When Cut Copy's sophomore album, In Ghost Colours, dropped in 2008, the Aussie electro-rock crew suddenly became an indie critics' darling. Pitchfork selected the record as the fourth best album of 2008 and the 61st best album of the decade, while Village Voice's annual Pazz & Jop poll ranked it 23rd.
In the band's native Australia, In Ghost Colours topped the charts. But in the United States, it petered out at a modest 167 on the Billboard 200. As the age of the Internet has shown us, though, lack of physical album sales doesn't impede success. And the quartet has spent the past few years touring extensively across the globe, showcasing its glittering New Wave sound that borrows heavily from synth-pop demigods such as New Order and Depeche Mode.
Now the boys are back with a new album, Zonoscope, which holds onto the '80s vibes while also delving into a more organic approach. Earlier this year, Miami got a preview of the band's live show at Ultra Music Festival. But for the first time, Cut Copy will grace the Magic City with proper club performances at back-to-back shows this Thursday and Friday.
We spoke with lead singer, keyboardist, and guitarist Dan Whitford about music fests, hitting the club, and his secret past as a DJ.
New Times: The band has played twice during Ultra Music Festival. But the appearance at Grand Central will be your first Miami club show. Is there a difference between performing at a festival and a club?
Dan Whitford: Not massively. I mean, when you are playing in a festival, you've got to bear in mind that you are playing in front of a lot of fans but also people who maybe don't know your music so well.
For a festival, we probably play a set more oriented toward the hits. At a club show, you might take things on a tangent and play something more for the real fans that are familiar with more of our obscure stuff.
It's going to be different for us. Because, like you said, the last two times we've played in Miami, it's been as part of Ultra. We actually came once before for a one-off party thing, which was actually happening during Ultra as well. [Cut Copy performed at the now-demolished Pawn Shop Lounge during Winter Music Conference 2005.] This will be the first time we'll be there outside of that.
What's been your impression of Miami so far?
It's a pretty cool place. I guess not like anywhere else we've been to in America. It's sort of an inviting location. Lots of nice beaches. And I guess because of the times we've been there, there always seem to be parties happening.
It has more things in common with parts of South America we've been to or Puerto Rico. It's definitely a place we always enjoy playing. And as part of a U.S. tour, it's cool to go to somewhere that's different like that.
When you played at Ultra in 2009, you announced that the performance was the final stop in support of In Ghost Colours. You had been on the road 15 months. Do you plan to tour just as long for Zonoscope?
I don't think so. One of the aims with doing this record was to sort of compact it into a short space of time, so we could get back to making a new record a little bit sooner. I think the gap between In Ghost Colours and Zonoscope was a lot quicker than between [debut album Bright Like Neon Love] and [In Ghost Colours].
We might just be doing more studio stuff. We've certainly done a lot of shows this year, even packed in a short space of time. It's not really that we've played less. It's that we've played more in a shorter period. I imagine we won't be doing a whole lot more touring after that point. But you never know... There might be one-off festivals and the like. But I doubt we'll be playing more beyond this year.
Do you write a lot when you are on the road?
Not really. I guess that's one of the reasons we don't want to tour endlessly. The way we write, we sort of need a studio and our home environment to do it, because we use a lot of synthesizers and instruments. That's not the sort of thing we can do during a sound check or in between shows when we are touring.
If we were a different kind of band — four guys who each played a specific instrument and that's it, like a classic rock band setup — it might be different. But the way we've done our records to date is definitely dependent on having time and different studio gear.
When you are in the studio, is there a particular process for your songwriting? Do you write the melody first and then the lyrics?
Usually the music comes before any of the lyrics. The vocal stuff comes later on. But I'll sketch out vocals as we are coming up with ideas, even if there are no words and just humming things. You know, do-do-do-do sort of sounds that will get replaced with vocals later. But generally it's pretty different each time we do a song.
I guess that's the sort of thing that keeps it exciting for us. Some tracks may start off with a drum machine or synthesizer, while another may start out with a guitar. On the last record, we did a lot of jamming when we had a warehouse space just for the purpose of making Zonoscope.
In Ghost Colours was arguably a success. But the Billboard charts probably don't reflect that. What do you think that says about the record industry today and how success is defined?
It's kind of interesting. It's hard for me to compare to other eras because I can only really comment on the one we exist in. But it seems like a huge amount of music, like the stuff Pitchfork writes about, doesn't exist in the mainstream charts but obviously has a huge following and headlines festivals without necessarily having the physical record sales to back it up.
The opportunity to play in front of thousands of people live, I guess, gives us an indication of our popularity. But it's good to know you can have a career without having to sell a million records. We are able to live comfortably and do our thing and make more records without the pressure to sell.
You started out as a DJ, correct?
Well, I guess. I started out DJing and experimenting with making music at the same time. I've been a DJ for as long as Cut Copy has existed.
Did Cut Copy grow organically from that?
Yeah, I think so. If anything, it grew out of being fanatically obsessed with music. I wasn't obsessed in my early teens. But later on, I became passionate about it. My interest went from buying records to DJing, and I did a radio show for a while and it led to DJing at clubs.
From that point, the logical next step was trying to make music. A few years later, it went from making music to becoming a band. From the beginning, it came from being a fan of music and all types of music, really. It's celebrating all the music we like as a band. That's what Cut Copy is, a reflection of all these different types of music that we love.