Cut Copy's Ben Browning Talks Zonoscope, the Perils of Isolation, and Karaoke Bars
Australia's Cut Copy began as the solo production extension of Dan Whitford, a DJ in Melbourne. The project then expanded to a trio concurrent with the release of 2004's Bright Like Neon Love, which cemented the group's presence in the blogosphere as a premiere "dance-rock" band.
Now the group -- currently a quartet made up of Whitford, Tim Hoey, Mitchell Scott, and Ben Browning -- has produced its third full-length, Zonoscope, a self-produced album that uses an analog psychedelic palette as a vehicle for melodic sensibilities.
Packing for the band's upcoming tour, Browning took a moment to discuss the vast and varied inspirations that have transitioned Cut Copy's rock into an insistent, reverberant roll.
Crossfade: Looking back on the decision to self-produce your most recent album, Zonoscope, what do you feel were the pros and cons of this approach? Once you've locked yourself in a headspace, do you ever wonder if perhaps it's a benefit to call someone in to evaluate whether you've gone completely mad in isolation?
Ben Browning: Well, it was something where we weren't entirely sure how far we would go with that on this record. We knew initially we wanted to do some demo recording ourselves and sort of self-produce the record to some degree, but we weren't sure. I think our intention was to do it ourselves but we were prepared to sort of have that moment where we go, 'Ok, we're gonna have to bring someone in here to fix it up or to take it where we need it to go.' But little by little we kinda just realized we were getting exactly the results we were after. Yeah, we had time to refine what we were doing, we didn't feel any pressure, we had our own space that we were hiring relatively cheaply, so we didn't feel like we were in a big studio on the clock where we had to just tick the boxes and get out of there. We sort of had time to try things and just push things a little bit further.
On the technical side, what were some of the most interesting moments of discovery, or most informative roadblocks to overcome?
Well I guess the space, we had such a huge area in this warehouse to work in that any acoustic recording we did came with a fairly long reverb. So we had to set up a process where we had a dead room in the middle of this big room which is made up of mattresses and old blankets and stuff. Dividers just kind of hanging in the middle of this big space. It looked pretty much like a kid's playhouse.
I can just imagine someone sitting Indian-style with the bass and they're hunched over, noodling away, underneath a mattress and blanket fortress...
Yeah, basically. We put the drums in there to get some of the deader drum sounds, and we did some other recording in there as well. But I don't know, we just sort of tackled things as they came up and we were able to borrow equipment from the person who owned the warehouse cause he had a whole other room full of old stuff. We brought in a friend at the start to help set up the engineering, some of the drumming set up. We brought in another guy to help us engineer when we were doing the record. We sort of got to a point where we realized we could do it ourselves and we played some of what we had to other people, management, managers, and record label people and they said it was sounding great so we just kept going.
If you think about a big, hypnotic wave, a naturally reverberant space sounds like it fits that mold. Did you pick it with that in mind?
Well, first of all, you're right, the space did influence the sound of the record and some of those dreamy psychedelic aspects of the record. To be honest, we were dead lucky, all very lucky. We knew we wanted to find a space, but we had no idea what it would be. It's one of those things that are really quite difficult to find... a space, a domestic space or commercial space where you can just make a bunch of noise for 10 hours a day and not disturb the neighbors or not have traffic noise and stuff. This place was just more perfect than perfect. It was in a very quiet area, it was removed enough... it was in our hometown, so we could get there easy enough, but it was removed from where people kinda lived so when we were out there we didn't have the option to just go home and watch TV or something.
No inviting everyone in to play on the PlayStation and the foosball table?
Yeah, there was none of that. It was very much work ... it was a work space. We had a couch and we had our stuff to do and we had a kettle to make copious amount of peppermint tea, but there were very few distractions. So that was great. It was the first place that came up and we were astonished that it was so suitable. Yeah.
Did you ever invite the neighbors up for a jam session?
No, though there were a few bands. It's this warehouse space... there's actually multiple rooms. We had a huge room, probably the size of a tennis court all in all, probably bigger than a tennis court. There was another large room, probably twice as big as that, that just had all this gear in it. Then there were small rooms on the other side of that where a few bands were hiring it out and doing recordings and stuff. A couple of those guys came in and said hello, but we were pretty much left entirely to our own devices. There was a karaoke bar downstairs. On their lunch break... it was like a factory, and they had a karaoke machine or something, and on their lunch break they would fire it up and sing for like an hour, so we usually went and got our own lunch when it happened.
Good songs? Big pop hits?
No, it was ... I'm pretty sure it was, like, Taiwanese. Yeah, the songs weren't '60s rock classics or anything like that.
Gotcha. Well, you say that the space definitely did influence the sound. Was it just the physicality of having sound waves bounce back at you? Was it actually the ability to mic 20 feet away and experiment with what happens? Or was it a combination of the two?
Yeah, I think so. I think, yeah, the environment that we were in, we definitely... it wasn't like, like you said, there was no Xbox and pool table kind of recreation lounge. The sanctuary was sitting behind the monitors and just engaging with what we were doing, so we were forced to be listening to everything all the time, and I think that was good. It kept us really focused. But also can be a little bit overwhelming. We'd go in there in the morning and come out at 6 p.m. or 8 p.m. and feeling really fatigued because you've kind of been blasted by your own music for 10 hours.
-- Tony Ware
Cut Copy as part of Ultra Music Festival. Friday, March 25, to Sunday, March 27. Bicentennial Park, 1075 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. Gates open at 4 p.m. on Friday, and noon on Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are sold out. Visit ultramusicfestival.com.
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