Billy Duffy of the Cult on His 40 Years in Music

Billy Duffy of the Cult on His 40 Years in Music

By Chris Steffen

Sep. 16, 2016

In his 40 years in music, Cult guitarist Billy Duffy has seen a lot. Growing up in Manchester, he was friends with a teenage Steven Morrissey -- who would go on to be that Morrissey -- and attended one of the early Sex Pistols gigs that now everyone lies about attending. Once he teamed up with Ian Astbury in the Cult, the band enjoyed a streak of huge hits before calling it quits in the mid-90s and regrouping in the new millennium.

Earlier this year, the band released Hidden City, its tenth album, with super-producer Bob Rock again at the helm. In addition to their own touring, which resumes today in New Hampshire, the Cult found themselves opening for Guns N' Roses on their recent run of stadium shows, which brought back some memories for Duffy, as the Cult had headlined a few stadiums themselves once upon a time. We talked to him about those days, growing up in the Manchester punk scene, and why he's more energetic onstage today than he was as a punk-fueled kid.

AllMusic: When you walk into a room and see a guitar sitting in the corner, is it your instinct to pick it up and play it?

Billy Duffy:
I used to be quite lazy. I grew up pre-punk and then into punk rock, so there was a peculiar attitude towards musicianship and playing. When I was a really young kid, before I could really play at all, if you could keep a guitar in tune, it was a mystery. As I got a little better, I started to realize what was up, but there was so much that I didn’t know that I didn’t know, that if I knew it then, I’d probably have packed it in. I'm not wanting to play the “we was poor” card, but I didn’t have the most privileged upbringing, it was very blue collar, so I didn’t have many choices. Like a lot of guys in America, if you’re only fairly good at sports, that ain’t a career, so you have to look at academia, or otherwise it’s some kind of toil, and luckily, I got into rock and roll.

The good thing about punk rock that happened when I left high school in ‘77 was that it made it much more accessible, the dream, the fantasy of being a musician, it became ever closer because of punk rock, and it was a thing you had to live through. I’m starting to sound like one of those old hippies, going on about how great it was in the summer of love, but being in England in ’76, ’77, ’78, was a pretty interesting time, I have to say. That’s my ground zero. There was a lot of fantasizing in high school, trying to work out how Led Zeppelin could play “Black Dog” and what’s going on with Queen, “What are these people doing, how are they making music like this?” Then punk happened, and it broke it down for me a little more simply, and I still got the excitement that I got when I saw Queen live, when they were still doing 2,000 capacity rooms, and that was stunning, but when I saw the Pistols play and I got the same buzz and there was a lot less technique involved, I was like, “Ah, interesting.” So that’s a big part of my musical DNA.

AllMusic: You probably have some of those "I saw Joy Division with seven people in the crowd" stories.

I have a few good ones. It sounds like I’m making it up, because it’s weird, when you look back at it. One time, Jerry Harrison from the Talking Heads walked me and Steven Morrissey into a gig at Manchester University because a student had to sign you in to watch the gig, and no students would sign us in. So we were out on the doorstep of the student union, it must have been ’78, and they’re walking in, the band, looking at us, and they said, “What’s up?” being friendly Americans, as they are, and we said that we couldn’t get in, and Jerry said, “I’ll get you in.” He actually remembers doing that, he subsequently became a friend of mine.

And I was at the second Sex Pistols gig of the two that were very famous in Manchester terms, that was in 24 Hour Party People. I wasn’t at the first one where the Buzzcocks didn’t play, I was at the second one where they did play, maybe a month or six weeks later. It was their first ever gig, and I was as amazed by the Buzzcocks as I was by the Sex Pistols, to be honest. I thought they were an amazing Manchester band, and the middle band was from my neighborhood, which was one of the main reasons I went, they were called Slaughter & the Dogs, and they got some traction early on in punk. They were our neighborhood band, so I went to support them with a lot of my mates. I still have the tickets and the poster, they're right here on my wall. [reads] Tuesday, 20 July, 1976, 7:30 pm, ticket 1 pound, Lesser Free Trade Hall, Manchester.

AllMusic: A lot of people probably claim to have been at that show.

If you go to Manchester and mention something like that to men and women in their fifties, as far as I knew, the venue held 300 people, maximum, and there were probably 40,000 people there, I reckon. It was life-changing, it was a big deal for me. Prior to that, and at the same time, I was still listening to Free and Bad Company and Mott the Hoople and Bowie and Roxy Music and Thin Lizzy. I love guitars, I love rock, and I love the Stooges, MC5, Patti Smith, the Dolls, and all that, that’s in my DNA. But with the Cult, I’m not a slave to it, you write what you write, and I’ve tried to think it’s much more important to express what I’m feeling.

AllMusic: Do any of your stage antics now carry over from your early punk days?

It’s actually the opposite, I move much more now, I try to do my worst Jimmy Page meets Pete Townshend stage impersonation. I always thought Pete Townshend was the most compelling stage performer, and I really wanted to be those guys onstage. Townshend’s movements, when he was high as a kite, in the Doc Martens and the white suit, I was like, “That!” I was never into mod or that groovy swinging sixties thing, that was never to my taste, but when they went rock and it was Live at Leeds, I was like, “Whoa!” In the early days, I used to stand still, because I wasn’t sure what to do, I was terrified.

AllMusic: Now that you've been playing stadium stages again, do you have to rethink the way you fill the stage?

