In 2008 Cut Copy released “In Ghost Colours”, produced in New York by DFA’s Tim Goldsworthy, and beguiled pretty much everyone with dancefloor friendly singles, sleepy interludes and epic choruses conducive to group singalongs at festivals. You might remember half-heatedly performing jazz hands at a music festival somewhere two years ago. It was probably Cut Copy’s fault. It would later grace most critics’ end-of-year lists and ensnare fourth place on Pitchfork’s top albums of 2008 among other accolades. They don’t take it lightly though and despite the critical acclaim heaped upon their blissful sophomore release, Cut Copy are weary of stagnancy. Halfway through touring In Ghost Colours they recruited former Damn Arms guitarist Ben Browning and would later find a Melbourne warehouse to write, record and self-produce their follow up, Zonoscope. Evolution it seems, is central to the band’s process. Pedestrian recently caught up with guitarist Tim Hoey to talk growth, camera crews, Atlanta vocal ensembles and the unenviable task of following a critically acclaimed LP.
Hey Tim, how’s your day been so far? More of the same really. Lots of interviews. I’ve had my second coffee about to get onto my third in the space of an hour. I guess it’s that time when you have to do a lot of press but you can’t really help it.
Are you listening to hours of terrible call waiting music? I actually have been. And from all different countries as well. The one thing I’ve noticed is that nearly every country uses the same call waiting music and it’s a very non-specific sounding type of music, I’m not exactly sure what genre it is. But it’s this universal theme for call waiting music around the world and I know it well.
Let’s talk about making the new album which you documented with your mates Krozm, what was that like having someone ever present in that capacity while you were making an album? I think if it wasn’t Krozm we wouldn’t have done it just because they’re good friends of ours and have been so for years. It was just like having friends hang out in the studio as opposed to a film crew. I think if that was the case, if we had a random crew of people filming us it wouldn’t have turned out like it did. When you’re making a record it’s such an introverted experience, you’re kind of in there on your own and you want to be shut off but when you’re on camera it really feels like you have to perform or something. And we didn’t really feel comfortable with that idea at all. But at the same time we really wanted to document the process because as an artist I’m always interested in the process and I’m always hunting down making-of films and documentaries like that and I just think it’s great for the audience to get an inside picture of how this album was made.
Have you watched it all back yet? Yeah I have, we always saw the edits as they were coming through. I think for the first time we’ve actually been captured in our most natural light. It really shows us for who we are and gives an accurate portrayal of us making the record. It’s just gonna be really interesting for us to look back on in years to come.
Speaking of processes I guess one of the biggest changes to the process would have been Ben Browning coming on as a permanent member. How did his presence impact the songwriting this time round? It was great having Ben around. I guess he came on board around halfway through touring “In Ghost Colours” and he’s a friend of ours from way back as well so it wasn’t like we were bringing in a total stranger. I think everybody in Cut Copy’s pretty tight and we’re all pretty close friends so bringing another person in can sometimes upset that balance but luckily with Ben he was a good friend and a talented musician. I think he’s actually the only person in Cut Copy who’s a classically trained musician (laughs) so he actually brought a lot of musicianship to the band which is something we’ve never had in the past. He’s been a great addition. He’s actually my housemate as well so I also live with the guy it’s amazing we’re not sick of the sight of each other yet.
Also in the album doco there’s footage of you guys working with a choir for the first time ever. Was that a pre-planned thing and how did you find those amazing people? It was an idea we had when we were writing the record. We were listening to Bowie’s “Young Americans” or Primal Scream’s “Screamadelica” where they use the gospel choir and we thought that was a really interesting element that could be added to our music and it’s something we never really tried before. And when we started talking to Ben Allen about mixing the record we mentioned that to him and he knew a vocal ensemble in Atlanta that he’d be able to get for us. I think you can see them in the last instalment of the documentary working on “Need You Now” and they were just amazing to work with. They were amazingly talented singers and they just helped heighten the epic moments on the record which is something we really wanted to try. They also seemed to compliment Dan’s voice really well. We didn’t necessarily want them to be the focus, just to work in harmony with what Dan was doing and it was amazing to see it work out so well.
The choir’s a great example of what I think is really interesting about you guys which is how specific and honed in the sounds are. From a songwriting point of view are you guys trying to replicate a sound in your head or is it more a case of experimenting then seeing what sticks? I think the majority of it comes from experimenting and I can see how it was easier to do that this time around. We had that warehouse space at our disposal, we weren’t in an expensive studio constantly watching the clock and worrying about how much money we were spending. And I guess for this record it was very much about reimagining the Cut Copy sonic palette. Working from a different array of sounds whether it was different synthesizers or different guitar sounds or the different percussion we utilized on this record. It was very much stripping back what we had done before and stepping outside of our comfort zone which is great for any band to do because it doesn’t limit what you can come up with. That was definitely an important aspect of making this record, the emphasis on experimentation.
