Louder Than War last crossed paths with Clean Cut Kid at the Leopallooza festival in Cornwall in 2017 (that interview here). Their debut album, Felt, had brought them significant acclaim. Everything seemed buoyant. But the intervening years have been less than straightforward.
They parted with Polydor after album one and Gareth Bullock replaces Saul Godman on bass. The albums Painwave and Mother’s Milk ensued, the latter a decidedly home-spun triumph.
Much to CCK devotees’ pleasant surprise, they announced very recently that after the pleasant toil of their DIY stint, they had signed to Team Love and Alcopop! Records. So, as much as they never really went away, it’s still fair to say that they’re back! There was certainly a feeling of rejuvenation and renaissance when we caught up with them via Zoom from Clean Cut Kid HQ (aka Mike and Ev’s kitchen).
LTW: Good afternoon! It’s lovely to speak to you.
Mike Halls: It’s nice to have anybody wanting to speak to us!
I was delighted to hear your recent news. How did Clean Cut Kid cross paths with Team Love and Alcopop!?
MH: Team Love was the record label that we had in our heads – if we could land in any place, doing this new lo-fi alt-folk thing that we’re doing now, it would be with that label.
Evelyn Halls: Team Love were started by Conor Oberst from Bright Eyes in 2013, so there was Conor and Nate, who runs the label.
MH: It just so happened that we had a connection. I told my publisher I really wanted to be on their label and he was like, “I worked with Nate at Sony for twenty years.”
Did you wish you’d said it sooner, then, once you found that out?
EH: Yeah! Mike had been listening to a podcast about it a year ago, and the podcast had featured Nate from the label. Mike said to me, “Oh, I’d love to be on this indie label in the States; it’s so cool.” They seemed to be in the world that we’d want to inhabit and then a year later, we were able to do that.
MH: And on our own terms. All we did was get a contact for Nate from my publisher Charlie and we sent an email, with no links to past stuff, saying, “We’re Clean Cut Kid. We’ve just made this record on an eight-track tape in our apartment in Liverpool.” Nate contacted us and said, “It’s the best music I’ve been hit with for the last three years – let’s do it.”
Because they’re so ‘New York cool’ we thought they’d be so far away from the scene here. We went back to them cheekily right away and asked if we could only do a licence for the US. They said, “Yeah, fine,” so suddenly the band was available for the rest of the world.
EH: We’d sat down and said that we wouldn’t put all our eggs in one basket, because the chances of anyone getting back to us were very slim, even the chances of them listening to our record. We basically cold-called people. We chose the labels that we would be interested in, whose ethos we liked or that had someone on their roster like us.
Alcopop!’s response was so passionate, so excited, that we read it and we instantly felt that they were really genuine. When we spoke to them, we knew they were exactly what we’d been looking for.
MH: All their departments had been circulating our music round for two days, saying, “We need to sign this,” so by the time it got back round to us, the vibe was perfect. We already had the Team Love thing in the pipeline, and when they found out, they were quadruple happy because they thought it would be so easy to get the cool angle on things – ‘If Team Love say the band’s cool, then the band’s cool.’ It’s been amazing.
This fourth record was just us for ten weeks in a tiny back room. It wasn’t like Mother’s Milk, where we brought in a load of musicians from the outside to do the orchestrated parts. It was just us, buried away for weeks.
It wrecked my head so much that I had to get away for three months and I told everyone I was deleting it, erasing the tapes. I came back to it after three months and finished it all off in a day. How crazy that it’s landed on these two labels.
How did it feel, mail-shotting sixty labels?
EH: It was the one thing that everyone tells you not to do. But we’d always thought to ourselves, “Surely that must still be a route.” We haven’t had management for two years now. It felt like the right time to go solo for a bit, because it wasn’t quite working for us after Painwave.
We wanted to put Mother’s Milk out and we wanted to tour, but we just wanted to do it ourselves. We didn’t like the diluted aspect where you ask the manager to say something to people, then they get back to the manager and the manager gets back to you. It’s never a pure form of communication.
