Cut Copy might be from Melbourne, but their music has always evoked sunnier climes. While they’ve dipped into melancholia on occasion, there’s a summery joyousness to the best known Cut Copy songs – ‘Hearts On Fire’, ‘Lights & Music’, ‘Take Me Over’ – that makes their live performances, especially outdoors during the warmer months, some of the most ecstatic you’ll see.
On the band’s dreamy, soothing new album, ‘Freeze, Melt’, that sense of sweaty euphoria has been replaced by something more inwards-looking. Written over three years while vocalist/keyboardist/guitarist Dan Whitford was living in Copenhagen, Denmark, the result is an album eerily suited to the strange new world of 2020.
Whitford had visited the Danish capital a number of times while on tour with the band before moving there in 2016. “I thought it would be kind of interesting relocating and just being in a different environment,” he tells NME. “Both creatively and also personally.”
There, he found the complete opposite to the idealised, sun-drenched images of Australia that Cut Copy’s music has typically conjured. The extreme cold of Scandinavian winters, paired with navigating a new life in a foreign land, inevitably fed into the music that Whitford started creating in his new home.
“Obviously, I was working on new Cut Copy music, but it felt like starting a new project”
“It gets a lot colder than it does in Melbourne, and a lot darker as well – it’ll be getting dark at three in the afternoon a lot of the time. Sometimes it’ll be snowing, sometimes it’s 10 degrees below zero… it’s hard to not be affected by that,” says Whitford, who would ride his bike the half-hour to and from the studio each day, listening to music on the way.
“It’s probably a motivating factor for people that are creative, because you can’t just hop down to the beach or sit outside at a café when it’s cold, you really start focusing on the things you can do inside and obviously for me that’s getting really deep in the studio.”
Beyond his chilly environs, Whitford was also thinking more broadly about climate change, an issue that has long been of great concern to the band, and – prophetically – about how people relate to each other in uncertain times. Lead single ‘Love Is All We Share’ imagines an anxious future where technology has a tighter grip on us than ever, while ‘Cold Water’ ponders how these societal challenges might impact human connection.
Whitford wrote the latter song while holed up at home for a fortnight during a particularly bracing cold snap in Copenhagen. The situation wasn’t a million miles removed from the ongoing coronavirus lockdowns in Melbourne, where inhabitants (including Whitford, who’s now back home) have been forced to isolate under increasingly strict conditions, causing a mood as grey as the weather outside.
Where Cut Copy’s usual impetus would be to enliven the more pensive tracks with peppy arrangements, this time Whitford was determined to keep the original mood of the music intact. “It was like, ‘Okay, this is the sentiment of the song so let’s really enhance that, let’s be brave about it’,” he says. “Like, don’t just put some live drums and a guitar solo on it because that’s what we’ve done in the past. Let’s keep it minimal, let’s make it stand out from other stuff we’ve done previously.”
To help chart a new sonic direction on their sixth studio album, Whitford also made a point of leaving all of his gear and records behind in Melbourne when he moved to Copenhagen. “I wanted to really turn things back and go, I guess, Scandinavian minimal with what I was doing,” he jokes. “It was a good reset as well: it sort of meant that you’re not burdened by all this history of the band, or what I’ve done in the past. Obviously, I was working on new Cut Copy music, but it felt like starting a new project.”
While Whitford eagerly soaked up Copenhagen’s renowned underground fast techno scene at night, outside of the club he was mostly listening to ambient electronic music, which influenced his own songwriting. The singing on the album is plaintive rather than celebratory and often cedes ground to the production, especially on tracks such as the largely instrumental ‘Stop, Horizon’ and lyric-free closer ‘In Transit’.
“I was interested in the idea of being immersed in the sounds and feeling like you’re sort of swimming around in it,” says Whitford. “So I think a lot of the music that came out of that time has that more spacious feeling to it.”
“It’s a weird thing for us as musicians not being able to do this thing that’s such a big part of who you are. Like, if you can’t play your songs, who are you?”
Though the album was recorded in just nine days at Park Orchards Studio, overlooking a eucalyptus forest just outside of Melbourne, mixing by Christoffer Berg (The Knife, Fever Ray) from the Svenska Grammofon Studion in Gothenburg, Sweden, provided a fitting continuation of the Nordic mood. Berg also utilised the same Neve console used by the likes of Eno, Bowie, Queen and The Rolling Stones.
“It was pretty incredible getting to work with a piece of music history and to maybe be included in some small fine print at the bottom of the list of artists who worked with it,” laughs Whitford, who was by Berg’s side during the mixing process.
‘Freeze, Melt’ is an apt album title for many reasons, from its environmental concerns and its promotional nature-led aesthetic to its cool demeanour and unhurried rhythms. For all of its restraint, however, Cut Copy’s dancey DNA is as apparent as footprints in fresh snow. You can hear how a few tweaks to the tracks – say, a sped-up tempo on ‘Cold Water’; extended, amplified breaks on ‘Like Breaking Glass’ and ‘Stop Horizon’; hammed-up playful elements on ‘Running In The Grass’ – could easily turn a live rendition of the album into something rave-ready.
In an especially cruel stroke of fate for one of the best live bands Australia has ever produced, Cut Copy had just one opportunity to test out a couple of the new tracks (supporting New Order in Melbourne, no less) before touring became impossible for the foreseeable future.
“We’re basically operating without that face-to-face feedback you get from a crowd, [where] it’s almost like a conversation,” says Whitford of the live performance void. “It’s a weird thing for us as musicians not being able to do this thing that’s such a big part of who you are. Like, if you can’t play your songs, who are you?”
‘Freeze, Melt’ might feel bizarrely appropriate for the current times in both form and content, but Whitford says he’d take a brighter tack if he were to write a pandemic record now.
“I don’t want to challenge people, I don’t want to bum them out, I don’t want to give them anything too intense, I just want them to feel good,” he says. “So maybe it’s some hippie sitar music that I’ll be doing on the next album,” he laughs. “Who knows.”
Cut Copy’s ‘Freeze, Melt’ is out August 21