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Classic Bands

Running With Shadows — An Interview with Death Cult’s Ian Astbury

Last year, I saw The Cult play at The Greek Theatre with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Skeleton Joe Cardamone, and King Woman opening. It was a full moon out, and Cult frontman Ian Astbury, with bloody bandage hands that miraculously could still bang on his tambourine, started singing part of Bauhaus’ Bela Lugosi’s Dead before stopping himself, stating, “Whoops, wrong band, Peter Murphy is Goth.”

That show was incredible. But in late October of 2023, when I saw The Cult as Death Cult, it was one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen and undeniably one of the most Goth evenings I’ve spent in Los Angeles, or ever for that matter.

By happenstance, the date also coincided with the 40th anniversary of the Death Cult single “God’s Zoo.” The concert was held at the beautiful theatre at the Ace Hotel in Los Angeles, where they also show classic films, with the marquee fittingly showcasing a screening of The Bride of Frankenstein.

Cold Cave, darlings of the current Darkwave and Goth revival of the 21st century, who had been touring with The Cult, were a great way to start this special evening.

Following the stage being cleansed with sage, The Death Cult set began with “83rd Dream”. This was followed by “Christians,” “Gods Zoo,” “Brothers Grimm,” and “Ghost Dance”. They then performed “Butterflies,” which was particularly symbolic of the evening as a butterfly was featured on the artwork for this special series of 40th anniversary Death Cult shows.

The set continued with “A Flower in the Desert,” “Ressurrection Joe,” “The Phoenix,” “Horse Nation,” “Go West (Crazy Spinning Circles),” and “Dreamtime.” Finally, they finished up the main part of the set with “Spiritwalker” and “Rain.”

In a break between songs, Ian Astbury paid tribute to original Death Cult members, bassist Jamie Stewart and drummer Nigel Preston. Stewart has since retired from music, and Preston passed away in 1992.

On stage, Astbury was wearing a jacket with the “Death Cult” logo emblazoned on it, and red streaks of paint on his face. And during the Southern Death Cult song “Moya,” he let his magnificent mane of hair down before the band ended the show with a performance of The Cult’s popular track “She Sells Sanctuary.”

Death Cult at the Ace Theatre, October 23, 2023

This intimate concert was up there for me with seeing Bauhaus in 1998 and Siouxsie and the Banshees in 2002. But unlike seeing those two legendary bands live, there was a specialness and rarity to the setlist. And a reverence for the songs, many of which had not been played in decades.  Songs that hold deep meaning, sincerity, and authenticity.

And while Siouxsie may have adopted the name Sioux because she “hate’s cowboys,” many of Death Cult’s songs exude deep compassion for the indigenous tribes Ian Astbury grew up with near the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario, Canada — a place where he moved when he was 11 years old.

Southern Death Cult:

Ian Astbury’s journey before forming Southern Death Cult was as eclectic as it was influential. After returning to the UK, he spent time in Scotland, then moved to Liverpool—a stone’s throw from his birthplace, Heswall. There, Astbury immersed himself in Liverpool’s thriving post-punk scene. His next venture took him to Belfast, where he lived in a squat fellow among punks. Eventually, he returned to England, taking a job as a stagehand in Bradford, Yorkshire.

It was in Bradford where the seeds of the Southern Death Cult were sown. The band had its precursors in Violation, formed in June 1979 with Haq Nawaz Qureshi on drums, Barry Jepson playing bass, guitarist Michael Isles, and Mick Brady as the vocalist. Violation made a mark, supporting The Clash in Bradford on January 29, 1980. But following Brady’s departure, and after a brief stint with Gary O’Connell as the frontman and a demo tape in the bag, the group disbanded when Isles and O’Connell exited.

