CREATING GREAT MOMENTS IN ROCK
AN INTERVIEW WITH BILLY DUFFY OF THE CULT
I’m sitting in ‘Old Whistler’ (my van/home on the road) anticipating a phone call from legendary guitarist Billy Duffy of The Cult. They are touring a brand new album, Hidden City, and The Cult Machine is in full effect. I’m a bit jittery; not really nervous but the same pent-up energy you get before hitting the stage to perform. The van is my quiet space, windows up, and ready to talk uninterrupted. Starbucks generously provides the free Wi-Fi and a Grande Americano. I make one final prayer to the gods of technology that my recording app will not fail. Luckily it didn’t, and here are some of the verbal gems I squeezed out of the accommodating and humble, yet boisterously cocksure, rock legend Billy Duffy.
You were born in Manchester England. Can you tell me about some of your early musical influences and experiences?
Yeah sure. Everybody was into music at my school. My first experiences were probably glam rock, like Slade and that whole deal – pop glam. I was into Slade, Mott the Hoople. I wasn’t so much into the head bands. That was for guys who were older than me, but then I got into Thin Lizzy, and Bowie was huge to me, and everybody else. Then from that it was the New York Dolls, Roxy Music. The older guys were more into serious music: Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath. Then punk rock happened, I got into Free, I really loved Free, and Bad Company. I really loved those. Mott the Hoople and Queen, they were the ones I really, really loved.
They made you want to play the guitar.
Right, exactly. Actually Brian May made me want to give up guitar. I saw him play and I was like “Oh no. I’m out.” I saw him do “Brighton Rock” live, and it was like the second coming of… it must have been like when people saw Jimi Hendrix first. Being in a two-thousand capacity room and doing “Brighton Rock” with the cape in white and the clogs and the AC30’s and that tone he got that was so fat. I was like “Dude! Oh!” Then punk happened, and I saw The Sex Pistols and The Buzzcocks. The first punk band I ever saw was the debut gig from The Buzzcocks. That was the first punk band I actually saw play. Second punk band was Slaughter and the Dogs, which is from my neighbourhood; and the third band I ever saw, on the same night, was The Sex Pistols. From that I was like “Oh. I can do this. This is good, I like this.” That turned me on to The Stooges, The New York Dolls, The Ramones, that kind of stuff that was floating around. That was the early influences. You mix in the New York Dolls, Patti Smyth, The Ramones with a bit of English rock like Mott the Hoople, Free, some glam, a bit of Bowie, and you put it in a big cauldron. Then punk happened and we were like “Oh these people don’t live in castles and fly in magic aircraft. These are actually real people, I can see them sweating.” That’s how it changed for me. That is in essence it.
You and Ian (Astbury, The Cult’s singer and front man) are a great writing team. Can you tell me a little bit about the process of how you write songs together?
Yeah, yeah… nothing has really changed. When I was young, I noticed that Ian could come up with these amazing little riffs on the bass. He wasn’t writing whole songs or anything, he would just have this amazing idea, and I was like “Whoa, what was that?” He was just messing around on the bass on something. For example, the song ‘Spirit Walker’, which was our first number one indie hit, it was an important song for us before ‘Sanctuary’. That was one of Ian’s. He had this little three note thing. I kind of took that and wrote the song around it and put all the stuff in it. So it’s teamwork, that’s part of it. We try to keep an open mind and collaborate, you know?
We took our time on Hidden City. Choice of Weapon, which is kind of the brother album to this one, it was a slow process. Kind of became a bit of a grind. We ran out of time and money, and we had to get Bob Rock to come in and kind of finish the record. But with this new album, we said let’s give Bob the opportunity to come in from the ground up, because he is a song guy. I think that’s why this album is quite a bit more song orientated; each song is quite different. They are all unique little pieces. I think there’s a tendency for some bands, you get an album and four or five songs blend into one. They’re all virtually the same. With this one we didn’t. We treated each song like a mini album. These days, people are choosing what song they want. The idea of an album is a little old-fashioned. The methodology was to have Bob involved from the ground up, so no ideas were wasted or lost. Bob does what Bob does. He’s a very great, diligent, focused producer you know.
There’s quite a tapestry of keys and sounds, stuff that you might not hear until the rest of the music takes a little back seat for a minute.
Yeah, Ian is keen on using a lot of keyboards and stuff, and I understand why. For certain songs, to get the platform for what he wants to try and emote vocally, you can’t always get that with a guitar. We do whatever we can, because at the end of the day we are just there to serve the song, and let the song come out. If you’re too rigid in your approach, you might be killing a song. Songs are the currency, that’s the plasma. Without a song you got nothing, just a lot of hot air and effects. That’s a bit of maturity speaking, but on the same token you still need to be able to do a song like ‘G O A T’, which is just a big three-minute Rock and Roll, tongue-in-cheek homage to fighting in the UFC. Getting in the ring and being a man. So it can be deep and sensitive and it can also be like “Be careful or I’m gonna punch you in the face”. That’s part of life too.
