The Cult on the 30th anniversary of Sonic Temple: ‘It’s nostalgia with a lower-case “n”’

It’s 30 years since the release of The Cult’s seminal album Sonic Temple. Duncan Seaman caught up with guitarist Billy Duffy.

The Cult pictured in 1989. Picture: Andrew McPherson

Released in the spring of 1989, just weeks before The Stone Roses brought out their debut album and the press hopped on the ‘Madchester’ bandwagon, Sonic Temple was the sound of The Cult ignoring the prevailing trends of British music.

Rather than adopting flares and Joe Bloggs T-shirts, the band, founded six years earlier by Ian Astbury and Billy Duffy, took their inspiration from North America, where the hard rock of Guns N Roses and Motley Crue was flourishing. It was to prove a pivotal decision – Sonic Temple would sell over 1.5 million copies in the US. It also became their best-selling album in the UK, going platinum.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

This autumn The Cult commemorate the album’s 30th anniversary with a deluxe box set re-release and a UK tour where the band, who are currently a five-piece that also includes John Tempesta, Grant Fitzpatrick and Damon Fox, will revisit old favourites such as Fire Woman, Edie (Ciao Baby) and Sweet Soul Sister live.

The Cult pictured in 1989. Picture: Andrew McPherson

Billy Duffy might now be 58 and long left behind the streets of Wythenshawe, where he grew up, but his accent and allegiance to his beloved Manchester City football club remains. He admits to a sense of shock at the realisation that it’s 30 years since Sonic Temple came out. “It doesn’t feel that long but I was a bit shocked when I realised that it had been that long,” he says. “It puts a lot of things into context when you realise it was that long ago.”

Sonic Temple further developed the hard rock sound that the band had begun to explore with Rick Rubin on their third album, Electric. By 1988, when they began recording it in Canada, Duffy had decamped to the US. “And that’s another important factor,” he says. “We’d done a lot of touring on Electric, we did the whole summer supporting Billy Idol around North America, going bonkers and having a really good time playing arenas. That was a lot of fun. Then we went back around again, and Guns N Roses were our special guests. We’d spent a lot of time just basically driving around America like pirates on a tour bus and living the life. It was the real deal and after that, by early ’88 we definitely needed a break because the wheels were coming off.

“We went to Australia and we were pretty rough by the time we got there, and we were smashing the gear up on stage. So we took a breather and I remember in early ’88 I was in London where I’d been living for ten years and I think my car had been clamped, my football team were terrible and I just was like, ‘What am I doing enduring this misery when I could be in California riding around on Harley-Davidsons and hanging out with ex-members of the Sex Pistols?’ So I had a bit of an epiphany and I just decamped to Los Angeles.

“Sonic Temple, part of the writing and the putting together of that album happened during the first part of ’88 and Ian came out and visited. London was getting a bit closed for us. I remember during ’86/’87 we were living in London and the band had got successful and we were starting going out and going to clubs and misbehaving and I just remember thinking ‘this is a bit of a dead end, I don’t want to be seen as the guy hanging out in The Limelight in London’. Something in my gut was telling me, ‘If you keep going down this road it’s not going to end well’, so part of my decision was maybe self-preservation. Then Sonic Temple was put together during that year and we ended up driving up to Vancouver and recording the album up there towards the end of ’88.”

Billy’s memories of recording Sonic Temple at Little Mountain Sounds Studios in Vancouver between are, he says, “very positive”. “We did have good songs. The sessions, I remember me and Jamie Stewart, the bass player, tried to up our musicianship because I felt in ’87 yeah, I looked great and I was having a good time but I wasn’t putting the effort into my craft. I’d been touring playing with Slash and Steve Stevens [Billy Idol’s guitarist] and I was like, ‘Hmm, these guys party and they practise, that’s an interesting concept’. I was doing one or the other and they were doing both, and I thought, ‘I need to practise a bit here’.”

As he gears up for the UK leg of the ‘Sonic Temple’ tour, Duffy admits feeling a little nostalgic, but adds: “Because we’re still active and none of us are trying to live like it’s 1989, I think it’s the right kind of nostalgia. It’s nostalgia with a lower-case ‘n’. It’s not like I haven’t done anything for 30 years and I’m coming out bald-headed with a big fat belly and a crap guitar. It’s real. The Cult live in the world today which I think allows us the luxury of a little bit of the good nostalgia. It’s OK to go back there for a minute, relax, have fun, enjoy, but don’t live in it. I think that’s why we’re so comfortable.”

Sonic Temple 30 box set is out now. The Cult play at O2 Academy, Leeds on October 20.