Nick Johnston of Cut Off Your Hands

Nick Johnston of Cut Off Your Hands
Raucous New Zealand crew, Cut Off Your Hands, took their time bringing debut LP, the Bernard Butler-produced You & I, to North America. When the infectiously ebullient disc finally turned up in January, it had a lot of international mileage and deserved hype behind it. With a fawned-over live show and a bevy of new tracks waiting in the wings, the band will take a month off to ready a new drummer and possibly pop out a few aural tidbits. Before the penultimate gig on the latest jaunt, singer Nick Johnston took a brief break to discuss the future, orchestra pop hangovers, and the tactlessness of gratuitous encores.

You have a bunch of new tracks ready to go. Are you going to do any recording during your month off?
When I'm in New Zealand I'm going to probably, between me and [departing drummer] Brent, record something; perhaps do a new EP. The record's only just been released in the States, but we recorded it close to a year ago and it came out in New Zealand in October so it's feeling like time to do some new stuff. I like the idea of an EP because you can do whatever you feel like and it's not being put under as much scrutiny as a full-length record.

Coming off the success of the first couple of EPs, there was probably some pressure going into the full-length.
It's a different vibe. It's almost like you're not really a band until you make a couple of records because anyone can sling some songs together and release them; or maybe it's just a psychological thing about what a full-length is supposed to be. Also, that we made the full-length in England and then being signed to an English major label and all this added pressure. And we'd always just gone in and had everything finished in a couple of days. To have months to make a record was an alien thing to us. It was fun, it was relaxed, but I think we're more natural when we belt it out in a week. We've looked at a few producers for the next record and we're thinking about going back to the way we did the first couple of EPs and doing it really raw and fast and live: catching the energy that way rather than doing the months of layering and overdubs and shit like that, you know what I mean?

So, no Bernard Butler?
Well, I've talked to Bernard. We're still in contact and we like to know what he thinks, but I like the idea of constantly moving and learning different things from producers and also maybe shedding some of the niceties of what his direction was like. It really worked for the songs that we had, but it's getting a bit rawer, which is more about what we want to do than a producer with all these ideas about strings and stuff like that. I think it will be a little more basic, which will be fun.

No strings or glockenspiels?
Yeah, definitely not.

I'm getting sick of glockenspiels.
Yeah, that full band, instrumentation, Arcade Fire hangover thing is getting a bit tiresome I think. It would be nice to make a record that sounds like Raw Power.

How do you feel about encores?
Well, I don't know, we don't really do it that much. We've done them in New Zealand and Australia where it would have been rude not to, but we generally think it's a bit crass to plan ahead and walk off and turn off the lights and keep the music off and come back on.

You're not going to start playing three hour gigs?
I don't think so. Our longest show has probably been 45 minutes.

The live show is fast and high energy, but there're a couple of slower tracks on the record. Do they ever make it into the set? Will the follow-up have quieter moments?
You're referring to the really mellow ones on the album, like "Someone Like Daniel?" We tried to play that once live and it really didn't work. It was a big fight. I feel like we're still not quite at the level with audiences where we can command that much attention to really make the crowd shut the fuck up to listen to me singing and playing guitar. We tried to do it; I just got so put off by everyone shouting and talking... but I don't think we'll make any rules about what we will and won't do for the next record. There are certain ways that I want to do things, like a bit rawer and slightly more punk rock, but I think there's still room for having a dynamic record.

On the last record, there were a couple of thematic threads that ran through it, like religious hypocrisy and change. Are you conscious of a lyrical or thematic flow?
You don't actually think about that until you get asked these questions and you can easily formulate some answer to make it sound like you did. The last songs I wrote for the record... they were more mellow, more introspective, and I was a lot more at peace with the lyrics from those songs

Has the lyrical approach changed?
I have made a bit of a conscious effort to take a lot more care with my lyrics for the second record. I'll scrutinize them a lot more in the way that I have done with my music in the past, because I've done the holistic songwriting approach being really consumed with making sure the sound's really good and the guitar part's really good and the bass part's really good and the drum's really good and, sometimes, lyrics have been an afterthought which is something I really have grown out of. With time, I realized that what really appeals to me about music is not only the style or structure but also the message of the lyrics and the story that's being told. I wonder if that's just because I've been obsessed with guys like Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan as of late. I'm keen to not fall into the trap of writing too many romantic songs again, if it's possible, or to see if it's possible to write a whole record without saying the world "girl," as a challenge.

Good luck.
Yeah. And I don't mean to say that everything that's relationship-based is wrong, I'm still really proud of the songs. Like, with "Happy As Can Be," the lyrics are challenging enough for what I was trying to achieve. It's little things like "Oh Girl," where I wrote it to sound like a Beach Boys song and then I thought I would just put some bubble gum lyrics over top of it as a joke because, up to that point, all our songs were a lot more thrashy, along the lines of "You and I," and "Oh Girl," to me, was a real joke and it ended up being the song we got signed off of England.