It’s a Monday afternoon in Liverpool. The streets are swarming with buskers, street entertainers, and kids on the school break.
Away from the madness, the sun is shining onto the upstairs sanctuary of Leaf on Bold Street, where fuzzy pop boppers, Clean Cut Kid, suggested to meet. Taking a break from the festival circuit and becoming tour guides for the day, Mike Halls, Evelyn Halls, Saul Godman and Ross Higginson, are still on a buzz. Not just from Ross’s 16-shot-of-coffee a day record. They’re as energised as the rapid pulses that run through their tracks.
So our afternoon together begins; as I see the places that helped to create Clean Cut Kid, and hear their life stories.
UPSTAIRS AT LEAF ON BOLD STREET
In between mouthfuls of “boss” squid and sweet potato fries, Mike explains that when the first CCK songs were little “seedlings”, he played them here. In the crowd was his new girlfriend, and now wife, Ev, who spent the night meeting his parents and friends. “I just drank!” she remembers, “by the end I was so drunk, I was like ‘this is the best gig ever, I love you!’”
In January this year, the band returned together. Despite worries that everybody was going to be skint after Christmas, “they turned the capacity of the venue away at the door, there was that many people.” Basking in nostalgia, they recall “Not only did everybody know all of the singles but they knew the B-Sides and screaming for us to play 20 Years and Jean. We were like shiiiiiit, it’s starting to kick off in Liverpool.”
BOLD STREET COFFEE
Just a few doors up, we arrive at Bold Street Coffee, where the guys greet regulars and the owners with the widest grins and warm embraces. Exclaiming “it’s our favourite coffee shop, not only in Liverpool but in literally the entire world”, it opened up when they were attending LIPA in the city and acted like “a bit of a haven.” They breathe, “You see lots of other bands in there all of the time, lots of other artists, and bloggers, photographers. It’s a really creative hangout, dead cool, everyone’s really nice and they let us put gigs on in there. It’s a special place to us.”
EAST VILLAGE ARTS CLUB
“We have to go there” the band enthuse, “it’s got such a cool wall!”
Next thing, we’re outside the East Village Arts Club, where this October they’ll be playing their biggest homecoming gig to date.
Despite their pop sensibilities, CCK power up on stage. In front of an audience their songs come wildly to life. As the crowds grow wider, so does the appreciation of the band. “There was like a four year old girl on her dad’s shoulders at Liverpool International Music Festival that said ‘Eliza loves CCK’, it was amazing.” Ev gushes at the memory, a boost during a relentless live schedule, including big guns Latitude and Glastonbury. However, the story continues “Someone messaged saying ‘it’s so good to see children at Pride along with their parents’! Somebody actually thought it was a picture at gay pride…”
It turns out that their acronym has caused several misunderstandings, “It kinda does look like ‘cock’ from a distance, doesn’t it?” As the band splutter into a fit of giggles, they reminisce on Standon Calling where “somebody did the worm. Next to somebody holding a giant inflatable penis.” They aren’t talking small, they mean “huge, like the size of a small child.” Mike laughs in disbelief “There were three giant blow up dicks just dancing at the front.”
These sorts of experiences, are “really weird. But, really cool”. Having performed as session musicians and in some rather “crazy” bands previously (here’s looking at Saul), the collective gelled by chance. A date set up by a mate led to marriage, where the pair picked up Ross in a studio, and Saul literally on a street corner whilst he was busking. Come their second gig, they were signed.
Happy-go-lucky attitudes, honesty and love build the foundations of their disco dance infused pop. With a dash of quick wit.
PARR STREET STUDIOS
“Me dad came down here on a motorbike and burnt it out right outside and just dropped it on the floor in a load of smoke and flames. Anyway…” We’re outside the place where the magic happens. Tucked away down a side street, Parr Street Studios, birthed the turbulent anthems. Last summer, Clean Cut Kid injected us with shot of ‘Vitamin C’, where jaunty swagger moved with delicious harmonies. Their trademark soulful vocals melt into each other, clasped by some healthy funk. ‘Pick Me Up’ followed soon after, all stomping rhythm and heart racing chorus.
“While we were recording here we had quite a few days with Bea in the studio.” Who’s Bea? Any Instagram follower will know the band dog. “The studio is like a gigantic Abbey Road studio one style studio so a playground. She’d be exhausted from running from one end to the other.” Admitting dog lovers, Saul also has his two pet woofers, which are proudly tattooed on his arm and loved as children.
“The sadder the concept, the more up-tempo the arrangement.” Ev explains, their goal being to “write about the deeper stuff and then see whole crowds partying to heart-breaking subjects.”
Their autobiographical tracks are coated with a sugared melody and sun-kissed by euphoria, catalysing catharsis release through bellowed singalong. Though, these are rose-tinted glasses for their aching poetry. Latest single, and one for the school dance, ‘We Used To Be In Love’ is bittersweet.
Songwriter, Mike knows that “everyone’s said the break up thing a million times and it’s the message in so many songs” so, “I think when you find the concept… the way of saying it that nobody’s heard? That’s when it hits home. That’s what we try to do with every song.”
