How The Cult made the "blues-rock-free zone" of Under The Midnight Sun

Ian Astbury and Billy Duffy
(Image credit: Tim Cadiente)

June 8, 1986. The Cult are playing to a bumper audience of 40,000 at Finland’s Provinssirock, the second-largest festival in the Nordics after Roskilde. They’ve been touring the world for the best part of nine months and the end is in sight. It’s late, although night has yet to fall as the band play a set-list dominated by songs from their recent breakthrough album, Love

“The stage had real flowers in front of it and we were playing in daylight,” recalls frontman Ian Astbury. “Afterwards, around four o’clock in the morning, I was walking around, hanging out, and the sun was still up. It was this anomalous moment in the northern hemisphere where the sun never goes below the horizon. I was looking around at this incredible halcyon scene, with people making out, drinking, conversing. It was just one of those special moments. You never forget the feeling, like a lived experience.” 

Fast forward to 2020 and Astbury is at home in LA during the global lockdown. He began sifting through some of The Cult’s archive, including Provinssirock ’86, shot for Scandinavian TV. 

“Rewatching the footage just brought it all back,” he says. “It was right in the middle of the pandemic and I’m in East Los Angeles – police cars are being burned, there’s gunshots, rioting, chaos and pandemonium, fireworks every night. So everyone’s on edge. And I’m remembering this beautiful moment while being in this polarised moment in time that we were all in. I tried to put more of a positive tack on it, I guess, and thought: ‘We are all under a midnight sun right now. Our destiny is in our hands, individually and collectively.’” 

This juxtaposition of the idyllic and the hellish served as inspiration for The Cult’s new album, Under The Midnight Sun. Produced by Englishman Tom Dalgety, the man behind recent successes for Ghost, Royal Blood and Pixies, it feels like something of a reset. This is a leaner and more focused Cult, with much less reliance on the transatlantic rock tropes they’ve tended to fall back on in recent times. The kind of English-sounding record, in fact, that has its noisy antecedents in that post-punk spirit of 1986. 

“From a personal perspective, I called this out as a blues-rock-free zone,” explains guitarist and co-songwriter Billy Duffy. “It became apparent that certain types of my musical influences were not going to be required for this record, and certain other ones were going to be leant on more. So instead of fighting that, I just went with it. 

"The thing that was being left out was any of the kind of more bluesy ‘rawk’ influences that are in a lot of The Cult’s music since the mid-eighties. We tried to slightly eliminate that North American sound. So is it like early Cult? I don’t know. Can sixty-year-old guys make music like twenty-two-year-olds?"

Under The Midnight Sun isn’t the work of aging rockers trying to reclaim their lost youth. It’s a thoughtful, measured and sometimes disarming album, full of tone and unexpected texture. Venomous riffs are tempered by strings and cinematic flourishes, acoustic passages lead into towering rock vistas. It’s the music of veterans who are still energised by the creative process, by the idea of transformation.

“Ian and I talked about trying to make the songs a little shorter on this album,” Duffy explains. “We were kind of asking ourselves: ‘How come we used to say everything in under four minutes and now it takes five or six?’ So we wanted simplicity and brevity in terms of the music. We’ve always been on a journey with The Cult. We’re always transitioning in some way.”

Alt

Back in that busy summer of Provinssirock ’86, The Cult were transitioning fast. In the space of three short years they’d gone from unknown goth-punk upstarts to indie-psych heroes (largely due to 1985’s magnificent single She Sells Sanctuary) and were on the brink of taking on America with the Zeppelin-sized album Electric. The Stateside transformation was fully complete come the end of the decade, in the form of big-selling power-chord monster Sonic Temple, a top three album in the UK. 

Duffy insists there’s never been a grand master plan. He and Astbury first hooked up in the spring of 1983. Astbury had spent the previous year and a half as leader of Yorkshire’s Southern Death Cult, while Duffy had already moved through The Nosebleeds in his native Manchester, followed by a relocation to London and stints with the Studio Sweethearts and Theatre Of Hate. 

“Ian came down to London from Bradford with a carrier bag and overcoat,” Duffy recalls. “And I lived in Brixton, in a place that was basically one step before a squat. We sat there and went: ‘Right, you’ve left your band and I’ve been fired from mine. So let’s form a new one.’ 

"It’s quite a quaint story, really: two little post-punk tykes get together with this vision of forming a big rock band. We just had a simple vision that we wanted to make guitar-oriented rock, and not be sidelined or distracted by whatever the flavour of the month was. Just crack on with it. Which is what we did. And to an extent that’s still what we do.” 

“I saw Billy and realised he could really play,” Astbury remembers. “Also we hit it off, the chemistry was there from the start. I liked Billy. He was cheeky, Manc, smart, savvy, independent. Knew his way around. Had a little bit more experience than I had. And he started hanging out with us, because he’d been in bands and was kind of an outsider too, from the north.”

At surface level, the pair may seem like unlikely companions: Astbury the showy frontman steeped in esoterica, Duffy the less voluble foil and diligent guitar player; the poet and the pragmatist. Yet they’re bonded by more than just music. One of the key songs on the Under The Midnight Sun is A Cut Inside, a deliciously abrasive track that finds both men at their most intense. ‘No sweet surrender, outsiders forever,’ cries Astbury’s recurring motif, as Duffy’s hard-wired riff motors freely. 

This theme of outsiderdom has been a constant in their lives. Astbury, born in the Wirral town of Heswall to parents of English and Scottish descent, had a peripatetic upbringing. “I was going backwards and forwards from Liverpool to Glasgow for about eleven and a half years,” he explains. “And then we went to live in Canada. I’m an immigrant kid in a new country, surrounded by all these kids from different backgrounds. One of my best friends was from Kingston, Jamaica, and there were indigenous kids too. 

"We were definitely different and we were ostracised. All of a sudden I am other. So thank god for punk rock. Thank god for David Bowie; I heard him and thought: ‘This is where the action is! The action is on the outside of the mainstream, the pedestrian, the everyday.” 

Duffy grew up in working-class Wythenshawe, jumping on buses as a teenager to sneak into rock gigs in Manchester, often at the Free Trade Hall: Lynyrd Skynyrd, Rush, Blue Öyster Cult, the Hunter Ronson Band: “I saw Bill Nelson and Be-Bop Deluxe and went home and tried really hard to play stuff like Maid In Heaven and Adventures In A Yorkshire Landscape. Then I saw Johnny Thunders and wanted to be him for ten minutes. Then I saw Steve Jones play and I definitely wanted to be him."

Under The Midnight Sun is The Cult’s first album in six years. They’ve clearly been in no rush since 2016’s Bob Rock-produced Hidden City. The catalyst appears to be Tom Dalgety, who started turning up at Cult gigs and making overtures about working together. Before long they found themselves in the studio. 

“It just felt like the right time,” says Astbury. “There was definitely an energy with Tom, and a chemistry. It was just that natural cycle of trying to get together and create again, an intuitive thing.” 

The Cult cut a bunch of demos in LA, then the pandemic struck. While Astbury stayed home in California, Duffy preferred to sit it out back in England with Dalgety. The pair repaired to the Wye Valley, to the famed Rockfield Studios, scene of The Cult’s 1984 debut Dreamtime, to shape backing tracks. Duffy grasped the opportunity readily. 

“I’d got sick and tired of making records in Los Angeles,” he explains. “Personally I found it a very uninspiring place to be creative. I’d been longing for the good old days of tea and toast and frosty mornings in England, so I got pretty spoiled. Also, being in a residential situation meant that I could knuckle down, create a bubble and stay in it.” 

As Duffy and Dalgety shaped the sound and tonality of the tunes, they began to take on the features of what the guitarist calls “the new classic Cult, fresh yet familiar”. 

There are certainly echoes of the pre-Electric era on tracks like lead-off single Give Me Mercy

“That was intentional,” Duffy adds. “I think we’d kind of fully explored that other rock style with Choice Of Weapon [2012] and Hidden City.” 

