Madeline Follin and Brian Oblivion discuss new album
New York indie-pop rockers Cults are about to release their third album, Offering. It’s the duo’s first set of new material in just under four years, and finds them digging into an eclectic 80s catalogue they’d never explored before. The result sparkles like city lights seen from a distant shore.
After spending years touring, essentially in a van between ages 21 and 26, the band understandably needed a break. Madeline Follin explains they took their time on this record and “learned how to be human beings.” The time off has clearly served them well, as they’ve returned with a mature and confident sound that is explorative and shimmering.
ARTISTdirect’s Christopher Friedmann caught up with Madeline Follin and Brian Oblivion to discuss their new album, why they took such a long hiatus between LPs, and what inspires them.
Christopher Friedmann: We are talking because you are about to release your new album, Offering. Just to start, how is the mood in camp?
Madeline Follin: I feel anxious and like I’m just ready for it to happen. It’s just so weird that once you finish a record, it’s like you have to wait those three months, and it’s been done for so long that… I’m just ready for it to come out [laughs], and for people to hear it.
CF: It has been four years since you guys released Static. Can you tell us a little bit about what you did in the interim and what brought you back?
MF: I feel like we never really stopped working on the project. It’s just that we had spent the past, I mean from when we were 21 until we were 26, we were playing shows and touring and traveling, and before that we had been in school and working internships and never really had the chance to live normal lives as adult human beings. So rather than rushing and sitting in a studio without having any inspiration for anything besides being stuck in a van, we just took our time, and learned how to be human beings.
Brian Oblivion: I also think, too, that something with the technology now, or maybe just the higher standards or something, albums just take longer now. I feel like The National took four years, The xx took four years, Frank Ocean took like five, it’s becoming more normal to work on things for longer. I think partially because you have to tour so much and then also, we made a lot of this record in our house. If we had George Martin and Abbey Road Studio A booked with four engineers and some crack musicians, we could probably do it a lot faster [laughs].
CF: It does seem like albums are taking longer and longer, and there is no longer that backing from the label to get all these nice studios and all these great engineers anymore, it’s kind of up to you guys…
BO: Totally, but I think music is also becoming more personal because of that, which I enjoy. I think music right now is the best it’s ever been. Every week I hear a song that I’m in love with and that’s amazing.
CF: Madeline, you said these songs are “more reflective of things that have happened in our own lives.” The album certainly does feel more personal. Can you tell us a little about your songwriting process?
MF: I think that’s also another reason why it took so much time to make because it wasn’t like, “You have a month, and you are going to sit at this table and write a song.” It was more, I was kind of free to write whenever I felt inspired to write. Nothing was really forced. Over this however long, I just wrote when something happened to me or I felt…
CF: I understand this was the first time the two of you sat down in a room together to jam things out. What brought about the change?
BO: I think for one it was the fact that we, for a year, had a studio space that we rented to write in and that we could play drums in and we’ve never had that before. So pretty much this kind of dumpy old building right across the street from Port Authority that’s full of metal bands, but we’d go up there every day and we would just play and see what comes out. That was the first time we’d ever done that. Usually it starts with a beat on the computer. It’s been very electronic in the past. This was way more of an analogue experience because we had a place to write and because Madeline has become such a better player on all the instruments, so it’s awesome having her as partner who can play the drums or the bass or the keyboard or whatever.
MF: Yeah, and I feel like maybe spending time becoming a human adult, maybe I had more confidence than I did on previous records. I feel like before if he asked me to something like that I would have been like, “Ah, no. I’m too nervous about it.”
CF: I read that you pulled from everything, from Pink Floyd to Gary Numan, and I was literally on the phone with Gary two hours ago….
BO: Sweeeet. He’s the man. He’s still doing it. He’s a lifer. I have so much respect for him. I got to see him once play at ATP out here, it was actually in England, and it was like the coolest set I’ve ever seen. I don’t know, those keyboard sounds, they’re incredible.
