Shiver and Burn:
Cut Copy Catch a Case of the Chills
No one could ever accuse Cut Copy of being minimalists – until now. For nearly 20 years, the band has openly embraced the pleasures of excess, delivering a consistent cavalcade of electronic dance pop built to perfection and polished to a radiant gleam. But the songs on their latest, Freeze, Melt (Cutters Records/The Orchard; out Aug. 21) called for a subtler touch.
“I felt like there’s plenty of Cut Copy dancefloor material out there,” says guitarist Tim Hoey. “This record was very much about stripping things down, working with a handful of elements and trying to have a song operate on just four or five different instruments or sounds. It was important for us to try to take it in a new direction.”
Cut Copy has six albums in its catalog now, including Freeze, Melt, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a bad song on any of them. Each album is more satisfying than the one that came before it. This is, after all, the band that made a rock star of singer Dan Whitford, who invented Cut Copy in his Melbourne bedroom all those years ago; the band that launched a thousand concert singalongs with “Hearts on Fire,” “Need You Now,” “Take Me Over,” “Free Your Mind” and pretty much every other song they’ve written; the band whose 2011 performance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon was hijacked by a still-unknown suspect in a gorilla costume who commandeered control of the timbales; and the band who, at the 2014 edition of the Primavera Sound festival in Barcelona, played to throngs of thousands even though they went on at 3 a.m. that Sunday. (Hoey culminated their set by hurling himself into the crowd.)
Infinitely danceable, endlessly vibrant, fabulously good looking and a perennial smash at every appearance they make, Cut Copy is, to put it simply, one of Nature’s most perfect bands.
Cut Copy released its last proper studio album, Haiku from Zero, in 2017, but it was 2016’s instrumental January Tape, their Discreet Music moment, that forecast things to come. It was around that time that Whitford’s partner was offered a work assignment in Copenhagen. When she took it, he followed her. (He’s since returned to the band’s home base in Melbourne.)
“Being in a band, you can live anywhere,” Hoey says. “When Dan moved to Copenhagen and I moved to New York, we didn’t take anything from home with us. So, it was about coming to a new part of the world and getting new instruments and new gear that we hadn’t used before and using that as a basis for writing new music.”
Though Whitford, Hoey, drummer Mitchell Scott and bassist Ben Browning resided three continents apart from each other, a collective chill went through them that season. Written during an exceptionally brutal Arctic weather system that swept through much of Europe and snowed Whitford inside his home for the better part of two weeks, Freeze, Melt meditates on the complexities of life and love in a cold climate – what Hoey identifies as “this idea of falling in love while the world is falling apart around you.” It’s an album of this very moment, exquisitely suited to our present reality. Like fellow Melburnians Crowded House did 20-plus years before them, the men of Cut Copy found themselves together alone.
“The record was very much about this kind of isolation,” Hoey says. “We were isolated from one another while we were working, and it was quite insular. It seemed to capture this moment a bit more.” But even when Whitford and Hoey lived within blocks of each other in Melbourne, “we’d be still sending each other things over the Internet,” he laughs. They’ve all become pros at trans-Atlanticism.
What the world needs now is music for reflection and introspection, and Cut Copy delivers on both counts. Post-Haiku from Zero, the time was right for the band to part with its past, to dial things down and disassemble the elaborately constructed layers of vocals, guitars, keyboards, samples, effects, drums and loops that typified its much-loved sound. The band looked inward in the absence of external stimuli, making Freeze, Melt their most introspective release yet. It’s an album designed for headphones, not strobe lights.
“Everybody was taking time at the moment to really reflect on themselves and how they live their lives,” Hoey says. “Since we’d made so many records, it was very much about thinking about what we’ve done and trying to find a new voice.”
And find one they did. The timbre of that voice: moody, understated and evocative. It was the luminous “Cold Water” that set the rest of the album in motion. “I think it harnesses all those great things about Cut Copy that I really enjoy,” says Hoey, “like these very emotional lyrics that Dan writes that help sum up what’s happening, especially now.”
Brian Eno once offered budding artists the following piece of advice: “Regard your limitations as secret strengths, or as constraints that you can make use of.” Cut Copy took that advice to heart and made use of it (as well as the very console that Eno himself used to mix David Bowie’s Lodger), infusing Freeze, Melt with a marvelous sense of spatiality. By adopting a strict regimen of doing more with less, they revealed not only the songs’ interior architecture, but a glimpse into the inner workings of the band itself. But staying with it wasn’t always easy.
“We fell into our old way of working, where we were layering up drums, adding heaps of guitar and more keyboards and adding more hooks and stuff like that,” admits Hoey. “The songs tend to lose some of their magic. So, we began stripping more away and almost starting again.”
Where Cut Copy’s music has always radiated warmth and light, Freeze, Melt is set at a far lower temperature, with a distinctly nocturnal feel. In the midst of “Like Breaking Glass,” Whitford intones, “With the light there is darkness that runs right through,” and darkness indeed runs right through Freeze, Melt like frigid polar winds through the City of Spires. It’s not only the chill of the climate, but the light – up to 17 hours of it in summertime, as few as seven in the winter – that has the power to disorient. So goes the chorus to “Cold Water”: “The sky is falling down, or am I falling up?”
“A lot of art is a product of its environment,” Hoey explains, “so it helped it feel like it played a part on the sounds on the record and the direction that it headed in. We used sounds that you could describe as colder instruments like a lot more digital synthesizers, less guitars. There is guitar, but it’s quite heavily processed through various kinds of effects. The idea of sparseness and these more icy kind of sounds helped shape the sound.”
For all its understated ambience, Freeze, Melt isn’t entirely without upbeat moments, not only on “Cold Water” and “Like Breaking Glass,” but on “Running in the Grass” and “A Perfect Day,” all of which would move the flower-crowned set to its feet if festivals were still happening. Each Cut Copy album sets hearts on fire in its own unique way, but Freeze, Melt inhabits a quiet intensity all its own. Haiku from Zero it isn’t, but nowhere is it written that it needs to be.
“It’s probably going to be different for people that have listened to Cut Copy from the beginning,” says Hoey. “But I’m really proud of sticking to this idea and this direction that we went in. This feels like the biggest step forward that we’ve done probably since [2008’s] In Ghost Colors.”
Freeze, Melt departs on a subdued note with “In Transit,” glowing from within like the northern lights. The final song on each Cut Copy album often hints at where the band will go next, and if track number eight is any indication, the band intends to continue along an ambient plane, for it not only embraces minimalism now, but it glories in it.
“There are a lot of moments on this record that I didn’t anticipate,” Hoey says. “Ten years ago, I never thought we would make an album like this, but now it to me feels like the most exciting thing we’ve done for a really long time. I’m proud to be excited by what we’re doing.”