Over in LA, fresh from reacquainting himself with Provinssirock ’86, Astbury set about adding lyrics that suggested a way forward from what he saw as the malaise of our current age. 

Give Me Mercy could actually be titled Give Me Mercy And A New Language,’” he posits. “Because we’re not hearing each other, nobody’s listening. We need another way of communicating.”

Astbury reached deep into his long-held interest in mythology and literature – the Beats, Buddhism, “philosophical entertainer” Alan Watts, the writings of Joseph Campbell, and so on – to come up with lyrics that deal with human interconnectivity and the need to grasp the moment. 

“Everything has changed,” he says, addressing the sweeping global events of recent years. “So it’s about these themes of regeneration and rebirth: build, create, destroy, create. It’s an archetypal theme. We can’t go back to yesterday, we can never recreate that moment again. We’re in the moment. And that’s central to The Cult’s DNA.” 

The Cult are a five-piece these days, rounded out by keyboard player Damon Fox, drummer John Tempesta and new bassist Charlie Jones, but the central core of that DNA will always be Astbury and Duffy. It’s a band, and a partnership, that endures, often despite the odds. 

“We’re the heart and we have been since day one,” Astbury considers. “And we’re very different guys. But at the end of the day there’s a real empathy for each other. I know where Billy came from and the environment he grew up in. I saw him at shows, I saw him in the audiences, I met his parents. And I think that really bonds you together. It’s such a foundational thing. And of course there’s our love of music.” 

Duffy is of a similar mind. “I think that me and Ian are different enough, and yet alike enough, to find the common ground to be able to work together,” he says. “We both do things with other people outside the band, but I think our destiny will always be entwined as The Cult. You’re lucky if you find somebody like that. 

"A lot of great musicians go through their lives without ever finding that other half that makes two plus two equal five. That’s what elevates it and makes it special. And I think me and Ian both understand that together we’re greater than anything we could achieve outside of that.” 

It’s possible to discern common threads running through The Cult’s body of work: a fierce independence of spirit; a shape-shifting kind of sensibility; a resolute belief in the transformative properties of rock’n’roll; the eternal power of the riff. Astbury looks back and sees a multitude of defining characteristics. 

“Permanent duality, contradiction, lived experience,” he concludes. “It’s all there. We’ve definitely experienced everything from birth, death, divorce, health issues, mental health issues, all of it. The whole spectrum of human experience – poverty, material wealth, loss of material wealth. So I’d say being human is probably the thread. And as raw as that is, it’s true. 

"That’s why The Cult have endured, because there’s definitely that authenticity to what we do and it’s nothing contrived. I don’t think you can really pull the wool over people’s eyes in that way. You know what you’re gonna get. And we have had a lot put on us over the years.” 

The Cult’s story is about much more than simple survival. New album Under The Midnight Sun proves that men of a certain vintage are still capable of creating wild and wonderful music – forward-facing music at that – without a great deal of compromise. 

“We’ve always been an instinct band, we’ve always gone with our gut,” Duffy reflects. “And luckily we’ve got more things right than we have wrong – and we’ve got plenty wrong. Otherwise we wouldn’t exist, we wouldn’t still be here, playing at the level that we still are. We’ve been headlining amphitheatres in America this summer and I’m sixty-one years of age. 

"Who’d have thought that? We’re not playing The Dog And Duck. Things ain’t that bad."

Under The Midnight Sun is out now

Freelance writer for Classic Rock since 2008, and sister title Prog since its inception in 2009. Regular contributor to Uncut magazine for over 20 years. Other clients include Word magazine, Record Collector, The Guardian, Sunday Times, The Telegraph and When Saturday Comes. Alongside Marc Riley, co-presenter of long-running A-Z Of David Bowie podcast. Also appears twice a week on Riley’s BBC6 radio show, rifling through old copies of the NME and Melody Maker in the Parallel Universe slot. Designed Aston Villa’s kit during a previous life as a sportswear designer. Geezer Butler told him he loved the all-black away strip.