Cults 2013

Yesterday, Grantland published a feature titled “Sleigh Bells And Cults: The Indie Pop Left-Behinds,” in which Ian Cohen hypothesized, “The previous month showed us what [indie pop] is in 2013, and in the past two weeks, the latest albums from Sleigh Bells and Cults show us what it was and what it’s not anymore.” Writes Cohen:

[New albums from Sleigh Bells and Cults] have dropped and I can’t remember the titles of the singles let alone the singles themselves. But the problem isn’t so much that they’re disappointing or that they evidence seriously diminishing returns in a very short amount of time — they do. The more curious thing is that in the span of two years, one of indie pop’s bedrock principles appears to be irreversibly outmoded — that there was nothing wrong with melody as long as it was sonically warped to the point that it was clearly something else.

Agree or disagree, Cohen raises some interesting questions, made more so by the fact that one of those indie pop bands, Cults, are on the old-school major Columbia.

In an interview published today at Spin, Cults members Madeline Follin and Brian Oblivion discuss their relationship to Columbia, and in the process, come out in favor of the illegal pay-for-spins-on-radio practice known as payola. (Oblivion: “The radio was way better when people were paying to get stuff on there.”) They also decried the limitations and practices of indie labels. (Oblivion: “I feel like a lot of smaller indie labels are giving bands really bad deals and robbing them.”)

Of course both points are hard to debate without a great deal more context. The demise of payola, for instance, occurred more or less in tandem with the rise of the internet, a time during which radio’s impact was going to decrease irrespective of its practices. And “a lot of smaller indie labels” is kinda vague, although I can’t imagine any smaller indie labels are super happy being namelessly lumped into the group to which Oblivion is referring. Anyway, check those questions/answers in full below, make of ’em what you will.

You’re on Columbia, but make music that clearly isn’t designed for the kind of mass success that other artists on the roster are trying to achieve. For bands that are aiming at that high level, how do you think they plan to get from the ground level to the top? It seems like there’s nowhere in between.

Oblivion: I’ve had that conversation with a lot of musicians — even with Michael [Angelakos] of Passion Pit, who’s arguably almost there. We were saying that radio is this crazy pipe dream. You can do so much to try to get on the radio. We really don’t do very much, but I know people who fly all the way out to L.A., play a free show, fly to Seattle, play a free show, pay their own money to do that, and the label pays them to go to conferences, shake hands — it’s still this seedy business. I remember he said something like, “You know, back in the day, it used to just be payola. I wish it was still that way,” and I was like “I do too! Holy shit, if we could just pay, and get stuff on the radio.” The radio was way better when people were paying to get stuff on there. Now, these Clear Channel assholes decide what’s going to push advertisements and move hot song blocks. It’s just really frustrating. But without that, you can’t really become a super successful artist.

You’ve been in that weird space of being a major-label act at the same time as having more underground Internet hype. That’s not the most usual scenario in the music world.

Oblivion: I like to think that what we get from being on a record label is, number one, smart people. Everyone who works there is really cool and professional, and not druggy party people like so many people in the industry. And we get more money up front, so we get to go into nice studios and futz around for months at a time. I know indie bands that are really successful who can barely afford more than three weeks in a studio. They can’t make music videos, which is a huge thing our label helps us out with. I have a chip on my shoulder. I feel like a lot of smaller indie labels are giving bands really bad deals and robbing them. You see a lot of labels still give a band a $40,000 advance, which seems like a lot of money, but these days, you split all your money with the label. An indie band ends up in a Hyundai commercial and makes 100 grand, and the label is like “Welp, fuck you.” All these bands are trading their cool points for cash, and [the labels are] making out like bandits.

You can read the whole Q&A at Spin.

Comments (27)
  1. Of course Cults yearns for the days of pay-for-plays. They’ve no on-stage personality, little chemistry with each other as performers and write songs with the emotional resonance of a bad Judd Apatow movie. They’re exactly the kind of artists who need to be on a major label. Without the business savvy or engaging body of work to be culturally relevant, they depend on “smart people” to make them so.

