ABOVE: MADELINE FOLLIN (LEFT) AND BRIAN OBLIVION. PHOTO BY VAN SARKI.
“With the last record, everything was challenging for us because we were such amateurs,” Brian Oblivion, one half of the New York band Cults, tells us. “These songs are a lot more fun to play because they’re so much more musically challenging,” he continues. “If you’re just getting on stage and are just going through the motions and not challenging yourself, it becomes obvious to everyone there that you’re a humdrum act.”
Static, the second album from the indie-pop wunderkinds, is an album for Cults fans. Although more melancholy in tone, Static is filled with the same captivating, sunnily-sung choruses that pushed the band’s 2010 debut to the top of critic’s end-of-year lists. We recently spoke with Oblivion and his bandmate Madeline Follin via phone.
EMMA BROWN: This album seems particularly cohesive. Did you write all of the songs at once?
BRIAN OBLIVION: No, it was written over a year. On the last tour we did, we started writing songs again, [but] it was mostly written in a four-month period after we stopped touring. We took two months off and had a lost weekend situation where we tried to figure out how to be real people after being on the road for two years. Everything was put together at the same time, but some of the songs are over a year old.
BROWN: How do you become a real person again?
OBLIVION: Being real people involves reconnecting with your friends and with your family, and getting an apartment and walking around the streets of New York and seeing how it changed. Just trying to connect in a more realistic way with the world, rather than being carted around in a van or a bus or a plane and having nobody.
BROWN: Do the songs of the new album still feel current, or do they feel like you wrote them a year ago and you can be a little detached when you play them?
OBLIVION: We played some new songs last weekend and our sound guy yelled at us later. He was like, “As soon you start playing your new songs, everybody gets twice as loud. It’s way too loud!’ I think that’s an outgrowth of how excited we are to play these songs and to bring them out to the world. It has been so long playing the same songs, and we’re still in love with all the old songs, but as soon as we start the first note of a new one, we’re all like, “Crank it up!”—really happy. They still feel super fresh to us. We’ve yet to grind them down into oblivion.
BROWN: Do you ever workshop songs live?
OBLIVION: No, we don’t, which is a sad outgrowth of the camera culture that we live in today. We work so hard on every detail of the songs and manicure every tone. I’ve used this metaphor before, but playing a song live, before you hear the recorded version—to me it’s like if you took a picture of your baby right when it came out of the womb, and it’s covered in blood and that weird stuff, I don’t even know what it is, and then that’s the photo you send out to your whole family. You want to brush it off and clean it up and make sure that it’s something you’re going to be proud of for a long time before people have their first impression.
BROWN: Your debut album was very successful—did you feel like there was added pressure for your second album?
OBLIVION: I don’t think there could be more pressure than we had in the very beginning. Right now, it feels like way less pressure because we already have people who are curious about our music and we have something resembling a fan base. Our first record kind of felt like our second record, because we had just three songs that we put up and those had gained more attention than most bands’ full first albums do. Then we had to go in and flesh out the rest of the songs and turn a bedroom weekend project into a full band. That was the most stressful time because it was people deciding whether they were going to pay attention or just throw us in the trash. We made it out the other side of that. Now it feels like we have the gear that we need to play and we have a record.
BROWN: People often tie pop music to a specific season—do you feel like music is seasonal?
FOLLIN: I think it can be, but I just remember people with a song like “Go Outside,” every season somebody would be like, “Oh, this is a summer song!” “This is a perfect song for the winter!” I think it is what you make it.
OBLIVION: The idea of a summer album is a bummer to me, because that means come fall you’re just going to put it on a shelf. You hope that you have more of an emotional connection than just a box of summeriness.
BROWN: Can you tell me a little more about your song “Were Before”?
