Believe it or not, 2016 marks the fifteenth consecutive year of cookie cutter TV shows gracing our screens with the promise of finding the “next big thing in pop”. Yep, for fifteen years, we’ve let the likes of Pete Waterman, Simon Fuller and Simon Cowell (shudder) dictate a very dominant part of what we – the general public – listen to on a day-to-day basis. Of course, for the Leona Lewises and One Directions of the world, it’s been fantastic. However, pop music as currency has undoubtedly been devalued, with the industry in a strange state of flux, where nobody quite seems to know how to be successful or make money without going down the X Factor route.
What we’re long overdue, we’ve decided, is an antidote to the manufactured bastardisation of the pop music industry that seems to have taken over the last decade and a half. Enter Clean Cut Kid. Dubbed the sound of the summer, the Liverpool four-piece (comprising Mike Halls, Evelyn Halls, Saul Godman and Ross Higginson) have arrived to turn pop music as we know it on its head, and to bring meaning back to an industry where quantity has been wrongfully reigning supreme over quality. In short, they’re breaking the rules and doing things their own way.
Mike Halls, the band’s songwriter, vocalist and guitarist, elaborates, “The roots of our influences lie in classic songwriters: Bob Dylan, Neil Young. But the way we stack it all up is completely different in a studio. We always go for the most avant-garde way of doing it. Bands don’t have to have any rules, so it doesn’t have to be like ‘this snare drum has to be there’ or whatever – we just kind of throw the rulebook out on sound. We don’t want to be another copy.”
Though their sound runs parallel to the immediacy of typical radio pop, the comparisons stop there, with the band’s finely-tuned melodies and thoughtful songwriting demonstrating there’s still so much left to salvage of the genre that reality TV has shamelessly torn apart. Comparable to modern bands such as Vampire Weekend and Haim (albeit stripped of Stateside sheen), Clean Cut Kid have already gained mainstream recognition for their singles Vitamin C, Runaway and their most recent, We Used To Be In Love, having been signed by major label Polydor following their second gig. Still, the band is adamant they were far from being an overnight success. Evelyn says, “We spent the best part of a year just rehearsing, trying to get it all honed in before showing anybody any of the music. We were really, really careful about playing it to anybody. I think we played it to Saul’s mum first…”
While this habit of low-key refinement may mean the wait for the band to release a full-length album is a little longer than usual (that comes early next year, we’re told), it’s almost certain to be a triumph. With carefully constructed records reminiscent of Paul Simon and The Beatles, and a fuzzy guitar sound (something Mike calls “soulful pop ballads washed in Mersey water”), Clean Cut Kid produces the opposite of the generic, lowest-common-denominator tunes that have dominated the charts in recent years.
As speedy masters of the art of editing songs to perfection (why bother with compromise, they argue), there’s no doubt that Clean Cut Kid are confident in their sound. And so they should be, having produced one of the most exciting string of debut singles of late. However, it’s clear in our interview that the band’s success this year hasn’t sunk in for them quite yet. To Evelyn, “It’s a bit of a mystery still – it’s really strange that people are thinking of us as a pop band. To actually break through and get on Radio 1, and for people to say it ‘sounds radio’ is like… It’s a bit of a miracle. We’re just starting out, and thousands of people are singing our songs back to us at festivals.”
Despite possessing all the excitable, starry-eyed wonder of an emerging band, the quartet makes it clear they don’t take any of it for granted. This, combined with their genuine closeness (Mike and Evelyn are married, while Ross and Saul – in their own words – engage in “the early stages of foreplay”), is what makes it almost certain that their success will grow, and likely turn the trend for business-focused bands into something far more sentimental. Evelyn dreamily concludes: “I used to dream about being in a band where they were so busy they whinged about it, because it obviously meant they were doing loads of stuff. It finally came true, but actually it’s really hard. To take all of that on, with other people – your best mates – going through it too, it helps. Even if Mike did used to steal Ross’ lunch money…”