Artist Interview: Austin McCutchen of Hot Joy

Posted: by The Editor

“It feels chaotic starting over from scratch at thirty,” Austin McCutchen tells me of the formation of his new band Hot Joy. You wouldn’t know it, though, listening to their debut EP Small Favor. Over in less than fifteen minutes, these songs are confident and placid, clean and lived-in. Hot Joy exists in a similar space as Cusp or Rocket, warm and fuzzy indie rock bands that borrow from the hazy, dizzy world-building of shoegaze without its head-in-the-clouds grandeur. I spoke with McCutchon about starting a new band following the hiatus of his previous group Choir Vandals, expanding his pool of influences, and what might be the best movie of 2023.


Could you talk a bit about how Hot Joy started?

With Choir Vandals, we’d started writing records that were a little more serious, less energetic. I wanted to try and get back to more fun songwriting. In 2021, we were working on what’d become a Choir Vandals record, and I asked Nicole [Bonura] to sing harmonies on one of the songs. Listening back, our voices sounded really good together. They’re almost the same. When we sing the same pitch, it has this weird and cool chorus effect. Hearing us together, I knew I wanted to turn this into a full band. I think I just combined those two ideas, starting a more garage rock band with distortion pedals and two singers who don’t always harmonize. I thought it was an interesting concept. There’s so many ways to do two vocals, like the Taking Back Sunday thing, but I wanted to try us both singing the whole time.

If you’re both singing, how do you split up the writing?

This EP, it was our first try as a project together. I pretty much did all the demos, so I did demo lyrics, mostly just placeholders. After the demos were together, Nicole and I did lyric sessions, asking what these lyrics pointed towards. We’d come up with a common theme together, and then we’d head home. I created a Google Doc and we’d both input things in before coming back together to pick and pull from each other’s separate ideas. Anything missing then we’d put together both of us. Nicole’s a really good storyteller, and her lyrics are very visual. Mine are more like one-liners, where it might not get at something but will sound good together. She’s focused on the painting of a picture, and I like how they sound as words in a melody.

Was the music, then, you bringing things to the band or was hat similarly collaborative?

This first EP’s a little weird. Curt [Ochsner] and I, when we brought it to them, I wanted it to be as complete as possible.

So this EP was really a proof of concept. 

Yes, exactly. I didn’t just want them to believe me that it’d be a cool idea. I wanted them to know! Sometimes Curt would bring a full song to me, and then we would workshop it together, or sometimes it’d be the other way. I wrote the bass and drum parts on the EP. I recorded the bass parts, too, so that Nicole didn’t have to learn them. Will [McCarthy] learned all the drums in three days or something, though. Crazy.

So you’re already writing for the next project. 

Oh yeah. We have a ton of shit done. It’s different. It’s a lot more live jamming. The melodies on this EP were all me, but now I’ll write a demo, and before writing a melody I’ll send Nicole the rough demo without vocals. That way I can hear what she’d come up with in an unbiased way. We’ll both record vocals and then compare melodies.

Are the new songs coming out in a similar vibe, then? Or, now that it’s a full band, is it taking a different shape?

I’m always telling myself I need to go back to basics, and then once I’ve done that I can get weird. I’ve been making it a point with this one not to make the new stuff Radiohead worship. It’ll be the same vibe, I think, but a wider scope of influences. It won’t sound all exactly the same. It’s still fun and simple and catchy–those are my pillars.

What would you say are two of the weirdest influences you bring into this project? Two bands you think would surprise a fan, say. 

I’ve been listening to a lot of the first Of Montreal record lately, Yo La Tengo too. I’ve been listening to a lot of Pablo Honey. 

Is that your go-to Radiohead?

