DAN WHITFORD and TIM HOEY from CUT COPY explain how they invented the title for their new album Zonoscope, don't care about chart positions and have been known to dance to their own songs.
When you listen back to Zonoscope, does it sound like the album you set out to make?
Dan: Yeah, we’re stoked with it! It’s a weird time because we’ve been finished with it for a while and, finally, it’s going to be everywhere tomorrow [February 4], which is exciting.
Tim: It was the same with In Ghost Colours, they had to line up territories and it sat around for ages, which was frustrating at the time. Thankfully, this one’s been more seamless and it’s coming out around the world almost simultaneously.
Since In Ghost Colours did so well, do you feel any need to address the expectations people have about a Cut Copy album?
D: I think you’ve just got to focus on your bit of it. I guess that’s the good thing about having a team around us like our label, management, and people that do all the engine room work of getting a record out to people; we just focus on being creative and making something that it hopefully new and exciting for us and other people. We really try not to think at all about commercial concerns or other people’s expectations, that’s for them to worry about, the whole ‘is it going to work on the radio or whatever’. I guess they might tell us if they think nothing is going to get played, but we’re not really aware of these other concerns that more commercially-minded people might be.
So, you won’t be checking the Australian or Billboard chart entry position then?
D: No, not at all. It’s almost the last thing on our minds really. I guess we didn’t know what a chart was when our last record came out [laughs], and we were lucky enough to have a number one in this country - that was a total surprise. We thought that was the realm of people other than us, [gestures to the massive posters adorning the walls of the Universal Music board room] Bieber and Gaga. It’s not something we think about ever.
What prompted the short video you released in October of you guys in the studio partway through making the album? It sounded like you were revisiting some early Sonic Youth in an abandoned warehouse.
T: Yeah, it sounded like we were making the sequel to Metal Machine Music [laughs]. Our idea was to get people wondering what the hell we were doing in this warehouse space. Making that documentary was a look at behind the scenes of how we were making a record. As artists we’re always fascinated by behind the scenes process and we’re constantly hunting down the series of Making Of... DVDs or books about making albums and I think it gives a really accurate portrait of who we are as well as the process of making that record.
The opening track Need You Now has been getting a fair bit of buzz. Were you expecting that track to be singled out?
D: No, not really, I’m thrilled it has been though. I remember when you [gestures to Tim] first listened to it. I’d been tinkering with it at home one morning we were meeting up to go and talk about some band-related issue, and it was something I’d been tinkering with the night before. In the morning, Tim and Ben turned up and I was like ‘check this out’. It was only a sketch of what that track was but immediately everyone had the same feeling about it, that it was this quite unusual but at the same time classic-sounding track. I think the way we recorded it has done justice to that original idea, creating this sprawling, building thing. It almost moves like Bowie’s Heroes, which was a reference point we were using while we made the album. It has this slow-burning dynamic, starts small, is long, and gets huge by the end.
Did you use the gated microphone trick he does on that track, since you had a warehouse to record in?
D: Not on that track no, but it was something we talked about ‘Hey, we’ve got this huge space - we can do that Bowie thing!’ But that song was partly a process of figuring out how to belt out the vocals more than I ever had before on Cut Copy tunes. It’s one of the vocal performances on this new record that I’m really happy with. It’s awesome that people are having the same feeling we had about it, that there’s something special about it, something that’s unusual enough to stand out but it could still be a single - it is now I guess. It’s nice that that’s translated.
Did you intentionally try to use different vocal range on these new songs?
D: Yeah, a lot of the songs are more percussion-driven, with some of the tracks singing differently felt right rather than doing the vocals I’d done on In Ghost Colours, which had a gentler, almost polite sound. This felt like it needed a punchier, almost stern, chanted vocal sound to it, quite primitive - like you would sing as if you just had drums and vocals. With all of the records we’ve worked up to getting more diverse skills, whether it’s Tim’s guitar sound and finding ways to use the weird noises he can conjure up, or Mitchell’s drumming which has gone from…uh…questionable in the beginning [laughter] to being pretty awesome these days. I think everyone’s gone on a journey since the beginning. Vocally, this has felt like a big development from the last record.