OBLIVION: “Were Before” is a song that we wrote a while ago, actually. It’s not about a relationship in a romantic way. It’s about growing up, running into old friends, and seeing who is excited they’re an adult and who isn’t. It’s getting frustrating—we’re both 24 now and a lot of our friends are older than us—seeing some people just hang their youth up on the hook, calling it early. Twenty-five-year-olds who says they’re too old to go out to a bar, just giving up on the experience of life.
BROWN: Are most of your friends in music?
FOLLIN: I’d say the majority of them, but that’s something that’s unavoidable when you’re living on the road and touring so much. Your friends end up being the people you see at festivals or see around the country. It’s hard to keep up relationships back at home because everybody moves on and nothing is the same when you get back.
BROWN: Do you remember your first concert together?
OBLIVION: Yes, absolutely. It was the most surreal thing. We had never played a show before and we had a show coming up at the Mercury Lounge that was sold out and was going to be full of music industry people. We were tripping out really hard: “We’ve never played—we’re going to tank.” Madeline’s stepdad, who’s this old punk guy, called up one of his friends who runs a community center in Massachusetts. We drove up there and played between a guy with an acoustic guitar and a screamo band. There were 15 kids at this community center and at that time, we had seven members in the band, I think. It was a totally overblown, ridiculous setup, but it was really fun. It is still one of my favorite shows that we’ve ever played. It went really well. We played a couple other weird, off- the-track shows before we ended up with our big New York debut, and I think that was a smart move looking back.
BROWN: Did the community center appreciate your music?
OBLIVION: [laughs] I’m not sure we were really their style. I’m not sure they’d had ever seen anything like that before.
FOLLIN: Yeah, I had my eyes closed the whole time. [laughs]
BROWN: Which song did you have the most trouble with when you were writing the album?
OBLIVION: Probably the song “Keep Your Head Up.” It’s the one positive song on the record, and we wrestled with how to get the song to pop in the chorus for a super long time. It was actually one of the songs that caused us to realize that we couldn’t finish it on our own and had to go down and work with Ben Allen in Atlanta, because we were so close to every part of the song. We’d listen and hear a string part and remember exactly how much time that took to write and record and how we workshopped it. We were way too attached to everything on the record to have an enlightened perspective and be able to realize, “This is working and this is not.” So what Ben was able to do, which was extremely helpful, was be an axe murderer with all the stuff and be brutally honest. When we got the songs down to a more focused place, it felt amazing to get rid of everything. We were deleting hard drives. In the end, we might have been endlessly lost in a quagmire of our own desire.
BROWN: Do you ever disagree about what should or shouldn’t go into a song?
FOLLIN: [laughs] Usually.
OBLIVION: Madeline has that same talent that Ben has. I’m the real problem. She’s very brutally honest. She’ll tell me, “That keyboard part sounds like a fucking ringtone.” [laughs] I’ll spend two days working on it and then I’ll be like, “You’re right.” She has a really great way with analogies that can be extremely cutting. Sometimes you’ll do something in the studios and she’ll be like, “Oh, that sounds like Evanescence.” Then immediately the whole song is scrapped and everything goes out the window. She’s really good with that. Normally she just wins and I’ll abdicate.
BROWN: Does being surrounded by musicians make it easy to ask for help? Or is it harder because you feel more protective of your songs?
OBLIVION: Definitely the latter. We’re really unnecessarily and bizarrely paranoid about playing anything for any of our friends. We haven’t even given our record out to our friends now. Not because we aren’t afraid of people ripping us off—it’s a little bit that—but also, you don’t want other musicians’ opinions. You’re better off getting your mom’s opinion. It’s a more relevant. Musicians, number one, aren’t really honest with each other because they’re so competitive, but their perspective is the smallest percentage of people who are going to listen to it. If you want to be that kind of band, a musicians’ band, may God help you because that’s a tough road to walk. I think when we look for criticism, we look for it in more mundane places than with our super talented friends.
STATIC IS OUT NOW. FOR MORE ON CULTS, VISIT THE BAND’S WEBSITE.