It's an unsettling visage straight out of World of Warcraft — the fierce masked figure sporting a bison-horned, feather-tasseled Native American headdress, angrily glaring from the cover of Choice of Weapon, the first album in five years from Goth-metal gods The Cult. But the artwork wasn't thrown together lightly, swears deep-thinking bandleader Ian Astbury, the man beneath this elaborate costume. Every single detail in the photograph is significant, he says, and stands as a metaphor for the spiritual-minded music inside.
The look, says the singer, "was inspired by a medicine bonnet I bought from a reservation in Canada in the '80s — it had a buffalo-skin hide, beadwork and ermine tails hanging off it, and I had it hanging in my home for many years. So with this record sleeve, I wanted to evoke an image of a spirit manifested as a human being, so I came up with this shamanic persona, with Native American influences, plus Bon religion, a pagan religion from Tibet that predates Buddhism."
In support of the Occupy movement, Astbury, 50, is also sporting an official Dead Rabbits shirt worn in Scorsese's Gangs of New York historical epic. His denim-draped black leather jacket, he adds, references "anarcho-punk, because that was a very important, influential period for me, back when I was into Crass and Poison Girls. And then my face is covered in solidarity with Arab Spring and other anonymous people — so many people are out there who wanna speak, but they're afraid to show their faces for fear of repercussion. So I think that's a real sign of the times."
Astbury has always been metaphysical. Native American mythology the Brit studied as a teen would find its way into Zenlike early Cult classics like 1984's Dreamtime and 1985's definitive Love (whose "She Sells Sanctuary" recently tolled through the years on a Budweiser Super Bowl ad).
Since then, he's had good reason to delve deeper. A few years ago, while playing soccer with longtime bandmate Billy Duffy on his all-star team Hollywood United, the pain finally registered: Years of stage-diving and motorcycle accidents had literally destroyed his hip, and a serious operation was needed.
Initially, Astbury recalls, "I went down. Hard. I was just physically worn, spiritually worn, done, finished." But he wound up in New York, couch-bound by day, hobbling to the Shambhala Meditation Center at night, where he sat quietly, listening to various transcendental teachers. "I went through almost a monastic period living there," he says of the period, which he began documenting in big-riffed, Bob-Rock-polished Choice of Weapon anthems that also ask big questions, like "The Wolf," "Life > Death," and "Elemental Light."
Astbury is concerned about climate change and the countless other crises currently facing humanity. "But I'd like to say Choice is more of an aware record, as opposed to a concerned one, because 'concerned' is close to panic," he says. Taking cues from philosophers like Joseph Campbell, Terence McKenna and Robert Thurman, he believes we're all caught up in "the show" — radio, TV, 24-hour news, social networking chatter.
"But there are individuals who aren't looking at the show anymore — they're just walking away," he swears. "And you know what the solution is? Shut the fuck up! Everyone just shut up for a second. Stop talking, start feeling. Accept where you're at, accept the situation and go inward. Travel inwards and see what comes up."