Hendrix, Squire, Green- wood…uhm, Swift. it shouldn’t be difficult to equate guitar playing with the ultimate in cool.
Yet Clean Cut Kid frontman Mark Halls is on a mission to do just that, concerned as he is with the downgrading in recent times of rock’s most iconic instrument.
“A lot of people think that the guitar is a cool instrument”, Halls says.
“In mainstream pop, for the past three or four years it’s been the opposite of that really – it’s been really hard to make the guitar cool.
“I’ve played in loads of sessions with loads of different people for all different genres, and I’ve just had this picture in my head of what to do to make this different, to make this cool again.”
The Liverpool based quartet’s debut single Vitamin C is receiving love from mainstream stations such as Radio 1 as well as the more eclectic 6 Music, so it seems like his approach is working.
The track’s slinky, fuzzed out guitar riff swaggers around a thumping bass drum that stomps purposefully, keeping its cool until the song swells into a sugary chorus, close harmonies ringing out between Mike and wife Helen.
Crackling amp feedback and rustic bum notes hint at a raw, in-the-moment recording, but the polished production and clean mixing make it apparent that everything surrounding Clean Cut Kid has been carefully calculated.
That’s not to call the group manufactured; my chat with Mike makes it obvious that he’s a performer who is methodical about how his group sound.
And he makes it clear that they are the ones with control; right down to their tangerine coloured vinyl, everything that comes of out the band is their own.
What’s even more apparent is that he’s in a state of shock, but not about how fast things seemed to have happened; the work leading up to this moment has been anything but sudden for him:
“It’s been a bit of a strange journey anyway, regardless of where it’s going to go in the next stage,” he explains.
“Vitamin C was part of an EP made completely by myself about 18 months ago.
“I just made it in the studio, played all the instruments, arranged it all, produced it – just did it all in the studio, and then had this big 18-month mission where I decided ‘okay, this is good, and it’s probably going to go somewhere,’, but I knew that it’d be rushed into the development process by a load of labels if I kind of brought it to them, because there was no live band – it was basically me playing the instruments.
“So I just spent 18 months putting the band together. We virtually had no socials. We kind of leaked bits out for people so they heard little snippets, and then right away from little 30-second leaks we just got loads of mad stuff coming in.
“There was an 18-month period of total radio silence where we had nothing, and then the moment it was ready, it just went mad.
“For years I’ve been amassing hundreds of tunes and everything has been ready to go, and at the same time it’s kind of just bringing in money as a session guitarist, so that’s been ticking away.
“You just do a load of work with no exposure, and nobody telling you it’s any good and you’re just working your t**s off and thinking ‘wow I hope this actually goes’ after all this work!”
The band’s press releases dub them as offering “soulful pop ballads washed in Mersey water”.
What does Mike make of being tagged as a Scouseband from Scouseland?
“In the least clichéd way I can say, I’m a massive Beatles fan – and that’s not like a card to play,” he says.
“From being a little kid I’ve just been completely and utterly addicted to the Beatles. That wasn’t anything that was pushed on me. It just grabbed hold of me and I was just hooked.
“The Beat thing is always gonna be in the sound of Clean Cut Kid; that kind of bouncy beat is always gonna be in there.
“That’s not something conscious, that’s just something that’s been pre-programmed into Scousers.
“The Liverpool thing is more the attitude that we take to it all. We’ve all worked really hard.
“Everyone was a full-time musician before this band, but everyone was doing teaching and whatever bits of work they could to stay in music and keep this bouncing along.
“My dad is a builder and my mum’s a mentor in a primary school, and I’ve kind of watched them my whole life work 12-hour days.
“Every second of doing this is amazing to me. The Liverpool thing I think we’ll always carry the work ethic over”
While Beat music may linger in the background, for Mike, it’s the left-field approach of Pink Floyd, Kate Bush and Paul Simon that he really wants to channel, thanks to the off-kilter use of textures and song construction that fill even their most universal work. It’s this thing that we’ve got in our heads, and we know that it’s do-able.
“Where you make a pop record with amazing singles that kind of appeal to the masses the way a great pop single does, but then the way it’s put together is totally and utterly unorthodox”
It’s something they aim to reflect in their music videos too, such as in the video for ‘Vitamin C’, with its mix of sweetness and sleaze in the same breath.
“The original idea was developed on by the director, a guy called David Mould (‘High and Dry’ – Radiohead).
“He’s a legendary music video maker. The original idea was like, we were in some labour club somewhere – it was kind of a mad freak show, like a crazy, weird Shane Meadows version of Britain’s Got Talent where we were the last act playing
“What we were trying to get from the video was to take all these British characters, and all this raw stuff, the labour club vibe, and all these small town things, and draw the beauty out of them.
“It’s a kind of reflection of the way we make the music, with wild textures everywhere, but a really nice, beautiful layer of sound, and that’s what we wanted the video to do.
“It’s got that Reservoir Dogs thing, with the ‘Stuck in the Middle With You’ tune.
“It’s got that kind of thing where you’re kind of laughing at it and it’s funny, but it’s also quite menacing and threatening, and at the same time it’s also got this beautiful thing.
“With the video we actually synched all the dancing and choreography to Ain’t That a Kick in the Head by Dean Martin, so it was a conscious thing to be like ‘this has got to have this undercurrent of being quite uncomfortable’ and it was one of the ways that the director did it, by saying ‘okay, here’s how we’ll make his movements really uneven’ because ‘Vitamin C’ is quite a four to the floor really straight tune, so we kind of get that swingy movement to it all.”
While the band celebrate their new found success, Mike and his band-mate/soulmate Evelyn have just celebrated their one year anniversary.
With a constant gig schedule looming, working with his spouse feels like the most natural thing for Mike.
He says: “I think it would have to be somebody that would be creative anyway because it’s such a mad game.
“I’m so prolific and I write so much, and I’m just swallowed up by writing sometimes.
“There’s a lot of quirky things in there that surround creativity that people that are non-creative, I guess, would struggle to be able to get a grip on it.
“She was a musician and artist in her own right to start with. We don’t know any other dynamic to be honest.”
Clean Cut Kid will play with Shura at King Tut’s in Glasgow on Sep 26.