An Interview with Billy Duffy
As Billy Duffy prepares his iconic rock band, The Cult, for two huge Yorkshire dates at Halifax Piece Hall and Scarborough Open Air Theatre, he talks to Victoria Holdsworth about 40-years of rock ‘n’ roll, the secrets to longevity and his enduring musical relationship with collaborator, Ian Astbury…
Firstly, before we get started. You must be ecstatic that your beloved Manchester City have just won the FA Cup?
Well, I don’t want to appear blasé about it [chuckles], but as us more elderly folk, who have followed them through thick and thin, we have different outlooks on victories. Even when we are 3-0 up at half time, I still think there will always be a chance we’ll lose. I’m a City fan of the old school, but it’s a great feeling.
Would you have liked to have been a footballer growing up, instead of going down a more musical path?
Well, the job options growing up in the seventies were quite limited. To be honest, I was fairly mediocre at football. I was on the school team, but not really one of the leading lights. I’m just thankful for music and for punk rock. Those things made it possible for someone like me, to actually have a shot at the life that I’ve had.
Your latest album, Under The Midnight Sun, seems to have gone back to an earlier, grittier sound. Was that a conscious effort, to tap into those past energies, or something that you feel just came around full circle?
Yeah, ya kinda hit the nail on the head. That’s a really good question, and the answer is yes, a bit of both actually. I think we had done a couple of albums, that what I thought, were quite North American sounding. As you know, the band has been based there for a while, and the producer was from North America and it just kind of made sense at that time. Myself and Ian just thought we would like to try something a little bit different. We wanted to use an English producer and change the sound. It wasn’t like, ‘Hey let’s go back to try and recapture something that has gone, or try and sound like we did in 83’. Having said all that, there was a conscious decision to create a record which was different sounding. The best way for us to do that, for me personally, was to locate myself in the UK, record the album in the UK, with a British producer. It was finished off in America, but for the most part, the heavy lifting was done in the UK.
This month sees you embark on a UK tour, with two dates in Yorkshire. Where is you favourite place to play, and how nostalgic does it feel being back? Do you have any favourite memories?
Well, neither of us are from Yorkshire! [laughs] I suppose it’s a bit of a misnomer really, even though Southern Death Cult were formed in Bradford. It does still give us quite a laugh all these years on that a lad from Manchester and a lad from Liverpool are adopted Yorkshiremen. That being said, Ian is probably most nostalgic about Yorkshire, and his time spent here. Ian was completely and randomly living in Bradford. He ended up there because he was actually following the band Crass around, after moving back from Canada, where his Dad had emigrated to, and I think what it was that, there was a girl called Jules, who was a punk poetess, who was going out with a guy from New Model Army, and they let Ian have the spare room in their house. That was the story he told me years ago, and then he just started working as a promoter in Leeds, and as a roadie and meeting up with Buzz, Aky and Barry and forming Southern Death Cult. Because Ian looked great and they asked if he could sing, and he said yes… so that’s the connection. It was a route to the band, but it ended in 1981. I really love playing in the UK and Yorkshire has some cracking venues and festivals now. I love doing British tours, and I love going in the hotel and getting that little packet of two biscuits in a cellophane wrapper, and the little coffee and tea sachets. I always wonder, ‘What biscuit am I gonna get today?’ [laughs] The excitement of a custard cream or a shortbread is amazing. I love everything about being in the UK. This tour we’re doing does include Europe as well, such as Serbia and Croatia, Italy and so on, but there’s something special about being in the UK and playing an open air venue in the Summer. The vibe is astonishing and I love being able to feel the energy. Having being abroad for some of my life, and lived in sunny climates all the year round, you sort of forget just how great the UK weather really is. The winters can be rough but the summers are usually amazing.
How would you describe your latest album, both musically and lyrically, for those who may not have heard it yet?
Well… what can I say? I’d say its a fair representation of where a band, who have certainly been around nearly forty years, would be, or should be at. I will say that the new album has some real attitude. It has taken a few musical steps, that we maybe haven’t followed before, which I think we have to be proud of. If you’re old enough to get free prescriptions, and you’re still making music then you’re doing something right. It really is the only way forward. You should challenge yourself when trying to be creative. I love going out and playing all the old hits, just watching the fans. To me now, a concert is just a celebration of what you have done musically. It’s no longer really the property of myself and Ian. We just play it. We came up with it, but it’s the property of everybody who wants to enjoy it, with us just trying to come along and facilitate it. I know that sounds a bit corny, but that is honestly the truth. For myself and Ian, writing new music, as tough as it can be at times, it will never be as good as what you did when you were in your early twenties, [laughs] like any artist from The Beatles to The Rolling Stones to Pink Floyd… anybody… it doesn’t matter who you are. Everybody is always judged by their primary albums, and anyone who has had a long career, and I am certainly not comparing myself to any of those mentioned artists, but the challenge is great to come up with stuff that still excites you, and hopefully excites your fans.
