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.

Guerilla Toss’ Kassie Carlson: “I don’t need to be super rich or super popular with my music, I just want to see the world and see amazing shit!”

Handmade collage by B.

New York art-punk band Guerilla Toss make fun, interesting, super cool, cosmic, synth-pop post-punk! They recently released two new songs – “Human Girl” and “Own Zone” – as part of the Sub Pop Singles Club. Gimmie chatted to vocalist Kassie Carlson from her home on a farm in Upstate New York as they work on new music.

How have you been Kassie?

KASSIE CARLSON: I’ve been good, I’ve just been quarantining here. I don’t live in New York City, I live in Upstate New York, which is two hours away from the city. I’m on a bunch of land, I’m able to not be around people. New York City is pretty crazy right now!

The area you live in has a lot of woodland, a lot of countryside, right?

KC: Yeah, wilderness and farmland. I live on a 260-acre farm, but it’s not a farm anymore it’s kind of… mow the grass and make hay. There’s a lot of open space, we go hiking a lot up here.

You go hiking with your Chow Chow dog, Watley?

KC: Yes, definitely [laughs]. He’s actually outside with me right now as I chat to you.

Do you have a favourite spot you like to go?

KC: There’s lots of different places to go. The other day we hiked to a place called the Balsam Fir Fire Tower, which is an old fire tower that they used to go up to the very top and look over the whole forest to see if there was any fires. That was really cool. It was a really warm day and we hiked all the way to the top of the mountains and at the top there was snow and all of these Balsam Fir trees, it looked like a fairy tale!

That sounds beautiful. I love natural places and just being outside in nature.

KC: Yeah, me too.

Do you ever get inspired creatively from nature?

KC: Yeah, definitely, how could I not!

Have you been doing anything creative lately?

KC: Always, every day I’m doing something… working on music, some days it doesn’t always pan out… just working, writing, reading, stuff like that.

Why is music important to you?

KC: Oh, I don’t know? I guess I’ve always been a fan and then I started making music. I started off young singing in choirs and playing violin, but I was always really into rock music. My brother was a musician in punk rock and metal bands, I thought that was kind of cool. Haphazardly it happened for me, it didn’t happen right away, it happened when I was older. As a teenage girl I was kind of just observing music but then as I got older I became a part of it.

It’s great when you can finally get the confidence to give something a go yourself.

KC: Yes!

Is there anything that’s helped shaped some of your ideas about art and creativity?

KC: When I say I entered the music world being in a band, it was kind of because the entryway was easy, it was paved out… I don’t know if they have these in Australia but, here we have a lot of underground shows, basement shows; I lived in a house that had basement shows every night. It was easy to just try something out, the atmosphere was very supportive. I hung out with a lot of people that went to art school and music school. There was a lot of room to experiment in a way that I think a lot of people don’t necessarily have, I was lucky in that sense. I had a really supportive audience.

I read that when you were younger you liked to listen to Mariah Carey, TLC and Destiny’s Child…

KC: Yeah, of course! [laughs]. Did you?

Yes, sure did! I grew up liking those artists and then punk and hip hop and all kinds of things, I had four older siblings that all liked different music and my mum and dad too, I kind of just absorbed everything. I love stuff from doo-wop all the way through to noise stuff.

KC: Yeah, same.

I saw a photo of Watley online and there was a big record collection in the background; is that yours?

KC: They weren’t my records, they’re the drummer from Guerilla Toss’ records. We have a lot of records in the house that’s for sure.

Is there an album that you’ve listened to more than any other?

KC: I’m all over the place. I’m always listening to a million things. I’ve been trying to find new things lately, I’ve been going through things and just picking random shit to get my creative ideas flowing. I have a lot of cassette tapes too.

I used to find a lot of new music through trading tapes with my friends.

