Wide Open Spaces: Cut Copy Fields New Territory
Published March 30, 2011
PHOTO COURTESY OF TIMOTHY SACCENTI
“Don’t be too clever for an audience. Make it obvious,” Billy Wilder once said. “Make the subtleties obvious also.” Though the late Oscar king probably never considered the dawning of electro-pop, most dance-music aficionados would agree with his statement. After all, the main objective of a beat is to get your ass shaking, not your mind boggling—right? Yes and no, according to Dan Whitford, the former graphic designer/DJ who started Cut Copy 10 years ago. Though that might have been the case for the group’s poppy neo-disco debut, Bright Like Neon Love, and its adrenaline-soaked follow-up, In Ghost Colours, their third studio effort, Zonoscope, says Whitford, “is something that rewards repeat listening.”
Recorded at a derelict warehouse in the industrial suburbs of northeast Melbourne, as opposed to their previous ventures in New York (or Whitford’s Melbourne home), the vast space and remote locale—captured in a four-part making-of documentary, Dark Side of the Pleasure Dome—promoted a series of extended jam sessions that incorporate more organic percussion, old synths, and industrial equipment that had been left in piles by their landlord. “It almost added to the vibe,” says Whitford. “It felt like some busted warehouse of junk/treasure.”
Fortunately, there’s a lot more treasure than junk on Zonoscope, which plays to New Wave-reared dance-floor fanatics (anthemic singles “Take Me Over,” “Need You Now”) as well as space-crazed head trippers (the 15-minute sonic jam sequence “Sun God”) while evoking the sounds of some imagined down-under jungle paradiso. “With this album, the songwriting throughout is completely developed. They could be from the ’70s, they could be a totally modern thing as well,” he says. “We didn’t want to smash people over the head with a mallet, we wanted it to be something more classic.” On a call from his Aussie home just before Cut Copy started off its North American tour, Whitford held forth on this expansive new sound, his plans for Coachella, and the cost-benefit analysis of their light show. Trust us, it’s illuminating.
MICHAEL SLENSKE: Where are you right now?
DAN WHITFORD: I’m at home at the moment in Melbourne.
SLENSKE: That’s your old studio, right? How’s that compare to this new warehouse space?
WHITFORD: I wouldn’t say we were constrained before, but we never really had the time in a studio where we just sit there with a chance to experiment. I had plenty of time at home where I was working with my studio setup and recorded lots of different synthesizers, but we’ve never really a big open space where we can make noise, turn the amps right up, or have a whole tree of weird types of percussion set up for a long period and bang away at it. We searched for a space for a while and had this idea we’d like our own space rather than renting a studio so we could have unlimited time to try everything. Eventually we found out about this guy who’d taken a lease on this whole level of this warehouse in Fairfield, which is the Northeastern industrial region. It’s all car repair yards and factories. It’s sort of like a soccer pitch, this big open space we can do whatever we want with. The landlord was going to set up his own studio next door, but he hadn’t got around to it so all of his stuff was sitting there in piles. But he was cool with us just grabbing his military-looking recording gear and using it.SLENSKE: Did it work?
WHITFORD: Half of it worked, and half of it didn’t, or we couldn’t figure out how to make it work. We love old music and the idea of making something related to that seemed appropriate. A lot of it was based on the percussion side of things. It slowly became more and more apparent that was the theme, percussion and this sort of weird, tropical island/jungle place that had a sound to it. Throughout our time at the warehouse our songs kept coming back quite a bit longer than when we first started. I don’t if it was us just jamming, or recording extra stuff, but we’d just be sitting around with this stuff playing all the time and just jam on top of it. Some of these loops just got etched into our brains and we ended up letting some of these repetitive, hypnotic elements just go in the tracks and they sort of doubled and tripled in time.
SLENSKE: Yeah, there’s not that immediate payoff you felt on the last two albums.
WHITFORD: In the past year, we’ve been a little reticent to actually try some of these ideas. In the studio, in the past, we just had to get to the point, whereas this way it was just like, “We like this journey element to the tracks, so why don’t we make that the point?” Just making the experience the point. I think the tracks are more poppy than the previous two records, it’s just that it’s not in your face.
SLENSKE: Do you really consider this dance music?
WHITFORD: It’s just a different type of dance music, sort of old school. Instead of French house or Daft Punk, it’s like Chicago house stuff. It’s a lot more basic with all the organic percussion. I was sort of obsessed with all these lo-fi primitive drum patterns. There’s also not as much going on with the synthesizers. We kept it more simplistic with just a rhythm and a feel. For me, it’s just as dance-y, it’s just produced like a Talking Heads track, mixed with modern house production.
