By Sean Hannah (@Shun_Handsome)
Having risen to prominence at the turn of the decade with the success of their first single Go Outside, Cults’ Madeline Follin and Brian Oblivion are now veritable Indie Pop legends. The duo released their third album Offering at the beginning of October and have touring steadily ever since. I caught up with the pair before a show in Des Moines, Iowa, where we discussed the merits and pitfalls of working with both major and minor record labels, the ostensible egalitarianism of New York City, and the changes in the music landscape since the band’s conception, among other topics.
How’s the tour been?
Madeline: It’s been really fun. We haven’t been on tour in… two or three years. [We’ve still been] playing shows, but they were one-off, like we’d fly out to Chicago and fly home the next day. So we never got to get in the swing of playing the songs every night and just getting comfortable… it’s like having it be second nature, to be onstage performing, so it’s been really fun.
Brian: And it’s awesome that you create this stuff in such a vacuum, especially because 90% of the time it’s just the two of us jamming, and then to go see hundreds of people singing the songs it’s like “Damn! I guess this was all worth it! This is working, great!”
Madeline: Yeah, we were saying like, the first few shows, it’s always weird because… you play the first show the day your record comes out and it’s like, “Ooooh, what’s going on?”
Brian: Yeah, nobody knows the songs yet.
Madeline: Nobody knows the songs, everybody’s just listening, and in the past week it’s been really cool to see people singing along and [learning] what songs people are reacting to the best.
In your Reddit AMA you wrote that you wanted Offering to sound more hopeful. What do you mean by that?
Brian: We talked about… just the fact that we were feeling more upbeat. A lot of the songs are kind of a dialogue. It switches from ‘I’ to ‘you’ and it’s like [taking] another perspective. In a way, a lot of it was talking to ourselves, because so much of the time off for us between those records was reflecting and figuring out who we are as people and how we fit in with our friends and our community and the world. And most of the songs there’s kind of a switch between maybe someone who feels really desperate and then someone coming in saying, “No, no do it this way, it’s gonna be all right.” And I think that’s how we felt about our previous selves when we were writing this, like “Oh, we’re writing this and we’re having so much fun and we can see it now a little bit.” I think that just comes with age and with experience. It’s hard to find a happy 23 year old, but 27, 28…
Madeline: “I’m all right, I’m all right!”
For Offering you moved from Columbia Records to Sinderlyn—what differences have you noticed between the labels?
Madeline: Well one of the biggest differences is that we know every single person who works at the label and I don’t think they’ll be going anywhere any time soon because everybody is invested in the label.
Brian: It’s more of a family.
Madeline: As far as Columbia, there were… I don’t even know how many [people] work at Sony. You’d walk into the building and they’re like, “This is the person who… counts your Twitter followers.”
Brian: That was the main reason we split up with them, because when we signed with them, we did it because the people that we worked with there we really liked and we thought they were amazing and then they’re all so amazing they went on to go work at other places and suddenly we looked around and we had never met anyone that we worked with.
Madeline: Especially on our second record, people were showing up—we played Letterman and they were like, “This is your publicist.”
Brian: “Oh, nice to meet you!”
Madeline: [Before that] our publicist was our best friend… we met through signing the deal [with Columbia], but she was at our family functions, we just got along that well. So yeah, we just didn’t know anybody and we were all in it together on the first record and on the second record we were like, “Wait, what?”
Brian: And then we met Mike Sniper from Sinderlyn, and it’s like… it’s such a unique refreshing thing to have the guy who owns your label be a musician himself. Nobody at Columbia had ever been in a van for more than three days just with the band that they were repping. And he knows so much about what’s difficult and what you can do… he just [gave us] so much moral support from actually being a real music fan. I talk to so many people in the music business about everything BUT music. It’s really rare that you meet someone and they say, “Oh, you gotta hear this song you’ll love it!” It’s more like, “These guys are selling a lot of tickets!” But these people love music and that’s huge for us because that’s what we’re all about.
I think that the job of a record label, the whole function of a record label, our record label’s probably ten people and there are huge labels with a hundred people that are cool, probably. And there are cool labels with six people that are awful and there’s so much grey area in between what we call “indie” and what we call “major” and in that are a lot of people who are good and bad and shades of all in between. I think stratifying that stuff is weird and now it seems like that stratification is totally gone, like LCD’s on Columbia and Grizzly Bear’s on RCA. I’m not sure [whether] that word is as relevant as it used to be, but we just found the people that we like to work with.
Madeline: That’s always been our main thing.
Brian: No creeps!
Madeline: They’re basically planning your whole year for you so you want to know that that person understands you and actually cares about your life.
In an old interview with Pitchfork you described touring as fun, but also depressing. This was toward the end of one of your first major tours, so how do you feel about the touring process these days?
Madeline: I feel like it’s… I love it. I’ve been having a great time. Obviously, you miss your family and your friends and your bed, but you’ve got Facetime now!
Brian: You also learn your own limits. In the very beginning we didn’t know that we could say no to things. So it would be like, “Oh, you’re going to drive eight hours in the morning and then you’re gonna go do this fashion show” and we’re like, we’d say OK and then…
Madeline: Which we kind of started doing in the beginning of this tour and then we were like, “That’s not humanly possible.”
