Jun 21, 2011
Why bother? That’s what Nick Johnston asked himself throughout 2010, as the Cut Off Your Hands frontman took a break from the band and tried to put more important things in perspective; like the reasons he’d decided to pursue music in the first place. After all, it’s hard to get excited about your second album after several lineup changes, three tiresome years of touring, and such unforeseen curveballs as a scrapped studio session and the debilitating hearing loss of drummer Brent Harris.
“Something clicked in the time off between records,” says Johnston. “As I stopped worrying about what we should be doing, I began listening to records out of pure fun again and they ended up really influencing my writing.”
While everything from the moonlit melodies of Echo & the Bunnymen (“Nausea,” “Hollowed Out”) to the shimmering 12-string guitars of the Go-Betweens (“You Should Do Better”) can be heard in the light and dark shades of Hollow, Cut Off Your Hands’ new record is especially rooted in breakout ‘60s artists like the Byrds and Bob Dylan. Not to mention all the Kiwi pop and Paisley Underground acts that ran with those very same influences in the ‘80s and ‘90s, including such fellow countrymen as the Bats and Bird Nest Roys.
In other words, there’s more to Hollow than meaty, melancholic hooks and riffs that’ll remind you of Johnny Marr. Everything sounds more natural than ever before, too—the result of one stress-free, self-produced week back home. (Live tracking was done at the Auckland abode of Harris’ parents—where the New Zealand natives also recorded their debut EP in 2006—and Johnston tackled his vocal takes and overdubs over the course of a couple weekends.)
“Our first record was pretty eclectic, both lyrically and sonically,” explains Johnston. “We were unsure of what we wanted to achieve with it, so we needed a producer like [former Suede guitarist] Bernard [Butler] to tie it all together. With Hollow, we knew exactly what we wanted to achieve.”
Among the group’s goals was an expanded palette that incorporated everyone’s ideas, with Harris and bassist Phil Hadfield contributing a couple cuts and guitarist Jonathan Lee coloring outside the lines of Johnston’s skeletal chords. Meanwhile, the latter dialed his speaker-bludgeoning post-punk tendencies down in favor of more nuanced, dynamic material.
“A big thing for me was getting out of that songwriting slump,” explains Johnston, “realizing that making music is still meaningful for me. Like the lyrics on ‘Hollowed Out’ are fairly somber, but they’re presented with elegant, jangly guitars and a driving pulse. It’s not all moping and moaning.”