So we thought, “Let’s cut every middle man out,” and we’ve been unmanaged for two years. We didn’t even have anyone to ask if a mail-shot was the right way to go about things.
MH: People always asked, when we signed to a major, how they could do what we did. But that sort of thing is not something we made happen. That came to us. My advice to people looking to get signed is to find labels whose rosters are full of people who sound like you. If you sound like Coldplay, go and find out who plugs them to Radio 1 in this country. Chances are, if you sound good, they’ll want to plug you too.
Find similar artists. Find their teams. Target their teams. That’s what I’ve always told people and I’ve never done it myself – until those ten days that it took us to put together that list of sixty labels and booking agents.
And was sending those communications an email job, or a big old day at the Post Office?
EH: We emailed everyone, and we didn’t just want to send the same email to everyone, so we tweaked it to suit who we were sending it to. The music industry is a small world and we didn’t want everyone to have the same email from Clean Cut Kid. We tried to cater for them.
We really spent time curating that list, so that we knew we’d be happy with whoever chose to get back to us. We sat in the living room here wrote them all out. We tried to find all the correct names. I love pretending I’m an online spy, finding out all the smaller details – emails and names – via Linkedin and places like that.
MH: It’s really hard to explain the place that we were in when we sent out all those emails. All I ever wanted was to be in a position where I could pick a bunch of singles to put out, where those singles weren’t any part of anything commercial. Just to find labels where they were wholeheartedly getting behind artists, even where their current single was so fuckin’ batshit crazy (whether it’s good or bad).
And that was the criteria – if the label were getting behind anyone’s vision. We’d been based so much in a commercial world, we couldn’t believe that so many labels would promote a two-and-a-half minute instrumental to radio, but we wanted that ethos.
We didn’t want to take the three most commercial singles and put them out. We wanted to take the songs that most represented the band and who we are and put them out. It had to be that approach, otherwise I’d have been scared in the first meeting to say, “I think this ought to be the first single.”
EH: You still were scared.
MH: But I still went in and said, “Here’s the first song and here’s the artwork. Here’s what we want to put in the video.” I pitched these crazy concepts for what I want to be in the video. In the past, I’ve been scared for people to hear my ideas and say, “This is madness,” but this time, everyone has stayed with huge smiles on their faces.
Is that sort of thing what the new deal will enable you to do more?
EH: Yeah. We’ve already made a video for the first song that’s coming off the album.
MH: And I’ve already made the artwork for the singles. There were no creative decisions coming from the labels.
EH: Just support.
EH: It’s really nice. Polydor were supportive, but they were also in bed with every decision we made about anything, including clothes, colours of fonts and even silly little things like what we were going to say on a post. It’s so not our vibe.
So you’ve gone from a label, to having no label, then back to a pair of labels. Is that feeling of independence the difference this time round?
MH: There’s this weird thing with what happens with indies vs majors: majors say, “Here are people that we’ve put loads of money into, so you should back them on playlists and put them on the radio.” But because they have so much money behind them, they’re going to get rammed down people’s throats. You’re supposed to back them because it’s like backing a winning horse. That’s all majors can do with any music. And all indies do is say, “We’ve decided that this is good, cool music, and we’re behind is as a label.” We’ve always wanted that second angle.
What it is with the big labels is that they quantify what the band is worth from a monetary point of view, going in. With smaller labels, it’s all resource-based. And because they’ve got these teams of people, who love the music so much, working the shit out of it, what they lack in big money to put into deals, they make up for in resources, which is music to our ears.
The other version of that is so weird. Every person that does amazingly well on any label in the world have always done what they want – Adele, Ed Sheeran – they’ve always wholeheartedly done what they want. And then everyone else on the label gets commercially managed into the ground. And the label still haven’t put two and two together and realised that when you steer any artist into anything purely commercial, then it just results in creative death. To everyone.
