Catching Up With... Hot Chip
As U.K. synth-soul quintet Hot Chip spent half of 2009 creating its fourth studio album, the follow-up to 2008's critically acclaimed (and Paste favorite) Made in the Dark, frontman Alexis Taylor also basked on a creation of his own: his first child. "I care much more consciously, much more explicitly about being alive and the value in that, because suddenly you have the responsibility to look after somebody else's life," he told us. "It's very moving, and it's very exciting, and it's very joyous, and it's also at times quite frightening."
The birth of his baby daughter has already inspired Taylor to write a song, possibly for an upcoming solo record. But before the soft-spoken 29-year-old can fully focus on such a endeavor, on Feb. 10 he and his band will release of One Life Stand (Parlophone)—an arrangement of precise, at times dainty background melodies against a more straightforward pop infrastructure, bearing a sentiment that serenades his first and other constant of his life, his wife of three years.
Paste: I've listened to the new album a couple of times. Was it intentional to make this album a little bit more cohesive than stuff in the past?
Taylor: That was just something we talked about before we wrote anything. We just said, "Maybe we should make one that's shorter and more to the point." But we didn't then do anything to make the songs more simple, or we didn't do anything to try to make it all sound like they're from the same record. We just recorded and wrote some songs, and spent a lot of time working on them. I think naturally we must have been in a slightly more focused state of mind, because we weren't touring. We just had this time to make the record where usually, we've never really taken a break from touring. We've never had much time specifically for recording. So by having it, maybe that gives you greater clarity, your mind is just kinda all in one place, rather than feeling like you're juggling a lot of things and try to make a great album at the same time.
Paste: Is it true that you tested some of these songs live?
Taylor: Only "Alley Cat," actually. All of the other were written since we stopped touring, but "Alley Cat" we made that one near the end of our last tour and learned how to play it live. By playing it live we came up with the structure for the song that worked, and then by the time it came to recording, it was fairly easy to do that—although we added quite a few new melodics, some of the hooks to the song that weren't there when we were playing it live. We also changed the feel of the song by putting a new bass line on. It completely made it feel very different than before, much like a Fleetwood Mac song, or something a little more melancholic.
Paste: When you guys made One Life Stand, had you completely moved out of the bedroom yet?
Taylor: I say yes, but some of the ideas Joe came up with [as] he was writing from his bedroom and recording in his bedroom, then we would take what he'd done and build up on it in studio. Or I would write from my house—but I don't record in a bedroom anymore. I record in a specific music room in my house, but it's still a tiny little room—it's not like a soundproof studio. Both of us were still working in that mode, even though it's not necessarily the bedroom. We would take what we can come up with and build on it in the studio, and everyone would play, and we would get a lot more done at studio than we had done just at home. I think we felt like we had maybe exhausted all the possibilities of the instruments we had in our bedroom or home studio sound. It was better to work in the studio. We had more space, and that helped us to expand on things a bit.
Paste: So is the music room in your house there for the sake of convenience?
Taylor: I think ideas come to me and come to Joe any time of the day or night. Unlike someone like Prince, who can afford to pay an engineer and wake up at 4 a.m. and start recording in Paisley Park, we are not so fortunate or so talented. So we tend to just like to be able to record at home whenever ideas come. I've just worked like that for a long time, and so has Joe. He's able to wake up, sit on his bed and pretty much be at the computer and in my house; I only have to walk next door to record from the bedroom.
I'm also quite into a lot of records that are not lo-fi in such, but they're recorded where someone has a home studio set up, or maybe they live at their studio if it is a proper studio. Like McCartney II, which Paul McCartney recorded completely by himself in 1980, played every single part, played all of the drums, made all of the sounds and all synthesizers and did everything. That's a record where you can really tell it's the work of one mind and they're comfortable at home, kinda making a fairly exploratory and almost self-indulgent record, and that's a great record for me. I like to be able to work in a similar mode where you're not paying to use a studio and you're not having to translate to someone else, like an engineer, what it is you want to do. You're just able to do it, and there's no difference between the microphone that I record on at home and one you can have in the studio, so it's not like you need to be in the studio necessarily to make music. I guess you just need to have good ideas and the ability to put them down.
So this album is made much more in the studio, but it still features whole parts recorded on Garage Band, which is like the free software that comes with the Mac. That's what I use for recording, and that's like half of the record is going through that program. Some of the record's recorded on Key Base in Joe's house, some of it is recorded on Logic at the studio, but this time the only difference is that everyone has played and everyone's had an involvement in all of the tracks, and it's gone through that filter being in a larger studio. But even the studio we worked in, it's not like a professional studio that is like, top of the range. It's just a big basement with a desk and various synthesizers and a drum kit. We were learning whilst making it how to do things for the first time, learning how to record someone else playing the drums, whereas most bands have an engineer to do that, to make sure it's done in the classic way. But we just kind of look in books or try things out, took advice from the people we brought in to make the record. Charles Hayward drummed on a few of the tracks. We were just learning to get the most out of his playing whilst he was doing it. He only did a few hours of recording and went away, and we were kind of just left to our own devices to see if we could make use of it.
Paste: Besides the increased studio time, how has the music-making process changed since you started Hot Chip at age 17?
Taylor: I'm not sure if it's changed that much. Historically, and even including songs on this record, Joe and I would sit next to each other, he will open up a project on Cue Base, something he's been working on and play it for me. He won't say much about it, and if I like it, within a few seconds I usually would have thought of some lyrics, or a new part to play on the keyboard. Or I would have thought of something, and I'll just say, "Oh, can you just get a lead?" and we'll plug the keyboard in, and I'll just play and he records. The equivalent will be, "Oh I got lyrics, can you just plug the microphone in?" That kind of immediacy is how we work on nearly everything, and if I'm not working on a song with Joe, he's writing on his own, or if I'm writing some of my own, It's still that same impulsive way that we're recording. ...The only [change] that I can think of immediately, is that we've now opened up that same process much more to everyone. But it's still the same thing. You don't have to say, "Can you play a bit, can you do that?" It's just like someone just starts playing and we record it. It's very little intellectualizing of it, or very little discussion in words of what we're about to do or what we've done, which is maybe quite a strange way of working, I don't know.
