A Deep Dive Into Hot Chip’s Creative Process With Singer Alexis Taylor

Music Features Hot Chip
A Deep Dive Into Hot Chip’s Creative Process With Singer Alexis Taylor

Hot Chip have long been influencers in the electro-rock movement. The English band released their debut album, Coming On Strong, in 2004 and became an established name in the indie-sphere with 2006’s seminal The Warning.

Over a decade since they became a band, Hot Chip kept the momentum with their sixth full-length LP in 2015’s Why Make Sense? The album saw the band exploring Detroit techno and Chicago house themes, namely on the stunning “Need You Now,” while also featuring an MC on a track for the first time, in De La Soul’s Posdnous on “Love Is The Future.”

The band has never put out an album that didn’t land, and if Why Makes Sense? tells us anything, it’s that the already well-accomplished group is not afraid to explore new influences. Hot Chip’s music began as the brainchild of frontman Alexis Taylor and producer Joe Goddard, but through the years became a fully collaborative project with core band members Al Doyle (also of LCD Soundsystem), Owen Clarke and Felix Martin.

We caught up with Taylor—who with his signature large-framed glasses could pass for the coolest nerd in electro—to dive deep into the band’s creative process and talk about the forward-thinking Why Make Sense?, their favorite venues to play and why Hot Chip decided to play in Paris just a week after the infamous terrorist attack at an Eagles of Death Metal Show at club Le Bataclan. No details were spared.

Paste: You recently played back-to-back shows at the 2,800-capacity Fox Theater in Oakland, California, and then at the much smaller 500-capacity Independent in San Francisco. The latter was a really small venue for you guys. What was it like to play such a small show like that again?
Alexis Taylor: It was really nice to do that again, but The Fox was great as well. Every band has that “grass is always greener” feeling, where you might be playing small venues and wondering if you’ll ever sell them out, but then when you are playing bigger spaces, it gets less intimate. It’s more about the shape of the room and whether you can see the people. We played in Amsterdam recently at Paradiso; it’s a really well-designed stage and venue with different balcony levels that people can see you really well and you can see them on the balcony as well as the people in the standing area. You can make a bigger space feel intimate I guess is what I’m trying to say.

Paste: Is that a favorite room to play then, Paradiso?
Taylor: Paradiso is really good atmosphere-wise, we’ve always had great shows there, but the sound is not so good because of the very high ceiling. It’s an old church. But in that same trip we played Antwerp, and in between that we played in Paris. That was a special show, not only because the venue is great [Casino de Paris] but also because the atmosphere in the crowd was particularly special as it was only less than a week after the attacks in Paris. So it was sort of strange timing to be there, and people were actually seemingly happy that we went ahead with our concert instead of canceling. There were a lot of high-profile cancellations that same week, but we were encouraged to go ahead with the show, so we did. And in terms of favorite places to play, it’s hard not to talk about that Paris show, because it was a really unique feeling in terms of all the people there. Not just a regular show.

Paste: This might feed into talking about Paris, but your latest album is called Why Make Sense? and on the title track, you say “Why make sense when the world around refuses?” What’s been going on in your head in between the previous album [In Our Heads] and this album? Does this play into a certain outlook on the world?
Taylor: At the time of writing those words, I think I was talking about the fact that everybody tries to use logic and tries to reason with the world around them. And that’s the logical, sensible way to be. But sometimes you’re met with harsh realities that are seemingly beyond reason. So I wasn’t referring to something specific as much as a general worldview. Sometimes you have to be accepting of the absurdities of life rather than looking for reason. And if you can accept the things that are absurd, that helps to not make you feel like you’re bashing your head against a wall. This absurdist view, that people like Sartre and Camus purported, but I hadn’t really thought about that in years. It was something that seemed relevant momentarily in writing that song and timing it with the climate and context of the writing; great acts of terrorism going on around the world as they still continue. On one hand it was that, and on the other, it was a more political point-of-view on a local scale. And those are things that I don’t know best how to articulate, because I wrote them in a stream-of-consciousness kind of way and let them be what they were and said to myself that they need not necessarily to make sense, even though I know roughly what I was talking about.