The moment anyone chimes in and says, “No, this is how you should do it,” and it pulls away from what the band would naturally do, it’s never going to go anywhere. I have literally no examples in history where a band were going one way and a label said no and took them the other way and it made it a big hit.
Looking back a bit – you’ve been DIY for a while, often proudly and perhaps defiantly so. Were there some obvious highs and lows of being DIY?
EH: Definitely over this last year, it was really tough because the only person we had to help, to negotiate the highs and lows and give us any advice was Mike’s publisher, who’s been an absolute godsend. He’s basically the fifth member of the band.
I felt very much alone in this last year, as if the band was on this tiny little island and I didn’t know how we’d make it back to shore, back to the mainland. We didn’t have anyone to get us back into the world when the world kicks back off again. We still managed to arrange the tour – that’s more or less sold out – and we’ve managed to get these deals, so we did do it, but it was frightening.
MH: There’s a balance, where creatively, you’re stifled by commercial fear and all that disappears when you go independent. What winds up taking over, which we found when we did things ourselves, was that releasing anything, the balance starts to tip the other way again, purely because of man hours.
Your creativity starts becoming stifled again when you have to hand-spray-paint individual box sets and you know that it’ll take you a full week to make those box sets, and it’s only you guys doing it. That is a week coming up to a release or a gig where you’re out of action, and there were thousands of tasks like that. Evelyn’s done hundreds of hours of emailing.
EH: Even just putting a release out DIY, we used AWOL as a platform for putting music out. Doing the pitch form for a single release, you have to get so much information together, so much data – it takes hours and hours. Then you throw it out into the world and cross your fingers and hope that it gets on some kind of playlist.
Without a professional – a manager or a label doing that – you feel like you just have to give it a go and hope for the best. The release of Mother’s Milk did go quite well, but I’m looking forward to not having to do those things, feeling inexperienced in the admin side of a band.
MH: The best way I can describe it is that it’s like when you don’t want to eat dinner as much when you’ve cooked it. When you make the music and then you turn it over to this amazing team that you trust, you give them the tracks, the videos and the artwork and you say, “Please, please convey this vision to people,” then you sit back and let it come out, and all you do is go out and play gigs and perform it – that’s the ideal. If you have that interim stage where you’re in charge of all the nuts and bolts, then by the time you’re at that gig, you can feel like you’re flogging a dead horse before you’ve even started playing the gig.
EH: It’s so much time. I now can see how a manager earns their twenty percent when a band is busy. It’s just that when a band isn’t so busy or is a bit smaller, you can do it yourself and save that twenty percent, even if it’s a stretch.
It’s also nice to have direct contact with everyone – the merch distributors, the tour managers, the promoters for the gigs, the label, the press guys. Just having that direct line – changing a line in a press release, moving a sound-check by an hour – you can just pick up the phone and do it yourself.
You’ve said the word ‘cool’ more than once. I know it’s one of your words, but were there points over the last few years when you’ve struggled to feel cool or relevant?
EH: Oh my gosh, yes.
MH: In actual fact, as far as personal ‘coolness’ was concerned, it was almost the opposite, where we were wrestling musically with the fact that everything I’d ever loved musically has nothing to do with modern major labels and nothing to do with the commercial world and music for commercial gain. It was like every move I’d ever made that was, let’s not say ‘cool’, but maybe uniquely ‘me’ – all of it felt cartoonised and pastiche on the major label.
They sign you for this rough diamond thing. And from the first second, all of your edges are ground off, which is ridiculous, because I’m this big, burly, bearded, tattooed guy from a housing estate in Liverpool. They thought they were selling that so well, but looking back, I can’t even watch things like the video for Leaving You Behind.
The crazy thing about that, is that we shot it on Penny Lane. We had a really cool, hipster stylist to do it with us. It was shot by the guy who did all the Coral’s videos, like In The Morning – the coolest guy, and it was shot on 35mm film. What we’d pitched was a couple in a break-up and they had to compete with each other for possessions, like the house.
