It’s interesting to consider what’s been going through the collective heads of Cut Copy over the past twelve months. Their last record, “In Ghost Colours,” was a monster, the Australians arriving with the right sound at the right time to be handed the keys to the United States – a very grand dream that few international bands realise. A whirlwind of acclaim and some sold out touring followed. But if 2009 had been a year of pills and powder, 2010 was surely one of coffee, weed and ibogaine, the four members retiring to a Melbourne warehouse and hammering out their long awaited follow-up, “Zonoscope.” It’s not a sophomore, but such are expectations that it will surely be judged like one. I had the good fortune to chat to bass player Ben Browning on the eve of the local launch for Zonoscope. He sounded surprisingly relaxed. – Matt Shea
Where are you calling from?
I’m actually calling from home. I’m in Melbourne.
The band’s still based there?
Yeah, we actually all live in Melbourne, so yeah, that’s probably been the base of Cut Copy for the duration of the band’s career. Tim, our guitarist, lived in Sydney for a few years but he’s back here now.
The new album – Zonoscope. Congratulations: you guys are happy with the way it’s come together?
Yeah we’re extremely happy. It was a process where we were involved with things quite closely all the way through and produced it ourselves and found a warehouse space in Melbourne to do the recording, which we initially thought we’d be using to do demos, and as the process went on we were like, ‘This is sounding good.’ Yeah, it was great. It was a real do-it-yourself environment. We just brought in gear that we needed – borrowed gear and hired gear – and cracked away in this dark, big warehouse throughout winter. The place had no heating or anything like that so we weren’t in Jamaica, kinda sitting on the beach and occasionally doing a bit of tracking; we worked pretty hard when we were in there, because if you weren’t playing something you were trying to find a few coats to sink into and not freeze.
But we’re really happy with it and it’s a bit weird, because you work on something for a long time and then you finish it and then it gets put on hold sort of thing until it’s ready to come out at a desired time. And it feels like you re-realise the album when it finally comes out. You’ve lived with it for a long time and people are hearing it for the first time, all of a sudden, and it reignites your interest, I guess.
To say that In Ghost Colours was a well-received record would be an understatement. How do you follow up an album like that? What were some of the things you wanted to do?
I guess we wanted to do something different but then I guess that’s been the ethos of the band since we started. I think if you compare the first album to the second album, they’re quite different in sound and scope, and this time we wanted to try a bunch of different processes and techniques compared to the last one as well. Just doing it ourselves was a big challenge in itself. I guess just using a different palette of sound, different keyboard sounds and different rhythm ideas, like using a lot of percussion, live percussion and things like that, and we would jam different ideas and find loops and stuff out of those. So I guess there was maybe a bit more of an organic focus on this one. I think just being influenced by different music – you don’t really want to just stay in one place.
Did you feel any pressure?
Yeah, maybe – we never really talked about it. I don’t know, I guess we were just excited to do something. It was a long time since In Ghost Colours had come out when we started working on this, and we’d been touring that album for a while. So I guess the excitement of doing something new was just the focus, I guess. We weren’t really too worried about comparing things. I guess, occasionally, you might do something and think, ‘Oh, that sounds like something we did before and is there another way we can do it.’ But, generally, you just take what’s in front of you and whatever song we were working on, that was the focus, and we weren’t really thinking about looking back too much.
A big part of In Ghost Colours was your collaboration with Tim Goldsworthy and the DFA crew – with that in mind, was it intimidating taking on the production yourselves this time around?
Yeah, to some degree. We actually thought as we were doing it that we might collaborate with someone, or we may get a producer in at some point at the start. And then as we were going through we started thinking, ‘We could actually probably do this ourselves.’ Dan pretty much produces: he’s probably uncredited but had a major role in the production of the previous two albums, so a lot of what you’re hearing on those two records is really Dan’s production sound anyway. There was a little bit of trepidation about doing it ourselves, but I think once we’d heard how things were going we were pretty excited and we got positive feedback. Yeah, there wasn’t too much fear.
There’s a slightly different sound going on here – a dancier sound, a harder sound, maybe a darker sound. That wintry, warehouse environment: do you think that affected the sound of the album?
Yeah, I guess so. It’s hard to pick out specifically why, but I think just being in an environment you create yourself, it didn’t feel like there was external pressure – there was no one to answer to – so we were able to try things. No one was there to say ‘no’ basically. We would try anything we could think of, without worrying about being on the clock or anything like that. So we had a lot of freedom, but then we were also focussed on getting things finished and not letting the process take over and be a monster that we couldn’t reign in. We somehow managed to find a balance between just experimenting with whatever we wanted to do and sort of focussing on getting it finished, because you can sort of go off on tangents forever. Even just the space – everyone was just thrown in there and doing a bit of this and that – it was pretty fun, I guess. We’d find something to bash. I mean, I dunno if it’s on the record – I think it is – there was just this ladder there, I dunno why it was in there, but it was resting against some beams in the roof, and someone whacked it and we thought, ‘that’s got a pretty good sound,’ so our drummer ended up doing some kind of ladder solo and getting different sounds out of that and mic-ing that up. There was also just a heap of crazy gear in this place. We had a big room and in this other huge room was almost like a museum of stuff – hardly any of it worked, but anything we needed or wanted to try, we were allowed to try – the guy that owned the place was really cool.
What kind of stuff were you listening to at the time?
