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Billy Duffy Reveals The Cult's Choice of Weapon

By Lisa Sharken, New York Contributor
Monday, May 21, 2012 @ 4:26 PM

"Iím just too sentimentally attached to it. Iíve had it for 30 years or so and I just donít want to let that one wander too much."

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Itís been five years since The Cult released its last full-length album, but it seems to have been worth the wait. Now the group has locked and loaded, preparing to hit the airwaves with Choice of Weapon, and ready to kick off a world tour at the end of the month. This new disc is already garnering praise for its bountiful array of potent tunes. Many who attended the 2012 South By Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas a few weeks ago were treated to a few exclusive performances where The Cult previewed several of the new tracks. So the buzz has been growing in anticipation of the albumís official release and launch of the tour.

Guitarist Billy Duffy and frontman Ian Astbury are the groupís everlasting core and driving creative force. Longtime bassist Chris Wyse rounds out and reinforces the lineup along with drummer John Tempesta who joined in 2005.

Duffy spoke with KNAC.COM about making The Cultís ninth album with veteran producers Chris Goss and Bob Rock. He explained how the group has evolved through the various changes in the lives of its members and the ways of the music industry. He also gave us the inside scoop on the new signature model Gretsch White Falcon guitar that he will soon be honored with. Itís going to be a very good year for The Cult and the band is ready to rock! KNAC.COM: Itís hard to believe that five years have passed since the release of the last album, Born Into This.

DUFFY: We look back in retrospect and think, ďHas it really been five years since the last record came out?Ē All I can say is that it doesnít feel like five years! That last record was put together very quickly after the band had gotten back together again in 2006. There hadnít been a massive amount of time for the band to gel as a unit before we made that one. Now weíve had several years of sporadic touring and I think that as a result, thereís cohesion and more of a focus on this record. Itís all part of doing hundreds of shows together as the basic four piece.

KNAC.COM: Tell us about working on this album and give us a bit of insight on how things came together.

DUFFY: We generally know when we have the desire to work together because the creative process is really a collaborative effort between me and Ian. We both come in with finished songs, we just do some of my songs, do some of his songs, and thatís that. We write together, and to do that, you have to really align your forces. I come up with the riffs and Ian does his thing. He certainly does come up with some musical stuff, but all the rockiní stuff is me. Weíre just two sides of a coin when it comes to writing. When weíre working, we just get together and honker down. This time we did some of it in New York. A lot of the album from Ianís point of view was written in New York because he was living there a couple of years ago. He lived there for quite a few years and that also makes it quite a challenge. When youíve got a band in California and a singer in New York, it presents some challenges that are not insurmountable, but it keeps you apart. We were kind of a bicoastal entity in 2008/2009, and that didnít help, if you know what I mean.

Making this record has been great. We started with the capsules ó the EPs that we did a while back when we first decided that we wanted to do new music. Ian always wanted us to work with Chris Goss. Heís worked with Chris personally, but we tried it as a band with the capsules on with ďEmbersĒ and ďEvery Man And Woman Is A Star.Ē That one was kind of a cool and different thing for us. It was like the old days in England in the í80s where weíd write a song, record it fairly quickly, and then we would get it out. In this instance, it was a limited release on iTunes and few other places. It was a small-scale thing, but it was great to get the music out to stimulate the fans and see how people react, rather than doing a whole album and taking all that time. It gave us instantaneous feeling for the music and direction of the band.

The nature of the music business has changed and so has the way things are financed now. Thereís also the fact that youíre dealing with adults who have families and lives now, not 20-year-old kids who donít have anything other than the band. These things do fall into play when you want to get back to the essence of just doing what you do. In The Cultís instance, I always go back to when Ian and I were getting together with a guitar in an apartment in Brixton, London and writing the first Death Cult EP. Thatís the essence of whatís at the core of The Cult. Itís that relationship right there and everything else that gets in between has to be arranged to allow that situation to recreate itself in a modern concept. Thatís kind of where weíre at.

KNAC.COM: In the bandís early days when your lives were less complicated it had to be much easier for you and Ian to spend more time together writing songs.

