It’s often said that the most subversive pop music – from the Shangri Las to Rihanna – is that which wraps sinister tales within a sugar-coated shell. If so, then it’s hard to imagine a band pushing that manifesto further than Cults. On the surface they could be sickly sweet – a smitten couple called Brian Oblivion and Madeline Follin who spin gorgeous melodies across their girl group-inspired bedroom pop. But dig deeper and a whole new world opens up, one that contains songs about anxiety, drug abuse and the pain of moving from adolescence into adulthood. Oh, and those inspirational, moving speeches that appear, ghost-like, behind the music? They’re from a selection of notorious cult leaders …
“I think what makes something beautiful is when it’s pretty but there’s something wrong with it too,” muses Brian by way of a mission statement. “So where our music is upbeat and uplifting, behind that there are heartbreaking lyrics and quotes from Charles Manson, Patty Hearst, Jim Jones … I wanted quotes of ugly people saying beautiful things. That’s the pinnacle of beauty to me, when someone who is so obviously disagreeable in every way can say something perfect.”
The Cults story is really one of chance meetings, chances so fortuitous you may wonder if something stronger – something more like fate – was at work. How else to explain the fact that Madeline happened to be in San Diego on the night her brother’s band were playing – thus hooking up with Brian who was acting as tour manager at the time. How else to explain the fact that, for some unknown reason, Madeline had left half her belongings in San Francisco, prompting Brian to offer to drive the round trip to collect them, during which the pair would cement their relationship by bonding over each other’s iPod collection (from Lesley Gore and Jay-Z to Justin Timberlake). And how else to explain the fact that Madeline and Brian both happened to be embarking on a imminent move to New York to study film, ensuring that they moved in together and Brian got the chance to hear Madeline singing over the first songs he'd ever written. “I was laying down demo vocals in the apartment and Madeline was singing along,” he recalls. “I thought 'man this is going to work.' It was all so easy it does feel serendipidous.”
Thrilled but shy about their new recordings, the pair tentatively put them up on a Bandcamp page. “I didn’t even want our friends to show anyone,” admits Madeline. Fortunately their friends didn’t always obey orders and the tracks found their way to music blog Gorilla Vs Bear who posted these unknown demos to a roaring reception. More fate, you might say. And here’s some more – Gorilla Vs Bear just so happened to be looking at starting up a label, Forest Family Records, and were looking for an undiscovered new band to launch it with.
Rather than wait until they'd 'mastered' their art, Cults agreed to release Go Outside straight away. “You can suck the life out of a song by making it perfect and we didn’t want to do that,” agrees Brian. “We wanted everything to feel real. I don’t know anything about recording and it was our first time playing together. It wasn’t an attempt to be lo-fi or hide beyind some “lo-fi aesthetic” – it was more the best we could do.”
Instead of stoking the flames of indie blog fame by posting more new tracks, Cults decided their next move would be to put a full album out with a bigger label and signed to the newly-created Sony imprint ITNO. Their album will be – like the original demos – self-produced, although engineer Shane Stoneback (Sleigh Bells, Vampire Weekend) has been brought on board to tighten things up. A love of hip hop is also evident in their use of repetition: “We wanted the melody to be the thing that breaks the music out of its monotony,” says Brian. “In that sense some of our songs aren’t far off from early Wu Tang stuff where they’d sample soul records.”
That all this happened for Cults in the space of a year says a lot about the band's sense of spontaneity. And the fact that most people didn't know the first thing about them when they heard their music? That just worked to their advantage – especially as the duo think a sense of mystery and intrigue has been absent from rock’n’roll for too long.
“Bands have become way too handy at promoting themselves,” says Brian. “It cheapens the music a bit. It’s like Coca Cola or some brand. There’s nothing left to ponder if it’s all filled in – you can just consume it and throw it away.”
That’s not to say there’s no story here. Quite the opposite, in fact. Before Cults met, Madeline had already assembled a lifetime’s worth of rock’n’roll stories to her name. While Brian slogged it out in a series of bands from the age of 13 – including one starring role in a Slayer covers band ¬– an eight year old Madeline was singing hardcore punk tracks and sharing vinyl space with Dee Dee Ramone.
“My stepdad owns a studio and he heard me singing and asked me to do an Adolescents track for him,” she recalls. “I was just on a sugar high saying ‘I wanna sing another one’ and ended up doing five or six songs. Dee Dee played bass and sang on a song on that same record or something. But for me it wasn’t a big deal, Dee Dee was just one of my stepdad’s friends.”
It was rather more of a big deal for the US label that ended up offering Madeline a three-record deal (“I think they were trying to make the next Ke$ha !” she laughs). Perhaps luckily, Madeline’s stepdad decided it wasn’t the best move to sign her life away at the age of eight. Who knows, maybe these childhood acts of subversion ended up influencing her current guise, in which an older, wiser Madeline sings sweetly atop the words of Cult nut jobs? Whatever, the band want you to know that there's more to the juxtaposition than simple shock tactics.
“A lot of our songs are about what we’re going through right now – the fear of growing up and facing adult responsibility,” says Brian. “And in a way that fear is what makes people join cults in the first place – wanting to escape competition and success and be a part of something bigger, communal. We also want to live our own lives with our own schedules and expectations, so in a way this band has become our own cult.”
Get sucked in and it could become yours too.