Almost ten years ago, a good friend suggested to give a listen to this new band from London called Hot Chip. The name was kinda endearing in its naivete but self proclaiming to play R&Bedroom and having songs like Down With Prince which wore its influences on the proverbial sleeve hinted at an intelligent and playful rather than just quirky and kitschy attitude. The intuition proved to be right.
Writing songs for Kylie Minogue which were too good to be actually be given away, hooking up and finding unlinkely musical soulmates in the punk-funk’s prophets of mid-noughties DFA, collaborating with Robert Wyatt and Will Oldham, Hot Chip have – without the recognition they surely deserve – released record after record, amassing some hits but hiding true gems in their slower and more soulful moments, their irresitible joyful synth grooves being a yin to their heartfelt songwriting and vocals’ yang. “In Our Heads” (Domino), their fifth album, is a celebration of their craft of splendid pop and a nod to more complex and esperimental landscapes to come.
In 2004, when their debut was released, Alexis Taylor, Joe Goddard, Al Doyle, Owen Clarke and Felix Martin were an awkward but endearing new band. They have become one of the finest groups to come from UK in the last decade. Alexis took some time off his busy schedule to discuss the new album and look back their musical ride.
“One Life Stand” was released two years but you surely have not been lazy in the meantime: solo records, The 2 Bears, The New Build… It all happened at the same time. Was it a conscious decision? And how did you decide “hey let’s get the band together and get into the studio”?
In this period I didn’t make a solo record, I released an About Group record, and before that and not at this same time, I made the first About album, my solo album Rubbed Out before that, and Joe made his solo album. The decision to make the side project records around the same time as the new Hot Chip record was an easy one to make – we had stopped touring to take a deliberate break from Hot Chip for a year or so; Felix and Al planned to make a New Build record, and I was touring the About Group record which I had made in one day the year before, during a previous Hot Chip tour, and was then making the next (as yet unreleased) About Group record when we decided we were also ready to start on what became “In Our Heads”.
Initially we planned to mix two fully written and demoed songs, Ends of the Earth and Flutes, and record two written but not fully recorded songs, Always Been Your Love and Doctor, and we planned to do this recording at Mark Ralph’s studio in London, where About Group and 2 Bears had been recording recently. When we started we realised we had already written some more new songs we liked, so we kept just booking more time in and gradually over 6 weeks of incremental recording, between about September and January, we had made the Hot Chip record.
Do you think “In Our Heads” was a more relaxed record to make? It surely sounds like it. And also the one in which you grab some of the early Hot Chip attitude (we can play what we want and the way we like it) with a subtler confidence.
I think “In Our Heads” was a bit speedier, and made with less pressure, but more fun – partly due to people in the band not having too many hang ups about how good the material was – we seemed to be happy with the songs we were writing and they came quickly – and partly due to the fact that we had been enjoying ourselves elsewhere, whether at home, or on tour, or recording with our other projects, or DJing. I think that is right about the subtler confidence, but it may also be that we are a bit more accepted these days as we keep doing what we want, and gradually people stop saying ‘why’ to everything and each decision.
The songwriting developed quickly from songs that were dreamt (Now There is Nothing); songs that were written via email file sending (fully fleshed out instrumentals from Joe developing into songs with added percussion/chord changes and singing by me; e.g. Flutes); songs that we bashed out in collaborative writing sessions between Joe and myself (Don’t Deny Your Heart, How Do You Do?); songs that one or the other of us wrote largely separately (‘These Chains’ – Joe/’Look At Where We Are’- Alexis); songs that a few of us in the room wrote more of: Dark and Stormy, or to some extent Let Me Be Him (at least in chorus terms); or finally songs that were written after we completed the last album and which were still in our minds: Always Been Your Love, Doctor.
I think the songwriting development (or regression) is down to the critics to judge/notice/not notice, but when I listened to From Drummer To Driver, a b-side from our first album, yesterday, I could tell that I was trying to be Jim O’Rourke or Smog within a 2 Steppy/Pop format and was failing, despite some nice sounds/melodies from Joe, whereas now I think we are doing something that actually gels well and doesn’t feel forced, and which I feel has more of a strong emotional impact (maybe with better chord changes, attention to harmony, hopefully adventurousness, awareness of modern techniques, respect and love for older ones, whilst remaining simple and immediate, and not always doing something expected).
From Moshi Moshi to DFA/EMI to Domino. How was it? And how being on a indie (albeit one of the bigger and best ones) is?
Label to label changes: marginally bigger / friendly / confusing / good at marketing / not great at communicating / friendly and good at communicating. Not naming names.
Night & Day, the first single, while being unmistakably Hot Chip, is featured on the album almost like a funny interval between the poppier first half and the more experimental second half. Was it conscious? And since we are at it, why would you look like a rapper?
Not conscious no, but I am aware that it is the more ‘out there’ of the poppier moments, and more comic/playful than the rest. I like records to have differing moods throughout myself. I would look like a rapper maybe because I just did a slightly shit rap. But I don’t.
Musically, the album seems to have more of a house music influence, compared to the r’n’b of the Hot Chip of old. What do you think? Whether it is down to Joe’s involvement with the club scene and his Greco-Roman label, it is surely an influence which feels has more to do with the feeling of joyful sense of belonging your music seems to have (one clear example being How Do You Do).
House has been there since the second record, increasingly taking over and removing all possibility of a beat other than 4/4, sometimes, but not all times. Not sure why. Yes mainly Joe, but we all like great house records. There is joy in pop music, joy in r’n’b, joy in country music; you just have to look for it. Some house music is completely devoid of joy or soul too, though.