Undeterred, Qureshi and Jepson pressed on. They recruited David ‘Buzz’ Burroughs for guitar and, significantly, brought in Astbury as the lead singer. With this lineup, they rebranded to Southern Death Cult. The band’s musical output was brief but impactful, releasing a single featuring “Moya” and “Fatman” in 1982. Despite their short-lived existence, their music lived on through a compilation album released post-split in 1983, which included their single, live performances, and BBC session tracks. Southern Death Cult also graced the BBC’s “The Tube” with a memorable performance on January 21, 1983, delivering renditions of “False Faces,” “Fatman,” and “Faith.”

In a recent interview, guitarist Billy Duffy recounted to Louder Sound that his first brush with Ian Astbury was under the bucolic backdrop of Keele University’s woodlands. It was during the heyday of Theatre Of Hate, Duffy’s then outfit, which found the Southern Death Cult as their opening act amidst a  tour bolstered by their  single “Westworld.” Duffy, in a vignette straight out of a film, paints Astbury as a phantasmagoric figure, evoking the rugged romanticism of Daniel Day-Lewis’s Hawkeye sprinting through the forest in “The Last of the Mohicans.”

Perched on the balcony with Theatre of Hate bassist Stan Stammers, Duffy witnessed the energy of Astbury’s performance. It was a moment of revelation, the kind that could only be articulated in the vernacular of the stunned and the struck: a reverent “Fucking hell,” as the future of rock unveiled itself in Astbury’s unbridled vocal fervor. Duffy and Stammers knew they were witnessing something seismic.

From the ashes of Southern Death Cult, Astbury would form Death Cult with Billy Duffy, whose lineup also included bassist Jamie Stewart and drummer Raymond Taylor Smith (later known as Ray Mondo), both from the post-punk band Ritual. Raymondo would leave the band, and Theatre of Hate and Sex Gang Children’s Nigel Preston would join, and remain with the band until the release of The Cult’s 1985 album Love.

After the release of an EP, and “The God’s Zoo” single, Death Cult would return to perform on The Tube on January 13th of 1984, with presenter Jools Holland introducing this performance as being the first show with the band’s shortened name, The Cult.

Days before the show at the Ace Theatre, I spoke with Ian Astbury about his history in Liverpool, the post-punk scene, Bowie, and being “the other.” We also spoke about the term “positive punk” and, despite his disassociation from the Goth label, his thoughts and musings on the subject reveal a mind as intricate and expansive as the famed Library of Trinity College:

Did you meet Billy Duffy before the tour opening for Bauhaus?

“I met him just before that when he was playing with Theatre Of Hate,  which was our first Southern Death Cult…first real show. I mean, something like Chelsea at the Marquee in London. And then we went out from that to do a couple more shows around the Leeds and Bradford area, and then we were given the opportunity to play with Theatre of Hate.

And then that led to a Bauhaus tour.

It was pretty much…and then we were opening for the Clash and playing…I believe we played a festival with New Order [Futurama Festival], and things happened very quickly.”

Did you hang out at Eric’s in Liverpool before you started Southern Death Cult?

“Yeah,  I went to Eric’s, but I didn’t go to Eric’s actually till near the end of Eric’s. I was living in Scotland, so I moved back to the Merseyside area. It would have been, I guess…1980, perhaps? So I was at Eric’s for the last month of Eric’s. I was there the night that it got closed down by the Police. The Psychedelic Furs were playing. They came in with dogs. They had their nightsticks out. They were beating people and running through the club. I guess they thought it was some kind of drug den, and they’d had nothing better to do than pick on a lot of punk kids. 

So, that club got closed down. It was part of the Cavern Complex on Matthew Street. I did see some great shows there. I remember seeing The Cramps, which was incredible, with Brian Gregory.

We used to go there often,  pretty much seven times a week to Eric’s. It was a great club. I saw Nightmares On Wax there, Pete Burns’ band before Dead Or Alive.

And a band called Pink Military who were an excellent band. I never knew what happened to them. They made a couple of albums. They were an excellent band, but everybody in the crowd was pretty much either in a band or around a band. It was a very vibrant scene.”

