Nick Johnston admits there's a quirky, charismatic edge to You and I, the Frenchkiss Records debut of his oddly dubbed quartet Cut Off Your Hands. Bouyant pop-punk tracks like "Oh Girl," "Expectations" and the Beatles-inspired "Happy as Can Be" revolve around brainy, oblique strategies that are rare, almost nonexistent, in modern rock.
And you can blame his isolated island nation of New Zealand, declares the Auckland-based singer. Over the years, it's been home to equally eccentric outfits like the Bats, the Chills and the Mutton Birds.
"I think that isolation has been a really good thing, because we do have this separation from a commercial culture," he says. "And we don't have a big enough country to have a huge music scene, so the Bats or the Chills were born out of an 'I can do whatever the hell I want to' kind of attitude. New Zealand bands play music that they themselves want to hear."
The country has other unique attributes, as well, adds Johnston, 24.
"Have you ever seen Summer Heights High?" he asks, referring to HBO's hilarious Down Under sitcom featuring a tough Tongan student named Jonah Takalua. "I went to a school where it was almost all Jonahs it was pretty Polynesian, in a slightly poorer area. And being one of the only white kids in school, you didn't have the same social groups as you do at your typical middle-class school. So arty kids like me didn't mingle as much, and you got hassled a bit."
New Zealanders are also some of the most well-traveled people on the planet, Johnston believes, thanks to a phenomenon known as the O.E., or "overseas experience." Even though the landscape is gorgeous, locals often set out to see the world, right after graduation.
"And it's happened so much that it's become a problem," he adds. "A real brain drain, with all the bright young things heading out. So now there are all these loan schemes to try and lure them back."
Naturally, when Johnston faced a similar choice a couple of years back finish his visual arts degree at college or tour America with his pals, the Datsuns he hit the road, too. It was harsh. His group, then called Shaky Hands, ran headlong into a Portland band with the same name, who cowed the Kiwis with a flood of cease-and-desist letters. He recalls they "were written up by lawyers in these daunting legal terms. And we hadn't even seen a record contract in those days, so we just carried on with the ridiculous name of Cut Off Your Hands."
The group even relocated to London for a few months, to cut You and I with red-hot Duffy producer (and former Suede guitarist) Bernard Butler. And now that he's had his fabled O.E., Johnston chortles.
"I was really excited to get to London last year, but now I'm really glad that I'm not going back. New Zealand is a far cry from Britain back home, it's all open faces and really friendly people!"