Andrew Darley talks to Cut Copy frontman Dan Whitford about the band’s new album, Free Your Mind, and his thoughts on dance culture.
Photograph by Michael Muller (Click Images to enlarge)
Cut Copy have been continually advancing since their 2004 debut. The Australian outfit first embarked on the music scene with the beautiful synth pop of Bright Like Neon Love. Since then, the band have become increasingly ambitious with their sound and have immersed themselves in several dance and alternative genres. Their new album, Free Your Mind, may be their most forward thinking yet. The record is inspired by the Summer of Love events, particularly Britain’s ’88-89 Summer of Love, which saw mass raves across the country spurred on by the dominance of dance music and party hedonism. The band have adopted the spirit and sense of inhibition of these times and embodied it in their work. The album encourages listeners to transcend the monotony and stresses of daily life and reach something higher through their entanglement dance, new wave and electropop. Lead singer and frontman, Dan Whitford gave Polari an insightful interview about the album’s message, his thoughts on dance culture and where he feels Cut Copy are today, almost a decade since their debut.
Free Your Mind is a both a bold statement and an instruction. Why did you choose this title for the album?
Once we’d finished writing all the songs for the record we noticed that “free your mind” was a repeated lyric through various songs, and it seemed to sum up a general feeling behind the record. We also liked it because it’s a little ambiguous and people could take it in various different ways.
The album’s sound and message is inspired by the San Francisco and British Summer of Love events and the sense of inhibition they aroused in people. What was it about these times that fascinated you?
For me they’re inspiring because they represent times when popular culture and art transcended entertainment and managed to make the world a better place. Specifically in the case of the 1989 British Summer; it saw the birth of modern DJ and dance music culture as we know it today. So much has changed since then, but the more I dug into it, the more I realized that the core ideas haven’t changed.
It’s easy to hear how they inspired the music as it has a euphoric texture. It’s well known that the Summer of Love involved drug use and people were very open about it. Also, the house and dance music which Cut Copy reference are intrinsically connected to party culture and drugs. Are they something the band use in the creative process when making music?
Not really. I’ve never personally found drugs to be particularly helpful in writing stuff. Having said that, I’ve always found the idea of getting wild, taking sheets of acid and making a world changing record to be pretty appealing. But it’s just not something that’s ever really been part of the process. There’s no doubt that drug culture and psychedelic or dance music culture are pretty intrinsically linked.
Were there any artists or songs that were reference points when going into make this record? Or even books, images, films?
I went back through my record collection at a certain point and pulled out some of my old Orbital, KLF, The Orb and Technique-era New Order. I hadn’t listened to some of these records for a long time but somehow it felt like the time had come around for the sound of some of these records again. I also was given a book that compiled all the Boy’s Own fanzines, which I obsessively started reading. Basically it was a document from back in the day about the goings on of club and rave culture in late ‘80s, early ‘90s Britain, written by now-legendary people like Andy Weatherall. I think the more I read, the more I found it paralleled the underground club culture that has been happening in Melbourne. So I could really relate to it, and it got me inspired.
When you came off tour for Zonoscope were there any ideas you knew you wanted to attempt for this album?
I remember the extended final version of ‘Sun God’ [the last track on Zonoscope] was one of the very last things that came together. It was almost like a freeform studio jam and I think for all of us in the band it represented a fairly exciting direction for our music. I don’t think at the time we consciously thought that would be the direction for our fourth record, but now that I look back, it seems almost like a bridge from Zonoscope to Free Your Mind.
Did the creative process differ from previous album sessions?
Initially I wanted to try a different approach to writing, so I wrote a song demo each day for 3 or 4 months, ending up with a ridiculous plethora of song ideas. It was an interesting exercise and definitely got the juices flowing, although after a while I had completely forgotten half of the ideas, so managing the quantity of demos was difficult.
Cut Copy by Asger Carlson
When writing the music, do you work as a collective or as individuals? How do the lyrics come together?
I usually start by writing basic song demos, then we work on them together as a band. We moved all our equipment into a converted industrial space that we tracked down for a period of months and basically used it as our ‘play area’, experimenting, jamming, recording and building on the ideas. Most of the lyric writing happened before this time, because I wanted our ideas to be fully realized as the full band was working on them. There’s nothing worse than hearing rough takes of lyrics over and over (that you’re intending to change) while you’re recording other things.
The idea of freedom implies that there are feelings or circumstances that you need to be relieved or alleviated from. Was there anything in particular you were looking to escape when making the album?
For me music is always an imaginative escape when I’m writing or playing it. I don’t know that there was anything in particular that I personally was wanting to escape from, but I think I was just imagining this as a good outlook to have on life generally. So hopefully people get that when they listen to it.
Zonoscope, Cut Copy (2011) Chill Out, KLF (1990)
This album and previous releases, particularly Zonoscope, have focused on the album being an experience and intended to be listened to as a whole. Now that the music world largely is very focused on singles, which blogs and sites such as HypeMachine and SoundCloud facilitate. How do you view the way people listen to music today and the ‘album’ as it stands now?