I spoke to Wayne Hussey about the scene at Eric’s. He told me a lot of stories, too, that it seemed like a post-punk mecca with just so much stuff happening there.

“Oh, absolutely.

There were clubs like that throughout the country, you know, you travel around the UK with several clubs in Manchester, Leeds, I think Huddersfield, there’s a club there. Definitely London. Even in the Bradford, Leeds area, these clubs that we go to would play new wave, post-punk, punk, and disco. It used to have what you call a ‘Bowie Roxy Night,’ in which one night they would be playing music with that kind of feel of Roxy Music, David Bowie, post-glam. And we used to go hang out there. 

A lot of it was due to the fact that it was very dangerous going outside. If you wanted to go to a pub, it was very difficult. There was a lot of prejudice toward punk kids. There was quite a bit of violence to navigate.”

Was it just very conservative back then?

“There was definitely a division between kids who were into music and people [whose lifestyles were defined by mainstream society] who didn’t get it; they didn’t understand us, and we definitely weren’t part of them. It was subcultures highly identified by the way you look and by collective ideas, a lot of the same kind of music. 

It was a very difficult time as well because there was high unemployment. Thatcher’s Britain. It was pretty oppressive. It was quite bleak. Then, of course, we didn’t have social media. We didn’t have cell phones. We read books and newspapers and got our information from John Peel or NME or word of mouth, going to record stores, like Pete Burns, who used to work in Probe Records in Liverpool. I used to go in there, and they had an incredible collection… a very well-curated record store…you know, a lot of indie labels, and so you’d go in there and speak to whoever behind the counter. If they would suggest something, you’d listen to it and discover bands that you wouldn’t really hear about unless you were paying attention. Because the mainstream TV in Britain, BBC, was Top 40, but they did have Old Grey Whistle Test, which was a pretty cool show. We ended up playing on it. The Cult did. There were a lot of very iconic performances on The Old Grey Whistle Test: they had everything from Captain Beefheart to Patti Smith. So we watched that occasionally, but most of the time, we were out, not sitting at home watching TV.

We were out, we were out in clubs, some clubs we went to were pretty friendly towards us in a post…I mean, we didn’t identify as post-punk because that was more of a media tag. 

Nobody went around and said, “We are post-punk.” Nobody said that. Nobody went around and said that we are positive punk, you know.”

I’ve articles from when Southern Death Cult came out, and up until Death Cult, they were calling the band “positive punk” in the NME, which I think is a term that doesn’t exist anymore. 

“Well, it was of its moment. I think that the word reflects the fact that we weren’t absolute nihilists. That we were a little bit more idealistic and optimistic and colorful and were kind of embracing a very difficult time and making the best of it, and expressing ourselves through music, clothes, and photography; we were expressing ourselves in that way.

There was a sense of optimism around it, even though a lot of it was rooted in rock and roll culture, and punk rock culture, and new wave culture, and avant culture in New York. In Warhol’s New York. And Detroit, a lot of that had roots in America. I mean, obviously, things like The New York Dolls are very important. So were the Stooges; everybody listened to that. The Doors were very important in a kind of Romanticist…cinematic Romanticists…We were aware of that music – we had that music, and listened to that music. Well, I certainly did. Anyway, I know Wayne Hussey did. Wayne was in a band with Pete Burns for a minute. I think he was in Nightmares On Wax.”

I believe it was Dead Or Alive. Wayne had this guitar-triggered SH-101 synth sequence that was on the song “Misty Circles,” which Echo and the Bunnymen borrowed for their single “Never Stop.”

“Everybody was being influenced by everybody. From Can to Joy Division to Pil, by the time Bauhaus came along,  they were influenced by those kinds of groups, you know, they were definitely influenced by Bowie. David Bowie was very important. I think connecting everything, connect all the dots. You could probably run everything through Bowie.”

I would agree.