The video is like a mini sports day, isn’t it?
MH: Yeah, but what I’d pitched was a rugby pitch with gallons and gallons of rain and the families of these two people so knee-deep in mud that it was just the most ridiculously messy video you’ve ever seen. The actual video ended up with trollies with bull heads on and thumb wars. That’s just one example of how every idea turned into a cartoon on the major label. The moment we were free of it all, everything did feel so much cooler.
EH: For us, even before we both met, it’s always been that authenticity is one of the coolest things in the world. So I think that my dad is one of the coolest people I’ve ever met because he has never once thought about whether what he’s wearing is cool. He just wears it. Or whether the music he listens to is popular. He just listens to it because he loves it.
When we signed to Polydor, I was only twenty-four or twenty-five, I did feel very cool – getting to do the Radio 1 Live Lounge was an ‘oh my gosh’ moment for me. Definitely, as I’ve grown up a bit and moved away from Radio 1 and that world, I definitely don’t find that cool now. But it’s a taste thing and tastes do change.
MH: Looking back, I can see how manufactured it was, this big, bearded, tattooed guy, wearing a tracksuit and playing vintage guitars.
EH: And now we’ve gone the opposite way from all that. We decided we needed some press shots the other day – some images of what we actually look like now. In the past, we might have had a little WhatsApp group, discussing what we were going to wear, had a little Pinterest board. This time, the brief was ‘wear whatever you want’. If you want to wear your pyjamas, wear them – don’t even think about it.
We didn’t even book a photographer; we just got our mate to do it. We did it in the half-hour before our rehearsal, we did it on Polaroid, we had one chance to get it right and it turned out that they were the best photos we’ve ever had because of the truth behind it, the realness and authenticity. Because of that, it looks and feels cool to me.
MH: If you’ve got four people, stood in an alleyway, posing – the reality of that is that it’s a sad situation. But four guys coming out of a rehearsal studio with their mate who actually mixed the album, taking some photos – that’s just us taking a break. When you’ve got a team of stylists and a lighting rig and a £5000-per-shoot photographer, and everyone’s there, posing in their make-up, even if the photos turn out great, there’s something in the eyes of those people that conveys, “this is sad as fuck – we’re standing in a studio in London, trying to look cool.”
What it also says, though, is that this isn’t a band making music in their bedroom. It’s another opportunity for profile building, if you’re in a studio with a world-class photographer and a lighting rig and an infinity wall. It says ‘this has got a team’ and that’s what your press shots really do. Our recent press shots are from twenty metres away with a Polaroid. They’re so out of focus. Anyone could have taken them, and that’s all part of the vibe, where only the music really needs to have something to say.
So you’ve done the ‘industry detox’ – you’ve got it out of your system, to the extent that you can decide which bits you want to avoid and which bits you’re willing to put back into your system. It sounds most healthy. And you’ve got new music ready to go, as well as old music that’s kind of new because it hasn’t been played live yet. Mother’s Milk has been out for a while, but it’s about to be ‘out out’?
EH: It came out physically in January last year and that was just before we were supposed to go on tour. Following that tour, it would have come out digitally. But because we couldn’t tour and because we couldn’t give it enough beans, we just decided to wait and chill and see what happens – let it exist physically, which was great in itself because it created this little world where only a couple of hundred people had heard it and bought it, which was exciting. So we’re putting it out digitally this year, and Mike has made a short film to go alongside that, because we felt we needed a bit extra.
MH: There needed to be something creative that was able to breathe life back into a year-old record, because the golden tip of our fanbase, the people who buy the vinyl and always buy gig tickets, we knew that they’d be slightly disappointed with this release, even though the week we come back off tour, the new album starts. For those fans that really got behind us and bought those Mother’s Milk box sets, we needed to make something that was relevant, and luckily, Evelyn had filmed the making of Mother’s Milk and that’s what enabled me to make this documentary.