KC: Yeah, I feel like that’s how I discovered a lot of new music too. I grew up in Cape Cod, which is kind of like a beach town in Massachusetts. They have these swap shops there at the dump so it’s basically like a free store and you take whatever you want, sometimes there’s really good stuff there; I got my first guitar amp there and a bunch of cool clothes. I got my very first cassettes there too, they were mixtapes that somebody had made.

That’s awesome! I love going to thrift stores and the dump shop near where I live here too. It’s good for the environment too reusing items rather than putting them in landfill; people can be so wasteful.

KC: Oh yeah! People don’t want to take it to the second-hand shop and they just leave them at these places and it won’t just go to the trash. So much clothing gets thrown away.

Totally! Basically my whole wardrobe is made up of clothes from thrift stores. You find so much cool stuff, and its stuff that not everyone else is wearing. I find it so hard to go the regular shops/mall to buy stuff. Before you started playing in a band; did you express yourself creatively in any other way?

KC: I’ve done some painting but nothing major really. [Laughs] Sewing, I guess.

You mentioned that you started singing in choirs; did you jump into bands from there or were you making music yourself?

KC: It was kind of like hot and cold, off and on. I didn’t really play in bands until I was in my twenties. I’d mess around on the keyboard and make little guitar songs… I was kind of in a metal band! Then I made my own music.

Your solo stuff was the Jane La Onda stuff, right?

KC: Yeah [laughs].

I understand that you have a real love for words and enjoy reading; what are you reading at the moment?

KC: I’m reading a lot of magazines. I’m reading Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino. They’re really cute, interesting, whimsical Italian folktales with a cerebral twist. I really like the way he uses words and meaning. I started reading The Water Dancer [by Ta-Nehisi Coates].

One of your favourite books is Siddhartha by Herman Hesse?

KC: Yeah, yeah. I like him a lot. I like the way he uses words and perception. He takes you on a journey with words.

I wanted to ask you about your writing; do you ever have a vision for a song before you sit down to write it?

KC: Not usually. Usually I’ll be listening to sounds that could become a song and those sounds have a meaning in them that I like after listening to it over and over. Sometimes I write little things before but it’s more that I hear the music and the words are already in there, the pattern is in there somewhere and I have to find it by listening to it over and over again.

What kinds of things have you been finding yourself writing about lately?

KC: Honestly, I’ve been writing a lot of political stuff in a way. Coronavirus isn’t as crazy in Australia, right?

That’s right, we’ve been pretty lucky compared to a lot of countries.

KC: New York is crazy. I haven’t worked for a whole month because I have a heart condition. I’m usually working a lot and keeping busy being out and about talking to people, but I haven’t really gone out much. It’s interesting writing in this time.

Do you feel lonely living away from your band members Upstate?

KC: Oh definitely! The drummer is up here and the guitar player is up here right now too, we’ve been working a new music. It’s kind of like a reprieve though, we played over 100 shows last year and toured all over the country as well as going to Europe. To be in a city too is really taxing too.

I feel that when I go into the city too, I live in a costal beachside town that’s really laidback. I’ll drive to the nearest capital city that’s an hour away from me and after being there a half hour I’ll get too overwhelmed!

KC: Yeah, it’s like chaos!

Previously you’ve mentioned that when you play live it’s like a deep meditation for you; do you do meditation in any other areas of your life?

KC: Yeah, walking meditation when I’m walking through the woods with Watley. Anytime really, doing anything. Even washing dishes, like feeling the warmth of the hot water on your hands or pausing in any way; looking at a plant; or even driving is a meditation in a way, I think.

So for you it’s having an awareness of what you’re doing and being in the moment?

KC: Yeah, awareness and a pause, remembering that you’re in a body. It can be resting for a second.

In isolation do you have a typical day or a routine you do?

KC: Yeah. I wake up around 9 or 10am and then I make some oatmeal and coffee. I take a shower. Then I’ll work on music from 11 to 7. Maybe have a snack somewhere in there at around maybe 2pm. At 7 I’ll make dinner. After that I’ll work on music again until 10pm. At 10 I’ll watch a movie. That’s what I do every day. Maybe in the middle of the day I’ll take a hike or two.