  2. wow these guys seem like total munches

  3. Cult’s Static may aim to please but so far that idea has worked for me. It’s catchy as hell and even though it’s not a huge leap forward from their debut it’s not similar enough to be reductive. The Is This It/Room On Fire comparison is apt but I don’t know how that’s a bad thing, I love Room On Fire, even moreso than Is This It.

    Also I don’t take much stock in what Brian Oblivion says bc a) his last name is Oblivion and b) dude was on bath salts.

  4. So they’re either naive, ignorant, brainwashed by Sony or all three. Never has the name Cults seemed so appropriate.

    (I should add that as it happens I’ve been quite enjoying their new album)

  5. ”That there was nothing wrong with melody as long as it was sonically warped to the point that it was clearly something else.”-Ian Cohen is correct.

  6. Hey guys, remember The Ting Tings?

    The shelf life of your average “indie” band is a year and a half max. Ironically, indie bands will always be outlived by the press machines that use them for hits and then spit them out- stereopitchforkfadergum

    • Stereogum and Pitchfork and Fader and Spin also have given us some great bands and given great bands international exposure. I wouldn’t knock them. And we all know the Ting Tings came and conquered the dance floor for a year…and it was lovely.

      • If you hate The Ting Tings for revolutionizing the world of pop-rock then there’s not much I can do for you. Kidding of course. But I find it interesting that people would suggest that Pitchfork Steregum, Fader and Spin are prostituting mediocre bands. Said magazines are not as incompetent as you lead yourself to believe. While Pitchfork is a high-browish more selective type of taste, you don’t have to agree with every choice or review. We’re not sheep. But you’re not going to integrity in the pages of a magazine that has, say Miley Cyrus in full disgusting glory on the cover. And I love the ‘gum. I found out about this site a year or two ago and am hooked because its one of the few vibrantly fresh blogs that actually incorporate the theme of active community into their site. By the way, press machines/hype machines DO exist of course-it’s their job. It’s not the fault of the band or their management or the magazine/blog. It is the responsibility of the artist to write timeless music that stands beyond their 15 minutes. If a band grows stale with their second album, sometimes its just a case that the public has moved on, or that said album offered nothing new…which is WHY the listening public has moved on. That’s why Radiohead has remained so fresh, always reinventing the wheel with each record, always a surprise step ahead. Ditto for Arcade Fire, TV on the Radio.

  7. There’s a deeper wealth of false indie acts on major labels right now (Sleigh Bells, Cults, Passion Pit, Charli XCX, Sky Ferreira, Solange, HAIM, CHVRCHES, Icona Pop right off the top of my head) and it makes me wonder if that’s a sign of a shifting indie paradigm similar to the mid-’90s era after the alternative scene began to deflate into poppier substances of the likes of Spin Doctors and Third Eye Blind. I believe everything in music is relatively cyclical (emo “revival”) rather than permanent (“monogenre”), so as far as I’m concerned, Cults and their payola pinings is seething envy for their missed chance at having their equivalent of a “Seether.” that would have written them into music history for the long term because of money.

    • Well said. Agreed.

    • What’s your definition of false indie?

      • It used to be that the major labels interpreted this as the Foster the Peoples, Shiny Toy Guns and Neon Trees of the world (which are all very, very dumbed down versions of indie pop who wore the clothes, fronted the image but lacked the artistic credibility) but lately, their interest has taken a turn for more sophisticated artists that have the ability to be both Pitchfork fodder and stand a chance at potentially achieving a crossover commercial hit.

        • Michael_, I emphasize that you are a very shrewd observer and eloquent writer about music. I don’t always agree with everything you write about, but you say it better then most.

    • I think this is spot on, and is similar to the argument of last month’s Grantland piece about Haim and CHVRCHES, et cetera.

      As any sound or movement becomes a trend, the repetition becomes numbing, and form is increasingly substituted for content until all the rough edges have been ground away. With alternative rock, any sense of actual catharsis was gradually replaced with overblown, implausible theatrical angst. With indie it’s been the opposite direction: guarded emotion (supposed to be a sign of maturity and nuance in the age of Nickelback) has ground away to none at all.

