cut copy talk 16 years of thoughtful dance music and beautiful bangers
With the release of their incredible new video for 'Airborne' we caught up with front man Dan Whitford to discuss creating amidst clutter, losing a label, onstage antics and the importance of The KLF.
Starting as a one man bedroom project sixteen years ago, it didn't take long for Cut Copy to grow into one of the most consistently interesting dance music groups around. With anthems such as Hearts on Fire, Lights and Music and Take Me Over, Cut Copy have found ways to make climactic dance numbers that keep you absorbed longer than the usual 12" might allow.
With the explosion of indie-tinged electronic music in recent years the band have continued to grow, pushing towards more atmospheric electronic sounds, creating expansive concept albums and blending styles in often jarring ways. Nowhere is this more apparent than their latest single Airborne, a song made of two distinct parts: one for the dance floor, one for the ride home. Unexpected, catchy, and beguiling, Airborne is the first release off the forthcoming album, which comes four years on from Free Your Mind. Having just started touring again,we caught up with long time friend Dan Whitford while he was back in Australia playing packed-to-the-rafters shows.
i-D: Dan, howzit going?
Dan Whitford: Good man. I just flew into Sydney last night. We were all coming from different places — I flew from Copenhagen, Tim from New York, Ben from San Fran and Mitchy from Melbourne.
How were the recent shows in the States? First time in a while right?
Yeah it was interesting, it's probably the longest we've gone without playing live shows together since we started as a band, and I guess because we're all living in different places we just haven't had the opportunity to get together. So it was strange, meeting up and playing our first show in a couple of years. It was actually quite nerve wracking. It was almost like playing our very first show again. But still it was awesome and then the rest of the shows followed after that really easily.
Were there any surprises, any new moves anyone pulled out on stage?
You know, back in our very early days Tim would jump on Mitchell's drum kit and get a little crazy, we had more of a punk attitude to the shows. So maybe it was just the enthusiasm of playing together again, but at one recent show Tim actually managed to completely deconstruct Mitchell's drum kit, all he had left was a kick peddle with no drum attached. He was still somehow trying to keep the beat.
It's interesting thinking about Cut Copy in the early days. I remember originally, those first 7"s and EPs, it was just you in the home studio, sampling, along with some drum machines, and not really together with a full band. How was the set up different then, when you started, to now?
Let me take you back to the beginning [laughs]…I guess it did start out as my own project. I was studying graphic design at the time and I was heavy into electronic music, I was interested in the idea of making electronic music that a guy with no background in playing instruments could jump into. Particularly through sampling and stuff. That was the starting point. Then through one of my really good friends Tim, who at the time was the most indie guy you'd ever met, I started to become interested in how the music I was making could meld with a more lo-fi guitar approach. And Tim himself was probably excited by the potential of club music as a source of energy and a way that people connect, so we started recording some of Tim's guitar stuff in my bedroom studio, actually the first time we worked on stuff he brought in a 4-track cassette and recorded a bunch of stuff over my synth jams. From that point, knowing it was an interesting combination of sounds, we started thinking about how we could turn that into something we could do live.
Those early live shows felt like a pretty unique approach to dance music too.
Well we had to play live, so we had to figure out how to actually perform our music. I had a good friend who played bass, Bennett [Bennett Foddy, Cut Copy's original bassist] and his house mate had just bought a drum kit off eBay, to play in a punk band. That house mate was Mitchell. So once we had a band, we continued exploring this idea of combining synthesised club music with a more Nirvana, Sonic Youth guitar sound and raw performance. Even though it's electronic music it still has to stand up next to rock bands and with the energy created between the band and the crowd. Sometimes you end up doing crazy things you would never have envisaged. When we started to play live, that then filtered back into the recordings we were making, as we were getting more excited about our live shows. By the time we did In Ghost Colors you can really hear the energy of our live show in that album.
Another aspect that seems to influence your output is DJing. I know between this album and the last you and Tim did the Cut Copy DJ tour. How does a club space, which you're immersed in when DJing, inform the relationship of how you make music as a band?
