Billy Duffy: The Cult's Riff Machine

The walls and balcony seem to be shifting about and rumbling ominously at San Francisco’s former vaudeville theater, the Warfield.
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The walls and balcony seem to be shifting about and rumbling ominously at San Francisco’s former vaudeville theater, the Warfield. Happily, it’s not one of the City’s “little” earthquakes. It’s just the Cult doing a soundcheck.

“It’s loud onstage because it has to be,” says guitarist Billy Duffy. “This old place really resonates, so if I don’t get my sound above a certain level, everything sounds boomy. If I can’t hear what I’m doing, I get the glum, Mr. Angry Face while I’m performing.”

I’m assuming Duffy won’t be pulling any morose faces tonight, as this soundcheck is apocalypse loud. And it’s worth abiding the decibel onslaught, because his guitar tone is massive, feral, and exciting. The band’s winter tour during the last embers of 2015 delivers the hits, but also touches on songs from its thematic trilogy of recordings—2007’s Born into This, 2012’s Choice of Weapon, and Hidden City [Cooking Vinyl], which is due for release on February 5, 2016. The upcoming album is the band’s tenth studio album, and the fifth produced by Bob Rock.

The Black Falcon sounded awesome at soundcheck. That’s your new Gretsch signature model, right?

Yes. It was Ian [Astbury, Cult vocalist], really, who started it all. He said, “You should do a black one and call it the ‘Evil Twin.’” That’s the kind of thing Ian says, but I also thought it was a good idea. It just took a while for Gretsch to do it, because they wanted to see how my signature White Falcon did. Happily, it did well enough that they committed to building a limited edition of black ones.

Are there any elements different from your White Falcon?

No. It’s just the black paint. Funnily enough, I was playing one of my signature White Falcons, and I like the black one better. The guitar onstage is one of the two prototypes they made, and it’s a good one. Of course, my signature White Falcon is just like a ’70s one, except that the construction is more roadworthy, the pickups are louder, and the truss-rod access is through the headstock—not under the pickups, which is the case with my 1975 “Sanctuary” Falcon. Ah, the Baldwin era of Gretsch [laughs]. It’s kind of trivial, and not a lot of guys used those old ’70s Falcons anyway, but I did get rid of it for my signature models.

Any other new stuff?

Yeah. You might want to take a closer look at my pedalboard. Jimmy Dunlop is coming out tonight, because I also have a prototype of a Dunlop Billy Duffy signature wah. Apparently, it’s the most expensive wah they’ve ever made, because I wanted it white with chrome to look like a White Falcon. Other than cosmetics, there’s nothing really that fancy about it. Back in the day, I asked them to have a signal boost go on along with the wah, because I wanted the sound to jump out at you. So they did that for me, and then it became a feature in some of their other wahs. So that bit is staying in my signature wah, but I also thought it would be cool if I could get more of a vintage ’70s wah sound in it, as well. We talked about what inspired me, and I’m like, “Mick Ronson in 1973. Santa Monica Civic. ‘Moonage Daydream’ solo. Then, a bit of Mick Ralphs in Bad Company.” They said they had a couple of wahs that Mick Ronson owned that they could model mine after.

I’ve also changed my amp rig since last we talked. I was either using a Matchless or a Bad Cat along with my Marshalls and Roland JC-120, but now there are Friedmans and a Vox AC30. Some dude—a friend of a friend who works for Vox—asked to show up at a gig with one. I’m thinking, “Oh, he’s going to bring me a nice hand-wired one.” But he shows up with a stock, Chinese-made AC30, and it sounded f**king great. This was at Roseland in New York a tour or so back, and at soundcheck the whole band just went, “Whoa!” I got into the Friedman heads when I did some playing with Steve Stevens, who uses them. I really like how they have a clear, heavy, warm, and percussive bottom end that isn’t wooly or fuzzy. And the high end is great, but not shrill. It’s the best Marshall that doesn’t cost ten grand. There is a lot of talk about how American amps and British amps don’t interface, but, to me, even though the Friedman is an American, it’s very clearly based on the best British amps. So it really works with the AC30.

You retired the Marshalls, then?

They’d been around since the ’80s, and they were getting a little baggy. They were working, but I didn’t want them banging around the world anymore. They’ve been on virtually every Cult record since Sonic Temple and all the tours. They’ve got good provenance, too—they were on two of the Sex Pistols tours after the band reformed.

Do you blend the Friedman, AC30, and JC120 any differently than when you used the Marshalls and Matchless amps?

I don’t do anything clever. I just switch them on and off as I need them. The blend varies every night depending on the acoustics of the room. It depends on what the room tells me, because you’re at the mercy of that.

I heard a stream of Hidden City, and, man, there are some awesome songs on that album.

There are definitely more hooks in there. Everybody was happy with Choice of Weapon, but we didn’t get as deeply into song creation, because there was the double producer thing with Chris Goss starting it, and then Bob Rock finishing it. They both have their processes, so there was a bit of almost reengineering the songs. But for this one, Bob was involved in the songwriting very early, coaching me and Ian.

Also, one of my complaints about the last album was the guitars were the last thing to get done. You know, “Okay. Quick. Throw a solo on there.” Bob and I really enjoy the process because he’s a player too, so he said, “For this one, I want to make sure you get enough time to maybe put too much guitar on the record. I’d let to take some stuff off when we mix, instead of just having enough guitar to get by.” So we went to a studio in Maui, and we just did guitars, which was nice.

Did you find the situation allowed you to experiment a bit?

Have you ever been in the studio with Bob? First and foremost, Bob always has a new toy. He always comes up with a new guitar or a pedal that he’s excited about. I guess the big story is that Bob had Satan’s toaster, the Kemper Profiling Amplifier.

Did you just call it “Satan’s toaster”?

Yeah. It sucks the soul out of everybody. But it was great and it was useful. We even profiled a couple of my amps, the old ’80s Marshalls. It’s a fantastic leap forward in the whole modeling thing, and it’s very practical. I was happy to use it for some things in the studio. If something works for me, I’ll give it a go, but I don’t think I’m quite there yet where I’ll pack in all of this [points to stage rig]. I’m still hauling real amps that breathe.

Did Bob set up any specific signal paths for you to try—a kind of sonic assembly line?

It wasn’t really like that. There was never a particular setup. The whole record was done by instinct. Someone would have an idea and we’d grab a certain guitar or amp or pedal. It was fun, but, at the end of the day, everything is in the playing—not the gear. Gear is just a tool. Having said that, Bob would say something like, “We need to get the Gretsch. There’s not enough ‘Billy Duffy’ on here.”