CLEAN CUT KID
How can a song sound both muddy and clean? Be steeped in its influences yet tear out of the traps, brand spanking new? Feature lyrics of intense and heartbreaking sadness, set to music of euphoric uplift? Can a three-minute pop song really accommodate such disparity? Should it?
That’s a lot of questions, certainly, but Clean Cut Kid have the answers. The four-piece from Liverpool – Mike Halls, Evelyn Halls, Saul Godman and Ross Higginson – arrive at a time when even the most optimistic, glass-half-full sort of person has started to fear that pop as a currency, as a conduit for emotion, truth, complexity and daring, has been cheapened to the point of no return. Sure, Clean Cut Kid’s songs possess the whipsmart immediacy of classic radio pop; but there is something much deeper going on in there, too. And that’s the point: why settle for a quick-fix first draft, they argue, for the speediest, least troublesome route to a self-congratulatory pat on the back, when craft, hard graft, and sheer dogged, cussed bloody-mindedness and persistence can lead you to results that leap clear of the average and workaday?
Bloody-mindedness and persistence have played their parts in Clean Cut Kid’s story. If the band’s trajectory in 2015 has been rollercoaster-like in its rapidity – they gained a manager in January, the second of their two shows at London’s Water Rats in March was pushed back by an hour so that the queue of major-label head honchos (not to mention Annie Mac’s producers) could squeeze its way into the venue, and they signed for Polydor in April – the road to this point has been a winding and rocky one. An earlier incarnation broke apart, bedevilled by sleight-of-hand shenanigans that left Mike questioning his ability to persevere. Happily for him, this was the moment when Evelyn entered the picture. A natural and immediate musical affinity blossomed into romance, and they married last year. The strength of their bond is matched by the band as a whole. All four exude a sense of steely determination and absolute faith – a faith shared by the labels that vied for their signatures this spring.
Many bands in their position would be celebrating at this point. But Clean Cut Kid are still doing what they’ve always done. Shoulders to the wheel, working round the clock in their Liverpool rehearsal space, catching some sleep when they can. Firing out new songs on an almost daily basis – songs that will be jostling for space when it comes to sequencing the band’s debut album, due next year. Routing guitars and keyboards through piggybacked effects pedals and ancient, overloaded amps, to the point, laughs Mike, “where you think they’re going to explode”. Forever hunting down the right sound for a particular moment in a certain song. Evelyn even confesses that their debut single, Vitamin C, features “the sound of a teacup being hit by one of us”.
In person, their love for, and belief in, what they do is infectious. Adversity may have clouded the band’s early days, but serendipity rode to the rescue, changing their lives and reshaping their futures. Mike and Evelyn meeting was one example; how they came to work with Saul another. “I’d met Saul about six years ago,” Mike recalls. “He was bouncing around the same studio I was working in; I didn’t get to know him well, but he was just such a nice guy. And when me and Evelyn started working together, we were like, ‘Who should we recruit?’ And I said: ‘There’s this guy I met a few years ago, I don’t even know if he’s still alive.’ We were walking through town a few nights later and he was just stood there, busking. We’d been for an Indian takeaway, and there was Saul with this red guitar, at two in the morning. How mad is that? I turned to Evelyn and said: ‘That’s the guy I was telling you about!’ He didn’t even play the bass – he was a guitarist.” “And Mike went: ‘Trust me. He can do this’,” Evelyn adds. “We walked up to him,” Mike continues, “and I said, ‘Would you be up for getting together and having a jam? I’ve got a few songs.’ And he goes: ‘Yup. Shall we say 5am?’ We compromised and met at 10, and we didn’t finish playing till midnight that night. I said, ‘When shall we meet again?’ and he went, ‘Well, I’m going to be up all night, so how about 5am?’”
That habit of keeping long hours clearly remains – not least because they can’t stop writing new songs. “Three days ago I got this idea in my head and I stayed up all night in the rehearsal room,” says Mike. “The others came in the next day and I was asleep on the couch. I woke up and said, ‘I’ve got a new tune, guys.’” Presumably, like all songwriters, he thinks his latest song is his greatest one? “Actually, the new song is the greatest one,” says Evelyn. “The day we finish the album,” deadpans Saul, “I swear he’ll write a new song that night, and go: ‘This has to be on the album.’” “We’ve just being going in to rehearse,” says Evelyn, “day after day after day. We literally live between our practice room and our flats.” “We live on the same street as the rehearsal room,” adds Mike, “and Saul actually lived there until last week. So we’re completely immersed in it. We’ve found a formula and it’s worked, so we hammer away at it. It means too much to us to let that slip.”
If the other three come across as driven by the need to make music, Mike seems possessed by it. That’s been the case, he says, for as long as he can remember. “As a kid, music felt like my own little world, which I’d retreat into. I used to wear out cassettes on my Walkman, the Beatles Blue and Red albums, Michael Jackson’s Dangerous; I’d play them to death. I can remember cycling along with stabilisers on, listening to the Walkman, and my parents keeping an eye out so I didn’t steer the bike off the kerb, because I couldn’t hear the traffic.” Later, in his teens, Mike was given a battered acoustic guitar by his dad. “It only had three strings on it,” he laughs, “but I was away.”
Despite hailing from a city with such a rich musical heritage, Mike says it took him years for music to be anything other than a deeply private passion. “My family was into all sorts of artists, Dylan, Bob Marley, Pink Floyd, and I’ve always been the same, addicted to that variety. But it’s not the music of my location, if you see what I mean. I never felt a connection to a place, only to the music. It was only when I went to college and met all these people with different influences, from different backgrounds, that I felt that connection.”
That childhood immersion in multiple genres inculcated in Mike a quest to “search out the honest stuff” in the music Clean Cut Kid make. Bands such as Fleetwood Mac – and in particular, Lindsey Buckingham – are among their musical pin-ups: artists creating songs whose hooks and melodies lodge at once in your brain, yet whose textures thrum with an audacious experimentalism that, on paper, should have no place in a pop song. If the Mac were early and crucial pioneers of that sonic subterfuge, Clean Cut Kid have taken up the torch. Listen to the crunch and staccato attack of the guitar on Vitamin C, to the brutal force and crisp economy of Saul and Ross’s Prefab Sprout-like rhythm section, both seemingly on a different page to Mike and Evelyn’s dovetailing harmonies and the universally identifiable sentiment of the lyrics. (Never mind the teacup.) Dive between the layers of We Used To Be in Love, where the buzzsaw bass guitar does its best to undermine the bright, shiny 80s-pop sheen and Starship-recalling stomp of the chorus. To the old analogue keyboard that shimmers through Runaway, and the limber, Graceland-like rhythm that drives it on – and to the serpentine melody and tender lyric that soar above them.
This is the opposite of generic, lowest-common-denominator music. On the contrary, it is the product of restless, inquisitive minds, of musicians unwilling to cut corners or settle for compromise. “The challenge we set ourselves was this,” says Mike. “Is there a way of taking really well-written, well-formed songs and putting them through a different process so that they become what we want them to be? It’s like there’s a load of tortured elements that sort of come together around a song that’s already there, but you can play that song on anything. The more a song is just a three-chord thing, the more you can totally mess with all the other components. You can sneak stuff over the threshold that way, and it feels so much better if you do that. You let it all loose in the studio. But you have to have the song to start with.”
Well, Clean Cut Kid have certainly got those, in abundance. “Soulful pop ballads, washed in Mersey water,” is how Mike describes them. That will do for now. Pretty soon, though, they’re going to be weighed down with superlatives, and soundtracking our lives. Until then, the band should probably try to get a bit of sleep. Things are about to move for them, and fast.