Formed in 2001 by Melbourne vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Dan Whitford, Cut Copy brought a mellow, melodic vibe to the underground club scene—a welcome relief from the jittery, angular electroclash that had been dominant for a few years but was in decline by the 2004 release of the group’s debut, Bright Like Neon Love. Since then Whitford and his band have been refining a sound that blends contemporary electro with 80s new wave and 70s art-rock, a combination that’s won them a large international fan base (whose rapid growth has been fed by the ongoing EDM explosion) and helped them become bona fide chart-topping pop stars in Australia. In September the band installed billboards in six locations around the world—including Chile, Wales, and a burned-out block in Detroit—that allowed fans to use a smartphone app to hear the title track (and lead single) from their latest album, Free Your Mind (Loma Vista), which cranks up the blissful vibes alongside the club-moving beats, conjuring visions of a retro-sci-fi hippie utopia.
For this week’s Artist on Artist, Whitford is interviewed by Dan Foley, a founding member of Chicago “queer electro fuck” group Baathhaus. Their music is a messy collage of disco, goth, punk theatricality, and art-damaged experimental pop a la Sparks, and their stage shows are even messier and more outrageous than their music—a 2012 Reader story on the group by Leor Galil alluded to some of their favorite props with the headline “Blood, glitter, and jizz.” —Miles Raymer
I’ve been listening to the new album a lot lately—I really like it. I was wondering, when you do work on new music, do you consider your live shows?
To be honest, I try not to think about our live show too much. We just try to make the studio experience its own thing—we’re often playing instruments that we don’t usually play live necessarily and sort of trying things for the first time in the recording process. And often we’re tracking so many different layers of sound that obviously, if we’re thinking too much about what we can play live, it would be a totally different-sounding band on record. So I think we’re just trying to keep the options open a little bit as far as that goes, and just let the process in the studio take its course. Usually that involves a bit of head scratching once we finish the record to figure out how we’re gonna physically play some of these songs—sometimes it’s a bit of a challenge!
When you do that—when you’re translating it live—are there any rules or goals that you try to live by? To make it all playable?
I don’t know whether we’ve got rules so much. Usually we’re just trying to draw out the essence of the song with what we’re doing live. And I guess sometimes that involves maybe changing the way that we interpret a song, just to make it suit a live context. Sometimes in the early days, our live shows were much more guitar driven than synthesizer based, just because there was an energy to that that really seemed to translate. Over time we’ve gotten better at translating some of the more electronic tracks and dance songs.
I’ve been reading other interviews, and you guys talk a lot about psychedelia, imagery, and the music and sound elements that are incorporated into Free Your Mind. Are we gonna see any of that translated live? Are you gonna do anything different to make it more of a crazy, trippy experience?
Like are we gonna drop acid before the show or something? Is that what you’re wondering? [Laughter.] Probably won’t be doing that exactly, but certainly the energy of the show is a little different. We started playing some of these songs over the last week and a half—we just started a U.S. tour. We certainly tried to bring a light show that reflects the psychedelic aspect of the music and enhances that for the people who are there at the show, but also the performance is definitely—there’s a little bit of that looser, lazier but still kind of very hypnotic sort of sense to some of these songs. The way we perform it reflects that a little bit. Inevitably, as a person at a show in the crowd you’re gonna respond to what the music’s doing. And certainly onstage we’re doing that in the moment we’re performing.
Sounds really fun. You’re gonna be in Chicago soon—I’m gonna try to get out to that show. What led your journey or discovery or interest in psychedelia and the whole “free your mind” sort of thing?
It’s been a weird process making this record, because we didn’t necessarily set out to make a psychedelic record, or make a record referencing psychedelic dance music or anything like that. Really we worked on it without any sort of basic idea or mission statement. We just thought, we’re gonna make the music and not second-guess any of the ideas. We’re laying down song ideas and adding to them and not questioning anything. And we had a pool of songs we could come back to and go, well, what is this? And at that point we saw a connection—a lot of these tracks had an uplifting, sort of psychedelic feel. And once we noticed that was a bit of a linking thread, we tried to draw that out a bit and enhance that and make it a feature of the record. So the idea of “free your mind” is a bit of mantra or mission statement now that we’ve finished the record.
So when you guys are trimming things and editing things down and trying to discover the sound and feel of the new record, how do you make the decisions? Are they democratic? Is there one person in charge? Are some of you guys polar opposites and keep each other in check?
We try to be as democratic as we can with it. Everyone invests so much time into making the music, you want to have some sense of unity to the decision making. Inevitably there are times where everyone’s got different tastes and likes different songs. You’ve got to make a few hard decisions at some point. And I guess because I’m usually the guy who’s written the basic ideas in the first place, I’m the bad guy who comes in and says, “Maybe we need to keep this song on the record.” To be honest, on this record we actually had a pretty common viewpoint on a lot of the songs, so I’d say we’d agree on the majority. There were a couple we left off that could’ve been on there as well, but we were trying to make as cohesive a record as we could. So a lot of the stuff we left off was maybe just for stylistic reasons, not because the songs weren’t good enough.
Do you think that those songs that got cut might make it somewhere into the world as B sides or something?
Yeah. I guess we wrote a lot more material for this record than we have in the past for our albums. Because we ended up leaving quite a lot off, it’s probably something that might turn into an EP or series of ten-inches or 12-inches. We’re definitely looking to release some of that extra material.
Do any of the songs that are left off share similar styles? Motifs? The opposite of Free Your Mind, like maybe they’re about not freeing your mind?
It definitely came out of the same process, so there’s probably a consistency that runs through the other songs as well. I’m not quite sure what it would necessarily be, though. Whether it’s Free Your Mind the sequel or . . . Maybe sometime next year we’ll try to pull some of those tracks together and see if it turns into something—whether it’s a record or an EP or something else.