DUFFY: Yes. We always spent all our time together because being in a band was the most fun thing we had to do. There werenít any alternatives because we didnít have any money. Nobody was jetting off on holidays or doing whatever. When youíre young and itís brilliant, thatís all youíve got, along with your one cool jacket, a couple of pairs of pants, and hopefully a great guitar and a good haircut. Thatís it, man. You donít own anything else. I didnít own anywhere to live, I didnít own a car, I didnít own anything. All I had was The Cult. We toured all the time, and we were just engaged in being in The Cult full time. But that does change as you grow into adulthood, so you have to just accept and acknowledge it. I think the biggest difference is that you tend to lose a little momentum. So the challenge as an older band is to keep that momentum going, and I think weíve made a pretty fresh-sounding record. It doesnít sound like some tired, turgid, middle-aged rock album. Who needs that? I think weíve made an energetic, contemporary, and great rock and roll record. Not many bands actually make rock and roll records anymore. Whoís out there doing it? Thereís a whole world of metal and thereís a lot of pop, but in that kind of rock and roll niche, itís a slender band of groups that operate in that territory now that are still engaged in making new music, not just going out and playing their hits from 20 years ago.

KNAC.COM: Some do try, but the magic isnít there and the new music just isnít as good or as appealing as their hits. How do you and Ian manage to keep the magic alive?

DUFFY: Itís down to our personalities. Ian and I have a certain level of drive and tenacity that keeps us keeping on. I think we certainly enjoy that creative process. I know that Ian gets very enlivened and engaged when thereís new music about. A light goes on with him. Heíll do tours and weíll go out and play when we havenít got new music. Then Iíll see that light come on when he becomes energized. He really enjoys the process of putting together all the visual stuff, like making the sleeve with the image, and some kinds of video elements, and making the tour posters. That really excites him. Going on the road, not so much. But the other stuff does, and that energy is infectious.

I think you can hear it in the tunes. We mean it. We didnít phone it in. Thereís definitely a passion and a desire to get it right without the perfectionist mania that bands can get when they just donít know when to say itís done. We just documented it and itís as good as itís going to be in the time frame that we had. I donít really have a tremendous amount of objectivity on the record. I have some instincts that itís good and it seemed to go over quite well when we played South By Southwest.

We played a big show there to 25,000 people and they all could have left because they didnít pay to get in. We played five new songs in a set of 15, which is usually career suicide for most bands. Admittedly, we are very well liked in Texas and Austin, but nevertheless, it was a bit of a gamble in the statement we made by going to South By Southwest. While we were there, we played the parking lot of a record store to a couple of thousand people, then we did a nightclub show that was kind of exclusive. All the time we were playing the new songs and without question, they went down great. There was no palpable lull in the energy when we went between a hit and a couple of the new songs. People seem to have embraced it. They have an immediacy to them that I have noticed in the past with all the songs weíve done and have included them in the set. People really get it right away and thatís a very positive sign for me.

KNAC.COM: The songs on this album are very strong and they preserve those familiar stylist and tonal elements that distinguish The Cult.

DUFFY: Itís definitely in there. I hope it comes across as an organic thing, which is how it was. It certainly wasnít, ďHow do we make a song thatís a bit like that one?Ē It was very much just an organic process. We were working with Chris Goss on the foundation of the record and then getting to the point where we brought in Bob Rock to finish it and put the icing on the cake. Somehow we managed to pull it off. I think the combination of both guys was valuable, too. Again, that just happened organically. There was no grand scheme to use two producers. It was just something we felt we had to do at a certain point. I think it worked to the benefit of the songs, which is ultimately what weíre there to serve. Once weíve created these songs, weíre just there to make them as good as they can be and maximize their potential.

KNAC.COM: There are so many excellent songs on this album and several that could be singles. Why did you choose ďFor The AnimalsĒ as the first single?

DUFFY: Personally, I stepped out of it. I believe the decision was actually more of a collaborative one between us and the label. I couldnít tell you why they picked it. Personally, I would have picked ďThe WolfĒ because thatís just me.

KNAC.COM: Itís funny you should say that. I listened to the album before I read anything about it and thatís the one I guessed might be the chosen single. That is a standout track.