DJing is really good because you can see what resonates with people in that setting. Dance music's a lot about energy, you build the energy then you take it away and bring it back — it's like a push and pull of energy levels. Having a sense of that is really important, particularly if you are making dance music. You need to know what gets people off, basically.
Besides knowing what makes a good dance song, the flow of a lot of Cut Copy albums always felt like mixes to me—the intro/outro sections, the short instrumentals and moments between songs. Is that something that comes out of DJing or making mixes?
Yeah there's a lot of layering, which is a production thing as much as anything. So that people listening to it the tenth time or hundredth time are hearing something new in there. Whether it's a little spoken word thing or a backwards sample of tropical birds, these little bits of texture I always found interesting. I don't know if it's from DJing or from just collecting records, but we always end up with such a huge bank of different sounds that you want to all exist at once when you're making music.
You can definitely hear that in the new single Airborne. But also it does this thing where it goes one direction then shifts abruptly at some point, like War's City, Country, City or MFSB Love is the Message. It's almost two songs in one.
Definitely. We started working in the studio on it and the track was just the first half, but we knew we wanted to do something unexpected with it. Noodling around on the piano, we came up with an idea for where it may go. The idea was sort of… you go from once space, inside the club, to all of a sudden you're outside, you're in the street, everything's kind of muffled, you can hear the band playing, but now it's a more contemplative mood that descends on things and takes you somewhere different. For this track, that was a really important discovery, to find where it's going to end up.
Cut Copy, Airborne
The album isn't out yet, but does Airborne represent the rest of the songs well?
We thought it would be something that may divide people, people may not actually like it because it doesn't go somewhere obvious. But if people get this, they're going to get the rest of the record. I think this is one of those tracks either you get it or don't. Because it is a little bit challenging.
This single — in fact the entire album — were both made at a time when you didn't have a label, right?
Yeah we weren't quite sure what we were going to be doing. We'd finished our contract with Modular, and were more or less free agents to do what we wanted. So we made the album, financing it ourselves.
Was that freeing? Did not having a label allow you to make something relatively challenging like Airborne?
I think so, but in some ways it can be scary when you don't have a label because often, even if you disagree with what the label's saying, it can unite the band. In some respect it's scary not having that other voice. But also I think it was important for us to figure out where we wanted to go next.
I always feel like you approach these albums more like a concept album, with your own background in graphic design and having a hand in the artwork, the videos, the stage design, knowing it's all part of the story. Besides music, what other things were you vibing on while you were making this album?
I'm not sure if I was conscious of this while making the album, but going back through it I think there's a sense of the way we experience the modern world, the over saturation of everything that we experience now. Minute to minute you're constantly connected to this visual world. Whether it's the phone in your hand, your laptop, it feels like your experience now is so cluttered with stuff. I feel like we're in this time of overload and making the album, there's a bit of sense, through some of it of coping with this whole new way of living. Which in ways it is a burden but then sometimes this weird, random beauty emerges out of it, something poetic in all these random images and things. Like Wolfgang Tillman's photography. This stream of consciousness of different everyday observations, which has found it's way into the music for sure and definitely the single and album artwork plays with those themes.
Speaking of experience, that leads me to my most important question… KLF. I know the've been an important touchstone over the years, particularly their book The Manual. If you were to do your own version of The Manual, what would be one of your own rules for making a song?
[Laughs] Well we'd probably need a number one hit before I can talk with too much authority on The Manual! It's amazing though, how their whole manifesto as it exists in that book still holds up so well. Even though it was built from Acid House era thinking, it still holds true today. It's like watching Spinal Tap. This stuff comes from true experience and it's timeless information. One of our own rules? I would say I would never start from scratch. Never sort of make music in a vacuum, you've got to be constantly listening to other stuff. I don't mean in the sense of appropriating things, but I just think to find the reference points of the music that you want to make you've got to be constantly listening to other music, just to know where your music is going to sit.
Text Jason Evans
Photography Ben Thompson and Ashleigh Goodall