    • Last time I checked Chvrches was not on a major. If you’re going to accuse someone of something then at least be factual about it.

  8. It’d be nice to get a band that delivers both a real emotional punch AND some funky energy, but since The Dismemberment Plan don’t want to make another Emergency & I and no one else is stepping up to fill that gap, I’ll take The National and The Antlers over Icona Pop and Charli XCX for the time being, thanks.

    • Except the current musical climate is not kind to emotionally resonant music. Cults might be a little off with their statements but Pitchfork is not blameless. Have you heard the stuff they’ve been posting all year? It’s all the same smooth-electro junk that sounds like stock music for “Night Club Scene in Movie”. Canned beats, cheesy keyboard, vocal samples tossed in haphazardly- nothing worth listening to.

      In the span of two weeks this summer, they posted tracks by these artists: Daniel Avery, House of Black Lanterns, Lil Silva, Javeon McCarthy, Tirzah, Ryan Hemsworth, Color War, Addison Groove/Sam Binga, George FitzGerald, James Holden, Unknown, Arnold, The Cyclist, Torn Hawk, Real Connoisseur, Jack Dixon, Ikonika, Sophie, Redinho, AlunaGeorge Fort Romeau, Ossie, Black Orange Juice, and Visionist.

      Not a single one of these is memorable in any way, and there came a point where I’d laugh because every write-up to one of these tracks started with the words “UK producer…” OR, *gasp* “UK producer DUO”.

      For some reason though, hipsters have aligned themselves with the mainstream crowd on this issue. “Life is like, totally about getting wasted and dancing and clubs! YOLO! Nobody listens to sad rock anymore!”

      And so that’s why we need to savor albums by the National, the Antlers, and Bon Iver. They are the rarest of gems in this coal mine of a musical landscape.

      • I love The National. I’m also in the UK. I think there’s a musical transfusion cross continentally happening, possibly on the heels of Disclosure and other ‘hot’ acts in that genre.

      • wow id like to disagree with you. addison groove, james holden, sophie, and ikonika are all great artists that are really pushing sonic boundaries. just because it’s not emotional rock junk or whatever doesn’t mean it’s not memorable to people who actually like that kind of stuff. (cool generic “meaningful” indie thing u got goin on or whatever tho)

  9. Here is my take, for what its worth. Formula sells and that is the bottom line. Some formula touches on glory ( think of The Killer’s first early brilliant singles, or The Strokes revisionist version of bands like Television) but as in the case of many bands that I shall not call out, it’s pimping out a trend or an aesthetic purely to coast on the fumes of that trending asethtic. Bands can borrow from influences or trending genres without actually having their identity overtaken by them. But many of today’s indie bands are merely opportunistic. Too many bands will move to Williamsburg to pimp out the hip factor. Others willfully rape the influences and sounds of far better bands for a free ride into the gravy train of the indie scene. Some bands manage to ‘borrow’ the greats of the past while still retaining artistic and personal integrity. The National is a band that reminds me in some shades of Joy Division and R.E.M. (my opinion) but have consistently proven that they are The National at their core, and have developed into their own thing. I personally think it would be nice to let image and hipster posturing take a backseat and let the music drive a new indie band’s agenda. Nothing wrong with writing a catchy single. But when its down to mere formula-and no heart- you get plenty of mediocre bands that bake in their 15 minute spotlight in the sun and are quickly disposed of. So, that’s my rant and rave. I don’t even know how much sense it makes or if its on point to this Cults thread, but you know. For what its worth. For the record, I’ve only heard 1 Cults song and wasn’t a big fan. Not trashing Cults.

  10. Pitchfork Givith Life, Pitchfork Taketh Life.

  11. I love Cults. They’re an interesting group, but I love their album. I saw them live a few weeks ago and they are damn good. Check out this video of them doing a session:

  12. Thanks Jenn!
    I was so excited to get Static once it dropped. Overall it’s a solid album. You should check it out! ;]

  13. Interesting to see some of the comments they make. I read an interview on Nylon as well, which had some great insight.

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