By Adam Lovinus
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Pause a minute while taking in the dreamy, vigorous Brit-pop of Cut Off Your Hands’ new album, You and I, to consider two things. One: The band aren’t British. Two: They started out as a punk band.
The latter may explain the manic spirit of their songs and live shows, not to mention their place on the roster of Frenchkiss Records, home to the Plastic Constellations, Les Savy Fav, Thunderbirds Are Now! and other hyperactive postpunk acts. But as front man Nick Johnston explains, the tight New Zealand quartet look more toward the rushing velocity of punk than the genre’s overall aesthetic.
“That’s where we were coming from originally,” he says, citing At the Drive-In and xbxrx as early influences. “The aim of the band wasn’t necessarily to create something brand-new or frighteningly original, which is obvious when you hear the songs, [but] more to capture the type of energy we were really interested in . . . that raw punk energy. That’s one thing we’ve tried to keep as a central focus of the band, even though now we’re really poppy and melodic.”
It’s refreshing to hear Johnston so readily admit the band’s sound is somewhat derivative. Over the course of You and I, one picks up traces of the Smiths, the Cure, the Buzzcocks and XTC. But Cut Off Your Hands very much reinvigorate those influences, and producer Bernard Butler (formerly of Brit-pop icons Suede) piles on lush strings and reverb. The album sits nicely alongside recent work from Hot Hot Heat and Dogs Die in Hot Cars, who improved on a proud tradition of yelping, wiry guitar pop.
But Johnston isn’t completely happy with how the album turned out.
“I almost think it’s a bit overproduced,” he says. “The whole Bernard thing . . . I can appreciate a lot of what he brought to the album. We were both talking a lot about [Phil] Spector and this big kind of ’60s-pop vibrancy. In the future, I’d like to do it a little more raw and maybe strip back the strings and the niceties.
“When I think of the band, I think of the demos or the live show. I don’t associate so much with the finished product, but I guess that’s something you’ve got to come to terms with when you release a record, which a lot more people are going to hear than the demos.”
You and I has a certain tension between pretty arrangements and a raw core, most of which works in its favor. “Happy As Can Be” is a thrilling introduction, “Expectation” ratchets up the snide urgency, and the especially good “Turn Cold” is charismatic and light on its feet. Six tracks in, the band quiets down for the oldies-ish “Heartbreak,” then goes the hushed, acoustic route for “In the Name of Jesus Christ” and the closing “Someone Like Daniel,” both of which dwell on God a bit.
The band—Johnston, guitarist Michael Ramirez, bassist Phil Hadfield and drummer Brent Harris—were originally called Shaky Hands, but they changed their name so as to not conflict with the Kill Rock Stars act The Shaky Hands. After conquering their native New Zealand and neighboring Australia, the band did the requisite rounds at CMJ and SXSW and released a pair of EPs (prior to You and I). They’ve recently lived in London, but their major-label deal there soured, and the band are now without a home base, which is perfectly acceptable as they’re busy touring the world.
Signed to Warner Bros. affiliate 679, Cut Off Your Hands were apparently expected to have a hit right out of the gates. When that didn’t happen, the label got antsy, and the band ended up getting the album’s masters back and departing. “They did that classic thing where they got major-label money but we were basically an independent,” recalls Johnston. “It was just another major label sinking a lot of money into this project and backing off as soon as it wasn’t working.”
Sticking with the indie label Speak N Spell Down Under and Frenchkiss in the U.S., the guys are now happily free agents in the U.K. They’ve already written and demoed more than 30 songs for a second album, and Johnston says this time they’re thinking about producing it themselves, with the help of an engineer.
“We feel like we’ve gained enough experience,” he says, “to take responsibility for our own stuff for once.”