Brian: Or like, “I’m losing my voice, so I’m sorry, we’re gonna reschedule, but we’ll come back.” You prioritize your own physical [wellbeing], but also mental health is a huge thing. And people understand. A lot of the time people will try to make it seem like they won’t understand—
Madeline: And if they don’t, fuck ‘em!
After your self-titled debut became this kind of runaway success, did you find it unnerving to follow it up with Static and Offering or did it spur you on?
Madeline: I don’t feel like we’ve ever thought about it that way.
Brian: We’re trying to reinvent the wheel every time. I go to this restaurant in the East Village and our music is on some playlist that comes on all the time. And seriously, when I hear it, I feel like the speakers are broken. I’m like “Oh my god, is that what that record sounds like? It’s so crazy sounding!” And I love it because it’s so weird and it was such a strange record of us having no idea what we’re doing and just throwing everything at the wall.
Madeline: But I think if we were to come out with something that sounded like that today, people would think their speakers were broken.
Brian: It was just a weird pocket of time and we were just lucky to have started at a time when really amateur, lo-fi stuff was accepted by a mainstream kind of audience. Because that’s literally the best we could do, like we weren’t trying to make it lo-fi. That was it. And we learned so much over the years about getting better at songwriting and production and we’re just trying to do what we think is cool in the moment.
You’ve said in the past that you hope to live in New York forever. What is it about the city that you find so compelling or attractive?
Madeline: Well, my family’s there and I like being able to get anything that I need at any time of the day. Like, I’m hungry at 2 in the morning I can walk down the street alone and not feel afraid because there’s twenty other people doing the same thing. I don’t know, I just love the city. I feel like I’d get restless [living somewhere else].
Brian: My favorite thing about New York is that as much as it is one of the most stratified and expensive places in the world, it’s also the most diverse. You can go to a bar and sit down next to some of our good friends who’ll tell me they have $13 in their bank account and you’ll be sitting down next to another guy who might be a billionaire and everyone looks the same and kind of talks the same and just… interacts. And when we’re touring around it’s like… you go through different parts of the city and it’s like, this doesn’t feel like America. I just think there’s a blend of like, nobody’s impressed by anybody in NY. It’s very egalitarian. It’s like Seinfeld. And compared to somewhere like LA and the places in CA where we group up, that social status thing doesn’t really exist there and it’s super relaxing.
Madeline: And walking and never having to drive: major plus.
In what ways has living in the city influenced your sound?
Brian: Having to do it in an apartment!
Madeline: You can hear ambulances, people honking.
Brian: Because I think a lot of the move from band-oriented to electronic music is because the technology has gotten better and cheaper and also because the studios haven’t. So we’ll just sit at each other’s houses and write songs on a laptop and a little tiny interface and that’s all we need, that’s pretty much all we did, just with some keyboards and stuff. And having to be quiet really influences the sounds you pick and the way that you fill things out. If we had an awesome rehearsal space… and just play[ed] and jam[med] together it would probably sound way different.
Madeline: We’d be a jam band [laughs].
Brian: We try to fill [the songs] up and that’s something I see with almost everyone I know who makes music in NY and even LA too. They don’t have a dedicated space to go play so they do things one track at a time and that makes for a different process and a different kind of music.
You don’t sound like a lot of the bands typically associated with this NYC indie/alternative scene like LCD Soundsystem, the Strokes, Animal Collective, etc. Was it a conscious effort on your part to go against the grain like that?
Brian: I feel like all those bands sound different from each other.
Madeline: And also we don’t… I don’t feel like we ever sit down and say, “We want to sound like this band.”
Brian: Only when we’re trying to diss each other. I’ll come in with a song and our producer Shane will say “I love this, it kind of sounds like Toad and the Wet Sprocket [sic].” But I think that’s one thing that I get sad about. I mean there are some bands that we’ve been playing with over the years like Real Estate, Tennis that I feel a kinship with musically, but we’ve kind of always been drifting in our own space.
Madeline: I feel like we don’t fit in any [genre]… [But] you look at our Spotify and it says, “They sound like Sleigh Bells and Best Coast!”
Brian: We always get compared to Sleigh Bells and Phantogram and Chairlift, and if those bands all had male singers they [would be] drastically different sounding. You’ve got 80s pop, you’ve got shredding guitars, you’ve got ripping beats and night life drug music and we’re like, slamming on a glockenspiel. None of those are similar except for the fact that it’s a man and a woman making music.
Madeline: All of our “Spotify Similar Artists” are gender-based, which makes no sense. Just because there’s a male and a female in the band, like is it different if there’s two females?
Genre classifications and comparisons aside, there’s definitely a kind of Sunshine Pop element to your music; was that informed by the fact that you both hail from California originally?
