Q&A with Dan Whitford of Cut Copy
Westword (Tom Murphy): The artwork for Bright Like Neon Love reminds me of some of those great new wave and post-punk records of the early 1980s, whereas the artwork for In Ghost Colours looks a lot more modern, even haunted. Does this reflect a shift in your aesthetic outlook and perhaps a shift in direct musical inspirations as well?
Dan Whitford: I do all the artwork for the Cut Copy records myself, so it's a pretty direct reflection of what we're into. For me, the real advantage of being able to do your own artwork is that you get to directly reference the things that you're referencing in the music when you're writing the record. For that first record, it was very much about us learning to play together and be in a band. We're barely played any shows before we recorded so it was very much this fun experience of learning things, almost like a school thing. The artwork itself references a lot of that '70s and '80s, airbrushed synth aesthetic, and that was kind of what that was about; the booklet was sort of a scrapbook. With In Ghost Colors, there was a lot more texture and layers, partly because we were more confident when we made it and because we had a lot more time to make that record. I think the artwork and record are a lot more -- I guess "mature" is not the right word, but better conceived, perhaps, than the first one or a bit more complex.
You can see in the artwork and hear in the music that I'm a fan of pop culture and pop art. Pop music, as well, is a big inspiration, even though it's a bit of a dirty word in some ways, because pop music has come to represent that sort of manufactured pop. Whereas when I think of pop music, I'm thinking more of maybe Fleetwood Mac or Steve Miller Band or things that can be interesting in their own right. Even though they're music that's absorbed by the masses, they're also experimental in a lot of ways. Pop music doesn't get the kudos it deserves sometimes. There's actually some really interesting ideas and sounds there, and that's what we're inspired by both musically and artistically. That late '70s, early '80s style of creating artwork for records doesn't exist anymore because computers have taken it over. Maybe that's something that makes it a little bit more tantalizing and interesting because it's something you don't see these days.
WW: A friend of mine heard Cut Copy for the first time two weeks ago and observed that someone in the band sounds a lot like David Gahan. Would you agree?
DW: Potentially. It's always interesting to me, because we're always compared to '80s artists, and an element of that is true because we all grew up in the '80s so maybe some sort of fundamental part of our aesthetic, musically, comes from that. But in actual fact, we listen a lot more to other things like '70s pop and krautrock and '90s house music and that sort of thing, so I find it somewhat perplexing that we get that reference to our music. Maybe it's partly because we write music with synthesizers and a lot of our songs are love songs and dance music. When you hear that you think of the '80s, because that's what pop music was about in the '80s. So I understand why that happens, but it's not necessarily the thing that inspires that.
WW: Your first record cites you as the sole songwriter whereas your latest release cites the entire band. Was In Ghost Colours a more collaborative effort?
DW: Definitely. The first record was something where we had barely played any shows and we were still learning to play together. We co-wrote it to a certain degree, but most of the songs were fairly fleshed out before we started working on them together. Also, I think partly we didn't spend as long in the studio. As far recording goes, we only spent half a day recording all the live parts. Whereas this time we had six weeks in New York doing it at DFA Studios, so that was really hard to compare, and it was a different experience. It allowed us to a lot more time working on the tracks together and I think the sound on the record reflects that.
WW: Had you played guitar and bass before starting Cut Copy? What prompted you to incorporate those sounds in with music that clearly owes a debt to electronic pop?
DW: I've never played any instrument, really. I guess I played around with keyboards, but I never learned how to play piano or anything like that. There's sort of a huge DIY element to the entire project. Tim [Hoey] had never played guitar before and Mitchell [Dean Scott] had never played drums at all. We taught ourselves to play. It's sort of reflected in our live shows. In the beginning, because we couldn't really play, we made up for that with performance and energy on stage. Now we've learned to play a bit better, but we've maintained an element of that energy. In some ways, it was a blessing to not really know what we were doing.
As far as why that got incorporated in the first place, I had sort of made these demos using mainly synths and drum machines, and there was a point where I thought it might be interesting to try and work up these songs with different instruments or a different kind of aesthetic and then taking it to my good friends at the time, who were into complimentary kinds of music. Tim was huge '90s, Sonic Youth, Nirvana, Pavement fan -- indie guitar based stuff. Mitchell had played in punk bands as a guitarist, but he liked the sound of the demos and thought it would be interesting to see what happens with live sounds in it. That's how it came about. It was an experiment that ended up being way better than what it was before. That became Cut Copy.
WW: Your band has a fun, dynamic live show. It reminded me of the time I got to see The Human League. What inspired that aspect of your performance? Is there anything you'd like to do in your live shows in the future?
DW: I mentioned it a little bit before but with the live show ... initially, we were more guitar-based, almost like a punk inspired pop show. We started playing in Melbourne without a scene around us. So we would play shows and you couldn't really get a show supporting a band like us because there wasn't a band like us at that point. So you'd either have to support a DJ or some kind of real guitar band. We ended up playing with some strange acts, like really hardcore/punk guitar bands. Other times it would be more serious DJ stuff. Our shows have adapted because we were playing alongside these bands that would go crazy on stage. In order to make our shows interesting to people, we had to have that same sort of energy. That's where that sort of vibe to our live shows came from. Our shows have become not quite as guitar-based as it was in the beginning but perhaps more sort of disco-y, more dance elements. That kind of music is so much about creating energy and doing a little dancing and we try to encourage that.
WW: Is that a baritone guitar being played toward the end of "Hearts on Fire"? If so, what influenced that choice of sound? It has that Power, Corruption and Lies kind of sound.
DW: Tim plays that one, and it's a [Fender] Jazzmaster. Which is sort of a Sonic Youth guitar.
WW: How did you end up touring with Matt & Kim? They're a band that still has a leg in the DIY/warehouse scene even in Denver.
DW: To be honest, they're not a band we knew much about, initially. I guess they were sort of friends of ours, so we vaguely knew them. When it came time to putting the tour together, our manager suggested they might be a good fit. We haven't done a show with them yet, so I can't comment on what their show is like or how it's going so far, but our first show is tonight and we're really looking forward to seeing them.
WW: So much of the music on In Ghost Colours is upbeat, so why that title? Is it a darker album?
DW: "Ghosts" makes it sound sort of dark or Gothic or something, but that wasn't really the intention. It's sort of more referencing psychedelic layering in the music. Also the color scheme and everything is somewhat like My Bloody Valentine in the '90s. They were a band that layered their music and their artwork is similar in some ways to what we tried to do with ours. The "ghosts" are all the layers in the music and some of the sounds that have inspired us layered in there as well.
WW: Like translucent, maybe?
DW: Exactly. Ghostly rather than literally being ghosts.
WW: A recent blog entry mentioned a special light show. What can we expect when we come to the shows for this tour?
DW: The last time that we toured the States, we had a light show set up and the guy that programmed it and done concepts for it was the guy that had done lighting for Daft Punk a year or two ago with the big pyramid. He's a bit of a genius about how the lights go. For people that came along last time, we've got even more of a crazy light show. Hopefully we can fit them on the bus.