DUFFY: When this topic comes up, most of the journalists would go along with that, and there are probably very pragmatic reasons why. That song was kind of a labor of love because Iíve had that main riff of the chorus since before the last album in 2007. It just didnít come together to a point where Ian wanted to sing on it so I kept plugging away. That was possibly the hardest song on the album to get together. So to me, itís the most satisfying to actually hear. The guys and everybody involved really gave me a lot of patience and tolerance to keep chipping away to try and find the right verse and middle section and stuff. I knew we had the chorus, but we didnít have the rest of the song. That one was a sloth. But who knows? Maybe people thought ďFor The AnimalsĒ had some of those cool elements, but maybe it was a little fresher sounding. Maybe ďThe WolfĒ is a tad obvious. You know thatís The Cult, so maybe ďFor The AnimalsĒ sounded fresher. It had some traditional Cult elements, but it has a fresh sound. My personal choice would have been ďThe Wolf,Ē even bearing that in mind. Iím sure Ian had an opinion, as did the record company and the management. Everybody just pitched in. I did know there were a lot of choices, but thatís the one everyone came up with.

KNAC.COM: It seems like a good position to be in when you have a new album with several songs that could all serve as powerful singles.

DUFFY: Itís a problem nevertheless because you donít necessarily get that many swings at the bat. Thereís been sort of a paradigm shift of what a single is and whatís a radio single ó a single released to radio. There are around eight rock stations in America now that are actually not just programmed music. There has been a seismic shift and I think itís really about the internet and people getting the information. Itís basically more of an interactive process where itís not that relevant and people donít have to buy albums, really. I know theyíll be thousands of Cult fans who will buy the whole album. But itís an interesting choice and itís one I gladly opted out of. I just couldnít because everybody knew I would have picked ďThe Wolf.Ē

KNAC.COM: As youíve pointed out, so much has changed about the music business and how music is presented. People donít always buy an entire album anymore, and many donít even buy a physical album, they purchase a digital version. Now that we have iTunes, Amazon, and other online outlets, you donít have to buy the entire album and you can just buy the individual songs you want.

DUFFY: I know. I do it. Iím hardly ever in a record store browsing around. There arenít really many record stores left. Thereís probably going to end up being like one major store in every town. LA has got Amoeba, Austin has Waterloo, and theyíre all very similar. Theyíre very passionate centers of music and itís a great thing. I think there will always be that kind of thing so you can browse and check things out. But in terms of a casual purchase, thatís taking place online and most people are streaming the tracks. Weíll see what happens.

KNAC.COM: You mentioned that the album was made in several different studios. Was that for different sounds or out of convenience?

DUFFY: It was a bit of both, and just out of expediency, convenience, availability, scheduling. There were a ton of different factors. The vast majority of the recording was done in Los Angeles in a few different studios, but the writing was done in New York and there was a little bit of work done out in the desert. So it was a bit of a mix of elements.

In a band like The Cult, weíre still like most rock bands and weíll still record the drums, bass, guitar, and a guide vocal on the floor. Then because we have Chris Goss or Bob Rock working with us, they can collaborate and help with different ideas by playing along on guitar or keyboard. So that process goes on and you do your pre-production on the songs that me and Ian have sketched out.

We did some stuff up at Ianís house. He has a little studio there and thatís where we did our little song demos and then we take that to the band. With that, it was just a little bit of piece meal. We allotted what time we had when we could do it and moved forward that way. We started doing that process with the capsules, as I said earlier. We were dong just two songs at a time, recording them, mixing them. We did it that way then and then we just basically expanded on that with the album.

KNAC.COM: Was any writing done in the studio or was it all completed beforehand?

DUFFY: The songs were written beforehand, but I think a fair bit of rearranging was done in the studio with Pro Tools, especially when Bob Rock came in. He kind of heard the songs a little differently because he had very fresh ears. So he came in and just had very strong opinions about the structures of some songs and how they could be made more exciting or have more impact, which is a desirable quality. Using computers you can chop things and move parts around, and if you do it with some taste, it can keep the feel of an organic band. So with Pro Tools, you donít have to keep re-cutting the tracks, where youíre setting up drums and redoing all that. Itís just not a reality in our world that we can simply go back and record it all again if we want to change the song. Itís just not going to happen these days.

Pro Tools is a game changer, like the laptop and the internet. You just work with it and try to keep an organic feel. The Foo Fighters very laudably did an album in the old-school style ó recording onto two-inch tape. Itís a fun thing to do if youíve got the time or the money or the inclination. We did actually record the drums and basic tracks on the capsule stuff onto two-inch tape. That was the four songs ó ďThe Embers,Ē ďSiberia,Ē ďUntil The Light Takes UsĒ and ďEvery Man And Woman Is A Star.Ē So they were recorded on tape, but then they were dumped into Pro Tools. Ultimately, it will all end up digital when a lot of the people listen to it.

