Brian Oblivion and Madeline Follin had few musical touchstones when they began dating as New York University students. He liked angular electronica. She loved folkie Americana.
“I played her a Boards of Canada record,” Oblivion says, referring to the trippy electronic act. “She said it sounded like spa music, and it made me really angry.”
The two found common ground in a love for late ‘50s and early ‘60s pop and rock. Their collaboration as Cults resulted in a 2011 eponymous debut album that employed a winning formula meshing modern rock and girl-group sounds of a half-century ago.
That album’s trio of singles spanned many tones, from anthemic (“Go Outside”) to creepy (“Abducted”) to truly heartrending (“You Know What I Mean.”)
Oblivion and Follin spent five months crafting a follow-up. The result, this month’s Static, doesn’t progress the band’s sound significantly. Its 11 tracks are drenched in delay, echo, reverb and other production flourishes conjuring Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound masterworks.
Preparing for the album’s launch frenzy, including an appearance at this weekend’s Life Is Beautiful festival, Oblivion has been on a shopping spree replacing musical equipment. Hurricane Sandy flooded their rehearsal space last year, and the band lost thousands of dollars of gear they relied on during more than two years on the road.
They didn’t have insurance, but were bailed out by what Oblivian found to be an unlikely benefactor.
“The Grammy Foundation gave us some money,” he says, from his apartment in Chinatown. “I thought that was hilarious because we’ll never win a Grammy.”
After four years as a couple, Oblivion and Follin ended their romantic relationship last year but decided to continue their musical partnership as Cults. The deterioration of their romance casts a dark, lyrical shadow over their sophomore effort, mostly in its motifs of loneliness and estrangement.
So is this a breakup album?
Oblivion acknowledges that their split is part of the psychology of the recording. But he sees Static as more of a response to their debut.
“The first record is about pushing away all the things in life that you feel are holding you back, or are bad for you or expectations you don’t want to live up to,” he says. “This record is about keeping the good things in your life around, being a little more realistic and running your life in a positive way.”
It’s hard to find the positive in lyrics that have taken a decidedly melancholic turn.
“Want to feel you close/You kept your distance when I needed you most,” Follin sings on “No Hope,” a fitting title to close an album of pervasive gloom.
With nine tours over more than two years in support of their first album, strained relationships spread eventually to the family of friends making up their touring band.
”After the shows, it got to the point where everyone was curling off in their own little bunks and not speaking to each other,” he says.
Still, Oblivion sounds anything but embittered by the experience. He never imagined the project he and Follin launched by posting three songs on Bandcamp would lead to a major-label record deal and performances across the globe.
“We had rose-colored glasses on the whole time,” he says. “It was something that we’d never anticipated that we’d be able to do. The tours kept getting bigger and better… so it was hard to feel negative about it.”
When the seemingly never-ending tours finally wrapped, Follin decamped to Europe. The newly single Oblivion found himself restless back home without the nonstop perform/travel/sleep/promote routine of the road.
“You don’t know what to do day-in and day out,” he says. “I feel really uncomfortable when there’s nothing required of me.”
So he took off for Japan. While there was only a two-month hiatus before the band went to work on Static, the vacation couldn’t be over quickly enough for the workaholic Oblivion.
“If I had two more months, I would lose my mind.”
Cults will start their 45-minute set at 7:45 p.m. Saturday on the Huntridge Stage. CL