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The Cult’s ‘Choice of Weapon’ is rocking together

The band -- Chris Wyse (bass), left, Billy Duffy (lead guitar), Ian Astbury (lead vocals) and John Tempesta (drums).
(Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times)

Showtime for the Cult is just 15 minutes away. Singer Ian Astbury puts on a black leather jacket and clips a furry tail to his belt. Guitarist Billy Duffy stretches, paces and hops in place.

The ’80s-born British rock band is set to perform the outdoor stage of “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” and these days its focus is less on the old hits than songs from a new album, “Choice of Weapon.” It’s the band’s best-reviewed release in well over a decade.

“Show business! And they pay you for it too,” says Duffy, who played the Hollywood Palladium on June 23 with the Cult. “I’ve learned to keep focused on the show and not let any of this other stuff floating around keep me from peaking onstage -- which is a big difference from the old days. Then it was ‘Get the gig out of the way so we can get to the party.’ ”

In the late ’80s, the Cult’s brawny guitar rock was one of the few sounds that Sunset Strip head-bangers and KROQ listeners could agree on. Cult songs from that era -- “She Sells Sanctuary,” “Fire Woman,” etc. -- are now in regular rotation on classic rock radio, suggesting permanent membership in the mainstream rock canon.

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It’s an identity that has stuck, but sometimes at the cost of acceptance from the modern rock world that Astbury and Duffy still most identify with. For Duffy, who came from punk rock and whose first band included Morrissey, it’s no small thing that KROQ airplay has become a rarity and that an invitation to perform at Coachella has yet to arrive.

“Coachella won’t have us on because we’re too rock,” Duffy laments. In the band’s late ’80s / early ’90s heyday, Astbury may have had jet-black hair past his shoulders, but the band could fit just as easily on a bill with Public Image Ltd. as Iggy Pop or Metallica. “That’s part of our DNA,” Duffy says of their harder-rock hits, “and we do play some of those songs live, but it’s not the whole story.”

“Choice of Weapon” feels different, like an unexpected return to their strengths after nearly three decades of success, turmoil, breakups and fitful reunions. This version of the Cult -- which also includes drummer John Tempesta and bassist Chris Wyse -- now lives in Los Angeles and has been together for seven years.

“We’re in a good place,” says Duffy, 51, of his long partnership with Astbury. “We have our little blowups, but I really think we’ve got to another level of our relationship, where there is a lot more compassion and understanding and working for the common good. It’s not perfect, but like any marriage, communication is the key.”

The new album is centered on the same kind of stormy guitar riffs and sweeping vocals that fueled the Cult’s most beloved songs, mingling postpunk attitude with elements of straight-ahead AC/DC-style guitar rock.

On the opening track, “Honey From a Knife,” Duffy rips open a speedy Chuck Berry lead while Astbury roars of drugs, bloody shirts and the newest lost generation: “All the children loving the camera.... Can you take the pace much faster?”

“Billy and I never had any master Machiavellian plan to get together and take over the world and be the greatest band in the world,” says Astbury, 50. “We didn’t have that kind of confidence. Not like the Gallagher brothers [of Oasis], they come out and say, ‘We are the greatest band in the world!’ Do you believe it? Then it’s got to be true.”

Support still comes from unexpected places. At this year’s South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas, acclaimed director Terrence Malick filmed a Cult performance for his upcoming “Lawless” and had the band improvise for the cameras backstage with actress Rooney Mara. Whether any of the footage makes it into the final film, the mere possibility is a thrilling thing for film fanatic Astbury.

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“I really love being part of something special like that,” says Astbury, who has frequently dabbled in filmmaking, including shorts for the new album. “I’m obviously a huge admirer of his work.”

The Cult took its first long break in 1995. After more than a dozen years together, with huge radio hits and touring success, but also growing animosities between Astbury and Duffy, the band broke apart.

“We had a great run,” says Duffy. “Grunge happened, and they were making important rock music and we weren’t. We needed a breather. I had been in the ring swinging for about 10 years and I needed a break and let someone else start fighting.”

A 1999 reunion was short-lived, resulting in one album and another indefinite hiatus as Astbury left to join a new version of the Doors with guitarist Robby Krieger and keyboardist Ray Manzarek.

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“I told Ian, ‘Look, man, if you always want to do this, don’t worry, I’ll do it,’ ” Duffy says. “Because I’ve given a lot of my life to the Cult and obviously quite a lot of me goes into the music. But I didn’t have any expectation or demand that it would happen again.”

Astbury did 150 shows with the Doors, but legal battles with former Doors drummer John Densmore interfered with whatever might have come from an ongoing collaboration. He and Duffy rebuilt the Cult.

These days, when Duffy speaks of making music with the Cult, it’s less about rock star glamour than hard work, and he describes it with terms like “nuts and bolts” and “I’m down in the engine room” and “I’m the guy with the oily rag.”

The Cult first enjoyed major success and arena shows decades ago. The band now seems content to rock hard as journeymen without a lot left to prove to themselves or critics.

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“We have no expectations,” says Astbury. “We’re very realistic about it. We know we’ve got to go out and be ourselves. We’re trying to keep this like a family. There’s a connectivity there.”

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