Cults Discuss the Aesthetics and Creative Process Behind ‘Host’

With their 2011 self-titled debut album, New York City duo Cults crafted upbeat, infectious tunes that often betrayed a darkness at the core. Their breakthrough single,”Go Outside” and the accompanying music video put a cheery anthem to the backdrop of the Jim Jones massacre. While irony is often the very currency of indie music, Cults have generally dished it out with a deadpan cool that never seems forced. 

Brian Oblivion and Madeline Follin revive ‘60s sensibilities with a vitality that sets them apart from the hordes of retro rehashing and updates of bygone eras. Cults recapture classic sounds, taking particular inspiration from girl groups of the era, and rechannels them into a strain that sounds decidedly contemporary. Nearly a decade after their emergence, their deceptive lightness and shuffling of era signifiers have subtly made their way into the music of artists across genres.  

Their 2017 album, “Offering,” recast Cults’ sound in a brighter mold, shedding some of their earlier work’s weight for a relatively carefree overall sound, while taking on new ambitions with lush arrangements and more hi-fi production. On their latest album, “Host,” they continue to work with a rich sonic palette, with fanciful horn bursts and string arrangements scattered throughout the record. Meanwhile, they return to the darker terrain of their original form, with a set of songs that sketch a narrative involving a toxic relationship and its effect on its “host.” That isn’t to say this is a concept album. The individual songs merely happen to subtly converge on a theme. 

This time, Follin took a more active role in songwriting, with approximately half of the new songs stemming from her own compositions. While Oblivion and Follin ultimately co-wrote every track, their latest work finds Cults assuming new proportions from the artistry Follin kept to herself until now. Both Oblivion and Follin spoke with Entertainment Voice about the duo’s direction, the roots of their signature style, and the themes of their new songs.

Madeline, the new album, “Host,” stands out from you taking a more involved role in songwriting duties. How do you think your increased involvement specifically shaped the sound of the record? 

Brian: The record as it was before, Madeline brought in like half of it. The other six songs we had were just not working, and it was really that brute force kind of mode that you get into like, “We’ve worked on it this long. We just have to make it work.” I hate that so much. And when she was like, “Well, I have songs,” and brought in these songs, they flew into the record immediately. And then, every song we finished in the day, and it just created this kind of synergy, made the album so much more textural. 

Madeline: And I would also say that we both were also involved in every song. It’s just that I had never brought in my own start. It had never been my sole, complete idea. But he was as involved in my songs as I was in his songs, which made it really cool. 

Brian: I’m too lazy to ever write anything unless Madeline is there to help me, so nothing in this band ever gets done unless we’re together.

Much of your distinctive sonic style stems from a sort of retro futurism, with a sensibility extending back to the ‘60s, reimagined with contemporary stylings. Tell us a little about your inspirations from different musical eras. 

Brian: Well, it really started when Madeline and I went on a road trip to San Francisco, and she had a CD changer (laughs) in the back of her car, with like six CDs. She had a Shangri-Las CD, we had a John Waters compilation, a lot of cool girl group ‘60s music, and to be honest, I wasn’t that familiar with a lot of it, and I was like, “Wow, this music is awesome.” So a lot of us starting the band had to do with a real naive approach of like, “Oh let’s make an art project that’s kind of based on this,” and ever since then, it’s been just building off of that, to the point where now, it doesn’t feel like it’s based on anything. We just write what we want to hear. And I think we’ve been letting in more and more influences from when we were kids, or influences of stuff we hear now. In the beginning, I think we were more dogmatic, like, “Oh, we like just ‘60s stuff,” but now we like everything, so it just bleeds, and it’s good bleeding. 

“8th Avenue” has rather open ended lyrics, referring to needles, manipulation, and discovery. As a New York City band, is 8th Avenue emblematic of all this, and is there any personal backstory to the song?

Madeline: I think definitely. The song was actually written on 8th Avenue in our practice space that we had there for a while, so I think definitely some of the seediness of 8th avenue crept into the song, for sure (laughs). 

There is a sort of bona fide drifter, unaffected cool that always seems to make its way into your music. Where did this sensibility come from? 

