“I THINK I GET A PRETTY AWESOME GUITAR sound,” says Billy Duffy, “and it allows me to do my job in the Cult. Ian [Astbury, Cult frontperson] has a huge voice and an incredible presence, and it’s important that my guitar playing emotionally matches that.”
Since 1983, Duffy and Astbury have been writing and performing post-punk, metal-edged guitar rock with enough groove and swagger to start sky- scrapers dancing. Duffy’s ability to deliver heavy, yet ear-catching riffs is astounding, and the Cult has mined that talent throughout the group’s long and steady career.
“It started as two guys, an idea, a guitar, and a tape recorder, and it hasn’t really changed since,” says Duffy.
And yet, other inﬂuences do creep in from time to time. The Cult’s latest release, Choice of Weapon [Cooking Vinyl], serves up everything fans love about the band, but as co-helmed by producers Bob Rock and Chris Goss, some savvy stylistic hybrids, arrangement tweaks, and unexpected aural treats keep the music from sounding back-dated, redundant, or boring.
“A lot of the credit for that has to go to Ian, as well,” explains Duffy. “He listens to a lot of new music, and he is always trying to move forward and push the boundaries of what the Cult can do. Some- times that’s very frustrating for me, because I’m a little more conservative by nature, and I’m a guitar player. I’m like, ‘What’s the big psychological problem? Let’s just rock!’ But on the other hand, my intellectual side understands that you have to reﬂect what’s going on today.
“Of course, the challenge is remaining close to being as good and as vital at 50 years old as you were when you were 25. In the trajectories of many artists, they don’t always come up with good material later in their careers. We all keep going to the well, but we know that every artist who goes mining doesn’t always come up with a nugget. You may hit a streak of precious stones occasionally, but the rest of the time you’re digging away at garbage. This is one reason it took ﬁve years between our last album and this one. It wasn’t the plan, but life gets in the way. You get older, you have families and responsibilities, and you don’t always sit and dream of sleeping on a tour bus with a bunch of blokes to promote the new release. But, all of that aside, I’m quite proud that this record doesn’t sound middle-aged, and it’s not a hysterical attempt to sound like we’re 20, either. Mojo magazine in the U.K. gave Choice of Weapon ﬁve stars. I thought it was a typo!”
What was the difference in the creative approaches of producers Chris Goss and Bob Rock during the sessions for Choice of Weapon?
Well, these aren’t judgments—just observations. The minute Bob walks in the door, you get creative. That’s how Bob is. He’s always about the process of getting the ideas out, and he is very linear. You go from A to B to C to reach your goal. This is a different approach than when we worked with Rick Rubin [1987’s Electric], who is very good at reducing, shaping, and stylizing a band. Rick’s modus operandi is to walk in the room, grab what he considers to be the band’s best album, and say, “Give me a call when you write a couple of songs that are as good as this.” But if you don’t have more than a riff and half a melody, then Rick’s not your guy. But Bob could be. Chris Goss is some- where in between the two approaches. He kind of drifts along with the ﬂ ow of the day. He doesn’t appear to have a set method of how to move ideas forward, but he’s great at guiding situations until you ﬁnd the creative solutions yourself. Chris also added a lot of keyboard atmospheres, and his little soundscapes and noises would sometimes inspire us to take a song in another direction.
But after all these years, don’t you come into the studio, and say something like, “Ian and I have written the record, and I know what I need to do?”
No. I need to be pushed. I write a lot of the music, and a lot of it is obviously riff orientated, but I kind of come into the studio with “phase one” sketches. I have the basic parts, but sometimes they’re not enough. So Bob or Chris would go, “Oh, it needs a little something here,” and I would do it. They would also suggest or add certain sounds and riffs that I would never have thought of. For example, Chris was a massive help on “The Wolf.” I had the main riff—which sounds like what you would associate with the Cult—for years, but we could never ﬁnd the rest of the song. Chris helped develop that dark, late period Led Zeppelin-esque feel, and at the end, I said, “Now this song has to go on the record!”
I assume the White Falcon was quite prevalent on the album.
Yeah, I used the Falcon a fair bit—perhaps 50 percent of the time—and I used a Bill Nash Esquire that I helped design a lot. It has a stacked humbucker in it, which cuts quite nicely. It’s interesting how those two guitars change how the band plays. When I’m thrashing away on the Falcon, it’s such a huge sound that the band likes thrashing around, as well, in order to be felt and heard. But if I play the Esquire, they all kind of pull back. Suddenly, it’s like, “Whoa!” It’s a good little tool, that Nash Esquire. Ian is a big fan of that guitar, because it gives him more space. He got into more moody stuff when he was singing with the Doors, so he likes the feel of the band when I’m playing the Nash.
So was Ian looking to evolve the band sound a bit?
Ian didn’t want the record to be too “rockist”—which is an expression here in England. He wanted to avoid what he would consider rock clichés. I was a little less concerned about that, but I didn’t want to be making naff rock moves with the music, either. I think on this record we got the balance right. You see, in England, the press is normally just dismissive: “Oh, you’re an older rock band, so you’re Spinal Tap. Okay. Right. Next. Now, can we write another article about the Smiths?”
Even so, the Cult is still here, still vital, still making albums, and still touring. How did you guys manage that without taking the nostalgia route, or simply fading away?
There’s a dumb honesty to the Cult. We could probably be smarter and more calculated—and a lot of my friends who are musicians are—but I just don’t think we’re capable of that. Ian and I write songs, and we do what we do. It’s like my guitar sound. I go for interstellar stuff [laughs]. Big and loud. But I don’t do anything clever.