Ben Browning, the bassist of Cut Copy, is perched atop a well-worn couch in a dressing room at Boston’s House of Blues. He’s cutting his toenails.
This is how the wildly popular Australian electro-pop band conducts interviews with the American press before concerts.
Or at least it’s how Browning conducts interviews. (He’s the least talkative member of the quartet.)
Boston is the first stop on a tour to promote Free Your Mind, Cut Copy’s new synth-heavy homage to psychedelia. But before Beantown’s club kidz tap their paisley-painted toes, Browning must trim his. “If I don’t cut them every three weeks,” he says, “they’ll kill people.”
Cut Copy is one group that doesn’t toe the line — in 2010 they turned down a support slot on a Lady Gaga tour. More recently they’ve taken a whimsical approach to marketing. They streamed the Free Your Mind single for free on social media. They teased the video with a series of GIFs featuring a mini-striptease by Swedish True Blood hunk Alexander Skaarsgaard. They played a private gig in New York for a few hundred hard-core fans who had clicked on a link tweeted by NPR Music.
And they promoted Free Your Mind with prerelease listening sessions at six remote locations around the world. On the band’s website, Cut Copy cats were instructed to follow a set of geographical coordinates to a remote outpost, where they would find a candy-colored billboard emblazoned only with the words “free your mind.” They then had to open cutcopy.net on their iPhone or Android handset and free their minds by turning on the noise and letting the techno acid rock artfully corrode them.
This new form of billboard-topping was the brainchild of Tim Hoey, the band’s art school–schooled guitarist and sampler. Hoey is keen on musical pilgrimages. He picked billboards in the middle of nowhere (a California desert, the mountains of Chile, a small town in South Wales): “Rather than selling you something,” he tells me, “I wanted to send you somewhere to get our product directly from the ad itself.” He also wanted the music to literally take listeners to another place. The onsite reactions of pilgrims are plastered all over the web. If you’re a Cut Copy fan and didn’t take a selfie in front of one of those billboards, you surely have been Photoshopped into one.
In Free Your Mind concert footage, Cut Copy boys and girls jiggle and jive and twirl their hands as if mainlining Pop Tarts. Their fans seem to have been airlifted out of a Free People catalogue. It’s all so 1968.
Which was at least a decade before any of Cut Copy’s charter members – all 30-ish Aussies – were born. The band was conceived in a Melbourne bedroom in 2001. Lead singer and keyboardist Dan Whitford chose the name from the Edit pull-down menu on his MacBook Pro. (He considered Cut Copy Delete, so it’s a small miracle the band didn’t end up in the trash bin.) Along the way he recruited Hoey, drummer Mitchell Scott (his former housemate) and Browning – the Boston Clipper.
None had any musical training. “I was hopeless,” says Scott. “We all were.” Embarrassed about their inexperience, they played live gigs under aliases, including Different Cigarettes and Red Arrow Down. Melbourne is the live music capital of Australia, and Cut Copy might still be stuck in its club scene if, in 2005, Franz Ferdinand hadn’t invited the boys to join their European tour. Two years later, Cut Copy and Ferdinand performed together in the U.S. In 2008, their second studio album, In Ghost Colors, hit big. Free Your Mind is Cut Copy’s fourth studio release. At a time when listeners would rather play a six-second vine loop than devote an hour to an album, Free Your Mind has racked up more than 372,000 Facebook likes.
In the House of Blues green room, they act like the office slackers in Comedy Central’s Workaholics. They begrudgingly sign CDs for promotional giveaways. They check out the personal posts on the group’s Facebook account. (“Your music cured my bipolar disorder!”) They fight hangovers. “Rough night last night,” Hoey says. Fortunately, the club’s espresso machine can make a variation of cappuccino that Australians call “flat white.”
Browning is the only married band member. Hoey tells me Scott and Whitford are both “in relationships.” Hoey is a lonely guy. At a recent tour date in Toronto, he tried using the dating app Tinder, which the romance magazine Bloomberg Businessweek calls a “pathologically addictive flirting-dating-hookup app.” Hoey didn’t flirt, date, hook up, or, for that matter, get addicted. “It was the Internet full-on,” he says, dismissively. “Too much.”
Hoey confesses that he sometimes goes overboard with drunken, late-night texting. Asked to recall his most embarrassing text, he mutters, “Probably a marriage proposal.”
Kirin Callahan, the singer who often opens for Cut Copy and accompanies the band on stage, says, “Groupies are outdated. Most of the girls who approach the band are only looking to appear in videos and take selfies with them.” By obliging any and all fans bearing a camera-enhanced smartphone, Cut Copy has become one of the world’s premier selfie bands.
It’s also one of the world’s premier agoraphobic bands. In 2008, at England’s rainy, muddy Glastonbury Festival, they pretty much quarantined themselves to their tour bus for three days. “We were afraid of getting trench foot,” Scott confides.
Hoey shudders. “All the toilets overflowed at the venue,” he says. “I’m still traumatized.”
As it turns out, trauma – or at least surprise – is something Cut Copy is only too happy to traffic in. At a hotel in the band’s homeland, the lads stuffed all the furniture from their 11th-floor rooms into an elevator and sent it lobby-ward.
On this night, as the band prepares for its preshow rituals (stretching and performing The Crash Test Dummies’ “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm”), Hoey speculates on which Australian animal each of his mates would be.
“Whitford is the ’roo of the group,” he tells me.
He nods toward Whitford, who’s standing, his frame curved like a parenthesis.
Hoey sizes up Scott, who’s lounging in a La-Z-Boy, a contented smile pasted on his face. “Mitchell is a wombat,” he says. “Slow, lovable, and cuddly.”
Whitford is skeptical “Mitchell is more of a koala. He spends all his time reclining.”
Hoey likens himself to a galah, a rose-breasted cockatoo – and, in Aussie slang, a loudmouthed idiot. “Don’t put yourself down, Tim,” chirps Callahan. “A galah is an obnoxious bird. Tim’s more of a cassowary.” Shy, but ready to smash things.
And Browning? Hoey peers at the small, skinny bassist. “A blue-ringed octopus.”
Must be the toenails.