Do you have any favorite guitar tones or moments from the new album?
I like the guitar riff for ‘Deeply Ordered Chaos’, the Big A minor chord that’s at the beginning of that song. That’s pretty cool. I like ‘G OA T’. That’s just a straight up Les Paul into a Marshall. That was a sleeper track, that wasn’t originally going to go on the album. I do what I can. In this day and age everything is recorded digitally it’s kind of shit, really. I’d love to be recording on tape but those days are gone man. I enjoy the process of working with Bob because he is a guitar player too. Bob’s a collector, aficionado, he’s very passionate. We get to nerd out on guitar stuff a little bit, and that’s always fun.
Is most of this stuff recorded on the White Falcon, or do you find you use a big array of guitars in the studio?
I use anything I can. Not as much as you’d think would be on the Falcon. They sound great live, but they’re a bit trickier to record. I’ll be honest: There are songs on there that you might think are a Gretsch and they’re not. They sound like a Gretsch recorded. But the Gretsch is an amazing guitar live; It has this awesome power, the visual, it just has this tonality. But sometimes that is difficult to actually get on a record, so I’ll use whatever is handy. Anything I can lay my hands on that gets the sound.
I guess if you’re looking for a Strat or a Les Paul sound, then that’s what you would pick up.
Yeah and anything in between. You know, there’s a bunch of different stuff. I mostly stick to the major guitar food groups, I don’t go too esoteric. Bob has a great collection of stuff. So we get to go into his treasure trove of guitars, and amps and effects. He loves to experiment. He usually buys a guitar every time he does a session. On this album he bought some sort of candy apple red Fender Jaguar which are generally a pretty shitty guitar. But this one was amazing, one in a hundred. It was funny because he started strumming it in the session, and he was playing around with the song ‘Dark Energy’ which opens the album. He started playing the riff much faster. I heard him playing and like a true Canadian he had to apologize to me: “Hey Billy, I’m sorry I messed up your riff there” and I was like “No dude. It sounds way better!” So we sped the song up a bit and the whole song came together really quickly. So sometimes guitars can have an actual tangible effect on the creative process. They say every guitar has a song in it. It’s there on the record. It’s Bob on one side and me on the other. I can’t play guitar like Bob Rock, and he can’t play guitar like me, and he came up with a part that was great. He was like “Dude do you want to replay that?” and I said “No”. Bob is like family, 29 years since we first worked with Bob. It’s 30 years since I first went drinking and jammed with his band in Vancouver.
Must be nice to work with a producer where you don’t have any inhibitions, like you got that all out a long time ago.
Yeah you don’t have to do the courting bit, you can just go straight to the sex. You know, in a good way. You don’t have to do that awkward dinner and all that bullshit; you just get to it.
You guys have been playing live for a long time. Is it still something that you enjoy and are passionate about?
Yeah, you know it’s a challenge as you get a bit older. It’s just like going to the gym or something. It’s not as easy as it was when you were a young man. But I enjoy it, and personally I always considered being a guitar player in a band, live was it. Touring, being there for those experiences. Making records is something you do in between, to get you back on tour again. Which is funnily enough what is happening now. You know for a period there after people were making mega concept albums it was all about taking three years to write ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ you know? Then you go and tour it for a billion years. To me it was just too boring. I like being in the studio, but to me the live experience is where it’s at. I mean we work hard, ‘The Cult’ is a proper rock band. We do five gigs a week. I averaged it out on a tour, we actually do 5.7 gigs a week, generally, to pay the bills. It takes its toll, it’s a rock show. So I enjoy it, but it requires certain mental and intestinal fortitude these days. There’s a lot of distractions, and there are a lot of requirements. You know what the fans expect: selfies and this and that, and the other. You know, nothing’s changed. Not a complaint, just an observation. Yeah, I’m good, I’m down. I would gig more. Ian’s not into touring, as much as I am. He likes gigging but he doesn’t want to do as many as me, so we try and work a compromise out.
“Yeah, you don’t have to do the courting bit, you can just go straight to the sex. You know, in a good way. You don’t have to do that awkward dinner and all that bullshit; you just get to it.”
Yeah, understood. It can be pretty hard on the singer touring, a lot of shows in a row.
Yeah, yeah, as he (Ian Astbury) points out: “Billy, I am the instrument. You’ve got a guitar, I’m my instrument. If I’m not feeling well, I’m not playing well.” I get it, I get it. I get it sweetheart, you’re special. (Laughs) But I do understand it; on the few occasions I’ve tried to sing. First of all I can’t sing in tune very well. It’s hard work. So God bless them, all those lead singers.
