Wednesday, March 21, 2012

An interview with the band Cults

photo by Martin Sanmiguel
My interview originally appeared at 

Cults continues its California tour this week with shows in Hollywood tomorrow, Pomona on Friday, Santa Barbara on Saturday and Santa Ana on Tuesday. 

For more info:

 A sense of mystery surrounds Cults.

The Brooklyn-based duo’s self-titled album includes photos where their faces are obscured by long hair and others displaying mass cult rituals.

Then there’s the pair’s alluring alt-pop, which deftly combines an affinity for 1960s girl group music with dialogue snippets from past notorious cult figures like The Rev. Jim Jones.

“That was a conceptual thing we came up with for the songs on our first 7” single,” explained multi-instrumentalist Brian Oblivion, via phone, before a visit to Disney World.

“We were already fascinated with that idea after working on some projects for school about mass mind control and alternative religions. Pulling those quotes out was something we did from memory…it’s just part of our personality.”

Foreboding undercurrents also seep into Cults’ music videos. On “You Know What I Mean,” a guy makes a death defying leap and catches fire as evil-looking townsfolk watch.

Director Isaiah Seret, who also helmed Cults’ memorable “Forrest Gump”-styled “Go Outside” clip, initially “sent us a plotline that was more romantic,” said Oblivion. “It didn’t have the dramatic aspects and twists like the burning scene. We emailed him back and said, ‘you’re not going to freak us out if you go weirder.”

Oblivion – whose stage name pays homage to 1983 David Cronenberg flick “Videodrome” - and lead singer Madeline Follin were born in San Francisco, but have local roots. He grew up in Encinitas and went to Torrey Pines High School; she was raised near North Park and attended San Diego High.

As a teen, Oblivion and “the people I grew up with in North County idolized the old guard of the ‘90s music scene like Drive Like Jehu, Heavy Vegetable, Rocket From the Crypt, Pinback. Those guys made a really big stamp on San Diego, for sure. Even today, it endures. There’s a lot of really amazing bands from San Diego now whether people talk about it or not.”

He fondly recalls hanging out and catching shows at SDSU’s Che Café. “I wouldn’t be playing music today” if it wasn’t for the venue. “It’s constantly in danger. We’ve been talking about ways we can help them make money. There was a place called The Scene; I saw Blonde Redhead and Mars Volta there when I was in seventh grade. That was a game changer too.”

Having played with Follin’s brother Richie in short-lived stoner metal band Barracks, he met her at House of Blues San Diego, where Richie’s band Willowz had a gig. Coincidentally, they were both headed to film school in New York City.

“We hit it off personally and lived together for a year before we started making music” in 2010. They posted songs on unsigned musician web site Bandcamp and put out singles through a couple indie labels. 

The debut album was released last summer on UK pop star Lily Allen’s ITNO/Columbia Records imprint and co-produced Cults and Shane Stoneback (Sleigh Bells). Follin’s stepdad Paul Kostabi, a founding member of White Zombie, provided additional studio assistance.

Several songs (“Most Wanted,” “Go Outside”) are rife with glockenspiel, Farfisa organ and a dense, reverb-laden sheen inspired by Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound.

“That was definitely the jumping off point,” noted Oblivion.”

Follin’s sugary vocals often bring to mind Sarah Cracknell of St. Etienne and such influences as the Shangri-Las and Lesley Gore. Closer examination of the lyrics reveals a dark subject matter and attitude (“Never Heal Myself,” “Bumper”).

The upbeat latter tune, co-written by The Shins member Richard Swift, is a quarrelling call and response duet complete with electric guitar freak out. 

“We were going for Ike & Tina Turner, but we needed to scream it a little louder. We’re big fans of kitsch and like a lot of late ‘50s/early ‘60s songs that tell really campy stories. That’s one thing we realized about each other early on.”

Being romantically involved and living together makes for an efficient songwriting process.

“I always compare it to an assembly line. I’ll be in one room working on music for hours and get to the point where I’m happy enough and send it over to Madeline. She’ll listen, put finishing touches on and write the lyrics. When she’s finished doing that, I usually have another song ready. So we just keep going back and forth. It’s so easy to get stuff done quickly.”

Although Oblivion said the next album is “just starting to come into focus,” they have several songs already written and a new recording space in Brooklyn. “We’re going to work more with a full band and real string players and have more time to experiment.”

Having completed a tour last fall opening for Foster the People, Cults is glad to be headlining with a more sophisticated presentation.

“We’ve got a visual artist for projections and lighting.” The expanded setlist features their take on Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows,” a choice made after much debate.

“It’s always a big statement as a band. We could never really find the right cover until that one.” 

Follin’s five-year-old brother is now a true Cults fan thanks to their appearance on an episode of his favorite TV show “Yo Gabba Gabba” this past December. 

“That was probably the coolest thing we’ve ever done. We were walking around and couldn’t believe it was real.”

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