The Cult On The Inside Story of Electric, Part One

Having broken into the UK’s national consciousness with their swirling, goth-rock masterpiece Love, critics and fans were anticipating ‘more of the same’...
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Having broken into the UK’s national consciousness with their swirling, goth-rock masterpiece Love, critics and fans across the world were anticipating ‘more of the same’ in 1987 when the band came back to record their follow-up album. What transpired shocked and surprised many, whilst launching The Cult up into the pantheon of the heavy rocking, heavy haired artists that, elbows-out, were snarling their way through the American charts.

However the true course of Love, to Electric, didn’t quite run smooth.  Prior to Rick Rubin’s stripped-down behemoth coming to light, the band had recorded the album with Love producer, Steve Brown. Entitled Peace, and with many more nods to the more textured sounds of it’s predecessor, the album has finally seen the light of day as a special edition re-release alongside big brother, Electric. As the band begin their tour of Electric, Andy Hollis spoke to some of the main protagonists to find out how they went from Love to Love Removal Machine.

AH – So after a pretty intense world tour of Love, obviously you wanted to capitalize on your success and went straight back to the studio with Steve Brown. Was the idea “let’s do this again”….?

Jamie Stewart (bass) – Pretty much, yes. The combination with Steve had worked really well and we’d had a great experience with him making the album Love.

Billy Duffy (guitar)We’d had a hit record with Steve and so wanted to go back and use him again. It seemed the natural thing to do, but we wanted to develop the sound. Strangely enough, it was the first time we’d really had to consider our moves – we’d always previously just followed our gut instincts, but with Love having been a success, we started having to think ‘okay, where do we go now….how do we follow that?

Ian Astbury (vocals) – I wasn’t into it as an individual really. Already, about half way through the Love tour I was visualizing something very different. I’d heard ‘Cooky Puss’ by the Beastie Boys at a club in Toronto and said to the DJ “what IS that!” I realized at that point that was how we should be recording. It just sounded so much better – it was raw. Even when we were playing the Love album live, we weren’t trying to emulate the record, we had that side of us coming out. As soon as I’d heard Rick’s production with the Beastie Boys, I had an agenda to get him on board somehow.

Steve Brown: "when you’re burning £1,200 a day it’s like flying into a storm – do I keep going or do I turn round? It makes the record company nervous, and those were the conditions in which we were recording."

AH – What kind of music had you been listening to on the tour prior to going back in to the studio? Was it influencing you?

BD – We were exposed to more of the same stuff as always really, the pre-punk styles. My roots have always been in blues based rock – Ziggy Stardust, Free, Thin Lizzy, Led Zeppelin. What was new to us in a sense was going out to the US and being allowed to listen to that kind of music, whilst also being allowed to like the Sex Pistols. The culture wasn’t defined by what they hate – there was none of the ‘never trust a hippy’ vibe that we had in the UK. You liked what you liked, and that was okay.

IA – I’d had my formative years growing up in North America so music was always very available – I remember seeing the New York Dolls on terrestrial television over there in 1974, so all those types of bands were really ingrained. I was still listening to Led Zeppelin and The Doors. Joy Division have always been a huge influence as well, along with the Birthday Party. At that point though I started really discovering the Blues, via Hendrix and MC5, that kind of stuff. Bowie of course has always been inspiring to me.

Steve Brown (producer, Love/Peace)Billy I think just fell in love with America. It’s a massive rock market, and he wanted to go and join that market.

AH – How developed were the songs when you got back into the studio?

JS – We’d done a bunch of rehearsals, so they were pretty well defined. We went in initially to do some tweaking with Steve on the demos.

SB – We didn’t get a particularly significant pre-production period, which is where you come back into the fold. Pre-production is a much more relaxed atmosphere where you’re mulling over ideas – it’s so important because it’s at that point you can say to Ian or Billy, “I think we can do a bit better than that”. But when you’re burning £1,200 a day it’s like flying into a storm – do I keep going or do I turn round? It makes the record company nervous, and those were the conditions in which we were recording.

BD – I agree with Steve on that, 100%. The beginning of that record was mis-managed, and we should have been allowed to go in to pre-production. The songs were coming together on tour – we actually flew Steve in to Canada whilst we were on the road to record Electric Ocean. We had three days off, he’d just come back to the UK from working in Australia. It was pretty extravagant but shows how we were very keen to use Steve again.