SLENSKE: Are you gearing up for this tour in a new way?
WHITFORD: Yeah, totally. I guess having finished this record, we kind of wanted to convey the same world on stage. We’ve spent a lot longer on pulling this show together than any tour we’ve done in the past, the rehearsing, the time we put into it just realizing our own parts and the visual concept as well, video, extra lighting and all the other stuff that goes into it. We want people to go away and feel like they’ve been somewhere else.
SLENSKE: Like a big dance show?
WHITFORD: The way the show runs now is quite different. We’re trying to find our feet with new material and visual aspects. We’re obviously going to play some of the old tracks from In Ghost Colours and before. It’s funny, sitting among the new tracks, it feels like there’s some relation to the old hits and the new stuff. It’s not totally removed, but we’ve reconfigured the whole show in terms of how we play onstage, we’ve bought new instruments like old vintage synths, and we’ve got a percussionist with us. It’s not shying away from any of the grand dance moments of the shows in the past.
SLENSKE: Speaking of grand dance moments, I remember at one of the Bowery Ballroom shows someone told me you guys spent more money on the lights than you got paid for the show.
WHITFORD: [laughs] That wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility. We had a lot of lights on some of the tours and it’s like now that we’ve done it we can’t really turn around and put on a smaller light show. That’s just not the way things work. But we’ve tried to do it a bit differently. Hopefully, we’re at least breaking even this time. We’ll see.
SLENSKE: Are you going to play the full version of “Sun God”?
WHITFORD: We’ve played it a couple times in Australia completely. The song developed out of a synth and percussion jam that just kept going and going and going and when we came back to it we just decided it sounded too good not to have on the record. We try to treat the live show the same way. It’s not nailed down in terms of how long it goes or what we need to do. We improvise the performance each time. Sometimes it’s 10 minutes, sometimes it’s 20 minutes. I guess we’ll just see on the night.
SLENSKE: That “magic in the chaos” you talk about on the documentary.
WHITFORD: Exactly. My idea with this record was to go on tangents and run with ideas. [“Sun God”] is the most obvious manifestation of that. But I guess it wouldn’t be doing the song justice if we played it the same every night. It’s also just more fun for us. Let’s face it, it’s all about us.
SLENSKE: Well, it does seems like there’s more of an escape on this album. It’s not all about certain moments as much as one journey.
WHITFORD: Yeah, definitely. Making this record that’s been one of the differences. I guess in some ways when we were working on this, we really wanted to get away from what we’d done in the past, so I guess we tried to be not so obvious. That was one of the aims in the first place, to make a record where the moves aren’t obvious, but a slow burner.
SLENSKE: Do you feel the first two albums are more obvious?
WHITFORD: No, I don’t think so, but on the last albums the biggest hits are the ones that are consciously playing with the ideas of dance music cliches and hooks and big, stupid synthesizer leads and woos and yeahs, [laughs] I guess sort of referencing some of the dance music things people relate to and know.
SLENSKE: So what’s up with this crazy sports video for “Need You Now”?
WHITFORD: I guess we just wanted to work with the director, Keith Schofield, for some time and just through the power of the Internet we discovered he was a fan of ours as well and had written about us on his blog and eventually this was our opportunity to work on a clip together. It’s based on an idea he had to use this photography trick. All his clips have this bizarre cinema element to them that we always liked, and he had this idea to have us with all these sports people, different American sports—us playing; them running through us—and we went to L.A. and shot it. We were basically sitting there in these director’s chairs, just cracking up laughing at these hilarious sports people playing sports they’re not supposed to be playing.
SLENSKE: It is sort of insane.
WHITFORD: Yeah, that’s the idea.
SLENSKE: Any special plans for Coachella?
WHITFORD: We’ve got some ideas in the pipeline, but you’ll just need to wait and see. We had an amazing show there just before In Ghost Colours, and we think of it really fondly, so we’ve been really keen to get back ever since. We were there for not even a day and for most of the day we were doing press, so we want to experience more of the festival this time. I’m putting in a personal request not to do so much press. We went from to going from when we played in the morning until 9:30 in the evening when we got so pissed off we just refused to do any more. This time we’ll try and see some other bands. I’ll definitely be getting around to a lot of stages.