 Do you learn things about yourself when making music?

KC: Definitely. Writing lyrics is like going; what’s happening in my brain? How am I feeling? What is my current experience? What do my past experiences mean? Even the lyrical process beyond writing the lyrics initially, when I’m performing, the meaning of lyrics singing them over and over again for many years, eight years now in some cases, the meaning of the lyrics change. I feel like I’m constantly learning about myself, it’s like a constant self-awareness and the awareness of people around you and what’s happening on the Earth and how you interpret that. I’m a pretty high anxiety person, so the profession of being a frontwoman in a band is a weird choice; it’s also not a weird choice because it’s a process, the process of me coming out of my shell and me interpreting my anxieties and dealing with them and dealing with trauma. I would definitely say that I am always learning about myself and other people [laughs] and those interactions.

So by your showing those parts of you and you trying to work yourself out, because it’s honest and really looking at things, that resonates with others and might help them in their life?

KC: Yeah. I hope someday you can see us perform because I think our performance brings the music to a different level. I can act things out and you can see different accents on things. The music recordings are great but I hope you can see us perform.

Same!

KC: When I first started touring we would be the only band with a girl on it on the bill. It was crazy and so weird. Now there’s a lot more women and all different types of people. It felt like; do they just like us because I’m a girl? I want people to like us because it’s good music.

Another thing I love about Guerilla Toss is the art work for your albums, I’s always so colourful!

KC: Yeah! [laughs].

Is there any thought behind making it so colourful?

KC: I guess to make it fun and interesting. We’re doing a release for the Sub Pop Singles Club and that one is actually not colourful.

What songs will be on that release?

KC: It’s actually two new songs that no one has heard.

I love that Guerilla Toss’ music is all so different.

KC: I always think it’s weird when someone’s like, ‘I like your older stuff’; if we were to make stuff that sounds the same all the time that wouldn’t be very genuine.

Is sharing your music with others important to you?

KC: Yeah. I hope people listen to it and have fun or have some kind of experience, even if it’s, ‘oh god, this is intense!’ and they think it’s awful… at least they had some sort of reaction and experience with it [laughs]. Or if they see us and go, ‘oh, that was really harsh’ or ‘wow! That was softer than I thought it would be’.

Ok, last question; have you ever had a really life changing moment?

KC: Yeah. So many. When I had heart surgery, is an easy thing to say. I had open heart surgery two years ago. I had an infection in one of my heart valves. It was crazy, really intense. For the first time… I usually feel my whole life that I’ve been kind of like a tank: I’m super strong, I don’t really get sick, I feel strong-willed and do what I want. I was really floored by this sickness. I didn’t really feel right until kind of recently. It took a long time to recover. The recovery was so abstract that I didn’t really feel like I could relate to anyone. It was a multi-faceted recovery. I felt alone in it but I really am glad that I am where I am right now—in a beautiful place in nature and still writing music and still alive! It’s cool to have Watley too, he’s a great dog!

Is there anything that you’d really love to do creatively or in life in general right now?

KC: I really just want to travel more. That’s probably my favourite thing about touring. It wasn’t until more recent years of touring that we started to be more tourist-y, like going to national parks. We went to Yellowstone National Park! That was always my dream to go there. I remember having a National Geographic magazine when I was a kid and seeing all the geysers in it and the buffalo—I love animals and nature! Another time we were in Calgary, Alberta, Canada and we went to this amazing place and went on a river raft ride. In San Diego we went on this kayak ride, we were ocean kayaking through these sea caves. It was super epic! That’s what I really want to do with the rest of my life, I don’t need to be super rich or super popular with my music, I just want to see the world and see amazing shit!

Please check out GUERILLA TOSS; on bandcamp; on Facebook; on Instagram.