Paste: It comes across metaphysically for sure.
Taylor: Once you take that phrase, lift it out of the song and then give it a title to the song and then the title of the record, it kinda elevates that phrase and asks everyone to question it, and that in itself makes sense to me. It wasn’t the intention when making it, it was just one lyric. Part of the words I sang over the music that Joe and I were making and then Joe just named the track “Why Make Sense?” as the file name on his computer, which is how all of Hot Chip’s music is made. You make it quickly, you don’t discuss the meaning and it gets a temporary name and maybe it becomes the permanent name and then we struggle to decide how to group these songs together with an album title and what to call the album.

At first we thought “Why Make Sense?” might be too referential to Stop Making Sense by Talking Heads so maybe we shouldn’t do that, but with all these questions, sometimes you just have to stop and decide. I don’t always have a justification or clear reasoning for those words even though I have some reasoning.

Paste: Hot Chip has been making music for over a decade. Unlike some bands that’ve been around that long, you’ve never really tapered off and are always fresh. What inspires you now, and is the dynamic between the five of you the same?
Taylor: I think it’s changing all the time. We’re all getting involved in other things, other aspects of life. Parenthood and also just moving in different circles a bit, because you play music with different people as well as Hot Chip. Everyone has a lot going on, so it changes the dynamic. But the way that we feel about making a Hot Chip record is the same in that we always want to be excited by new records that each other is turning the next one onto and we know how to share the excitement of playing music to each other.

The making of the record often begins with one or two individuals, usually me or Joe saying “I have this idea for a song and what do you think of it?” and throwing it out there for the others to contribute to it. It changed over the years because we’ve changed from being a duo to being a five-piece, gradually more and more inclusive of the five people and that’s something that took some time. The first three records were made predominantly by me and Joe and then it became much more collaborative as time went on. So we’ve been learning how to kind of be a band as we’re being a band in public.

Paste: Thats interesting because even when it was just you and Joe writing the music, it always played very well in a live format and even on the records with a five-piece or more on stage. So it’s funny to hear you say that you’re learning to be a band.
Taylor: I guess you don’t know how successful something that you’re doing is while you’re doing it. Each album has been different from the last one in terms of the process. I think it was difficult around the second or the third album to allow the voices in from the other band members, cause Joe and I have been making records on our own as a duo for so long. EPs, singles and recordings since we were in school; we’ve just done everything as a duo. So for there to suddenly be more people who are now part of the band, who want to contribute creatively, it did take some adjustment. But that was years ago, and now it’s easier and kind of natural. Now there’s a new thing that seems to happen each time, where you can expect certain things from those people and enjoy their contributions and it seems to work. The dynamics have changed quite a lot…[chuckles]

Paste: You had Posdnous from De La Soul on “Love Is The Future” and you’ve never featured a rapper on an album like that before. How did this come about?

Taylor: On Why Make Sense?, we thought about trying to get people on a number of tracks. Like different rappers for different songs. And it was mainly because Joe was inspired by hip hop again. Well…speaking on his behalf—I might be wrong—but I think he just found some really great new records coming out that reignited his interest in hip hop again. In the same way, I was looking at slightly older R&B and hip-hop influences that I remember from growing up. So we were trying to work out who who would be a good person to have on the record and we asked Posdnous, because we all loved De La Soul, and we always felt like he would suit that particular track.

I had worked with Money Mark from the Beastie Boys on the Atomic Bomb! project the past couple of years, so Money Mark put me in touch with Pos. It was done remotely, not in the same room sadly, but would’ve loved to. He asked me some intelligent questions about the song that I’d never had to answer before, cause no one had ever asked me to explain the logic and lyrics of my songs. He asked me those things, and I had to explain it and he wrote his own words that were well-constructed because they were as if they came from mine or a similar perspective.

Paste: What’s the meaning of “Huarache Lights?” As in the name of the album’s single..,It makes me think of Mexican food. Like the masa boat that’s kinda like a sope. But maybe that’s me just being a bleeding Californian?
Taylor: It’s also the name of the shoe, a huarache sandal…the Mexican sandal. But this isn’t the reason the song is called that—The Beach Boys song, “Surfin’ USA” is the only other song I can think of that has a reference to huarache shoes. I like that and only discovered that recently way after we made our song. But I’m a huge Beach Boys fan and never noticed. My lyrics are about the sneakers, the Nike Huarache Light, which is just a really good looking trainer. But the whole song really has nothing to do with shoes. The opening line uses it as a starting point, but it’s meant to be more open-ended.

