When Ian Astbury fronts the Cult as that seminal alternative rock band kicks off the Thursday at the Harbor summer concert series next week, the performance will surely be marked by a duality.
On the physical level, this will be a visceral rock show, centered around the Cult's brilliant new recording, "Choice of Weapon," and the trio of consecutive albums that made the band one of the most incisive of the late 1980s and early '90s -- "Love," "Electric" and "Sonic Temple," full-blown classics.
Beneath the top layer of the obvious, however, one will hear songs that urge the listener toward a state of transcendence, a yearning toward some state of animal grace and a casting off of the culture's tendency to embrace physical beauty in place of deeper, more enduring truths. A tall order for a rock show, but then Astbury -- with the assistance of co-founder and co-songwriter, guitarist Billy Duffy -- has been pulling it off for years.
I spoke with Astbury last week and he proved to be thoughtful, intelligent and astute in his observations of 21st century human culture and the role of "rock as ritual" within that mess of a mass.
A theme running throughout "Choice Of Weapon" suggests that we are seeing a generation coming that has grown up completely narcissistic and disconnected. Narcissism is nothing new, of course, but it seems to be arriving at a new peak. Why do you think this is happening?
Technology, primarily. There was indeed a time when life was simpler, when people were more connected, when there was more family integration. Now, we have infinitely more leisure than is good for us. The human animal was designed for a more active lifestyle. A life more attuned to the body. This technology-based existence appeals only to the cognitive aspect of experience, and leaves behind the fact that we humans are indeed animals with strong intuitive aspects.
There is so much information coming in that posits affluent lifestyles and material success as the only option. The Kingdom of God has been replaced by lust for the lifestyles of the rich and famous. With that comes the deification of youth, and youthful bodies as the only available signifier of beauty. Science and organized religion fail to help us with this, and the State is corrupt. Bearing all of this in mind, is it really surprising that youth is so disengaged? The messages they are bombarded with have created a sort of schizophrenia.
What are some possible positive paths away from this cultural and spiritual dead-end?
Meditation, yoga, even sports. Anything where you are outside of your thoughts. Somewhere beyond language, beyond the surfaces of things. We are intuitive animals. We need an organic existence, because we belong with nature, not separate from it or even against it. The "weapon" referred to in the album title is a divining tool, a way to go inward or to go outward. It's a choice what reality we will engage in. There are guides -- spiritual mystics are out there, if you look. But presently, we've become passive and voyeuristic, members of the society of the spectacle.
How does the ritual of the rock concert fit into all of this?
I look at it from a very (mythologist/philosopher) Joseph Campbell sort of perspective. You go to a concert, the band comes on, and you can leave your cognitive self behind for a while. This means different things to different people. It's a controlled experience, but if the artist you're connecting to is a seeker, then communion is still possible within the ritual. There is something greater than ego in all of this, when it works. Hopefully, you take something with you when you leave that can be applied to life away from the ritual.
The music industry is virtually unrecognizable as the same apparatus that was in place when you had your greatest commercial success with "Sonic Temple." How do you see the band fitting into what is happening now that the old rules of albums selling and bands being paid for their efforts no longer apply?
The changes have decimated our ability to make a livelihood, basically. We work within very moderate means. We've had to downsize. We continue because we love music, we love to perform, and there is still considerable audience demand for what we do. I certainly can't sit here and complain. We have had to adapt and evolve, like everyone else who wants to remain relevant. I've never been in this in order to own a yacht. There was a time around "Sonic Temple" when all of that was offered to me, and I found it abhorrent. My reaction was to rebel against success, against the band, and ultimately, against myself. Youth sells, freshness sells and talent is trivialized. To accept this is to be trapped in a prison of someone else's design.
Now, my material needs for myself and those who depend on me are few. Basic shelter, transportation, books, music, art. The ability to travel, to have experiences that break the routine and the humdrum that blinds us all to possibility. I am fortunate. It is indeed possible to live a more harmonic existence than the one that is constantly shoved in our faces. The goal of the music is to remind us of this fact.
WHAT: Thursday at the Harbor with the Cult, Against Me and the Icarus Line
WHEN: 5 p.m. Thursday
WHERE: Erie Canal Harbor Central Wharf