Album cover by Madison Carroll, photos and feature by Tamim Alnuweiri.
Sometimes you get in on the ground floor while a band is still new and “undiscovered.” That’s what happened a couple of weeks ago when while sifting through the garbage of the Internet (my email inbox) I came across a very new local band, The Cutouts. You might recognize them from a brief post we did about their first music video for “Phone Sex” or if you’re one of twenty people I sent their SoundCloud link to.
Last week The Cutouts released their first album Baby Blue Suede to critical acclaim (I’m kidding, at least for now). But yes, The Cutouts did release a great debut album. It’s a short five tracks — it’s witty, it’s intelligent, and it’s catchy without being the type of stuff that makes you wish your eardrums were ruptured. Musically, the record is a dichotomy. On the surface it’s sheepish and sweet but underneath still waters the lyrics are biting, strained and vivid. Very thought out and polished, especially for a band that didn’t exist (at least not in cyber space) until a matter of weeks ago.
The Cutouts are Alex Mackay, Chris Maier, Leo Grossman and Lisa Hickox. Last week ahead of Baby Blue Suede‘s internet release Alex stopped by to talk about this emerging musical project, his side gig in a poetry group and some (omitted) bits about George Clinton and his hair.
So where are you from?
I’m from Berkeley, California originally. All of the members of the band are from the bay area. We all moved here separately and connected once we were here. I’ve been in New York for a little over two years, before that I was going to school in Toronto. I was doing that for a couple of years then I left school and just started playing bands and working and now I go to NYU.
I always wanted to study music and play music, I never thought it was a very responsible thing to do [laughs]. A lot of music programs are conservatory style and I didn’t want to study jazz or classical music so I decided, well at first I went to school for political science in Toronto and I hated it, i just totally hated. I left after two years and now I study music!
What about the rest of the band?
Chris Maier plays keyboards and guitar and I met him many years ago when we were still playing in our high school bands. He came to one of our shows and then we started playing shows together and he’s a really brilliant guy. He has an unbelievable grasp of theory, I think we have very complementary skill sets — I’m more of a guitar person and he’s really good on the keys. He learnt classical piano when he was younger and I kind of handle the more wordy side of things and write most of the lyrics and he comes up with a lot of changes. That song “Mom V Man” was just us looping these guitar patterns and expanding upon them while I was in the corner just scribbling away. We started writing songs together at the end of high school and stayed in touch,once he was done college he moved out here and now we live together!
Lisa is a friend of Chris from Alameda, she went to Berklee music school and she’s a really amazing musician and really intelligent producer and writer. She’s been living here working in music, getting things licensed and published and stuff. Leo Grossman is the drummer and I first saw him play when I was 12 or 13 years old in this organization back home. You sign up and they put you in a band group and you learn a bunch of songs for eight weeks and then you have a performance at the end of that. We we were in two different competing groups and I remember seeing him play like fuck! That guy is so good, god damnit [laughs]. I reached out to him and we ended up forming a band together in high school and put out a couple of records then we both went out to college and stayed in touch.
So what was the impetus for forming The Cutouts?
This is kind of something that I’ve been building up to for a very long time. When I came to New York I played in a bunch of other peoples bands and had this period of trying to learn and absorb new things and interact with things I didn’t know before. I was just demoing and demoing and demoing, probably a little too much demoing to be honest [laughs]. I kind of got caught in this cycle for the first two years — I think we were really good at starting songs but not so good at finishing them. Then finally we decided that it was just time to start playing shows and doing this for real because ultimately you have to. I started to realize that it’s really good just to get feedback and actually interact with the audience instead of being in your mind all the time. So we finally just decided to put our best foot forward and do something in a more concerted way. When we made the video—
Wait — you did the video yourselves?
Yeah, we shot it on an iPhone in like four hours.
Jesus! It’s looks pretty professional.
Our total budget for that was probably like $60, we shot that in our apartment one evening. We just got everyone together and grabbed a bunch of stuff from the dollar store. I reconnected with this old friend from high school who got really into film and we just brainstormed this idea and yeah… I think it turned out well. But it wasn’t the first time we tried it though because video is challenging as it turns out [laughs].
Did you guys record the whole album by yourselves too?
