Billy Duffy might have lived in Los Angeles for more than 25 years but the longtime guitarist with rock band The Cult remains at heart a refreshingly straight-talking Mancunian.
Ask him about the concept behind the band’s new album, Hidden City, reputedly the last part of a trilogy that began with Born Into This in 2007 and continued five years later with Choice of Weapon, and he says: “I’ll be honest, the disclaimer is I’m the guitar guy, I’m like engine room.
“[Ian Astbury, The Cult’s singer] has done some interviews that explain so much better than what I ever could do where he’s coming from. I would do him an injustice with my limited vocabulary. For him, it’s like we’ve been back together 10 years this year and we’ve done three albums in that period and I think the general idea of it is to focus people’s attention on more recent history.
“As much as though there was the 80s, and we all lived through that, you can kind of harp on about that a bit too much. So because it’s a new album – and not all bands do new albums – we just want to honour that, by lumping them together and showing there’s a thematic [link], there’s consistency, we’re in it for real, it’s a proper working, organic band, still being creative and trying to reach a little bit.”
Sonically Hidden City certainly has much in common with classic Cult albums such as Sonic Temple. It’s the fifth record that Astbury and Duffy have made with producer Bob Rock and it seems evident that the Canadian, famed for producing Metallica’s ‘Black Album’ and Bon Jovi’s multi-million seller Keep The Faith, knows how to bring out the best in them. “I think on the mechanical level yes, he’s a great facilitator,” Duffy agrees. “He’s a strong alpha male, he plays guitar, he’s Canadian so he has that slightly more British-centric view on music so he understands us.
“All the records he’s done have come in different circumstances but mechanically this was the closest to Sonic Temple because he’s been involved from day one of the songwriting on this album, helping me and Ian get together, that’s why it took two years – not that we worked every day but we worked in patches and periods where we got together and refined the songs and I think that allowed us enough time for each song to get its own identity and personality whereas sometimes albums can end up maybe a bit samey and that’s where we had the opportunity to bring those old sounds in, we had the time to curate the sonics on the album so that each song didn’t just get painted with the same brush.
“People don’t listen to records any more but I’d like people to listen to it throughout.
“We did an album in ’94 with Bob called The Cult which was kind of a post-grunge record and for us it was very different and for us it really worked as an album, it doesn’t really work as a bunch of individual tracks but the fans really like it, it’s an underground, cult album at a weird time in music but that’s one of the opportunities you have when the pressure’s not on to be super commercially successful, you can actually express stuff and take a chance and that’s why Bob Rock’s such a good producer because he can produce Michael Buble and Van Morrison or do Metallica with an orchestra or The Cult, that’s a producer, he’s not a one-trick pony.”
The 54-year-old guitarist says the band will include a few new songs in their set during their forthcoming British tour, but he says: “I have a policy on that, as a fan I hate it when bands have a new album and they ram the whole thing down your throat. We usually think about four new songs would work. We’ve got to get into that modality. We did some gigs before Christmas on the West Coast of the United States with Primal Scream and we debuted one new song – Dark Energy, which was out at the time. We’ll probably add three or four on a night depending on how it’s going and how it’s feeling.
“When we play the UK we always try and dig up some old chestnut, whether it’s the Southern Death Cult era or Death Cult era. It’s funny, some people get it, 20 per cent of the crowd who go bonkers and some people look at each other and go, ‘That’s weird that song’, because they got into the band because of She Sells Sanctuary or whatever. But we try to keep it fresh, revisit old songs and then play some hits, I’m not pretentious enough to think in this day and age when people are coughing up money that you cannot play them. There would be a riot if we didn’t play Sanctuary.”
Duffy thinks his relationship with Astbury has evolved over the past 30 years. “We were really good mates, like really tight in the early days,” he recalls. “When the band formed we used to sleep in the same bed for about a week in Brixton, that’s how close we were when The Death Cult first formed because Ian had nowhere to stay.
“Then you get money and success and all that stuff and there’s no real brochure on how to handle it, there isn’t a pamphlet from the government [that says] ‘Hey young man, you’re going to be a rock star and all this stuff’s going to happen, now what are you gonna do? Goal 1 – Don’t die...’
