The Cult look back at 30 years of Sonic Temple ahead of playing Portsmouth Guildhall
The late 1980s were a pivotal time for British rock act The Cult.
Since morphing from Southern Death Cult to Death Cult, and then The Cult earlier in the decade, their gothic and psychedelic-hued rock had struck a chord with music fans.
Their 1985 single She Sells Sanctuary remains a rock disco staple to this day, while other singles like Rain and Revolution followed it into the charts.
But when they released 1987 album Electric they deliberately aimed for a more hard-rock and metal sound. While it gave them the biggest hit of their career to date, they received criticism from some quarters of the British music press for the decision.
And so when it came time to recording its follow-up, the band, started by singer Ian Astbury and guitarist Billy Duffy, looked to America.
The resulting album, Sonic Temple saw them scale even greater heights, selling more than 2m copies and confirming them as an arena-level live act.
Now celebrating its 30th year, it is getting the deluxe boxset rerelease treatment, and live tour featuring a ‘super set’ of the songs from the album.
The Guide spoke with frontman Ian from his long-term home in Los Angeles. His love-affair with the city actually began around the time they started work on Sonic Temple.
‘It was supposed to be a two-week holiday in ’88 – the managers came out here for some meetings and they said: “Why don’t you come out to LA? You need a bit of a break and some sun, and London was pretty intense at the time.
‘So we came out for two weeks and ended up staying for six months because we thought: “We don’t have to go home right now...”
‘We started writing and hanging out, we definitely needed a break because we’d been going at it pretty hard for a few years.
‘We needed a reset, and Sonic Temple was the end result.’
A few years later he moved to California full-time. But as Ian notes, even though he was born on Merseyside, his family moved to Canada when he was 11 and he spent his teen years on that side of the Atlantic.
‘I grew up in Canada, as a teenager, and it was always kind of difficult to reassimilate to living in the UK as that period of living in North America as a teenager was incredibly influential on me.
‘It really defined a lot of my ideas.’
And your philosophy? ‘Yeah, to a degree. I was around a lot of native American kids which really opened me up to a whole different culture and that was a fascination I picked up very early on. I became very interested in indigenous cultures, which grew from there.’
Ian was hands-on with the rerelease of Sonic Temple, which includes a whole host of demos, rarities and live tracks across its various iterations, from digital, to triple-disc vinyl and five CD versions.
‘We’d done (rereleases of second album) Love and Electric, and I wasn’t as involved with those because at that point we were pushing new albums.
‘But with this I thought it would be really good to embrace it – we’ve had a really long relationship with Beggars Banquet, back to the early ’80s, particularly with (label founder) Martin Mills
‘And also we thought it would be a great way to reintroduce the band and talk about the DNA of The Cult.
‘There’s so many different “Cults”. We always get it thrown at us that we’re kind of schizophrenic and full of contradictions, and the answer is: “Yes,”’ he laughs. ‘That’s in the MO.
‘And there’s many reasons for that, a lot of it was travelling as a kid, I’ve been travelling most of my life, always experiencing new environments, always experiencing new cultures and that just became a mode for me – when I’d been through a certain period and exhausted that, like with Love and post-modern psychedelic, or even Death Cult's post-punk, or Electric – these are all very definite capsules of time.
‘With Sonic Temple, I guess we’d reached a kind of zenith, a peak, of all of those influences culminating and being put into one record, as interpreted by Bob Rock.’
Bob Rock, who has since gone on to work with Metallica, Aerosmith, Bon Jovi, and numerous other heavy-hitters, was at that point a relative unknown.
‘He was principally an engineer at that time and was working at a studio called Little Mountain in Vancouver, which a lot of artists on the west coast were going to.
‘Vancouver is a beautiful city to record in and get away from intensity of LA and the metropolitan madness. That was cathartic – not having too many distractions. In LA or back in London, there was always something going on, but Vancouver was a breath of fresh air.’
It clearly worked – the band have worked with Bob on five more albums since.
As Ian describes it, Sonic Temple was a natural continuation of their musical evolution.
‘I think we were very comfortable with where we were at that point and fully embraced our influences.
‘I’m always pushing for something else. I wanted something more out of it.’
From their ‘simplistic’ early efforts, their songs would ‘eventually become a little bit more expansive in terms of writing and trying different modalities and different instrumentation and arrangements.
‘Sonic Temple was the culmination, I guess, from Southern Death Cult through seven or eight years of growing.
‘If you look at the shifts we made in that short period of time, looking back on it now, it’s: “Wow! Those were some interesting choices we made at that moment”. But I understand why we made those choices, and how we got to where we were.’
Rock legend Iggy Pop appears on the album too, loaning his distinctive drawl to the track New York City. Iggy was a key influence on a young Ian.
‘We’d played with him in ’87,’ recalls Ian. ‘We did three shows with him Germany, and he was definitely an artist Billy and I bonded on very early – we were massive Stooges fans and Iggy Pop fans.
‘Some of the first shows we went to see together were Johnny Thunders, Iggy Pop, David Bowie at the Milton Keynes Bowl, which was stunning, these were all very formative concerts for us.