Back in the day when it was just you, what led you to the decision to bring on other people?
I guess partly at the time I really just didn’t know how to play any instruments other than keyboards. I didn’t own a guitar, I didn’t own drums. I was just a kid in a bedroom mucking around, basically. The only way that was gonna happen was by getting people who had instruments or knew how to play things and bringing them on board, so I guess that was the main thing. That’s sort of dumb, but yeah. Just getting people who were doing stuff with other instruments. And [guitarist and sampler player] Tim [Hoey] was one of my good friends. We’d always go out to see indie bands and shows and that kind of thing. He was a massive Pavement fan, Sonic Youth fan, heavily into guitar music and band music. I was into DJing and electronic stuff and obviously bands as well. We had pretty different aesthetics and influences and it was a cool place to meet, in the middle of those two things. And at that point in time it was a bit unusual for a band to have that broad a range of influences and that kind of combination of approaches. That set the blueprint for the diverse sound that we’ve had since then.
Do you feel like from those original days, when you did bring new people on, that the sound has evolved in a way that you didn’t expect? Or in ways that you did expect?
I probably never expected to be considered an exciting band to see live. That was never even a goal in the early days, so that’s an interesting thing that sort of slowly happened in the beginning and that’s part of the way that people perceive us—as being a band that’s really exciting live. It’s somewhat strange, I guess, for someone who never really played any instruments and was totally self-taught to end up in the position where you’re playing in front of thousands of people at Lollapalooza or Coachella. How does that happen, you know? It’s kinda weird.
It’s funny how that happens sometimes.
Totally. It’s really just a slow evolution. Also just being more confident over time with playing has allowed us to explore different types of music that we probably wouldn’t have tried to explore in earlier times. Even trying things that are more inspired by soul and gospel stuff—some of the tracks on the new record reference a bit of that. More disco-sounding, rhythmic stuff is actually quite a challenge to play. That’s not something we really knew how to play in the beginning, but we’ve slowly convinced people that we know how to do it.
That’s funny! Do you guys as a group or individuals have bands you’re super excited to see, where you watch and think, “Oh my God, I want to do that in our show. How can we do that in our show?”
I think particularly in the early days, more or less anyone that we toured with, we’d find ourselves incorporating the good elements of their shows into what we were doing at the time. So you become this collector of those ideas, and that filters into what you do as a band. A lot of the bands we toured with on our first couple of records helped us perform a more engaging live show.
The first thing I was thinking when I listened to Free Your Mind was that a lot of the synth patches and the way you sample-fied some of the reverbed vocals reminds me of the Tough Alliance and CEO—are you familiar with them?
Yeah, we became friends because we’re on the same label. And their work is definitely a huge influence. They’re probably underrated acts because their careers didn’t last that long. They only did a few EPs, and it seemed like just as they were about to perhaps take off in the States and other places, they stopped doing stuff, and that was a disappointment to us because we were huge fans. But definitely they were inspired by a lot of similar things to us, like the KLF and early-90s house music and UK house stuff.
You talk about how you were a bit disappointed things didn’t take off for them. How do you keep moving forward and keep yourself excited about making new things?
I think we’ve always just been excited about current music and also researching previous eras of music that are of interest to us, and that’s amazing—we’re just constantly uncovering music that’s exciting to us and new to us. So I think as long as we’re excited as music fans, there will be that desire to create things and channel some of those influences into making our own music. As long as we’re enthused I’m sure we’ll keep doing what we’re doing.
What part of the new album excites you the most?
In terms of influences, or . . . ?
The way things turned out—where you’re like, “Oh gosh, this part of this song is my favorite part.”
There’s probably a whole number of parts. I guess “Free Your Mind,” the title track—I’m really happy with the way we managed to incorporate a bunch of different ideas, from old house music to almost like a soulful edge, but hopefully still sounding like us. I think going back and working with old drum machines and old digital synths from the 90s was part of the genesis of the sound to this record. I feel like that really has a fingerprint through the whole thing. Another track that was a moment for us was “Walking in the Sky.” And that was a track that I was about to throw into the trash can when I was writing basic demo ideas. Tim thankfully rescued it and said no, this track’s awesome, you gotta turn this into something. He was desperate to work on it from a guitar angle, and the other guys were similarly excited. We did ones where it was almost like, “This could certainly not have existed.” But through the other guys convincing me there was something in there, we ended up drawing out this weird, surreal anthem, which was a nice way to signpost the latter part of the record.
Do you have any hobbies that you manically obsess over that enrich you or make you feel more whole or maybe recharge your batteries for when you go back to making music?
Sure. I’ve got a few things—we’re touring, that’s the mode we’re in at the moment, and every day we research and just through either word of mouth or the Internet try to find the best artisan coffee places in each city we go to. So it’s a bit of an obsession—sort of a daily ritual. We’ll wake up on the bus and go on this mission—sometimes going a really long way to try to find awesome coffee in whatever city we’re playing in. So that’s one thing.
When you’re in Chicago, I recommend Gaslight for coffee. They’re in Logan Square. Just sayin’.
Cool. I’ll have to check that out. I’ve also recently taken up jogging on tour in an effort to stay active and fit—also it’s kind of a cool way to see a little bit more of a city. If you’re just visiting on a bus, often you end up just hanging around the venue. But going for a jog, even for 20 minutes or half an hour, you end up seeing lots of crazy stuff all around the place. Like today we’re in Arizona, and I somehow jogged to this weird rocky outcrop thing that looked like something out of The Road Runner, and there’s all these crazy 12-foot-high cactus plants all around. It’s just the sort of thing you’d never come across unless you’re forcing yourself to get out there and look around. So that’s been a ritual as well. A couple things to keep you sane on tour.