New York duo Cults talk major labels, banking on buzz and indie peers on New Hot

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Cults -- the internet sensation who signed to Columbia off the strength of their Bandcamp profile -- have released their sophomore album "Static." (Courtesy of Martin San Miguel)
Cults Interview
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Couple Brian Oblivion and Madeline Follin were discovered by Columbia Records after posting a series of demos of their band Cults to Bandcamp. The ensuing hype machine created one of the more successful debut records of 2011. The two have since broken up, and as with all good musical relationships that come to an end, the ensuing creative energy has spawned a darker collection of pop songs for their sophomore album Static.

David Safar: Listening to "High Road," how would you describe the differences between the sounds on your debut and this new album Static?

Brian Oblivion: Well, for me the biggest difference is that "High Road" and the whole record just sounds much more live and more like a real band. Our last record was composed almost completely on a laptop off of software plugins and samples. It was brought in the studio where we put some vocals on and mixed it a lot like you'd make a hip-hop track or something. This record was done from the ground up with real instruments — which sounds like, "Real instruments — whatever, people have been doing that for a long time." But for us, it was actually a big learning curve.

When you were in the studio recording did you ever feel like, "We should just get out of here and go back to an apartment or a bedroom and make this album the same way we made the last one?"

Madeline Follin: I don't think it was too different the second time. I mean we did start both in bedrooms at home. I guess it was a little different — we did experiment a lot on this one which was fun, and I think it needed to happen.

What's your method to write songs together?

Brian: It's very industrial. When I start writing songs, I'll start with just making a bunch of loops. I'll spend a few weeks and just make a ton of stuff. Then I'll usually go and show all those loops to Madeline, and she'll pick some that she thinks are better than others. Then I'll start focusing and making a track. I'll send the track over to her and she'll record her melodies and lyrics — sometimes just through her computer on GarageBand — and then send it back to me. Most of the time that's just the song and sometimes we'll take moments to say, "Oh, this part's working and this part isn't". It's very old school braille building. She does the lyrics. I do the piano. But that works for us because both fields are what we're more comfortable in and this way it allows us to just hone in on one thing.

Madeline, you have such a distinct voice and style of singing. When did you find that voice?

Madeline: That's a tough question. I recorded when I was younger, but I stopped doing that and then when we decided to record, I just went in there and started singing. Over time I guess my voice just grew. I mean, you can tell from the last record to this record that it has changed a lot.

How would you describe the change?

Madeline: I think I'm just more confident singing. We toured for so long and when we recorded the first record, we hadn't really toured at all, and I hadn't sang it ever.

You turned around this new album pretty quickly after your debut. Were you eager to write new songs and create new material? Did you write it on the road? How did that happen so quickly?

Brian: I love to hear that because all I hear from anybody else is, "Oh, you took a long break in-between your records!"

Madeline: Yeah, I think it's weird when people say that it was a long time, but we actually toured for a year before the album came out and a year after. Then we took like six months off, didn't do anything, then recorded the record and then sat again for three months. So it felt like a logical, normal amount of time.

So, did you write those songs in that six month period when you were not on the road?

Brian: It's kind of all over the map. I think a lot of songs were written on the road. I mean, we already have like 15 songs for the new record. We're always working — we're always writing songs. We always joke that our b-sides and rarities collection is going to be like a box set because we have so much stuff that we just scrap over time. One thing we don't really do is we don't ever really go backwards. Like if we take a song and it's not working for some reason, we've never reinvigorated it. So, a lot of the songs were written on the last touring cycle, and a lot of them were written in that time off. I think an important thing for bands that our culture doesn't really allow or encourage is taking time to do things. Even people we'll meet at the shows on the end of this tour are like, "Oh man, love the new record. Can't wait to hear the next one!"

Madeline: Yeah, people keep asking, "Are you guys writing again?" And I'm like, "Our record's been out for maybe a month. Sure, we would love to."

Brian, you were quoted in Pitchfork praising the benefits of major labels — statements that some people might have been surprised by. There were some interesting reactions to the words that you were quoted as saying. Can you tell us a little bit about what you meant by your praising of being on a major label and the blowback from that?

"I like to think that what we get from being on a record label is, number one, smart people. Everyone who works there is really cool and professional, and not druggy party people like so many people in the industry... I feel like a lot of smaller indie labels are giving bands really bad deals and robbing them. You see a lot of labels still give a band a $40,000 advance, which seems like a lot of money, but these days, you split all your money with the label... All these bands are trading their cool points for cash, and [the labels are] making out like bandits."
- Cults' Brian Oblivion, in an interview for Spin

Brian: I was trying exactly that — to get a reaction. I was just tired of people always interpreting our record through the prism of what label you're on. I feel like that's a really outdated concept, especially today when everybody just buys their music on the internet and everyone likes so many different things at the same time. The power of the corporate music structure doesn't really exist anymore. It's kind of like a myth. We do love our label, and I think that Columbia is doing the most exciting things in music right now like Nine Inch Nails, David Bowie, HAIM, Daft Punk and every awesome act that's going on right now. I think that it's really about the people you work with because like I said, there's this great illusion that things happen for bands because of their label but that's just not true. We don't really partake in any benefits that we wouldn't have on any big indie label. We just really like the people we work with, and we're excited about being part of that family.

Speaking of what's happening now, you mentioned a couple bands that are on Columbia. Who do you consider your contemporaries right now in the music world?

Brian: I think a lot of the bands that we came up with.

Madeline: Smith Westerns, Sleigh Bells, Best Coast.

Brian: And Yuck. I feel like there was this kind of wave when all these blue chip indie acts like Grizzly Bear, Animal Collective and Deerhunter were all in this lull after their second records and that allowed bands like us and Yuck and Smith Westerns to have a moment to break through and get people's attention. Then all those bands came out with records last year and all our friends are coming out with records again this year. It kind of ebbs and tides back and forth. Now there's a whole new generation of bands that are on the tail wave of what we did doing something different. It's exciting to see the whole thing roll over. Like your old high school friends, I think that those bands we named that we started out with will always be close to us.

Madeline and Brian, I want to thank you for stopping by. Before we go, I want to play one of your favorite songs off the album. Can you pick one for us?

Brian: I think we'd pick "Always Forever." For me, that's my favorite song on the record because it's the simplest. It's the most cohesive small idea. I think that the tone that we were trying to accomplish with this song is like the tone of a lot of my favorite movies and songs where it's just kind of like love and joy mixed with melancholy, and I feel like we really got there. It's also one of my favorite mixes on the record because it has the most low-end of any song we've ever done.

Related Stories

  • First Listen: Cults, 'Static' For Cults, reinvigorating '60s-style girl-group pop means embracing both light and darkness.
  • Cults performs in The Current studios The backstory of Manhattan band Cults is second-nature by now: originally a duo, Brian Oblivion and Madeline Follin released a three-song EP on Bandcamp in 2010 that gradually gathered accolades over the next year. It eventually nabbed them a spot on famed major label Columbia Records, proof that no matter how small you start off, your impact can still be huge.
  • Cults perform live in The Current studio Cults can owe much of their success to the internet. Two and a half years ago, the duo of Brian Oblivion and Madeline Follin met at a rock show in San Diego, began dating, and a week later decided to move to New York. They began playing music together and posted songs on BandCamp, and it wasn't long until they were garnering attention from record labels and new fans.