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Cults Leave Internet Hype Behind For The Big Time

Cults. (courtesy of the artist)

Last year, Cults was just a couple of amateur musicians named Brian Oblivion and Madeline Follin. Then they uploaded their song, "Go Outside," onto a popular indie music website. The tune went viral and they became an instant indie success story. But no one knew who they were, where they were from, what they looked like or, for that matter, their real names.

Now they're in the big leagues with a record deal from Columbia, and they're touring the poppy, xylophone-twinkling songs from their debut album. They joined Weekend All Things Considered host Laura Sullivan to talk about what inspires them.

Against the bouncy sonic backdrop, Follin sings lyrics that go down dark hallways of dysfunctional dystopias and teenage angst. Oblivion says the songs came out of a fascination with the idea of joining a commune or a religious cult. Cult leaders and members like Charles Manson, Patty Hearst and Jim Jones populate the songs, which he says are both "cautionary and romantic."

"We have ambivalent, fascinating feelings with the concept," he says. "There's a beauty and romanticism with someone living such a violently different life. Just deciding, 'Well, I'm going to pack up my bags and go believe in something that nobody else is going to understand.' If that's peaceful and progressive, then it's kind of an amazing concept, but usually it doesn't end up being those two things. It ends up being just a greater system of control for weak people."

Follin first met Oblivion while he was on tour with her brother. From then on out they were together as friends, lovers and roommates, and eventually became musical partners. The duo says that going from being virtual unknowns to a band with a major label record deal has taken some adjustment and experimentation. They've expanded the band to include three more people, and they've gone through four drummers while touring.

"We don't hang ourselves up too much on being exact. A lot of my favorite bands growing up were bands that brought something else to the table live," Oblivion says. "We change a lot of the drum beats up, so that it's not so hypnotic and it's more danceable. Because the experience you want on a record is very different than the experience you want standing in a room with a bunch of sweaty people. And that's more fun, because once your record is done, what other chance do you have to be creative then to keep working on your live show?"

While Cults story can sound a little too serendipitous at times, they seem to have stumbled upon something that they both believe in. Oblivion, who used to be in a Slayer cover band, says this is the first time he's taken being in a band seriously.

"All the bands that I was in were joke bands — bands where you could hide behind something, some kind of concept. Like, oh, let's go start a band that sounds like Black Sabbath, or let's start a rap band. And when everybody doesn't like it, you're like, 'Well, I was just kind of joking around anyway.' I think this was the first band that we were in, that we're like, 'We're not joking anymore. This is the music that we'd want to hear.' So, it was exciting. I have too many friends that wallow in weird realms of irony and waste their talent. So I'm glad that we could get over that."

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Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GO OUTSIDE")

LAURA SULLIVAN, host: We're listening to the band Cults. Last year, they were just a couple of amateur musicians named Brian Oblivion and Madeline Follin. Then they uploaded this song, "Go Outside," onto a popular indie music website, Band Camp.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GO OUTSIDE")

CULTS: (Singing) I really wanna go out. I really wanna go outside to see your face.

SULLIVAN: It was a one-in-a-million chance. The song went viral. They became an instant indie success story, but no one knew who they were, where they were from, what they looked like or, for that matter, their real names. Now, they're in the big leagues with a record deal from Columbia and their first album just out. And they're here with me in the flesh. Madeline, Brian, thanks so much for coming in.

MADELINE FOLLIN: Thanks for having us.

BRIAN OBLIVION: Hey. Thanks.

SULLIVAN: So tell me, what's with all the secrecy in this past year? Were you concealing your identities on purpose?

FOLLIN: I think at first, it was not a conscious decision. We just put our songs up. And I was going to like, send them to my dad and like, send them to a few of my friends. So we didn't think it was necessary to put a picture of ourselves - like, here's a picture of us; this is our band.

OBLIVION: Yeah. Write a bio for our greatest friends.

FOLLIN: Yeah. So Dad, this is my story.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

OBLIVION: Yeah.

SULLIVAN: And even - I mean, even in the pictures that you do see the - you know, you guys have hair sort of concealing your identities, and you kept that up for almost a year.

OBLIVION: That's what kind of became more fun about it - was in the beginning, it was like, you know, kind of a non-thought. But then as things went along, it was like a - kind of a refreshing thing to see people like, genuinely connecting to the music and like, not really caring about the story or like, looks or anything like that. And once that started going down, we're like, wow, this is really cool. So we just tried to keep it up as long as we could, but they wore us down.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SULLIVAN: There's something very mysterious about the name Cults as well. There are some characters that show up in your songs, famous cult leaders like Charles Manson, Jim Jones. Patty Hearst even makes an appearance. Why the fascination with these cult leaders?

OBLIVION: I don't know. Yeah. When I was a kid, I was just like, as soon as I stopped going to Sunday school, I started trying out a bunch of different religions, like any idealistic teenager. I was like, I want to be a Buddhist now, like, you know.

SULLIVAN: So blame it on Sunday school.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

OBLIVION: Transcendental meditation. Yeah. Exactly.