Swooning lyricism ‘it’s the first love lost, always the one that never quite heals’, stands out among the swelling urgency of ‘My body’s shaking as I see you walking by, are we just strangers now?’’ Clean Cut Kid have “managed to get rid of all the shit. There’s not one line in there that doesn’t describe exactly what you’re talking about in the song.” It’s true, as “everyone we’ve spoken to has said they can relate, that it cuts them deep. It’s such a simple concept but it’s so true. You see that person on the other side of the street and you just want to scream at them how you’re nothing to each other now, but do you remember what we were?”
Pairing up with an EP release, he band also recorded the upcoming accompaniment to ‘We Used To Be In Love’. Fully believing that an EP should be “random”, it includes a Jamie xx cover, and promises to be “nuts” and “far-out, just pure natural Clean Cut Kid.”
Explaining how when the band first work on songs in their acoustic form, they’re all close to tears, then together they glitter them up. “It’s cool that it’s hidden”, with everything arranged for “impact”, the shatter comes after the initial thrill of enjoyment.
Having enough songs recorded for an album and a half, it’s discovered that their debut should arrive in January 2017. Stirring excitement, they reveal that “the whole concept is a big ark of a breakup; every stage from before to after. It’s on a concept timeline.” Making a glorious appearance in live sets, a track called ‘Make Believe’ describes “the last ten minutes of when you’re about to split up with somebody, and you just pretend that everything’s fine for a little bit.” Explaining that “unconscious listens would think that it was a great pop record” and “that’s the whole idea, every song you can dance to, every song will be uplifting” they know that melancholy will always fill the gaps.
BBC RADIO MERSEYSIDE
Liverpool runs through the veins of the band, it acts as their playground as well as their home. With Mike and Saul being born and bred, and all nestling there, they gush over the places to eat, sleep and party. Though, their biggest love is the people. “Livepudlians are so, so supportive. Scousers aren’t shy, if anybody from Liverpool sees us then they’ll come up and say hi, even if we’re miles away.” Back in the city for the first time “since things had started to surge” they’ve started being spotted in the streets. “It’s Mike’s beard that gets us” they decide. As Ross stands outside of BBS Radio Merseyside, he says his thanks to BBC Introducing’s Dave Monks “with his amazing Lego hair”. Spun on the Mersey airwaves, the city is“just so proud of bands who actually break out of Liverpool.”
THE WOLTHENSTOME CREATIVE SPACE
“It’s a bit of a sad place, a graveyard to bring you to” the band sigh, standing before the “ashes” of a place which was once “banging”, filled with “cool places to go”. Rousing emotion for the group, they explain that “The little square used to be like the alternative music and dance music place, it used to have a really famous, theatre style venue called the Kazimier which everyone in Liverpool loved.”
Sighing that it was so legendary, bands were formed around it; even their first made videos there and put on gigs. “Everyone in Liverpool fought to try and keep it” though the ‘Kaz’ unfortunately fell victim to the “small venue hall”.
Clean Cut Kid’s club night ‘Fuzzy’, where they host local bands, stands to reverse the descent. “We wanted to turn a coffee shop into a venue instead of the other way round!” As iconic places close their doors in Liverpool to make way for housing and student demands, it’s also heart-breaking for the band to say goodbye to “stab alley”, quite literally just a dark alleyway, that they were gutted to realise had been built on. “It’s memories!” they exclaim, “every city has one!”
Walking a little out of the centre, we take it in turns to try and keep our eyes on Saul, who’s riding a bike and stopping every two seconds when he spots somebody he knows. We pass a Caffé Nero, where the band admit to annoying the baristas regularly by staying late to make “the big decisions”, and Kozys karaoke bar/local boozer – filled with daytime pint drinkers staggering their way through ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’.
Arriving at an old building, and climbing dark, winding stairs, we get into the practice room. “It’s nicknamed ‘The Rocket’ because of the rocket that we painted on the wall but it’s now covered up by carpet.”
Despite the aforementioned confusion, CCK is printed proudly on the walls. It’s placed in view of the window, where when you look out, you can see right into the “orgy hotel” which has four double beds to a room. Weird. Anyway, “This is the whole hub of the birth of the band. When everyone asks us can we have some advice, how did you get signed on the second gig and all that? This is the place. We buried ourselves away. Nobody knew we existed. We were just in here for 30 hours a week rehearsing.” Fuelled by their espresso machine, proudly shown off as the first thing they bought with the advance. “Without this place the band would be nothing.”
Here, the group created Babe Magnet Records, their own inside of Polydor. As they “try and do everything in house” they decided to “try and keep an indie front on it, which I guess is the first reason to try and make it look like it’s done by an indie label.” Revealing plans to support other artists, and release side projects (Mike has a whole collection of demos he’s eager to get out there), Babe Magnet is there for “when we get old and grey, and not quite cool enough to be Clean Cut Kids, it’d be cool to develop people who we’ve believed in.”
CCK EP is set for release 23rd July + Additional reporting from Yasemin Gumushan.
Words by Tanyel Gumushan