Do you ever dance to your own songs?
T: [slightly embarrassed and carefully] When we’ve been out in clubs and they’ve come on, we’ve…kept…dancing…
D: Yeah, don’t fight it.
T: [laughs] That’s right. I think it’s important for the music to be able to exist in a lot of different contexts. A lot of it is based around house music and references that, but we like the idea of it being able to exist in the club but also at home on the stereo or walking around the city, that’s very important and that’s where a lot of the pop music elements come into it. Maybe we’ll bring in some of the harder house sounds or shoegaze guitar stuff to try and keep it accessible in every kind of environment.
Is a Zonoscope the name of the artwork you used on the cover?
T: [pauses] No, the idea came from us. The cover is actually this bird’s eye view of this world we created for this record and we decided a Zonoscope would be the lens used to view it. We wanted to come up with our own word for it so for the rest of time when anyone mentioned Zonoscope it would only be associated with this album.
Or Googled it even?
T: Yeah, exactly [laughs]. We really liked the idea of this record standing on it’s own and creating a new world which the image on the album cover represents for us. Hopefully it will be in the urban dictionary in years to come [laughs]
D: Yeah, with our faces on it [more laughter].
How did you come by the cover art?
T: We just stumbled across it then tracked down the artist who created it and actually found it in a collection of photomontage artworks that I found in the RMIT art library with a lot of the pages torn out, thankfully this picture was the cover. I thought this guy was incredible and this image seemed like an idea that encapsulated this other place that the record existed in. A big place, quite grand, modern but prehistoric, this combination of here and a far away exotic place as well. We sourced the image from the publisher of that book in Japan. The artist passed away in the 90s but we got permission from his wife who found the image at their house, buried under a whole bunch of other prints. We were lucky to get it in the end; it all seemed to come together. She was really cool about it once she found out we weren’t wanting to put it on a t-shirt and make a million bucks off this image her husband had created.
You’ve worked with other Japanese artists in the past like Nagi Noda, were you surprised to find out that this artist was Japanese?
D: I wasn’t surprised at all. To me Japanese people seem to have a real aesthetic and visual sense whether it’s with pop culture, absorbing Mickey Mouse and Western culture or with their own. There’s some amazing graphic design and designers from Japan, and since I’m a graphic designer, I’m aware of art and graphic art from that era, there are some amazing illustrators too. Technically, one of the things about this image that I really like - and you can see form our previous record covers - is that I’m slightly obsessed with photorealistic, almost airbrushed, art. With [first album] Bright Like Neon Love, that was me recreating that style. Making these hyper-realistic images, it’s almost like a lost art form. [Looks at CD cover] To me it just reminds me of covers that I love, from Krautrock albums or covers that only exist because there’s a super-talented artist who made it, not because you’ve got the latest version of Photoshop [laughs]. And it just looks different; you could try to recreate this in Photoshop, in fact I did my own not-so-good version of this [more laughter] using Photoshop. Soon I was like ‘ah, let’s try and find the actual guy that did this’. There is a magic to the way it comes together. It looks modern and futuristic, but…there’s something about it that is…
D: Yeah, it almost doesn’t come from now as well. It’s a weird combination that just works.
Part of the power of a lot of the songs on Zonoscope seems to come from the evocation of Australian electro-pop bands from the mid-80s and sounds that listeners might not have heard since then. I’m thinking of bands that only had a few songs like Koo de Tah, I’m Talking or The Machinations, their songs don’t get compiled or played the way that punk or new wave bands do. Is this era a direct inspiration?