“What I’m getting at is we’ve been through a lot of phases, also as guys we’re both in our fifties now, and I think we’ve got a lot more compassion, understanding, we’ve been through the mill. With me and Ian, people used to think we hated each other and it’s never ever been true. We wanted to play the Stones thing, Mick and Keith, they hate each other but we just thought well, if people are printing that legend let them print it, I’m not going to say ‘No, here’s me and Ian playing football together, yeah, we really hate each other, we’re on the same football team’. It’s a better story to let them build their own legend.
“But the reality is we’re very separate, we have our own little worlds, we’re both kind of self-contained men, we come together as like brothers and business partners, we’re like family. You don’t see your family member that you know well for six months it’s the same, because we’ve grown up together.
“The worst between me and Ian it would have been like the Cold War, like a bit of a tension, there’s the Billy side and the Ian side, and it was like that East-West tension, that’s probably it as its worst. Nothing gets said and there’s a bit of suspicion and cross-border tensions. Now I think we’re a little bit more grateful, we’re happier, I think we’re more giving than taking but I think that’s what happens to everybody when you get a little bit older, as human beings you want to give back. You have children, you see life a little differently.
“When you’re in your twenties and thirties it’s ‘take, take, take, mine, mine, mine’ and now, don’t get the idea I’m soft because I ain’t, it’s not baskets of kittens and puppies, trust me, but I would say that these days I have a little more appreciation and gratitude for the gig, the show, the music, the fact that anybody shows up and it has a bit more of an emotional reach for me now.
“I think that the compassion and the tolerance between me and Ian and the appreciation that when we do write together it’s good, I believe what we do is good and I think the records we make are as good as they can possibly be and I’m proud of this album.
“A lot of effort and hard work went into making it as good as it can be, it wasn’t rushed, we didn’t knock it out then get on the road and make some money, we waited until it was as good as it could be so I think that’s where we’re at with The Cult and I think the fans get it.
“We’ve never been for everybody, we had our few years playing in the major league, arena-world, that was when rock music was on the agenda. Then, with Guns N Roses getting back together, maybe rock music will be back more on the agenda, you know? We’ll see.”
Duffy picks out the Love album as his favourite Cult record. “It came together so organically and beautifully, I describe it as like a beautiful spring day making that record, everything just went well and we went from being ‘Are we gonna make it? Are Danse Society going to be a bigger band than us forever?’ to ‘Oh, here we are at Live Aid, with people interviewing Ian and She Sells Sanctuary is in the charts and we’re on Top of the Pops, yadda, yadda, yadda’. That song and that album changed our lives. I’m proud of it because it captured the moment organically and purely.”
But, he adds: “There’s been albums that have been really hard to make like, say, Beyond Good and Evil in 2000. I’m proud of it because we really dug in to make it happen with a lot of things against us and pressures and egos and a bunch of stuff going on. That’s the only album we made in a more corporate environment, we were on an offshoot of Atlantic Records.
“The Cult has always been an indie band – Beggars Banquet, we’re now on Cooking Vinyl, we did one album on Roadrunner – Southern Death Cult were an indie band, Theatre of Hate [of which Duffy was once a member] were an indie band.
“People have seen us in arenas and think we’re think big, blown-out rock ’n’ roll thing; actually we used to put our own singles in the sleeves and put a little hand-printed flyer in the first Death Cult EP, me and Ian sat in a bedroom and did it, so when people do broad strokes, they don’t take the time to actually give anything remotely like the truth, they just dismiss it, that’s a bit frustrating, cheap shot journalism.
“I don’t expect everybody to love us at all but I hate shoddy, cheap, lazy stuff, that’s what irks us a little bit.”
Duffy grew up a punk in Manchester, watching the Sex Pistols, The Damned, The Clash, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Penetration and the Buzzcocks. “I saw everybody apart from The Stranglers probably live in the day,” he recalls. Yet when he himself came to playing he wanted to create a guitar sound of his own. “I wanted to express myself differently,” he says.
“In the early 80s there was a big rockabilly scene in England, the Stray Cats blew up, there was the psychobilly thing. I was in the band Theatre of Hate, we used Gretch guitars to get a different sound, the bass became more important, so the sound evolved out of necessity or a desire to make something unique and not just be a bad, third-rate punk sounding band, that’s why it developed.
“It was searching for a sound that gave us our own identity and experimenting with it then just keep playing with it and doing some stuff that not many other people do with the Gretch and it became synonymous with the band.”
Hidden City is out now. The Cult play at Leeds Beckett University on Tuesday March 8. For details visit http://thecult.us/