Strange times demand strange art and Cheap Cuts' debut single 'Check Your Phone' is stranger than most. A horn-driven dance track that fuses emo-rap with Trainspotting's lust for life, it sees Pete Wentz step outside of Fall Out Boy for his first solo feature as his scrolling attention span flickers between outrage, despair and laughter. ("Think about how the polar bears are running out of ice / But hey, this photo got a lot of likes.")
"I'm a naturally anxious person, and my attention goes everywhere like a cat following a laser," starts Pete. "Some aspects of this global phone culture really feed into that. I'll be going to sleep at night, and my head will still be running, and I'm not even aware of it."
'Check Your Phone' taps into that manic energy. It's a song that's very 2020 as it skips between single-use plastics, an existential crisis and supersizing your vibe as it moves as fast as your timeline. If they were going to launch with any other song, Cheap Cuts would have maybe waited until the current situation with COVID-19 had settled down before unveiling themselves, but a song about connection and phone addiction at a time where we have to rely on one to maintain the other just made a strange sorta sense.
"My kids basically exist on Zoom right now. It's how they interact with their friends, and it's this lonely non-lonely thing. It's really weird," Pete continues. "For me, the takeaway is that you have to be careful what you wish for. And I don't mean that in an ominous way. When I was a little kid, you dreamt about The Jetsons' future of robot butlers and jetpacks."
But now the future's here and "the robot butler isn't how you imagined it. There's a bunch of pitfalls that you didn't think about. I'm not sitting here saying we should get rid of our phones, I just think it's important to take stock and understand that when people first got hammers, they banged their thumbs a lot."
Cheap Cuts started life when Jack Leonard and Jonny Harris found themselves at a crossroad. After co-producing Zedd's 'Clarity' (winning himself a Grammy) and working with everyone from Foxes, to Ed Sheeran, to Rudimental, Jonny was starting to get disillusioned with the merry-go-round of pop-writing sessions. Jack, meanwhile, after fronting "perhaps the most unsuccessful indie band that Camden's ever produced," was invited into the world of UNKLE, working with James Lavelle on albums, remixes, film scores and tours. But, after five years, "it felt like the right time to go and do something else."
The pair were drinking in the same pub and last summer, went into the studio together to see what would happen. "We found out straight away that we hit it off. It was a really good dynamic, and we really enjoyed working together."
They started writing with up-and-coming pop singers, but their leftfield art-pop wasn't really the vibe most were after. "We'd never hear from them again," grins Jack. "But it felt like we were really working towards something."
After a cancelled session, the pair wrote 'Check Your Phone' as an answer to the question, "What is the 21st-century answer to Trainspotting's signature, 'Choose life, choose a job, choose a compact disc player'?" They decided to tell the story of the day in the life of a normal guy, without any agenda. "Wake up, check your phone" was the starting point, and in fifteen minutes, the first version of the track was finished. They fell in love with it instantly, and, in that moment, the pair shifted from guns-for-hire to A Proper Band. "This is definitely ours, and in the space of about 6 weeks, we wrote another 15 songs. They all sounded like Cheap Cuts."
While Cheap Cuts were expanding their world, the spark that was 'Check Your Phone' was evolving as well. The pair worked on Korean and French versions, and the original found its way to Pete Wentz, who phoned Jack up on his birthday to ask if he could get involved with it.
"After talking to them and when I started writing, it felt like it could become relatable and not in the way that's hashtag relatable," offers Pete of his decision to get involved. A lifelong fan of Baz Lurman's 'Sunscreen', this was his chance to do a version for times like these. "We're back in a monoculture. Most people in the world have the exact same fears right now, and that's bizarre. We haven't had that since The Cold War. It's an interesting time to address what we're all feeling."
"The song Jonny and I had done was very observational with a British tongue-in-cheek nature to it. What Pete created was a call to arms. It was very emotional, very considered and very poignant. He'd taken some of the lyrics we'd written and explored them further. The song has been on such a mad journey, but we knew this version was The One."
The track bundles together the chaos of how the world is feeling right now. In the "pre-party for the apocalypse," there's a need for connection, but there's also drugs, alcohol and memes to make sure you don't feel too much. "One of the things that 'Sunscreen' got right and we attempted to get here is that human beings are contradictory species," explains Pete. "We feel one way, but we also feel the other way. Sometimes that sways in a minute. I feel a little bit like an alien sometimes when I'm at an airport or a restaurant, and I look at other people interacting, and I don't really understand the emotion. I don't really know what that's from, probably being a goofy kid who didn't have a ton of friends in high school, but then I sway the other side where I feel way too much. This song encapsulates that for me."
"They are observations, but maybe they don't sit as comfortably with some people because they are quite true," continues Jack. "The first thing you do when you wake up is check your phone. We do everything through a phone. We socialise through it, we work through it, and you've got every bit of information ever at the palm of your hand, it's no wonder we can't take our eyes off them. It's mesmerising, isn't it?"
"My favourite part of the day in quarantine is the five minutes after you wake up, where you're in that dream haze," Pete says. "You don't have the dread, you don't have the monotony, but then you check your phone, and you end up looking at a groundhog eating a piece of pizza. You have this entire world at your fingertips, but I don't know if you're really meant to as a human. It's too much."
But still 'Check Your Phone' feels like an escape rather than a lecture. "We're very interested in the state of things, but we don't want to get dragged down by that either," promises Jack. "We're not overtly political or trying to change your mind. We're positive people that do like a party." Pete takes a similar stance. "People want their expertise from experts. Right now, people want to be told how long to wash their hands for by experts, not by the guy from Fall Out Boy. They want something to take them away from that," which is exactly what the familiar warmth of 'Check Your Phone' offers.
Cheap Cuts aren't here to grab your attention and drift away, though. There's a bunch of music on the way including a lot of exciting collaborations as well as moments of pure Cheap Cuts. "I love the way Damon Albarn does Gorillaz. Shaun Ryder was very much in the band for 'Dare'," starts Jack. "And Pete has so much of his identity on our song. Pete is in Cheap Cuts, and so is any other collaborator. We want this band to be positive and inclusive but also a rolling art project. I want it to keep evolving and shapeshifting. Everything that's available to an artist now, your Twitter, Instagram or Tik Tok, it's all there to be as creative as you want to be. When we finally come to play live, I want it to be the culmination of everything, a big performance piece that makes sense of all of it. Cheap Cuts is definitely not conventional. that's the ambition I have for it."
And now's the perfect time to be strange. "This is definitely the time where, if you don't need a label or a big infrastructure, you can get a lot done," offers Pete. "It's definitely a time where people who can do it in the wilderness can do amazing things." Cheap Cuts live by the same ragtag creative spirit. "There are no rules anymore," starts Jack. "If you have the ideas and the energy, just do it and see where it goes."
Cheap Cuts and Pete Wentz's single 'Check Your Phone' is out now.