Thursday, 31 March 2011

Cults: Daydream pop with a heart of darkness

Cuter than you.
First published in Loud And Quiet

Jim Jones had a band named after him and so did Charles Manson. The exploits of Anton Newcombe and Brian Warner respectively have tended towards the eccentric aesthetic of both those terrifying cult leaders, if not to the same grisly extent. So you'd expect Cults, the Californian two-piece of Brian Oblivion and Madeline Follin, to be ploughing a similarly deranged furrow of dark music for dark people.

Erm, wrong. One listen to 'Go Outside', the song that brought Cults to the attention of Gorilla vs Bear and Pitchfork this time last year, and you'll know that West Coast sunshine is embedded in the bones of this couple, who met while studying film in New York. Xylophones sparkle, a girlish voice cries out for you to get up and live your life. Except – just who is that grainy voice in the background, warning you that living is treacherous? Oh yeah, it's Jim Jones.

“We just casually chucked it on the front of 'Go Outside' one day, and then we ended up writing the lyrics. He says death is not a fearful thing, it's living that's treacherous, and sometimes everyone feels that way,” they explain.

Cults are in London playing one of their first UK shows. In the back room at The Lexington, Madeline and Brian (real name Ryan) are brimming over with the eloquence of young Californians who know their Antonioni from their elbow. Though Cults got together little more than a year ago, they're preparing for a big U.S. tour before the debut album comes out on In The Name Of in May. Has their rapid ascent been damaging to the band's evolution?

“It's hard adjusting to,” says Madeline. “For a year of playing shows we're confident enough,” adds Brian. “It's just better stepping up, better to take risks.”

For a while they tried to avoid the internet hype-mill with a hard-to-Google name and no MySpace page, but their reticence only fed the insatiable hunger of the indie blogosphere, perversely creating even more buzz around a band who have released just three songs. “When all that happened we had a bunch of songs we could have put out,” explains Brian. “But we realised instead of letting it eat itself alive, we should just take a break, become a band, play shows and focus on touring.”

Unsure of what Cults was even going to be, they ignored the press and focused on putting a band together, which now includes Madeline's brother (lying on the sofa next to us, trying to get some shut-eye) as well as old friends and even Madeline's mum as manager. “We were film school students, not musicians, so we think about our band as more of an art project. When we write songs we're thinking more cinematically about them than like, y'know, jamming them out,” says Brian. “And we try to translate that visually too rather than just being the dudes in the band that show up in the flannels and rock out,” he laughs, saying that they are so steeped in film they're too afraid to make a video.

Last year a glossy promo for 'Go Outside', featuring James Franco's brother and Julia Roberts' niece, popped up on MTV as part of a creative project run by the music channel. Verdict? “Off the record?” asks Brian. “It's exactly what we expected it would be,” Madeline says. For an MTV production with celebrities in it, you mean? “Exactly!”

But treating Cults as a simple artistic outlet gives the songs a breezy, vivacious quality that more single-minded musicians might struggle to create. Light and dark elements freely interweave as Madeline sings about wanting to live life, not “stay inside and sleep the light away.” 'Go Outside' is about “battling against yourself, being lazy, being a procrastinator, and the fear of growing up,” says Brian. “Madeline and I would be graduating from college now – that's the mindset we were in while making the record, like, if this doesn't work out we're going back to school!”

You could always join a cult, of course. What'll it be? “I guess I'd be a Scientologist, 'cos that'd mean I had a lot of money,” laughs Madeline. Brian opts for Heaven's Gate, “just 'cos it's a San Diego cult. My friend was neighbours with them.”

“And they ate all the food that was my favourite,” Madeline offers. “They had like, vanilla pudding, Doritos...” So you'd join on the basis of the menu? “Yeah!”

“I wouldn't wanna be in any cult that actually murdered someone,” Brian adds. “They were just kinda peaceful freaks that went over the edge.” They both laugh, long black hair falling into their eyes.

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