“I’m actually in Copenhagen,” says Dan Whitford, “It’s mid-afternoon here.” It is not mid-afternoon in Toronto, where I am; it’s about 8am, and my university student self is groggy. He laughs: “I’m a musician, so I can relate to that particular time scale.” Navigating time zones is nothing new for Cut Copy, the electronic indie band that Whitford started in Melbourne, Australia in 2001, and with whom he is about to embark on an international tour in support of their fifth album, the anxious but hopeful Haiku from Zero.
The four-piece broke out internationally with their astonishing sophomore effort, 2008’s In Ghost Colours, which saw their anthemic pop house spread across Europe and North America, eventually finding its way to the basement of a little record shop in Ottawa, where I purchased a battered CD copy in high school. These days, the group shares festival font size with indie institutions like Joanna Newsom and Broken Social Scene, and band members have settled in San Francisco, New York, and Australia; Whitford made his move to Denmark about a year and a half ago.
The separation has given them plenty of practice at long distance collaboration. “We’re spread out across different time zones. It makes things a little bit more of a challenge,” Whitford says. As per usual, he started writing Haiku from Zero by pulling together song ideas in private. “Then we did some long-distance file-sharing stuff. The slightly slower, more digital way of jamming these days: sending stuff out through Dropbox.” When the group did come together, it was with unfamiliar time restraints. “In the past, we had always done things in an open-ended way. We’d often just find a space and put all our gear in there, and have a creative centre of operations for the band for a period of months while we slowly worked on ideas,” he says. “But this time around, we thought, let’s go into a studio, like people normally would, with a time limit, and see what happens. We tried to finish things all in one sitting and really bash things out.”
Time, and in particular the passage of time, is on Whitford’s mind. He mentions “Counting Down,” an ode to the anxieties of modern life and aging,” as a personal favourite on the album. “The way that it’s constructed reminds me of when I first started making music as Cut Copy, over fifteen years ago, but instead of using samples and doing it that way, [“Counting Down”] was almost like sampling ourselves. We wanted a funky sound, like a sweaty groove going on, and we jumped into this little recording booth and recorded it.” The song contrasts a faithful mantra: “love will save us,” with the worries of someone who’s thinking about getting older:
Losing loves and fading years…
Your memories fade and people die…
Your clocks are slowly counting down
“Counting Down” by Cut Copy, Haiku from Zero
Its jangly, indie pop guitar-lines—a descendent of groovy post-punk bands like Orange Juice—provide an apt resolution; there are few places better suited to working through stress than the dancefloor. Whitford agrees. “Personally, I don’t go out to clubs until 6am as much as I used to; in fact, probably pretty infrequently these days. But I still go out and enjoy being on the dancefloor, seeing someone DJ that I’m really interested in. It’s almost a grounding thing, like a ritual. I still love it as much as I did.”
Much like another renowned dance luminary, Dan Snaith (of Caribou and Daphni), Whitford straddles the line between live music (his band) and dance music (his work as a DJ, such as the acclaimed 2014 mix Oceans Apart). “I get a real kick out of both” he explains. “Often, if I’ve been out to a club and had a big night, the next day, I’ll have this flow-on energy where I’m just really excited about dance music. It’s almost like the rhythm is still ticking away in your head. But then I think the same goes for when we perform live. There is something about being in front of the crowd, and having that direct interaction that can make a live performance really exciting as well.”
A lot of things have changed since Whitford first started messing around with a sampler. “Stylistically, [electronic music has] changed pretty dramatically in that time,” he says. “Dance music probably evolves a little quicker than other forms of music, just because people are constantly searching for the next, most futuristic sound they can find.” Whitford admits that it can be hard to keep up with. “I feel like the grandfather next to a lot of these people.”
By “these people,” he means the wave of young Melbourne producers who have been gaining traction in the last couple years. They include artists like Harvey Sutherland, Francis Inferno Orchestra, and Sleep D, whose Melbourne-based label Butter Sessions was Resident Advisor’s Label of the Month in October. “When I first started,” Whitford explains, “there was really no one, even from Australia in general, who had captured the world’s attention. So now, seeing so many Melbourne artists who are able to forge careers internationally is really exciting.”
There’s not too many things in this modern, digital world that allow local scenes to develop, but it still happens in dance music… Maybe it’s because dance music needs a dance floor; it brings people together.
He credits the surge in part to the peculiar structure of dance music scenes. “There’s not too many things in this modern, digital world that allow local scenes to develop, but it still happens in dance music, and certainly in Melbourne that’s been the case. Maybe it’s because dance music needs a dancefloor; it brings people together. I think there’s a lot of parties and regular nights that have really helped foster that scene.” It’s a process, but a worthwhile process. “One person comes out and does something pretty cool, and there [are] ten people waiting in the wings to do their thing, and from those ten people there’s a hundred people.”
Although Whitford is quick to deflect credit for being a trailblazing act, he does feel ties to the younger generation. “We come from a similar attitude to dance music, even if the music itself isn’t that similar. A lot of our influences and the stuff that we started out listening to is probably very similar. Stuff like acid house, Chicago house stuff, Moodymann, Theo Parrish,” he says. “In a weird way, I do feel a connection. There’s crossover. A lot of those people, when they first started out, before they were even producers, were djing a lot of the same nights that I was djing, but early on.” He continues, laughing, “And now it’s kind of like, I can’t get a gig there because they’re smashing it, playing the main set.”