New York indie pop band Cults: “There’s always been a sense of humour or a playfulness in everything that we do”

Handmade collage by B.

Cults are back with their fourth album Host, brought to life with live instrumentation and a reimagined sound. Fresh, lush and bold this collection of songs are some of their strongest and most exciting yet. Gimmie explore its writing and recording with Cults duo Madeline Follin and Brian Oblivion.

How has your day been?

MADELINE FOLLIN: We just got back from practicing for our virtual show tomorrow [laughs]; we recorded a radio session today too, it kind of felt like normal life today!

What was one of the most fun moments you had while making new album Host?

BRIAN OBLIVION: We spent three weeks out in the middle of nowhere in Arizona just trying to focus on really finishing the songs. We got a house with a pool! We just hung out in the crazy cactus desert and did nothing but work on music, all day and all night—it was a really special fun time.

Was there anything in particular that drew you to Arizona?

BO: Not really, it was cheap and close to where we already were [laughs]. We were at South by Southwest and flights were a fortune ‘cause everyone is going back and forth to New York from SXSW, we were like ‘where can we go around here that’s different? We can wait it out’. Our engineer lives in L.A. so he could just drive out to the desert.

I understand that you spent two months demoing before you went to Arizona and you were both on a different page as far as you wanted things to sound?

MF: Yeah. We always will start throwing ideas at the wall whenever we start recording. I feel like it was more that Brian and I don’t really have the same taste in music or art or anything [laughs], which is maybe why our band sounds the way it does. Whenever we’re starting a record we want to make sure that we’re both on the same page and we’re both completely happy with the direction we’re heading so sometimes it takes a little bit longer to figure out exactly what that is.

This is the first time that Cults have had live instruments on a record?

BO: It’s not the first, we had some string players on Static, but it’s definitely by far the furthest we’ve taken though.

MF: We were working in New York and we couldn’t agree on which direction we wanted to head into so we went to Arizona to lock ourselves in and not have any distractions to figure out what we wanted. He would chose a sound for something and I would be ‘I hate this!’ and then I would pick something and he’d be ‘This isn’t the vibe I want’ and then [producer] Shane [Stoneback] who was there with us said, “What if we have someone come and put down live strings? Is that something you guys could see as a direction for this?” Two days later our friend Tess [Scott-Suhrstedt] came and played viola on the songs, that’s when we realised what we wanted.

There seems to be a lot of playfulness and experimentation on this record. Was there anything that you tried different from what you might normally do?

BO: This record is way different rhythmically than anything that we’ve done—that’s all Madeline. I remember there was a day where I was out of it and I didn’t feel like looking at a computer and I was like ‘we have to get something done today!’ Madeline and I have thousands of these drum loops that we’ve collected over the years, I told her to just listen to them and pick the ones she liked the most. Madeline’s like ‘That sounds like busy work, that doesn’t sound like a job’ [laughs]. I was like, ‘no, do it, it’s going to be worth it!’ It totally was because all the stuff that she liked was maybe like more bossa nova beats or more jungle beats, things that I would have never started a song with. There’s something vaguely tropical about the album to me, that’s something that definitely came from Madeline and something I’m definitely excited about!

I saw the online Lollapalooza set you did where you played some of the new tracks, they sounded so great live.

BO: Thank you! A weird thing about the pandemic is we were playing the songs yesterday to get ready for our show and our manager was there and she was like “Wow! It sounds so great. Even the old songs sound better. Why does even the old ones sound better?” I said ‘Well, Heidi, I don’t think we’ve ever practiced before!’ [laughs]. Normally we practice for two weeks and then we learn on the road. This time we were just practicing to stay sane in a way. We’re very well practiced.

MF: [Laughs].

I saw that in September when you were making the album that there was a whiteboard with song titles you were working through and I spied 18 songs, only 12 made the album.

BO: Yes, there are many left!

There was one that caught my eye called ‘Poodles Dancing’!

MF: [Laughs].

