You can essentially thank three musical acts for crumbling the divide between dance and indie rock in the aughties: the Rapture, LCD Soundsystem, and Cut Copy, the Australian export whose 2008 modern classic, In Ghost Colours, made a serious case for the group being crowned the new New Order.
Where that album merged garage punk, shimmering synths, woozy Fleetwood Mac guitars, and stadium-size disco choruses, the band's newly released fourth record, Free Your Mind, is a full-throttle blast of early-'90s acid-house nostalgia.
In addition to the video for its title single, which stars Alexander Skarsgard as a half-naked cult leader, the band recently applied the inspirations behind the album--shedding inhibitions, feeling the love, musical euphoria--to a global multimedia campaign. In early September, they mounted six far-flung "Free Your Mind" billboards that allowed listeners to play the new track on their smartphones, thus encouraging them to embark on their own little pilgrimages.
Some may scoff at the bombast and gimmickry of it all, but anyone familiar with Cut Copy would argue that the venture has made their return feel as flashy, immersive, and unapologetically optimistic as the sound they've come to master: a joyous, retro-futuristic pop hybrid that sets them apart from the current glut of sexed-up, manufactured EDM dominating top 40 radio. These guys aren't afraid to look back, think big, or wear their hearts on their sleeves, even when that means urging listeners to cross the desert and climb a mountain to find their place on that great dance floor in the sky.
As the foursome made its way through Nevada during a recent stretch of U.S. performances, we caught up with Cut Copy bassist Ben Browning to discuss the new album, embracing the "uncool," and why Skarsgard should always be shirtless.
Out: So, first off: You do realize that "Free Your Mind" is the name of a very popular, anthemic 1992 song by R&B divas En Vogue. That's a hard act to follow.
Ben Browning: Well, it's a pretty common catchphrase. No one owned that message. Yeah, free your mind and the hair will follow.
It's funny that you're currently near Reno, considering you guys seem to be dipping into some trippy, Burning Man territory with this record. What drew you to the psychedelic sounds that dominate so much of Free Your Mind?
When the band started, everyone talked about how we liked the '80s, but we've always listened to a wide, eclectic collection of music. The psychedelic vibe is something that has always been present on our records--the influence of My Bloody Valentine or Spacemen 3. I think we were mining a little bit of an early-'90s acid house, kind of Primal Scream sound, and a lot of that draws on psychedelic Rolling Stones stuff. So I guess we are interested in that sound.
Speaking of going retro, I think you guys were greatly responsible for making the saxophone cool again when you featured it on "Hearts on Fire" some five hears ago. Were you ever nervous about incorporating a sound that was for a long time seen as super cheesy?
We're always on the search for what's not cool. We try to do things that aren't obvious, and then challenge ourselves to create interesting ways forward and interesting sounds. I mean, certainly some of the piano sounds on this record were used in all those early house records. There's a certain association with that kind of piano--that weird punch--and a lot of the drum patterns on this record too. A few times on some tracks, I thought, Have we gone too far? Does it sound too '90s? We are careful not to go too far in that direction, but we are definitely not afraid to try a sound that isn't conventional. Hopefully with our taste, and the way we mix it with other sounds, it will come off cool.
You've also included these trance-like interludes--like "Into the Desert" and "Above the City"--on Free Your Mind. What's the story behind them?
We wanted some spoken-word stuff on this record, or just voices. I actually went to Washington, D.C., with my fiancee, and we did some street interviews with people there. I asked people questions like, "Have you ever seen a shooting star?" Or, "Have you ever taken drugs?" Just these weird questions.
I didn't get many people who wanted to talk to me, mind you, but a couple did. But a lot of them are just samples from weird TV shows. Dan [Whitford, the Cut Copy lead singer] did those samples while editing. If I told you what they were, we would probably get in trouble. But I think it's some pretty rare stuff. It has this sort of weird cinematic-soundtrack aspect to it that brings you out of the rave or the heavy dance fog that you are in with the music; you have these interludes as segues. It's almost like a trip or something, which is what interesting music can do: make you feel like you're on drugs without having to take them.
So let's talk about the video for the album's first single, also titled "Free Your Mind." How'd you manage to bag Alexander Skarsgard for it?
We were really lucky. We met him in Brazil three years ago. We were playing there, and he's a fan. We didn't know that. We were playing and just saw this dude right upfront going crazy over our songs, and afterwards we wanted to meet him. He came backstage, and we ended up hanging out. We went to some house party in Rio and ended up talking about music and film all night. Then fast-forward two years later, and we're making the first video for this album and the director said, "Oh, you know, you guys are friends with Skarsgard, so why don't you ask him if he will be in the video?" And we thought there was no way he'd be able to do it. But we asked him and he was really up for it. We went to L.A. to shoot it, and he had a day off to do it. We did it in one day.
And, of course, because he's Alexander Skarsgard, he had to get naked for it. Was that his idea or the director's?
I think he was happy to do whatever was needed, and I think he and the director sort of collaborated on what would go where and how he would dress. He's got that six pack and everything. He's got to put it to use.
Watch the video, directed by Christopher Hill, below: