth types to internationally loved, hard rock hot property.
Astbury sounds animated as he recalls those early years. “It was 1985, at a nightclub in Toronto, when I first heard the Beastie Boys song Cookie Puss and I had to find out who produced it! I loved the stripped-back sound of it and I realised that was the way The Cult should be produced. We were 24 years old at the time, out on the road and playing rock'n'roll, we wanted something to capture that feeling in the studio.”
Astbury's Torontonian epiphany took The Cult to the chaotic freak scene that was Manhattan in the mid-'80s, to meet Rubin, who as a first priority sat the band down for a serious session of listening to a '60s psych rock/proto metal band.
“We sat down with Rick in a New York dorm room and he played us a Blue Cheer video, then asked, 'This is how I can see you guys sounding, more stripped back and direct.. Do you want to do this?' Billy [Duffy, guitarist] and I looked at each other and said, 'Hell, yes! Definitely'.”
Saying yes to Rubin, in hindsight, was obviously one of the most pivotal points in The Cult's career. It gave them much-desired international adulation, and the opportunity to change both sound and image. But even at the time, recording in New York, the band were instantly aware that they weren't in the Batcave anymore.
“Working with Rubin in 1986 in New York, we were hanging around at Def Jam with Rick and the studio was a meeting place for everybody on the label. LL Cool J, Run DMC, Beastie Boys – they all seemed to turn up, particularly around dinner time,” Astbury laughs. “It's tough trying to convey what New York was like at the time – 'lawless' is a good word. People got killed, or shot, just around the corner from where I lived, Washington Square, which was really close, had drug deals going on all the time – muggings.”
While Astbury was recording Love Removal Machine by day, he and the band were getting loose at Madonna's favourite hangout, Danceteria, by night. “I didn't really get going until four or five in the afternoon, and was out 'til seven or eight in the morning, at the Danceteria, or a hip hip club. It was a really exciting time and there was so much happening in New York then, in art, and there didn't seem to be as much of a division – everyone was just into music.”
The excitement and decadence of long New York nights and chaotic days soaked into the Electric recording sessions, and Astbury considers that it gave the album the live feel he really wanted. “It's a very good document of where we were at in New York, it was such a lawless place. Rick was there all the time, encouraging us to keep it very live, much less texturally dense than previous records.”
Astbury recalls feeling no nervousness about the band's new direction: “If you approach music with that philosophy, constantly rationalising what you do, it makes things very difficult; if you're thinking about what you're doing and why rather than being present and just doing it.”
Of little consideration, also, was the risk that fans of their more gothic sound would find The Cult's new, heavier material estranging. “The opinions of other people are none of my business,” he says, matter-of-factly. “My business is to be in touch with my own truth and to be courageously honest with myself. Electric, at the time, was a courageously honest record. What we had established with the Love album – everyone got used to that band. It didn't feel right to repeat it, it felt like a cynical formula. When we were recording Electric, it felt like we were doing exactly what we were into.”
For a man who doesn't enjoy nostalgia, Astbury has conjured up Electric's potent protozoa very well but, of course, the obvious question remains: Why that album? And why now?
“Many songs from Electric are still a part of us, part of our DNA,” he replies. “We've never stopped playing Wildflower, Love Removal Machine or Little Devil. If you want to make sense of it, a way to look at it is that Electric is an album of live music – music of the instant – and that's what's so compelling about it. It's the same with being onstage: seeing the music being performed fresh, created again in a fresh moment – it's like making love. Each time you play you have a different set of emotions and you're in a different moment.”
But The Cult won't only be performing Electric when they hit our shores. “We're playing two sets each night, starting with the Electric set,” Astbury reveals. “Then we're going to flip it, change the lighting and production and come back and do a set based on whatever we feel like playing, taking into account the environment and audience. We will definitely play from Love, Choice Of Weapon, Sonic Temple. We really give a lot of thought to what the choices will be.”
The Cult's musical continuum comes to an abrupt stop at one Electric track, however. “We don't play our cover of Born To Be Wild,” Astbury says sourly. “That got added to Electric at the very end, and is the only thing that Rick came up with that we didn't really agree with. He said, 'Cover born to be wild.' We didn't want to, but he convinced us. He said, 'It will give you guys a point of reference, a context for people to understand.' We just said, 'Fine, whatever,' but never agreed with it.”
Astbury's history lesson does make him misty-eyed for his youth. In fact, when he was recording Electric, Astbury was already imagining what it would be like to be an older man. “If I saw myself walking down the street at 50, when I was 24, I would think I looked like an old wolf,” he laughs. “I always thought I'd evolve into a heavier character, have experiences that would define me. So rarely do people pull their heads out of their arses and look at the sun, the stars, the birth of a child – it's profound. You have to honour what is here around you right now. I grab that moment.”