You can’t fight the feeling

MADELINE Follin can’t believe the twist her life has taken. Growing up in a hippy enclave of San Diego, a career in the music business was the last thing she wanted.

Her step-dad was a hard-living guitarist with the band White Zombie so she had first hand experience of the dark side of the rock lifestyle. She’d seen people destroy themselves and knew it was a path she didn’t wish to pursue. If anything, she was determined to get far away from rock’n’roll.

“A lot of my parents’ friends had drug related issues,” she recalls with a very visible shudder. “It was a lifestyle where you did everything to the maximum. There was a lot of darkness there. And I saw it.”

Therefore, it is to her enduring amazement that she finds herself fronting Cults, one of the year’s buzziest new pop outfits. A duo whose gauzy harmonies and upbeat melodies inhabit a bittersweet zone between the Carpenters and 1960s girl groups such as the Shangri-Las, Cults have floored critics with their self-titled first album and drawn a huge word of mouth fan-base. David Lynch is a vocal admirer, as is his contemporary in avant-garde cinema, Jim Jarmusch.

They have also attracted an influential cheerleader in the shape of Lily Allen, who was so impressed by their demo tapes she signed them to her Sony-backed record label, In the Name Of. From the bedroom where they recorded their first songs to the loftiest reaches of the blogosphere, the rise of Cults has been something to behold.

The irony is that, initially, Follin and her boyfriend and song-writing partner Brian Oblivion (no, it isn’t his real name) shied away from the spotlight. In fact, they did everything they could not to call attention to themselves. Having laid down some songs in their Manhattan loft, they decided to post them anonymously to the web. Why keep their name off the tunes? Because they didn’t have any real ambitions as musicians. Initially they were happy to put the music out there and carry on with their lives.

“We were working in media and film. I was an intern at Vice Magazine. They had a film department, where I was on work experience. Brian was interning with producer Scott Rudin, who helped make No Country For Old Men,” Follin says. “We wrote these tunes but we didn’t plan on showing them to anyone. We did it for ourselves and then thought, okay, let’s share them. Why not? But it was just a part-time thing, so we didn’t put our names up. We wanted to do something other than write papers and work these horrible internships. So we did it for fun at weekends.”

Then the emails started to arrive. Who was this band? Did they have any more material? Were they signed to a label? Within a week a trickle of inquiries had become a deluge. For the first time Follin and Oblivion sensed their project might have legs. “We had this naive idea that it should be all about the music. You know, ‘If these songs appeal to you — do you care who is making it’. But that wasn’t how everyone else saw it.”

Around then they received a call from Lily Allen, who was about to set up her own boutique imprint. She loved Cults’ hazy, colour-saturated pop — could they do business? “She is a very supportive person,” says Follin. “I wouldn’t say we are necessarily talking to her all the time. That isn’t how it works. The thing is, she has been treated badly at the hands of the music industry so she knows what it is like. And she understands that what an artist needs is the space and time to develop at their own pace. That is what we were given. And it has been hugely important.”

Follin and Oblivion met at a rock concert in San Diego. Follin was under 21 so Oblivion had to help sneak her into the venue. To their surprise, they discovered they shared a hometown and were both attending New York University. Romance blossomed. Soon they were sharing an apartment.

Cults began as a way of killing time at the weekend. Oblivion would hum a tune, Follin would sing snippets back to him. Without intending to, they quickly committed the bones of an album onto their laptop.

As a teenager, Follin was convinced she would have a career in cinema. Whenever she said this, her mother would laugh knowingly. Rock’n’roll is a disease, her mom would say. Sooner or later you are going to get bitten. Her daughter threw her eyes to heaven. “I thought, ‘Naw, that’s never going to happen to me’,” she laughs. “And here we are.”

It seems fair to ask if success, and its attendant stresses, have put pressure on their personal lives. The couple will admit they’ve had arguments on the road. That said, they like to think of themselves as chilled-out people. After a row they try to make peace before things fester. So far it’s working. They report that things have never been better between them.

Follin and Oblivion called themselves Cults because something about the sound of the word appealed to them. It was snappy, looked good written down and — useful in view of their determination to be as anonymous as possible — and it was difficult to google.

However, Follin will also admit to a discreet fascination with religious cultdom. Their album contains a sample from a sermon by Jim Jones, the notorious charismatic behind the 1978 Jonestown massacre of 918 people. And Follin gigglingly informs that Oblivion spent time in a cult-like meditation group who wanted him to come live on a collective farm with them. He declined. Furthermore, the northern San Diego area where he grew up was near the scene of the 1997 mass suicide by 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult. It was part of the background noise of his childhood.

“There’s also the sense that we feel like our own little club,” says Follin. “We like to say this band is a cult. It’s just a bunch of us, the same six or seven people travelling the world in a van. You have your own humour, your own way of looking at things. You think that it’s you against the world.”

Cults play Grand Social Dublin, November 20. The album Cults is out now

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