The Cult are set to release Choice of Weapon, their ninth studio album, on May 22nd. The record is their first full-length work in five years, though the band has kept active by putting out "capsules" of new songs and live recordings in recent years. Co-produced by Chris Goss (Queens of the Stone Age, U.N.K.L.E.) and longtime collaborator Bob Rock (Metallica, Aerosmith), Choice of Weapon was made in several studios, including the band's own Witch Mountain as well as spots in New York City, Los Angeles and the California desert. (You can preview "Lucifer," a highlight from Choice of Weapon, above.) Rolling Stone caught up with frontman Ian Astbury to talk about his inspiration for the new album, which addresses the many things he believes are poisoning contemporary culture.
Are you still working on this new record? I know it has a release date, but I got the impression that you were still tinkering with it.
Let's put it this way – the paint's still wet. We're breaking it to you guys first. I think we missed our initial release date, partially due to the way that we ended up finishing the record. We began with Chris Goss, who is a very close friend and somebody I've been friends with for over 20 years. And we always talked about doing a Cult record together. Chris did all the refinement, helping us find the material, craft it, and I think we've been at it for quite a while. It just became attrition. Everyone was getting kind of exhausted. Kind of wearing each other out in the studio.
When did you start the process of making the album? It's been about five years since your previous record.
You know, there's no really clear beginning or end date, really, with the creative process. I think it's ongoing. It's almost like you're always working with different ingredients, different influences. Things can change. I mean, I personally like to take things right up to the wire, so that things are as relevant and as fresh as they can be. Like, I'm still changing some song titles right now, based upon different vibrations I'm picking up on, either from myself or within my group or from an outside source.
The cover for Choice of Weapon appears to be an image of a shaman or something. What does the cover mean to you?
This image has been with me for many years, since I was about 11 years old. I grew up in Hamilton, Ontario. I immigrated there when I was a kid. I was exposed to Native American culture very early on. And that kind of peaked my interest in indigenous cultures. It had a quite profound effect on me. With this particular image, it had been hovering around me for quite a while. And it's almost like I had to manifest this image within myself. I wanted to have an image that in some way reflected the sentiment of not only the record, of the deepest sentiment of the record, but also the sentiment of what's going on in society. I mean, the fact that the shaman figure has a veiled face, there's a face mask pulled over, it's almost reminiscent of images we've seen from Libya and Egypt and also from things like the Occupy movement or the riots we had in the U.K.
The title of the record reflects the fact that here we are, we have a choice to make right now. We can choose different modalities. We can either choose literal weapons, which, many people have picked up weapons in Libya, Egypt, Syria. Or picking up weapons and overtaking systems, physically, by force. In a more metaphorical sense, a weapon can be a camera, a weapon can be a pen, a weapon can be a statement, a verbal statement, a weapon can be an article of clothing. Tantric weapons are symbols they use in tantric rituals, like the dorje, which is an object that the shamanic figure is actually holding. The dorje being representative of a thunderbolt enlightenment, that moment of awakening, where you go, "Aha!"
Time magazine said this year the Person of the Year was the demonstrator, the image of the woman with the veil. So this is an icon that we're seeing more and more in our culture. It's almost like people don't want to come out and show their faces and say something. Because they're almost afraid of . . . I don't know. There's a lot of intellectual bullying going on. People are very quick to jump on someone if they say something that's maybe different. They're certainly not part of the status quo, of a moving force. Everyone's kind of pointing at it, but nobody's really saying it, what really needs to be said. So in some ways, this shamanic figure, the look in the eyes is almost like a wild animal, which I connect to nature.
So what needs to be said?
I think what needs to be said is that we have to start looking inward. Our spiritual lives are almost bankrupt. The material systems are not going to fix where we are. Moving the furniture around, metaphorically moving the furniture around – getting a new president, or putting a new, fresh coat of paint on something – isn't necessarily going to change the root causes. We're human beings, we're organic, we're dependent upon the environment, we're dependent upon this living planet. It's a fact. And it's a fact that we cannot fight. But all our fighting is more about semantics, political systems, languages, structures, charts, graphs. It's almost like we want to be right, but we don't want to win.
I saw this wonderful interview with Karl Lagerfeld and he was talking on Charlie Rose, and Charlie Rose says to him, "So what do you do, you're a fashion designer. So what is that?" And he said, "Well, my job isn't to so much determine what society is. My job is to kind of reflect it." And I really identified with that. You know, the idea of reflecting what we see and feel. I don't think I'm in a position, as an artist, to tell people how they should behave. But I'm certainly in a position to reflect what I feel and what I see. I think that's one of the things right now, that a lot of artists are maybe scared to say how they really feel.
I've noticed that some young bands can be very reticent to talk openly about what they are saying in their music.
I think everyone's afraid of maybe upsetting someone at Pitchfork Media, getting that hate. This is the interesting thing, because with the internet and social networks, blogging, everyone has an opinion. But what we don't see, and what we don't get, is their credentials. Now I think if people were fair, when they make their opinion, they have to make their credentials available. If you're critiquing something, if you're a critic, you have to make your credentials available.
What do you mean by credentials?
Your life experiences. Not your education, not just like, "I went to this college or traveled." What have you experienced? What were the major events of your life that give you this kind of unique perspective? Give us some insight into who is sharing this critique with us. It'd be more likely to see an authenticity in that critique.
For example, the Lou Reed-Metallica record, that was something I've argued with many people about. You know, everyone's saying "Oh, it's disgusting, it's an abomination." You know the amount of hate they got for that record. Hate! I think Pitchfork gave it like 1, or 0. Lou Reed, he's a 67-year-old man. His body of work is stellar, he is one of our greatest laureates. If you know anything about Lou Reed, he's not well right now. He's deteriorating, his body's sick, he's getting frail and fragile. He's chosen Metallica to be his muscle, to be his armor, so he can come out one more time and make a statement of what's happening in his internal life, and he's using this Weimar Republic play, Lulu, to put himself over. If you actually listen to the record, there's some phenomenal moments on it, by anybody's standards. "Junior Dad," for example, I think is a fucking brilliant piece of music.
Again, I go back to this shamanic figure, because in many ways he represents an energy that hasn't been nurtured. He's appearing on the culture, and he's looking at us. And he's offering us a choice. We take the knife, we take the dorje. And if we take the knife, we will probably slit our own throats with it. And we're doing it constantly. Look at the culture we live in. It's vulgar. We celebrate narrow concerns, we celebrate the veneer. Within the culture, I am seeing that this isn't just me, I'm seeing it represented from other artists. Like, for example, Grinderman. They have a wolf on their cover. I think Nick Cave is intimating a certain energy. Bands like Wolves in the Throne Room, even bands like Salem. The whole kind of witch house and drag scene, like Balam Acab, White Ring – the noise that they're making isn't a cute noise. Meanwhile, we're celebrating all the veneer pop acts, and [people are] like, "Oh wow, they're edgy," but really it's veneer. It's a leather jacket, it's a crazy hairdo, it's a wacky moment.
Even Feist's Metals record intimates what I'm talking about, and PJ Harvey's record. I think they intimate something not quite right in the zeitgeist, and it's not in a material place, it's in a spiritual place. And the word spiritual has almost become almost tired. You think Barnes and Noble, books on the Dalai Lama and crystals. It's become hokey. And I think that that again is a smear campaign from those who want to perpetuate this ego-driven, "I am right, I am right, I'm first, I'm right, look at me, here I am, I know everything, I've got all the knowledge, I know everything about krautrock, I know everything about obscure art forms, it's me, I'm the one, put me on, flog me, here I am." We're lost.
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