In a way, 2020 is starting to sound a lot like 2011.
We’ve already been blessed with fantastic albums this year from Tennis (Swimmer) and Summer Camp (Romantic Comedy), two indie pop duos whose breakout full-lengths arrived in January and October of 2011, respectively. Later this month, Cults—another indie pop duo whose breakout full-length arrived in 2011—will follow suit with their fourth LP, Host.
“We wrote the first record just two blocks away in my old apartment,” Cults’ Brian Oblivion told me over the phone last week, speaking from his current place in Manhattan’s East Village. “It’s funny, it’s like a full circle thing. We were writing [Cults] in my apartment because we had no idea what we were doing, and now we were writing [Host] in my apartment again because we do know what we are doing.”
Oblivion and his longtime collaborator Madeline Follin continued to flesh out Host in Arizona and California in 2019, eventually deciding to embrace live instruments. If—as Oblivion has said—2011’s Cults was “very bright,” 2013’s Static was “very dark,” and 2018’s Offering was “in color,” then Host feels like a mix of all three. Singles such as “No Risk” and “Trials” register as dreamy updates on the “classic Cults” sound—twinkling and translucent. Follin describes another single, “Monolithic,” as “one of the only love songs on the record,” while “Spit You Out” shows the band working in a darker, more discordant mode. All four are magnetic.
We caught up with Follin and Oblivion about Host, parasites, Angel Olsen, and ping pong. Check out the full interview and watch Cults’ new “Monolithic” video below.
American Songwriter: Where are you right now? Where’s home at the moment?
Madeline Follin: We’re both at our houses in New York.
Brian Oblivion: We live like four blocks away from each other.
When did your new album, Host, start to take shape? How did the making of this record compare to the making of previous Cults records?
Madeline: We always have a hard time starting to write a new album before we finish everything that we need to do on the previous album. So once all the touring is done, then we feel like we can start. I guess it was January 2019 when we started working. We worked on stuff at Brian’s house just in his living room. Then around March we started getting serious and we usually like to go somewhere weird and just live the record for a few weeks.
Did you do that this time around?
Madeline: We did. We played SXSW and then we ended up weirdly going to Arizona. We had spent like two months doing demos but we couldn’t get on the same page on what direction we wanted to head in. So that Arizona trip was the trip that we took to zero in on what both of us were liking and that’s when we came to the realization that we wanted to make this record more live and have real string players, real horns and whatnot.
What was the next step to bring in those live players? Did you have anybody in mind?
Madeline: We did! We have a friend who’s amazing. Her name is Tess [Scott-Suhrstedt]. We came to that decision kind of near the end of our Arizona trip. We were heading to LA and we called her and we were like, “Would you be willing to come into the studio with us in… three days?” And she did! She happened to have a lot of friends [join us]. She really hooked us up.
Host comes almost a decade after your self-titled debut album. What are some of the throughlines between early Cults and current Cults? Are there certain songs on Host that you feel nod to previous releases or show you moving in a different direction?
Brian: It’s so funny, we always set out with these broad intentions to make these wildly different records, and for us they always are until we play them for someone else and they say, “Oh, classic Cults.” We can’t escape ourselves!
I’m not gonna lie, I emailed my editor saying that one of your recent singles was “classic Cults.”
Madeline: Yeah, some people have told me that this is the most reminiscent of our first record. We never are like, “Let’s make a song like this [other] song that we made.” We are always trying to make something a little bit different. Maybe something just got into us and we subconsciously made something that other people think is similar to [Cults].
What’s the story behind “Monolithic”? What’s the “strong magnetic field” you sing of?
Brian: I actually don’t remember writing that song! I don’t remember when that song occurred—that may have been one that we wrote in the studio. The string pattern is kind of like a motif that subtly runs through a few parts of the record, and that was one of the reasons we felt it was really cool to end [the album] with. I think it’s a very obscure love song.
Madeline: Yeah, it’s one of the only love songs on the record. All the rest are hate songs! [laughing]
What are some of the feelings that drive the rest of the songs on Host?
Madeline: Anger, relief… When we were doing our bio we were like, “Track by track, you realize that you have something leeching onto you and then you spit it out and then you are in denial and then you’re angry and then you end up coming out of it feeling so much better than you had even before you had that leech attached to you.” It’s kind of the feeling of when you have a parasite.
Brian: Musically, I think almost every song on this record has a chord substitution or some sort of really weird dissonance in it. We wanted it to feel like we felt at the time, kind of confusing and jarring. There’s kind of a trend that I’m bummed about where it seems like a lot of indie rock music today is made to be relaxing, where I don’t feel relaxed at all as a person in my life—especially now. So we wanted to make something that commands your attention, even if it annoys you, because it needs to be listened to.
Have you heard anything recently that’s given you that same feeling?
Madeline: I really, really like the new Angel Olsen record. It was mixed by the same person [John Congleton] who mixed our new record.
Brian: That record absolutely grabs attention. That new sixteen-minute song by Deerhunter was awesome. There are a lot of great bands who are making record player music.
Beyond preparing this album, what have the last few months looked like for you during the pandemic?
Madeline: Well, we’ve been trying to figure out how to put out a record in this time. We did some live virtual shows—they didn’t take the place of a real show but they scratched the itch. It kind of felt like we were playing. Like I said, it’s hard for us to write without the record being out. It feels weird writing but we’ve been trying to do that. And hopefully on September 18th it won’t feel so weird writing. A lot of trying to feel normal but not feeling normal.
Brian: We’ve pretty much just integrated our band as a corona pod. We have hung out with each other solely for the last, like, six months. We play a lot of ping pong on tables and weird places that you wouldn’t normally play ping pong.
Do you have a studio or a practice space near you?
Brian: No. That’s another difference with this record. The last one we did almost completely at a studio in the Music Building, which was like the last music rehearsal building in Manhattan on 8th Avenue, which is where that song “8th Avenue” on our record was started. But we did this one just totally in my apartment, which is not big!
Madeline: Now that you’re saying that, maybe that’s why people are saying that it feels like the first record.
Brian: Yeah, we did go back into the apartment. That is something that’s similar.
So you’ve gone back to your roots in that sense?
Brian: Yeah, we wrote the first record just two blocks away in my old apartment. It’s funny, it’s like a full circle thing. We were writing [Cults] in my apartment because we had no idea what we were doing, and now we were writing [Host] in my apartment again because we do know what we are doing. We can get everything wired up and get good sound and make things work without having help.