One hangover from the last two records though is that emphasis on coherence within an album. What is it that appeals to you guys about letting the tracks bleed into each other? I guess that’s something we’ve done with every album and I think we do it because we want to make albums that you can listen to from start to finish. Hopefully it becomes an experience that the listener can fully immerse themselves in where time becomes irrelevant and no one song is meant to be more important than another. It’s funny because a lot of the interludes from this record actually came from a session we did in the warehouse. Dan and I were watching a film by Werner Herzog called Fitzcarraldo and there’s a scene in it where they pull a 40 tonne steamship over a mountain and we actually composed music for that scene. The session from that became a lot of the interludes on this record. But yeah, it’s great to have a cohesive album. I don’t think it’s a focus for bands these days because the way people use the internet in dribs and drabs it can be pretty disheartening. But for us it’s very much about the album from start to finish and not just a collection of songs so to speak.
Vibe-wise where does the new album differ from In Ghost Colours? For this one I think it was more about creating a rhythmic, hypnotic kind of record. And that kind of vibe came from a lot of extended jamming and working in loops and locking into a groove and the idea of repetition holding the song together. You kind of get taken away by what’s happening. And once again, time becomes a bit irrelevant and you completely lose yourself in the experience. That was, I guess, one angle for the record. There are certain aspects of the percussion that we haven’t…I guess we hinted at it on “In Ghost Colours” but it became more of a focus on this record. That combination of more organic percussion sounds contrasted against the machine made more synthetic sounds. That became more of a focus on this record.
Just on the synthetic vs organic thing, where’s the usual jumping off point when you guys write? Does it start with a beat or piano chords or does it change every time? I think every song’s different and we certainly let the song dictate where it’s gonna go. It’s not like we go “Ok, this is our dance song and this is our rock song”. I don’t think it’s as considered as that. It’s more about “what would be an interesting direction for this song to take?”. We let that dictate the process. But as you’ve said every album has been about this contrast between a rock band and the more bedroom producer kind of thing and that’s something that actually began on Bright Like Neon Love. I think “Future” was the first song Dan and I ever worked on together and it was a different sounding song before we added the live guitar and the bass to the song. It really took it in another direction and it kickstarted the whole Cut Copy thing as far as it being a band. Before we were a band it was just Dan at home more focused on house music and that kind of production then it slowly morphed into what you hear now.
The funny thing though is that every record sounds undeniably Cut Copy, perhaps just a different version each time. Are you guys super self aware when it comes to plotting the evolution of your sound? I think the only pressure we’ve put on ourselves is internal and we try to be as ambitious as we possibly can within ourselves when it comes to finding new ways to make sounds or writing songs. When we started out no one knew how to play their instruments at all, we were all self taught so it comes from honing your craft a little bit. But still trying to keep that naivety that made it special in the first place. Like I don’t think you’re going to hear any shredding guitar solos on any Cut Copy records anytime soon (laughs) or anything like that. I think it’s about growing as musicians and through each release taking it in different territory and not trying to repeat what you’ve done before. That’s the struggle, to keep elements that make it familiar to audiences but also trying to take it in a different direction. That’s our aim for every record.
Because In Ghost Colours was so critically acclaimed it does put you guys in this weird position where people will compare this work no matter what to your last. Obviously you guys were aware of that but was it ever something you discussed? It’s a bit of a cliché when musicians say “you try not to think about it” and be completely shut off from the rest of the world and I think you can only do that to a certain degree then curiosity will get the better of you. Still, I think you have to be really disciplined in what you’re doing because if you read too much about what other people think it can compromise the music and the writing process. Instead you’re writing to what people think the album is going to be. It’s always really interesting to hear people’s impressions of songs and what they get out of it because a lot of the time it’s different to what our intention was with it. It’s great that people care about what we’re doing and we certainly don’t take that for granted. It’s a rare thing these days to see a band release a whole bunch of records. It feels like they come and go at such a rapid rate, they’re chewed up then spat out. It can be really disheartening to a lot of people and it’s been really fortunate that we’ve been able to release a whole bunch of records and like you said, it grew organically. We didn’t have a big breakout debut that was surrounded with a lot of hype it’s kind of grown in a traditional way – touring, trying to write good records, trying to make the next record better than the last or different to the last. I guess that’s the challenge.
Let’s talk about the production for this album. On “Bright Like Neon Love” you guys self produced it and on “In Ghost Colours” you went with Tim Goldsworhty but for “Zonoscope” you went back to self producing. Why did you choose to go back to that way of working? I guess with every record the majority of the writing has been done by us before that stage of working with other people. Even on the first record we worked with Phillipe Zdar, he kind of co-produced it in Paris but all the songwriting was done by that stage. And it was the same with Tim. When we went over there he said “I don’t want to change anything, I just want to help you guys sonically get where you have to go.” He was very much about serving the record not putting the Tim Goldsworthy stamp on it and we learned a lot from working with those people and they were very generous with their knowledge and their time. But this time around we thought it would be great to do this one from start to finish by ourselves, obviously we had Ben Allen mix it which was an amazing experience in itself. But yeah, it was more about freedom, we weren’t worried about watching the clock or using an expensive producer. Just hanging around while we were trying to come up with ideas for songs was kind of a liberating experience.
Thanks for you time Tim. No worries mate.