The dreariness of a Copenhagen winter is easily combatted by the shiny electronica of Australia’s Cut Copy. Their fourth full length album, Free Your Mind, sees the quartet expanding on the synth pop of its predecessor, Zonoscope, while exploring more experimental territory.
“Probably everything we do is pop to some degree,” says frontman Dan Whitford. “Even when we think we’re doing something crazy, it still sounds a bit poppy.”
Whitfrod sat down with us backstage at Lille Vega ahead of the final show of Cut Copy’s tour to talk about Free Your Mind, touring, recording, and why he’s afraid of concept albums.
Today’s the last day of the tour?
Last show. We fly back tomorrow. I think we’ve got most of the day here, and then we fly out in the evening. It’s crazy. The start of this tour just seemed like a never-ending run of shows. We have a backstage pass with all the shows on it, and we completed a whole US tour and it wasn’t even a quarter of the way through! We were like, “What the hell is going on? It’s going to go forever.” But we somehow got there. It’s been a really fun tour, actually, so that certainly hasn’t been a problem. But I think just being away from home, and missing being in Australian summer for two months is a bit of a thing for us. We’re keen to get back and put some shorts on and go to the beach.
Had the new songs been road tested before?
No, this was our first tour for the record. It came out when we’d already started this tour, so this was the first chance to play these songs to our fans. But it’s been cool.
Is there a learning curve to playing them live?
Yeah, we do figure it out but until you actually go on stage sometimes you don’t actually know what’s going to work properly or whether the songs come across properly to crowds. I guess just because the way we write music is very much that when we’re in a studio, we’re not thinking about performing live, we’re just like, “well, we can add this and add this and all sorts of crazy shit.” But then when it actually gets to playing it, we can’t have 30 different instruments on stage. We each play our parts, so sometimes it’s a weird translation from the record to a live context. I think you have to adapt a bit as you go. But thankfully the songs from this record seem to have worked really well from the beginning. I haven’t felt like we’ve had to change much, it’s just been like, “Yes, that’s how it should sound.”
Any songs in particular working well?
I really enjoy playing, “Let Me Show You Love.” I guess it’s a more deep song, maybe not quite as much of a pop song as some of the other tracks on the record. It seemed like maybe that was something that wouldn’t necessarily win over crowds. I mean, it was fun for us to play, but it’s actually worked really well in the context of the live set, and people really seem to get into it, so it’s a nice surprise that people are enjoying the track that we actually enjoy playing the most.
Do you prefer recording or touring?
It goes in phases. Certainly, by the end of making this record, I just wanted to go and play some shows. We’d been at home for a year and a half, we’d been working on the record writing, and then all these stages of recording, and then mixing. I think after a while you can’t even get in front of an audience, because you almost forget when you’re in a studio for too long that people are going to actually hear it. Because you think, after a while, it’s only the people in the band that have been listening to it, and that’s all that matters. But in actual fact, you just need other people to hear it. Sometimes you’re like, “What were we worrying about? It works!”
We’re still really enjoying playing live at the moment, but usually by the end of touring a particular record you’re pretty keen to get back in the studio, because I think as exciting as touring and traveling is, eventually you get to a point where you want to get some sort of creative stimulation again. You’ve been playing those songs so many times over and over that you want to find something new. It goes in cycles. It balances out. You can’t have one without the other, and they’re equally fun in their own way.
Do you ever write on the road?
It’s sort of difficult, because making electronic music in particular, it’s so reliant on the instruments and different synthesizers and equipment that you have on hand, you’re experimenting with all these different things, and using so many different things at once, that it’s kind of hard when you’re away touring. You don’t have access to all that. I’ve done remixing and that sort of thing while touring in the past, but not so much writing songs from scratch. I think probably also because half the time you’re on tour you’re feeling a bit hung over and sorry for yourself, so it’s not really the right mindset for being creative.
Would you describe “Free Your Mind” as a theme for the album?
I guess it does. I think it emerged, but we didn’t set out to do that. We really set out to not think about the end result. When we were making the record, as almost a technique to not get stuck, we decided that we’re just going to be totally positive about any suggestion that anyone made. We’d just try it, no matter how stupid it sounded, and then we can always come back later, and we can decide then if it’s good or not. To avoid having a stalemate where you’re just not sure whether you should do something or not and then have an argument, let’s just do it. You can always decide later. We didn’t really go back and listen to any of the songs that we were writing or recording until much later, particularly as a group. It wasn’t until maybe six months or more into the process that we actually listened to all of the ideas that we’d been working on. That’s when we discovered that there might be some sort of thread that runs through some of these songs. Once we discovered that, we tried to draw that out a little bit. I guess maybe the concept emerged, but I’m always scared to say “concept album” because it sounds self indulgent.
Are there other lyrical themes?
I guess so. Not all the songs seem to fit into that same box. The thing that sets this record apart to me is that previous records have been a lot more personal or introverted. The first record feels like a weird, lonely, solitary record. This one feels like almost an open invitation to anyone and everyone to be involved in what the record is about. Almost like a call to arms in a way for people who are listening to it to let go and enjoy themselves and do whatever they need to do for that to happen. For me, it feels like that probably is the thing that sets it apart from other records that we’ve done.
Where did the dialogue samples come from?
All sorts of different places. Some of them are from old mini disc recordings that I made when I was a teenager, recording all these different things from television and radio and weird places. A large number of them are from field recordings. Ben, our bass player, moved to Washington DC, and went around with this portable recorder, and just recorded people. Just asking them about their weirdest experiences and the strangest things that had happened to them and got some pretty funny results. A lot of those have ended up on the record as well.
What is your recording process like? As the main producer for the album, is it difficult to balance producing with recording?
At some point there needs to be someone that makes the final decision. I think we try to keep it as a group process up to a certain point. If no one can decide, I’m just like, “Well, I’m the producer, this is what we’re doing.” I put my foot down every now and then. But I think, inevitably, if you’re making electronic music you’re always producing your own music on some level. Even if you have an outside producer — like our second record, we worked with Tim Goldsworthy as a producer — but still, even just making the synthesizer sounds or deciding to use particular instruments, that’s basically doing the job of a producer. It’s not like we’re a rock band, we each have our instrument and that’s what happens. We switch around so much that it feels like we’re always producing our own records, even if we’re working with someone else. But it’s been cool, the last two records we’ve done in a very DIY way, where just found a cool space and set up our own studio, brought in all our own gear. It feels like a modern way of doing things as well, because you don’t need a big recording studio these days to make a record. You can bring in your computer and some good equipment and all your instruments, and there’s no reason you can’t make an awesome-sounding record.
Have you set up a permanent studio?
No, we’ve had two different ones. They were both warehouses. The first one, the one we used for Zonoscope, was a very rustic: Holes in the ceiling, no heating or anything like that. It was incredibly cold, because we were recording in winter, so we had these big coats on, and had one little bar heater that we huddled around, and if someone had to go and record something, they’d have to run up to the other end of the room, get cold as they were recording their instruments, and run back again. This time around we found a much better space that had actual acoustic treatment because bands were rehearsing there sometimes. And it had heating. We learned from the Zonoscope experience that some comfort is probably good.