Last November, Cut Copy released Oceans Apart, a compilation with an accompanying documentary, both of which cast a spotlight on up-and-coming members of Melbourne’s indigenous dance music scene. That multiple oceans are referred to in the title – as opposed to, say, just one – speaks to the extent that geographical isolation factors into the Australian band’s understanding of what it and the acts featured on Oceans Apart are up to musically.
From the perspective of frontman Dan Whitford, the physical distance between Melbourne and the oft-cited bastions of western dance music – New York, Berlin, London – affords him the opportunity to “burrow down and just come up with something really weird.”
But it’s fair to assume that more than isolation brings about this type of speciation from proximal dance scenes: It comes out of the tempo and mood of Australia’s climate and physical landscape. In a place where the signature animal just kind of hops around, is it any surprise that so do its bass lines?
Cut Copy is actively leading the vanguard of things that are both definitively Australian and good. It’s a role that Whitford seems to acknowledge carries a certain amount of responsibility to direct listeners to the music happening around him. Oceans Apart accomplishes that, and it does so in a way that enhances our idea of Australianness.
Take Ara Koufax’s “Brenda”, a cut that borrows a vocal sample from South African anti-Apartheid singer Brenda Fassie and uses it to advance rhythmic structures that, as described in the documentary, “seem to work well when you’re driving through the bush.” Throughout the compilation, elements borrowed from other cultures come back in a way that sounds like an image from an Australia postcard.
“Definitively Australian” isn’t so much a measurable quality as it is just pretty evident when listening to Cut Copy. We tend to shy away from positivity, but Cut Copy’s music unashamedly promotes it. This is music about good vibes, and that message gets reinforced in each shimmering strum of an acoustic guitar and every massive, naked sunburst of a chorus.
This is all really to say that Cut Copy packs a level of exuberance that no self-respecting New Yorker, for example, would ever let himself really experience. That said, even the most hardened New Yorker listening to “Lights and Music” for the first time would most likely observe that what he or she is listening to is far from trite or cheesy, even if most of the usual checkboxes are being filled. There’s a wide-eyed otherness at play that mutes that type of criticism.
Ben Browning of Cut Copy DJs at Irving Penn’s Beyond Beauty Opening Party & After Hours Event at the Smithsonian American Art Museum on Friday, October 23. Forest Through the Trees is available on Soundcloud. Free Your Mind is available on Modular Records.
I saw you reconfigured your home studio recently. How’s it sounding?
Pretty good! There’s always an element of procrastinating when you start working on a long-term creative project, and that’s sort of always been the case. Sometimes, it’s a bit hard to tell whether the reconfiguration of the studio is actually a practical thing or whether you’re actually just sort of procrastinating and not getting started with what you actually should be doing. But it certainly looks nice, so we made some cool beginnings on a new record. I would say that it’s doing the job.
You’re working on a new Cut Copy record?
Yeah, as soon as I start sitting back in the studio, that’s sort of essentially what I’ll be doing.
For any Cut Copy record, there’s usually a fairly long period of each of us going off, and usually I’ll sort of generate a bunch of ideas and directions. Then when enough of that’s fleshed out, there’s a bit of a feeling of what the record’s about. Then we get together and work on it a bit more collaboratively.
But I guess this part of the process is sort of still at stage one. I’ve been working on stuff and playing stuff for the other guys, but we haven’t really sat down in a room together and started fleshing out the ideas yet.
Can you say what it’s sounding like?
That’s a very good question. [Laughs]
There are about twenty different sort of ideas and directions there right now. It’s really about picking maybe one or two of those directions and running with them to sort of figure out what the end result’s going to be.
At this stage, it feels like there are a lot of different options there and a lot of ideas for where we can take things, but as far as actually what the record is, or what the definitive direction sort of going forward is, it’s probably a little bit too early to really say.
Or I could tell you something but it probably would change by the time the record is out
That was a very artful non-answer.
[Laughs] Thank you!
It sounds like you guys have something like a system at this point.
A lot of things are always the same with making our records. Usually, the ideas start with me, kind of just sitting down in my home studio, turning machines on, and seeing what kind of noises come out.
And, I guess, as far as how we are going to work on things going forward, we have the idea of maybe working somewhere we haven’t recorded before. I’m not sure where that would be, or sort of what the process is going to be, but I think we just sort of never really want to repeat ourselves in the recording process.
Early on, we said we would try to get together somewhere “weird” to record an album. Stay tuned for that one.
My impression ever since In Ghost Colors has been that you guys manage to accomplish two things at once, musically: You have a strong dance-pop aesthetic, but you also have an almost stadium-rock sensibility. How intentional is that sort of combining two very different worlds?
I don’t know if I would necessarily describe it that way. I tend to think about it more as how we started as a band. That really came out of a bunch of dudes that had an interest in dance music. I used to DJ, and I’d collect dance records and some other records, but then we also would go out to gigs all the time and see these sort of “indie” bands on the weekend. Basically, I just started a band with the guys I used to go and see gigs with.