Paste: There’s a track called “White Wine And Fried Chicken,” is that kind of an evolution of the “Crap Kraft Dinner” from your first album?
Taylor: [laughs] Yeah, that’s good. No one’s ever asked me that before in that way. I never remembered that connection! And yeah, I guess that’s a similar idea: A slightly dumb or low-class meal. The combo of cheap white wine and fried chicken. I just had the phrase in my head with the melody before I had the rest of the song, which is kind of a romantic song. And the chorus, which was at the beginning of writing the song, is me imagining something unlikely, or something that you share with someone. But since writing the song, I stopped eating meat and fish anyways. So it’s my last song as a carnivore.

Paste: The biggest thing that jumped out to me on the record was on “Need You Now,” how it really felt like it had this Chicago house or Detroit techno influence. I still can’t figure out who that sampled vocalist is either…tell me about that song and that video.
Taylor: It’s definitely influenced by those styles…Chicago house and Detroit techno as you say. Those are often key influences on Hot Chip in terms of what we might play in a DJ set. And the song began I think from Joe finding a record of a capellas in a record shop in São Paulo. I think it’s called Sinnamon and the track is called “I Need You Now.” So he was making music to try and drop that sample into it and it worked; it was in the right key. So he played the record, which was a complete instrumental track, and then I wrote my words and Al wrote his. It was a quick song to come together really, mainly started by Joe.

Sample-wise, there were other samples on the record, one we didn’t get clearance for which was a big part of another track and we didn’t put that track out. There’s another one on “Huarache Lights,” but we’ve never really been a sample-based band. For some reason on this record we were, maybe because we were embracing more hip-hop influences and thinking more about sampling than in the past.

Paste: The video for “Need You Now” has this Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind feel to it, specifically the scene in the movie on the beach in Montauk, where everything was disappearing. The video has themes of longing, loss and obviously love.

Taylor: It’s kind of the only Hot Chip song I can think of where my words are not really about a relationship. In fact, I’d say every other song of mine, the words are. This one is about something more to do with a political climate that we might’ve been in. So I was surprised when the video makers sent their treatment over and wanted it focused around a couple breaking up. And I was like “Oh…this is the ONE time we’ve written a song that isn’t about men and women being in a relationship.” That was quite amusing to me. But the video is a story that Kenny from Shynola created and explained it to me where we watch all the sequences playing out from different angles and it’s hard to piece it together and to understand what’s happening. Where afterwards you’re left a bit confused after each time, but it slowly starts to make sense. The way I understood it, it reminded me of Lost Highway, the David Lynch film. Where somebody becomes a different character halfway through and there’s this weird idea of a sort of musical feud. It’s the basis for the structure of interlocking stories that are kind of dying alongside each other and then intertwining.

Paste: You guys played a “Dancing in the Dark” cover that rolls into “All My Friends” on the festival circuit. What inspired it? Was it Al’s affiliation with LCD?
Taylor: I suggested that we cover the Springsteen song and then when we were playing it live, Al said that the way we were playing it reminded him of “All My Friends,” so occasionally live we’d include it within the Springsteen cover. It was just a happy accident, really. And the way we’ve done covers in Hot Chip, it’s always been in our nature to just kind of drop in to a cover version.

Paste: Out of all the albums that you guys have done, is there one that means the most to you personally, that’s a little more special than the others?
Taylor: I think perhaps—unsurprisingly—the first one. Not the most meaningful, but if I had to pick one, it feels like a more unusual record. Because we were more naive and had learned a lot less at that stage in our careers. The decisions that we made on what to say and how we did it and what to mix, were a bit more strange-sounding and I quite like that, cause it feels like a record that was made by other people. Then there were moments on the last three that were some of my favorites. Like “Flutes” is probably one of my favorite tracks.

Different things on each record that we have strong memories of making, like “Over and Over” from The Warning. I remember the room we were in and the kind of atmosphere. I think Made In The Dark at the moment, that’s the album other than the latest one that we’re playing the most songs live from: “Shake A Fist,” “Hold On,” “We’re Looking For A Lot Of Love,” “Ready For The Floor, ” and “Made In The Dark.” We’ve gone back to playing more of that record without saying it or planning it. It’s kinda funny how you can leave something behind and it comes back to you and it’s your own work that re-emerges. [laughs] And I guess that’s an answer that covers almost everything and doesn’t give you any real answers.

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