Indie duo Cults: ‘No matter how hard we try, we are going to end up being ourselves’

“We want to make music that has a unique world, and we think our albums are all different from each other. But what other people tell us is that they all sound like Cults."

Let’s face it. We all had moments in school when we didn’t really feel like being there. Any excuse was good enough to get us out of class and into… almost anything else.

Brian Oblivion got one such out while in class in the early 2010s: a call—well, several— from his bandmate Madeline Follin.

“She kept on calling me and calling me and then I went to the bathroom and I was like, ‘What?!’ and she was like, ‘Get out of class right now,'” Oblivion recalls.

Follin had good news: a three-song EP that the duo recorded for their indie-pop band Cults was receiving buzz on the Internet. 

“We recorded three songs and we put them up online,” says Oblivion. “Nothing happened for two weeks. A guy from a blog called Gorilla vs Bear listened to it, and posted it on his blog. Within 24 hours we were on Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, SPIN and they all had takes about our music. We were both in class at the time when it happened.”

Ironically, Oblivion was in a music class when he got the call that Cults was receiving buzz nationally. 

“I went up to my professors and I was like, ‘Guys, I’m not going to be able to finish this semester because I have a band.’ And they were like, ‘Sick!’ and they found ways for me to get out early and finish. They were all really excited,” Oblivion says. 

The point behind the EP wasn’t to get on Pitchfork or Rolling Stone. The duo just wanted to have fun and, since a lot of their friends were playing music, they wanted in as well. 

“The weird thing is we didn’t expect anything to happen,” says Follin. “We weren’t like, ‘When is it going to catch on?’ because honestly we were doing it for fun.”

“We were just doing it for our friends, and the point of the EP was to prove to people that we were a band and could play shows,” explains Oblivion.

“All of our friends were playing shows and going on tour and we wanted to do that,” says Follin.

Even though Follin and Oblivion started Cults to keep up with their friends and to have fun, music was also their way of making friends early in life. Both Follin and Oblivion bounced around the country in their childhood, and music was their way to connect with people.

“Music was a way to make friends,” explains Follin. “I would just find whatever show was playing and hang out at the venue and find people who were into the same shit I was.”

“When I was a kid moving around, I would find out who would skateboard,” says Oblivion. “A lot of those kids were into AFI, and then I would find the one kid who was into Elliott Smith and I would be like, ‘We are going to be best friends.’ When I would move around I would show other kids music I was into, even if it was bands like Modest Mouse, and I would blow other kids’ minds. I moved to Atlanta and would show these kids Interpol and everyone would be like, ‘Wow, this is so cool,’ and music would be a way to bond with people.”

I came of age when Cults dropped their self-titled album in 2011, and I definitely felt cool showing my friends in Blackwood “Go Outside” and “Abducted.” That era of indie music was a special time with bands like Cults, MGMT, Passion Pit, Sleigh Bells and Best Coast making their way onto the scene. Follin and Oblivion were happy to be a part of it all. 

“It was a wonderful time for indie music around 2010,” explains Oblivion. “People felt really excited about discovering new music, and we felt really lucky to be a part of that moment in time, and that we have been able to make music for the past 12 years.”

Recently, Cults reissued their self-titled debut album for its 10th anniversary; even though things have changed since 2011, the band looks back positively on that record. 

“I look back on that record and I feel like I’ll always love it,” says Oblivion. “Not even in spite of its flaws because we had such a great time making that record. We were learning how to write and make songs during that album. A lot of those songs were written in the studio and it was so much fun. Like, ‘These two choruses sound good together, let’s make it a whole song.’ I still hear in the music the youthful excitement that surrounds the record.”

“We had a great time making that record,” explains Follin. “We felt free and had no restraints.”

Similar to other bands who were emerging in that time period, there was a song that people immediately thought of when Cults was brought up: “Go Outside.” Follin and Oblivion were understandably tired of that song when it first came out, but now have fallen in love with it again. 

“It’s been up and down,” says Follin on her relationship to the self-titled album. “For a while I thought it was annoying to always have to close with ‘Go Outside.’ We toured on our self-titled for so long, we played shows almost every day and had only 30 minutes of music.  It got a little exhausting, but we have been playing a lot of songs from our self-titled while rehearsing for this tour. Brian actually said the other day, ‘Wow, I am having so much fun playing ‘Go Outside.’’ We have kind of come back around on it.”

While millennials were introduced to Cults with “Go Outside,” Zoomers were introduced to Cults via TikTok, where their song “Always Forever,” off of their second record Static, is a hit. The song was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America. Follin and Oblivion both welcome what TikTok has done for the band.

“I have younger cousins who would send me TikToks and they were like, ‘Your song is going really viral on TikTok,’” explains Follin. “People would keep asking me if there was a dance involved with the song, and I was like, ‘No, it’s people literally doing anything.’ It’s a weird feeling, but we’re super grateful.”

“I’m still waiting to wake up,” says Oblivion.  “I’m waiting for the ride to be over, and it’s been two years now, but that song is still getting a ton of plays on Spotify.”

With the recent success of “Always Forever,” the band has been able to reflect on the differences between the self-titled album and Static.

“It definitely took a lot longer to make that album,” says Follin. “There was a lot more experimenting on that album.”

“We did a lot of crazy stuff with that album,” says Oblivion. “But now it was all worth it. We were making things needlessly complicated for ourselves, but that is how we learn. You put in 90% of work to get a 1% better success rate. We got that Brian Wilson level of ridiculousness out of our systems, which was really nice.”

Even though Cults have streamlined their process and learned from Static, the process of making songs is still pretty much the same. 

“We usually start off with a period of exploration until we hit one song that really excites us,” says Oblivion. “We do a lot of failure until something exciting happens and then we start building from that. Madeline has this cool encyclopedic knowledge of music and crafts an architecture for our music.

“We want to make music that has a unique world, and we think our albums are all different from each other. But what other people tell us is that they all sound like Cults. No matter how hard we try, we are going to end up being ourselves.’’

But for Follin and Oblivion, being themselves isn’t a bad thing, and Cults’ music has held up over the years and aged pretty well. Follin learned specifically about the value of being yourself during the recording process for their latest album, Host, released in 2020. 

“We had been working on a bunch of new music and it was going OK,” says Oblivion. “It didn’t really have a soul to it. One day Madeline said, ‘I have these songs that I have been working on,’ and the producer we were working with started crying and got so mad because Madeline had been too shy to share this music with us while we were spinning in circles working on stuff that wasn’t working. He was like, ‘This is the coolest music ever!’’’

Cults really haven’t had a chance yet to tour on Host, and they will be doing so soon with dates in Philadelphia on Sept. 20, and New York on Sept. 21. Follin is looking forward to playing songs from that record and seeing how the crowd will react. 

“We don’t know what to expect,” says Follin. “But we are really looking forward to this tour. We were burned out with the first record, but now we enjoy touring because now we know that it’s OK to set limits and not take every show offer.” 

“We put out Host during the pandemic and we played a few shows,” says Oblivion. “But it’s not really real until we tour on it. We get that energy and response with performing and we are able to internalize the record and let it go.”

Cults will be playing on Sept. 20 at the Foundry in Philadelphia, and Sept. 21 at Elsewhere in Brooklyn. Ticket information can be found here.