Interview: Exploring the creative experimentation behind The Cult with guitarist Billy Duffy

Photography by Kim Allegrezza

The Cult have been described as incendiary, ground-breaking and transcended. Their latest album Hidden City has been referred to as a world of layers which when peeled away allows others to see the murky spaces in which The Cult inhabits. Tuesday AXS had the opportunity to talk with guitarist Billy Duffy about how the band has been able to consistently crank out solid albums for the past 30 years.

AXS: The Cult’s tenth album, Hidden City, came out last year. A favorite thing about The Cult is you’ve never been afraid to experiment and try out new things musically so none of your albums feel repetitive. There’s a lot of dark imagery in the videos and a brooding vibe to the sound. Even the story behind the title is dark.

B.D.: Well Ian is a pretty dark dude. He likes to express that side of himself. That tends to be a bit of a theme with The Cult, it’s kind of evolved into that. I think when we were younger, in the 80s, we just focused on different things with our band. There’s been a natural evolution to us as people and honestly we just reflect what’s going on around us. But that’s what Ian’s into and what Ian says makes a lot of sense. But me, as an individual, I tend to look at music slightly differently-as in at times it is good escapism. Like the song “Goat”, I didn’t even think that would make the album, we just did that for a laugh. It turned out to be one of the most popular songs on the record. Guess that just sort of goes to show you what we know! We just write them all and never discount anything.

It is hard enough to write songs that don’t suck after 30 years together so we really pretty much just give everything a shot. We don’t say “That’s not like The Cult we can’t do that.” Sometimes we get repetitive in our style. I once had a conversation with Ian about a song where he said, “It kinda sounds too much like The Cult.” The game is to sound like you but to not sound like yourself. Always have to keep moving it forward. Ian is very elemental. He is always using blood to represent gravity and commitment. You can’t get more serious than spilling blood. We’re not called The Kittens and Puppies after all, we’re The Cult.

Hidden City has been very well received. It took us a long time to put it together, but that was only because we were trying to come up with good songs. Choice of Weapon was a good album but at one point we just got rushed for time. We ran out of time and money and basically cranked it out. What happens when you do that with these time pressures is you will find that four tracks on the album end up sounding the same because they’ve been done in the same mentality and time frame. That’s why on Hidden City the songs are really diverse. I mean “Goat” and “Birds of Paradise” really don’t sound a bit alike.

AXS: You have what is called a signature sound to your guitar playing. When one hears Santana playing they can tell it is Carlos Santana, the same with Stevie Ray Vaughan. When you play we know it is Billy Duffy. Did you set out to create something new and different or did that evolve organically on its own?

B.D.: Well, first of all, thank you. Second of all, I know what you mean. As a fan of guitar players, I like guitar players that have an identifiable sound. I couldn’t care less about some guy shredding scales, that’s never connected to me. I like guitar players who have something to say and guitar solos that you can whistle. I like passion and connection. So guitar players, even if they don’t play the Blues need schooling in the Blues because that is the source. I ended up using a big Gretsch guitar because I didn’t want to use the typical Gibson or Fender at the time. I was searching for some kind of sound post-Punk. Steve Jones had pretty much done the Les Paul thing. I mean that Sex Pistols record says it all, I wasn’t going to do anything better than that! That was the top of the mountain. I thought “What can I do?” I liked rock n’ roll, I liked the Stray Cats, they were big in England when I was 20. I liked the Gretsch but it is a little more difficult to play than other guitars. Being the only guitar player in The Cult for a long time, I had to create my own methodology of sound and delay. My voice was a bit more rocker than Johnny Marr and The Edge and the other guys I was coming up with. I thought it would be interesting to play Jimi Hendrix style wa-wa on lead with a Gretsch and a lot of echo. What you get with that is the song “Phoenix” off the Love album.

AXS: We’re going to have to go listen to it again now.

B.D.: Yeah, go take the song out. I can assure you nobody else was doing that then. Basically, you just got to be bold, ballsy and have an idea. I was lucky enough to have a singer that was open-minded. That song ended up being one of Ian’s favorites. He loves it. We play it all the time.

AXS: Have you or Ian spoken to Jamie Stewart recently? When Cult fans heard I was going to speak with you a few of them were asking about him and how’s he’s doing.

B.D.: Jamie is well. He kind of retired after the Sonic Temple tour. He chose to leave the band. He didn’t like the lifestyle and the touring. He settled down, got married and had kids. He’s played with us a few times-back in 2009, he jumped up on stage when we did Albert Hall. He goes to gigs in England. He looks the same, I really miss him. I love his bass playing style.

AXS: Where did the stylistic departure on your self-titled album come from?

B.D.: The self-titled record was our deconstruction album. We basically dismantled everything we built from the Ceremony tour, which was us playing arenas. This is when grunge happened. Ian and I recognized that the grunge bands were the ones that were making music that was relevant and we weren’t. We made a very low key experimental record, very slash and burn. It is a fan favorite, but for us it was a reaction to what went on. We needed to reassess.

The Cult is currently on tour and playing Rams Head Live! in Baltimore on May 3. AXS now offers a new ticketing feature that allows customers to find tickets, invite friends and reserve tickets for friends so that everyone can attend the event together. GA tickets cost $30, special VIP packages are available. To see other upcoming shows at Rams Head Live! visit their event calendar. Follow The Cult on Facebook to stay up-to-date on all tour information.