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Who Are Cults?

Brian Oblivion of New York indie band Cults talked with NH7 ahead of their headlining slot at LFTC, Goa in December.

22 Jan, 2013

Abhimanyu Meer

Sub-Editor

I walked into the airy reception of the Radisson Blu in Cavelossim to wait for Brian Oblivion of Cults to shoot the shit with me for about a half hour by the hotel pool, and tell me what they were doing here on the other side of the world playing Live From The Console, Goa. And of course, what the hell his band was all about.

I’d never imagined a band like Cults would come to India, and to be honest, five years ago, any American indie band coming to India was a rather distant dream. Who are these people? “We’re Cults (laughter), a band from New York, and we’re very confused as to how or why we made it out here but we’re very grateful to be here. This is crazy,” said Oblivion, shades on under the temperate Goan sun. Cults’ eponymous debut album was a big success and the album sampled cult leaders speaking to people. How cool is that? Turns out, Oblivions surroundings while he was growing up had much to do with the idea of alternative religions and mass mind control. “Growing up (in San Diego), it was like a thing for my weirdo group of high school friends. Experimenting with and going to a lot of different churches. People there have a lot of money, a lot of time and they’re very gullible.”

At this point, Brian hands me a lighter to light my cigarette, a lighter that for some reason goes straight into my pocket after I use it. And then he catches me. He’s quick. I apologise. 

I asked Oblivion how much of the band’s real personalities had seeped into this record. “When we think about what those samples and what that whole approach means to us, it’s not really specific to what it really is. It’s more about being a person and letting those things influence you, and see how powerful they really are. As a writer, you can’t avoid it (being autobiographical). I love that record, but I’m so far into the next one now, I can barely see it. But looking back, it’s like a weird diary entry of being 20-years-old, and from this point right now, not really understanding anything, but being excited about everything. It’s great that we got that down on record, it’d be fun to listen to later.” The artist liaison in charge of Cults in Goa is intent on sitting on the beach chair near us while we talk. No worries. Brian is just 24, and his band has traveled a considerable chunk of the world touring in support of Cults. I ask him what it means to be this young, and already have a successful record under his belt. ”When the album came out, I was 22, and yeah, it was crazy. I mean, in that same way, it was a shallow appreciation, because neither of us had ever made a record before,” says Oblivion.

Check out the video for ‘You Know What I Mean’ off Cults.

Indie band success is often measured only after a sophomore release (oh wait, it’s 2013 now; I guess all you maybe need is like one YouTube video to go viral). It probably shows for their staying power. And Cults was so outrageously different from anything else, it’s hard to think of an upcoming Cults album without some theme or another. Talking about working on the upcoming record, Oblivion said, “It definitely was a challenge to try and take that statement we made on the first record and evolve it into a different thing. With this (upcoming) record, we don’t have any cult samples, but we kinda replaced it with a different thing. We’ll always be Cults in name, but we’ve moved beyond that right now.”

Brian talked about his biggest influences, mostly ’60s pop bands and vocal groups. “I think for me, the most towering influence the scariest piece of art that I still get intimidated by when I listen to it, is everything that The Shangri-Las did. I think they pre-dated so many things that happen now in music, with say, putting samples in music, dramatic, multi-character storytelling. I don’t think R. Kelly could exist without The Shangri-Las. And you know, some people get turned off by kitsch, the whole boy-meets girl, happy melody, but I tend to find those things often more meaningful and amusing than the kind of heartfelt songwriting where you’re wearing this persona versus the immediacy of all the truth and reality. You don’t see all that anymore, those many flaws coming together to make something great. These days, it’s all put together perfectly and it’s boring.”

Cults’ beginnings were shrouded behind a veil of mystique. With just a few songs online, and their identities concealed, the band seemingly took on a form of cult status even before they got famous. Oblivion explained, “That was ultimately kind of a accident, a happy accident in a way. There was no conscious effort to do anything like that. We just didn’t think anyone was going to care, so we passed our music on to our friends, who passed it onto theirs, and then suddenly it caught on a couple of big blogs. And then everyone said we’re concealing our identity, but in reality this whole thing literally happened in like four days. I don’t have the time to really craft anything, I don’t know how to build a website, and I don’t know anything about social media or whatever. We definitely got our  kicks watching people scramble around for a while though, waited for a couple of weeks listening to all these conspiracy theories and stuff like, ‘Hey this is the new Death Cab side-project!’ We realized that that model of being ‘mysterious’ is not only unsustainable, but kind of a farce. When people do that, it’s as if they imagine they’re so important, that they’re worth hiding.”

This video of Cults performing ‘Oh My God’ is awesome.

I just had to know how and why Cults found themselves here in South Goa playing Live From The Console, considering it’s taken most bands a long, long time before even considering setting sail towards the subcontinent. This kind of situation however, seemed pretty good to the band. “It’s true (laughter). And hey, this is definitely the most cult place we’ve been. I don’t know any other bands that have done this. I was having it all explained to me last night when we had dinner here. Apparently, India’s only had radio for 12 years, and live music hasn’t had much of a representation, and because of that, people here don’t widely get into music that way. That was part of what was explained to us that made us so excited to come here. And we’ve been most places in Europe, been to Japan, played in Singapore, which was one of my favourite places to play so far; we’ve played Australia and New Zealand. This, China and… Russia, are probably the last frontiers. Russia’s probably the hardest to crack (laughter). I’d be more surprised about a band playing Russia than playing here.”

I’d forgotten that AWOLNATION were actually supposed to be headlining LFTC, and asked Oblivion how it felt being a band that played shows in bars and clubs around New York just a couple of years ago, to one that’s headlining a festival in Goa, of all places. He quipped, “Dude, this is… (laughter)… it is crazy. We weren’t supposed to headline this, it was supposed to be AWOLNATION, but I will say it, fuck those guys. They dropped off the festival three weeks in advance because of ‘exhaustion’? Take a fuckin’ nap. That’s not rock ‘n’ roll dude. ‘Oh, I’m exhausted now, so in three weeks, I’ll still be exhausted.’ That’s bullshit. And shit, we’ll come, we’ll do it. There’s people here and we’ll play. We’re stoked to do it.”

Cults played Live From The Console, Goa on December 29 at Cavelossim beach, along with a bunch of other indie bands. Check out NH7′s photo gallery of the festival here.

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