Electropop's Cut Copy Discuss New Album 'Freeze, Melt' As They Continue to Evolve
In advance of their sixth studio album, we spoke with Cut Copy's Dan Whitford about Freeze, Melt, and the road the electropop group took to get to where they are.
21 August 2020
Transitioning from their neon synthpop towards a more atmospheric sound, Freeze, Melt pays tribute to Cut Copy's heritage but extends into new territory inspired by electronic acts Four Tet and Floating Points.
In 2008, Australia ascended its second peak of electronic music. Alongside Seekae's debut album, The Sound of Trees Falling on People, Cut Copy and the Presets released their sophomore albums, In Ghost Colours and Apocalypso respectively, and embarked upon a co-headlined international tour. Australia's electronic colors hadn't been flown so proudly since the heyday of Volition Records in the late 1980s and its roster of artists including Boxcar, Itch-E and Scratch-E, and Severed Heads. The trajectories seemed set – Seekae would maintain the popular edges of minimal electronic music, Cut Copy would occupy the summer dance space with warm electronic bangers, while the Presets would own the nightclub with their very own brand of electronica-meets-unabashed-charisma.
While Seekae and the Presets continued to deliver music that extended upon their initial promise, Cut Copy have been more willing to explore new terrain. 2011's Zonoscope covered every sub-category of electronic music then-imaginable, Free Your Mind walked head-first into acid house, Haiku from Zero mellowed the somewhat overblown sound of their previous album, and now, Freeze, Melt, has resolved that ambient music is the antidote to our times.
Cut Copy insist that their allure is less about their music and more related to their aesthetic and commitment to experimentation. Freeze, Melt will determine whether this is honestly the case, as mood-rendering, sweeping, atmospheric tracks are sure to excite fans there for Cut Copy's artistic journey, but less so those expecting a revival of the sun-soaked optimism of In Ghost Colours.
In advance of their sixth studio album, PopMatters' Max Shand spoke with Dan Whitford on Freeze, Melt, and the road the band took to get to where they are now.
What made you go in this new creative direction? With the exception of January Tape, Freeze, Melt is very much your least dancey album to date.
It's a combination of things that led us to make this album. For me, part of it was moving to Europe for a few years. I moved to Copenhagen, didn't know anyone, and had to deal with unfamiliar surroundings. I didn't bring any of my records or have any studio equipment with me. So, going there and building things from scratch, both in terms of the music I was listening to but also the set-up, led me to start digging into a lot of more ambient music and instrumental electronic stuff.
So, you're in Copenhagen, and you've left all your records at home. What were some of the first records you bought and listened to?
I'm always listening to millions of things at once. I bought a few classic electronic records by Terry Riley and John Cage, and some more modern electronic stuff by Floating Points and Four Tet. Everything I was interested in seemed less locally driven and more immersive. Almost like music you can put on and just disappear into for an hour or whatever.
You've said that you're more interested in creating a mood than recording traditional pop songs these days, but this seems like quite a new stance. What's informed this shift in your position on commercial music?
I think you always want people to listen to your music and hopefully enjoy it. So, it's certainly not like we're deliberately trying to get away from something that might be popular. It's more that we felt like after five albums, plus however many EPs and other bodies of work, I think we just felt like we've got a license to do something a bit different.
People have a set idea in their minds of where we sit in the scheme of things, musically, but often with our albums, even going back to stuff like In Ghost Colours, there is a heavy influence of instrumental electronic and ambient music. Often though, that would get pushed to the background where it might exist in interludes or little sections, between tracks, but it was always there. I think just the thought process with this new album was to dig into those sounds a bit more and push them to the forefront.
And also, on top of that, the music being made now is a lot more open-ended and a lot more varied and interesting. And I think people are hungry for new stuff. For us as musicians as well, we're interested in making stuff that we haven't heard before.
I want to discuss pushing the ambient and atmospheric to the forefront. Freeze, Melt, gets distinctly more adventurous as the album progresses. "Cold Water" and "Like Breaking Glass" feel like Zonoscope-era Cut Copy, but then "Stop Horizon" and "In Transit" are a step beyond. Can you talk to me about the album's song progression?
We probably had a couple of the songs, the most fully formed songs floating around as demos before we went into the recording studio. In the past, we'd always work on our demos quite a lot before we even got into the studio, so we'd have a pretty good idea of what we're shooting for. Whereas this time around, we only had two or three fully formed songs, and the rest were 30-minute sketch ideas that were pretty open ended. So, when we rented the studio, we just worked on a lot of those ideas without really knowing where they were going to head.
But it made the studio process a lot more fun. Going in and improvising on what instruments you haven't tried before, not necessarily knowing what you're going to come out with, now that's the exciting part of being in the studio and the exciting part of making music.
Which were the fully fleshed-out songs you walked in with?
I think they were "Running in the Grass", "Cold Water", and "Like Breaking Glass". They were finished a bit more ahead of time -- or not so much finished as just in a more complete state.
You mentioned that you moved to Copenhagen and the physical environment influenced your thinking. What are some of the key moments or stories that entered Freeze, Melt?
When you go to a new place, you have your senses heightened, where everything around you becomes more vivid. I think I was much more tuned into what was going on around me, whether it was the weather or the landscape, or just, you know, the city around me.