Brian: We’re pretty omnivorous in our musical consumption, but also, our tastes are very different, so I think that’s a big asset for us. I know that Madeline listens to much cooler music than I do. She’s got the dope playlists with all the, you know, really cool ‘60s French music and South American funk music that no one has really heard of, and is awesome. And then, I’m just as likely to just listen to Grizzly Bear or Deerhunter or something. So I think we end up kind of meeting in the middle, to find something that’s not so…

Madeline: Something we can both enjoy.

Brian: Yeah, exactly.

In “No Risk,” you sing about a certain comfort in paranoia. Expand on this feeling, and how you sought to capture it musically. 

I think I wrote the lyrics after having played my songs for Brian. I had been holding myself back from ever revealing anything that I had worked on, just because I felt like (laughs) being a woman, it’s like it’s a boys’ club. Nobody also ever asked me if I have anything, so I just kind of was like, “You can’t hold yourself back from doing something because you’re worried people aren’t going to like it, or you’re not good enough because you haven’t been doing it as long. You just need to get it out there, and not be worried about it.  

Does “A Purgatory” have anything to do with the purgatory that is Covid-19? More broadly, how have these circumstances made their way into your music and activity as a band?

Brian and Madeline: (Laughs).

Brian: This record was written, mastered, artwork done before the virus hit. It was mixed in post. We had all these videos out, everything. It’s just a really weird set of circumstances where it seems like we put it together for this time, because we absolutely didn’t. We finished it in February, and then, the release just kept having to get pushed back because of Covid.

Madeline: Three days before the lockdown, we were scheduled to make a video for “Spit You Out,” and the video was a circle of people spitting on me (laughs) and I was like,”Thank god we didn’t do that, spread Covid.” We would have definitely gone viral, and not in a good way.   

The album opens and closes with singles “Trials” and “Monolithic” respectively, both of which ebb and flow with a certain sluggish grandeur, framing the album with a symmetry. Tell us a little about how the songs fit together as a collective piece, and about the two songs.

Brian: Well, every Cults album, so far at least, ends with a big ballad. It must be something we’re doing on purpose at this point because (laughs) it’s just our natural impulse. Honestly, we are not a prog band, you know? We don’t make concept albums. Most of the time, we end up discovering more about the record after it’s out than we did while we were writing it. Or as we play it live, it kind of unfurls itself to us. I think we were doing an interview, and we kind of had a revelation that the album is kind of a story of someone who goes through a toxic relationship or a traumatic event, and comes out the other side, and there’s all these different stages throughout it. That was definitely something we were feeling in real life, but we didn’t ever sit down and say, “Oh, this is what we’re going to write about.” We kind of write intuitively, and then, later on, we’re like, “Oh shit, that was us,” and that’s kind of the coolest part about music. It’s always just a little snapshot of who you were at that moment. 

“Trials” was the first song that Madeline played for us when she played her collection of beautiful songs, and I think it was a real watershed moment because she was hiding in the other room, with her head under the pillow while we were listening to it, and then we came out, and we were so happy, but also so angry because it was so good, and we were like, “How could you have been hiding this from us for so long?” (Laughs). Then we just literally finished the song in like two hours, and that’s what you hear on the record. The vocals on the song are the ones that she recorded on her iPhone at home because they sounded great, so that was a very unique thing about that song (laughs).

With touring possibilities currently reduced to the likes of mostly virtual performances, how are you both going about promoting the new album and proceeding into the future? 

Madeline: Right now, we’re practicing for a virtual show that we have next week, and we played virtual Lollapalooza. That was exciting (laughs). We’re, I think, trying to make as many videos as possible, having a visual component to the songs. 

Brian: It’s also been fun because we’re doing it with phones, no budget, and it’s been really creative and cool. Madeline’s doing it. I’m not doing it, but she’s been killing it.

Madeline: I guess we’re going to have to figure it out as we go along, but at the same time, we are at home, so maybe start also writing more for the next record, or whatever, I don’t know. 

Brian: It’s a weird feeling because usually, there’s this kind of catharsis where you write a record, and then you go play it live, and then you can kind of let it go. You give it to people, and it frees up the space in your head to start something new, but we’re just going to have to find that freedom somewhere else (laughs).

Host” releases Sept. 18 on Apple Music.