I guess the last album – it was really a part of that Australian electro takeover or whatever you want to call it, with Midnight Juggernauts and The Presets and stuff, and it definitely belonged to that time and that era. And this album, I guess, was probably a little bit of a move away from that sound and that scene. There’s so much out there and we’re always listening to new stuff – if we wanted to make that record today it would probably sound different to Zonoscope. Through time you just find different things to get into. There was definitely a lot of 70s Brian Eno-related records – your solo stuff and Roxy Music and Talking Heads and some of the tribal 80s stuff, like Malcolm McLaren. It was definitely something we were interested in and we kinda found a new avenue of different sound in those records that we could recreate – we were definitely influenced by those sorts of things.
The album was mixed in Atlanta by Ben Allen – what did he bring to the table?
He’d work closely with the band on mixing the record and just getting it up to speed, in a way. It was pretty much recorded and produced before he mixed it, but he’s done some amazing work with Animal Collective and also in the hip hop realm. He worked on Gnarls Barkley and heaps of stuff with hip hop artists about ten years ago, so he has this unique background in sound and obviously his approach to sound is something that we wanted to bring in at that point, and he also found kind of a gospel choir type vocal ensemble, so he found local singers to help do some backing vocals on a few tracks as well, so I think overall it worked out really well.
Cut Copy have been around in one guise or another for some time now. Does it strike you how much has changed in electronic music in that time?
Yeah. I guess it did start out being a unique sound when Cut Copy first came out – probably influenced a bit by The Avalanches and it was originally DJing and sampling stuff and Dan throwing his hat in for songwriting a bit, and just following this really experimental process, almost like a solo project to start with. As far as the band goes, we’re now obviously much more like a band and playing a lot of live instruments and all that stuff. So the Cut Copy sound has definitely evolved over that time and I guess I definitely hear the Cut Copy influence on a lot of new bands, which I guess is a bit bizarre. But things evolve and hopefully we’ll continue to evolve and without totally reinventing ourselves, trying to be on a bit of a journey with our own sound. And things have evolved – that dance music revolution where people play guitars and make dance music, it’s not so unique anymore. Things are always evolving and hopefully we just keep doing what we want to do. We don’t try to think too much about what our standing is.
You looking forward to getting Zonoscope out on the road?
Yeah, definitely. It’s always good to just get the album out of the CD player, bash it out live and get an immediate response from people. So, we’ll be doing a lot of tracks from the new record at Laneway [Festival, in Australia], and it’s gonna be really fun to just, yeah, see how that goes down. After that, we’ve probably got a good twelve months of touring the album around the world, so life’s gonna speed up a bit (laughs). We’re really pumped to do Laneway, because there’s just such a great line-up – there are all these bands that we’d love to see. I’d be going to that festival even if we weren’t playing at it. We’re really excited about that, and it seems like a really great way to start the album touring.
How do you describe the Cut Copy live experience to someone who’s never seen the show?
Well, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen the show (laughs). I don’t know. I guess its certainly energetic and we’ll try to get the crowd involved as much as we can. But, I don’t know, I think the new songs off the new album are going to change things – there’s a lot more live percussion and a few more hypnotic type tracks, so I’m not sure exactly how people are going to experience it…
It’ll certainly be a little different to past Cut Copy shows…
Yeah, a bit. We’ll probably still play “Heart’s On Fire” and people will still have their hands in the air and stuff, but there are certain elements of it that we always try to get everyone jumping up and down and into it, but maybe there will be a few more subtle diversions as well.
Do you guys tend to roll with a rigid set or do you improvise?
We’ll probably have a fairly structured set but we’ll have songs that we can interchange. So, a lot of it will be the same, but then we can kind of shift in and out. But yeah, a lot of what we’re doing this year involves video content and stuff like that, so a lot of it is kinda sequenced to the particular songs and stuff, so we can’t really change that up too much. We need to present that so it works, basically.
Talking about how Cut Copy has evolved from a one-man operation to a full band: with all the live shows you play these days, do you guys now consider your natural environment the studio or the stage?
It’s almost like two modes really. Because a lot of what we do live is try to make it sound like the record and keep a lot of the elements from the record that we can’t possibly play live, but we’ll have stuff running off a track or something, just to make sure that production of the record is still part of the live experience. I mean, it really does just feel like two different worlds in a way. When we’re playing live it feels like you’re in a cover band, you know what I mean? You’re just trying to realise what you’ve done, live. But I think they’re both amazing processes in their own right. Playing in front of a few thousand people or whatever and doing a whole set in an hour and just flying through it. Compared to just working on one part of one song for a whole day – they’re pretty uniquely different experiences I guess.
And you’re lined up for Coachella again this year – you must be excited about that. Cut Copy seem to have a special relationship with that place.
Yeah, definitely. We played there in 2008, before we had a national tour of the US, and that really kicked things off for us in an amazing way. It seemed to be talked about quite a bit, that particular show, so hopefully this year’s just as good, if not better. It’s an amazing place, an amazing setting, and we’re really excited to go back there. It ‘s one of the best run and curated festivals in the world, so there will be heaps of good bands to see and hopefully we don’t get scorched – it’s kind of in the desert. It get’s really, really hot.
You talk about that being a launching pad for you guys and I guess that’s one of those elements of festivals people don’t think about so much…
Yeah, that’s the great thing about music festivals: a lot of people will experience bands for the first time at music festivals. They’ll maybe go to a festival to see two or three bands that they really like and then they’ll find another two or three bands that they like just by being there. It’s always great to get that opportunity to play to new people and try and win their love.
MP3: Cut Copy-“Where I’m Going”
Stream: Cut Copy – Zonoscope