Yourself and Ian have endured one of the longest working relationships in the music industry, without any outward drama, unlike some of your contemporaries. What is the secret to your longevity, and how would you describe Ian in three words?
Ian… [laughs] ok, how do we do this? We are both Taureans for a start, we were both born in the middle of May, but I’m a year older than Ian. That helps if you believe in astrology, because even though we are both completely different people, we both have similar commonalities. We both just really get along. We are the Taurean mafia [laughs] which I think probably has saved our bacon a few times, having the same goals, outlooks and work ethics to share. How do I describe Ian in three words? [laughs] I would say Ian Astbury, to me after all these years, and knowing him certainly all my adult life, would be “King, Contrary, Man”.
It is safe to say that The Cult are not a band who rest on their laurels, and I saw you last year, co-headlining with Alice Cooper on a worldwide tour, whilst you were also doing some shows to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Sonic Temple, and also putting an album together, so how do you manage it all, and what is going to be next for you guys?
That is exactly what drives me forward. Even though I just called him, King, Contrary Man, we do have a really great relationship where work is concerned. Me and him have just been fifty, fifty down the middle on every single thing we have ever done. We’ve been together 40 years, and known each other for 42, and never once have we fallen out or had an argument over money, ever! We literally split everything in half. When we started the band, we started with a handshake and we both said, “Let’s see what happens.” When I said before that the music is for the fans, I really do believe that. People have grown up with our music. The stuff we have created is loved, and I’m thrilled about that, so I just look forward to celebrating it all in as non-cheesy way as possible, and with next year being the 40th anniversary of The Cult, we have both myself an Ian have agreed on this, that The Cult were formed January 14th 1984 on The Tube with Jools Holland, and that was the official date that we changed the name from Death Cult to The Cult. We might actually do something with the Death Cult anniversary too, so watch out for that. So I want everyone to get their winkle pickers out, and get your hair backcombed out. I tell you what Victoria, I’ll even do the chicken dance with ya! [laughs]
So, with all your knowledge and experience to date, would you still approach the creation of Southern Death Cult or Love era Cult in the same way as you did?
You’d just go bonkers if you think of all the things you could have or should have done. Everything happens for a reason, and you just have to accept that you made the best decisions at the time. I think we have definitely made more good decisions over bad decisions over the years, but we have definitely made some bad ones. [laughs] If you can keep your batting average up, and you love music like we do, then you’re halfway there. I went to see KISS the other night, and they were a great bunch of guys, and I know people will think I sound stupid saying that, but they really are the nicest guys in the world. Their enthusiasm, and their mischievousness backstage is a joy to see. These guys are in their seventies for Christ sake, and they really were joy to behold. The whole atmosphere of those guys is electric, and watching them love putting all that make up on… for hours. It’s not like they need the money, is it? They’ve got more money than I could spend in two lifetimes. It’s not about that, it’s about the joy of music and what you do for those fans. They really are the essence and the joy of rock and roll. Nothing more to be said.
In 2017 you were portrayed by Adam Lawrence, in a film called England Is Mine, based on the early years of singer Morrissey, before he formed The Smiths in 1982 with Johnny Marr. Do you feel it was a fair representation of yourself and those times?
I tell you a funny story. Ive been camping with Adam Lawrence, he’s become the surrogate son I never had. He did a really good job, and he said he learnt how to speak like me by by saying the word “Guitaaarrr!” [laughs]
Did you ever feel at any point in your career that you were done with music, and just wanted to walk away from it all? If so, what stopped you?
It has happened. I was pretty bummed out in the early nineties. We did an album called Ceremony, and it was at a time when the grunge scene was happening, and you had the likes of Nirvana and Alice In Chains coming to the forefront of the music scene. I was listening to bands like Soundgarden and Stone Temple Pilots, Pearl Jam. They were the bands that were happening, and I thought to myself, that’s the music I want to be making, and we are not making that sort of sound. That was probably my lowest point. We then broke the band down into pieces and rebuilt it in 1994, and then that started a new chapter, so that was that. For me though. That was my lowest point in music. It was crazy to think that then, bands like Guns n Roses were getting bigger than The Stones. I was thinking in those times, “Oh Man, this is getting bad. I don’t know how much lower I can go, and I’m really bummed out, and that was it! We started it all again, from what we began with. Me and Ian.
The Cult play Halifax Piece Hall on 5th July and Scarborough Open Air Theatre on 6th July
For full tour details visit: thecult.us