The retro-leaning duo crafts an infectious debut with a compelling dark side.
Mon Jun 6 2011
Photograph: Martin Sanmiguel
Last year, Brooklyn indie-pop duo Cults set music blogs ablaze with "Go Outside," a glistening vintage pop sing-along tinged with a compelling creepiness, its darkness accented by a sample of speech from Peoples Temple cult leader Jim Jones.
Cults, now a quintet formed around the couple Brian Oblivion and Madeline Follin, initially released three tracks via Bandcamp: a cluster of songs reminiscent of White Stripes with Meg on lead vocals, but comparatively brighter via the force of Follin's impressive, soulful singing. Through mutual friends, "Go Outside" came to the notice of Chris Cantalini, proprietor of powerhouse MP3 blog Gorilla vs. Bear, whose attention inspired Cults' appearance in best-of playlists in print and online. According to Oblivion, the effusive praise and devotion to this early handful of songs brought unexpected anxiety.
"We got really scared," Oblivion says over the phone from Cults' tour van, cruising through the English countryside. "We started frantically writing songs really quickly that were in the same style, and I think all of those songs ended up sucking really bad. Every time a song was a failure for us was when we were trying to imitate ourselves: 'Oh, let's write another song like "Go Outside." Every song like that just came out horrible... 'Let's do another one like "Most Wanted."' It would just be trash."
As many bands who encounter swift viral fame have discovered, an initial wave of press might be the last: If a group can't parlay attention into something more substantive, like a record deal or live bookings, its work can recede back into the Internet's infinite sea of MP3s. A band like Cults, which appropriates a spectrum of vintage song styles in a striking but not particularly original way, is even more at risk. The best songs on its self-titled debut, like "Abducted" and "Never Saw the Point," channel warm, retro grooves and a dusty feel, with simple melodies fortified by colorful percussion. The songs might strike you as sharpened updates of something you've heard before. To achieve that sensation without forcing the issue, Oblivion and Follin worked hard to retain the mind-set of their early recordings, together with a more organic songwriting process.
"You want to try and stay in the headspace in which we made those songs, which was a total lack of concern of what people think or a concern of responsibility to a sound," Oblivion says. "As soon as those ideas start creeping into your head, people start influencing you, you get really scared that you're going to lose that magic or that touch. I don't know if it's a fashionable way of talking about your writing, but we're pretty distanced from our songs, I think. We think of them as little art projects."
Spurred by positive press and a partnership with engineer Shane Stoneback (Vampire Weekend, Sleigh Bells), Oblivion and Follin camped out in the studio, where the recording process didn't end until 4am on the final day of mixing. Shielding themselves from the ubiquity of Internet press, they buried themselves in their work, writing 25 songs, which would be winnowed down to a final 11.
"This record was almost like our sophomore record," Oblivion says, referring to the impact those early Bandcamp tracks had. "We had to retreat and think about how we were going to top that," he continues. "We were lucky to have good people around us, with heads on their shoulders enough to realize that was just bullshit anyway."
The process was not without bickering—"We're the most dramatic band that you'll ever meet," Oblivion says. "We're like Oasis"—but it achieved the desired result, a record full of striking contrasts between sunniness and darkness. "We wanted to write a record for our teenage selves, for bad kids, anthems of regret and rebellion and angst," Oblivion says. "All the saddest songs that I know masquerade as being happy; I think things have more impact that way, when there's some kind of dual nature to it. Otherwise, it's Cheerios."
Music Hall of Williamsburg; Thu 9;