EH: Mike said to me, when we started making the album, “Can you just film everything?” and I was like, “What for?” and he said, “I don’t know, just keep filming.” I filmed everything: mental breakdowns people were having because they hadn’t done a good take; drinks we’d had out; arguments; we went to Nashville. Mike had hours and hours of footage that was ready to go and he’s made an amazing documentary.
Is the title of that documentary, Curdled, just a play on words, or is it a statement of how it feels to be sitting on new music for such a long time?
MH: The documentary doesn’t dwell on that aspect. It mostly sets out how the album came together. But in the second-to-last scene, it shows how we’re on this big trajectory and all sorts of people have been involved and the album is taking shape. Then we go to Nashville. Then we book this gig in Parr Street as a practice run for the studio tour and it’s the best gig of our lives. Then all of a sudden – whack – it’s all off. It’s all over.
EH: The plan of how to get that album out was pulled from under us.
MH: A weird thing I hadn’t really noticed until just now is that you make a record in the studio and you try and believe all the way through that the songs are great. If I think a song’s great, it makes it onto the record. If I don’t, it doesn’t. Whether you’ve delivered that quality in any kind of relevant way at all is just this form of self-belief that you have to hold in your head all day, otherwise you start to listen to the music and you start thinking it’s terrible.
Once you finish making the album, which takes so much work, and you pay out for mastering and mixing, the next thing you need, so much, is to play those songs to people and see their reaction. If you send the album to people, and they message back saying they love the new album, it kind of doesn’t work, because the loop’s still broken.
You need to go out and play to people and see their reaction to it. We couldn’t do that, and the music sat for eighteen months – all this work, including going across the world to Nashville, and nothing came of it.
EH: That’s where ‘Curdled’ came from.
MH: The fourth album was actually a life-saver. I just died out for the first three months of the lockdown. I wasn’t miserable; I actually loved the peace and the space, but creatively it was so depressing. Mother’s Milk wasn’t going to come out, we had nothing planned and we were having to spend the budget for Mother’s Milk to live off.
We knew it wasn’t going to come out for a bit, because we’d burned half of the revenue and half of the tour budget. When I woke up from that haze, three or four months later, I was like, “I need to make a fourth album!” That fourth album saved me.
I recall you said that the fourth album helped you cling onto your sanity. There was also that Instagram post back in February, where you talked of selling off all your complex digital recording equipment and ditching your smartphone.
EH: Oh! Let me show you Mike’s phone now!
**(Mike scrabbles around a produces the most rudimentary telephonic device imaginable in 2021)**
Does that essentially make phone calls and nothing else?
EH: It’s a burner!
MH: No social media on there. I don’t do any of that. It looks like a proper drug-dealer’s phone.
EH: It’s got two numbers programmed into it.
Album four is in the bag. Is that coming out with the assistance of Alcopop! and Team Love?
MH: And weirdly, Mother’s Milk isn’t. They decided it would be better if they did the recent label announcement and they got behind us. So our PR guy, Jamie, has set aside days to work on Mother’s Milk, but they’re leaving us to get on with it. That just shows how amazing they are.
EH: We already had everything ready for the release, so we definitely didn’t need a label for Mother’s Milk, but we definitely didn’t want to do it on our own for the next record. This next record is so Clean Cut Kid, everything about it – the artwork, the sound, the way we feel in the world we live in now. We wanted to give it the best shot to get to as many people as we can, so we thought, “Let’s get a label behind it.”
MH: I think this is by far and away the best record we’ve made musically. I know that’s easy to say. Even Mother’s Milk, which was 70% on tape and there was no commercial thought, I was still dragged around by thoughts of what the band should be, so there were conflicting thoughts from both of us, which didn’t water down the music, but it waters down the overall vision.