One of my good friends, Tim [Hoey], obviously has become the guitarist in Cut Copy. Mitchell [Scott] was his housemate, and he’s sort of become the drummer. We basically just sort of related to each other through going to gigs together and enjoying that kind of music, and also having this sort of excitement about dance music and the possibilities of that.
I guess, for us, there probably is some mission statement about bringing those worlds together in the music that we make, you know? Those are the things that we are passionate about, so why not just enjoy them both at once?
So, the criterion for being part of Cut Copy was being your friend.
Totally. No one auditioned. I never sort of jammed with people. I was kind of just like, “Hey, should we start a band?” I didn’t even really know if we could play instruments. We just sort of figured it out, I guess.
After Zonoscope, you guys seemed to move in a much different direction with Free Your Mind, channeling some late 60s psychedelia or early 90s Manchester stuff. What was your reaction to the way Free Your Mind was received?
It didn’t feel like a record that converted as many people as our previous records, but at the same time, some of the people that were [already] our fans found Free Your Mind to be like one of the most exciting records they listen to.
When In Ghost Colours came out in Australia, it was successful, but we never really had a particularly critical response to it, whereas Zonocope or Free Your Mind were much better critically received, most definitely from where we are from. These are the sorts of things you never quite know when you’re making a record. You just have confidence in your own ideas, throw them out there to the world, and see what comes back to you.
Now we’re just looking forward to what our next thing is.
The very next thing is the Forest Through the Trees mixtape, though.
Yeah, I’ve worked on mixtapes in conjunction with our records in the past. That’s sort of been something that we will put out with our records to accompany them.
While we were touring the last record, I was very excited about some of the dance music that was happening in Melbourne, and I wanted to put together some sort of document reflecting the current landscape of awesome dance music that was happening and developing in our hometown. The next thing I started working on while we were touring the last record and afterwards as well was the Oceans Apart compilation.
As one of the most internationally recognized acts from Melbourne, do you feel it’s sort of on you to shine some light on what’s going on there?
For me it just felt like our hometown is as exciting as anywhere we had been or toured, which then made me think that other people may not be aware of that. I thought, “I would love someone to document it. I would love someone to put together a compilation.” Then it was like, a light bulb goes on: “Maybe I should do it.”
Out of wanting someone to do it, we were like, “Hey, we are in a pretty good position to do it ourselves.” That’s sort of why I decided to work on a compilation
I read a review of a mix that took a shot at Melbourne by observing that the city spends a lot of its time wishing it was London, New York, and Berlin. What’s your reaction is to that characterization.
[Laughs] To that reviewer, I’d say that’s a strange way of describing a city, and probably a little bit condescending. I don’t know whether this reviewer has been there or how they are qualified to make that assessment, but for me, the point of the compilation is that there is something unique that’s happening here.
Maybe a better way of putting it would be that there’s inspiration drawn from those places, but I don’t think that Melbourne is going to be any of those places, or even a combination of them. It’s very much its own thing, particularly musically, and also really only a thing that could be happening at this point in time in music history.
You’re saying that Melbourne contends with cities around the world, musically.
Culturally, in terms of its music, its arts, is food culture – all that sort of stuff really punches above its weight when I compare it to other cities with much bigger populations. I’ve had the opportunity to travel to so many places and travel around the world and see what’s out there, and I’ve never really been tempted to live elsewhere. Coming home holds a real fondness to me.
One of the things that I’ve always liked about it is being geographically disconnected from other parts of the world. In this day and age, you can see anywhere on the internet and you never feel that far away, but just geographically being farther away, you just have an opportunity to really find your own thing without being bothered by what the latest trend is. You can kind of just burrow down and come out with something really weird, and I think that there have been examples of that in the past, like if you look at bands like The Avalanches from the early 2000s.
I think those kinds of things don’t come around very often, and it’s something that’s much more possible to do in a place like Melbourne that’s sort of tucked away. The city has the opportunity to really breed some weird and unique musical acts.
Are there any elements of current electronic music that get under your skin?
There’s just the boom in EDM that sort of exploded over the last sort of five years, or however long it’s been. As a mainstream phenomenon for me, it’s not that super interesting, but I think the reaction to it in an underground sense is sort of interesting. The fact that dance music has gotten so popular – kind of all encompassing – means that a lot of the producers starting out have been kind of pushed from that mainstream thing and are doing super weird, deep, strange sort of music, which for me is actually really cool and really interesting. So while a lot of the mainstream stuff for me isn’t very compelling, the fact that it then creates this polar opposite kind of movement of underground producers and artists is actually really cool.
Do you still own your graphic design firm? How’s that going?
That’s right. I basically came out of university and started a graphic design firm with one of my friends from school, and it’s basically been going for over ten years now. That was always my day job, and music was always sort of my fun thing on the side, but I guess that’s sort of flipped over where I don’t spend much time designing at all and music is my day job.
I still love working on design stuff, for the band and kind of doing bits and pieces, but I think traveling the world and playing shows every second night isn’t really conducive to running a design firm. So, I’ve sort of slipped out of doing that day-to-day. These days, I’m more of a rock star.
Additional contributions by Philip Runco.