This month’s episode of The Music Playground Presents features the Brooklyn-based duo Cultfever, comprised of songwriters Tamara Jafar and Joe Durniak. Their self-titled debut album is the type of record that will seep its way into your daily rotation and stay there for months. The album eludes labels from one track to the next, mixing spacy, downbeat, grooving tracks with intense and rhythmic pop songs. They write together almost everyday at their studio, conveniently located in the apartment they share as roommates. Cultfever is an exciting band, brimming with originality and instant appeal.
This was by far the biggest crowd for one of our tapings yet, and the energy is evident in the videos. The band has their own little devoted NYC following, making the “cult” in their name entirely appropriate. Cultfever’s forthcoming EP, entitled Animals, will be out in early 2013. Also, they’ll be playing at SXSW this year. We had the opportunity to sit down with Tamara and Joe following their performance to ask them a few questions.
When you guys prepare for a live performance, what is that like? Is it a total reinvention of every song?
Joe Durniak: It’s been interesting- - especially because we’ve evolved a lot along the way. There is a lot of detail in the album that we wanted to convey in the show but ended up having to ask ourselves: “how much can we get rid of in track and how much can we accomplish live?” Now we’re at a point where—with bass, guitar, keys, drums, vocals—we can strip back the track and just enjoy performing.
Let’s talk about how Cultfever formed. You guys were roommates before you started the band. How has being in such close quarters influenced your sound?
JD: We were not a band before we moved in. We had met and got along famously and were both looking for a new living situation. We started working on music almost immediately. I set up gear and then three songs in we both thought, “oh, okay, this could be something.”
Tamara Jafar: Yeah, we knew each other for a solid three or four months. But both of us have commented that it was a move of intuition and, for some reason, we thought it was easier to approach the topic of moving in to create a shared workspace before approaching the topic of actually collaborating. [laughs] So, we were both playing coy with the courting process.
What were your previous musical projects? Anything like this or totally different?
JD: At the time I was doing solo stuff and writing music for small films but not doing anything band oriented. I hadn’t done that since college so I wasn’t necessarily thinking about being in a band at the time. I was just working on music on my own.
TJ: It was similar for me. I’d just graduated when I met Joe and had been in a couple of bands in school. When I moved to the city I knew that, in some capacity, I was moving to pursue music and creative ambitions but I had no idea how that would manifest. Or at least I didn’t expect that in the first internship that I’d meet a prospective bandmate. I thought I was going to be eating Almond Joys and working late with audio engineers and just taking notes. And then this guy ended up being there.
Let’s talk about the songs you performed, “Knewyouwell” and “Collector”. “Knewyouwell” is the album starter and that beginning just hits you like a ton of bricks. Is that how you planned it?
JD: Once we we built the song we knew it would be the best thing to hit people with at the beginning of the album. I shared the chorus with Tamara and all of a sudden we were writing to it and building structure. It was the third or fourth song we worked on together and by the time we finished Knewyouwell, in particular, it kind of hit home that we were definitely going to be a band and release an album—I don’t think we even had a name at that point.
TJ: The night we finished Knewyouwell also coincided with the rare occasion of getting Joe out dancing. So we both definitely felt there was cause for celebration. “Knewyouwell” was a funny case because some of the songs on the album were redrafted eight or nine times. For better or worse, we rarely settle on the first draft. But “Knewyouwell” and maybe one or two other songs on the album ended up coming together quickly— for some reason it was just an easier song for us to fit together.
So, that’s pretty rare, where you’ll record a song and it’s kind of perfect right away?
JD: Yeah, things generally fall into place on a second or third revisit. Spill is one we are very proud of and it took about eight or nine redrafts—the evolution from start to finish is actually kind of cool to revisit. That said, “Knewyouwell” was one where we didn’t have to change much.
How about “Collector?”
