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May 2014
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Interview: Billy Duffy - Captain Riffs

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Interview: Billy Duffy - Captain Riffs

Billy Duffy is upset at his team. No, not his fellow players in The Cult—the now-legendary British band he founded in the early ’80s with singer Ian Astbury, a band who, despite their early androgynous image, flew the flag for heavy man-rock throughout a decade better known for twee synth bands. No, all’s good in the Cult camp, thank you—indeed, their new album, the Bob Rock produced Choice of Weapon, is a strikingly rich return to form, arguably deeper lyrically and broader stylistically than 2001’s Beyond Good and Evil or 2007’s Born Into This.

Nope, the problem is with Duffy’s other team, his beloved hometown Manchester City football club (that’s “soccer team” to us Yanks), who, after a dominant first stage of the Barclay’s English Premier League season—when they looked sure bets to clinch the title—have suddenly fallen behind their local arch rivals, Manchester United. “We should have at least won the Carling Cup Semi- Final,” Duffy grouses. Duffy’s devotion to his team (often simply called “Man City”) even extends to his Dunlop Herco Flex 50 medium-gauge guitar picks: Store-bought versions are gold hued, but Dunlop makes Duffy’s in Manchester City blue.

In soccer terms, Duffy’s role in Team Cult might be seen as that of a creative midfielder—he originates virtually all of the band’s meaty, majestic riffs, supplying spot-on harmonic opportunities for singer Astbury to finish off with his rich, full-bodied baritone runs and gutsy lyrical moves. Drummer John Tempesta (formerly of Testament) and bassist Chris Wyse round out the band’s formidable back line, working from the engine room to lay down a solid, technically adept foundation for Duffy and Astbury’s mazey musical dialogue. (On tour, Mike Dimkich accompanies the band on rhythm guitar—call him a “super-sub”!)

As with the most distinctive footballers, you can recognize Duffy’s style immediately. “She Sells Sanctuary” (from 1985’s Love)—perhaps his signature song—is built around a descending Mixolydian figure on the G string, played as a continuous double-stop with a droning open D string. It’s an approach Duffy initially used to fatten his sound within the context of a power trio, and it has made its mark on tunes throughout the band’s career. On Choice of Weapon, it turns up on “The Wolf,” “Amnesia,” and others. Still, Duffy’s equally at home with slash chords that recall the MC5 and the Stooges, while his parked-wah solo flights in songs like the classic “Fire Woman” recall Mick Ronson and Angus Young, two of his formative idols. Duffy’s other trademark— besides his impressive coifs—are the Gretsch White Falcons and Gibson Les Paul Customs he’s been using to deliver his kicks for some 30 years now.

Your classic-rock rhythms and single-note, Ennio Morricone-ish stylings are always great, but you’re probably best known for those droning D-string pedal tones, like on “She Sells Sanctuary” and “Rain.” Where does that come from?
If you go back to the song “Horse Nation,” from 1983 or ’84, that droning lick is already my thing, and then, yeah, it got typified by “She Sells Sanctuary.” What’s interesting is that you could play those notes in several places on the neck, obviously, and you could even pick them all out of a standard D chord shape. But I got into this habit because there was only one guitar player in the band, and it just helped filled the sound out. I also started adding a little echo, which filled the sound out even more, but partly gets eaten up by the band, so it’s not so obvious. If you heard it on it’s own, you’d probably think the guitar was a bit too echoy and busy, and you’d think, “Oh, that’s a bit odd.” But once you’ve got bass and vocals and tom-tom-heavy drums, a lot of that echo would kind of vanish, and the guitar simply gets “placed” in a nice way.

That drone style is sort of similar to what Peter Hook was doing on bass at the same time in Joy Division—another Manchester band.
Sure, that’s all in the DNA of The Cult. It’s all part of where we came from. See, back in the late ’70s, we were all into the New York Dolls and Iggy & The Stooges, the MC5, and Bowie, and then punk happened and we all sort of moved towards that. But after punk, bands like us wanted to find our own voice. How do you follow that? I didn’t want to have a safety pin through my nose and a stupid mohawk. So, you’re not reaching for Les Pauls and Marshall amps anymore—you’re looking for something different, which is how I arrived at the sort of spaghetti-Western sound and the Gretsch guitars. There’s a song called “The Hop” from my pre-Cult band, Theater of Hate—which is still a great band today—that people can find that’s really the first song I played on that way. That band had a saxophone player who electronically treated his sax, so it sounded more like Roxy Music. The drums were very tribal. After all, it was postpunk, so the drums were very tom-tom oriented. They weren’t straight rock beats. The bass used to do a lot of riffs, kind of like, yeah, Joy Division. So I had to find some way to make my guitar fit into that.

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