Brian: I think it was just the music that we connected on initially and also just that we burned through before we started this band. I feel like we spent our youth listening to, like, Sonic Youth and the Ramones and a lot of heavier music, so when we started thinking about what we wanted to make, we said we kind of did it in high school. So we would listen to a lot of 60s and 50s music and we were like, “What do we love about this?” And we just felt really inspired and it felt new and we kind of just tried to carry that vibe through each record and just listen to music and think: what are the threads that we’re feeling? What’s inspiring right now? For this record I had never heard the Cocteau Twins, sadly, or never really listened to Pink Floyd or the Motels. And there was a lot of this kind of 80s power pop vibe that I was just discovering a whole world of that I was blown away by. And then you hear something you love and it’s like, “Let’s go play!” So every record’s a little different.
As a group who gained so much exposure and popularity by initially putting your music online for free, what are your thoughts on the way the music landscape has changed since Cults formed?
Madeline: I think the only way to get your music heard is to put it out for free. Because we have friends who have bands that are trying to get big and [are charging] for their music. And you’re like, “Why am I gonna pay for this?!”
Brian: I get really personally frustrated because I feel like a lot of the sites that… a lot of the people who’ve helped us go from nothing to a real band are now just writing about Miley Cyrus and Beyonce and TV shows, and a lot of music sites have become popular culture sites. We’re really good friends with… the guys from Whitney and they’re like the only band that I’ve seen in the last three years go from nothing to playing huge venues and doing stuff and everyone listening and it’s really hard I think to start now because it’s like America, it’s all the 1%. I mean, I’m not saying Beyonce’s records aren’t amazing because they are, but if they’re considered in the same light, the same arena as people who are making music in their bedrooms, it’s a very difficult competition. There are maybe sixty people who work on those records and they’re all amazingly talented and it doesn’t feel like there’s as much space anymore for someone who just wrote a great song and recorded it by themselves and just wants to share it with people. It’s a tougher landscape for sure.
You both were attending art school before leaving to focus on Cults. Do you do anything artistically outside of music?
Brian: [Madeline] tried to learn how to use Photoshop.
Madeline: I was just Youtube-ing tutorials, when we were working on the record, I’m like, “What should I Photoshop?” And he’s like, “Photoshop Gary Busey in a snow globe on Mars!”
Brian: She does so many different collaborations and we already have writing time scheduled for after this tour’s over. I just did a movie and sometimes I mix and produce stuff, but it’s just music 100% of the time. I’ve never felt good at anything else.
Madeline: I bought a sewing machine during the time between records, didn’t touch it.
Brian: I’m always really impressed by people that can do all these different things, but for me, doing this is hard enough.
Madeline: And when I have free time, I just… want to work on music. I’m not drawn to the sewing or the Photoshop.
You’ve performed with Freddie Gibbs, you’ve been sampled by J. Cole, and you’ve even described your own songwriting process similarly to a hip hop producer’s. Would you say you feel a certain kinship with the genre of rap?
Brian: Yeah, we’re all big fans… We had a song sampled by Cam’ron, which blew my mind. We’re really friendly to all that stuff and we think it’s super cool when people reinterpret our music.
Madeline: If anyone wants to sample we’re normally… I think we’ve only turned down one.
Brian: Or two.
Can you say who?
Madeline: Let’s not…
Brian: It’s sad actually, because they worked on a whole song and then [they] realize [they can’t release it]… We’re very precious about our music because we’re always trying to create something that’s just on the edge of kitsch. From the very beginning we were hoping this whole band would be like that record you found in the back and you pulled it out and you put it on and you’re like “Oh my god, this is actually really cool!” So if someone tries to push it over the edge, it’s the same as if someone tries to advertise—we don’t do many advertisements because… “Go Outside” has probably been requested by every outdoor apparel retailer.
Madeline: Although we do have an Australian milk commercial. I found on Youtube somebody posted something and it was a couple girls and they said “Us getting ready to the milk song!” And it was “Go Outside,” so I’m like, “In Australia we’re just the milk song!”
Brian: But while a lot of the sentiments in our songs are really kind of obvious and kitschy, they’re meaningful to us and we’re always trying to put that layer underneath there to… that we need to keep sacred for ourselves, so sometimes we don’t let people use them.
You’ll be touring with Christopher Owens shortly, is that right?
Madeline: He’s doing all of our California shows. We hung out with him, we recorded a lot of this record in Berkeley.
Brian: He’s like the last musician left in San Francisco. Everybody left, but it’s so good that he’s still there. We did a song together (which will maybe come out one day for the record), and it was awesome. He’s such a cool guy and he has that new band called Curls, so we said, “Do you want to play some shows?”
Madeline: I listened to—
Brian: She cried.
Madeline: [Owens] came into the studio and played [one of his new songs], because Shane, who works with us, is also working with him and I was listening to it and I actually started crying.
Brian: He’d seen that reaction before [laughs].
Madeline: I love it, I think he’s so good. I was a huge Girls fan and I’m a huge Christopher Owens fan so it’s super exciting to be on tour with him.
Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?
Brian: No, we’re just happy to be playing the great state of Iowa for the very first time. I can’t believe it took us this long. We played Alaska, how did we miss here?
Madeline: We played South Dakota!
Brian: It’s true. I think the last ones are Arkansas and North Dakota, but darn it, we’ll get ‘em all!