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Hello My Name Is…Billy

| June 30, 2021 | 0 Comments

You’ve got to hand it to storied Cult guitarist Billy Duffy — he doesn’t bury the lede when it comes to late-breaking news stories. Only a minute into a recent phone call to discuss Coloursound — the ephemeral side project he and Alarm vocalist Mike Peters launched, then abandoned with a single album back in 1998, which jolted back to lockdown life with a new Coloursound II followup — and he goes right for the topical jugular. He’ll be returning to his native Britain in a few weeks, he says, before announcing his secret reason for spending much of his pandemic in Los Angeles. “I’ve been here for a little while, kind of writing and working on some Cult stuff, so I’ve been fairly busy,” he reports from California since that’s where his longtime bandmate Ian Astbury is based. How is that traditionally dark vocalist faring in our more shadowy post-Covid times? “Ian’s alright; he’s in good form,” he replies. “He’s deep in creative mode. And he’s a very sage individual, Ian, so I would imagine that there’s a lot of fuel out there right now for his thought process. And I’m sure he struggles, lyrically, although I’ve never written a lyric in my life.”

But Duffy, who just turned 61, does recognize his own estimable strengths after all these years: How to underpin a charismatic singer like Astbury or Peters with a screaming, bone-crunching riff or a gut-pummeling barrage of power chords; And always remembering to strike while the iron is hot, as in the new coronavirus era and its attendant downtime, wherein he and Peters picked up the long-dormant Coloursound dialogue from 1998 and carried it into new folk/metal II anthems like the Biblical doomsayer “Revelation,” a chugging “Lightning Strike,” and the sweeping single “Paradise (Free People).”

And remarkably, the disparate Cult and Alarm mindsets merge perfectly, so well that all it took to launch this sophomore set was a simple guitar-lick demo that Duffy casually sent his old pal Peters in 2019, which instantly triggered a vocal/lyrical response from him. And Peters — amidst a flurry of new Alarm releases and a steady flow of weekly live-streamed broadcasts from his home in Wales — somehow made room on his schedule for a Coloursound Renaissance, first by reissuing its out-of-print debut disc, then by jumping wholeheartedly into its followup. Duffy happily joined him for the full-length ride and for a handful of interviews to chart its creation as well as his own pandemic progress.

IE: You’ve actually never penned a song lyric?

BILLY DUFFY: Oh, no, no. Nothing. Ever. I might’ve come up with the Love album title for The Cult, just to annoy journalists in England who were still hung up on punk. I thought, “How can we make this album really irritating to ‘em? Alright — we’ll call it ‘Love’!” But I’ve never been able to write lyrics — I always just try and express myself through the music, and that’s more like a general feeling rather than specifics. And that’s why I’ve been fortunate enough to work with very interesting singers in my life, like Mike Peters and Ian Astbury. And I had a good time backing Morrissey when we were only children, and then there was Kirk Brandon, a pretty underrated English singer from Theatre of Hate who was really great and helped me a lot when I was starting off. I can always tell people that know their music when they actually know about Theatre of Hate and know how good they were for that era, that post-punk, early-‘80s era. Because that’s where Coloursound comes from, the same as where The Cult and The Alarm came from. We were all punk fans who didn’t want to be in punk bands ourselves, really, because we realized that that really wasn’t what punk was about. Being a bad version of The Sex Pistols is not what you wanna aspire to, so you try and find your own way forward. And clearly, with The Alarm and Mike, they kind of hit that folk-rock, Neil Young, Dylan, Woody Guthrie thing. And we all hit the hairspray. And The Cult kind of went back to my roots, which was more like classic British rock. Well, not all British, but classic rock in the sense of AC/DC, Thin Lizzy, Free, Aerosmith, Zeppelin. In the end — and I’m cutting out about six years of development there — but I’m just saying that it occurred to me that that era was very pivotal, and that’s in the DNA of a lot of bands. And you know, a lot of guys in the States really only got turned onto The Cult with the **Electric album and didn’t know anything about us prior to that, which is fine. But if that’s your ground zero with The Cult, then it’s a very different sort of mindset to the band than if you knew us in the four years prior to that.

IE: As long as we’re drifting back a little bit, I always wondered — What’s your take on the scrapped Steve Brown version of Electric? It’s good, right? And Brown kind of defined your sound.