They need all the help they can get.
I’m here just to serve. Just like all the other lead guitar players. We’re here just to help.
Very nice. Do you have any favorite bands that you’ve toured with or shared the stage with?
Oh, tons man. There’s been amazing tours and we’ve had lots of fun for years. I mean I learned a lot from touring with Aerosmith in the late ’80s. They were kind of older than us and we all worked together, and did it again in 2001. I learned a lot from the way they went about their business. I was an Aerosmith fan as a kid. They were this weird exotic looking band, Joe Perry had that white streak in his hair. They kept falling over and nearly dying on heroin. (laughs) I loved this, this is amazing. Its pre punk. Touring with them, and just seeing how they went about it and managed to keep themselves going, was what me and Ian wanted to do. We got The Cult together because we wanted to make music for a long time. We weren’t in it to get in, make some books and get out, get famous or whatever. We want to make music for as long as possible, but be careful what you wish for. So I observe all the bands that have managed to achieve that. I always look forward to doing festivals and seeing what the people are up to. I like The Who as well, that was good, we did some gigs with them. I’ve always related to Pete Townshend… the classic imagery of ‘The Who’ off their tits on drugs, Daltry when they did Woodstock. When they did that special show in London and Townshend was in the white boiler suit with the red Doc Martins and the Les Paul, just like off his face. Those big stacks of Hiwatts and Roger Daltry with the hair swing and the mic. That to me is classic rock imagery, in as much as the Sex Pistols; seeing Johnny Rotten, Steve Jones up there with Glenn and Paul doing the Punk Rock thing; that was just as powerful in its own way. Queen, those moments that I’ve actually been a part of and breathed the same air in the room where it was actually happening. You know, it lives with you. So hopefully, we as a band have created those moments for other people who can then go on to make their own music. That’s how it goes, you know?
Are there any particular concert moments that you were involved with like, I know you guys were at the Tibetan Freedom Concert. I know you were a part of Lollapalooza, which I was a spectator at. Do you have any memories of something big and interesting that you were a part of?
Well recently, being on some of the ‘Guns N Roses’ shows was interesting. We have history with Guns N Roses back to ’87. It was great to be a part of that in 2016, a big rock event. You know, organic rock and roll music still filling up football stadiums, and I’m sure they’re gonna do the same properly up in Canada this year. It was just great to be a part of that. Not like, you know, to kiss the ring, they’re still friends of mine. We’ve stayed friends for 30 years. It was enjoyable to be part of that. Someone asked “Why play with GNR?” and I said If your friend has a reunion and they invite you to the party, do you say no? Of course we’re gonna play. It was great. Really fun to be part of that and the fans seemed to like the poetry of The Cult. There was a connection there you know. We’ve had loads of moments. I was talking about Argentina, playing the soccer stadium there. Estadio Monumental, we played that in the early ’90s, pouring down the rain. The Cult, we were never a stadium act. We got big, but we didn’t get that big. So on the odd occasion that we did get to play something like that, as a headliner, it was special. It was big for us.
I used to hear your music on the radio every day, so it almost shocks me to hear that you didn’t spend too much time in stadiums.
Yeah I wish mate, I wish. But that’s not always the case when you’re musically pioneering, a little bit different. Edgy, a bit different, take a few chances. Stick your neck out creatively. You don’t get applauded. It’s the ones who observe that and go “Ah… where can I take that?” But I’m good man, I’m happy to be going out and playing again. I’m really thrilled. We made a great record in Hidden City. It’s enjoyable to go out and play. What’s really satisfying, is being able to fit four or five songs from the new album into a set and not have a horrible drop in excitement from the fans because it’s not a song from the eighties. I mean I’ve seen bands where they force the new material on the fans and it’s kinda like “Oh God, not another new song.” It’s great you know. It’s been really cool and I look forward to doing it, getting back out. Dust off the cobwebs and get out there in a week or so.
This might seem a little cliché, but it’s a question that I think is important. Do you think Rock and Roll will ever die?
No I don’t think so. You know you might have asked Bill Haley and Elvis and Little Richard that, it’s still going pretty strong. Rock and Roll and the need for Rock and Roll and what that signifies is always going to be there as long as there are humans. The mistake is thinking that Rock and Roll is going to be in the form that it was in. You know, Rock and Roll is just a catch all phrase, for music that people can connect to emotionally and physically, so yeah Rock and Roll will always be alive and well. It just might not be in the form that we think it is. It’s all in the hands of the new generation, picking up guitars picking up their laptops, picking up whatever. I think we’ll be fine. But it won’t be what it was, and if you constantly compare what’s going on now to the past, it’s a bit of a fool’s errand. I think we’ll be okay. As long as there’s a need for it, I think we’ll be fine. I think that need is there.