There are unsung heroes of science throughout history. And then there’s William Astbury, 1898-1961, a British physicist and molecular biologist who – while not always arriving at the perfect theory – made trailblazing studies into the structure of DNA and the X-ray diffraction of biological molecules that would make possible later, more definitive work from Linus Pauling – who identified the alpha helix – and Francis Crick and James Watson, who correct makeup of DNA in 1953. From 1928 on, he lectured at Leeds University, and was even funded by the textile industry in his investigation of the elastic properties of keratin and collagen, common in wool. He is now honored in his hometown via the Astbury Centre for Structural Molecular Biology.
Equally important? The man – who played both piano and violin – truly loved music. And if you want to know where brainy, zen-like, deep-thinking rocker Ian Astbury gets it from, look no further than this, one of his more prominent ancestors. “I come from a family of physicists like William Astbury,” says the frontman for The Cult, which is preparing to release one of its most topical, politically observant efforts to date, Hidden City. “He didn’t get the Nobel Prize – he just came up with the science. So none of this is new stuff to me. My grandmother was in a spiritual church, she was a clairvoyant, so I’ve also been around empaths, matriarchs.
“I mean, I’m a man, I’ve got stuff to say,” he continues, off and running on a particular pointed tangent – the way most conversations with him usually unfurl. “But really, we need to start listening to women. I’m a firm believer that there will be a woman in the White House – if not now, it will be coming. It’s already happening in South America, in Germany, where we’re seeing more female world leaders, more women in positions of power. Man desires to control nature, but look what happens – the Exxon-Valdez oil spills, power plant meltdowns. Yeah, we’re doing a really awesome job. And what are the guys doing? Building rockets to get off the planet, like Elon Musk and his friends, Like, ‘Dude – we are outta here, see ya later!
We’re going to Mars, somewhere else where there’s water and life!’”
Yes, Astbury does have a few things he’d like to discuss. And he invites all similar-minded Cult fans to Google his forward-thinking relative and read up on him, just to learn a thing or two about the past. Transfer of knowledge is important, he stresses, and something that’s fast becoming a lost art in these technology-driven days. He’s more intrigued by spiritual technology, he says. And it angers him that auteur David Lynch is marketing Transcendental Meditation to his followers, when it’s a discipline that can be acquired by almost anyone, for free. Ever since he was a kid, growing up in Canada, the Brit has been fascinated with Native American culture – the initial moniker of his band was Southern Death Cult, then Death Cult, which referenced a mound-building tribe from the Mississippi delta. Their belief system is one of the world’s greatest untapped resources, he swears.
“We really need to embrace the elders and the medicine people, and start listening to what they’re saying,” Astbury insists. “When you have an Inuit holy man, up in the Northwest Territory in Canada, saying, ‘We just want to tell you that our women can no longer breast feed our children because of the level of mercury in the fish – we just want to let you know that’ – I mean, cancer is going through the roof, and it’s costing the U.S. government billions and billions of dollars to readdress this balance. When, in actual fact, the indigenous have spiritual technologies that are free. Free. It’s everyone’s birthright. Nobody holds a patent on spiritual communication.” He urges folks to open their minds, to be ready to receive relative information no matter what form it might take. “You can look for it on the back of a Cheerios box – it doesn’t matter. It’s whatever you connect with,” he says.
Look at the global popularity of the new Star Wars – The Force Awakens film, the rocker urges. “Why are people in droves passionately climbing over each other to get a piece of Star Wars? What’s in the Star Wars material that makes people foam at the mouth? What’s in its DNA? Well, when you look at it, it’s Joseph Campbell, it’s the Hero of a Thousand Faces – he is Obi-Wan Kenobi. So we’re arriving at all these crossroads, this explosion of communication and technology, from all walks of life. We live in a time of real unification.
But I do feel that the ultimate sensory organ in the body is the heart, not the brain. The heart is the guiding principle, and if you feel it at a gut level, intuitively, and instinctually? That is the higher intelligence – don’t let anybody tell you different.”
