Cults emerged, seemingly out of nowhere, when guitarist Brian Oblivion (aka Ryan Mattos) and singer Madeline Follin moved into an apartment together in New York City and began writing songs — snatches of verses, rhymes and chords that turned into something greater, like the single, "Go Outside," released in April 2010 — that they'd upload to a Bandcamp page. One thing led to another (as the saying goes), and the duo, a couple of San Diego college kids in the Big City, found themselves recording for a Columbia Records imprint.
Listen back to that self-titled album, and you'll hear songs written mostly on an acoustic guitar, transformed through studio wizardry and patience into something more expansive. Cults' latest record, "Static," twists that workflow slightly to one side; Oblivion and Follin, working separately and together, started with grooves and worked their way toward lyrics, melodies and textures. "The main thing we wanted to get across was rhythm, Oblivion, who was traveling from Chicago, where the group was filming a television spot, to a gig in Kansas City, Mo., said by phone. "Most of the songs started with a drum beat, either something we made on an mp3 or an old drum break sample, then we built them up with bass lines and strings. The guitars were kind of an afterthought."
You don't have to wander too far into "Static," which has been described as a breakup album (Oblivion and Follin are reportedly no longer together as a couple), to hear what Oblivion means: blistering grooves, like the foot-stomping "I Can Hardly Make You Mine," the backbeat slap of "High Road" or the upbeat Motown bounce of "We've Got It," weaving bass lines, swooshes and washes drifting in and out of focus, Follin's voice mixed just above submersion level, but few guitars. Cults stretched certain sounds across multiple tracks, "a Theremin sound or a Farfisa organ," Oblivion said. "We always tried to picture a real band playing each of the songs." For the most part, textures vary from one song to the next, a natural consequence of a lengthy recording process. "We work individually and over a long period of time, and so naturally there's variation," Oblivion said.
To perform them live, the duo split the difference between reproducing "Static" tracks faithfully and handing the music over to talented players (Oblivion and Follin have a six-piece touring band) to see what would happen. "It's funny," Oblivion said. "We've been doing these in-store shows, playing a few songs in cool local shops, and afterward they always put on ["Static"] and we'll listen to it — it's the only time I listen to it, actually. [The album] almost sounds unbearable to me, because we almost always play those songs live, and when we do we change it up a lot and everyone brings their own expertise." Although they'll trigger samples and try to emulate certain effects, Cults wants to be as live as possible. "We never wanted to be a band that got on stage and just pressed 'play.'"
Where they are in their evolution, with venue sizes ranging from local record shops to midsize theaters (when they opened shows for the Pixies recently), requires that Cults adjusts their forces to the size of the room. "We have three setups, down to just me and Madeline," Oblivion said. "We'll definitely have a different sound, a different setlist, even a different attitude." The best way to handle smaller shows, Oblivion said, is "to be really open, to acknowledge that everyone is in the room with you." Playing larger shows means stepping back from the audience. "When you're doing a big show, there's something very attractive about the anonymity of the whole thing. You want to feel that in some way."
Cults plays a show at the Space in Hamden on Wednesday, Feb. 19, at 8:30 p.m., with Atlanta quintet Mood Rings opening, before ending their current tour in Fairbanks, Alaska.
"The last I checked the weather it was negative 20 degrees up there," Oblivion said. "We're kind of freaking out about it. We grew up in a really warm place."
CULTS appears Wednesday, Feb. 19, at 8:30 p.m. The Space, 295 Treadwell St., Hamden. Tickets are $18. Information: manicproductions.org