/ Friday 9th October, 2020 11:21AM
It’s all too rare in Aotearoa that bands give fans advance notice when they’re calling it a day, often even artists themselves don’t realise it’s happening until it’s too late. Cut Off Your Hands are graciously going out with a bang, wrapping up a career spanning nearly 15 years with can’t-miss send off events featuring eight piece band in Auckland tonight (and a newly announced second Tāmaki event on 29th October) and in Wellington on 30th October, plus the long-awaited launch of their third studio album HLLH (Higher Lows and Lower Highs), out next week. Given the significance of the occasion, now was an ideal time to chat with frontman Nick Johnston about the new record, the triumphs and challenges faced by Cut Off Your Hands over the years, as well as his own future musical plans — read his in-depth conversation with Chris Cudby below…
Undertheradar is thrilled to present…
Cut Off Your Hands
Friday 9th October – Whammy, Auckland [sold out]
Thursday 29th October – Whammy, Auckland [new show added]
Friday 30th October – San Fran, Wellington
General tickets on sale via Banished Music
Chris Cudby: I’m wondering how you’re feeling ahead of this week’s show in Auckland. What an interesting position to be in: concluding a musical career with Cut Off Your Hands and launching a brand new album simultaneously. The preparation for your shows must be a significant undertaking as well — are you excited? Looking forward to having it all wrapped up?
Nick Johnston: The record has been a looooong time coming, I first wrote ‘Hate Somebody’ and ‘On The Sea’ about 6 maybe even 7 years ago and a lot has changed since then for us personally and obviously in the world generally. I always kind of knew it was the last thing we were doing and maybe subconsciously that’s why it has taken so long to complete… but there’s also been some pretty major life events; Brent and Jeremy both having 2 kids each in this time, and there’s been various health issues and all sorts… then 2020 came along and the final shows were booked and album release planned around our May shows with NYC band DIIV, which obviously never eventuated cos COVID.
Yeah, I’m really excited for the shows, as I write this I’m sitting at my work desk procrastinating some imminent work thinking about practice tonight when we will have 10 of us on stage for the first time. Looking forward to having Mikey (Ramirez) back with us for the first time in years, as well as a full ensemble including 3 backing vocalists, percussion and synths as well the usual 4 piece. It’s been pretty hectic experience doing these practices, as back in the day we never really rehearsed cos we were on the road playing 200 shows a year so we could do it in our sleep, but now it’s like 6 new band members and learning up to 25 songs spanning our 15 years of being a band… we’ve had to book in a few extra sessions than we initially thought hah. Plus we’re all old and the bodies are slower and voices don’t go as high and memory is not as good. I am beginning to have more empathy for the ol mates that hop on tour and play their songs at half speed… it frustrated me when we played with bands like Gang Of Four / Pixies etc and they just seemed so tired… I think I get it now.
Why are COYH calling it a day now? What do you guys get up to, in your lives outside of the band?
Well, whilst we are all really busy — like, it is hard enough just getting responses to emails let alone managing tours / album releases, tbh it is more about the end of the passion and life and soul of the project that is the reason to be calling it a day now. When we started this band, we were responding to a music scene we perceived locally as a bunch of tired old bands riding the NZOA gravy train to perpetuate their uninspired passionless projects (harsh I know!). That is the last thing I want this band to be, there is always life and joy in playing music no matter what and I’m certainly less harsh in my thoughts nowadays toward such matters as back then, however I think it’s important to put a mirror up to oneself and realise when it is time to give things a rest. If not for any other reason than opening up space for young excited bands to get the grants and play with overseas touring bands etc.
In a lot of ways I wish we had called it earlier, this decision to make things final might seem unnecessary to some, but for me personally I had to have that line drawn so that I can focus on other things. I’ve got new music and other projects that I need to be putting more attention and energy to, so whilst Cut Off has given me so many great times, it’s just a bit like putting on an old deodorant like Lynx Africa or Impulse… or like, as if an ex partner was with you every time you met somebody new… too many ties to the past.
As for life outside the band, I’m involved in architecture where I work in community sector, designing mostly for social housing and schools, I’ve learnt that I need to keep busy all the time to feel okay, so I’m also involved with university teaching which I love and have been part of a full immersion Te Reo Māori (Te Ataarangi method) class for last 5 years… although COVID has interrupted things a bit this year. Nicky By Nature is a project I have been working a little more in earnest than I thought I would and am releasing songs on my Bandcamp and planning shows for that. And then there is Godman — which is an outlet for my ambient pieces whilst also using ASMR content
The others are all very busy and talented humans, with Brent growing a family and Phil running his content production company called ‘Pop That’ which specialised in video work. Jeremy makes music full time and of that I’m extremely envious, and Mikey has his foot in the music industry still working with the mates at Universal Music NZ.
Your new album HLLH (Higher Lows and Lower Highs) sounds like you’ve embraced a fresh direction for COYH while also acknowledging the past, in collaboration with Jeremy Toy. You spoke about your latest single ‘Blue Smoke Draft’, discussing how listening ‘Blue Smoke’ with your grandfather helped reignite your love for NZ music. Did you feel like you had more work to do before COYH wrapped up — that the songs on HLLH were something you needed to get out into the world? Was HLLH always envisioned as an album?
