This New York duo have some scary stuff to sing about. But, they say, nothing’s more terrifying than boredom.
Cults singer Madeline Follin looks worried. Later, her band – in essence a duo, completed by guitar-playing boyfriend Brian Oblivion, but tonight featuring a host of additional (it must be said, hirsute) hired hands – will play the White Heat new band showcase at Soho’s Madame JoJo’s.
Right now the 21-year-old singer is outside the venue, toying with her in-ear monitors, bemoaning how hard it is to hear herself above her bands pretty, but not especially gentle, 60s-indebted pop. Beside her stands Lily Allen, herself a (now semi-retired) pop starlet but tonight acting as boss of In The Name Of, the Columbia record imprint that signed Cults as its first act in late January of this year.
“Just take them out,” says Lily to Follin (who’s still struggling with her earphones). She’s motherly, but blunt too. “If you’re not comfortable, don’t use them.” Follin looks unsure: “You think?” “Yeah” affirms Allen, “do what makes you comfortable. It’s important that you’re happy on stage.”
Follin now happier, the two girls proceed to giggle their way through a digital camera slideshow containing pictures of the dress Allen intends to wear to her wedding this summer.
Later, when Allen is out of earshot, Follin confides; “I’m so pleased we’ve got Lily fighting our cause. She says she doesn’t want us to endure the same crap she did when she was making music.”
The Cults singer may well be grateful for the support of Allen, but in truth, Lily is as lucky to have Cults as they are to have her.
Formed “about a year ago”, around seven months into Madeline and Brian’s relationship, Cults is a band that is really quite special. It may now have been a few years since new bands were allowed to admit to being C86 fans without eliciting widespread yawns, but for all the quaint glockenspiel and lolloping St Etienne drums in Cults’ music, its big, Motown-aping songs are just as indebted to ’68 as they are ’86.
Cults is no throwaway twee pop outfit either – tonally the songs are often as dark as they are light: “To me, death is not a fearful thing. It’s living that’s treacherous,” forebodes Go Outside, the band’s 2010 self-released debut 7in single, which – before the fairy dust keyboard stabs, the pretty but plundering chorus – opens with a static-drenched sample culled from an old Jim Jones recording. (For the unaquainted, Jones was founder and leader of the Peoples Temple cult, who in 1978 oversaw the murder of more than 900 of his congregation in Jonestown, Guyana).
Um. “What gives?” I ask, backing away, slowly.
“All we do when we’re not playing or writing music is watch DVDs and mess around online,” explains Brian. “One day we just stumbled upon all these stories about cults. It’s interesting, because a lot of our songs are about teen angst-type feelings – a fear of living a boring life. To me, those cults were about similar things; they’re normally populated by people who don’t want to lead. or are incapable of leading, a regular life.
“Cults has always been about me and Madeline trying to escape from the real world, only in a way that isn’t as destructive and extreme as the sort of things we were reading about.”
Cults may play with the imagery and escapism of the indoctrination process from which they take their name, but they’re hardly hiding away from the real world. If Arcade Fire and its Pitchfork-beloved peers have spearheaded a recent renaissance for indie rock ideals and integrity, you might see Cults as part of a second wave of bands now arriving as reinforcement.
“I do believe soul still exists in music,” says Brian. “Maybe not in Jedward, but it’s definitely an exciting time for music like ours right now. Arcade Fire just won a Grammy. Vampire Weekend is about to go platinum. MGMT’s first record is already double platinum. Indie music is a really creative, artistic, interesting place again. The audience for weird, fucked-up music hasn’t been this big since the 60s. I get angry when people don’t recognise that or don’t celebrate those bands’ achievements. Now it feels like we’re winning – how exciting is that?” Madeline giggles. “I’m thinking about whether Jedward have a soul.”
Not long after we’ve finished talking, the band take to to Madame JoJo’s stage. The crowd watching give the impression have come to judge – to form an opinion – on “Lily Allen’s new signing”.
Twenty minutes later, upon finishing their set, talk is of how strong the bands songs are, how haunting Follin’s voice is, and just how much hair one band can have. The name Lily Allen is barely mentioned.
Later we catch sight of Madeline Follin, her hair drenched with sweat, no earpiece in her ear, now stood alone. She smiles. She no longer looks worried – she looks like she’s surveying all that’s about to be hers.
Photography: Nik Hartley
Fashion: Julia Sarr-Jamois
Words: James McMahon
This article first appeared in Wonderland Issue 26, April/May 2011