BD: Well, it’s good. And we can’t go back. But I don’t believe that if we’d released that, we would have made the leap forward as a band that was necessary. I think we would have not gained a massive amount of new fans, and there was kind of a careerist thing going on with The Cult; like, what’s the next step? And I was a little bit unashamedly careerist because I was fearful of going back to being unemployed. You know, I’d been in a band, Theatre of Hate, been on the TV, and got fired. And I was back to not working and signing up for unemployment, so I had that kind of fear of like, “Weren’t you the guy on TV?” And I was like, “Well, yeah, I WAS.” It was very fleeting, so I think deep down, I was a little worried, so I was bound and determined with Ian, and I kind of probably dragged Ian along with that. He was a willing participant, but I think I was really determined. But using Rick Rubin was more Ian’s idea than mine — he really gravitated towards Rick and that stripped-down sound. That was really Ian’s passion, ‘cause I was like, “Hold on a minute — I can’t use the Gretsch? I can’t use delay? I can’t use the Roland amp I’ve been using? Didn’t we just release the Love album? Didn’t we just have hits in England? Why would we start changing?” But I went along with it, and it was very much like Rick was the Pol Pot of rock and roll — it was like Year Zero. So I went along with it, but it was a bit traumatic for me because I literally went from just having got success with a style — and just having hit singles with “Sanctuary” and “Rain” and stuff, particularly in the UK, like proper chart hits — to Rick going, “Nah, just play Les Paul into a Marshall!” And what would Malcolm Young do at that point?” But I like the (Brown) album, and I think there are moments on it. And it ended up being released as The Manna Sessions; then it ended up being released more recently as Peace or something. So that’s the same thing; they’re essentially the same songs. But I knew we’d lose fans, you know? But we were kind of trying to tear ourselves away from that post-punk Gothic thing that was going on. And I’m not a hater, but I didn’t wanna get pigeonholed as a Goth band because we didn’t feel particularly Gothic. So that’s why we took Death off the name.

IE: People probably forget that Guns ’N Roses’ first national tour for Appetite For Destruction was opening for The Cult. That show was insane.

BD: Yeah, and that was actually at Ian’s request. Ian Astbury has really good ears — he would have made a great A&R man. And he found them. He said, “Billy, you’ve gotta check this band out from L.A. — they’re called Guns ’N Roses, and they’re the real deal. They’re a proper rock and roll band, less in love with Johnny Thunders and more in love with just being themselves.” And that’s what I think really appealed to us — there was a grit and a reality to Guns ’N Roses that appealed to Ian and me. It was a fun tour, and they’re friends to this day. And it turned out well for both of us — possibly better for them.

IE: You probably subscribe to this theory also. But, growing up in the Midwest, we didn’t understand why — when punk rock came along — you had to give up on the heavy metal you loved the day before.

BD: Yeah, yeah — I understand. And I lived through that in the UK, and it was easier to do in Britain because, as you know, you can fit Britain three times in California. It’s geographically small, so things happen really quickly. If a thing becomes ‘A Thing’ in the UK, it’s quick, immediate. All you have to do is go on one national TV show. Whereas in the States, things developed more regionally and slowly because America is essentially a continent. So there were actually real, pragmatic, boring reasons why. And secondly, in general, Britain in the ‘70s was an economic train wreck, so there was a lot of disaffected, unemployable youth like myself. And at that time, I know America had the oil crisis and this and that, but in essence, it looked a bit more of an affluent country. So it’s a little bit more difficult to be angry and annoyed if the worst thing you’ve got to complain about is what kind of car your parents are gonna buy you when you’re 16. You know what I mean? So it’s not a judgment thing. I just believe I’ve come to understand it, having lived through it all, that’s all. It meant different things to different people. And it burned out really quickly anyway in the UK, but it was ironic that the Pistols’ last tour was ‘round the States. But that was a common feature. And Mike Peters was in punk bands when he started, and we’ve been through that punk thing together. But I think in England, if you look at the bands who formed around ’79, ’80, a lot of them were like, “Yeah, great — I saw the Pistols, saw The Damned, saw the Banshees, loved all that, but what are WE gonna do? What’s MY new band gonna do? Because I ain’t gonna sound like that!” And that’s when people started exploring, with all sorts of things — haircuts, guitars, effects, sounds.

