There are many moments on Cut Copy's new album Haiku From Zero that hearken back to the great dance music of the past few decades. On "Airborne," the chunky rhythm guitar of disco-era Nile Rodgers dominates the song. On "Black Rainbows," the chilly monotone and squiggly synths of early Depeche Mode get a shoutout, and there's more than a little of the mechanical pulse of New Order within the technicolor wash of "Living Upside Down."
But the difference on this album is that for the first time, these elements are part of the songs, rather than the dominant sound. Haiku From Zero is the Australian band's fifth album, but it might be the first time they've sounded completely like themselves as opposed to a collection of influences.
"I think partly it was us realizing that we'd stood the test of time long enough that we can almost look internally for inspiration and direction for what we're doing," says the band's founder, multi-instrumentalist, and songwriter Dan Whitford.
"Before, we were basing it on doing our take on a particular genre. In some ways we thought the songs on this album were strong enough this time that we didn't need reference points to get in the way of enjoying the music. So this time around we focused on making something that was uniquely Cut Copy and something that was really played to our strengths as a band, whether that's the synthesizer stuff or the live instruments."
The live instruments are a key factor in Cut Copy's newfound cohesive sound, because the project was initially a solo project by Whitford. Over time, he added guitarist Tim Hoey, bassist Ben Browning, and drummer Mitchell Scott, taking an all-electronic project and making it more organic.
"Cut Copy finally feels like it's outgrown the idea of it being my project," Whitford says. "It's become obvious to me on the last couple of albums that it's a lot more about all four of us. The songs still start up as ideas I've written so it still feels like my project in that respect, but as soon as we get into the studio it kind of feels like a real collaboration."
Even if he's still the primary creative force, Whitford says that the idea of being a band is almost as important as actually being one.
"Just the concept of being in a band," he says, "where each person offers input to help us create something that we couldn't individually come up with, I think that's almost become unique in this day and age, especially with electronic music. But it's important for us both in terms of how we make and how we perform our music. The live performance aspect is a vital part of our personality."
Haiku From Zero is also the most concise album Cut Copy has made in some time; their previous releases tended toward sprawl, with Free Your Mind and In Ghost Colours having 14 and 15 songs on them, respectively. The new album has nine tracks, and Whitford says that that was a very conscious decision.
"We're pretty aware that attention spans are a lot shorter, even for us," he says. "It's not quite as often that you sit down and listen to a whole album from start to finish; you listen to a playlist or a track or two. We wanted to keep the album shorter so people were getting the strongest material and having a more concise experience as well. In the past we've had these albums where we're layering in a lot of stuff, and I think we wanted to make it more stripped-down even in the way it was recorded. We picked the key elements of the song and focused on them instead of just adding more and more. It was a mindset we had across the board."
Interestingly, Whitford and the band chose to work with an outside producer, Ben Allen (Deerhunter, Animal Collective) on Haiku From Zero, which hasn't always been the case, given Whitford's skills in the studio. Whitford credits Allen as much as the band for their newfound confidence in their own sound.
"Working with a producer isn't compulsory, but I think we wanted to try something different and go into studio and have somebody else drive things," he says. "In some respects, I'm driving it up until we get into the studio, so getting out of the driver's seat and seeing things from a slightly different perspective actually helps me in terms of having a perspective on the music. We tend to second-guess ideas when it's just the four of us, and if we have someone else who isn't connected with discussions we've had or things we've been talking about, then we'll end up trying things we might not have otherwise. With Ben, we were willing to try anything."