Meet Cutouts, the Brooklyn-based band made up of Alex MacKay (guitar, vocals), Chris Maier (keys, guitar, vocals), Leo Grossman (drums, vocals) and Lisa Hickox (bass, vocals). This year, they released their first album, a dream five-track EP called Baby Blue Suede, and are poised to release another album in January. We caught up with the Cutouts before their set at Secret Project Robot, and later had Alex field our questions about musical process, self-sufficiency and being from the Bay Area.
Tell us about yourself?
We’re musicians from the San Francisco Bay Area, we write and record our own music. We all live in South Brooklyn and Queens.
How did you get started as a musician?
I started playing piano when I was still a little guy. I hated piano lessons, and I’ve never been very good at it. But I picked up drums a couple years later, and then started writing songs on guitar in fifth grade. I guess I come from a musical family, but neither of my parents were ever professional musicians. They were in a Toronto ska band together in the 1980s called Eat the Pope. My mom played keys and sang, and my dad played bass.
Who would you say are some of your biggest musical influences?
One of my professors this year, Vivien Goldman, made some amazing experimental music in New York during the late-70s. The Slits, Television, Patti Smith and DNA are also guiding lights for us, even if our music sounds quite different. We’re very influenced by our friends and their work. Our friends in Moe Meguro (SF Bay Area) and Pulgas (Philly) both make really amazing experimental guitar records, and some of the hippest songwriting around. Baby Dumpling made one of our favorite records of last year.
How would you describe your band’s sound, and has that always been the kind of music you’ve been drawn to making?
“Music already exists; we’re just opening up a spirit portal to let it through.” - Michael League, Snarky Puppy*
My parents describe our next record as “unflinchingly dreary and depressing.” My parents are always asking why I don’t release more upbeat music. We do make pretty positive sounding stuff too - I think it’ll all see the light of day eventually. We make music in a very diverse range of styles. Right now Chris is finishing an amazing orchestral record that’s 40min long and has over twenty different instruments. We’re also producing a mixtape of hip hop songs for a couple friends right now.
*Not actual Michael League quote
All of the band members are from the Bay Area, do you think that impacts your sound?
Yeah, we grew up listening to San Francisco garage pop stuff like Thee Oh Sees, Ty Segall and Girls. But there weren’t many indie bands our age in Berkeley or Oakland. Most of our friends only listened to rap and hyphy music. We have a real soft spot for early-00s Bay Area hip hop. I think whatever music you dance to at middle school dances, you love for the rest of your life.
Can you describe the process you go through from first conceptualizing an idea for a song to recording it?
It either starts with a musical idea, or the beginning of a lyric. We try to write at least 2-3 songs a week. And we try to record as much of our fooling around as possible. We end up with a big pool of raw noodles to pull on. I do a lot of writing in the mornings and on the train, and then bring those ideas to the band and we build them together. We try to let ourselves follow whatever excites us in that moment. We run a lot of digital sounds through amps and guitar pedals. Sometimes we end up in excessive loops of revision… often we’ll record versions, tear them down and re-arrange them. We’re putting out a record in January that’s all tracks we started while recording Baby Blue Suede, but never finished until now.
As a band you guys seem very self-sufficient: you self-recorded your album and shot your own music video for ‘Phone Sex.’ Do you think that as a band operating in 2017, you need all of those skills to thrive?
“You need every skill you can get in this life. And you need to wear different hats while getting those skills. And then you gotta juggle those hats while you’re wearing them.” - George W. Bush*
Well I guess it doesn’t hurt. We shot that video with an iPhone, we did it in in three hours, and edited it ourselves later in iMovie. The whole thing went really smooth, we spent like $80 total, it was great. But that doesn’t mean it was our first try. There always a certain amount of trial-and-error, dead-ends and redrafting. Self-sufficiency has been a goal for a long time. When we moved to New York, we wanted to learn to do everything ourselves. We just got competent enough at engineering and mixing in the last two years. We usually don’t have the money to record in a studio, but our best recordings have all happened when we’re doing it ourselves anyway. It’s far more important to get the performances you want, than to get the sound perfect. We’re still just learning the ropes of video and photo, and we wouldn’t be able to do what we do without the help of our close friends. We made the “Phone Sex” video with our boy Theo Olesen who’s a real mad scientist, and our photo lady Madison Carroll is a freaky photo whiz. So self-sufficiency in our own “sphere” has been good, but outside of our medium we’ve gotten our best results by collaborating with people whose work we love.
*Not actual George W. Bush quote
You’ve been performing a lot in the city recently, do you enjoy performing live?
“Getting up there is the easy part. Making it look easy is the hard part.” - Chris Rock, comedian*
Yeah, very much. We made the whole Baby Blue Suede EP before we’d ever played a show together, but we’re glad to be up and runnin’ now. Usually we play songs live for a few months before we start recording them - it’s an important part of the process for us.
*Not actual Chris Rock quote
What’s next for Cutouts?
We’re putting out a new record in January, and doing a small run of tapes. Right now we’re making record #3, and Chris and Leo also have their own projects that are coming together and should be out in the new year.
PHONE SEX - CUTOUTS
Check out Cutouts' Playlist:
Interview: Emily Saunders - @thesaunder
Photography: Colin Hughes - @colinhughesphoto