IE: Where and how did you first meet Mike? And what was your first impression?

BD: Well, that’s a really good question, because I know I had run into some members of The Alarm in London in the’80s when both our bands were doing well, but we never played together. The Cult went down more of a heavier rock path, so the gigs we were doing weren’t the same as what The Alarm was doing — they went down a more folky U2-Neil Young kind of road, so our paths didn’t cross in terms of gigs. And in the UK, we’d all do our own gigs anyway because the bands were big enough. So I ran into Mike in the ‘90s. Cut to: ’95, The Cult are broken up, I don’t know what to do with myself, because we split up while touring and just left the band, and I was left hanging, so I went back to England. And in ’95, ’96 in England, I kept running into Mike Peters at all these rock festivals, where you would go and see all these exciting bands coming up, such as Oasis, The Verve, Supergrass, The Charlatans, The Inspiral Carpets. There were dozens of ‘em. And I was from Manchester. I hadn’t lived there in a while, but my family were there and are still there, and I’m still connected in a lot of ways to Manchester. But there was all this exciting new music, and there were a lot of festivals, and there was kind of a new government coming in England in ’97 — there was like a change and a freshness, and it just seemed to be a cool place to be. And I just was gravitating there. I’d done several years of pretty much living in the States, and it just seemed like an organic, normal thing to do for me – to ‘return home.’ And that’s when I kept running into Mike Peters at these festivals, and I learned that he’d become a solo act, but I didn’t know that at first — he’d left The Alarm, he’d become a solo act, and then he got diagnosed with cancer, and he’d kind of fought his way through cancer, and he’d just come out the other side of that when I met him. And we just became friends. We bonded over football, which we played as hack amateurs. And more like a love for the outdoors and hiking — I don’t really know what went on. I guess what had happened for me was; I had spent so much time in a tour bus or a hotel room while playing, I just felt like I wanted to go back and do a bit of tree-hugging. So that’s what I did — I don’t know why I did it, but I did, so me and Mike would go out on lots of these hikes. He still lives in North Wales, in this beautiful country, and it’s a very outdoorsy kind of lifestyle, not so urban. So we bonded, and eventually, the guitars came out, and one of the last things to happen was, we started writing some tunes. And that became the first Coloursound record that we cut in ’98. And we had some fun with it — I managed to finagle a trip to Maui to get Bob Rock to work on a couple of tracks because Bob is a mate and still is. So **Coloursound I was great, and from my point of view, that would have been my contribution to the next Cult album had there been one in the late ‘90s. But there wasn’t, so we came out with Coloursound. But the thing got kind of truncated because I got the call to reform The Cult, and I was put in a very awkward situation, you know, because The Cult, obviously, is my life’s work. So I heeded the call, and I don’t regret it — subsequently, I felt a little bit bad. But I think, in a way, it was meant to happen because Mike went on from Coloursound to spend the last 20 years being the busiest man in rock, reforming The Alarm, doing solo stuff, climbing mountains for cancer. He’s not really had much time off, so it worked out well, which brings us back to today. Seemingly the universe aligned, and there was time and space for us to reconsider this because we’d always felt that Coloursound was a bit of unfinished business. So we re-released the first album, re-cut a track, reimagined one of the songs during the first lockdown when everybody was doing everything from home. So we did that, and that felt good, and we re-released the first album, and that sold out in three hours. So we thought, okay — why don’t we use that to finance the recording of a new album?” And that’s what it is — it’s kind of an honest, cottage-industry endeavor between Mike and me, just purely for the friendship and the love of each other as people, of music, and of rock and roll. It’s a bit of a teary, almost Hallmark kind of story.\

IE: What’s the gist of the new record, as you hear it?

