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Cut Off Your Hands

Cut Off Your Hands

Tuesday 12th July, 2011 11:53AM

After a lengthy sabatical, Cut Off Your Hands return with their sophomore album Hollow. UTR caught up with front man Nick Johnston to talk taking a break, starting fresh and maintaining a work-life balance.

You played in Auckland over the weekend. Did you enjoy playing the new tracks live?

Yeah people were getting into it. We did all those new songs and some old ones and we expected people to stand back for the new ones and nod their heads politely for the old ones but it was a happy, ruckus crowd and that doesn’t usually happen here. I hate playing in Auckland because I’m so nervous because my friends are here and my Mum might come and she’ll say 'I couldn’t hear your words' or something but it was really nice and really cool.

Tell me a little bit about writing and recording the new album, Hollow.

There was probably a good year where we didn’t think we would do another one because we were a bit bored and jaded after we tried to make it at the end of 2009. If we’d done it then it would have been quite different I think. It would have just been You and I - our last album - all over again but a little less catchy. It would have been a B-sides version.

So you went through the motions of an entirely different follow-up album and scrapped it?

Yeah I’d written a whole bunch of songs that were completely demoed and everything and just needed to be recorded with the guys. We were playing them live, and we did this tour of Australia at the end of 2009 with Midnight Juggernauts. We had some good friends of ours over there who I asked for their honest opinion and they were like ‘yeah, maybe not so much’.

So we just decided to have a break from it all because at that stage we were half a new band and just a bit tired of it. We’d been touring since 2007 non-stop and we just put it on hold for a bit, we weren’t even thinking about making a record. It wasn’t like 'we’ll put it on hold and come back to it', it was like 'let’s not even think about it'. I started studying at Auckland doing arts papers and then this year architecture and the guys were working full time. I was still writing and at the end of last year we had a bunch of new songs and were keen again.

We did it ourselves which was inspiring for us too and got us excited. Before there was our management and label in Australia saying 'why don’t you do it in Australia and do it this way and it will cost it this much' and we were like 'why don’t we do it at our house?' We decided to do it and send our management the record once it was done because otherwise it turns into the thing that they want. So it was basically two years where we weren’t sure and then within a week we had it done.

You mentioned the scrapped follow-up was a lot like your first album and this arguably isn't. Where did the new direction come from?

Just listening to different things I think. Albums never sound like you think they do anyway, at least for me anyway - maybe because I’ve heard the songs so much. We didn’t want to keep playing really energetically, and having to put on this aggressive violent show every night was getting really tiresome, so we wanted to play melodic tunes that reflected what we were listening to. I just started playing guitar a lot more and started wanting to play guitar a lot more live so there’s that happening. We’re obviously the same band and there are some similarities – the way I do my vocals for one – but it’s maybe just chilled out a little bit.

So you said that you changed what you were listening to, what sort of stuff were you influenced by for this album?

It’s probably fair to say it was a lot more sixties Byrds-y sort of stuff. We got a 12 string Rickenbacker guitar and so we started listening to all of that stuff – including electric Dylan – in a whole new light. I was like 'man this is awesome'. The Bats' Laura Things album and The Go Betweens and all these Aussie bands, too. Every time I’d try to write these jangly songs just came out. I was also pretty conscious to not make something that sounded too much like that C86 thing is pretty big in bands like The Vivian Girls and Pains of Being Pure at Heart. I didn’t want to sound like we were trying to catch up to a trend, just wanted to do songs we liked.

The album was written and recorded within a short amount of time, is there any overall vibe or theme?

I hope so yeah. We did it all live all together in a room and then I just did the vocals later in my bedroom and there was a necessity to do it quick because I was studying architecture and I knew I’d get too busy. I finished it in my first week back and I was finishing classes at midday and then running home and doing the last few tracks. Also because we knew that we would want to go back and change things no matter what so the best thing is to get it done quick and not keep obsessing over little things. I’d probably just end up writing the whole thing again otherwise I hope there’s an energy and a spontaneity about it.

Tell me why it’s called Hollow.

Well it comes from the track 'Hollowed Out' and without being a concept album the overall theme of the lyrics more generally was us feeling burnt out after our last album and tour. We didn’t want to have a title track but we liked the way the word Hollow looks and sounds. It's that whole thing of feeling gutted and stripped; for want of a less cheesy saying it’s coming of age. All of a sudden things aren’t just so simple, not even in a real life situation just in the band we were feeling worn out. It’s sort of tongue in cheek as well because it’s a very fun thing to do being in a band. Halfway through writing these mopey lyrics I was having a laugh about that and so some of the lyrics deal with being aware of moaning.

And you’ve touched on the lead up to the hiatus a little bit, but tell me exactly what happened with Cut Off Your Hands towards the end of 2009?

Well, just after we released the album here at the end of 2008 it didn’t come out overseas until the end of 2009. Mikey (Ramirez) was tired of having all of his decisions made for him and having to do things at the drop of a hat so he wanted to come home and focus on other things so he left. Then we went to the States and Jono (Lee) our new guitarist dropped in straight away and then halfway through that American trip Brent’s (Harris) hearing got really bad to the point where he just had to leave and take at least a year off from any sort of loud music. Then we got Elroy Finn who was awesome and he filled in straight away without us stopping. I flew back with Brent after a show in NY and picked up Elroy and within a week we were back on tour again, and this was in the middle of the busiest touring.

We also switched from being with this label 679 in England who were our biggest financial backers to being with Frenchkiss for the US and UK and they were an indie band so they didn’t have a lot of money.

By this point half the band was different and we’d been playing old songs that we’d been playing for two or more years. We came back and did this tour with Midnight Juggernauts and tried to make the record and it just wasn’t fun. We wanted to do other things; we were tired of living and breathing music. Everyone we knew was in music and everything we talked about was about music and we were keen to do something else for a bit.

It was probably the band changing more than anything. At the start it was such a fun thing us friends hanging out, so it turning into this machine that had to go on regardless of what happened was hard. Brent had gone, Mikey had gone and we had these two people who didn't understand why these songs were written. It’s always hard when you’re super poor, too. We were living off like $10 per diems.

Do you have a positive outlook of the band again now that the album is out?

The last couple of weekends we’ve had Mikey playing guitar with us as Jono’s away and we played shows in Australia and that was really weird because it was our first shows with Mikey and Brent all together and it felt like we were a reunion band.It did We’re much more realistic and less ambitious this time. The whole thing with making this record was doing it for fun and because we had the opportunity to do it and it feels good. Everyone’s on the same page and we’re just going to do what we can do.

I think there’s going to be some trips to the States and we’re spending a bit of time in Australia as well but we’re not going to put our lives on hold again. We’ve done what we wanted to achieve: come home and have a life outside of the band but have the band as this thing that we do and something that’s a whole heap of fun.

-Courtney Sanders