Add the Cult’s Ian Astbury to the list of people unimpressed by Pope Francis’s visit and apology to Canada’s Indigenous peoples this week.
“An apology? Stop. You’d better be bringing your A team in to help with reparations and getting this sorted out and doing the right thing,” said Astbury Tuesday from a Syracuse tour stop, ahead of his band’s Casino Rama performance Saturday.
As a youth growing up in Hamilton, Ont., the native of Cheshire, England, often visited Six Nations near Brantford, the largest First Nations reserve by population in Canada, and that exposure fuelled a lifelong fascination with Indigenous culture.
A simple verbal apology by the Pope doesn’t go far enough, he said.
“Action is what is really going to help … These communities are incredibly impoverished and they rightfully deserve the reparations, the dignity, respect and their position in society. I’m glad to see there’s more Indigenous leaders coming to the foreground. And I honestly believe that one of our best shots that we’ve got as a planet — as a species — is to get our Indigenous leaders up front and centre (for) their wisdom and their knowledge of our relationship with the Earth, the animals, ecosystems; please listen and then get active.”
Astbury, whose heritage is British and Scottish, said he felt like an outsider in Ontario.
“I was an immigrant kid. I was identified as ‘other’ and I was immediately ostracized,” said Astbury, 60. “There was definitely an amount of bullying going on, violence toward me and my brother and sister because we had different accents, we spoke differently.”
His love of David Bowie music also contradicted a lot of his schoolmates’ fascination with the cartoon glam of KISS, so he felt shunned for his musical tastes.
“They thought I was weird or strange ’cause I liked David Bowie, because he was kind of weird and strange,” Astbury said.
But it wasn’t all negative for Astbury, who lived in the Steel City between 1973 and ’79: he acquired cosmopolitan tastes ranging from an appreciation of language to discovering new cuisines, sounds and philosophies.
“One thing I loved was learning French,” he said. “That was incredible. All of a sudden I’m learning another language and I’m eating foods from other cultures in friends’ homes …
“FM radio was also phenomenal. Then all the TV shows that were being broadcast through New York — ‘Soul Train’ and ‘Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert’ and ‘Midnight Special’ — all the American cultural stuff. That was incredibly formative to me. When I went back to Britain at the age of 16 and a half, I was told I was American.”
In England, he co-founded goth punk band Southern Death Cult, a forerunner of his current outfit the Cult, known for punk and psychedelia sounds, lyrical imagery, and hits like “She Sells Sanctuary,” “Rain,” “Fire Woman” and “Love Removal Machine.”
Astbury said rock stardom was the furthest thing from his mind when he started out.
“I’ve never gone into this for fame or fortune,” he said. “I ran into a bunch of people who said, ‘We like the way you look, would you like to join the band?’ It was like, ‘Yeah, that sounds interesting’ and it just evolved from there.
“What I became really interested in was the creative process and performance. Just getting up onstage was exciting and enthralling and liberating, especially the sense of community and connection, especially coming out of punk rock.
“I’m sure there are others who are really excited about getting another 20-bedroom mansion and another Lamborghini, but that’s never been what gets me outta bed in the morning.”
What does get him out of bed?
“I’m constantly trying to evolve,” said Astbury. “I’m always got my ears open. I love learning new things. I’m a student. I definitely do not know everything, That’s impossible.”
In the 38 years since the Cult released its “Dreamtime” album, the one constant in the band has been the remarkable chemistry between Astbury and guitarist and sometime co-writer Billy Duffy.
Astbury said their differences are their strengths.
“Billy really has an incredible gift for melodically interpretative guitar. All those signatures that we have in our songs emanated from Billy,” Astbury said. “I have a gift for intuition in many ways: tone, rhythm arrangements. I also write music too, but the two of us bring different elements to our relationship, and they are polarized at times in lifestyle and our world view and everything like that.
“But where we connect is the alchemy, the real essence of what the Cult is. The two become one and it becomes something other than two individuals; it then becomes de facto the Cult sound.
“There’s also another aspect to it, which is just a kind of raw, primal, visceral quality that you just kind of get in a room,” he added. “There’s no talking going on; all the communication is with good music and that’s a very exciting space to be in.”
The Cult will release its 11th studio album, “Under the Midnight Sun,” on Oct. 7. Granted an advance listen, I told Astbury it’s good but, with songs like “Give Me Mercy,” “Vendetta X” and “Impermanence,” it sounded rather apocalyptic.
“Interesting,” he said. “Some of them are archetypal themes of birth, death, regeneration — this has been the cycle of life since the Big Bang.
“This is what fascinates me immensely: the human condition; the sentient condition … our relationship to the animals … our interdependency on our ecosystems: not only our social ecosystems, but our environmental, psychospiritual systems. Ultimately I wouldn’t say ‘apocalyptic.’
“If you pick through the music and the lyrical content, I’m actually making suggestions. For example, on ‘Give Me Mercy,’ I’m suggesting a new language. There’s a solution in that: basically breaking down and saying that the way we’re communicating isn’t working.
“We’re not hearing each other. That doesn’t mean to say that one person is right and one person is wrong; we’re just not hearing each other. We’re hearing what we want to hear.”
Once the album is released, the Cult will be back “to play Toronto proper,” he said.
The most rewarding aspect of his journey with the band has been “the quality of relationships” he’s encountered along the way.
“You get to meet so many incredible people out there and that connectedness with them, that’s the greatest gift,” Astbury said.
“There are experiences that you can’t cash a cheque on; something between yourself and the audience or individuals that makes life worth living. Yeah, it’s profound and it continues to mesmerize me.
“I’d like to think the Cult is a conscious group that does what it can, where it can and that we can unite those that identify as ‘other.’”
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