"There was always an undercurrent of youthful exuberance, violence and piracy": Why The Cult's Billy Duffy and Ian Astbury aren't scared of summoning the ghosts of their past by resurrecting Death Cult

Death Cult
(Image credit: Press)

First a little history. Southern Death Cult formed in Bradford in the early '80s and were soon considered rising stars in a post-punk landscape that would soon morph into a number of forms, including a nascent goth scene. When Southern Death Cult split up in 1983, totemic frontman Ian Astbury teamed up with guitarist Billy Duffy to form Death Cult. There were links to the past, in the name and adaptation of at least a couple a couple of songs that Astbury laid claim to, but Death Cult was to all intents and purposes an entirely new band. 

In less than a year Death Cult became The Cult. Their gothic sensibilities, shamanic spirituality, layered sonic tapestries and an increasing penchant for stadia-seeking hard rock (that would later peak with Electric and Sonic Temple at the end of the decade) made them a unique proposition in the early 80s music scene.

Throughout November the band will be celebrating their Death Cult incarnation with a 12-date tour across the UK and Ireland, revisiting a number of venues they first played in that era. The setlist will concentrate on Death Cult but also reach back to the singer’s time in Southern Death Cult and forward to The Cult’s first two albums, 1984’s Dreamtime and 1985’s Love.

Billy Duffy looks back on the Death Cult days and recalls the first time he saw his future bandmate, running through the woods outside Keele University…

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You could have marked the band's 40th anniversary with a big greatest hits-type set. Why did you decide to do it like this and delve back to the beginnings?
'Well, it's only 40 years to the Death Cult. I wouldn't rule out the possibility that we do 40 years of The Cult when The Cult have been going for 40 years."

Before Death Cult was the Southern Death Cult. Were you a fan of that band at the time?
"Yeah, they supported Theatre Of Hate when I was in that band. They supported us on the Westworld tour, which was the breakthrough single. We embarked on a fairly decent tour of the UK and this up-and-coming band from Bradford called the Southern Death Cult were the support band. That was the first time I laid eyes on them and Ian. I believe the gig was Keele University."

What was your first impression of Ian?
"Well I think I saw him running through the woods, because Keele University is in the middle of a load of woodland. I saw this spectral figure running through the woods a lot like Daniel Day Lewis in The Last Of The Mohicans. That's the best visual analogy I can give. What I can remember is seeing them perform. I was on the balcony with Stan Stammers, the bassist from Theatre Of Hate. I was impressed with the whole thing but I was particularly blown away by Ian's singing. Me and Stan looked at each other and went, 'Fucking hell, what's that all about?’”

When Southern Death Cult split up, what was it that convinced you that this new band with Ian was the way forward?
"Poverty really! I got poor quick in Theatre Of Hate and I left that band with a very cool white guitar, no money and nowhere to live. I'm still a fan but on a practical level I learned a lot about how not to run a band. I was pretty much on my uppers, couch surfing and hustling because I'd spent all my money on a Gretsch White Falcon. I didn't even know Southern Death Cult had broken up so it was a bit of a miracle when Ian came down and found me in London .I was living in a flat in Brixton that was a bit of a dosshouse and a den for little goths and that was the circumstance when Ian came down and looked me up."

With no internet back then, were the fans always aware that Death Cult was an entirely different band and did you suffer any backlash?
"For the most part they were because the Southern Death Cult break-up was a bit of a shock. They were being mooted as the next big thing. I think the obvious thing is when you do put a band together between two guys who are fairly well known, there's a bit of momentum behind that. There was a lot of heat and trying to overcome that attitude of, 'Oh, you're never going to be as good as Southern Death Cult'. We probably have never been as good as Southern Death Cult, 20 million albums and 40 years later. They must have written songs better than She Sells Sanctuary that I'm not aware of!"

Death Cult featured heavily in the NME's infamous goth-precursor Positive Punk piece. Did you recognise the scene they were writing about?
"That's a difficult one to answer because that attempt to make some kind of tangible scene, that was actually one of the motivations for me and Ian to drop 'Death' off the name. We tried to dodge it because the whole idea of me and Ian getting together was to have the creative freedom to be whatever band we wanted to be.

"In retrospect, one of the biggest motivating factors was there seemed to be a set of velvet handcuffs from the press - which at that time had an incredible influence. Back then about six journalists in one pub in London decided pretty much whether you were going to make it or not. I saw the Sex Pistols in 1976 and I saw the Buzzcocks play with them at their first ever gig. My punk credentials were pretty good and I didn’t appreciate being told what I should or shouldn't do by a load of journalists in London. There was also a bit of a patronising attitude of, 'Oh, he's a simpleton from up North who lives in a cave with a funny accent, they can't possibly be legitimate.’ It's irrelevant now but it was very relevant to us back then."

So it’s safe to say you wouldn't embrace the gothic tag either?
"I thought Southern Death Cult were more that way. Remember, I was in Theatre of Hate and we toured with The Clash with a military-meets-rockabilly chic. Southern Death Cult were all Mohicans and topknots and skinny black jeans from Leeds market. They were obviously heavily influenced by Adam and the Ants, that was their food group, and I thought they looked like provincial northerners, all a bit gothy. That was a prejudicial term in some respects but probably not if you lived in Leeds!"

Why did you take the Death Cult name in the first place?
"We couldn't think of a better name! Ian felt that he had some intellectual ownership of the name and that's also why we only ever played two Southern Death Cult songs: A Flower In The Desert and Moya, because again Ian felt they were more his songs. We were trying to tread a line that was respectful but we couldn't think of a better name than Death Cult. Then after a while due to that whole [gothic] scene we changed it to The Cult. I've always found Halloween a very childish holiday. I think it's amusing but I don't really buy into all that scary shit. All the bands used to play together but the truth of it was we wanted not to be pigeonholed, hence the name change."

Was touring in ‘83-‘84 the archetypal skint in a van experience?
"Pretty much, but when Ian came to London we agreed to start a band and tried to write some songs and went to see his record label. Looking back Ian was under contract - a lot of labels had tried to sign Southern Death Cult but they decided to go with Beggar's Banquet on a music-first, business-second footing. We did benefit from that."

The debut Death Cult show was in Oslo in July 1983. Was it a deliberate decision to start outside the UK and what do you remember about the show?
"I don't remember anything about the gig but it was a strategy as the new band was a bit under the spotlight. ‘Let's go abroad like Led Zeppelin did’ [as the New Yardbirds], that was literally our thinking. I believe at a couple of shows we were actually billed as the Southern Death Cult. I remember hanging out with the promoter who was a cool dude but everything else is a bit of a blur. I've seen the photos and I was swigging Southern Comfort out of the bottle so that might indicate my state of mind."

Was drinking and debauchery a bit rife then?
"No, not really. I think we were mindful that the band was under a spotlight. I don't like using the term but I can't think of a better one; it was a bit of a post-punk supergroup. The other two members were in a band called Ritual."

As a punk-adjacent band did those early gigs ever turn a bit chaotic or violent?
"There was always a little undercurrent of youthful exuberance and violence. There was theft and piracy and all sorts going on at that level. There was always a bit of stuff at these gigs and then sometimes at smaller towns, especially if you’re at the end of a pier in a seaside town out of season, you pretty much knew you'd have to fight your way off it because the locals are always a bit weird! It was that kind of atmosphere but that didn't last very long for us. Me and Ian had plans and we always had an idea that we'd do something to elevate it. We weren't mucking about. Every decision we made, we were trying to look a year down the line. We had a plan and we were pretty convinced we knew what we were doing."

On the Death Cult EP did you and Ian click as writers straight away?
"It seems that there was some chemistry there. That first EP wasn't terrible, there was definitely a vibe on it considering it was two people who had never written together. One little disclaimer is that I'd never written music before. Kirk Brandon did all that in Theatre Of Hate and he did it very well. I wrote some songs when I was 16 in Manchester and I was in that band (The Nosebleeds) with Morrisey for 20 minutes. But in all the bands I'd been in since I might have thrown in a riff but I wasn't writing entire songs until Ian had the faith in me to do it. I still to this day look back and think it was a bit of a big swing. Listening back now and playing the songs, I'm very happy with that first EP."

They didn't have the global success of Electric and Sonic Temple but the first two Cult albums were still hits in the UK. Did it feel like you were on a steep upward trajectory?
"All of our peer group - and I'm very loosely talking about Killing Joke, Danse Society, Bauhaus, Sex Gang Children - they all seemed to be getting on Top Of The Pops and we weren't. There was this pressure to come up with a hit. Dreamtime as an album was cobbled together because our manager said the promoters in Europe really don't want to book you because you don't have an album. That's as pragmatic and stupid as it was, so we cobbled together an album of the best songs we had at the time. Dreamtime came out in the UK, Canada and Japan but it wasn't officially released in America or Europe. We were thinking, 'What's wrong with us, why haven't we got a deal in these territories?' We'd been to America on Dreamtime, playing a little club tour looking to get a deal. Similarly we went round Europe trying to get a deal

"The bridge between Dreamtime and what I'd call the song that changed everything was us trying to find ourselves with songs like Spiritwalker, which was cool and Go West, which a lot of people liked. Ressurection Joe was a mad idea to do a dance song that was only supposed to be a 12" single. That was what we had until we came up with She Sells Sanctuary and then everything changed.”

In an interview in 1983 Ian said he could see you being like The Who and still doing this 20 years on. Could you ever have envisaged four decades of this?
"That's why we got together. The honest truth is that me and Ian were lifers. I just wanted to be the lead guitarist in a rock band. And he, I guess, wanted to be the singer, frontman, mystical poet, wizard, monk or whatever his truth is. So we pooled our resources and we've been 50-50 partners for 40 years. And that was our goal: it wasn't to be the hippest band in Cleethorpes. I wanted to take the band and go around the world and have fun with it. And we took the necessary decisions to do that."

Having dug through the back catalogue relearning songs, has it given you a fresh appreciation of what you achieved back then?
“It's given me a bad back! Holding that Gretsch for hours every day relearning the songs. It's interesting because we've been on tour doing a more regular Cult set, playing the hits. I's an interesting headspace to get into. It's quite a leap from Brothers Grimm to Lil’ Devil - mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually - but we're managing it. It's being done for the right reasons and it's something we wanted to do and acknowledge, mainly for the fans. I'm just interested to see if all the old goths still have hair and if they can still do the chicken dance."

Death Cult will play:

Nov 06:  Belfast Telegraph
Nov 07:  Dublin 3Olympia, Ireland
Nov 09:  Sheffield Foundry
Nov 10:  Liverpool Guild of Students
Nov 12:  Glasgow Barrowland
Nov 13:  Nottingham Rock City
Nov 14:  Birmingham O2 Institute
Nov 16:  Bournemouth O2 Academy
Nov 17: Norwich UEA
Nov 18: Manchester Albert Hall
Nov 20:  London Brixton Electric
Nov 21:  London Brixton Electric
Nov 22: London London Islington

Any remaining tickets for the tour can be purchased here.

Paul Travers has spent the best part of three decades writing about punk rock, heavy metal, and every associated sub-genre for the UK's biggest rock magazines, including Kerrang! and Metal Hammer