It’s an issue when you get out there, even though you have huge screens, you still feel the need to perform at a level physically that’s a bit more demonstrative, it’s more theatrical. It seems to be part of the ritual nature of a big rock show, and that was the most fun thing for me, looking at these football stadiums full of people, and it’s a rare sight. It used to be very common, but to see people gathered together to see guitar-orientated rock music has become quite a rare sight. It’s not for everybody, and I think it’s more of a mental attitude than a physical thing, although you have to move about the stage with purpose and assurance. If you play it like you’re playing a theater, you’re going to look small, even with the cameras on you. You see a lot of indie bands who get bigger and don’t know how to make the transition into being more of a stadium type band, they set up small and look small, and maybe it’s charming, but generally when bands get huge, they do what I call the stadium trot. If you look at Coldplay doing stadiums, look at them getting about the stage, nobody walks, you have to do your stadium trot to get from point A to point B.

The Cult never got that big, but we did two or three stadiums on our own. We had a little go in the big leagues, but we never sustained it. I’m not just an opener there, I’ve been the main event where 50,000 people have shown up to see me play with Ian. It’s a blast, it’s great, you embrace it, but it was never something that happened on a regular basis to where I got immune to the joys of it. Sometimes it’s horrible, we did one in Toronto at the Skydome, and it was hard, it was like playing in a vacuum. It was a disappointment, because we were so excited to be playing for so many people, the little gothic band who could. Sometimes it’s just about the aspiration to get there, and once you get there, it ain’t all that.

AllMusic: A song like "Birds of Paradise" on the new record is a longer song with a lot of open space in it, and you've been playing that one regularly since it came out. How does a song like that come together?

We always go in with a very open mind, that’s how me and Ian have always worked together. You could trace that song to the album before the Love album, the one that didn’t even come out in America, Dreamtime. It was a nice, twangy Gretsch line, although we’re a bit more piano-focused in the Cult now, because Ian’s more into piano. He doesn’t play it much, but he finds it easier to express himself writing on the piano, so there’s a different dynamic than back in the day. We deconstructed it in the mixing stage. The breakdown in that song, I thought the vocals were so good that I just pulled everything out. It’s a team effort with me, Ian and Bob [Rock], and I remember the moment where I said, “Those vocals, you don’t need music, you have that emotional content.” So we love doing that one live, it’s a good breather for me to get a bit of peace and quiet up there, I can stop sweating for two minutes, which is nice.

AllMusic: Is that the kind of thing you'd have been able to do early on or is it only with experience?

It’s partially that, and partially the producer, how he hears songs. We’ve worked with Rick Rubin, who is the ultimate minimalist, we’ve also done songs with Bob Rock and Steve Brown, and like myself, they tend to hear things a wee bit more layered. It’s a question of personal taste, and I’d say that Ian leans towards minimalism, but sometimes the way we write, you can’t get it done. It’s a question of what feels right, and you can have the goals of being minimalist in your approach, but if a song doesn’t feel good, you have to serve the song, and it’s a bonus if you can do that in a minimalist fashion. With the Cult, it’s a bit more busy. Not too much so, but I tend to hear music a bit more layered than one-dimensional.

AllMusic: Now that you've been making music for 40 years, do you have to compartmentalize the different phases of your career or is it a big ocean of memories?

It’s like an arc of anybody’s life, and music happens to be the currency that I am in. There’s halcyon periods, and I try to not look back with rose-tinted glasses on everything, but it was fun, and I’m glad we had a lot of fun when we did. There’s certain sections of my life -- Manchester, discovering music, then I moved to London and was hustling and trying to get in a band, and I got in the band that led to me being in the Cult -- that was my journey, and then the Cult was 12 years of pretty intense work, and then that was up to ’94 when the band had a bit of a break-up. So there are sections, and there’s so much time that you have to work through it to try and remember it.

AllMusic: And it's 2016 and you're playing stadiums again.

You won’t find me complaining about that. I was just bound and determined to really have a good time when we did that, that was my main thing. One of the biggest things is to not be a grumpy old sourpuss if you can avoid it. That’s one of the gifts of being where I’m at mentally, physically and spiritually, I have a lot more gratitude and I’m happy to be up there. I could have been miserable, like everything’s not good enough, but things weren’t necessarily better in my day. I was better and younger, but now I’m a different kind of good.

The Cult tour dates
Fri 9/16 - Hampton Beach, NH - Casino Ballroom
Sat 9/17 - Chester, PA - Talen Energy Stadium
Sun 9/18 - Norfolk, VA - Norva
Tue 9/20 - Raleigh, NC - The Ritz
Wed 9/21 - Charlotte, NC - Fillmore Charlotte
Fri, 9/23 - Irvine, CA - Verizon Wireless Amphitheter
Sat 9/24 - Houston, TX - Houston Open Air
Tue 9/27 - Wichita, KS - Cotillion Ballroom
Thur 9/29 - Kansas City, MO - Harrah's/Voodoo Lounge
Fri 9/30 - Memphis, TN - Minglewood Hall
Sat 10/1 - Louisville, KY - Louder Than Life Festival
Tue 10/4 - Denver, CO - Ogden Theatre
Wed 10/5 - Salt Lake City, UT - The Depot
Fri 10/7 - Fresno, AZ - Paul Paul Theater at Fresno Fair
Sat 10/8 - Primm, NV - Star of the Desert Arena