By James Murray
A dreamy, girl-group-harmony-inspired song with seemingly meaningless lyrics, a video that cuts up news footage from the Jonestown Massacres and samples of the Jonestown Massacre cult leader Jim Jones is the sort of music that makes most music critics stand to attention.
Lyrical dissonance – the art of saying something nasty in a very nice way – is a clever way of making your pop music smarter than the average hipster.
Cults, the NYC band responsible for the above, have played on the light and dark to achieve remarkably speedy success. They took a very modern route – posting a song on the Bandcamp website, releasing ‘Go Outside’ straight away on a small indie label derived from the music blog Gorilla Vs Bear who originally posted their demos (Forest Family Records).
“You can suck the life out of a song by making it perfect and we didn’t want to do that,” agrees Brian in his bio. “We wanted everything to feel real. I don’t know anything about recording and it was our first time playing together. It wasn’t an attempt to be lo-fi or hide behind some “lo-fi aesthetic” – it was more the best we could do.”
Next on the cards was an album release with a major label and within a year Cults became one of the most talked about bands around.
New Zealanders will get the chance to see Cults at this year’s Laneways Festival in Auckland. Consequently, this reporter was supposed to get a phone interview with them last week.
Unfortunately some sort of cross-Atlantic phone disaster occurred and I was not able to speak with band members Madeline Follin (vocals) and Brian Oblivion (vocals, guitar, percussion).
Luckily, the band were kind enough to answer my questions via email.
JM: Beauty vs darkness – lyrical dissonance – your lyrics belie the sound of your songs. Where do you take inspiration for that?
CULTS: It think most of the art that we enjoy has as similar sensibility, whether it's a Todd Solondz movie or a lot of the songs from the early 60's, our favorite seems to have a strong dichotomy, between valuing enthusiasm and entertainment, and having a more serious message.
JM: Success within a year – going from the bandcamp website to a major label via a music blog’s record label. Is this a familiar story now? Is this an improvement on more traditional A&R methods? A bit more people power?
CULTS: It's definitely an improvement on the previous model (build a star out of nothing based on popular tastes) but it's also an extension of what's been going on for a while. If anything it's just moving faster.
Bands don't have to have label dollars, be it indie or major, to make records now. We made our record on our own without any money at all, so at the end of the process it was about who was able to give us the resources we needed to make more art. We always wanted to be artists, but never specifically musicians, so having more dollars to make more videos, do more collaborations and remixes was a logical choice if no one was going to fuck with our music.
JM: Has switching to a bigger label, with more production resource available influenced your sound?
CULTS: We haven't really deviated from the formula at all. All songs on the last record, and the ones forthcoming, start in our living room with a keyboard, a guitar and a $200 dollar recording interface. We've found this sufficient for 90% of everything we do. We're lucky that we've been able to work with Shane Stoneback for final vocals and final mixing, but that has less to do with politics and more to do with a mutual love of music.
JM: There are clear hip hop influences in your music – which artists grab your attention?
CULTS: Growing up in Southern California, hip hop was a basic part of life. Especially coming from our generation, Dr. Dre and Snoop meant as much to us as Paul and John meant to our parents. Recently there seems to be a Renaissance in hip hop which is both reactionary and revolutionary. The controversy is always attractive though. Producers like Madlib and J Dilla are probably the most influential to our writing process now.
JM: What can we expect from your act in New Zealand?
CULTS: Definitely for it to be more aggressive than what most people might expect. We currently play as a five piece band, and have made a lot of changes to the songs over the last year to push things further out front and make the songs more rewarding for us to play. Expect a few new and unreleased songs as well.
JM: Finally – when does a commune become a cult?
CULTS: That question is always difficult, the house that I grew up in was only a few blocks away from the where the Heaven's Gate mass suicide happened, and a few blocks the other direction from one of the largest Yogic temples in the country.
I don't think we're really trying to make a statement either way about whether alternative religions/lifestyles are legitimate, we're just thinking about the reality of youth. Ambiguity is a big thing for us, we don't know where the fuck we're going or what's going to happen, and we like that a lot.
I can only imagine the same attitude possesses people who run away to strange religions. Everybody deserves to seek out little drama in their lives.
Cults play at the Laneway Festival on Monday January 30.
The Cults play 'Go Outside' live: