Sometimes the kind of music you have on your iPod really does determine which direction your life will go.
Case in point is the trip two recently acquainted college students – Brian Oblivion and Madeline Follin – took from San Diego to San Francisco in 2009 with Follin’s favorite songs providing the soundtrack.
“We actually met at a concert by her brother’s band in San Diego, where we’re both from, during my summer vacation from college at NYU, and we hit it off,” said Oblivion last week from Paris where the New York retro-indie band he later formed with Follin – Cults – was beginning a month-long tour of Europe.
“The whole trip – eight hours both ways – I discovered the music she was playing was pretty much the same thing I had in my collection. We both related to the late 1950-early 1960s music that all our friends found kind of intolerable and annoying but we really liked.
“When Madeline put on Lesley Gore or Peaches and Prudence, I knew that we were on a wavelength that not a lot of people were on at the moment.”
Both aspiring musicians, Oblivion and Follin began to collaborate musically and romantically when she also relocated to New York to study at the New School.
According to Oblivion, their twinkly raw pop songs, powered by girl-group conventions, were more of a satisfying hobby than a potential career option, but when the duo posted three tunes to Bandcamp in 2010, fate decided otherwise.
One of the songs – the dreamy, harmony- splashed “Go Outside,” – went viral and reached the ears of the indie world, resulting in glowing mentions in places like Pitchfork and NME.
“It was really bizarre because we just put out the songs for our friends, without any description or link or email,” said Follin.
“We thought a few of our friends would listen to it, and then maybe a few months down the line, we’d write a couple more songs and maybe we’d play a show at the local bar across the street. That was the highest ambition we had.”
“It took us a while to trace back the geneaology of how people ended up hearing it.
Six months later we figured out that it was a friend of a friend who had sent it to a blogger who wrote that he liked it, and suddenly, people were listening to it.”
Oblivion and Follin decided to go with the flow, officially releasing “Go Outside” as a single on a small label, and by 2011 signing with Columbia Records, which released their self-titled debut later that year. A tour through the US and Europe with a band bolstered by Follin’s brother and his band mates forged a growing following for their sunny, hip tunes. However, one of the casualties of their growing popularity was Oblivion and Follin’s non-professional relationship.
“It’s actually been beneficial for our songwriting relationship,” said Oblivion, who laughed at being called the indie Fleetwood Mac. “It feels like there’s positive growth because we work separately now.”
“Before, when we were playing together, we’d go back and forth and bicker about the songs before they were even songs.
They hit the ground before they even got a chance to launch. Now, I’ll work on the music in my house and send it over to her and she’ll be writing the lyrics for that song while I’m working on the next tune. It’s a more efficient way of handling things.”
As a result, Static – Cults’ sophomore effort released last October – focuses in part on the couple’s breakup and projects a more complex, mature musical and lyrical outlook. And, if anything, it’s made them more popular, with nine shows in France followed by their debut in Israel on April 6 at the Barby Club in Tel Aviv.
Performing in Europe is a treat, if only for the different cultural mores that are exposed during their performances.
“The major difference that comes across for me is the level of attention between US and European audiences. In the States and in England more so than the rest of Europe, rock & roll shows are largely an opportunity to go out and socialize, see friends, have a beer,” said Oblivion.
“In Europe, there’s more of an attitude that you’re almost performing classical music – the audience sits there watching every move. And if there’s a break in a song, they don’t yell or cheer. It can be really off-putting at first because you don’t know how to gauge it, but after you get used to the vibe, it allows you to do so much more. As a performer, you get to work with that space and it enables you to improvise more because the audience is more willing to go down that rabbit hole with you.”
From the Ronnie Spector girl-group homages to the shimmering guitar accompaniment, the rabbit hole of Cults is one well worth diving into.