Yea — I think it felt like we hadn’t created the work we wanted to in our previous releases. You and I was a classic result of major label throwing money at a band that had some pop skills but was ultimately something else, and Hollow was an intense reaction to that experience, and whilst it read far more cohesively than the debut it just lacked a bit of levity and joy… perhaps indicative of my mental health at the time. I would like to think that HLLH has more lightness and colour, the energy of our early EPs but with some of the depth that 15 years of life brings to one’s song writing I guess? I’m certainly less inclined to throw lyrics at a melody to make it fit as I was in the past. I’ve always been a more of a music-focussed producer / songwriter, so the lyrics often came second in the process and suffered as a result… and it shows on those early songs.. like I’m embarrassed to sing most of the early lyrics.
On HLLH it was a conscious decision to bring the vocal and the lyrics to the forefront of the songwriting and production effort. What I mean by that I was studying how David Byrne and Brian Eno were producing Talking Heads records, and the way that some of the great songs were constructed by a simple repetitive motif, one bass part one drum part one guitar part, so that the vocal, the melody and the lyrics carry the structural weight of the song. They have to be relied upon to signal verse / chorus etc… which makes it harder to default to lazy decisions… at least for me in this instance. This is the way all the songs were approached. Take for example ‘Once In a Lifetime‘ by Talking Heads as an example of this. HLLH was always intended as a body of work of sorts, at first it was going to be 6 double A side singles released once a month, and then we forgot to release the follow up to ‘Hate Somebody’ for like, a year, so we scrapped that idea.
COYH cite a number of reference points for songs on HLLH eg. Talking Heads, Chemical Brothers, The Rapture, LCD Soundsystem. To my ears it sounds like a very successful and fitting bookend to the Shocking Pinks’ debut album Dance The Dance Electric, which helped (re) popularise post-punk in NZ back in the early 00s. As a career capstone for COYH, is HLLH like a collection of sounds you love? Are there any specific "influences" bubbling under the surface which may not be readily apparent on the record?
That’s a flattering comparison, I loved that record and it seems funny to say but first time I met Nick Harte when we first went to Christchurch as Shaky Hands in 2005, I was actually "Star-Struck" and shy haha. Sure there’s always tonnes of stuff being thrown into the records we make, we make no secret of the fact that COYH’s records have blatantly worn their influences on their sleeve… I recall a UK journalist trying to press Johnny Marr on how our single ‘Turn Cold’ was ripping him off… he was like, "I take it as a compliment, anyway it’s a great song isn’t it" — I really didn’t give a toss what any YouTube commenters said after hearing Johnny Marr say he liked my tune.
I’ve been making a lot of ambient records lately, and some of that stuff has seeped its way into this record whether through samples underneath tracks, or the opening and closing tracks on the record. ‘Lows’, the first track on the album foreshadows its chaser ‘Higher Lows and Lower Highs’ and was given its title in reference to the back half of David Bowie’s Low record, particularly final track ‘Subteranneans‘. The final track ‘Love Somebody’ was something I made many years ago, perhaps in 2007/8, and I was searching through my emails recently for some other old Cut Off demos when I found that one. It’s from a time when I was obsessed with Loveless and Ride and had just seen MBV play on their comeback shows in London, and we had used Kevin Shields’ Jazzmaster from Loveless on one of our recording sessions we did with the producer Flood, so I thought it was a lovely track to put in at the end of this record.
I remember Ruban Nielson back in Mint Chicks days talking about this feeling of having an overwhelming amount of avenues open with regard to the direction of the band stylistically… like whatever mood you were in at the time changed the genre or category of the band. I think my mind as a young person especially was really drawn to such categorical definitions so thinking in terms of genre was quite exciting for me. I’ve since come to question / confront what values the tendency to categorise and reduce actually signifies and am less comfortable relying on them… however at the time I could really relate to that sentiment of Ruban’s. So we were wanting to be some sort of post-hardcore band, like This Night Creeps or At The Drive-In on one hand, or we were wanting to be some sort of new wave post punk band like Wire or Gang Of Four, or then were we wanting to be like James Chance and the Contortions or DNA or ESG, and then just after I got into the Smiths it was like a quick progression into MBV, Ride, Swervedriver, Bailterspace etc… dunno where this tangent is going but there was something in there that set me off… ‘Love Somebody’… it’s directly out of that world when we were working with Flood and I was convinced we were about to make a shoegaze record.
What was the process of recording HLLH? How and when did you start working with Jeremy, and what does he bring to the group?
