Something Worth Believing In

12 February 2014 | 12:56 pm | Benny Doyle

"The first record was made almost entirely on a laptop in my apartment; the drums are fake, the bass is fake and all the strings are fake."

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They say that you should never meet your heroes; it's a recipe for disappointment. But really, how can you resist – there is, after all, always the potential for it to be magical.

Brian Oblivion – Ryan Mattos if you want a name that's far less fun to say – found that out in a literal sense just recently. The multi-instrumentalist phones The Music from Atlanta, Georgia, where his band, Cults, are on the road, acting as a nine-stop support for alt-rock pioneers Pixies during their current North American tour. And according to the 24-year-old, the old dogs do have some impressive tricks, living up to preconceptions held by the young bloods.

“The things we were kind of aware of [about the Pixies] have ended up being totally true,” Oblivion recalls in his relaxed So-Cal tone. “We watched a documentary on the band, and we were really excited when we saw the drummer [Dave Lovering] was really into magic because so is our [touring] keyboard player, so the first night that we were playing Dave walked into our dressing room and introduced himself and goes, 'Well, it's going to be a great tour, I just wanted to meet you all... and I want to show you something', and he pulls out these cards and these rubber bands and starts doing some magic for us – it was pretty on the money.

“It's been incredible though,” he beams enthusiastically. “We've never toured with a band that we love and respect as much as the Pixies, and they've been so helpful with everything about the show. Sometimes the bands you open for can treat you as kind of a second-class citizen, but that hasn't been happening at all, it's felt like a really awesome collaboration.”

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These are lessons you can imagine Cults taking on board and using to their advantage in the near future; the duo seem destined to do this rock'n'roll thing in the nicest possible manner. Based around the core pairing of San Diego kids Oblivion and vocalist Madeline Follin, the dreamy Manhattan-based indie-pop outfit have made a lot of positive noise in the four years since forming, and are set to return to Australia later this year as one of the international headliners at Groovin The Moo. Having already experienced a national festival run around our big island via Laneway in 2012, Oblivion can't hide his eagerness to be part of a musical circus once more.

“The idea of a travelling festival feels so antiquated in a way, but it's such a beautiful thing, like you think about the '70s, a bunch of bands jumping in a big city bus and cruising around,” he gushes. “It's rock'n'roll summer camp y'know, you have little cliques, you make friends and it's really nice. And [Groovin The Moo] is so exciting because we get to see all the places we didn't get to see last time, like north Queensland, I don't even have a mental map of what it could possibly be like.”

Cults made plenty of lasting impressions during their previous run Down Under, but this time Oblivion admits they've got so much more to offer fans. The band put out their second record Static late last year and are currently relishing the opportunity to be able to fill out and have variety during full sets, rather than “literally play every song [we've] ever written, and two covers” just to make it through an hour-long show. “Now we're better musicians and we have freedom to improvise more,” he adds, “and these songs lend themselves to that. We can mix up the set a little bit every night depending on how we feel, which is an amazing luxury to have.”

Static is a record that quite directly documents the ending of Oblivion and Follin's romantic relationship – a quick read of the lyric sheet is all the evidence you need. After all, the idea of breaking free is right there in the title – when things are Static, there's no progression, in life and creativity. This album is a response to such a problem.

But although the Cults pair weren't going to carry on in love, they were always going to continue with the band; they just had to discover a way to reconstruct the make of their music without alienating the substantial fanbase they gathered via their eponymous 2011 debut. The point of difference proved to be something real.

“Making this record, from the very beginning we wanted to write songs that we knew we'd enjoy performing, but also we wanted the feeling of the record to be really live,” explains Oblivion. “The first record was made almost entirely on a laptop in my apartment; the drums are fake, the bass is fake and all the strings are fake – I pretty much composed the whole thing on a keyboard. This time around, as a challenge to ourselves and just to have a fun new direction, we tried to keep everything live as much as possible.

“And that was a crazy adventure to learn how to record that stuff and how to create a feeling of looseness and improvisation while actually not having all the players in the same room at once and not actually recording live,” he adds. “We'd try to invent imaginary personalities for different instruments, like the bass player is some 60-year-old fat guy who'd come in and nail it all in one take, and it was really fun to go through and try to artificially make a live record without live musicians.”

Cults co-produced Static, as they did their debut record, and tinkered with the sounds to bring together their own playing and that done by the additional players that were called in to flesh out their vision. Listening to the album, it sounds like a band – a full band. It doesn't sound like a multi-instrumentalist, a vocalist, a handful of friends moonlighting as drummers and a couple of string players plucked out of NYC performance arts conservatory The Juilliard School. It's a credit to Oblivion and Follin's own ears that they've meticulously crafted a record so cohesive and whole. “It was kind of a revolving door but we can get cagey if anybody tries to mess with our little world too much,” he says.

“It was an insane learning process, the five or six months that we spent working on this record was equivalent to a four-year education in songwriting and recording because we did it every single day for around 11 to 15 hours and just really lived it and tried to be aware of every decision and be conscious of it and try every option,” Oblivion expands. “But in the end I now feel like we know how to make records the two different ways that you can make them – on a laptop and live – and we're very excited about converging those two different things for the next one.”

The fact that Oblivion is already talking about a third Cults record is more than positive; it shows that him and Follin made the right choice in ending their relationship – it's helped strengthen their creative bond for the greater good of the band. Not that Static was all peachy fucking creamy in the record's infancy, but after giving each other some breathing space the duo were able to make music with an ease undiscovered before, an intangible that down the line could prove far more important than mere romance.

“It was a definite speed bump around the beginning of the working process where we were not super jazzed about meeting up and working on the songs,” Oblivion admits. “We had to take a month or two off and both travelled and did our own thing and kinda let the dust settle. But in the future I think it's more productive in a way because we're now able to work separately more on our respective sides on things, where before we'd spend every single moment of every single day together.

“Normally, that meant that if I was in the studio recording keyboards Madeline was just sitting in the back playing an iPhone game or reading a book. Now, she's at home working on her side and I can be in the studio working on my side; we're on a different schedule for productivity which I think [lets] things get done faster and more efficiently than they ever have been before. She's like my best friend in the world and one of the only people that I ever want to work with musically,” Oblivion finishes, “so I don't think anything is going to get in our way.”