Update, 12/14: Due to demand, The Chapel has added a second Cults show, on Thursday, Dec. 20.
The relationship between making great music and working in a way that feels optimal may not be one-to-one. For Madeline Follin and Brian Oblivion of the New York synthpop duo Cults, it might even be inversely proportional.
“We always say, ‘We’re not going to do that!’ but we always do this backwards way of writing songs where we just work for months and months and months on the music and then do all the vocals later,” Oblivion says. “We keep trying to break that habit. We’re going to write it all in a room on acoustic guitar, like Neil Young, rather than layering keyboards over guitars.”
Cults broke through in 2010 with “Go Outside,” a beautiful song with a theme of liberation that just so happens to have a video consisting of footage from Jim Jones’ People’s Temple in Guyana. It’s still jarring in light of the 40th anniversary of that mass murder-suicide late last month, and Oblivion says the Jonestown Institute was very supportive. (That organization’s mission is to preserve the history so that a similar tragedy never happens, not to rehabilitate Jones’ image.) Watching the video, you see images a racially integrated group of people working and praying together, and it’s hard not to suspend your disbelief and wish them well — at first. It gets morbid after the three-minute mark.
“We didn’t really know anything about sampling or legal rights,” Oblivion says, adding that the Jonestown Institute “let us use all the footage for free. It was a crazy idea our art director came up with, looking through all these ideas we were sent for music videos. This guy we were working with was like, ‘I have this one, it’s really nuts — and I have to tell you because I think it’s really cool!’ ”
Cults has won wide acclaim for Follin’s vocals and the way they operate as a fulcrum between darkness and light. On 2017’s Offering, though, much of the shadows retreated into a daytime haze — particularly on the standout track, “I Took Your Picture with My Eyes Closed.” Film school dropouts, they’ve contributed to cinematic endeavors such as scoring a Canadian horror film for which they produced 48 minutes of music in four or five takes. And they still love a good Biblical reference.
Follin and Oblivion can decry their working habits all the want, but eventually you reach a certain point in the artistic process where changing things up presents its own risks — namely, would it still be the same band? Oblivion recently read a biography of The Cure and was fairly stunned to learn that that band would initially lay down the instrumental tracks and Robert Smith would disappear for a month before resurfacing to do the vocals.
“We’ve always worked with the same engineer and been really insular,” Oblivion says. “We don’t play our music even for our manager or anyone in our [live] band until it’s done — and it’s ludicrous. We should be more open and it should be this fun thing where we involve other people but we don’t really know how to do that.”
Oblivion — who considers himself a “respectful atheist” — and Follin, who’s “still figuring it out” grew up partly in and around the Bay Area before they lived in San Diego. Their mutual fascination with alternative forms of spirituality deepened in Southern California, and Oblivion lived very near the house where 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult took their own lives in 1997. It may surprise exactly no one to learn that Cults likes to perform in churches, and they play The Chapel on Wednesday, Dec. 19, in a sold-out show (and again the following night). It’s their only stop in S.F., an anomaly on this go-round.
“Most of this tour is two shows in one city, because we’ve never had the chance to explore the cities that we go to,” Follin says, echoing the itinerant rock star’s lament. “Our drummer owns a venue in San Diego and suggested that we play two shows in one night at a smaller venue — and it was so so much more fun to have a more intimate show. The vibe was so different.”
However, Cults also played a show at the decidedly secular Sierra Nevada Brewery earlier this summer, the first in a series that had previously been “country stuff,” as Follin puts it.
“It’s my favorite beer in the world,” Oblivion says. “I think I just bought so much, that I got on some kind of list.”
Cults, Wednesday and Thursday, Dec. 19-20, 8 p.m., at the Chapel, 777 Valencia St. $20; thechapelsf.com