The Cult's Billy Duffy on Keeping the Creative Fire Burning

What's kept The Cult going as a viable touring and recording act over the last three decades has little to do with nostalgia.
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The Cult kicked off the ’80s with a spate of propulsive, riff-tastic, and terminally engaging hits such as “She Sells Sanctuary,” “Fire Woman,” and “Love Removal Machine.” But what has kept the band a viable touring and recording act in the decades hence has little to do with nostalgia. Founders Ian Astbury and Billy Duffy have continued to find inspiration as time has passed, and they’ve never stopped writing material and releasing new albums.


Has your songwriting process evolved much since the beginning of the band?

Things have certainly changed in the methodology. In the early days, everything happened very quickly. We’d spend a lot more time together on the road, and we’d work out ideas during soundchecks. But, as bands get more mature, shall we say, they don’t spend every day in each other’s pockets. The initial phase is like an immersion, and the later phase is that you become a little more isolated. You have separate lives—kids, families, and so on—and there’s less of a shared experience. So the current challenge is to overcome that separation, and keep some sort of collective spirit. That actually takes a lot of effort, and a good producer will get the principals together to create the sort of bonding that would normally take place organically on the road. The other thing is that everything you do is under the microscope these days, and there’s a lot of paranoia about new music. Everyone locks themselves away so their ideas don’t get out. The old-school approach of, “Here’s a new song, let’s play it at a gig,” can’t be done any more.

Does being in a group with a long and successful career impose any paranoia over repeating the hits too closely when you write new material?

There’s a lot more thinking involved—that’s for sure. Lots more creative blockages come with success, because, well, we want to repeat the success, but we don’t want to plagiarize ourselves too much. We try to press forward, and, luckily, Ian spends very little time looking over his shoulder—which brings its own challenges. He once criticized something we were working on by saying, “Well, that sounds too much like the Cult.” I had to laugh. But I knew what he meant.

Is it ever a challenge co-writing with two strong personalities in the band?

Ian definitely has very strong ideas, but he’s always open to trying stuff. I’ve probably been guilty of being a little more focused and careerist. I just hate it when bands go off the deep end, and try something preposterous and trendy. It’s just, “No—don’t do it! You’re not your kids.” [Laughs.] For us it has always been a collaborative process. There are no standalone Ian Astbury songs, or standalone Billy Duffy songs. Since day one in ’83, we’ve been 50/50 partners in everything, and we’ve never had an issue in a million years. I mean, we’ve had creative issues, but creative tension is good.

Has songwriting become easier or more difficult throughout time?

It hasn’t changed for me. I either get the riffs, or I don’t. I’ve never feared periods where I won’t come up with anything particularly creative, because I know the tap will open at some point, and I’ll start amassing a bunch of different ideas. You know, we’re all just happy we can come up with new music. A lot of our peers don’t even bother any more.