For an accidental band, Cults found an incredibly quick path to success.
A chance meeting, a quick romance, some at-home music playing, three songs posted online and boom—the band winds up on Columbia Records with one of the most buzzed-about debut albums of the year.
"I don't think we ever thought about having a band," says Brian Oblivion, the guitarist half of the duo. "We'd just both liked making music around the house, just goofing around, and it started turning into songs. We went up to her parents' house upstate and recorded them in a weekend and put them online. We'd never played a live show, didn't plan on playing a live show. We just recorded some songs to show our friends we can.
"We've tried to put our finger on that moment when we decided to be in a band together and neither of us can remember."
Oblivion and vocalist Madeline Follin met through her brother, who was playing a show in San Diego, where both band members grew up. Oblivion was already in film school in New York and Follin was moving there herself a week later. They both had musical backgrounds—Oblivion had played in bands on and off throughout high school and Follin even performed on her parents' punk album when she was nine—and naturally just started playing together.
Their first recording project wasn't even complete when they posted three songs online and, implausibly, snared a Best New Music rating from Pitchfork within weeks.
"The three we put up were just the three that we finished first," Oblivion says. "We were going to go up the next weekend and finish the others and put them online, and it caught on before we were able to do that."
The real gem that propelled Cults was "Go Outside," which oddly pairs a chiming glockenspiel melody with a sample of cult leader Jim Jones from a Jonestown documentary the pair had just watched. The rest of the song is bouncy, catchy, throwback pop, a near-perfect hit single.
The song reflects that particular time in their lives—close to graduation, close to adulthood, close to having to stand on their own feet. It's about the combination of newfound self-reliance and uncertainty, about excitement leading to fear. It's about "not getting caught up in bullshit you don't want to do," Oblivion says.
"It's scary, that's part of what 'Go Outside' was about for us as well, taking the creative step to make something you actually care about and putting yourself out there," he says. "I have friends in bands who are drowning in giant pits of irony. They waste their talents doing things that are safe or kind of jokey so they don't have to have people judge them. We're serious, which is frightening, but it's a good feeling."
Aware that their little project had grown into an entirely different type of creature, Oblivion and Follin set out to write and record enough material for a proper album. But, so pleased with the reaction to their first songs when the band was all but anonymous, they purposefully stayed away from self-promotion. Which, of course, proved to be the best kind of self-promotion, driving even more curiosity about the band.
"We're just kind of private people. It's such a beautiful thing the way the music came out and people were listening to it, with no preconceived notions, no marketing story, just people listening to the music and responding to it with no extra frills," Oblivion says. "We've tried to keep that mentality as much as possible."
They both ended up dropping out of school a couple months after the music went online, facing too much pressure to move forward with the band. But with the knowledge that Cults had a waiting audience, with high expectations, the songwriting seemed forced.
"It felt like in the beginning that maybe we were trying to mimic ourselves, trying to rip ourselves off. All the songs that were written in that period were tossed out. After a while of touring and going into the studio and reflecting on what worked, we just decided to throw out the book," Oblivion says. "No one cares, let's just make some music we want to make. So we were able to recapture that feel."
The songs follow the thematic lead of "Go Outside."
"For me, a lot of the songs are about control, about adolescence or post-adolescence, kind of being afraid of joining the real world. At the time Maddy and I were making these songs, we were pretty close to graduating college and moving into the real world, and we were pretty freaked out by that," Oblivion says. "We wanted to have character throughout the songs, and it felt right, that ambivalence about wanting to escape and also the cautionary side."
The Cults sound is hazy yet infectious, somewhere in between the retro pop of bands like Best Coast and the more atmospheric dream pop of Beach House. Oblivion says the band shares a sensibility with a lot of 1960s pop music.
"There's this feeling in that music of being in trouble or having a bad time or a traumatic situation is kind of a glamorous thing. Getting into trouble is better than just being bored. And that's how we've felt about our whole lives, that breaking the rules and getting caught end up being the stories you tell to your friends. It's that feeling where chaos is somehow better than stasis. Lyrically, I'm inspired by that," he says.
Cults recorded with New York engineer Shane Stoneback (Sleigh Bells, Vampire Weekend), who contacted the band and even did much of the work before Cults could pay for studio time.
"The album was 90 percent done by the time we signed the record deal. It was awesome to go around to the labels that were interested and say 'Here's the record, take it or leave it.' Columbia was an awesome label to work with," Oblivion says.
Cautioned by the nightmare experience of an "anonymous friend signed to an anonymous big label," Oblivion says, "It's just a matter of how much you're willing to stand up for yourselves and how much you're willing to do by yourselves. We did our own artwork, produced our own album, picked our own director for the video. It's been a ton of work."
Cults was released in June and the band has been touring steadily. Now a five-piece live band, Cults includes drummer Mark Deriso, bassist Nathan Aguilar and guitarist/keyboardist Gabe Rodriguez, high school friends and former bandmates of Oblivion.
"That's the only creativity you can have after you finish the album, continually changing and improving your live show," Oblivion says.