Creating mystery is easy. Maintaining that mystery after the facts are revealed is a better, harder trick.
The Brooklyn-based duo Cults arrived in the blogosphere in early 2010 as a secret, wrapped in a shroud of dreamy pop-rock, inside an enigma of Caramilk proportions.
All because … well, let’s have guitarist Brian Oblivion – not his real name – explain: “We made some songs in our apartment and then posted them online. Strangely and suddenly, people started writing about us. It was out of control, completely overwhelming and out of our hands.”
“Three weeks after, Pitchfork e-mailed us and we did an interview. We were pretty forthcoming.”
Just like that, Cults’ unintended inscrutability was dashed. Oblivion and his singing girlfriend Madeline Follin had done little to encourage the mystery surrounding them – “nothing was calculated, but we did let it run a little longer than we could have,” says Oblivion, speaking from a Buffalo sidewalk, enjoying a smoke in the snowstorm – and yet the anonymity helped launch Cults’ career.
There’s a history of mythmaking and secrecy in popular music. But in the age of the worldwide Interweb, it’s hard to imagine a playful Bob Dylan today pulling off his big fat lies to the press or the hazy Canadian band Klaatu fooling anyone with are-they-the-Beatles subterfuge.
And yet, the game still happens. Toronto’s Abel Tesfaye is the man of mystery behind the dark R&B project the Weeknd, a buzzy act that generated interest not only from its online-only mix tapes and an association with Drake, but also because of the secrecy involved.
The singer Lana Del Rey was a product of unknown history. Turns out her talent was a myth too, but hey, she had a nice run.
In a recent interview with The New York Times Magazine, the rocker Jack White – dubbed by the publication as the “coolest, weirdest, savviest rock star of our time” – related a story about Tom Jones and the Welsh crooner’s odd fandom in Transylvania. Everyone there thought he was a Gypsy, even though Jones had publicly denied it. White dug the idea of an audience being in the dark as to a performer’s identity, even if Jones himself wasn’t interested in the mischief.
“He didn’t think that was the answer,” White said of the What’s New Pussycat singer, “but it seemed to me like it was the answer. Even if it wasn’t, I’d make it that.”
Is it the answer? White, remember, got a lot of mileage out of the vagueness involved with his relationship with his White Stripes drummer Meg White. He said they were brother and sister; it took a while before someone tracked down a marriage certificate and divorce decree to disprove his story.
Oblivion admires the mystery-making of White. He even came up with his intriguing last name – “the whole pseudonym thing” – as a bit of a lark. (Brian O’Blivion is a character from David Cronenberg’s futuristic film Videodrome.)
Still, he sees a limit to the ambiguity. “We realized very early on that the initial mystery was totally unsustainable,” he says. “Much more interesting than being a mystery is being unpredictable, and challenging yourself as a band to do things that people wouldn’t think possible.”
Cults began when Follin and Oblivion, a San Diego couple studying film in New York, put out three tracks (including the irresistible summer pop of Go Outside, which includes a sample of cult leader Jim Jones’s notorious “death speech”) on their Bandcamp site.
They signed with Columbia and last year released their self-titled debut album – a blissed-out package of cloudy guitars, sweet hooks, Phil Spector layering and retro-girl-group vocals that attracts fans of Beach House, Best Coast and the Raveonettes.
The band has grown to five members, with live shows involving live projections. Oblivion loved the Tupac “resurrection” at Coachella and wants to provide a more theatrical presentation (involving imaginary characters) onstage. “We’re building up the next record to accommodate that,” he says.
As for mystery, Oblivion hasn’t outright abandoned it. Where someone like Justin Bieber tweets his every cheerleading thought and random platitude, and artists flood the Internet with a constant rollout of content to keep them on the Pitchfork and Rolling Stone sites, Cults holds back. “We don’t tweet,” he says. “We don’t have tour diaries. We won’t release demos, and we have B-sides that we’ve pretty much lit on fire.”
In short, Oblivion abhors the serial release of inferior music and rushed videos, along with the overload of online sociability. “I’m not excited about that at all,” he says. “In fact, it demystifies me.”
Cults plays the Phoenix Concert Theatre in Toronto on Wednesday.