Catching Up With Cults

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Cults could have been a massive failure. Maybe not on the Terence Trent D’arby level, but still one that would have been talked about for a few years to come. A band puts three songs up on its Bandcamp page, within hours it explodes on a worldwide scale, and a few months later they’re signed to a major label—all based off of the buzz of one of those songs. “Go Outside” was a monster. It was everywhere. When it came time to make their sophomore record, it wasn’t like they were just trying to follow up a debut. They had to surpass the bar set by that one single song and prove that they were more than just a Bandcamp fluke. Thankfully, it doesn’t take too much time while listening to Static to realize that the duo is much more than that song or that buzz. Static gives a depth and sense of adventure that their self-titled debut didn’t have, plenty proof that we should keep paying attention.

Paste : It’s been awesome to see you guys come into your own. What I love about Cults is that you seem to be one of the rare bands that has figured out how to make art accessible to mainstream. It’s not easy, and the usual formula isn’t there, yet it works for everybody. How do you go into it? I mean, is it even in the gameplan to say “we want to be askew but we also want to make it work”?
Brian Oblivion: I think it’s a natural part of our personalities. It’s kind of funny. I feel like we went about it the opposite way. Growing up, we were both pretty huge music and art snobs. Probably pretty annoying to talk to, but now that we’re grown up and more mature, we actually like and encounter more pop stuff than we do of all of the old art stuff we used to watch. I think the process of this band has been growing more and more toward accessible ideas and finding more interesting things to do with that.

Paste : So let’s back up a little bit. “Go Outside” takes off and becomes this huge monster. You go through everything of that first album, and then you start working on Static. What was the pressure like? It seems not so much that you had to follow up your debut, it’s that you had to prove yourself against this one occurrence. This one mind-blowing instance.
Madeline Follin: I think I felt more pressure recording the first record than I did recording Static just because I was so nervous. We had only put three songs out and then we had to prove that we could write a whole album.
Oblivion: And if we blew that, then it would have been over.
Follin: We wouldn’t have even had a chance to do any of the things that we were doing. And I was less nervous, I feel, because we had toured so much, and we had worked really hard to build the fanbase. So it was like, I figured we weren’t doing anything too crazy.
Oblivion: The concept of pressure negates the reality of how much we love doing it. You know what I mean? There’s no concept of pressure in the studio. It’s like the best part of our year. You just go in there and make music and play stupid guitar solos and sing and just hang out with each other, and it’s like the best thing ever. It’s not scary; it’s exciting.

Paste : So you say it’s much easier the second time around?
Oblivion: No. [laughs]
Follin: No, but I feel like, like I said, it sort of felt like our second time around during the first one, and this sort of felt like doing our third record, which was not easy.
Oblivion: There was definitely like a naiveté to the way we approached our first one, as far as like, the minute details of everything. Not really knowing what a compressor does or not knowing what instruments we could use. And this time, having the knowledge of how everything works made the whole thing kind of harder and slower because we think about everything. I mean, I’d hear a drum sound and be like, “I think that kick needs a little more release time on the compressor.” And before, I’d be like, “I don’t know, it doesn’t sound great. Fix it.” You know? And then someone else would do it.

Paste : It’s learning the language.
Oblivion: Yeah, it’s really getting in with your hands and making sure that it’s just what you wanted.

Paste : What don’t we know about the road to success for you guys? What was going on in the back part that everyone else hasn’t figured out yet? Why were Cults able to take off?
Follin: A lot of work. I mean it’s pretty much since we wrote “Go Outside,” which was the first song that we did, we really haven’t had any time off. But we like that. But it’s not…being in a band isn’t something that you can be like, “oh, I’m going to take six months off.” I mean, you’re working every single day.

Paste : And there’s attention that’s paid to much more than the music. You’ve got a complete visual component.
Oblivion: That’s really fun for us. It’s what we originally started to do in school and thought we would do with the rest of our lives, work on film or video or whatever we could scrap our way into. So being able to incorporate some element of that, it’s not only something that’s fun for us, but a sanity thing. You know, you get to do something different for a while and change your brain chemistry.

Paste : How much conversation goes into that side of things when you’re talking about “this is how we want our clothes. This is how we want the backdrop and the artwork to look”? How much of that conversation actually happens?
Oblivion: We don’t talk about clothes very often.
Follin: Well, we talk about clothes a little bit. I mean like, when we finish the record, like I said before, we like to be working all the time. The second that there was nothing to be done with the music, we immediately started having conversations every day about what we wanted the record cover to look like and how we wanted the live show to look. And so we spent every waking second working on that.
Oblivion: I had this interview recently, and this guy asked me, “So the album Static, it seems like you guys are incorporating a lot of static images. How did your label push you into that kind of marketing and branding thing?” I mean, what are those words? I don’t even think of it that way. It’s like we’re just trying to present a show and to work with a concept every time we do a record. We don’t make concept albums. We make visually…there has to be a theme, otherwise it’s confusing for us.

Paste : On that same point, what you all see for the visuals, does that ever influence the music? Instead of making the music and then saying “this is what it’s going to look like,” does it ever play the other way?
Oblivion: Definitely. Especially for this record, we knew from the very beginning that it was going to be called Static, and we knew what the record cover was going to be. When we were crafting a lot of the album, we were thinking about white noise and distortion and a way to make things sound really big and full without using a lot of reverb like we did on the first record. It’s funny, we work with the same producer as Sleigh Bells, who are good friends of ours, and he says it’s a constant joke for him that if he plays anything for Derrick from Sleigh Bells without a crazy distortion on it, Derrick will just have a panic attack and have to run out of the studio. And if he plays anything for us without any of these echoey reverbs, we’re like “God, what are we doing?” We lose our minds.

Paste : So we shouldn’t expect the acoustic album any time soon?
Oblivion: Well, not…no.

Paste : Is there an actual story behind the artwork? Specifically of the artwork of the first record versus the new one? Visually, it’s similar and I’ve got to imagine that was part of the conversation.
Oblivion: I don’t know. We didn’t really conceptualize completely for the CD that it was going to be similar to the first one, but when it came down to it, it just seemed logical. Because this record, as much as it is different, it felt like the tails side of a coin. I think the first record is a lot about…it’s very youthful and naive, and it’s about wanting independence and distancing yourself from people. I think this record is kind of the opposite. It’s about growing up and realizing your relationships with people are the most important thing you have and encouraging people to foster those and not live in a fake world where they’re constantly online or something and taking everything for granted. So it felt good to have it be two different looks of the same thing.

Paste : Much like back in the days of earlier days of rock when people would dissect everything The Beatles did, when you put out that second album artwork, the first thing that some fans said was, “look, they’re looking at each other on the first one, but in this one they’re not looking at each other.”
Follin: Oh, I didn’t even…

Paste : Yeah, that’s a thing! So that’s when everyone reads into your relationship [Oblivion and Follin were together during the first record, but split before the second].
Follin: Yeah, I didn’t even realize that.
Oblivion: That’s hilarious.
Follin: Just from the poses!