D: Well, yeah. One of these tracks is called Strange Nostalgia for the Future, which is based on a Brian Eno quote from when he was talking about Kraftwerk. He said it their music was futuristic but at the same time, it’s nostalgia for 1920s dancehall music; the most modern thing you can imagine but still quite old fashioned in a weird way. We try to listen to new music as much as old, and within the music we love, I can see an evolution over time. I think we reference that pathway and hopefully push it into somewhere new and different as well.
T: I think with synthesizer music it has that connotation of 80s pop scene, and it’s constantly tied to that. We try and re-imagine that with modern production techniques, where we try to find sounds that are more unusual. We use the Fairlight on Zonoscope, which is quite an archaic-sounding synthesizer-sampler, the first one of which was invented in Australia. It’s not in a cool vintage way like a CS80, it’s more clunky and very mechanical sounding, so we thought it would be great to treat that with a more modern production technique.
Synthesizers will always have that connotation regardless of what you do with them, I think it covers every decade from then till now.
Was making Zonoscope a totally different process to making Bright Like Neon Love? Has the process changed?
T: It’s totally changed. Now, there’s an initial period where we just listen to stuff and we kind of compile references we’ve come across since the last record. Every time we go on tour we come back from overseas there’s an extra suitcase of records and after this period of absorbing stuff there’s another period where I’ll tinker at home, get ideas and get some basic song structures down. Then I get the other guys in to say ‘what do you think?’ We’ll work on them bit by bit and finally we have a more extended session where we go to town on each of the tracks in the warehouse and transform them into the songs they are on the record.
D: For Bright Like Neon Love I just worked on everything at home and gave a cassette to Tim who layered guitar over it. We tracked everything in an afternoon at a studio in Northcote and mixed the thing in Paris.
T: Yeah, I didn’t even realise I was in a band until afterwards [laughs].
When you go overseas, do you feel any more Australian than you do day-to-day?
D: Yeah, we ARE Australian [laughs] so definitely. I think there is an Australian-ness about us, I think we’re pretty down-to-earth and we like good food and good coffee - the same can’t be said for a lot of places we tour [more laughter]. There is an Australian-ness about us we’re quite proud of, but at the same time, from the very beginning we weren’t championed in Australia, we didn’t have a scene or anything. We just did our own thing and eventually things started to develop around us like The Presets or Midnight Juggernauts and like-minded people finding a connection. Now it’s almost that Australia is known for electronic music. When we started you could barely name an electronic act from Australia that had done anything overseas. It was quite a different scenario.
It’s interesting, I feel like we’re an international band these days, we spend as much time here as we do anywhere else in the world and our fans are pretty evenly distributed which is nice for us we because we get to travel a lot and get in front of all of these people. 90% of the next nine months will be spent away. So yeah, we definitely still consider ourselves Australian.
Do you think many of your fans know you’re Australian?
D: Oh definitely.
T: I don’t think we have a distinctly Australian sound, but then I don’t know what one is, I guess it would be rock music, the foundations of AC/DC, stuff like that. Actually, it’s funny, everybody thinks we’re from England when we go overseas it’s often: ‘British three-piece Cut Copy’ even when we talk they never think we’re Australian [laughs].
Will you mainly be touring for the rest of 2011?
T: The majority of the year will be focused on touring, but we’ve also realised that we have a lot of music left over from the sessions at the warehouse and we’d love to get to a point where we’re releasing music on a regular basis. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the next Cut Copy album you need to promote and do a big thing about; we love the idea of putting out a 12-inches of straight-up house tracks. There’s all these little half-ideas and sketches of songs, and it would be great to put out an EP of those, the way bands used to; Guided By Voices or the Suitcase Series. We have all these little ideas that may not fit as part of the next Cut Copy record. It would be great to find an outlet for this and release a lot of music. We love that old model of a band releasing an album a year or even more recently like Deerhunter, Bradford Cox, constantly releasing music – amazing music. It would be great to get to that point, hopefully we can find some time to release that stuff one way or another.