FOLLIN: Yeah.

OBLIVION: Yeah. That set me up for it.

SULLIVAN: So it's a fascination? Is it...

OBLIVION: Yeah. Definitely.

FOLLIN: Yeah.

OBLIVION: You know, I think a lot of our songs have to do with post-teen angst and like, dealing with control and feeling at odds with the real world. I think that's like, a lot of reasons why people do go to join cults. And at the same time, it's kind of the reason why they shouldn't.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SULLIVAN: Do that in the first place....

OBLIVION: So it's like - it's back and forth, you know what I mean? I think we just have really like, ambivalent, fascinating feelings about the whole concept, so...

SULLIVAN: Sounds like in some ways, you have a conflicted feeling about cults.

FOLLIN: Yeah.

OBLIVION: Yeah. Absolutely. 'Cause I mean, there's a beauty and a romanticism to the idea of somebody living such a violently different life - just deciding like well, I'm going to pack up my bags and go believe in something that nobody else is going to understand. If that's peaceful and progressive, then it's kind of an amazing concept. But usually, it doesn't end up being those two things. It ends up being just a greater system of control for weak people.

SULLIVAN: And often very dark, if not violent...

OBLIVION: Yeah.

SULLIVAN: ...which is one of the themes that sort of plays out in a lot of the songs and lyrics that are on this album. Let's talk about the song "Abducted." It's an incredibly catchy song, but the lyrics are pretty dark. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ABDUCTED")

CULTS: (Singing) I knew right then that I'd never love her. The reasons I hope the dream hasn't left her scarred. He tore me apart because I really loved him. He took my heart away and left me to bleed out, bleed out.

SULLIVAN: I'm not sure if I want to play it for my kid, or sort of run and hide. What are the lyrics in this song?

FOLLIN: I guess it's just a relationship gone very wrong.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

OBLIVION: Yeah. There's like a bad-guy character who's like - you know, uses girls and is aware of doing it. But it's also kind of about that same concept - that like, drama and possibly even badness is always preferable, at least in the eyes of young people to like, stasis.

SULLIVAN: But she ends up - the girl in this particular case ends up bleeding out. I mean...

OBLIVION: Yeah.

SULLIVAN: ...in some ways, almost dying. I mean...

FOLLIN: Yeah.

OBLIVION: Yeah.

SULLIVAN: ...that's a sort of - a very dark, very dark theme.

OBLIVION: Tragic love.

SULLIVAN: One of the most interesting things about your music is that there's so much going on in this music. How do you actually put these songs together?

OBLIVION: I mean, it's pretty like, ground up, I guess. I mean, it's all electronic music. Really, try to start with like a danceable, kind of like hip-hop drum beat. And then build up like, a bass line and a core progression. And then I'll just be working on it and Madeline will be in the other room, just kind of like, thinking up melodies and words while I'm kind of piecing a song together.

SULLIVAN: Is there a particular song that you think best exemplifies that?

OBLIVION: Maybe "You Know What I Mean."

SULLIVAN: Let's listen to that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN")

CULTS: (Singing) Help me 'cause I'm feeling shaky. Tell me what's wrong with my brain 'cause I seem to have lost it. 'Cause I am afraid of the light, yeah, you know what I mean. And I can't sleep alone at night, yeah, you know what I mean.

SULLIVAN: When you guys finally posted onto Band Camp, what happened from there?

FOLLIN: Well, I posted it on my Facebook, and one of my friends sent it over to the - GorillavsBear. And I was in class one day...

SULLIVAN: And GorillavsBear is a very popular indie website.

FOLLIN: Yeah. Yeah. And I started getting emails. I was like, what? Why are people emailing us? Like, hey, I love this. Who are you guys? And then I realized that it had been posted on a blog. And I, like, left class early and went home and it was like...

OBLIVION: I was sleeping through class.

FOLLIN: He was sleeping. And I was like: Oh, my God, we're on GorillavsBear. This is crazy - because we had just made those three songs like, two weeks before; put them online a week later. They had only been online for a week.

SULLIVAN: Well, now that you have come out of this period where - sort of anonymity, and you've come up with this major record label, you have to go live with a lot of this now. Does that make it difficult?

OBLIVION: I don't think that we really hang ourselves up too much on like, being, you know, exact. I think that like, a lot of my favorite bands growing up, you know, were bands that brought something else to the table live, something - you know, like, we change a lot of the drum beats up so that it's not like, so hypnotic, and it's more danceable. And there's parts that we like, extend and parts that we, you know, shorten. And we didn't get caught up in our own like, hype or fascination. We just kind of thought, like, OK, well now we can try and do this for a living. So we just took it really seriously - as seriously as we can.

SULLIVAN: Brian Oblivion and Madeline Follin of the band Cults, whose album has just come out, thanks so much for coming in.

FOLLIN: Thank you for having us.

OBLIVION: Thank you.

FOLLIN: We love NPR.

OBLIVION: You're welcome. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SULLIVAN: You can hear songs from their debut album at nprmusic.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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