Cults: unexpected indie stars

Matt Sullivan
Brian Oblivion and Madeline Follin of Cults Photo by OLIVIA MALONE

Cults' music is featured in TV commercials and concerts across the globe, but when the New York-based duo of Brian Oblivion and Madeline Follin were starting out, they hesitated to let anyone hear their songs. They released their first three-song EP in 2011, but did so quietly and without offering much information. And given the band name's initial unfriendliness to search engines, the authorship of the songs was practically anonymous.

"We were timid and we didn't know if our friends would laugh at us or something," singer and guitarist Oblivion said in a phone interview between tour stops. "I think that was part of the whole thing of putting it up in such a casual manner in the beginning, because we were nervous of what even our closest friends would think, let alone strangers."

The pair moved to New York from San Diego to attend art school. They wrote those first songs over the course of a few months and recorded them at Follin's mother's house. The resulting EP -- a sunny slice of neo-'60s pop with a lo-fi, indie-rock twist -- took on a life of its own in the blogosphere. The song "Go Outside" garnered enough buzz on taste-making music sites that the mysterious band with a mostly un-Google-able name was suddenly negotiating a major label record contract.

"We eventually traced back the genealogy of it to a friend of a friend of a friend of ours who knew someone who worked at a music blog," Oblivion joked. "The song had made its way up this ladder, and he sent it to Chris (Cantalini), who works at (music blog) Gorilla vs. Bear, and he posted it." While in class later that day, Oblivion got a call from Follin letting him know that the song was blowing up.

"We were definitely not the first, but we were in a moment where that seemed exciting, finding music on the Internet and discovering a new band," offered Oblivion. "Even now in 2014, all the things you see like that, they seem really forced and not organic anymore, and it's almost that there's too many bands. You don't want to seek out anymore. We were lucky that we managed to get our start in that specific point in time."

After the surprising success of the EP, Oblivion and Follin recruited friends from San Diego so they could play the songs live. Later that year they released the self-titled album, delivering on the promise of those initial three songs.

"There was a naivete to that record that I still love about it," said Oblivion, "just really excited songwriting."

But the story accompanying the release of the band's sophomore record, last year's "Static," is less happy-go-lucky. After lengthy tours and countless months on the road, Oblivion and Follin decided to end their romantic relationship and continue their musical one. And while it might be difficult to separate the more brooding "Static" from that context, Oblivion said the breakup might have streamlined the songwriting process.

"It's a natural outgrowth of us growing up a little bit, too, that we work more autonomously -- we don't need to be together every single moment in the day," he said. "I think working separately and then converging during work time is ultimately a more productive way of doing stuff than constantly tinkering back and forth and having arguments before things are fully put together."

The first record's success also boosted the once reticent band's confidence. "There was a more measured, methodical approach to this one that was more comfortable," said the guitarist.

That also meant trusting their instincts. After the initial recording sessions, Cults weren't happy with the mixes for "Static." Oblivion said that they and producer Shane Stoneback got too lost in the process, so they enlisted the help of Ben Hall, who's also worked with Animal Collective and Deerhunter.

"I think the most important thing when you're doing anything with art is your first impression," Oblivion explained. "You can always convince yourself after a while that something is good, but if you walk out of a room and you go get dinner and you listen to it again or you read it again and it doesn't feel right that time, it's not right."

By Matt Sullivan
Daily News correspondent