Clean Cut Kid are a happy-go-lucky, indie pop quartet from Liverpool. They’ve had airplay from the BBC, supported Shura and Circa Waves on tour and are gearing up to release their hotly anticipated debut album later this year. As it happens, they’re also industry savvy, self-aware musicians, and a totally lovely bunch too. We chatted to frontman Mike Halls, his wife and the band’s keyboardist Evelyn Halls, bassist Saul Godman and drummer Ross Higginson about the biz on a dark February night in Colchester.How are things going on the road with Fickle Friends?
MH: It’s amazing. The crowd are similar to when we supported Shura in that they’re muso-y, so they listen and they appreciate. And the band couldn’t be lovelier. We didn’t know them before this tour but recently they signed to the same label as us. Being label buddies makes a lot of things easier as well because it’s easier to coordinate a tour, like when we sort merch and stuff like that.
How does this compare to supporting Circa Waves last year?
MH: With Circa Waves the crowd expected a different thing from the show – their priority was energy and not specifically the music that was being delivered. Which is great, but we quickly found that we could play the best song in our set perfectly and it would get very little reaction other than just jumping up and down. With this kind of crowd you can take things right down to a whisper and people will still be really locked in and engaged. As the songwriter, I personally prefer it.
MH: I got set up on a date with Evelyn whilst she was working as a solo artist, and I was playing as a session guitarist. I’d met Saul earlier and one morning he was in town busking so that’s how we got him. Then we all started working at a music school where we met Ross. He had the same music taste as us so I stalked around a few of his gigs and got him on board. From there we spent months buried away practicing because we thought the live act needed to be perfect. When the date was ready we found a manager who I’d been working with and got signed at our second gig.
How did being a session musician compare to fronting your own project?
MH: This is a million times better. I’m playing songs that I wrote, I’m doing everything with my wife, and we’re all best mates. With the session thing, it’s a lot of pressure because you get loads of material to learn in one night. I did a Gary Barlow gig in Battersea once to 3000 people and when I stood on stage, half of the set I’d never even played once on guitar.
SG: He had times when he had to learn maybe sixteen songs on the National Express with no guitar. That’s fucking impossible, it’s other-level stuff.
|Ross Higginson (drums)|
Love is a theme that runs through your music consistently, but it’s an edgier kind to the one a lot of pop songs are about. What inspires that?
MH: I can’t write a song that doesn’t register on an emotional level. I wrote Runaway literally on the day that my student loan dried up. I was sat there with a guitar thinking about how my whole adult life had been spent pursuing music, and wondering how I’d feed myself now I had no money. At that time, Ev was going through a bit of a rough patch because she’d just moved from London and didn’t know where she was really at, so the day before we went in to record Runaway I wrote Vitamin C as a little pick-me-up for her.
How have your lives changed since you’ve begun to find success?
EH: Every single thing has changed. On the one hand, we’ve gone over the huge hurdle of getting our music on national radio and getting signed etc. But then on the other hand, with every day that passes, the expectation and the pressure from the label gets so much bigger. That’s something that we’re all having to adapt to, and trying not getting too caught up in the numbers as well.
MH: For a band like us, you can’t build an entire fan base out of an overnight fad. We could get played sixty times a day on Radio 1, but it wouldn’t be a 3D enough experience for people to buy into us and fall in love with the band. Every single day you realise what a long road it is.
Is it important to you to maintain a genuine, hard working ethic in the way you work?
MH: It’s absolutely everything to us. I don’t know how I could perform if I couldn’t make my guitar consume the whole crowd – the moment you pull the controls away from me I don’t know what to do. I certainly don’t think we’ll ever play with a backing track. The snare in Pick Me Up is a baking tray so when we sit down to tech the record, we’ll have to work out how to mount and mic a baking tray onto a drum kit, as opposed to just using a sample of it. It’s not the same thing to me.
SG: And if you play all your music from a computer, what do you do if it breaks on the night of a gig? We’re not going to have that problem.
|Evelyn Halls (keyboards)|
What about image, is that something you put thought into?
EH: When we signed there were a couple of weeks when we thought we needed to get an image sorted, but that was such a nightmare we decided to just look how we look and wear what we wear. Obviously there’s thought behind it but we’ve not sat down and gone “we should wear this kind of thing”. Some people say that it doesn’t match the music but we don’t really care.
MH: A lot of the time people say to me “you don’t sound anything like you look”. We just always thought to ourselves, when people get it they’ll think it’s dead cool. When we went and did the Live Lounge, it felt like all the guys there totally got it, especially Clara [Amfo].