Beginning to get the picture? Astbury is not only aware, but quite concerned about the fate of humanity. And he delves into most of these topics long before any real discussion of Hidden City has properly begun. He’s a seeker – of truth, knowledge, beauty, and that which often seems just out of reach on the far existential horizon.
He’s 53 this year, and The Cult is celebrating the 30th anniversary of its landmark Steve Brown-produced Love juggernaut, which cemented the symbiotic relationship between he and guitarist Billy Duffy. Naturally, the band is opening all of its current shows with songs from that halcyon era, like “Nirvana,” “(Here Comes the) Rain,” and the galloping “Horse Nation” from Love’s Brown-helmed predecessor, Dreamtime. Both records still sound as if they were recorded yesterday, thanks to Brown’s droning wall-of-sound approach, which would shift dramatically when the band switched to producer Rick Rubin for the more riff-oriented Electric in 1987, and the Bob Rock-sculpted Sonic Temple in 1989. Rock returned to produce the new album, the group’s tenth.
Duffy is on AC/DC fire on the sharp-riffed Hidden City, which opens on the tribal drumming and monstrous powerchords of “Dark Energy” and keeps thundering right into “No Love Lost” and a Love-echoed anthem called “Dance the Night,” one of the least political tracks on the fervent set. A Far Eastern filigree colors “In Blood,” with Astbury – in his inimitable lupine howl – recalling a true-life story when “I fell in a bathroom stall/ Five a.m. on the tiled floor.” And guitars toll like cathedral bells on “Birds of Paradise,” over lyrics that mirror a classic epitaph: “As you are, I once was, and will be again” (original eerie tombstone words from a few centuries ago: ‘Remember man, as you pass by/ As you are now, so once was I/ As I am now, so you shall be/ Remember man – eternity”).
Duffy’s Back in Black bent is grandest on the rumbling “GOAT,” an acronym for The Greatest of All Time,” initially inspired by fighter Connor McGregor. (“Billy had this riff in the studio, and it was like a street brawl,” Astbury says. “He was like, ‘You in?’ And I’m like, ‘I’m in.’ It was like when your buddy starts a fight in a bar, and you’re like, ‘Oh, no – here we go again.’ So we just jumped into this thing, and it’s like male primal energy on its hind legs.”)
A marching “Deeply Ordered Chaos” follows, then “Avalance of Light,” which feels more like an avalanche of axework. The album is closed out by a stomping, Che Guevara-namechecking “Heathens,” and the somber ballad “Sound and Fury,” which finds Astbury mourning “The killing floor…how lost are we?” It underscores the vocalist’s basic Buddhist philosophy, which gets him through the day by emphasizing being present in the moment, living in the now.
There are many outward changes in Astbury’s life. Over the years, The Cult has been an on-again, off-again proposition, and its current lineup includes bassist Grant Fitzpatrick and drummer John Tempesta. But he stayed busy with side project, like the 2000 solo effort Spirit/Light/Speed, a short-lived combo called The Holy Barbarians, and appearances with surviving members of The Doors and The MC5. He also played soccer with Duffy on the L.A. team Hollywood United, and in 2012, he married singer Aimee Nash, of the ethereal Australian duo The Black Ryder, which had relocated to California. He also traveled the world in search of enlightenment, and came home with the realization that – a la Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist – what you’re looking for can often be easily found in your own back yard.
Hence the concept for Hidden City itself. It wasn’t some place in Nepal, where the vagabond nearly froze to death on a mountainous trek. “It started with a famous soccer player named Carlos Tevez, who has played all over for some really big clubs in Europe,” he explains. “But when he scored goals, he used to pull his shirt up, and under his shirt it said Ciudad Oculta, which is Spanish for Hidden City. And I became really intrigued by that – there was something really cool about him recognizing the neighborhood where he came from in Argentina. There was something visceral about that for me, so I started to think a bit further about it.”