BD: Well, first of all, pre-lockdown, Mike had found this little cottage on the coast of Wales. And me being a rock-fan-geek, I’d always loved the idea of going away with your songwriting partner to a cottage in Wales and writing songs about California, which is how Robert Plant described the way they did a certain Led Zeppelin album. Oh, the irony. So we literally booked this cottage in Wales on the coast in January (of 2020), which, as you can imagine, was a little bit inclement, and we just stayed in. We had a burning log fire and lots of tea, and there were loads of guitars around, and we said, “Let’s see what happens.” And what happened was, we wrote eight or nine basic songs, which was the backbone of Coloursound II in that three days. It was kind of like we wanted to see if we could do it again, and we felt good about it. So we just pursued that and eventually recorded the album with a drummer and a bass player. We kept it spontaneous, kept it simple, just to cut through a lot of chatter — people seem to be making a lot of artificial-sounding records, so we tried as best we could to keep this one organic and only use technology when you have to and don’t let it use you. And that was the philosophy, and it’s just for the kind of people who would be predisposed to listen to honest guitar rock. So hopefully, it isn’t predictable.

IE: And somehow, Mike managed to work the Alarm-ism “Declaration” into another new song.

BD: Well, he can’t help himself. They’ve all got their go-to phrases, and I’m the same as a guitar player — I’ve got my go-to bag of tricks. And singers do the same, unless you point it out to them, like, “Oh — are you doing that one again?” So Mike’s got his go-to’s, Ian Astbury, too — he has his go-to words. There’s a lot of ‘Blood’ — a lot of blood still left in The Cult. And there’s a funny story I heard once about when (Brian) Eno was producing a latter U2 album, and they were struggling a bit to find the right inspiration. I heard he put a big poster on the wall and had all these words that Bono, in his opinion, overused, and he said, “Right. You can’t use any of these! Now go and write some lyrics!” So it’s like, Whatever it takes. It was like Rick Rubin with me — No, you can’t use a Gretsch, no you can’t use echo, make it work with a Les Paul and a Marshall, and you’ve got about half an hour! That’s how I made **Electric — in a state of mild panic. It just has to be done in the moment, and you either go with it or you resist it, and fortunately, I really went with it and really got on board and didn’t try to sabotage the change between **Love” and **Electric. And to get back to that version of **Love that Steve Brown did, we had done that — we’d recorded the whole album and mixed it at very expensive studios, and we’d spent about as much money as you could spend, and it still wasn’t right. So it wasn’t like we didn’t give it a full go — we hemorrhaged money, throwing money at it trying to make it sound good, and it STILL wasn’t right. And we had to literally throw it in the bin, call it the most expensive demo in the world, and then go and do it again with Rick in New York. That just is what happened — it wasn’t our intention. But without Steve Brown, things would certainly not have gone as well for The Cult. And we lost Steve — he sadly passed away recently.

IE: Then, oddly enough, it wasn’t until the next album, Sonic Temple, that you got your distinct visual image, with the Pete Townshend windmill flourish, which you now feature on your merchandise.

BD: Well, absolutely. We realized we were writing a rock album — and remember this was 1988 — but we thought we had written some good songs. We took a chance on producer Bob Rock because he hadn’t done Metallica. He hadn’t done Motley Crue; he’d been an engineer who had only produced one album by this band Kingdom Come, which was basically a Led Zeppelin pastiche. But it was what was going on — rock was the thing, and we just wanted an image that said, ‘Beware — this what you’re getting when you open this record!’ And it just happened to be a picture of me, doing a windmill with a Les Paul, and it kind of says it all.

IE: I still can’t quite figure out how The Cult got so huge in the biker community.

BD: Well, I’m a biker myself, ya know? I bike. I both bicycle and motorcycle, and guys just see it and probably think, “Oh, cool — he’s still doing it! He’s 60; he still does the real deal, still rides motorbikes!”

IE: Given the name of another side project you’re occasionally in with Mike, Dead Men Walking, have you faced any serious illness as he has?

BD: Mike’s on another level with all of that. I had Cancer-Lite — I had prostate cancer and had my prostate removed, but it honestly wasn’t that massive of a big deal. It’s a very curable form of cancer. So I am a member of the Cancer Club, but compared to what Mike has been through? I mean, when we recorded the new Coloursound album, when we actually did a session, Mike showed up, and he had this big bag of pills, and he was like, “I’m on a whole new medical regimen now to keep my cancer in remission.” And it’s a form of leukemia, but his old medicine stopped working, so they’ve got him on this new experimental drug, and he takes the drugs — like this big bag of stuff —and then he’s like, “Alright — let’s go! I’m gonna sing now!” The man is an unbelievable force of nature. So there ya go!

– Tom Lanham

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