The departure of vocalist Djeisan Suskov from Auckland band Nova Echo led the remaining members to form The Shaky Hands.
Moving from his first role as guitarist, Nick Johnston picked up the microphone to front the group, with bassist Phillip Hadfield, drummer Brent Harris and guitarist Michael Ramirez. Suskov moved on to work at his father’s Revolver Studios in Waiuku, establishing himself as a successful producer/engineer and songwriter with bands Trees Climbing Trees and Cool Rainbows.
Largely influenced by the sounds of popular late 70s and 80s post-punk bands such as The Smiths, Gang Of Four, Joy Division and The Cure, they debuted in 2006 with the six track, sub-15-minute Cut Off Your Hands EP, recorded in Harris' parents lounge.
Lead single You And I received a generous amount of radio play in Australia via Triple J as well as community and independent radio stations around the country. Within six months of their inception the band were picked up by Speak N Spell Records, a label/management agency established by Melbourne-based New Zealander Dave Benge and two Sydney-based partners, David Shrimpton and Jonathan Wilson.
Benge also took the role as their worldwide manager, though the three partners all shared the role at times in different territories. Touring was a major part of the band’s initial burst onto the music scene and saw them constantly playing live venues on home soil and across the ditch, with frenetic live performances. Johnston’s wild man antics often saw him performing within the crowd.
Shortly after their formation the four-piece were forced to change their name due to legal pressures from a Portland, Oregon band with the same title. With an invitation to the South by South West (SXSW) music conference looming, they chose to go with the title from their debut EP. Johnston told NZ Musician magazine, "We knew all along something was going to happen but we didn't expect such drastic measures to be taken. We're disappointed, they weren't open to compromise at all. They wouldn't budge. So we just needed to make a quick decision."
The newly named Cut Off Your Hands made several trips to the USA, playing at SXSW in Austin, Texas, plus a number of shows in Los Angeles and around the CMJ Music Marathon in New York.
In March 2007, the newly named Cut Off Your Hands made several trips to the USA, playing at SXSW in Austin, Texas, plus a number of shows in Los Angeles and around the CMJ Music Marathon in New York, resulting in an on-going touring relationship with UK math-rock band Foals and New York indie band Les Savy Fav.
Shortly afterwards the band made their way across the Atlantic to record their second EP with former Suede guitarist Bernard Butler at Edwyn Collins’ West Heath Studios in London. While in the UK they also played a series of shows. During their final gig of the tour Johnston leapt from a 15-foot balcony, resulting in a broken leg and the cancellation of the band’s third Australian visit.
The group’s second EP Blue on Blue comprised four tracks, including radio singles ‘Oh Girl’ and ‘Still Fond’, and was released with financial backing from Levi's Jeans’ label Levity in Australia and New Zealand. Significant radio airplay for ‘Still Fond’ in Australia resulted in the band being offered a slot on the Big Day Out tour.
Their debut Shaky Hands EP was also picked up for release in October of 2007 through LA indie label IAMSOUND Records, kick-starting a roll of success with international labels including representation in the UK through Warner subsidiary Sixsevenine (679) – who flew out to see them in Australia, as well as New York indie label Frenchkiss Records in North America and the aforementioned Speak N Spell Records in Australia and New Zealand.
With a debut album pending the band eventually settled in London, and decided once again to record with Butler, ahead of British producer Flood (who produced the B-side ‘One Last Time’) and Stephen Street (who did produce and mix one album track, ‘Turn Cold’).
In October 2008 the band’s debut album You & I was released in New Zealand with the inclusion of four tracks taken off their earlier EPs – ‘Expectations’, ‘Oh Girl’, ‘Still Fond’ and ‘You & I’. Before the album saw the light of day in the UK and the USA a separate promo EP, Happy As Can Be, which featured five tracks, was released.
You & I reached No.21 on the NZ Album Chart and received positive reviews locally and abroad.
You & I reached No.21 on the NZ Album Chart and received positive reviews locally and abroad – Spin magazine calling it an “impressive debut, a tsunami of galloping rhythms, lightning-charged guitar lines, and choruses that immediately infect your brain”. Despite the glowing outcome, Sixsevenine pulled out because of the lack of radio singles, leaving the band in a dead end with the UK. “We had a label that wanted us to be the Kaiser Chiefs or something, so they threw this shit on the wall – and then when it doesn’t stick they freak out!”
Eventually, they moved to the USA where they continued their streak of live shows, driving the length of the country twice and clocking up over 150 headline and festival shows in a year.
By the end of 2008 guitarist Michael Ramirez decided to leave the band, although he returned to fill in for his own replacement, ex-Collapsing Cities guitarist Jonathan Lee, for a number of Australasian gigs. Hearing deterioration led drummer Brent Harris to stop playing and also head home six months later. Elroy Finn, the youngest son of Neil Finn, stepped up to the drum stool so touring could continue. Harris eventually made a return to the stage, with his hearing loss moderately under control.
In 2011 the band set out to record their second album. They previously attempted to record it in Sydney at the end of 2009 but decided to put it on the backburner. With the aid of a NZ On Air album grant received in August 2009, Hollow was recorded in the same location as their first EP – the Harris family home. All tracks were recorded live within a week, with Peter Wood engineering and the band producing.
“We kind of deliberately did this record here and even our label (Inertia) and management (Speak N Spell), who are based in Australia, we didn’t want them here. ‘This is our thing, let’s do it our way.’”
Hollow was released in August 2011 through Frenchkiss and Speak N Spell Records and was supported with a tour of New Zealand and Australia.
The band was mostly inactive over the following five years, though it played the odd show (most notably supporting Foals in Auckland in 2013). In the meantime, Phillip Hadfield had been playing bass in She’s So Rad, so it was no surprise that that the band’s singer (and experienced producer) Jeremy Toy was brought on board when COYH came back together in 2016.
‘Hate Somebody’ was released prior to a headline slot at the Other’s Way Festival that year. The song described Johnston’s experience watching new residents in his suburb of Grey Lynn mistreating his neighbours who had been there for decades. The theme must have struck a chord, since the track clocked up nearly half-a-million streams (and was accompanied by a video by internationally successful director, Joel Kefali).
In 2017, the band made its fourth appearance at Laneway Festival, which was promoted with the release of another new single – the eminently danceable ‘Higher Lows and Lower Highs’.
Ramirez then took over his former place as guitarist in the band from Lee ahead of a headline slot at new year’s party Wondergarden (2018). In fact, the band extended to a full eight-piece line-up with Toy joining them alongside extra backing singers and a percussionist. However, the band’s only activity in 2019 was a party put on by footwear brand Vans.
The following year the decision was made to play a couple of final shows and release one last album, Higher Lows and Lower Highs (2020). This plan was delayed by six months by the Covid-19 pandemic, but finally in October they packed out Whammy Bar in Auckland for two nights running, then headed to San Fran in Wellington. The decision to call an end to the band lent an evocative edge to the final lyrics sung on the album: “sound into silence … all those things we leave unsaid.”
– Updated by Gareth Shute, 2023
Speak N Spell
Nick Johnston - vocals
Phillip Hadfield - bass
Michael Ramirez - guitar
Brent Harris - drums
Jonathan Lee - guitar
Elroy Finn - drums
The album artwork for Blue on Blue features braille translations for the band's name and the title.
The band has an ongoing relationship with Joel Kefali from music video production company Special Problems, who has produced all of the band’s music videos and artwork.