‘It was always about building it, destroying it, rebuilding, destroying’: The Cult’s new musical era brings them through Des Moines

The Cult

Hoyt Sherman Place, Des Moines -- Saturday, Sept. 24, 7:30 p.m., $70-4320

Dana Telsrow/Little Village

On a magical summer evening in 1986, after a fiery performance by the Cult, the sun refused to set. The band’s shows radiated a mystical quality that could realign heavenly bodies, though this anomaly of nature occurred because Finland’s Provinssirock Festival took place north of the Arctic Circle.

“You have this strange situation where it still feels like daytime during high summer,” frontman Ian Astbury said, “even at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning. I remember walking around the grounds and just observing everybody at the festival. The whole town had been taken over by mostly young people who were attending Provinssirock, and everybody was dressed in a way that expressed a real sense of individualism, connectedness and intimacy.”

Astbury was also struck by the fresh flowers covering the edge of the stage. It’s a visual impression that remains with him four decades later.

“It’s one of those lived experiences that you carry with you that helps shape your character and form your worldview,” Astbury told me. “Because it’s such a rich moment, and I could still access that feeling through that memory, it still rings in the essence of my core.”

That touchstone moment directly influenced the title track of the Cult’s new record, Under the Midnight Sun, which is anchored by a quiet acoustic guitar and a lush cinematic string arrangement that swirls around Astbury as he croons, “Under the midnight sun / with creatures of the wild.”

“The festival was a really beautiful experience coming from where we had been, because we came out of punk rock, which was definitely much more volatile, violent, frenetic, urban and gritty — and this experience was far more transcendent and liberating.”

The Cult got its start after Astbury, who had formed the Southern Death Cult in 1981, began collaborating with Billy Duffy a couple years later. After a brief stint as the Death Cult, which released an EP in 1983, Duffy and Astbury shortened their name to the Cult by the time the band released its gothic post-punk debut, Dreamtime, the following year.

Their follow-up, Love, earned them more visibility after the international success of “She Sells Sanctuary,” a majestic single that the Cult performed at Provinssirock, where the black-clad band stood out in the summer sun. Astbury cut a particularly dramatic figure with his long black hair and French Revolution-era aristocratic clothes that consisted of a long black dress coat with tails and a ruffled white lace Jabot collar, like something a rock-and-roll Napoleon would wear.

Musically, the past four decades have found the band shifting stylistic gears in ways that made it hard to sustain mainstream success (though they continue to cultivate a large, devoted audience).

“I’ve never arrived at a moment where I think, ‘Eureka, we have a formula!’ It was always about building it, destroying it, rebuilding, destroying,” Astbury said. “I’m talking about scorched earth. Burn it to the ground, forget everything and look at what’s coming. Let’s immerse ourselves in this moment, our environment and its frequencies. I don’t carry the coffin of my youth around with me. I don’t weep for those earlier periods in my life, though sometimes you can look back to those touchstones and respond to its echoes.”

In 2022, Astbury exudes the vibe of a hippie-goth-punk elder who speaks of frequencies that can open the doors of perception and liberate humankind — an invisible cultural web that permeates everything and links us all together.

“One of the wonderful things about live music is that you’re right there in that moment, and then it’s gone,” he said. “But that experience at the Provinssirock Festival is something I can access through memory. It was a really beautiful era — that period in the mid-’80s—in terms of self-expression and the cultivation of consciousness. We were living through the Cold War, and we were very much in harmony with environmentalist organizations like Greenpeace. … You can draw so many correlative and connective lines that run through those frequencies.”

With Under the Midnight Sun, the Cult tap into that cosmic form of networked communication by simultaneously peering in the rearview mirror and steadily marching forward to the beat of their own drum.

“I try to be the best version of myself right now, and as a group we are so connected and the performances have been particularly intense,” Astbury said. “We don’t do a ‘concert.’ We don’t do a ‘performance’ — we create an environment. We’re creating cathedrals, creating spaces for expression and connection to a community. Unfortunately, the essence of that Provinssirock Festival experience is sadly lacking in today’s hyper-commercial, hyper-commodified world.”

Kembrew McLeod navigates the psychic frequencies and comes in contact with outer entities, to paraphrase Blondie’s “(I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear.” This article was originally published in Little Village’s September 2022 issues.

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