So you can make an organic old-school analog record like we did with Electric, and most of our albums were done like that. But it will most likely end up digital because itís just the way things are now. In a way itís kind of good. Maybe you just get it done rather than making Dark Side of the Moon. I donít know. But on the other hand, weíre creating a fast-food world. Maybe there are guys with home studios who will never release the album theyíve been recording for seven years because it will never be finished. Ultimately, there are just people with ideas. There doesnít seem to be any shortage of people who have feelings, emotions and opinions, and they want to share them and express them. Theyíll find a way to do it whether thatís picking up an acoustic guitar or a rifle, a hand grenade, or whatever. Itís just human nature as to how you deliver the message, assuming you have a message in the first place.

KNAC.COM: Rumor has it that you have your own signature model guitar coming out soon!

DUFFY: Yes, itís true! In addition to the new Cult album, one of the good things happening for me is that weíre doing a signature model White Falcon at Gretsch. So hopefully weíll make a bunch of really cool White Falcons that are like my í70s one. Then I can take on the road because I donít take my old one out anymore. Iím just too sentimentally attached to it. Iíve had it for 30 years or so and I just donít want to let that one wander too much. Itís in retirement.

KNAC.COM: Will the signature model be a replica of your personal guitar?

DUFFY: Itís not going to be a forensic recreation or a replica of my guitar because my guitars have many war wounds and scars, but itís based on that guitar. Gretsch was made by Baldwin in the í70s and they just built them in a different way. I donít know if itís better or worse than the ones they are currently selling. They differ in some ways to the Falcons theyíve got now that are more í50s-based in terms of their construction. For example, mine has got a zero fret. They want to make it accurate and close to mine. Gretsch doesnít have a í70s-based Falcon as a production model, so they want my Falcon, which is better for me because I want it to be more widely available.

I havenít seen the prototype yet and I have to get my hands on it to see how it feels. They x-rayed my guitar and had it over at Fender to take its measurements and take it to pieces. They want to make sure to get it right since the construction is a little different. It will be authentic, but weíre making it as a standard production model. If someone wants an actual aged copy, thatís a whole different animal. Itís very labor intensive and itís really expensive to do. We had not intended to make it one of those very expensive limited edition collectorís guitars, but maybe we could antique a couple, then get someone to try and put 30 years of sweat and abuse into it, which seemingly can be done.

KNAC.COM: Were there any personal touches that you requested?

DUFFY: Thereís going to be a bridge that wasnít standard from the era. Luckily for me the neck profile wonít be an issue because the ones they make now have a very similar feel to mine. Itís got a very flat, huge, long-scale neck.

Itís quite the Cadillac of guitars. The idea of playing one of those guitars with overdrive pedals, wah wahs and echo was pretty far out back in the í80s, when everybody else wanted to be like the Thompson Twins or Howard Jones. Thereís nothing like it when that Gretsch gets fired up and I start hitting a couple of the heavy songs off the Love album. It has a real interesting sound. You can feel the whole stage vibrating when you get it going, and if you can control the feedback into being the kind of nice harmonic feedback that you want ó not the outrageous uncontrollable stuff ó then itís quite a unique sound. Itís so alive.

Semi-acoustic guitars are just very different. You really have to tame them. Theyíre almost like driving a muscle car. They canít go around corners and youíre forever spinning the rear wheels because they just canít work. But when you get them going in a straight line, theyíre pretty special.

KNAC.COM: So the album is scheduled for release in the US on May 22nd and a day earlier in the UK. When will the tour begin and where will it take you?

DUFFY: Weíve got an American tour starting right around then ó May into June. Weíll be on a couple of TV shows like Jimmy Kimmel. Then weíll be in Europe for the festivals and weíll come back and play the US. Itís funny how they get a lot of great bills in Europe. They have such mixed bags. Weíre going to play with Guns Ní Roses, Billy Idol, Garbage, all these mixed bags of bills out there in Europe. Weíre back in the States fpr a second run probably in August. After that we go off to Canada, then back to the UK. Weíre doing arenas in the UK. in September. Weíre on a big upswing in popularity in Britain, and hopefully in the States, too. Let the record get out there and take a few swings, then see what happens. Iíve got a good feeling about it and thatís really all you can hope for. The bandís great and itís going to be an intense year for The Cult!

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