TJ: “Collector” was awesome to work on. We often begin a project by starting stripped down—Joe will be on guitar and I’ll be singing—and we’ll just take cues from each other. If something hits, we’ll record it and then both listen back separately, probably somewhat compulsively, to think about how we want to build it. We did that with “Collector”. Though, I remember our initial comments on the stripped down acoustic session was that the song had a very beachy, surfer-esque vibe—which isn’t what we were going, actually. Then we walked away from it for a bit—I left for three weeks to visit family and spent that trip writing. When I got back, Joe had come out with some amazing, squirrel-y synth ideas. Though we were apart writing it, both of us saw it as a somewhat fitful, discombobulated song that would have some sort of dramatic release at the end.
So it seems like the songwriting process is totally collaborative, where you guys would both just get in a room and get it done together.
JD: Yeah, it feels the best that way.
TJ: I think our strength is in the editing. Collaboration is always difficult in the sense that you always have to approach it with a certain degree of humility, and that sometimes is difficult because one of us will bring up an idea that we’ve been holding precious-private for like three weeks and the other person’s initial reaction is, “you know, it’s not necessarily your strongest”, or “this is how I would change it”. And you have to be willing to be ok with that and say, “you know, you’re right. Or, actually, this is how I see it.” There’s a constant negotiation but the process, on the whole, makes us sturdier.
JD: Yeah. While we were writing the first album we were still learning ourselves and the way that we work best together. We’re a lot better at communicating with each other now. We know when to humor something and go down certain roads but we’re also more disciplined. A lot of solo artists enjoy the freedom of doing whatever they want but don’t always get input. Then there’s a lot of infighting or management of dynamics in, say, a band of five people. For us, two people has felt like a really good balance.
TJ: I have no idea how a six-person band does it. It just seems like so much more personality to deal with [laughs]. In our case, we also both know any perceived criticism is coming from the best place. That is to say, I think we feel that we can be candid with each other because our basic starting point is mutual respect.
That’s probably the key.
TJ: Yeah, it’s a pretty essential piece.
So the end of “Collector”, where it’s just this great sing-along ruckus, was a stripped down acoustic thing at first. How did that evolve?
JD: We kind of knew, even when it was stripped down, that we wanted to make that ending big and then we just went after it with everything we had. To get it there, we felt like we needed more—more voices, more symbol crashes. We ended up recording ourselves standing in something like 20 different positions in a room and adopting slightly different affects to achieve that giant chorus feel. Once we started building it we immediately knew that it would be the closing track on the album.
TJ: It was one of those songs that was just a pleasure to make. One afternoon was spent like little wide-eyed children running around a mic. Another was spent with Joe emulating a marching band to layer in crashes and some of those quirky percussive elements. It was very playful.
We were talking about the upcoming second album, but the self-titled first album still seems fresh. There are still a lot of ears that have yet to hear it I’m sure.
JD: Very true. It’s new to a lot of people… just not us. [laughs]
What is your outlook on your schedule? Are you going to push this for a while, let it settle, maybe tour on it little bit, or are you going to get right back in there and record?
JD: I don’t think anything can keep us from writing and recording simply because we have the equipment, we do it all the time anyway, and we’d probably cut you if you tried to stand in the way. [laughs] But we are definitely planning to continue touring on this album while we also integrate new material into our live show. We still love playing it and want to continue sharing it with more people. We love that album—it’s our first and I think something we will always feel proud of. We’re also really looking forward to a string of releases in 2013.
Geographically, have you guys noticed that there are little patches of fans in certain weird places that you didn’t expect?
TJ: I think some of the international hits have been pretty unexpected.
JD: Like Brazil. Or getting hits from Algeria and Israel in the same day—things like that are amazing.
TJ: [Laughs] Or Cambodia. We’ll see a hit from there and without fail we’ll both send shocked emails that go “who’s listening to us in Cambodia?” Or “whoa, did you see the North Korea hits?” For us, it’s been a really special part of this experience because people sometimes make assumptions about the types of listeners that will gravitate to specific types of music. It blows your mind when you see people all over the world with such varied realities connecting on a website over songs. It’s a cool feeling.