Cults were deep into the process of recording their fourth full-length LP when singer/multi-instrumentalist Madeline Follin let a secret slip. At the time, it seemed inconsequential, just a passing comment amongst friends, but in the end, it would prove to be a monumental revelation, one that would change the acclaimed New York duo forever.
“In the past, I’d never brought my own music to the table because I was just too shy,” says Follin, “but at some point during the sessions, I mentioned that I’d been writing some songs on the side, and our producer, Shane Stoneback, asked me to share them.”
“When Shane and I heard what Madeline had written, we couldn’t believe it,” says multi-instrumentalist Brian Oblivion. “The music just floored us.”
What followed was a radical reimagining, both of the band’s sound and its dynamic, and the result is Cults’ utterly mesmerizing new album, Host. Written more collaboratively than ever before and recorded primarily with live instruments for the first time, the collection marks the start of a bold new chapter for the band, one fueled by an ever-deepening trust and a boundless appetite for growth and experimentation. The songs here are deceptively charming, with lush, airy arrangements that belie their dark, weighty lyrics, and the production is rich and multifaceted to match, blending retro and futuristic palettes into a spellbinding swirl of high-def indie rock and lo-fi bedroom pop. As its title suggests, Host is an exploration of the sinister dynamics at play in a parasitic relationship, but rather than dwell in the discomfort, the record charts a cathartic journey towards freedom and self-reliance, reveling in the power that comes from standing your ground and declaring independence in the face of exploitation and manipulation.
“Writing these songs helped me learn to be okay with putting myself out there, with having the confidence to express what I want and what I won’t accept when it comes to personal relationships,” says Follin. “In a funny sort of way, the music helped me find my voice in the band, too.”
Formed while Follin and Oblivion were still just students in college, Cults first emerged in 2010 with their breakout single, “Go Outside,” which the New York Times hailed as “one of the indie rock highlights” of the year. Both a commercial and critical smash, the track would go on to rack up more than 40 million streams on Spotify, land in soundtracks everywhere from Broad City to Gossip Girl, and help the band score a major label deal for their self-titled debut, released the following year on Columbia Records. Pitchfork called the album “catchy and sweet,” cutting “1960s girl-pop…with synths, guitars, and softly integrated samples,” while the New Yorker lauded the band’s “agonizingly catchy vintage-pop,” and TIME praised their music as “effortlessly breezy.” The duo followed it up with the similarly celebrated Static in 2013, and they returned in peak form four years later with Offering, building up a devoted audience along the way through relentless headline touring and festival appearances at Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, Coachella, Austin City Limits, and more.
It was, in fact, after a festival appearance at SXSW that the band decided to head to Arizona to record, trading in the hustle and distraction of New York for a more secluded working environment. Working once again with Stoneback, who’d produced each of the group’s first three records, Oblivion and Follin set about recording in much the same way they always had, batting instrumental ideas back and forth and layering tracks up with synthesizers, loops, and samples. While the formula had proven immensely successful in the past, it seemed to be falling flat this time, and it was clear to all involved that something needed to change.
“We just couldn’t seem to find a sound that we all agreed on,” says Follin. “Somebody suggested we start bringing in real string players and horn players and take advantage of all the amazingly talented musician friends we’d made over the years, and that’s when things really started coming together.”
“People don’t believe us when we say it, but there’s not a single ‘real’ instrument on ‘Go Outside,’” adds Oblivion. “The whole song—the drums, the synths, the guitar, the bass—it was all done with a $100 midi keyboard on my college computer. We loved that sound, but I think this time around, we realized we needed to challenge ourselves in the other direction and try to make something fresh and new with a live band.”
That revelation, combined with the addition of Follin’s newly revealed trove of songs, proved to be a game changer. Working in technically fresh ways encouraged the pair to work in stylistically fresh ways, too, and soon the duo was crafting a raw, spontaneous album that tapped into whole new areas of their creative psyches. French new wave met post-industrial rock; sampled puppet sounds met recorder flute solos; Beatles-esque string arrangements met iPhone voice memos. Nothing was off the table.
“The first few records were really structured,” says Oblivion. “Before we recorded a note, we knew exactly how they’d sound. With this album, though, we tossed all our preconceptions out the window. We were trying so many new things that we weren’t afraid to just dive into influences and perspectives that we hadn’t explored before. It was totally liberating.”
That sense of liberation courses through music on Host, which opens with the intoxicating “Trials.” One of the first songs Follin shared with Oblivion and Stoneback, the tune is as addictive as it is haunting, and it sets the stage perfectly for a record all about fear, anger, acceptance, and renewal. The hypnotic “Purgatory” searches desperately for escape from a suffocating situation, while the cinematic “A Low” finds relief in finally hitting rock bottom, and the pulsating “Spit You Out” pries itself free from the clutches of a toxic relationship, with Follin singing, “Break the bond / I’m so glad / So glad you’re gone.”
Scathing as the record’s first half may be, Cults aren’t so naïve as to believe that life is better spent alone. There’s a slow and steady evolution, both in the music and the lyrics, and by album’s end, there’s a clear revelation that letting the right people into your heart is just as important as cutting the wrong ones out. The vulnerable “Honest Love,” for instance, lowers its guard and lays its cards on the table, while the slow-building “Shoulders To My Feet” learns to get out of its own way, and larger-than-life album closer “Monolothic” surrenders to the overwhelming power of a true and lasting connection.
“Each song on this album feels like it represents a different step in the process of breaking free from whatever’s draining you,” says Follin. “Only once you’ve done that are you really in a position to accept something new and healthy into your life.”
With Host, Cults have found not only a new appreciation for independence, but for partnership, as well. Four albums in and the duo is still discovering fresh layers and possibility within their creative relationship, a bond which grows richer and more rewarding by the day.