Catching Up With... Hot Chip
The five London-based men of Hot Chip consistently fail to conform. The band blends electronic dance-floor bangers with soulful ballads and a plugged-in, modern-day-skiffle sensibility on record. Onstage, the five form a horizontal line as they man their row of synths, passing one lonely guitar between them all. Needless to say, Hot Chip's singular style will not bow to anyone's ideas of what a band "should" be.
The nexus of the group consists of schoolyard friends and singers Alexis Taylor (the bespectacled one with the buttery smooth voice) and Joe Goddard (the one who somehow sounds like a robot, especially on the eponymous track from the band's 2006 album The Warning—"Hot Chip will break your legs, snap off your head"). Multi-instrumentalists Owen Clarke, Al Doyle and Felix Martin round out the line-up, helping Hot Chip fulfill the impossible-sounding task of making music created almost entirely on machines sound organic.
Paste talked to Taylor on the eve of the U.S. release of Made in the Dark, when the band had just cancelled a pre-release Los Angeles show due to illness. Everyone's back up to full health nowadays, and the band will embark on a medium-sized U.S. tour in April.
Paste: I know that you wrote a lot of Made in the Dark while you were traveling for The Warning. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Taylor: We would have little gaps from touring—like a couple of days or a week—and often, back in London for just a few days, we'd usually meet up, me and Joe [Goddard], and play each other what new ideas we've had. Maybe we'll make stuff from scratch together and maybe we'll go in and rehearse with the whole band for upcoming gigs, and in those rehearsals we'll come up with new songs. Right now we have a lot of material; we're quite prolific. We're lucky to be in that position, you know, obviously these things can dry up or whatever, but right now it hasn't been difficult to write new material. There isn't just the one songwriter in the band, so there isn't that pressure for one person to do everything. It probably means that because we're all creative, we manage to get stuff together for an album whilst doing other things. And then we were eager to get it all recorded, so we were just recording and writing concurrently with touring. That didn't mean that we were, like, getting our guitars out and jamming on the bus necessarily, but more like using any spare moments that we had, maybe recording on individual laptops with headphones, writing songs like that. I usually bring a keyboard on tour that isn't the same one that I play on stage; just a much smaller instrument, so I can write in hotel rooms or the tour bus or wherever.
Paste: What's the process that you go through when you write?
Taylor: We don't really have a formulaic way of doing it—at least, the formula that was working for the last couple of albums, we've expanded it and added to it. It used to be that I would go to [Joe's] house, he would play me new loops of music he had, I would add things to them, play new parts, suggest the way that this thing could turn into a song—not verbally suggesting it, but just start singing things that I'd come up with or things I'd written whilst traveling around. We'd just each bring our own parts to the table. Other times I would maybe write a song at home, just a song that I could easily play in one performance and some of those songs are represented on the album, like "Whistle For Will" or "Made in the Dark." And then other songs are a more collaborative process, where the music starts off with Joe, and I add to the music and the words, and he responds to what I've added, to-ing and fro-ing like that.
Paste: How do you balance the Hot Chip ballads with the booty-shaking songs?
Taylor: Well, most of the music that I like doesn't have any problem with doing that. If you listen to a T-Pain record, it'll have, like, piano-led, kind of slow or midtempo soul ballads and then they'll have much harder tracks as well. If you listen to a Beatles record or a Stevie Wonder record, there'll be stylistic and mood changes from one song to the next; there'll be the more sensitive side of things and the funk-led side of things. I've just never really cared about the idea that people can't listen to two or three or 50 million different styles of music. I think we do have the ability to make it sound coherent even if the style and tempo changes a lot. I just listen to whatever I like, and one minute it's Terry Riley and the next minute it's Teddy Riley.
Paste: You recorded a few of the songs on Dark as one track, one take. You did them live?
Taylor: Yeah, three songs actually. "Hold On," "Out at the Pictures," and "One Pure Thought." I mean, we did some little overdubs and things, but they were essentially live takes, which, not that many bands would probably make a point of that, but we made a point of it only because we've never done it before. Every song on the previous two records wasn't an entire performance, and a lot of them weren't even a song that existed before we started recording, so maybe half a song would be performed and then we'd stop and we'd write more, whereas this time around, those three, we just tracked them simultaneously all playing in a room together and then did minor changes to them afterwards.
Paste: Was that the biggest difference between recording Dark as opposed to the last two records?
Taylor: That way of playing and recording was probably the biggest difference, but also being in a different size room like that makes quite a difference, rather than a tiny bedroom. The professionalism of it is good and bad—you get a higher quality recording if you're using exactly the right microphone and you're taking your time over it like that, but also it meant that we would record those songs but then couldn't do what we would naturally do previously, which was to be editing them as we were going. It slowed down the creative process a little bit; it was more just a document that we recorded. The way that we'd written works before was to be always writing new parts, adding new things, changing the sound of the vocal, changing the sound of the keyboard as we go, so we couldn't really do that by all just having to play together simultaneously and leave someone else to press record.
Paste: I know you guys have toured internationally quite a bit since The Warning came out. Have you noticed differences between the audiences in different parts of the world?
Taylor: Well, I don't like to generalize. I find that the audiences are different from city to city, whether it's from Edinburgh to Aberdeen or Kansas to Denver or whatever. People are different wherever you go, which is kind of the opposite of what Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder say. Sometimes we play in certain cities and people are a bit more cool and not really willing to show much enthusiasm. They're kind of standoffish. Other places people go more wild, but I don't really feel that there's a general rule as to where and when that happens. To be honest, when we play better, I think people connect with that. It's often to do with what we're giving to the audience as much as anything else. There's this stereotype that, you know, Paris and London and New York, the crowd's a bit too hip and they don't really get into it, but that doesn't really seem to be the case when we've played most of those places.
I'm a big fan of American music and most of the music that has been an influence on me is from America, so I'm always excited to come to the States, just because walking around the towns feels exciting. People take music very seriously over here, I find; it's kind of a serious business. And I don't mean that like there's no fun in it, I just mean... I can have conversations about Willie Nelson with people I've just met that I couldn't possibly have in the UK, because he's not really culturally such an important figure. And in the same way, I can go around secondhand record shops over here and find things I've been looking for for years or find artists I've never even heard of before. I can get turned on to lots of new music in America and I just find that quite appealing, as well as everything else.