EH: Sometimes people look at us and think we’re a metal band. There have been various stylists brought in for photo-shoots and videos but it’s never quite looked right. The most we’ve gone with is for the Pick Me Up video because we had a bit of a Napoleon Dynamite/Wes Anderson theme that we wanted to go with. As rag tag as we usually are, we decided to put a 70s California skater thing on so it was a bit more stylistic.
SG: Plus, it still wasn’t us being told what to wear. They give you twenty t-shirts, coats, pairs of shoes, and they ask you which ones you like, so everyone still gets to pick their own fashion.
Pick Me Up is ridiculously catchy. What’s it about?
MH: It’s kind of like Vitamin C 2.0. Almost like how Vitamin C says, “I’ll be here for you”, Pick Me Up says, “Thanks for being there for me”. I’ve got nothing else to write about! If I want to do a positive song about love then it’s got to be autobiographical.
Does it concern you that you might be typecast as being a positive pop band? Or that it might alienate your fans if you try a different direction?
MH: Our whole idea has always been that the more seriously you take the subject, the more uplifting you take the arrangement. We’re not into emotion-for-emotion’s-sake; I still think you can deliver the exact thing you want to say in a song without it being arranged in a miserable way. Also, the two B-sides that are out so far are the ones that virtually everyone has been screaming out for us to play at gigs. So there must be an audience for our less lively material somewhere.
EH: I think if we were typecast as an uplifting band, it wouldn’t be the worst thing. We get completely turned off by bands who are miserable in what they put out on social media, and just moody in general. We would never want to be like that because we’re naturally quite a chatty bunch.
Saul chirps in.
SG: Can we give you a Babe Magnet tattoo? This is our label. It’s only a transfer; you thought it was real for a second! We’ve all got the same tattoo. Polydor made these transfers so we can stick it on to anyone who comes to the gig.
What does the magnet represent?
MH: We’ve always wanted to have a home-grown kind of vibe about us, and at the very start the label told us that because we were doing everything ourselves, it should come from a home-grown place. So we’ve got our own label that everything goes through – it’s like our own indie label within Polydor. It’s just an extra bit of branding on our products. I’ve got the original tattoo and everyone in the band has got it as well.
SG: And of course we’re all babe magnets. As you’ve seen from the lines of girls waiting outside.
|Saul Godman (bass)|
Are there any bands who you hope to one day be as big as?
MH: Arcade Fire are one. My parents might not know who they are, but they can go around the world playing ten-thousand capacity venues and they’ll probably be able to until they’re the Rolling Stones’ age. The Shins are another one – they may not be a household name but they can sell out world tours in a day.
EH: Bon Iver. They make pieces of art. Even though each album sounds different in production, it’s still them and you can tell every time. I want people to say, “Oh, that sounds like Clean Cut Kid”, even if they’re listening to another band. It would be nice to be a name that people drop when they’re trying to describe a sound, like you can with Bon Iver.
RH: Beck has that sound too. He does loads of different things on loads of different albums but it’s always so recognisable. I love Tame Impala and their new album. When I listened to that for the first time I thought wow, this is a piece of something awesome.
SG: Plus because we’re from Liverpool, the Beatles connection is always a big one. They went from classic song writing to experimenting with all kinds of sounds. We don’t do all the drugs that made them split up so hopefully we’ll be able to do what they would have kept on doing!
Finally, what can we expect from Clean Cut Kid in the near future?
EH: In short, we’re doing about 25 festivals and we hope to get our album out. But it’s quite a frustrating process because you have to make sure it’s released in certain ways. We wouldn’t stick it straight out there if we could though. I do see the benefit because, for example, if you don’t play certain festivals then your music won’t be on the radio, because they only play the bands that are at festivals around that time.
MH: It’s our debut record, and you only get one chance for your debut record to be out. You want the most people to be able to access and hear it and know that it exists, so hopefully it’ll get its best shot.
* * *
Clean Cut Kid’s latest single Pick Me Up is out now. They have a headline tour lined up including a date at London’s 100 Club, plus a whole host of festival dates booked too.
Hull, Fruit (07/03) *
Leeds, Oporto (08/03) *
Manchester, Sound Control (09/03)
Liverpool, The Magnet (11/03)
Brighton, Patterns (12/03) *
London, The 100 Club (23/03)
* = supporting Fickle Friends
Words & Photos: Alex Cabré
Words & Photos: Alex Cabré