For some music fans, a band intentionally shooting for catchiness is, on principle, a cheap move. But another school of thought holds that producing a truly original, memorable melody can be just as challenging—and worthwhile—as composing some crazy prog-rock symphony.
Brian Oblivion subscribes to the latter philosophy. He plays guitar in the indie-pop duo Cults, which, with the release of its new record, Offering, has produced three albums of sweet but insidious melodies, the sort of hooks that bury themselves in your mind and stay there for weeks. He says the trick to writing good pop is being unafraid of how people will react when you go out and play it. For instance, he recalls playing an early version of the duo's 2011 breakout hit, "Go Outside," for singer Madeline Follin's brother, who is also a musician.
"He laughed and said it was, like, comically sing-songy, and he actually recommended changing a couple of notes," he says. "We just said, 'No, we like it this way,'" he says. "We don't have any sort of adversarial relationship with writing catchy tunes. A lot of people make things too complicated. I'm working on being catchy while doing less."
Follin is the main driver behind Cults' brand of bubblegum, Oblivion says: "When I come up with a little chord progression and ask her whether it's too cheesy, her instincts are always, No, it's great; it's awesome. That pushes me into places I wouldn't go by myself."
Oblivion says that he and Follin both have shortcomings as musicians, but they play up each other's strengths. He's always aiming to provide a fitting musical backdrop for her high, taut singing voice.
"I'm not the most talented musician, and she's not the most classically trained singer, but Madeline can do something with her voice that sounds really pure and innocent and true," Oblivion says. "I'm always kind of blown away by it, and those are my favorite kinds of singers—people who just sound like themselves and accept their flaws. That's part of the character that makes something unique to me."
Leading up to the release of the group's eponymous debut record in 2011, the duo (formerly a couple, but now just friends) approached its music as an art project that combined modern electronic elements with the pop of The Shangri-Las and other midcentury girl groups (complete with glockenspiel). The follow-up, 2013's Static, took that formula and flipped it, adding darkness, tension, and some standouts like the aggravatingly catchy "Always Forever."
Despite never being released as a single, that song has steadily gained popularity and now gets some of the biggest crowd reactions in the set list, Oblivion says.
While recording Offering, Follin and Oblivion didn't try to harken back to oldies or think of the music in conceptual terms; they just wrote songs. Of course, they had the luxury of recording with top-end gear and the time and freedom to follow wherever their muses led. The result is a plush mix of warm sounds rendered in high definition, with no trace of the lo-fi haze that marked Cults' earlier work. It's the sort of record you can crank over big speakers without it becoming too harsh, which was by design, Oblivion says.
"I feel like a lot of music sounds great coming through an iPhone speaker, but when you put it on headphones you can't turn it up more than halfway without burning your ears," he says. "All of my favorite records from the seventies sound so clean and open when they're loud, and somehow everybody, like, forgot how to do that. So, we kind of broke out some old tricks."
Despite the retro sounds, Cults has always been an electronic band at its core, and Offering makes no effort to hide that fact. Oblivion's real musical strength is as a programmer. He's far more adept at structuring and manipulating digital noises than, say, playing guitar. Using music production software, he builds Cults' songs from the ground up, starting with drums and bass, and they lay out almost all of the vocal melodies on keyboard before Follin writes lyrics.
"We don't just sit around with a guitar and sing, which is probably why the vocals end up being so acrobatic at times," Oblivion muses. "It's funny, but on every record, the hardest song to sing is the single."
The pair has a bag full of slick recording techniques to come up with hummable tunes. During the recording of "Always Forever," Follin laid down her first vocal take, and then she and Oblivion double-tracked her an octave higher; they ended up using the higher take as the lead.
"Other times, we'll have a melody and she comes up with a harmony for it on the fly," Oblivion says. "Then we'll solo the harmony and be like, 'Wait—now that's the main melody.' That seems like a trick that would get used a lot, but we'd never thought of it before."
In the case of Offering, the "just write songs" approach often produced familiar results. After recording the sticky-sweet "Right Words," for example, they realized they were back to sounding like they did at the beginning of their careers, just a little more polished. Oblivion is cool with that. After all, even the most winding journeys can end where they started.