When the Cult released their album Electric in 1987, it represented the shock of the new and the old. The U.K. group had previously enjoyed triumph with their sophomore full-length, 1985’s Love – an ultra-contemporary masterpiece of post-punk soon ubiquitous thanks to its breakthrough smash, “She Sells Sanctuary.” But when the Cult reappeared two years later with Electric, the results proved surprising.
Everything about Electric seemed iconoclastic, from its drastically different, hard-rock sound recalling Led Zeppelin and AC/DC to its risky choice of producer, Rick Rubin. Rubin has become the epitome of today’s super producer, helming hits from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Dixie Chicks, Metallica, Adele and Linkin Park, engineering career rebirths from icons such as Johnny Cash and viral phenomena like Jay Z‘s “99 Problems,” Kanye West‘s controversial Yeezus and Eminem‘s current “Berzerk.” Before Electric, though, Rubin had never made a rock record; his rep stemmed from innovative productions like the Beastie Boys‘ Licensed to Ill and other hip-hop milestones from Run-D.M.C. and LL Cool J. But Electric proved to be the Cult’s artistic and commercial breakthrough, paving the way for Rubin’s current production approach.
Interest in Electric, which celebrated its 25th anniversary last year, continues. The Cult recently released Electric Peace, combining Electric with earlier material that Rubin would radically rework. And the Cult are currently midway through their Electric 13 world tour, which features Electric performed in full. To explore the legacy of this classic, Rick Rubin and Cult frontman Ian Astbury engaged in a rare joint conversation.
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Ian Astbury: I think the last time I saw you was at Amoeba. We were checking out each other’s shopping baskets.
Rick Rubin: You know what’s funny? It’s not unusual for someone to mention to me that their favorite record growing up was Electric. People still really talk about that album.
Astbury: It’s such a trip to do something that’s such a part of people’s lives.
How did you guys first get together?
Astbury: The Cult had just signed with Sire Records, and we came to New York to do a photo shoot for Rolling Stone. We’d started recording with [producer] Steve Brown, but as soon as I heard Rick’s work, I was like, “Stop everything – let’s go to New York and find this guy!” Were you still living in a dorm room?
Rubin: Yeah, I was still in the NYU dorms!
Astbury: When we first met, I was a 23-year-old crazy kid. The next thing I knew, you’re showing me a VHS tape of Blue Cheer doing “Summertime Blues,” going, “Do you want to play pussy English music – or do you want to rock?”
Rubin: [Laughs] I remember that conversation. I loved Ian’s voice, but the music had this meandering, New Wave-y softness. I wanted to feel it more. That was Electric‘s goal: to connect with that rock energy.
Astbury: We’d already been through the post-punk/postmodern scene since 1981, so it was time to transition. We were going back and discovering all the music we weren’t supposed to be listening to – everything pre-1976, early Led Zeppelin records, the Doors and Blue Cheer.
Rubin: Same thing happened to me. So much of punk, hip-hop and the Eighties New York underground dance scene rejected the whole rock-star thing. When we came back around to Led Zeppelin, AC/DC and Black Sabbath, it was a revelation.
Astbury: When I first heard what Rick was doing with the Beastie Boys, I was blown away by how raw and naked it was. Those productions had no agenda other than “to rock,” as you used to say!
Rubin: [Laughs] All the music I listened to growing up was rock. My goal with hip-hop was to bring more of that aesthetic to it. Electric was my first non-rap record – my first rock record! Everything I’d made up to then was created in the studio with machines and scratching, pretty much doing all the music myself. Electric was my first collaborative effort with a band. It ended up being more exciting. For the majority of time since, I’ve made more of those kinds of records.
Legend has it you played AC/DC’s Back in Black constantly.
Rubin: I can’t remember, but I wouldn’t be surprised. We were listening to the Birthday Party a lot as well.
How did your experience recording hip-hop affect the sessions?
Rubin: The kick drum had to be out of proportion with everything else – that was from hip-hop. I remember [engineer Andy Wallace] would finish a mix, we’d listen and give our comments – and then I’d push the kick drum up five decibels. That’s what ended up on the record – ridiculous kick drum! [Laughs]
Astbury: There was an amazing store called Rock and Roll Heaven across the street [from Electric Lady Studios, where the album was recorded]. We’d go on a pilgrimage in there, perusing old magazines, posters, paraphernalia. They had the Led Zeppelin tree, Rick Griffin posters, obscure vinyl. It was a Holy Grail of this period we were enamored with. We’d take these artifacts back to the studio, like, “Check out this picture of Jimmy Page in Creem magazine from 1975!” We even had Zoso t-shirts made up.
Rubin: We did! We’d also watch old videos, like this black-and-white recording of Led Zeppelin on a TV show, around the time of the first Zeppelin album.
Rick allegedly forbid [Cult guitarist Billy Duffy] to use any effects pedals on his guitars while recording Electric.
Rubin: Correct. I felt Billy relied on effects too much. This new sound needed to be more raw and in-your-face.
Rumor is guitar solos were restricted to 30 seconds or less, too.
Rubin: I don’t remember if that’s true. I do remember back then, you guys were vegan, and I was still a meat eater. I thought, “Wow, I can’t believe these guys are vegan!” Remember “no cheese” pizza?
Astbury: Only Jamie, our bass player, was a vegan. But we ate pizza every day! When it was food time, the entire Def Jam office would turn up.