SB – The only thing we’d got when we went into the studio was Electric Ocean, which we’d snapped up in a studio just outside Montreal, but that was about it really. What you’ve got to understand about ‘second-album syndrome’ is while the band are out there initially playing toilets, in Soundcheck they have years to write and work on songs. Billy will play a riff, Ian will yodel something over the top – “did you get that? Yeah” – and they’ll have cassettes building up with all of this for years. Second album, you’re famous, at Soundcheck you might be supporting and you’re on and off. It’s just not the same, so that material doesn’t build up at all. Therefore when you come to record, you don’t quite have that bag of sweeties you had for the first album.

Billy Duffy: "My roots have always been in blues based rock – Ziggy Stardust, Free, Thin Lizzy, Led Zeppelin"

AH – You went into lockdown at Richard Branson’s Manor studios in Oxfordshire – what’s it like being residential somewhere like that? Is it marmite and cold beans from a tin, or slightly more luxurious?

IA – Well we went residential to record Love and it seemed to work. This was a bunch of 23/24 year olds in a beautiful country house with a fully stocked  wine cellar. There was a lock on the cellar when we arrived….but that didn’t last long.

BD – It was amazing. We even had our own chef – as much food as you could eat! Let me go back! It sucks now in comparison!

JS – Well we were there for 3 months in total. It’s an odd bubble of self-examination really. You become quiet introverted, not really interacting with the wider world.

SB – It was wonderfully luxurious surroundings, good food, all the trimmings.

AH – A lot of fun though?

BD – We had some bad, bad fun at The Manor. Zodiac Mindwarp and The Mission used to come and hang out. Zodiac and Ian actually had a jam after a 10 hour drinking session which sounds like…well it sounds like a song that’s been recorded after a million units of alcohol! There was way too much partying!

SB – Ian had an obsession at the time with World War II artifacts and history. Unbeknown to me he’d found an army surplus store in Oxford – so I’m sitting there overlooking the lawn with the trout pond and the swans. Through the hedge at the bottom of the lawn comes this guy, marching towards me in full Stormtrooper uniform, goggles, the lot. I froze because I just didn’t know what to think. He got closer and closer and I kind of recognized Ian’s walk and I went, “Ian?” and this big grin came out, it was hilarious. He loved dressing up Ian. He loved it. Good times.

IA – Wine, mushrooms and the Oxfordshire countryside. We were basically just getting hammered and hanging out. I remember we found these VHS players, which were a pretty new phenomenon at the time and we discovered they had a microphone input. Some smart-arse decided it would be fun to do his own vocal track to a Doors documentary! We overdubbed a lot of documentaries if I remember right!


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AH – A very different vibe and the beginning of a different style to the recording of Love though?

BD – Yeah, I think the change in the band began, with what ultimately became Electric, at the end of the recording of Love. I was jamming some riffs with Mark Brzezicki and he started playing some amazing beats. Ian freaked when he heard them and wrote some lyrics in a few hours for them and bingo, two of the darker songs from the album, Love and The Phoenix, were born. The Phoenix in particular became a hugely influential song for the later grunge movement, but even at that point we’d started becoming a heavier band. We’d shed the shackles of the post punk negativity whilst we were on tour – I was working with one of the most amazing rock singers ever so we were really looking to move on.

SB – It was very difficult to try and set up the same experience because the band were in a different place. You really needed Ian’s input – once you put Ian on a course he’s fantastic, and really runs with it. I just felt he wasn’t running at all, he was ambling, maybe a bit unsure. There just wasn’t the same magic as Love.

JS – Ian and Steve had an odd pattern in working at that point, there was a lot of booze about and it became quite difficult.

BD – There was a bit of a disconnect between Ian and the rest of the band at that stage. We were working all day but Ian would surface at night. He had a new girlfriend and wasn’t really singing. I don’t think he really liked the sound to be honest.

IA – Billy would record in the daytime and then I’d turn up in the evening after a few cocktails, ready to go, and try and undo all the work Billy had done! I was like “okay, forget that, let’s strip this all down and get raw and visceral”.

SB – It’s a long day recording with The Cult for a producer, but that was really for both albums. Billy is very much 9-5, get the job done, whereas Ian likes the atmosphere of night-time, turning the lights down, lighting candles. That kind of thing. Many a time I ended up sleeping in the control room!

AH – The general consensus seems to be that the band were unhappy with the sound and were basically in a different place, hence the decision to look at other options? 

IA  - The songs were getting lost and overblown, and we just kept adding more and more.

