Cut Off Your Hands – Cutting to the Chase

November 8, 2008 § Leave a comment

Published: The Big Issue, #314, October 2008.

Auckland quartet Cut Off Your Hands have added a reflective and very personal dynamic to their poptastic song craft.

If there’s one thing that Nick Johnston has come to realise in the last couple of years, it’s that first impressions aren’t always so important. There’s far more to be learned, says the vocalist and songwriter for New Zealand inide-pop wunderkinds Cut Off Your Hands, by giving things time to breath, to absorb.

“I really think you can lose a good song by worrying too much about the first reaction to it,” he muses over the phone from Sydney, where the band are on a promotional tour before the launch of their long-awaited debut full-length You and I.

“You might play the song wrong or there might be a bad sound guy on the night and you’ll just feel shit about it and that’s the song gone, and it might be a great song.”

It’s a rare perspective for someone so young. But the 23-year-old and his band mates – 21-year-old guitarist Michael Ramirez and drummer Brent Harris, and 25-year-old bassist Phil Hadfield – have lived a lot during their short time in the spotlight. The quartet has barely spent more than a couple of weeks in their hometown of Auckland since first being discovered at the beginning of 2006.

After initial success in Australia, the band’s melodic post-pink-isms and razor-sharp live show has taken them to throughout America, Europe and Japan, including standout performances at shows in New York LA and the SXSW festival in Texas. Now based in London – but barely ever there – their lives are anything but slow and steady.

“I guess we’ve always been pretty nomadic,” says Johnston. “We’ve always just been forced to think on our feet and react to the situation as it is. That can be a bit stressful, but I think our band’s sort of been set up that way from the start, rather than being a band that has spent years building up to a first album or first releases.”

“The minute we recorded our first EP we were playing gigs and pretty much three months into playing shows in New Zealand we were playing shows over in Australia, then we haven’t wasted much time in travelling. We haven’t waited until people started caring about us; we kind of just go and do it and hope people catch on.”

The assertion characterises You and I perfectly.  Where the quartet’s first two EPs – 2006’s Shaky Hands and last year’s brilliant Blue on Blue – saw them build on their live reputation for kinetic post-punk and angular indie rock, the equally elegant and energetic You and I is a step in a very different, increasingly layered and melodic direction.

Recorded with ex-Suede guitarist and now production luminary Bernard Butler, the album merge the barest of acoustic ditties with punchy Smiths and Cure-esque rock excursions and towering, Phil Spectre-like walls of symphonic pop. For Johnston, the record was about setting their song writing free from the shackles of live performance.

“This was genuinely the first time we had written songs without the live context as the focus for everything,” he says. “As I writer, all that straight-up, flat-out energetic stuff just gets really boring after a while. We wanted to make the kind melodic stuff that often takes a bit more time to sink in and digest, rather than the stuff that’s designed to be enjoyed instantaneously.”

“Guys like Phil Spectre and Brian Wilson were people we were listening to in reference to a lot of the new songs we were writing. We’d kind of try and imagine what they would do in relation to harmony and melody and those sorts of things.”

The soaring melodic vistas of opener ‘Happy As Can Be’ and the shimmering chorus harmonies of ‘It Doesn’t Matter’ and ‘Still Fond’ are cases in point. But it’s Johnston’s lyrics that have taken Cut Off Your Hands’ song craft to another level. Starkly honest, emotive, even vulnerable, his words afford the band a sense of maturity and candour so rare in groups their age.

Cuts like ‘In the Name of Jesus Christ’ and austere closer ‘Someone Like Daniel’ see Johnston, who was raised in a highly religious family and met the rest of the band in youth-church, earnestly questioning his faith.

“I come from that really religious background and there are a couple of guys in the band who are still really quite religious,” he says. “But I just kind of wanted to pose some questions, you know, like how can people hold onto these beliefs in the face of the reality of what’s happening around them in everyday life?”

“I kind of just felt like I was putting syllables to sounds on the first EPs,” he laughs. “So there are some stories on the album that I’m actually quite nervous about certain people hearing – like my family and my girlfriend – because I have been quite, well, blatantly honest.”

But the maturity of You and I doesn’t mean that Cut Off Your Hands are about to slow down. Far from it.

“I still feel like we’re the same band,” says Johnston. “I think the only real difference is that I’ve been listening to more Leonard Cohen lately rather than the Buzzcocks.”

by Dan Rule

You and I is out thought Speak ‘n’ Spell on October 4

Cut Off Your Hands tour Australia in early November

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