This goes back to 2014, we started hanging with Jeremy cos Philip was playing bass in he and Anji’s band She’s So Rad. Jeremy did a mix of an earlier cut off song I think, and it was sweet so we kept talking to him and started jamming in his little studio which was in The Lab. Around this time I was really getting back into electronic production from RnB and Hip hop to House and Techno so hanging with Jeremy who is just so diverse in terms of taste and skills and track-record, it was fun to be extending our recording processes beyond just live and analogue as in the past. Jeremy’s energy was awesome for the project and all the synth sounds and percussion and processing and samples… it was really great to have someone so talented to bounce off after self-producing Hollow. He and I have continued collaborating outside of just Cut Off, so that’s been lovely to build that relationship. ‘Hate Somebody’ and ‘On The Sea’ were recorded in 2014, just before I moved over to Melbourne, ‘Higher Lows’ I wrote while in Melbourne and I think we recorded it in 2017, and then we did ‘Live For Each Other’ a year later and completed ‘Blue Smoke Draft’ around the same time, but I took a bit longer to complete the lyrics of ‘Blue Smoke Draft’.
CUT OFF YOUR HANDS · Blue Smoke Draft
There are some weighty and pointed lyrical themes on HLLH eg. ‘Hate Somebody’ and the title track, which refers to your experience coping with bipolar disorder. Are the lyrics completely your department, or do the rest of the band get to contribute?
The lyrics are hundy mine, so I have to take responsibility and write lyrics that I wont cringe when I sing them to live audiences or hear them being played. Like I said earlier, some of the first Cut Off songs were given lazy lyrical treatment and it’s painful to sing those live… I heard Bic Runga recently talking about road testing songs and how you get a feel for how weird it feels to sing some bad lines and I think i’ve learnt that the hard way — ie. the pace at which things progressed for the band around the first record and the sheer pressure we were under from labels etc meant that things were rushed and we are stuck with the results forever locked in place haha. This time, I took my time and everything is far more deliberate and detailed. I also am just kinda older and maybe more confident in who I am and actually feel like I have some opinions now and some life experience. The desire to write no longer just comes from filling up some melody lines but rather from wanting to talk about stuff that’s important to me. I also must acknowledge that I’m in a really hectically privileged position so it’s my opinion that there’s some responsibility to be rigorous that comes with that.
Can you discuss the decision to close HLLH with the very dreamy and textural, nearly ten minute ‘Love Somebody’?
I like what Brent had to say about it when he heard it, that it’s like this lush beautiful wall of sound that breaks down into a screeching squall of chaos as if the wheels are falling off in front of your ears, like the band collapsing as the song brings the final album to a close. As I stated, it’s this reference to Loveless and the obsession I have always had with that record and provides the "Yang" to ‘Hate Somebody’s "Yin". It was the first song made of this record dating back to 2008 and I like the way that bookending the album with 2 ambient pieces allows the record to breathe and have space for contemplation.
What are some of your favourite memories with COYH? You must have seen a lot!
It’s always been about the great relationships we have built along the way, we have made great friends all around the world who I am still regularly in touch with. We still love each other a lot and this week when Mikey joined me Brent and Philip for the first time in years in the rehearsal room it felt like we slipped right back to 2006 and were giggling like school children.
There were heaps of mean highlights. Touring and hanging in places like Iceland, Tokyo, Throughout Europe, USA, UK, Australia and always coming back to NZ was super fun. I think Brent turning 21 while recording in Jimmy Page’s own studio with Flood was pretty special, or walking down Manhattan on my 22nd birthday to meet NME for a feature double spread interview was quite memorable, harmonising on stage at a house party in Texas with the Hanson brothers and Albert Hammond Jnr… or on stage with Iggy Pop… Less Savvy Fav making us get onstage to sing ‘You and I’ before they played to a huge crowd in London… our first show in Eden’s bar with Teen Wolf and The Whipping Cats tbh was just as good… touring with So So Modern around NZ in 2007, or our mates The Temper Trap releasing ‘Sweet Disposition’ a week before coming on tour with us as our main supports for the Australian ‘You and I’ album tour… was… humbling, I guess.
Edwyn Collins sitting down with me to show me just how similar the chords of ‘Still Fond’ are to ‘Rip It Up and Start Again’ and then asking for royalties with tongue in cheek. Drinking Sizzurp with Lil Jon… Our tours in the early days with Foals and on the Big Day Out and Laneway tours were ridiculous times… dunno, it was all pretty wild and hectic and I had no idea what or how I was in the position I was, but just rolled with it til it didn’t roll anymore. If I could do things differently I probably would, just because I didn’t understand my mental health and so kinda pummelled myself in a way that wasn’t sustainable re: playing many many shows and endless touring, which resulted in major burnouts. Buuut also I enjoyed so much of it and had a pretty unique experience so I cant complain, except to say occasionally when I’m sitting at my desk in an air conditioned office for hours on end with a sore back from sitting all day, I do miss touring, a bit.
What next for you and the rest of the band? Do you foresee any more musical activities in the near / medium future?
This is it for Cut Off, we have the Auckland show at Whammy this week and in Wellington at end of the month and the record comes out on October 16th so absolutely no more after that. But I’ve got some projects on the go namely Nicky By Nature solo project so am hoping to continue releasing music and will figure out the live scenario for that soon.
‘HLLH’ launches on Friday 16th October, vinyl preorders are available via Flying Out.