“In Our Heads” seems to keep exploring the themes of “One Life Stand”, mainly contentment and happiness in relationships. It’s been a long way from the cheap kraft dinners…and surely one which has never been fashionable. A friend has pointed out that you may not only soundtrack club floors but also your daily washing up routines. What do you think?
The album doesn’t relate to contentedness on my part, in my lyrics. The lyrics relate to conflicting feelings, and trying to reach towards something, because of an awareness of deep love that is felt, but which is not always conveyed without pain and difficulty; Look at Where We Are, Always Been Your Love, How Do You Do?, Don’t Deny Your Heart, Ends of the Earth. These songs can’t really be listened to without people hearing that conflict AS well as the joy, if they actually can hear the words I am singing. The song Crap Kraft Dinner was also to do with love, but rather to do with a failed relationship than one which you are in and thinking about a lot. It was no less heart-felt.
Some of my other lyrics relate to the working musical relationship (the bridge I sing in Let Me Be Him), the failure to use your seed and create new life, dying every evening (self-soothing), doubling as an ode to great heroes of mine with addictions to weed smoking (being spoilt by it in both senses of the word), and also making a play on words with the literal meaning of sinsemilla (without seed), leading to word games related to action without ‘sense’ as well as seed (all Let Me Be Him). Others relate to the sound of, as well as the methods of producing music (Flutes).
Joe’s lyrics touch on the seriousness of play/fun, the urgency and inspiration of new life, chains which bound him in a way that he enjoys, and other things which I can only guess at.
Why would anyone write lyrics about what is fashionable?
I spend more time washing dishes to good music than in clubs, to be honest.
As well as a lover, the “you” in the songs from the new album could be music itself. Which could make “In Our Heads” a love letter to the power of music, in a similar vein to Saint Etienne’s “Words And Music”. Would you agree?
Some of it can be read as love letter to music itself, and usually I like things to remain ambiguous so that the point of view, or subject could be more than one person, or thing. I don’t know about the new St. Etienne album having not heard it, but from what I have read it is more explicitly about the subject of pop music.
In the past, you have worked with such diverse people as Robert Wyatt and Bonnie Prince Billy. On this new album you have Lizzi from Gang Gand Dance guesting. How was working with them and how did the collaboration with Lizzi happen?
Working with Robert was a joy from start to finish, and a lesson in musical generosity, spirit and skill as much as anything else. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – he did his recordings from home (or somewhere not with us) but the first listen to the a cappellas showed what a great and unusual singer he is, willing to experiment with the human voice and showing great love and tenderness for the song at hand. Lizzi is the most soulful and experimenting singer out there, who always smiles whilst performing which I love, and so she was needed for this song, as she knows about bringing the soul/country/pop/r’n’b duet to life.
2012 marks ten years of recordings for Hot Chip. Looking back, when did you realise music would have been your life? What have the highlights been so far?
At about 21 I hoped it would continue to be. Highlights have been making each record, playing numerous shows throughout the world (Rekjavik, Santiago, Sao Paolo, Barcelona, Glasgow, New York, Tokyo all spring to mind immediately) working with Robert Wyatt and (remotely) Neil Hagerty and Will Oldham; receiving remixes by Todd Edwards, having fun with Bjork and her bandmates in Brazil and Argentina, getting T shirts and sleeves designed by Nick Relph, recording Charles Hayward’s drums, dancing to music backstage with all of the band, seeing fans from stage enjoying themselves a lot, and touching Lady Gaga’s ‘Do Not Touch’ drinks cooler.
Finally, a little game. We would like you to pick a song from each of your five albums. Let’s call it “a beginners’ guide to Hot Chip”.
(from “Coming on Strong”) Hittin’ Skittles: in one early place the song shows Joe’s love of the skittery r’n’b Big Pimpin’/Rodney Jerkins era rhythms and production, my love of Prince (the song relates to a girl, but also The Ballad of Dorothy Parker), and reveals early on that it is a Westbound Era Funkadelic guitar sound which we will try to imitate often.
(from “The Warning”) Over and Over: oblique and less oblique references to Royal Trux and Devo (semi permanent in band’s career), interlocking percussive ‘offness’ mixed with ethnic and/or school music lesson percussion instruments (i.e. Hot Chip key ingredients), and house/disco love affair beginning, all covered in one song that is not straight-forward in meaning, but means to be straight forward in its celebration of repeating patterns. Further Prince reference: ‘Joy in Repetition’.
(from “Made in the Dark”) Ready For The Floor: archetypal to Hot Chip are the cheap synth sounds (£2 yamaha car boot sale purchase), mixed with arpeggiating Cubase programmed “unwritable-by-hands-on-piano” melodies, softness of rhythm but bounciness of beat; and lyrics, in this case related to ill communication (people not talking, silence being equivalent to hands scratching down a blackboard or wall) but as always being misread as homo-erotic by the homophobes of Youtube.
(from “One Life Stand”) One Life Stand: Declaration of wandering tendencies vs. wish to remain bound forever to one person; 80s extended mix electro pop fascination; chromatic melodies (again written with a mouse more than fingers over keys – Joe’s great skill) vs. piano chord harmonic structures slightly more adventurous than on preceding albums. Pop reference to Stand By Your Man by Tammy Wynette, here. (Previous allusions: Dionne Warwick’s Walk On By in Look After Me, ‘Do You Like/Dig Worms’ Beach Boys/’dig The Germs’ – both Alley Cats)
(from “In Our Heads”) Look At Where We Are: looking for proof that we have alway liked slow love songs and R Kelly? Look not further than Look After Me, We’re Looking for a lot of Love, and this one. ‘R’ is the name of the best R Kelly song in terms of slow jams, and it shares the same sound as the chorus of ‘Look at Where We ARE ARE ARE…’ etc etc.
“In Our Heads” is out now on Domino