‘We would go to a lot of shows together and afterwards we would debrief when we got back and talk about the high points and how to absorb that into what we were doing – we had this incredibly insatiable appetite.’
But it wasn’t a cameo which had been planned in the traditional manner.
‘Iggy was playing a show in Vancouver, so I went down to see him play. After the show we were chatting with him, we knew him well enough to say “Hi” to him.’
Ian doesn't quite recall how it exactly transpired, ‘but I ended up taking him on the back of my motorcycle to the studio.
‘So I turned up at the studio with Iggy Pop on the back of my bike and everyone was tripping out, because I’ve just taken Iggy Pop through traffic on the back of a bike in Vancouver and he trusted me to do that.
‘That was incredible in itself, and then walking him into the studio playing him some of the tracks...
‘New York City kind of popped up. Initially he’d left this incredible voice message on Billy’s answer machine, like,’ Ian does a creditable Iggy impersonation: ‘“Hey, this is Iggy calling,” and we thought that was really dope and should go on the record, but then we thought maybe that was a bit exploitative because it was a personal message – I mean everyone does it now – but at the time, we were a bit earnest, so we asked him if he’d be on the track, and there he is.
‘It was an interesting time for Iggy, he was a bit of an outsider and a dark horse at that point. He was really embraced by everyone in post-punk hard-rock, he was so important, still is important, and still making incredible music.’
When the album was finished, Ian says: ‘There were no expectations. It wasn’t like we were trying to garner laurels, or awards or praise with it.
‘We’d had such a rough ride from the media for such a long time, particularly in the UK, so for us we weren’t trying to impress anyone, we just wanted to go out and make the best possible record we could at the time, and then go out and play in front of our fans. We wanted to present something really special to them.’
Aided by the singles Fire Woman, Sun King and Edie (Ciao Baby), the album quickly took off.
‘In terms of our career, that was exploding, we just couldn’t stop it, it had such incredible momentum, and was moving at such velocity.’
After the heights of the album’s tour though, things changed in The Cult camp. Bassist Jamie Stewart, who had been with them since the Death Cult days, quit, and Ian's father died.
‘It was definitely a blow to the eco-balance of the band, Jamie was an integral part, he was there at the beginning, plus losing a comrade at that particular moment was hard.
‘’I took it kind of hard, my father had just passed away and we had worked so hard to get where we were.
‘And I couldn’t walk down the street in London at that point, I was pretty distinctive looking, without people shouting praise, or whatever, or getting accosted.
‘I was like, I don’t need this any more, I want to go somewhere where I can do whatever I want, which was why I moved to Los Angeles – that became a safe haven for me
‘The touring was pretty intense, and I completely understand why Jamie made that choice.
‘Matt Sorum was playing drums for us at the point and then he got enticed to join Guns’n’Roses, and all of a sudden we didn’t have a drummer.’
A couple of years earlier G’n'R had been The Cult's opening act – just as their own star was skyrocketing.
‘It was a really strange time for us, I was grieving because of my father, and was kind of exhausted from the Sonic Temple tour, then one day I wake up and Jamie’s gone, and Matt’s gone, it was a very difficult moment.
‘But we regrouped and regathered our composure and carried on.
‘The core relationship at the very beginning was Billy and myself – we started together in 1983 in his flat in Brixton and it still roles. There’s obviously chemistry there.’
While some songs from that era have naturally stayed in the band's set, this tour has given them a chance to revisit some of the lesser-played Sonic Temple tracks.
‘One song we play, when we started in rehearsals, Soul Asylum took on a new maturity. When I wrote it, it was kind of sophomoric and introspective, I didn’t feel it was fully formed emotionally.
‘I was reaching for something beyond my level of experience, beyond my years, there was a certain sentiment I was trying to get, and I think I’m better equipped to perform that now with more life experience.
That song has a really gravitas now, that’s a special moment in the set.’
Although Ian and Billy have remained at the heart of The Cult, numerous other musicians have passed through the ranks over the years.
‘This is the best band we’ve ever played with,’ says Ian. ‘We’ve been playing with John (Tempesta) for nearly 14 years, and Grant (Fitzpatrick) and Damon (Fox) have been with us for three years, but the integration between the musicians is the most connected we’ve been as a band – the least distracted we’ve been externally.
‘When we get together, we’re locked in as a unit, it’s not like everyone has different agendas.
‘We play with intention – We’re fully immersed in the songs when we’re performing them, we’re completely present and the shows have been really strong. I feel good about coming back to the UK to play it.’
Looking forward though, the band are starting to think about a follow-up to 2016's Hidden Cities.
‘We’re kind of in discovery right now – I don’t know if anyone else calls it that, but I like to call it that!
‘We’ve got some pieces of music we’re turning over right now, and some ideas, so… it’s the early stages, the conversation only started a couple of months ago.
‘We’ve got a couple of pieces left over from Hidden Cities which are strong, which we might revisit. It’s all evolving, developing, and when we think we’ve got something worthy of putting out, we’ll do that.
‘We could just start putting out singles again, it depends how the flow goes with the band – we’ve never had a set plan or manifest.’
The Cult are at Portsmouth Guildhall on October 29, doors 7pm. Tickets £43.88 Go to portsmouthguildhall.org.uk