But the fourth record is just completely and utterly of a different world for us. It’s 100% on tape, which means that the most you’re getting at any given time is eight tracks. The arrangements are super-duper raw – not digital at all. It’s not pioneering in any way, but it’s just so unashamed. Even I have no idea where it came from. I cannot wait to start putting it out.
You said it’s a really lo-fi, fuzzy sound?
MH: It’s way more lo-fi than Mother’s Milk – half of the fidelity. There’s nothing about the record that would surprise you if it had come out in the early ‘60s. There’s not one sound or one song that would date it as being post-’65. Nothing that makes it modern whatsoever.
And you’re going to take it on the road soon, surely? Will that be heard in the gigs in July?
EH: We’re playing a couple of songs from the new era.
MH: Songs that are on the deluxe version only, though. This tour is still a ‘Greatest Hits’ tour – four songs from Felt, four songs from Painwave, four songs from Mother’s Milk and the singles we’ve had out in between – a ‘please everybody’ set. So when we tour album four, that will be a set where we do the entire record cover-to-cover and then we come back on and do five or six older songs as a crowd-pleaser.
EH: Probably playing Vitamin C six times.
MH: The instrumentation for the new album means that Evelyn will be playing cello at times and I’ll be changing guitars all the way through. There are songs that need a boom box with an analogue drum loop that needs to be mic-ed up. It’ll be nothing like a normal Clean Cut Kid set.
The fourth record will start to happen in October, with autumn touring and music out before then. We’ve got a contract in the pipeline with SoFar Sounds where we’re going to do some unique sets in venues where you’d never, ever expect to hear music. That’s where this weird little instrument-swapping set is going to form up and it’s going to be shot on 8mm and 16mm film.
What does it feel like to entertain the prospect of touring again?
EH: It’s unbelievable. Towards the end of 2019, I remember moaning about being on tour – that it was tiring. We were just whingeing, basically. This year has really shown us that you don’t really know what you’ve got until it’s gone.
We’ll definitely have a more grateful attitude, being a bit more childlike about the whole process – the fact that we even get to do what we do. Not getting stressed about silly things, like being late for a sound check or something breaking on stage.
MH: We have virtually no digital instruments and no backing tracks. It’s four people playing instruments and three harmonies. We play about a third of the volume on stage now. We have tiny guitar amps. Ross barely hits the drums. If we get the worst sound guy in the world at any of the venues, it doesn’t matter, because the sound is coming out of our mouths and out of our instruments. That’s what I’m looking forward to – the real Clean Cut Kid.
EH: I think that we’ve definitely improved vocally over the last year. We’ve done so much studio work and we’ve got rid of the bad habits that we’d developed. When you’re on the bigger stages, you can over-sing, which can cause pitchiness. We’ve been able to shed all of that through not being on tour for so long. When we’ve been rehearsing, I’ve definitely noticed how much better we’ve been – me, Mike and Ross, so the harmonies are sounding tighter and melting together. I can’t wait to hear how that sounds amplified in a room.
Everyone’s just giving themselves a bit of a break – it’s like we’re getting up there with nothing to prove. We have done tours before where we have felt like we had something to prove. Then, you run into the danger, when something minor goes wrong, of feeling like things fall apart.
MH: If you’ve written a song about something that meant a lot to you, and you’re on stage delivering that song, there is nothing that can really go wrong, even if the PA explodes and you have to grab an acoustic guitar and stand in the middle of the crowd. If you believe in the song, nothing can pull it from under you.
So, to conclude, what’s the very best thing about the ‘here and now’ for Clean Cut Kid?
EH: It feels right. Finally, it all feels like it’s in the right world.
MH: From yesterday, when we announced the new stuff, it’s felt squarely like the first time I’ve been in a 360-degree bubble that’s all Clean Cut Kid – so right. We never put it out to the public, but there’d always been massive, massive elements of the whole thing that was totally wrong. And I was like, “The crowd doesn’t see any of this, but I know.” That doesn’t exist now.