Some of these songs were written through periods of winter in Copenhagen, where you didn't see the sun for a couple of weeks, and temperatures were going below zero on a regular basis. That wasn't what I'd grown up with in Australia. We don't have winters like they do in Europe. That all created a different background for making music. So, I think that a bit of channeling the environment around me, but also not going there with any equipment.
I couldn't lay my hands on any of the usual stuff that I would use. So, I'd probably accumulated a few things just from being in Denmark, like new synthesizers or sounds. I started building a modular synthesizer, which I use pretty much across the whole album. And I think these sounds became trademarks of the new album.
To have transitioned musically as you have over the years relies upon having committed fans. I'm curious, what do you believe has kept your fans interested all this time?
We've always just put what we're trying to shoot for artistically ahead of necessarily going for the easy commercial pop song. Even though we've had commercial successes in the past, they haven't been our primary motivation. Hopefully, people recognize that we're exploring ideas that we think are artistically interesting, and they see the integrity in that.
I also think that by this stage, people have been on the Cut Copy journey for a long time, you know, for ten years or 15 years. And they're invested in it as much as we are. So, I can't speak for everyone, but I feel like there's a certain genuineness about the way that we've approached making our music where we've tried to be true to our ideals as artists. And I think people have enjoyed that along the way.
I read that you don't consider yourselves too far from your fans. Beyond your album releases, what are you working on to keep your fans engaged?
We'd love to have been touring this year and had planned to be traveling around the world, doing festivals and our shows but unfortunately, that can't happen. So, we've made a few interesting things along the way. We've collaborated with a visual artist named Takeshi Murata to create some amazing visuals to accompany each of the songs that we've put out there so far. Also, we've made a video documentary examining the process of making our album. We put out the first part of that a couple of weeks ago, and there's going to be another part coming out in advance of the album as well.
At the start of this year, we were looking at what was happening when COVID hit, and we thought, well, we have to consider the option of delaying the album until things return to normal. We decided that although it's going to be a huge hit to us financially to make an album and not be able to tour it and make our money back, that we just wanted our fans to have something to connect with and to savor. We felt like the themes addressed throughout the album really suit the current times, where a lot of people are feeling physically isolated, and maybe this would offer them a little escape, something to enjoy while all this doom and gloom is going on.
Can you talk to me about why you believe the current climate makes an atmospheric album in higher demand?
In my experience, music is like therapy. When I wrote the album, I was in Copenhagen and socially isolated the way you are when you enter a new country. There are elements of that in the lyrics and through the music. And it's just a weird turn of events that all of a sudden now everyone's in that isolated situation where people are having to keep their distance for health reasons. In the way that I listen to this kind of music and it gives me a positive feeling, I hope it does that for other people, too.
When it comes to innovating, you've always been willing to be a tastemaker rather than a second mover. With this in mind, what do you think of the current innovations in the musical landscape?
I think technology in some respects frees up artists because they become less reliant on labels compared to what they used to be. To get your music out there and be heard by your fans is a lot more within an artist's grasp than it was, say, 20 years ago. But at the same time, there's real inequity as far as what artists receive from their music being played. A lot of listening to music has gone to Spotify's subscription model, where there's not much transparency around what ends up in the artist's pocket.
And certainly, in this time where so many artists can't tour, you look at their earnings from streaming, and it's really just, it's a pittance. So, I think there needs to be some massive overhaul or regulation of where the money that listeners are paying to streaming services actually goes. If you look at the number of plays that an artist needs to make a minimum wage, it's ridiculous. It's hundreds of thousands of streams per week, and that's if they're a solo artist. If it's a band, then you split that streaming revenue more ways, and it's even harder to make a living.
What do you think of the Spotify CEO's comment that artists should just be putting out more material if they want to be earning more streaming income?
I mean, it's offensive. Really, to think that that is his solution, do more. What great artist is sitting there thinking, oh, I should do more, I never thought of that. Of course, everyone wants to do as much as they can. But you don't want just to put out anything. You want to put out music that is of a standard that you consider to be worthy of putting out into the world. If he wants junk to exist on Spotify, then he's giving the right advice. But really, I think if you look at where all the money is going, it's not going into the artist's pocket, and that's what needs to be closely looked at.
I want to ask you one final question. Which track from Freeze, Melt are you most excited for listeners to tune into?
I'm not usually wanting to play favorites with these things, but I am quite partial to the song "Rain". It's a song that, from the very beginning, had a really beautiful atmosphere to it and felt almost cinematic. And I'd be very curious to see what people make of it.
Photo: Courtesy of Big Hassle
- Cut Copy: Haiku from Zero (review) - PopMatters ›
- Cut Copy: In Ghost Colours - PopMatters ›
- Cut Copy: Zonoscope - PopMatters ›
- Cut Copy: January Tape - PopMatters ›
- Cut Copy + Foster the People: 11 August 2011 - Brooklyn, NY ... ›
- Cut Copy: Free Your Mind - PopMatters ›
- Austin City Limits 2011: Wanda Jackson + Cut Copy - PopMatters ›
- Cut Copy: Fabriclive.29 - PopMatters ›
- Cut Copy: Freeze, Melt | Music Review - PopMatters ›