Yeah, we recorded it ourselves. My friend mixed it for us— or with us and then we had somebody master it for us. It’s all stuff that we recorded in our apartments and practice spaces. One of my goals in moving to New York was that I wanted to be able to engineer and mix my own recordings because right now I think it’s really important to be self sufficient as an artist especially in New York. The more things you can do yourself, the easier it is and the more independent you can actually be. I’m trying to slowly work towards that. It’s just so many skill sets at the same time — being able to understand photoshoots, video and mixing and all of that. I’ve met a couple of people who actually can do all those things and it’s really impressive.
I imagine it can get really taxing when your skill set allows you to be involved in every aspect of production
To be a perfectionist like that is a bit of a double edged sword, you could create results but it can be so paralyzing and I think that you can just drive yourself crazy. I can empathize with that— not necessarily on the same level but just in the endless revisions. I was looking back at the folder where I put all of the past mixes of these songs and there’s like eight hours of music whereas Baby Blue Suede is just 15 minutes. It’s just so unnecessary and excessive, I look at someone like Ty Segall who puts out three records a year and I’m just trying to push myself to do that in the future. You can get so wrapped up in little details where there are such diminishing returns whereas you could just make a new song instead. Sometimes I catch myself spending 60% of the time on the last 10% of the song and that makes me frustrated…
It’s hard when you know you’re going to put something out into the world that’s essentially an extension or representation of yourself.
I think that’s something I try to not think about that too much because ultimately it’s been a big relief to just start putting music out and get it out of my hands. And there’s a lot of bands in New York [laughs] that’s the biggest thing, it’s so hard to even get people to pay attention and to listen in the first place. I’m not even trying to — I’m just trying to get people to press play and listen to it for like five minutes and it’s pretty tough, I don’t do that for people very often why would they do that for me?
That being said, Baby Blue Suede is really a great album. Can you walk us through “Nina,” it’s my favorite track.
It started with the idea was that there is this girl who works for a suicide hotline who is talking to people who call when they’re really distressed or upset and she sort of talks to them and walks them through. At the same time she’s at a paint ball range and gunning people down while she’s soothing these callers and telling them that everything is going to be fine. I just loved that juxtaposition and wanted to run with that and try a song that’s juxtaposing very mundane things with things that are really sad.
I think that the record was in a lot of way about dualities and exploring contrasts. That was a big lyrical theme in terms of just how people are not always so simple. I think that’s what I was coming to grips with when I was writing this record and finding darker sides of people who I really cared about and also finding surprisingly nice sides of people who I really don’t like [laughs]. I feel like whenever I’m writing songs I’m always trying to find areas that have tension and that aren’t just exploring something simple like “I love you, I want you, I need you.” It’s always trying to be like “I want you I need you because I have this sick need for validation.”
Anyways, Nina was kind of… I think that people don’t really do character songs anymore? Or that its kind of gone out of fashion and I like that, where its something you can take yourself out of the song and write about something. The possibilities are just endless when you’re writing like that.
You mentioned in an email that “Baby Blue Suede” is a reference to a character?
The last song on the record is “Baby Blue Suede and the Dangerous Three” which is based on a poem by my dear friend Hamish Ballantyne who is a member of Sex Panic! — a poetry group I’m in. We do sound poetry which is a type of poetry that is kind of specific to Toronto or has a long tradition in Toronto. It’s basically just vocalizations, so the four of us get on stage and we have these pieces that we write where we just make noises and mouth noises in an orchestrated way. When you start only making mouth noises into microphones for 10 or 15 minutes — it’s pretty confrontational and people get, well we’ve gotten a very wide range of responses. We ended up doing a tour two years ago right when we published this chat book called Man Piano which was a collection of homolinguistic translations. The poems are all Billy Joel songs rearranged into new poems, that’s what a homolinguistic translation means its when you take some kind of work and you work using only the words existing already in the existing poem or song. So all four of us each picked four or five billy joel songs and rearranged them into our own poems and then published Man Piano which is just “Piano Man.”
“Baby Blue Suede and the Dangerous Three” just kind of stuck in my mind, I was just playing around with this composition one day and started matching words to the music. I like this idea of having four characters and having almost like a theme song for them. It’s the last song on the record and it’s very visual in my mind. Every verse ends with “look it’s Baby Blue Suede and the Dangerous Three” — it’s like “it’s a bird it’s a plane it’s…”