BO: That’s a real song! [laughs]. ‘Poodles Dancing’ is a hit!

MR: ‘Poodles Dancing’ didn’t make the record because it’s something much bigger than Host [laughs].

Did you have a process of elimination for what finally makes it on the record and what doesn’t?

MF: It’s really, really hard. Some of them just didn’t get finished in time and with the other ones we’re biased because we loved every song we work on. It’s obvious which ones, sort of. We send some out to people and see what they think, because for us sometimes it’s hard to step away from something you’ve worked really hard on and say, this isn’t going to work, this isn’t good enough.

BO to MF: Every song you’ve written one day will find its way to the light of day in time—I have the files! [laughs].

MF: ‘Poodles Dancing’ is going to come out.

BO: We were watching all these YouTube videos of poodles dancing…

MF: No, I thought it sounded like poodles dancing.

BO: Oh yeah, then you found out it was a thing on YouTube.

MF: Go look it up!

BO: It will brighten your day.

We really love the song ‘Spit You Out’ it has some cool exotica kind of elements and a heaviness. The video where you’re eating all the different food is pretty fun.

MF: That was born out of necessity. We were in the very beginning of the lockdown. Originally our record was supposed to come out in April and everybody we work with said we should push it back so we kept pushing it back, we decided that people still need to listen to music! Just because we can’t tour doesn’t mean we can’t put out a record, so we pulled it together. Our friend who we were quarantining with directed the video of me eating for a few days straight. It was probably the most fun we’ve had making a clip. We set up a smartphone and I ate! [laughs].

The lyrics for the song seem pretty heavy though while the clip is lighter. Was that juxtapose a conscious choice?

MF: I thought the idea was really funny. Originally we were in L.A. in the beginning of March, we had been scheduled to shoot a video March 12 and for some reason the director cancelled but the idea was to have me in a circle of people with them spitting on me. Luckily we didn’t do that! Imagine, twenty people could have ended up with Corona if someone was infected. I feel much better that it is a light, funny video; there’s a lot of people that are really mad about it that really don’t like the video! [laughs].

BO: [Laughs]. We talked about it in the car yesterday that maybe with this record more than other records, to us there’s always been a sense of humour or a playfulness in everything that we do, we want people to see that and engage with that, it’s there by design; some fans don’t see that though and think we’re dark and moody. Whatever you think is fine but, what we’re trying to do is not as serious as it seems.

MF: At the same time I probably would have been mad at the video too because I actually hate watching and listening to people eat!

BO: She loathes it!

What did you each learn from the process of making this album?

BO: We were also talking about how there’s this weird cyclical nature for this record, some people are comparing it to the first record we made which I don’t really feel in anyway other than that the first record was really angry and we reconnected with that anger. I thought about it some more and was like well we made the first record in a tiny apartment in Manhattan and we made this record in an apartment too. When we made the first one in an apartment it was because we had no idea of what we were doing and now we’ve made this one in an apartment because we do know what we are doing; we don’t really have to spend a lot of money and go do a bunch of fancy stuff to make something that sounds cool. I’ve learned a sense of confidence that Madeline can sing a song into her iPhone and it’ll sound great and we can use it on the record—there’s no rules! That freedom can be bought but it can also be done for free if you’re very creative.

The album is angry as you were saying but by the time you get to closer ‘Monolithic’ it’s almost like there’s a sense of relief and a strength and sense of freedom and feelings of self-reliance that run through the album also. I think it ultimately ends positively.

BO: You got what we’re going for!

MF: We’re not even going for it though, it’s really just what’s going on at the time. Luckily the recording and writing process lasted long enough to get to that point.

Why is music important to you?

BO: Music is important to me because without it I would be really stupid! [laughs]. It does something to my brain to broaden my experience of not just the world but how other people think and how it relates to me. As a kid I was a complete idiot until I started listening to music—I started seeing the world in a whole new way.

Please check out CULTS; on bandcamp; on Facebook; on Instagram. Host is out now on Sinderlyn.

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