“We all grew up with Bowie. We all had his records when we were very young. Bought my first David Bowie single when I was ten. Life On Mars, and that was otherworldly. So, from that point, I WAS IN. I got thrown out of school for putting food colouring in my hair at about ten years of age, 11. Probably more like 11, I put some blue colour in my hair, and they sent me home.”

I always thought that the term Goth goes back to the 60s with the Doors and Nico more so than post-punk music. 

“Oh, it goes way back further than that! Now, think about Aubrey Beardsley. Think about the romantic poets. Shelley; Byron. The literature at the time. Bram Stoker. To me, it’s really romanticizing the shadow, which is something that artists…there’s always been an adversarial element in art, culture, religion, you know, the shadows of that which cannot be explained, shall we say.

And that was obviously for humans trying to existentially work out what was the meaning of life. You find yourself in the shadow at some point, and then you have a collective group who think a certain way that everything is one way, but it’s far more complex and nuanced. And I feel that as the rise of the novel and plays and operas, start to condense some of these ideas, and of course, Nietzsche comes along, and then the whole thing’s blown wide open.

I even think that, like Paganini, the Italian violin virtuoso. He used to come out of a coffin. The Catholic Church put him in jail in Genoa because they were terrified of him. He was disrupting. He was an agent of chaos. 

Everything’s interconnected. It comes from a very organic source. But certainly, when humans suppress the shadow, it will come out in different ways. And it has definitely been romanticized over the centuries. Yes. Even Shakespeare, in some ways, like Macbeth! Which talks about sex and murder and the darker side of human nature, avarice… control, domination, all of that. 

So these are kind of archetypal themes. Just because somebody wrote in 1983 in Sounds or whatever it was and says, ‘Here’s Andi Sex Gang and his gothic hordes.’  And then that term just got widely used throughout the media. And you have to understand that with the media pretty much every single show was out there was being reviewed by somebody, and they had to put out their papers every week. So, they were mapping information for a weekly publishing cycle. Everything was accelerated. And in that acceleration process with identifying certain waves of music, it was much easier to put a label on it. And, of course, there’s a lot of cynicism with a lot of editorial content. 

There were they were taking the piss on a lot of people, but I think in many ways, the term goth…was usually used as a put-down by those that knew better, the ones that formulated their opinions based upon very limited life experience.

It was just an easy way to compartmentalize a genre, while in actual fact, it was incredibly diverse. You know, you could go see The Gun Club one night or see The Birthday Party another night. Iggy Pop would roll through town. Nico would play,  and then you could go see a reggae show.

Dance music. The 12-inch was evolving, pop, you know, some of the faces like Pete Burns, George O’Dowd, Marilyn, Blitz Club, London, all of that was finding its way into the culture and, you know, again, Bowie comes along with Ashes to Ashes…galvanizing a frequency!

And he continued all the way through to Blackstar.

I think in terms of more like what Rammellzee, the graffiti artist, was talking about in the early eighties, about Gothic Futurism, the idea that everything from the written word to architecture evolved in a certain dark age period, and that art and the written word, especially the Bible, was controlled by a certain group of evolved monks. They referred to the graffiti writers as monks. He talked about this Gothic futurism, where letters and form took on a much more intuitive way…a way of expressing the intimate human experience without sticking aon it and banging it out, “Goth” and there it is. And there is there’s layers to it, and there’s a certain mystique to it, and he’s only just beginning to be appreciated now, 12 years after his death.

But Rammellzee was very important and then not only in, say, hip hop.

There are just so many crossover points and so many layers. It wasn’t like one size fits all, although you did have diehard Siouxsie fans and diehard Cure fans who emulated the way that Siouxsie and Robert dressed. And yeah, if you were in the crowd. You were, of course, inspired by them when you saw them.

I remember I bought Join Hands the day it came out. I didn’t get to see them play until the Juju tour because they dissolved for a minute. The Juju tour with John McGeoch. It was pretty outstanding…it was incredible. But the wonderful thing was you’d have so many incredible shows to go to, and it was of its time. It wasn’t that this was some sort of throwback.