Astbury’s conclusion? He sighs, dejectedly. “We live in a world where people so desperately want to be seen. They want that external validation, because we live in a culture that just worships external validation. We worship the veneer, the shallow, what’s on the surface. But what’s really important is our emotional connection to our friends, our family, our loved ones, our environment, our pets, our animals. Then it hit me, and I thought, ‘This is it – it’s not an external thing. It’s an internal thing.’ It’s about a feeling. This man was revealing his heart, and who is showing their heart on their sleeve these days? Who is earnest, passionate? We are in a spiritual existential crisis, and the Hidden City is within.
Our spiritual life is a huge hole, and we’re trying to fill it with whatever – gadgets, episodic television, celebrity culture, psychotropic drugs, you name it. An article just came out listing the biggest killer of white males in the U.S. today, over the age of 45, and it’s suicide. Excuse me – wake the fuck up! People are taking their own lives! I lost two of my friends over the past four years in about the same age group, so there really is something to this.”
Like a Crick/Watson helix, the Hidden City concept kept spiraling in the Cult founder’s thoughts. Why were people flocking to the jungles of South America to ingest mind-altering hallucinogens? he wondered. Why were 100,000 fans attending the Burning Man festival?
Why were folks disappearing into the so-called Dark Web, that Wild West sector of the Internet where you can find just about anything, virtually anonymously? And finally, why were armed students strolling into colleges and high schools and shooting everyone in sight? “We’re seeing a fracture in the culture, where we’ve advanced so far in a cognitive way, but our spirits are very neglected, so this is what Hidden City came to represent to me,” he says.
“Exploring our internal lives further, then starting to look at the world – not through first-world eyes – but the way that we are perceived by others. Because young people coming up are going to have to face this existential spiritual crisis. And who’s going to fix it?” he guffaws. “Oprah, with her Starbucks special blend? I don’t think so. This is work that you have to do as an individual.”
Logically, Astbury opened the disc with “Dark Energy,” which he took from the chaos theory in physics (old William would be proud). “So let’s talk about that over coffee!” he laughs. “You can cognitively sit there and go, ‘Uh-huh. I get it.’ But please – don’t even start. Chaos theory slides around, there is no order, and disorder is the order. But the scientists are even saying that in physics, we only know about five percent. Like, in Switzerland, the Hoggs Boson particle, the God Particle – they don’t know where it goes. It just disappears. Where the fuck does it go? Our scientists are telling us they don’t know – they can only surmise that 30 percent after that is dark energy. And we look at negative space as negative space, but it’s not. It’s active space, and energies come out of the void.” He pauses, momentarily – believe it or not – at a loss for words. “Creativity is profound. I simply cannot articulate it or do justice to it. So we are in the face of this profound enlightenment, this shift in human consciousness, and it’s happening today. Steve Jobs was an acid head – he was a psychedelic priest.”
Even Astbury’s thinking cap has greater significance. The tall, feather-lumed chapeau might resemble the one Tom Laughlin wore in the classic revenge flick Billy Jack, but it’s not the same, he clarifies: “It’s a Montana hat, hand-made, and Laughlin’s was more of a round, ten-gallon thing. Back in the day, those hats were given out on the reservation, and they were block-formed, and the cavalry guys would shape their hats and put a crease in the top and a pinch in the front. But the Indians didn’t shape them – they just wore them straight, so you’d get that effect. But one of the reasons the Montana hat has such a high crown is to help the water run off when it rains.”
The Cult leader has a lot of questions. But has he arrived at any answers? Does he have hope for humanity, which seems to have recklessly – greedily – doomed itself to its own extinction? Instantly, he brightens. “I do! I absolutely do!,” he enthuses. “I believe we’re getting it. It may look like we’re not, but we are. Because nature is our teacher, and the higher laws apply. And that’s what we find in spiritual technology – it’s a lot more palatable way of explaining an esoteric concept, because we have to have things cognitively explained to us. So that we can actually grasp and feel it with the human heart.”
But just when that news bulletin flashes across your TV-news screen, it will probably be pre-empted by kitschy footage of a dog riding a surfboard. Astbury laughs. “I love dogs on surfboards! Look at what they can do! But the dog is secretively thinking, ‘Really? I have to go do this again, just so you can show your buddies on your phone?’ But we should be thinking, ‘If a dog can surf? Hey – imagine what I can do!’”