A Kiss of Wisdom from Ian Astbury

At the risk of sounding boastful, I’ve had enough cosmic favour thrown my way to have stumbled into several 1-on-1 situations with rockstars. These have never really been planned, which makes them all the more special. It’s a strange affair, and one difficult to anticipate. You make an extra effort and try to appear as worldly as possible. The topic of music, once trusted common ground becomes a sensitive marshland on which you hold the lesser authority. Luckily in my case, our conversations were normally lubricated on their side by quite a lot of drugs. There’s a role to live up to, I guess. Nevertheless, this time round I had the bizarre fortune to interview Ian Astbury, lead singer of legendary rock band The Cult.

While perhaps eclipsed in history by the rock titans of the 1980’s and 1990’s, The Cult nevertheless enjoy a strong…cult following

While perhaps eclipsed in history by the rock titans of the 1980’s and 1990’s, The Cult nevertheless enjoy a strong…cult following and have pumped out a strong succession of albums over three decades. At the time of writing, the band is in a promotional frenzy for the imminent release of their tenth album – Hidden City, which brings us neatly into the picture. After a short, businesslike email exchange with their representing manager, I was given a date and a time for an interview. I note the American number and use Skype to call the West Coast of America. This is surreal. I look at the familiar blue user interface which I use pretty much only to call my ageing Indian parents back in London. After waiting on hold to the soundtrack of a jingle so nauseating it could only be used unironically in the States, I hear a voice both firm and gentle come from my laptop speakers. ‘Ian’, he states.

This doesn’t feel like a normal interview

I respond in a tone different from the confident, accented drawl of the young modern German he was probably expecting. He asks me where I’m from, and from there the conversation leads smoothly towards my affairs, more specifically what I’m doing in Berlin. This doesn’t feel like a normal interview, and if Ian was wearied by the generally tedious nature of such promotion, he most certainly didn’t let it on.

I’ll try to be as candid as possible.

Let me put my hands up here. There was a bit of a balls-up. I wasn’t informed that we only had a set amount of time and I didn’t think to ask, which in retrospect seems pretty dumb on my part. On the upside, we spoke widely and uninhibited on a number of issues, and I often felt as if I had unwittingly entered a personal therapy session from one of the world’s greatest rock singers. The downside however, is that nothing was recorded. Everything you read from him here is effectively a secondary source; filtered through my memory and ego and discretion. I’ll try to be as candid as possible.

He speaks of the emotional impact of meeting David Bowie for the first time

Topically, we move first to Bowie, who since his death has also made a buoyant resurgance in my own life. Growing up all around the world, in Canada, Glasgow, Brixton to name but a few places, Ian tells me how David Bowie was a powerful musical force in his adolescence, allowing a consistency in an otherwise scattered childhood. I can almost sense a wistful reminiscence in his voice, ‘I spent more time with Bowie than I often did with my parents’. He tells me that over his career, he was lucky to meet his idol on several occasions. While being forthright about the fact that they were never close ‘friends’, he speaks of the emotional impact of meeting him for the first time. In the late 80’s when The Cult were beginning to gain widespread traction, Bowie had turned up to a gig, asking to speak to Ian personally backstage. ‘You’ve got this’, he told him encouragingly, ‘You’re going to be fine’. Ian confides that this moment was monumental for him; a blessing from his childhood hero and what he felt was the passing of a torch. I look over to the recently purchased Ziggy Stardust poster in the corner of my room and smile. For a precious short time, I feel as if I’ve been jacked into the mainframe of rock and roll lore, merely two degrees of seperation from the Starman himself.

Curiously, his response is both impersonal and spiritually intimate at the same time

I tell him of my frustration in Berlin, and the sinking feeling in my chest that my chapter in this city is drawing inevitably to a close. Curiously, his response is both impersonal and spiritually intimate at the same time. Without probing on the ‘material’ factors which may have led me to this state, he tells me that the very emergence of these feelings mean that I should leave the city as soon as possible. He immediately begins to explain how the soul is a mercurial entity which needs to be nourished through novel experiences and new surroundings. Once we have absorbed all the emotional nutrition of one place, the soul beckons elsewhere and the body should follow.

Able to switch instantly from normal blokey platitudes to deep spiritual revelations

In the brief fifty or so minutes where our earthly trajectories collided, I have learned a few things about Mr Astbury. He has an impressive duality about him, being able to switch instantly from normal blokey platitudes to deep spiritual revelations. It’s a charming combination, and I wonder if it is this kind of conversational magnetism which attracts fame in the first place.

It is essential to be able to ‘drink deep from the cup of rejection’

He is also fiercly intelligent. I once found myself backstage with the lead guitarist of a certain L.A band who enjoyed enormous success in the late 1980’s, around the same time of The Cult’s heyday. This individual told me how a lifetime of drugs and intellectual deprivation means he can now only read to a fourth-grade level. Accordingly, he is utterly reliant on his lawyer to dumb-down most formal English into palatable phrases. In stark comparison, Ian is not only articulate but floral in his speech, capable of conjuring up lucid and unusual imagery to illustrate his opinions. As but one example, I ask him for advice he would give to young rock musicians, to which he responds that it is essential to be able to ‘drink deep from the cup of rejection’. Indeed, it is often difficult to keep up with him. If you sit down at the table with such a spiritually confident interlocutor, you should be expected to hold your own, and during our interview I admit I was forced to abandon ship a couple of times, unable to further the conversation in any meaningful way.

Anybody who can ascend to such lofty conversational heights so early in the morning is frankly, a human marvel

Finally, the man is intense. This interview took place at 9:30am, Pacific Central Time. Anybody who can ascend to such lofty conversational heights so early in the morning is frankly, a human marvel. On the rare occasions where I’m awake so early, I can barely splutter out coherent language, let alone engage with a stranger on matters of the metaphysical. Respect where respect is due.

‘Pleasure to have spoken to you, Ian’, I say earnestly at the end. I ask him when The Cult is next playing in Berlin. ‘In summer. But of course, you won’t be there’. I can hear him smile, and I smile too. We say our goodbyes and he moves on to his next call of the morning.

Hidden City is out now.

Interview by Neelesh Vasistha

Photo courtesy of Cultadmin, used under CC3 licence.