Paste: So the songwriting process hasn't changed too much, the bedroom factor still kind of plays in, and you guys still use some of the same programs. To you, what differentiates One Life Stand the most from your past output?
Taylor: Every song shows improvement and progression in terms of songwriting from where we started out, and in terms of clarity and melodic simplicity and strength. I think that maybe we've grown a little bit as songwriters and producers, and gotten to know our craft a little better or maybe a little bit more willing to experiment within the confines of a pop song.
Paste: I know you guys have always been sentimental, but the pairing of that feeling with the really delicate melodies makes One Life Stand as whole sound even more so, whereas in Made in the Dark you guys deliberately alternated back and forth between super loud songs and the ballads. Do you want to dispute any of that?
Taylor: Yeah, it did make sense, really. I was just trying to work out whether our music is sentimental or not. I can't work out whether it's beyond sentimentality or whether it really is sentimental. A lot of [the tracks] are love songs, but then they're fairly kind of realistic, I think—not what I would call sentimental on the whole, but a little more kind of honest. There's quite a lot of tension within them, so that they're not just I love you, that's the end of the sentence.
It depends on how that makes people feel, really. If people are disappointed with this or—I'm reluctant to say "soft," because that doesn't give the right impression of the record. What we did before with the last record was only brash occasionally, since we had three of the most tender love songs that I've written, as well as a lounge song. Maybe if you make music, there is differences from one song to the next and that just poses a huge problem for people who want to generalize about it. The last album just really was so many different moods, as far as I'm concerned. I don't know if you'd call it a louder record, because you'd only be describing about a twelfth of the album accurately, and with this one, I'm wondering what people could say that ties it all together. I hope that it's a soulful qualify that ties it together but that's not something we tried to get on this record and never tried to get before. It may just be that it's a little bit more on the forefront than before.
Paste: Either way, I think the direction you made here was really fitting, considering the title. After I listened to it, I thought it was funny how it takes the title One Life Stand, playing off the concept of a one-night stand. In that same sense, it's like you guys have moved on from, let's make these great pop songs to, let's make a really good pop record. Everything just seems to be more cohesive all the way through.
Taylor: In terms of giving the name One Life Stand to the record, it was more because we couldn't decide another name for the record that we all agreed on. We knew that we liked "One Life Stand" as a song; we felt quite right about that one. I like the simple but quite clumsy turn on that cliché and giving it a totally different meaning, and also saying, "I only want to be your one life stand," this is the last thing I want to be. I like that kind of way of expressing love towards someone.
But in terms of how that applies to the album, I think if you use a metaphor and then it's bound to create a lot of possibilities for how people read the record. With the last one, we did the same thing. I had written the song "Made in the Dark," but we didn't have a name for the album, and we just gave the album that name. Suddenly the whole set of songs start to take on a new meaning if you think of that phrase, "made in the dark." Instead of it just being two people making their relationship by meeting and sleeping with one another, it also talks about an unconscious way of creating that—which is kinda how we make our music, where Joe and I doesn't really talk about it. We just do it. That to me is doing something in the dark, that's being in the dark. So with this new record, One Life Stand, I suppose it kinda suggests longevity. And that said, if we just said we did made an album that'll be around for a long time, that's a really unsubtle thing to say. ... There wasn't really a mission, but at the same time, you do have kind of a underlying guide to make songs worthwhile for a long time, and not just temporary.
Paste: Is there something about the album that you wanted to point out that people haven't asked about yet?
Taylor: I guess it's interesting to me to find out if anyone is aware of the music made by Charles Hayward, who played drums on the album on a few of the songs, because the way he sounds on our record to me is incredibly different from his usual style of playing on other records that he's made. It's really exciting to me that we've got him on the record, but as far as I can tell, he's too underground really for anyone to even notice. I find myself mentioning Charles Hayward from This Heat on the record and then there's just kind of silence. I got to New York two nights ago and I was talking to my friend Bryan deGraw, who's in Gang Gang Dance. It was almost like I'd met the only other person in the world who actually knows This Heat records inside-out, and who you don't have to explain it all to. That was quite refreshing to have a conversation with him about Charles Hayward. But that's not to mean that everyone should know about him.
Paste: Well, I hadn't heard of Charles Hayward, as you probably figured from my reaction earlier. (Laughs) How did you end up hearing about him, and what is it about his work that you like?
Taylor: I used to go to a record shop called These Records, which was set up by some fans of his band, This Heat, and it reissued This Heat albums. This Heat's music was recorded in the late 70s into, like, early 80s, that post-punk era, but it doesn't really sound much like anything else from any period of recorded music. I like it in terms of its experimental approach and the rhythms and the use of tape and editing that's kind of familiar from the Miles Davis, Teo Macero-produced albums of the '70s, and Can as well. I also like the next band he's in, called Camberwell Now, where it's much more song-based and less experimental.
But by the time he came to play with us, we got him to play kind of soul and house style live drumming, which is quite different from anything he had recorded before that I'm aware of, even though I think he likes some of that kind of music. It's just a nice thing to bring him into a different context. And also he sings with me on "Slush." He sings on the chorus, and he has that kind of low deep voice on that song. I thought that was an incredible moment when he sang. It's very, very powerful and just—the most special thing for me about the whole record is the way he sang with me on that song.