They were making music in that moment, and we were present for it. And it is a testament to that period that it still resonates today.

I’d like to see what Balenciaga would be without some of those innovative individuals, etc. Givenchy, all of them. Throw off the playbook. The kids who were courageous enough to run in the shadows. Explore something outside of what you were taught in school with Judeo-Christian values. They were exploring things like Tibetan Book of the Dead.

We were ravenous for information. Because the society, the culture, certainly the working class ethic was that you worked hard, you played hard, and then you pick out your clock and then you’re, you know, you stay in your station working for in a factory, or you’re working in some sort of dead-end job. And then there’s this incredible music.

I think Control does a very good job…[the film about Ian Curtis of Joy Division by] Anton Corbijn. Control does a great job of reflecting the period in many ways. They got a lot of it right. And [Corbijn] was present; he was around all of that as well.

I love all these new books that come out by people who were nowhere near it, you know, And they do the Wikipedia research, and they miss so much, and they become the de facto expert on a genre for a time period.

It was as much about the environment that the music was coming out of. The industrial north of Britain. From the Industrial Revolution, all these factories were closing, and manufacturing had changed. And it was so you had this surplus workforce, and of course, football kept a lot of people together that have something singular that they could experience every week. But for the younger ones, it was definitely music.”

Where the Indigenous influences and inspirations found in the music of Southern Death Cult, and Death Cult came from:

“I grew up in Canada. I was exposed to indigenous culture from a very early age. I was 11 years old. I was an immigrant kid, and I was immediately labeled as “other.” And I was put with the other kids, and the other kids in my group were indigenous, native to the local reservation, Six Nations. I went there and was around indigenous kids.

I was around kids from all over the globe. They were coming to Canada, part of the workforce, in the early Seventies. So, I had a really diverse group of friends. One of my best friends was from Kingston, Jamaica, and another friend was from Ankara, Turkey. We were kind of an odd group of kids, but we all loved music and the fact that we were kind of “other” and on the outside of the collective group. I became fascinated by their culture. And then that evolved over the years.

I’ve never claimed to have any Indigenous blood…I’m of Celtic descent, but there are a lot of parallels between those people and Indigenous people because there was a diaspora of the Celts as well. The Roman Empire came in, and the British, as well, did a pretty good job [clearing] all the tribes up.”

Death Cult’s songs:

To fully appreciate The Cult’s UK Tour celebrating 40 years of Death Cult, we want to provide some context to some of the songs that they will be performing. Several songs reference tragic events that occurred at Wounded Knee, which pertains to two significant events in the history of the Native American Lakota people. Both events took place near Wounded Knee Creek, located in South Dakota.

The first, and perhaps the most infamous, was the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890. On December 29, 1890, the U.S. Army’s 7th Cavalry surrounded a band of Ghost Dancers under Chief Big Foot near Wounded Knee Creek and demanded they surrender their weapons. A shot was fired—its origin remains unclear—and the soldiers turned their artillery on the Lakota, killing as many as 300 men, women, and children in the ensuing chaos. This event marked one of the final chapters in the long and brutal campaign to suppress Native American tribes across the Plains and is remembered as a symbol of the tragic end of the Indian Wars.

The second event, known as the Wounded Knee Incident, occurred in 1973 when members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) and Oglala Lakota activists occupied the town of Wounded Knee in protest against the U.S. government’s failure to fulfill treaties with Native American people and what they saw as the corrupt tribal leadership of Richard Wilson. The 71-day siege resulted in deaths and injuries on both sides and ended with the government promising to re-examine Native American treaty rights.

Ghost Dance

Wovoka was a Paiute mystic who took the traditional Ghost Dance (practiced by various tribal belief systems) and rallied people to practice it, promising it would reunite the living and the dead. He promised this would bring the spirits to fight on their behalf and halt Western expansion. While the Ghost Dance itself was a longstanding tradition, this new context of using it to invoke the dead became a message of hope in triumphing over evil. While this was spreading, treaties with the US were being broken, and the Native people started invoking the Ghost Dance as a means to intimidate the US troops. Because the Ghost Dance usually happened before a battle, the US soldiers attempted to stop its performance and started picking out the instigators. Sitting Bull got singled out, then things escalated, and he was assassinated. Wounded Knee happened a week or two later. 

