Monday, April 4, 2011

Cut Copy elevate the cycle of rock and dance

Talking about rock and dance music as if they were entirely separate entities is weird, because in the early years, they were essentially the same thing. In fact, dancing is one of the only two real reasons for music to exist; the other is to let everyone know you're better than they are. Music is also for making babies. Okay, so three things.

When rock and roll was invented, it would have been ridiculous not to dance to it — kids weren't stroking their chin whiskers and pontificating over Chuck Berry lyrics. But in the intervening decades, popular music has fragmented into a thousand shards of specificity, to the point where we're now approaching a 1:1 ratio of genre to listener. That means people who don't want to dance — most likely serious-minded indie pussies too cool to sweat — don't have to. Occasionally, a movement or a band comes along that makes it harder to resist. New wave and post-punk in the '80s, Madchester and big break-beat DJs in the '90s, and the DFA scene in the 2000s all worked their hypnotic beat charms on the kids. But though the marriage of indie and dance scenes is a recurring motif, it tends to come in short-lived bursts. Trends in music are cyclical, of course, so as soon as everyone starts dancing, it's time for the next shift of bands to punch in to work and take us in the opposite direction. That's known as the musical-spite corollary, a famous concept I just invented.

The back-and-forth may be over for this cycle, because if there's one thing music fans don't want to do anymore this decade, it's stand in a room and watch people play instruments. They want to dance. Thank the Australian electro-pop/whatever outfit Cut Copy.

Of course, Cut Copy didn't invent this shit; one could argue that we're still riding on the residual high of the DFA/LCD Soundsystem movement and give credit for kicking indie kids in the ass to James Murphy and company. But there's a little problem with feeding LCD too much of the shine pie. Although they've put out a handful of memorable tracks over the years, I can't shake the feeling that they were a result of a novelty goof track that we somehow took seriously. You know how your mother always used to say that if you kept making stupid faces, you were gonna get stuck that way? That's LCD in a nutshell. Daft Punk deserve props, sure, but their pivotal run predates the current moment. Old news. Ladytron were great for fashion bloggers in training to try clothes on in front of the mirror, and Crystal Castles are massive, but even at their best, they seem more like a concept than a band. Plus, they're cunts. MGMT? Two hot tracks and a follow-up of turds disqualifies them. Next? 

Unlike all of the above, Cut Copy have stumbled across the ideal mix of sincerity of emotion (without being too earnest), gorgeous production, giant, danceable house beats, DJ æsthetics, indie-rock guitars, and retro-fitted callbacks to nearly every era of danceable indie. It's a formula that not only has taught the indie kids how to dance again but has brought electronic heads back into the fold of rock clubs. For every rock purist I know who's dancing at clubs now, I know another DJ type who was welcomed back into rock rooms by Cut Copy's connective genre tissue. This gateway is a revolving door.

Alex Frankel, of Holy Ghost, who've just released a sexy-smooth collection of indie electro-disco gems themselves, and who'll open the Cut Copy show this week, says the credit is twofold. "The four-on-the-floor thump you now hear all the time in indie rock is there, in large part, because of the DFA." The message of all of their records, Frankel continues, has been: " 'Hey kids, it's okay to dance!' It's now so common in indie rock."

Fair point, but what about Cut Copy? "Cut Copy is a band making dance music. Not dissimilar to what New Order or Talking Heads or LCD Soundsystem have done. They're not DJs, but their shows are as fun as going to a dance club. The fact that it's good music surely helps, but making Sonic Youth–style guitar noise over what are essentially club tracks does seem to trick the indie snobs into dancing."

Evan Kenney of Boston's dance/indie crossover Bodega Girls might not have ever started his band if it weren't for Cut Copy. "I don't know many bands that have had such an impact in both worlds simultaneously. I can't really think of anyone that has had more of a similar impact since New Order."

Asked about Cut Copy's influence on his own danceable electronic pop, Sam McCarthy of Kids of 88 from New Zealand (which is practically Australia, right?) says it's hard to define genres like this. "Indie is such a diverse genre . . . but I do feel there will always be a dance aspect involved. Whether it's grunge, angular, post-punk, or disco, there will always be experimental and creative bands that produce music in order to make people move their bodies."

I tossed this notion at Cut Copy bassist Ben Browning. "I hear that a lot," he tells me. "That the great thing about the band is that it has that kind of entry point for people who are more interested in guitar music, or vice versa. You can come out on the other side and find interest in the opposite genre that they may not have been so much into. I actually always wonder what split our fans would be, approaching the band from a dance-music background or a more classic-rock or indie background? I don't know, I always say it's 50/50, but maybe in the States it's a little more indie-guitar-rock background."

Distinguishing among genres seems like a common conversation for Browning, especially dialogue about the hyphenated hybrid genre. "I guess it's become more of its own genre now. More than five or 10 years ago. There is a distinction between them, maybe, but pure dance music and pure rock indie-guitar music and what we do — and I guess there other bands that fall into that category now — to me it's just kind of indie popular music but with bigger beats."

If anything, on this year's Zonoscope (Modular), the pendulum seems to have swung back into the rock fold, with '90s Britpop à la Blur on songs like "Where I'm Going" and the breezy '70s tropical cheese of Fleetwood Mac on "Take Me Over." Of course, "Pharaohs & Pyramids" still works a sick staccato keyboard stab that would seem at home on an electro hip-hop joint by the likes of Gold Panda.

"I've been saying we aimed to push it as far as we could from what we thought we were," says Browning, "and use different sounds, and try different things. I think intrinsically the iconic things that we do — dance songwriting or whatever — will show anyway. So there's an identity you can't shake. You can put on a pair of glasses and a hat, but you're still gonna have the same face behind it. We felt comfortable pushing ourselves from what we'd done on the last record. We were fairly confident we would retain a lot of the same quality we had in the past."

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