The concept of an “album” is definitely under siege at the moment. There’s so much about the Internet that has been positive for our music, and music in general. People have access to anything and everything they might want to hear. Nothing is too obscure to track down, and people are really open-minded as a result. But people have also developed really short attention spans for music. So the idea of an album is a bit like running a marathon for some people. I’ve grown up listening to albums, and my favorites (like KLF’s Chill Out or The Avalanches’ Since I Left You) only really make sense if you listen to them from start to finish. So I think it’s a format worth fighting for. I think it just allows for a much more multi-dimensional experience.
Following on from that, how would you describe the experience of Free Your Mind?
I think it’s a pretty playful but spiritual record. We picked tracks that kept the uplifting feeling throughout, but it weaves though a lot of different visions of that sensation, from visceral dance energy, to layered psychedelia, to ethereal chants.
A number the songs on the album contain specific places ‘(Into the Desert)’ and ‘(Above the City)’. Did you want to give the songs a sense of location and then transcend them?
Those particular ones refer to parts of the record where we’ve used bits of recorded spoken word to give an extra dimension beyond the music. I guess we put the names in brackets because they’re like interludes. So yeah, I guess we wanted it to be possible for people to imagine visuals to parts of the album, like listening to the dialogue from a film and having to visualize the rest.
Is there any song on the album you think will surprise people who know your previous music?
I think that the second last track ‘Walking In The Sky’ might surprise a few people. It’s a very simple piece of songwriting, but it’s almost like a surreal anthem driven by a chorus of vocals and an enormous drum section.
You’ve said before that no one in the band is a trained musician and performing live hasn’t always been the most comfortable experience. Would you say you have become more confident as a performer?
I’ve never felt like performing live was uncomfortable, despite our lack of musical training. In some ways it’s one of the most easy things to do. A bit like the Ramones or Sex Pistols – if you’re not a virtuoso instrumentalist, then at least you can go extra crazy when you’re on stage. Obviously we’re not like either of those bands, but I think we’ve found a way to be energetic but also do the music more justice now that we’re more experienced performers.
Do you often listen back to your debut album Bright Like Neon Love? If so, how do you feel the band have progressed?
Of course. We usually play at least one song from BLNL most times we play. It’s a very naive record I think, but a lot of people still come up to us to tell us how much they love it. It almost sounds like a different band to me now. But I guess we were. We were starting out and making things up as we went along because at that point in time no one was doing anything that remotely sounded like us. Particularly in our country. Now there’s a obviously a much bigger scene for this kind of music.
Given that your music has a big crossover into dance, indie, pop genres, have you ever felt excluded by any of those worlds?
Yeah – it’s a weird thing. We’ve managed to unite people across a range of music spheres but sometimes when you come up against purists from any one of them, they can say “Oh they’re not real” because we’re covering a range of stuff in our music. I guess that’s a natural reaction. But the reason we started making this kind of music in the beginning is because we all went out to underground indie gigs, but also went to electronic dance parties and also loved soul and R’n’B. I’ve always felt cross-pollination is a good thing.
Cut Copy have been together now for a decade. Is there anything you are particularly proud of in those ten years?
I think we’ve been amazing fortunate to do so many awesome things: performing as Sydney Opera House, Grammy Nomination, meeting David Bowie, having number 1 records, travelling the world. None of these things were even on our radar when we started. We would have been happy to sell out a 200 capacity show back in Melbourne, so everything that came afterwards has been a blessing.
Are you happy with the level the band is at and the audience you’re reaching or would you like to gain more listeners?
I definitely think we’re happy. But if we are able to switch more people onto our music without compromising with the music we want to make then sure. Art comes first, but we’re not afraid of people liking us.
Do you feel Cut Copy are interpreted or received differently in various parts of the world? For instance, are reactions different in your homeland Australia compared to Europe or America?
It definitely varies. We really went to a ‘next level’ in the US after our second record and has continued to grow, so we’ve spent a lot of time there and in South America. In Europe we’ve had great success but obviously it varies from place to place. Back home in Australia the reaction is a bit different. I think people are just less aware of what we’ve done overseas. But in a strange way that’s nice because when we go home, we can settle back fairly easily into our every day lives. It’s almost like going back to 2004 when things were just getting started!
The majority of your music is quite upbeat and hopeful. Is this something that’s instinctual and have you considered making a darker sounding record?
It’s definitely an instinctual thing I think. As songwriter I think I just write better upbeat songs than dark ones. Never say never though.
Has being the frontman of the band changed you in any way, personally or as a musician?
Not really in a personal sense. In a lot of ways I feel like I’m ‘playing the part’ of a front man, but actually I’m still the guy that sits at home and writes songs in his home studio. That’s how I started, so I think I’ve tried not to change the formula. Having said that, I’ve definitely improved as a singer and musician, but it’s not really something I think about.
Finally Dan, what is your idea of freedom?
Driving through the desert in my old Merc with Brian Eno’s Discrete Music on the stereo.