It’s always a humbling experience when you get the opportunity to speak with a legend. Billy Duffy, the legendary guitarist of The Cult has worked with the likes of Jagger, Morrissey, and Iggy. He has seen and survived in one of the most tumultuous industries that exist. The man has probably done it all and he just keeps raising the bar. Fortunately, Pittsburgh (and a host of other cities/click for dates) will be able to catch The Cult as they embark on a revolving headlining tour this summer with Bush and Stone Temple Pilots July 21 at Key Bank Pavilion. Listen in as PMM speaks with Billy about the tour, The Cult’s vast history, finding the Duffy sound, and much more!
PMM: How are you?
Billy Duffy: I’m good. How are you, mate?
PMM: I’m good. I want to wish you a happy belated Birthday.
Billy Duffy: Thank you. You’re very kind.
PMM: We just got the news not too long ago that you were going to do this Revolution Three tour with The Cult, Bush, and STP. We’re pretty excited about it. How did that all come about?
Billy Duffy: I think, initially, it might have … I think there was talk … as often happens, as you know. Generally, they try and pair bands together. Initially, I believe, it was The Cult and Stone Temple Pilots, firstly. And then, they were looking as a way to do that. And then, the initial concept, somebody at Live Nation really like that idea. And then, they were like, “Well, how can we make this work?”
So, Bush came in quite late to the picture. As an idea of making it a three band thing. Initially, I believe it was going to be The Cult, Stone Temple Pilots, and then a younger band, and then an opening band. There is an opening band on the tour as well. It’s a young, cool little up and coming band.
I think that’s how it came about. I think somebody just … It’s amazing really when you think about it. All the managers, agents involved in getting three bands to agree to rotate their headline spot. And, all the show closer. We’re all headlining, but you know, it’s a package. But yeah, you know what I mean?
PMM: Yeah. It’s a pretty cool concept that you have a different order each night with full sets.
Billy Duffy: Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s the idea if we can pull it off. Some are going to be a few minutes short, then if you were to see it in a theater or something. Because just to fit each band in. I don’t think that’ll be too terrible.
PMM: No. Your first date coming up, is in about 10 days at Rocklahoma. Then you’ve got San Diego, and you go back to Spain, the UK, and then back here to Vegas. How do you feel about these festival shows? Do you like playing festivals?
Billy Duffy: Yeah. I enjoy it. Once there’s a band, and you’re tight enough and you’ve got your band unity, in that tightness together. I think it’s great. You can just be parachuted into virtually any situation. As long as you have a really good road crew. Obviously, nobody’s flying amplifiers and cabinets from America to Spain these days. Unless you’re on a major world tour.
So, you’re using rented equipment, you carry in … it’s a whole thing these days. What we call “fly dates.” So, if you’ve got a really good crew and the band are tight. Which, we’ve been touring for the last couple years on Hidden City. Then, it’s great. When it’s not great, is if you’re a little unsure as a band. And perhaps, you’re not as rehearsed as you need to be. Or, you haven’t done enough gigs. That can be challenging because there’s just so much distraction and stuff going on. And, so many things that you can’t control. It’s a bit like you roll the dice, you know what I mean?
PMM: Sure, sure.
Billy Duffy: You get out there … I’ve seen it be horrible for some bands. Particularly the ones (un)like The Cult, we’re all organic. Meaning, there’s nothing on tape. There’s nothing on an iPad, being played in the background. What you see is what you get. Five guys, that’s the noise.
Other bands rely on all this stuff to make their music sound good. And if that goes awry, then it can be a real mess.
PMM: Yeah, absolutely. You’ve been with The Cult, or what it was then, The Death Cult, since the early 80s. You’ve seen a ton of industry change. How do you feel about the state of the music business today?
Billy Duffy: I’m not deeply philosophical about it. I just think that it evolves, times change. And I think if there’s enough … There’s always going to be enough young people. If they’ve got something to say, they’re going to find a way to say it. I don’t always subscribe to, “it was better in our days” thing. I just make sure I have as much fun and as good a time as I could when I had my window of youth and opportunity.
I just think young people will do the same. They’ll find their own route. Nobody wants to listen to some old geezer whine, “It was way better in my day.” You know what I mean? You just become your parents. And nobody wants to listen to that.
They all find a way, and things change. Fewer people are playing guitars. I would imagine that we’re in more of an immediate culture. I’m sure everybody rolls around life with their eyes open, there lies the gap. So, there’s a tendency to think that machines can take over from human endeavor. Therefore … and they can, in certain ways. But then people are like, “Well, why do I really need to train learning an instrument? That’s really tiresome. Why do I actually need to try and write a song? Why don’t I just take somebody’s song and change it?” That’s, sort of, a shortcut. And, people want shortcuts in their lifestyle. The perceived cash and prizes of success, rather than do the work that rewards itself in time. You know? It’s just different.
PMM: Yeah, yeah. The first time I ever saw you guys, I think, it was about in ’84. And, the last time I saw you was the Hidden City Tour in Cleveland at the Rocksino. And, I don’t think you’ve aged. How do you guys keep that … and you said you’re tight. Obviously, you’ve been playing with each other, you and Ian, for a very, very long time. But, how do you keep that energy each and every night?
Billy Duffy: It’s a struggle. It’s a struggle, and the best bands manage to make a wet Tuesday night in somewhere unglamorous, feel like it’s playing Rock in Rio. That’s why the best artists, because they make everybody feel that the concert they’re going to is special because it is. I just try and remind myself of that. That might be my 5th concert in a row, and I might be a bit short on sleep, and the food might suck. But, to the people who are showing up, it’s an event for them. You just have to try and keep that in your mind. Do you know what I mean?