CF: ATP [All Tomorrow’s Parties] as an experience, as a festival, is amazing…
MF: Oh yeah!
CF: I was at the one at the Queen Mary II in Long Beach many years ago, and saw The Walkmen, Sufjan Stevens, Modest Mouse, and Lou Reed was the curator…
BO: Did you go play poker with Steve Albini?
CF: I did not… no…
BO: [Laughs] Shellac played the one that we played in New York and he announced from the stage, he said, “I’m in the hotel right across the street. I’m in room 604. It’s a minimum buy-in, it’s $500, anyone is welcome.” I think he ended up walking out of there with thousands of dollars. He does it every year.
CF: Since we’ve dug into Gary here and ATP, could you tell us about some more of your influences?
BO: For me, more instrumentally, we made the joke that our first record was like our 60’s record, the second one was like our 70’s, and this one might be like our 80’s record. Maybe the 90’s are coming next, I don’t even know what that would sound like. For me, the learning and listening to a ton of music I hadn’t listened to before, and learning about bands like The Cocteau Twins and The Motels and Gary Numan, and even, like everyone else it seems, catching up on Prince, and a lot of music that before I had kind of just missed for some reason, and it was awesome. I had a lot of time to just reconsider some older sounds and how we could blend that in with what our band is.
CF: You had a studio for a year, but you also recorded at a variety of studios and in living rooms across the country. Is there a moment that might sum up the entire recording process of Offering?
BO: I think kind of, with the exception of maybe the first record, I think “Go Outside” was the first song we ever…. well “Curse” was the first song we wrote together, but “Go Outside” right after, but for some reason we always end up writing the singles last. We get through the tough work of all these more complicated songs, and then, I remember we were taking a break and I think we were watching The Simpsons or something and just hanging out, and Shane was like, “Oh we have like 10 tracks here, do you have anything else you want to play?” And I was just like, “I have this beat from forever ago, I don’t know, maybe it could be something.”
We hadn’t opened it in, like, years and that was the song “Offering”. He heard it and he was like, “Oh my God, why are we not working on this?” And we put together the whole song in like three or four hours after that [laughs]. Then later on in the week Shane said, “What are you going to call the album?” And we kind of all stopped, and I don’t remember who said it, but like, “Offering?” And everyone was like, “That’s what I was thinking too.” So sometimes I guess it’s like that, like, the final, once you’re in the zone, comfortable, and you have your confidence, you can just kind of bang out what might be your most important track.
MF: I think also because we worked a couple years just on our own, and once we joined forces with Shane, it felt like it was… Shane just makes it happen [laughs].
CF: You’ve only played a handful of shows in the last few years. You guys mentioned that you felt like you had been stuck in a van from 21 to 26. Do you have any anxiety about getting back in the van?
BO: I’m getting more excited.
MF: I’ve had a long enough break. Like we were saying, the wait between finishing the record and the record actually coming out is kind of like purgatory, you’re like, “Okay, what am I supposed to do now? I’m going to go get coffee today, I guess.” So I’ve had enough down time where it seems exciting to me. And just starting to get offers for like fun, weird places, it’s a really cool thing to be able to do, to be able to travel. I’m refreshed.
CF: Over the course of your career you’ve had a fair breadth of experiences, but I was wondering if you could tell us of the most grounding moment that you’ve had so far, a moment that reminds you why you do all this?
BO: We’ve had some incredible interactions with fans. We got a video sent to us recently of a young girl who is highly autistic and like non-verbal and the mom sent us the video of her singing along to “Go Outside”. It was the first time she ever sang in her entire life. It was totally amazing. One time we talked to a guy who works with bacteria that will dissolve in the light, so he works in a pitch black office and he said that he just listens to our music all the time to make him feel not so depressed about the fact that he works in blackness. You meet people and it’s so cool what people can share with you. How your music has helped them in any way and that’s like the point of doing the whole thing, I think.