Billy Duffy Talks 'Hidden City,' Guns N' Roses Tour, Streaming
GRAMMY.com caught up with Billy Duffy to hear about how The Cult is navigating the modern world of digital streaming, and how putting out new music at this stage in his career is like receiving a “blood transfusion.”
The Cult is currently on the road for a stint of US dates after supporting Guns N’ Roses on their 2016 Not in This Lifetime Tour.
You just got off the road with Guns N’ Roses. How was that tour?
Rock and roll on an industrial level! We’ve done big gigs before, but it was interesting to go back and be a part of that dynamic. It’s a big stage - lots of running around. Mentally, physically, and spiritually you have to get ready for it.
At this point in your career, do you learn anything from watching a big arena band like Guns N’ Roses perform?
Guns N’ Roses rehearsed very hard. That’s one thing I learned: they rehearse a lot. You almost second nature the actual playing so you can work out the performance and get the chemistry on stage. That stuff’s important.
Hidden City is your 10th studio album. What was the inspiration behind it?
I don’t want to paraphrase Ian [Astbury] in terms of lyrical inspiration, but for me it’s the same for every album. I get an itch, and I write a load of music. I need to scratch the itch and get that music out, so I get together with Ian and an album pops out. Fortunately, I’ve got a partner where we manage to get in the same space, come together and make records.
My personal challenge is to make music that doesn’t suck, and I think we achieved that with this record. Our albums are basically the same two guys that wrote them for 30 years, but they are all diverse and it charts a journey and an exploration. We could have made the same album 10 times - we might be guilty of many things, but we’re not guilty of that.
Is it still as exciting at this point in your career to be able to put out new music?
There are bands that go out on tour and just play the hits and never make new music, and then there are bands that make new music. I think that gives you a blood transfusion. It’s important to go through that process.
How has the process of how you and Ian work together to create songs evolved over the years?
Back in the old '80s, you could kind of knock music together. The band is your home. If you’re not on tour, you’re in rehearsals or making a record and material comes up and germinates quickly. You do it in sound checks. You play it live. That’s all dead now because of cell phones and the Internet. Nobody plays new songs live before they have been recorded because they have no value. Plus, the way recording has changed. People can record at home and do their own thing. You don’t have to get the band together, although I find that is healthy. The other thing, to be totally, brutally honest, is when you get older and you’ve been in a band and you’ve made some money, you don’t hang out with each other as much. I don’t care what anybody tells you, the last thing you want to do when you’ve just finished a tour is see the other guys in the band. So it takes time to get together.
Having said all that, every three years Ian and I have ideas and we put them together. I will confess I don’t think I’ve had one new riff idea since we did Hidden City though. It’s a weird thing for me, but it comes when it’s ready.
When it starts happening, I make sure I’ve got something to record it on and then I start the process. I’m not one of these guys that have a home studio; I’ve never been into that technical side of it. I’m more of an experiential guitar player trying to express how I’m feeling through the music and melodies.
You had Chris Chaney play bass on this album. What did he bring to the project?
He just intuitively and seamlessly knew what we wanted to hear. There was barely a moment where we were like, “Oh don’t play it like that. Play it like that.” 95 percent of the time, he listened, he understood what was required, he executed flawlessly, and he knew where to get the best takeout food in Hollywood. In every situation it was a win! A lot of session players are like that. They have the ability to understand what is required […]
A few years ago, Ian announced that The Cult wasn’t going to do any more studio albums and was going to focus on EPs and digital releases…but then you put out this album trilogy. What was the decision behind that?
I’ll tell you this about Ian Astbury – dear, dear guy I love very much -- when he says something, he really means it at the time. […] When he said it, he meant it.
What he didn’t know was you can’t make money off of selling EPs, because you can’t charge enough for them. So you make an EP, and then you lose money. Six months later, you’ve got a bill. Ian Astbury didn’t like that, and neither did Billy Duffy.
He’s a very forward-thinking guy […], but he’s pragmatic enough to realize that you can reach and sometimes it doesn’t work out.
You kicked off your latest trilogy in 2007, which Hidden City is a part of, with Born Into This…
With the trilogies, what we were saying is, “Hey! We’ve been together 10 years. We’ve done a million gigs since ‘Fire Woman.’ The band is still good now. Come check us out!” We’ve made three albums, and I think they’ve all gotten better as they’ve gone along.
It certainly energizes Ian that he has the challenge of coming up with new stuff, even though it might not mean anything -- albums don’t mean anything; nobody buys them. Old school fans do, people who are 40 and older do, but young people don’t even want to own music. They just want access to it when they want access to it, so they stream it.
How do you feel about the current streaming frenzy?
Well, now the industry has managed to monetize so that the artist can get paid more than .000007% of a penny. The cycle is a little better. [Most] young people don’t want to really own stuff, but there are a percentage that want a record player and vinyl. You’ve got this juxtaposition. The vast majority […] just want it up in the Universe and to be able to listen whenever they like. Then there is a small percentage who are like, “That’s terrible. How soulless and vapid is that?”
The sound quality is terrible, as we all know, so that’s the next battle […] If anything, I’d be for better quality streaming so people can really listen to the music.
During your 2013 tour, you guys played the whole album Electric. What was behind that decision?
Most bands do [the classics] at 20 years, or 25 years or whatever. Not The Cult. We do them when Ian’s ready. At whatever year Ian is ready to do them, we do them.
Again, it’s like anything else; every band does it now. Maybe in 2009 we went out and it was like, “Wow! They are playing the whole Love album. How cool!” Now bands will go out and play every album in one night. It’s audience driven. If the audience stopped showing up, then it’s no good anymore.
Will you do it again in the future?
I’d like to think we could do it. It would be fun. We’ve certainly got a good lineup of guys, and I certainly enjoy playing with them. I don’t think we’ve ever been better.
What’s the secret to keeping your signature sound while still evolving with the times?
It’s the enthusiasm […] the blood transfusion of doing new music. You’ll do new music, and then the next time around you do a classic album tour where you play the whole album and you play a mixture of stuff afterwards. Do what feels right at the time.
I think it’s the determination of me and Ian, and the willingness to drive forward and keep getting up and keep getting back in the ring and keep swinging. I think that is a factor. Too dumb to quit maybe!
Do you have any solo aspirations?
I have no desire to do a solo record because I pretty much get to do what I want, which is one of the secrets to the thing within The Cult.
It is collaboration, but it’s also pretty open. I think that’s another reason we’ve lasted so long.
That must feel really great, especially at this phase of your career.
Look at Mojo’s review for Hidden City. No band like us gets 4 stars in Mojo. It’s a nice little thing, even though I’ve never made records to get reviews.
Rock bands are sort of put down in the general music media, they generally have a go at rock bands. But for once people got it. It was cool!