JS – I don’t really remember how it happened, but we finished the mix at the Manor and chewed on it. It just sounded quite cluttered and between Ian and Billy the decision was made to change… something. We had all moved on from Love, both musically and personally, and the feeling with Peace was that it had just got overblown. There was too much going on and by the end it just sounded unsatisfactory.

SB – Definitely. As I say, we hadn’t had the airlock of coming together beforehand and discussing stuff. There was just this pressure to get it done. Don’t get me wrong, people do work like this, but I don’t.

BD – The songs were too long and just felt bloated and self-indulgent. We’d gone back into the studio too soon as the label just wanted us to keep laying golden eggs. In reality we should have kept rehearsing and gone through a pre-production process. We knew something was not right, but didn’t quite know what it was. I remember listening to a replay of the album at the Townhouse studios and thinking, “We’re doomed!”

JS – It’s probably why the Peace album was disappointing in the end. It was a bigger version of where we used to be as opposed to where we were at the time. We needed to get more raw.

BD – We all knew that Love Removal Machine would be the first single, but we also knew it wasn’t right. We actually went into the studio with Bill Price and remixed a version which pre-dated what we did with Rick. We just wanted it to tighten up.

Ian Astbury: "It was pretty radical, a rock band going to a hip-hop producer to record at Electric Ladyland."

AH – How did the meeting with Rick Rubin come about?

JS – What we ended up with wasn’t really what we wanted when we went in. We knew we needed to strip it down somehow, to use what we had and thin it all out, hence we spoke to Rick to get his view.

IA – I actually spoke to Rick recently and we were breaking it down and trying to put together how it all came about. I actually met Rick prior to going back in the studio with Steve in ’86. We were over in New York doing a photo shoot for Rolling Stone and we met up with Rick who was still living in his New York University dorm room! It wasn’t the Rick of today!

BD – We were all aware from our time in the US of the work Rick had done with the Beastie Boys and with the Def Jam label, and Ian in particular was really taken by that, so we went to him with the idea of mixing the first single, Love Removal Machine.

IA – We were young and the hormones were raging, and this kind of music just really spoke to me. People were kind of embarrassed by the rawness of rock at the time, but for me it just fitted. People were musically introspective and all very Oscar Wilde at the time, reading Shelley in their bedrooms by candlelight, that kind of thing. Whereas I was listening to early Zeppelin and the Doors and thinking “where is this stuff right now?”

AH – What was Rick’s initial reaction?

IA – He was like, “Do you guys want to make some music that goes straight to your throat?”

BD – Well he agreed to remix the whole album if we recorded Love Removal Machine with him from the ground up. He asked me, “which song do you hate the most” which for me was the track Peace Dog. He said, “okay let’s start with that”, so we recorded it with him and he did such a great job – there’s this Joan Jett style riff going on and we all just went “Wow”. He got where we were straight away and we just thought ‘okay, let’s do the whole album’. That decision was made so quickly. We’d just come over to talk about a remix, and ended up recording an album. I didn’t even have any of my guitars there – I wasn’t going to lug this huge Gretsch across for a meeting, but we ended up staying. Every note of that album is recorded on rented equipment!

IA – Rick had never made a record with a band in a studio before. The stuff he’d got down with the Beastie Boys was all cut up and from loops. We actually went to him because of the work he was doing in hip-hop, nothing to do with rock. It was pretty radical, a rock band going to a hip-hop producer to record at Electric Ladyland.

AH – That must have been pretty tough on Steve?

JS – Yes, it was a big blow and I feel sorry for him. He’d spent three months of his life trying to bring this album to its fruition.

IA - Steve Brown was a major part of the bands growth and a brilliant producer in his own right, but we were just coming from a different perspective at the time.

SB – Look, I’ve been in the music business since I was 17 and it’s a cutthroat business, so nothing really surprises you. When you’ve had a few beers after a session and the lead singer has his arm round you saying, “I’ll never, ever work with anybody else again” you accept that and think it’s beer talking. But when you’ve been in the business so long, no bad news is new news.

BD – I think Steve knew himself that it wasn’t right. The alchemy just wasn’t there this time.

SB – Could I have made the record that they ended up with, yes, of course. Would I have wanted to make that record though, well no, probably not. I’m proud of Peace as it sounds like Steve Brown and The Cult. Where would they have ended up if they’d stayed with me? Equally as successful I think, but a lot more British. Kind of like Morrissey or the Rolling Stones. Who’s to say they weren’t right though.


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