The only thing I can say about, between 1984 and now, is when I do the shows now I get a lot more joy out of seeing people really enjoying the music. You see them light up. I like to think The Cult is like nostalgia with a lower case “n.” It’s not all about the past. We make current music. The last album was as well received, critically, as any record we’ve ever made. So, through all this, I know it doesn’t matter so much. We live in a different age. But, it’s good to challenge yourself. And also, to see the fans respond to the new music as well as the classics, you know.
PMM: Have you guys discussed going back into the studio for another record?
Billy Duffy: Yeah, we have. It hasn’t got much further than the discussion stage. We know we can do it. It’s not just a question of getting the vibe right. It’s that intangible … when it just feels right to do it. But yeah, we’ve talked about it. Sometimes you look at a blank sheet of paper and you think, “Are we ever going to be able to come up with something?” But yeah, it’s been talked about but there’s nothing concrete, at the moment.
What we’ve been doing is looking at a producer and trying to find somebody who can help us get to where we need to be. Because both me and Ian, kind of, write the music together. So, we require a strong producer to help us, you know.
PMM: Yeah. You talk about a producer. I know you’ve discussed that if there was one record that you would redo, it would be Ceremony. You guys had such a huge shift on Electric. Do you … Is that the producer who really pushed? Because, I’ve heard both versions, obviously. Is it the producer that really brings that out of you?
Billy Duffy: Yeah, well, you have to be willing. You can lead a horse to water and all that. You know what I mean? But, the band has to be willing. But, sometimes you need somebody outside of the band who you both trust or all of your trust to give you some direction. Kind of lead … Every orchestra needs a conductor. And, sometimes that can be strong … For us, it’s usually a strong, opinionated person who is better. We (don’t) respond better to that kind of a wishy-washy approach.
I think that … Well, we were very willing with the Electric album. Because the first version, whilst it had some charm, I think our careers would have been very different, had we not re-done it with Rick Rubin in the way that we did. I think we might not be having this conversation right now.
PMM: Yeah. You guys just blew up from that record.
Billy Duffy: Yeah, it just changed a lot of things. It wasn’t that it was just of its time. Rock was making a comeback. Like, straight ahead, honest, clean, unadulterated rock. And, that’s the kind of album that we made with Electric. I think that the Love album did a great album, for what it was. It’s actually still my particular favorite.
But, I think that logically we try to go and apply the same techniques for Electric, and it just didn’t work. The songs we were writing had changed. The band had toured a lot. The music was getting heavier, and the same production approach wasn’t working. So, it took something radical like us recording and mixing the whole album, and then binning it, for Rick Rubin to come in … with his kind of very … I think I described him as the Pol Pot of music production.
There’s our way, and there’s Rick’s way. And Rick’s done that with great success over the last 30 years, hasn’t he?
Billy Duffy: He makes the same record, pretty much. “These are the rules of rock. And they never change.” The pillars of rock music … and Rick. Because we could have not done that, I could not have got that simplicity in the music. Because I don’t hear music like that when I write it. I hear it more layered and more complex … not complicated. Just more layered and textural, more melodically complex. And Rick was at the other end of the spectrum.
He knew we had good songs. He just felt there was too much going on. So, the famous quote, “I didn’t produce The Cult as much as I reduced The Cult.” The noise that was going on, the extra bits. And, that’s what Rick did. He pulled us out of that muck. We could never make that record again. You had to live it. We were living the pirate lifestyle. We were young guys with our first rush of success off the Love album. And we were just … It was authentic because we were living it. You know? It was somewhat of a hedonistic lifestyle.
PMM: You also have such a unique guitar sound. How did you develop that, your particular sound?
Billy Duffy: It was, in essence, it was just looking for something different after Punk. Having watched all the Punk bands and being in love with Johnny Thunders, and Steve Jones, and Nick Jones and The Clash. All the great Punk guitar players from The Damned. There was all that, and I was in the fan perspective, looking at those bands. When I got in my own band, I was trying to find my own style. Initially, I couldn’t … until we could get to the glitch, which was funny to find my own way. You know, I always got in bands pretty easily. And I always was … people wanted me to join their bands. But, it took me joining Theater of Hate, with the singer Kirk Brandon, who played Gretsch as well, part-time.
They all just came together. We were searching, a bunch of musicians were searching for a means to make us sound different than the bands that we grew up loving. We didn’t want to just copy them. Where’s the value in that? It’s been done.
So I think, in the simplest way it was part of the search. And all of the early 80s bands, we were just going for playing tribal music, or disco beats, or weird echo with guitars, or anything that would not make us sound like the Punk, stuff that had gone before.
That sort of statement had been made, and we were moving on, and trying to reach. And, that’s why I ended up with the Gretsch.
It was a sonic thing. And a lot of other guys did it in their own ways. They didn’t only get a weird guitar to do it. But, that was the thing. That was accumulative of guitar players, they were pre-eminent in the early 80s. You could see we were all reaching.
PMM: Absolutely. I don’t want to keep you too long. I’m going to ask you one last question. The biggest mistake you think you guys have made over 30+ years.
Billy Duffy: The biggest mistake? Oh, that’s a good one. Let me think about that. There was … man, I don’t know. We’ve made a lot. We’ve made a lot. Well, we were allowed to kind of … We, sort of, have been quite strong-willed. We had a … I don’t know, I don’t know. That’s a good question. Apparently, deal one. But, I’ve never been asked that question before. That’s a good one. I’ll have to get back to you on that one on the next interview.
PMM: Perfect. I appreciate that. Well hey, we’re really looking forward to you being here in Pittsburgh on July 21st. And, I’ll be in the front looking for you.
Billy Duffy: Yeah man, thank you, great interview. Thanks, nice talking to you. Take it easy out there.
PMM: Same to you Billy. Thank you so much.