Rubin: [Laughs] I believe our food bill was as big as the recording bill.
Astbury: People like LL Cool J and Slick Rick were coming through the door to get fed. There was much more community between hip-hop and rock & roll then. Maybe it was that we were all working-class people from urban environments coming together.
Rubin: Everyone was young and curious about everyone else. I don’t think any of us – the Beasties, LL, Run-D.M.C., you guys – had strongly figured out who we were yet. We were, like, 20 years old!
Astbury: I remember you introduced me to LL Cool J at the Revolution Café. He was a baby – a beautiful young 19-year-old with his Kangol on, so sweet and interested in what we were doing. The whole thing has come full circle. You’ve had a hand in this recently as a visionary – especially with Jay Z and Kanye West co-opting the energy and essence of that period.
Rubin: It was a very fertile time. The Clash at the end of their career really took on that New York City energy. Even recent bands like LCD Soundsystem root themselves in Eighties New York music. It played a pretty big role in what came next.
Astbury: New York was on fire. You lived and died on the street – it was like Taxi Driver. That energy went into the music.
Rubin: Max’s Kansas City, Mudd Club, CBGBs – all the old vestiges of punk still thrived. Seeing Bad Brains play at CBGBs was a typical night.
Astbury: It was just such an exhilarating time. The energy still resonates for me.
Listening to Electric today, it doesn’t sound dated.
Rubin: It’s true – it’s in no way derivative of its time. It’s not retro, and not futuristic, either. [Laughs] It doesn’t acknowledge time!
Astbury: We didn’t have any conscious intentions to objectify the music. It was pure instinct.
Rubin: The best music is made that way.
Astbury: People always ask what it’s like to work with you. I always say, “Rick’s doing is not doing.”
Rubin: If you make music in your head, it always sounds like that. But if you make it from heart, body, and soul, it’s not intellectual. It’s about feeling.
Astbury: Honestly, I primarily listen to hip-hop. Very few rock records make the grade; I’ll play the new Bowie, the new Nick Cave or Sunn0))). But [Kanye’s] “Black Skinhead” – that’s as vital and raw and punk rock as the music I grew up with.
Rubin: What’s really cool is how the Kanye album sounds. It’s so unexpected for him to make such a . . . non-hip-hop record.
Kanye’s album reminded me of obscure European synth punk – D.A.F., or the Normal.
Rubin: Yeah, it’s funny – I played the Normal for Kanye in the studio. He’d never heard it.
Astbury: I hear Suicide as well.
Rubin: I played him Suicide! When he found out those sounds were made 25 years ago, his mind was blown.
Astbury: Thank you for doing that. That’s why you do what you do. You can turn around and say, “Kanye, check out Suicide,” and it opens up a fresh strain. Just when things were getting stale – another band playing washboards, dressed like Amish refugees – here comes this young angry man with a shaved head, in black leather, with Dobermans and that incredible, broken-down rhythm track, just raw and empty.
Rubin: It’s funny how it transcends genres. Skrillex came to the studio yesterday to play me some of his new stuff. He told me all he listens to is Kanye’s record – that’s his inspiration. It’s nice how it crosses boundaries and affects people in different styles.
Astbury: What you did with Kanye is a seminal record of its time, as much as Never Mind the Bollocks or Sgt. Pepper’s were of theirs. Now Kanye’s wearing leather trousers and talking about stuff that got me off. I love that African-American kids are fronting rock & roll with hip-hop – psychedelic hip-hop kids like Flatbush Zombies dropping acid. It’s very reminiscent of ’85-’87 New York City, and what your vision was.
Rubin: It’s timeless. Dude, it’s the same with groups like Odd Future. They have that edge.
Astbury: Odd Future, A$AP Rocky – the list is endless.
Some think the last Rubin/Cult collaboration – a 1993 track called “The Witch” – foreshadows the rock/hip-hop hybrid Rick created with Jay Z on “99 Problems.”
Rubin: Wow! Very cool. [Laughs] It was really fun making it. And it was extreme.
Astbury: “The Witch” was another attempt to get us back into the room together. We were at your house listening to 12-inches, and I had this really raw bassline. [Delicious Vinyl label founder] Matt Dike was cutting beats, and you were picking them. It was cut like a hip-hop track.
“The Witch” also recalls early U.K. rave classics like “Loaded” by Primal Scream.
Astbury: It’s before all that. I really identify with Primal Scream, though. Vanishing Point, Evil Heat, Exterminator – all seminal. You make those records, then you quit.
You both currently share a deep fascination with psychedelia.
Astbury: That’s hardly a surprise.
Rubin: We’ve always been in sync. All I listen to now is psychedelic music – that, and classical. I just recently listened to the first Pink Floyd album, which you recommended to me when we were making Electric. I remember thinking, “Some time has passed since Ian told me about this!” Have you listened to Tinariwen?
Astbury: They’re incredible – Touareg desert music.
Rubin: What Tinariwen does is really cool and hypnotic. It simultaneously sounds ancient and modern. I also play some recordings of solo tamboura, this Indian instrument that only plays one note. It’s the drone behind the sitar – but if you listen to it by itself, it’s remarkably engaging.
Astbury: It’s not just music for entertainment. It’s ritualistic, and connects you to the great mystery. That’s the best possible place art can take us.