The Cult made their third appearance at SXSW on Friday, March 18, promoting their critically acclaimed new album Hidden City with a performance at ACL Live.
Guitarist Billy Duffy spoke to AXS about Hidden City and returning to Austin. Jovial and welcoming, even after fighting jetlag from a recent stint in Europe, he commented: “I have many fond memories of SXSW and Austin in general. And that's really not a platitude.”
He recalled playing at Stubb’s in 2001: “It was kind of ironic because it was absolutely freezing and we have on these layers of leather onstage.” Another highlight came in 2012 when actor Matthew McConaughey joined the band (on bongos) at Auditorium Shores.
Duffy is proud of the Hidden City, recorded with frontman Ian Astbury and long-time producer Bob Rock: “Doing the album over two years allowed each song to evolve naturally… those disparate elements that have gone into making The Cult over the years, we had the time to fine-tune them on each individual song.”
The album features tracks like the haunting “Birds of Paradise”, brooding "Hinterland" and the barn-burning “G O A T,” inspired by UFC champion Conor McGregor. “We kind of connected him to the spirit of Muhammad Ali…boastful but they got the skills to back it up,” Duffy said. “It’s our fight song, but very irreverent and tongue in cheek.”
He’ll be performing with his new custom Gretch Black Falcon guitar, modeled off his beloved 1974 White Falcon: “We had a white one and it sold really well so I said why don't we do a limited edition of one in black, because I certainly want one,” he laughed.
Both models have since sold out, but Duffy has a signature wah-wah pedal in the works as well: “It has two completely different circuits--the "classic” is my homage to (David Bowie guitarist) Mick Ronson, because that's why I love wah-wahs, his way of using them to express himself on lead guitar. So it lights up red for Ronno! And the blue setting is for me: blue for Billy…that's what I've been using over the years because its a bit more horsepower… it looks a bit like a white falcon--white and chrome and sexy."
The mention of Ronson dovetailed into a discussion of Bowie’s recent passing. In addition to performing “Moonage Daydream” on tour, Duffy noted his impact: “Growing up in England in the 70's he was part of the fabric of life…this omnipresent figure. I know he was successful in America, but not to the degree and social impact in the UK. He set trends and was such a pioneer…Ian went into mourning for about two days when Bowie passed away...just a great loss.”
This pioneer spirit extends to The Cult as well, who played a heavier style of alternative rock long before Grunge became fashionable in the '90s. Duffy acknowledged as such: “there's definitely a connective tissue there…“She Sells Sanctuary” broke in Seattle before anywhere else in the U.S. If you listen to the early recordings of Mother Love Bone or Soundgarden…you can hear a hint of that.”
He continued: “Sometimes its a little difficult being the pioneer: you're a pathfinder pushing against the resistance, finding the way through the dark forest and its pitfalls. And then once there’s the path maybe you make some mistakes…but there’s others behind you who see the potential in what your trying to do after you've cleared a lot of the debris out of the way.”
But it was the group’s elusive nature, which saw them straddle genres like alternative, Goth and metal, that actually gave them longevity: “We've not really been pigeonholed…the best thing you can say about The Cult is that they sound like The Cult.”
Regarding his 30-year plus partnership with Astbury, Duffy noted: “deep down at the core of it its just two guys you know? His voice, my guitar. We write together and nothing’s really changed…we've always followed our gut…I'm kind of proud that we've done that. If we feel it, we do it. We don't sit there scratching our heads thinking how are people going to take this? We’re not calculated.”
He also brushed off any notions of courting nostalgia: “We don't want to just wallow in 30 years ago. It’s also about what we’re doing now. I think it’s a great period to enjoy The Cult…we're on an upswing.”