Static is a breakup album. Just not in the way we think of a breakup album. That cold knot in your stomach when you lose someone? That is not longing for a person. That is dread, uncertainty of what comes next. Madeline Follin and Brian Oblivion of Cults are both 24 years old. Today most people of that age, if not all of us, carry this cold knot inside.
“There’s a feeling our generation has. The feeling there’s always something better around the corner, that everyone is born to be a star,” Brian says. “The feeling that life is waiting for you, and yet it’s not happening. All of that is static.”
Static. The white noise that comes when a signal is lost, or when there are too many signals. What causes an electric shock when two people touch. But also, immobility, distortion.
Television is a heavy influence on Cults. Before the first Cults show, Brian ran to the Salvation Army to pick up old TV set to decorate the stage. Brian Oblivion, his stage name, is lifted from a professor in the movie Videodrome, a guy who only appears as a face on a television. Brian has five televisions in his house. Brian says, “I was thinking about the idea of static being all possible frequencies at once—the everything. I could just stare at it forever.” The final track on this new Cults record, “No Hope,” opens and ends with the sound of broadcasting static. “Burn down the bridges…forget tomorrow,” Madeline sings sweetly on the song.
Cults has always been a band to look to both past and present. When the young duo arrived on the New York scene in 2010 with the perfectly formed debut single “Go Outside,” it was described as Phil Spector with hip-hop sensibilities, glee soaked in reverb. Sometimes, when Madeline’s friends heard the song, they asked her how they got little boys to sing on it. “That’s just me!” she told them. In fact, if you ask Brian to name his favorite album, he’ll name Home Schooled: The ABCs of Kid Soul, a compilation by the Numero Group, a collection of lost, old R&B recorded by children. Brian adores the the crate-digging Chicago reissue label and its dusty, forgotten music. “Whenever we make songs, I picture imaginary bands,” he says.
What make-believe bands can be heard on Static? “I Can Hardly Make You Mine” is Petula Clark pounding a “Downtown” piano beat while fronting a Jesus and Mary Chain maelstrom. The bouncing, shimmering “Always Forever” and “We’ve Got It” rocket girl-group doo-wop into the shoegazer dream-pop stratosphere. “High Road” gallops through a spaghetti western soundscape in a sandstorm of strings and organ, like Morricone teaching us how to walk like an Egyptian. Though such fantasy might be too shallow for the record’s emotional centerpiece, “Were Before,” a duet that is quintessential Cults. “We both needed our own world, just the way were before,” Brian and Madeline sing at the same time, though not necessarily together.
Static is funkier and denser than its predecessor, something immediately apparent from the cool strut of “High Road.” “I started out as a bass player,” Brian says. “That’s how I write songs, on bass.” Oblivion then fleshes the songs out with drums, guitar, piano, farfisa, strings, layers and layers. He plays just about all of the sounds on Static himself, save for slide guitar. “Everything today is party, party, dance, dance nonstop,” Brian says. “There’s room for more moody and introspective dance music. We wanted to make a groovy record.”
There’s a cliché that claims you have your whole life to make your debut album and one year to make your second. The immediacy of internet fame has killed that. Brian and Madeline were raised in San Diego and both attended film school in New York City. At 21, the two moved in together in Manhattan. Cults began merely as apartment hobby, with Brian fiddling with fragments of tunes and Madeline trilling on top. They put songs online. In a matter of days, the two were receiving fan e-mails and gig offers. From there, the blogs quickly sniffed them out. Soon, a contract with Columbia. A tour that lasted nearly three years. A self-titled 2011 debut recorded in schedule gaps. Lollapalooza, All Tomorrows Parties, Bonnaroo, Pitchfork. Malmö, Singapore, Buffalo, Melbourne. By the end of the cycle, Cults were exhausted and separated.
Brian and Madeline began recording Static with friend Shane Stoneback, who co-produced their debut. The process was the same as ever. “I’d be in one room working on lyrics. Brian would be working on finishing a song. We’d come to the point where we couldn’t get any further and switch places.” Madeline enjoyed having a set schedule. She stopped having panic attacks. The former couple found they worked better than when they were together. “We were not as afraid to speak the truth.”
Despite any newfound ease with internal criticism, Cults were bursting with ideas—and recordings. The group found itself with six different versions of songs. “It was my fault,” Brian admits. “If you’re working with a friend, it’s easier to forget you’re spending money.” So the two decided to finish the record with someone they have never worked with before.
Cults took the tracks to Atlanta and producer Ben Allen. They worked in a studio filled with vintage lunch boxes and a control room made of an abandoned boxcar. The fun part in Georgia was hacking away. That string part they worked on for two days? Fuck it, throw it out. Slashing at the songs felt invigorating.
Because really, that is the question lying beneath Static: What can you live without?