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Moving in Place

Follin and Oblivion of Cults. (photo by Olivia Malone)

On tour with the Pixies, Brian Oblivion of Cults talks about the band’s latest album

If you ask guitarist Brian Oblivion, half of New York City indie-pop duo Cults, about the near vertical trajectory of his band, he’ll tell you that from the driver’s seat the slope isn’t as steep as it seems. He’ll also argue that much of the 1950s and 1960s pop aesthetic found on their self-titled debut and their 2013 follow-up Static that has been lauded by critics—from the doo-wopping girl-pop vocals to lo-fi garage rock tones—is actually the product of his love for 1990s alt rock in disguise.

As I speak to Oblivion on the phone, I can hear his band members fiddling with the radio and singing along loudly as they all move down the highway in a van, passing through Indianapolis on their way to Columbus, Ohio. The band is a week and a half deep into a tour with some of their musical idols, 1990s alt rock band the Pixies. Naturally Oblivion is excited to pay his respect to a band that helped guide the development of alternative rock with records like Surfer Rosa and Doolittle. Those records, released in the late 1980s, not only inspired contemporaries—like Kurt Cobain, who once said that the Pixies had the ability to write the “ultimate pop song”—but also, 25 years later, continue to influence rising rock bands like Cults. “Especially in the way we think about guitar solos,” Oblivion says. “The way they bend notes and craft tones. We can’t get away from it. It changed rock music all together. I think if you were to go through our band playlist on this tour you’d find more 1990s rock and roll than you ever will find any 1960s music,” he says as the van audibly stutters over a bump.

Oblivion met singer, bandmate, and former significant other Madeline Follin when her brother, a friend of Oblivion, played a rock show with his band in their hometown of San Diego. Follin and Oblivion hit it off instantly and went along with her brother’s band on the remainder of their tour. “It’s funny because the way that we met and got to know each other was on tour, and now it’s four years later and we’re still in a van on tour,” he says. Not only did the duo’s meeting blossom into a romantic relationship that would last for about four years, but it also moved them to write the slew of ultra-catchy indie-pop songs found on their 2011 self-titled debut album, which includes their breakout song “Go Outside.”

For any other band, the thought of travelling across the country in close quarters is the norm, but for Cults it can be a little curious.

Prior to the recording of the band’s latest album, Static, the duo pulled a Fleetwood Mac, breaking up their record-inspiring romantic relationship. But breakups can be as inspiring, if not more inspiring, than getting together. The question became: What is more important, the relationship or the band? The answer is pretty clear now. In the studio together the two managed to get along after a few months apart. Oblivion does not remember any of Follin’s lyrics striking him as being obviously about him or their relationship while they were in the studio. “I think if we had that attitude where we were pushing things directly at each other, we couldn’t function,” he says. “For me the whole thing is about finding a good way to create a complete emotion. If you listen to a song and you’re like ‘What does this song sound like? Does this song sound like someone is in trouble or does this song sound like someone is in love?’ I think that is usually the way we approach things, not necessarily from a really personal perspective,” he says.

Oblivion’s perspective is partially shaped by his experience at NYU, where both he and Follin studied cinema, though he denies that his film studies have directly influenced the band’s music. “I don’t know if college has as much of an impact as people like to pretend that it does,” he says. “I think we’re just big fans of entertainment and being versed in a lot of different eras of music and film and style can help you put together a mental picture when you’re writing a song.”

The mental picture formed by the content of their latest record, from the artwork to the title, is one inspired by media of all sorts. What Static represents to Oblivion is “digital chaos,” but also the idea of being stuck in one place. “It was partially a reflection of our state of mind as young adults; that we’re all stuck in a moment in history that is extremely confusing. I think that electronic devices are really part of that,” he says. “It’s about trying to wrap your head around personal connections and what they mean in the present moment.” In almost the same breath, Oblivion humanizes the album. “This record is the most sensitive record that we’ll do, maybe the most claustrophobic.” That sensitivity is obvious on their garage-soul hit “High Road,” as the chorus levels out a mess of rising emotions and Follin sings “I should’ve took the high road/Now it’s such a long way back.” The claustrophobia is clear on “Were Before,” as a scratching guitar riff seems to be mechanically racheting two competing forces uncomfortably closer together, or perhaps, further apart.

Static comes with a few different record covers, including an image that recalled the artwork on the band’s debut record, with both primary figures in motion, but also with a simple image of a computer screen full of snowed-in static. If you found the images on the Internet, you’d notice that the static artwork was a GIF with actual static noise on the screen.

Through the static of our cross-country phone call, Oblivion describes the effect that the internet has had on his band, which to the casual fan might have seemed to appear on their radar out of nowhere. “For us it probably didn’t seem as crazy as if you were just reading about us on the internet,” he says. “It was like ‘Oh yeah, this band, they’re blowing up.’ But even a year into the band we were playing shows in Lawrence, Kansas, in front of like 15 to 20 people. It really did take about two and a half years from when we started until we were playing big shows and people actually noticed. The reality is so much slower than the illusion. We can still look back and see how we got here.”

Cults return to Buffalo on Monday, February 17 for a show at the Tralf Music Hall with special guests Mood Rings. 8pm. $15 advance, $17 at the door.

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