Not at all. I think in the last two years I’ve gotten more into it, but I’m an In Rainbows guy all the way. I first listened to it in eighth grade, and it’ll always be my favorite. For this band, though, I’ve been pulling a lot from Pablo Honey since it’s a very balls-to-the-wall, in-your-face record. Those are a lot of the main ones, and some early Modest Mouse, Dear Nora, Radiator Hospital. This first EP I was listening to lots of Built to Spill, Dinosaur Jr., and Momma, and a lot of it was hitting too close to home for what I was writing. I wanted to cast a wider net for what I’ve been pulling as influences. I’ve been trying to listen to a lot of non-rock songs, too. I’ve been into Beach House, just simple, catchy vibes. How do I turn that into a rock song? I’ll do the same thing with Liquid Swords, one of my favorite hip-hop albums ever. A lot of those songs have real instruments in the beats, but it’s the same beat over and over. What makes this beat so good and so catchy? How can I use this magic in a rock song? Why does the same beat work for three minutes in a rap song, but a rock song needs a verse and a chorus and a bridge? I’m not trying to use hip-hop songs, but I like those structures and those tactics. “Fingers on My Side” is the same bassline the entire time–it stops for maybe three seconds before the last chorus. Why do we have to stick to conventional structures?

For your ideal listener, what do you hope they take away from Small Favor?

I think a sense of fun. I was wondering recently how I’d describe this to someone who doesn’t know me or my previous projects. I think what I want them to get from this is an uncomplicated sense of fun that’s still emotional. You don’t have to bust out a diagram to get this, and it works as well in a car driving around as it does laying in bed with headphones in.

I can get behind that. I’ve been enjoying taking it on a walk with my dog and a cold brew with oat milk. If you’re going to pair Small Favor with some sort of beverage or snack, what do you recommend?

Oh, man, that’s a hard one. What I’d say isn’t what people usually get. I do a shot of espresso and an oat milk cortado–then another espresso. That’s not enjoyable for most people. I’d say, though, a nice espresso tonic. The coffee shop down the road from me has an orange blossom espresso tonic to balance the sweetness and bitterness.

The colors of that drink probably match the artwork too, so that’s a good call.

Oh, yeah, and the lyrics! A little bit of sweet, a little bit of bitter.

Choir Vandals’ first EP came out in 2013, right? 

Yeah, 2013.

If you go back to Austin circa 2013, then, and play him this Hot Joy EP, what’s he going to think of it?

I feel like he’d really enjoy it. He’d think it’s exactly what he’s into, but better–without being more complicated. I think I’d felt like I wanted to be complicated to show off my skills, even if it didn’t serve the song, and I think I’ve learned that now. I have pretty much the same influences–I usually have been pulling from the same things–but I think it’d pop out more. I’ve learned that this is actually how to write a song.

What are your top non-musical influences? 

For me in general, travel is big. I’ve been with my girlfriend for four years now, and since then I’ve been to thirteen different countries. I like to think about trips, but she pushes me to actually buy them and go. Anywhere I go–last year it was Japan, and we went to Copenhagen and Stockholm too–I learn about how people live–most people in Copenhagen look and sound like me but they live different lives, and different things have different cultural significances. Every time I go somewhere new it opens my eyes. I come back home feeling more full as a person than I was before, a more experienced and open-minded person, seeing how others live their lives and communicate with those around them. It’s important to get out of your comfort zone, too, so Japan was big for me. I came home and probably wrote four of these songs immediately after. I think it reignites who you are as a person, at the very base of it. I think second would be movies–I saw fifty-six movies in the theater last year, I think. Movies, music, art, poetry, all of it bleeds together, but it’s movies for me. They can inform a lyric, or a movie can spark the way you write a certain chord progression.

What’s a movie from 2023 you’d recommend?

Perfect Days, that’s one of my favorites from last year. It follows a toilet cleaner in Tokyo. Did you see Paterson, with Adam Driver?

No. 

He’s in Paterson, New Jersey, and the movie repeats his day for a week. It’s really interesting. Perfect Days does something similar, showing his routine over multiple days. It’s not overly complicated, and it’s not too emotional, but it has these moments that definitely jab you if you think about them. It’s top three of last year.

 

Small Favor is out now.


Zac Djamoos | @gr8whitebison


The Alternative is ad-free and 100% supported by our readers. If you’d like to help us produce more content and promote more great new music, please consider donating to our Patreon page, which also allows you to receive sweet perks like free albums and The Alternative merch.