Horse Nation

The lyrics of “Horse Nation” by Death Cult are inspired by the book “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” which is a historical account detailing the violent displacement and systemic oppression of Native American tribes by the United States government.

Moya

The lyrics of “Moya” by Southern Death Cult seem to critique the apathy and numbness of Americans and Western Consumerism, referred to as “the Coca-Cola nation,” a society blind to the atrocities committed by their government.

“Kasota” means to clear off in the Lakota language- a possible reference to the literal clearing of woodlands into prairie or plains, but also could be referencing the clearing off of people, comparing it to the bombing of Nagasaki and mass murder and genocide, particularly those against Indigenous peoples, as mentioned with the song’s line “Wounded Knee over again.”

Butterflies 

The song “Butterflies” references The Hopi Butterfly Dance, a traditional ceremonial dance performed by the Hopi people, particularly the youth, as a form of social celebration and expression of spirituality. Held in late summer and early fall within Hopi villages in northern Arizona, this two-day event occurs after the harvest and is particularly associated with giving thanks for the corn crop.​

The dance is deeply symbolic, with the butterfly representing transformation and renewal, akin to how butterflies pollinate flowers, which is vital for sustaining life. In Hopi mythology, the butterfly maiden kachina, known as Polik-mana, is associated with this dance. She represents the spirit being that brings life-giving rain, essential for the desert farming lifestyle of the Hopi.

The dancers, especially the maidens, wear elaborate headdresses called tablitas, which are adorned with symbols of corn, butterflies, and prayers. These elements highlight the dance’s purpose in paying homage to the natural world, the butterflies’ role in pollination, and the spiritual connection the Hopi maintain with their environment. The dance is a visual and spiritual expression of gratitude, as well as a prayer for rain, which is essential for their crops and, by extension, their way of life​.

Spirit Walker 

In essence, “Spiritwalker” encapsulates a journey beyond the physical world, seeking an extraordinary experience of spirituality and connection with the metaphysical aspects of existence.

The song is a prayer to nonconformity, to be one with the Spirit, to connect with higher realms. Indigenous tribes believe the Spiritwalker is a mystic, bridging the spirit and mortal worlds. This person is in charge of the spiritual well-being of their tribe.

Dreamtime

For The Cult, “Dreamtime” refers to their full-length debut album and its title track, which was released in 1984. The album incorporates Native American themes, and the song “Dreamtime” is inspired by Aboriginal mythology, expressing themes of longing for personal freedom, self-expression, and a connection to an inner world of dreams and imagination.

In Aboriginal Australian culture, “Dreamtime” or “The Dreaming” refers to a foundational mythological period of time that explains the creation of the world and its natural features by the Ancestral Spirits. It is a core component of their spiritual and philosophical worldview, encompassing the genesis of life, the establishment of natural patterns and cycles, and the origin of laws of existence. The Dreamtime represents both a historical time and a continuing spiritual reality, shaping the culture’s connection to the land, its people, and the universe at large.

The Cult Presents Death Cult Tour Dates 2023:

  • November 6: Belfast, UK — Telegraph
  • November 7: Dublin, IE — Olympia
  • November 9: Sheffield, UK — Foundry
  • November 10: Liverpool, UK — Guild of Students
  • November 12: Glasgow, UK — Barrowland
  • November 13: Nottingham, UK — Rock City
  • November 14: Birmingham, UK — O2 Institute
  • November 16: Bournemouth, UK — O2 Academy
  • November 17: Norwich, UK — UEA
  • November 18: Manchester, UK — Albert Hall
  • November 20: London, UK — Brixton Electric
  • November 21: London, UK — Brixton Electric

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