Interview Cameron Cook
Photography Milan Zrnic
There’s always a distinct, perfect moment that reels me into listening to a Hot Chip record. For Made in the Dark (EMI/Astralwerks/DFA, 2008), the band’s third album and quirk-pop opus, it was the insanely catchy, staccato vocal edits at the beginning of “Ready for the Floor”; I played those couple of seconds over and over the first week I got that album, and it’s still the probably part of the record I enjoy the most. That pivotal moment in the band’s latest album, One Life Stand(EMI/Astralwerks/DFA, 2010), is Al Doyle’s searing guitar solo on the first track of the record, “Thieves In the Night”, an exuberant burst of music that can only be described as near perfection. It’s the little things like that that make Hot Chip the phenomenon that they are today – not only are they hard working musicians, but it’s evident by talking to them for a matter of minutes that they absolutely live, breathe, eat and sleep music. For example, during the length of this interview they practically communicate in musical references, from Stevie Wonder covering Burt Bacharach, to Giorgio Moroder and Detroit house, to the Beatles playing Shea Stadium. It’s enthralling to behold, if only because they interact with each other in this way so effortlessly it’s like second nature. It’s as if life, to Hot Chip, is one big mixtape.
In the same way their contemporaries in pop, Phoenix, conquered the world in 2009, 2010 is shaping up to finally be the year that Hot Chip garner the popular recognition they deserve for their flawless career so far. One Life Stand is by far their most cohesive record to date: It retains the offbeat nature of Made in the Dark and its predecessors, but brings to the table a new accessibility, without compromising anything fans of the band have come to expect from the fivesome (by the way, fifth member Felix Martin was unable to make this interview, so I chatted with Al, vocalist Alexis Taylor and multi-instrumentalists Joe Goddard and Owen Clarke). A few weeks after they granted this interview, Hot Chip unveiled new songs and a fairly new live set up at Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg to an enraptured audience of superfans. If the new album has taken the band to dancefloor peaks yet uncharted, in a performance setting it was even more of a four-to-the-floor party: A steady 4/4 beat hardly ceased during the entire performance, and older hits like “Boy From School” were woven seamlessly into the newer, upbeat tracks like “I Feel Better”, almost like an old school rave set.
One Life Stand is a dance record – a pure, simple, unadulterated dance record, with even songs like the mid-tempo “Brothers” recalling some of the best work of ’80s synth-pop heroes like Pet Shop Boys. The unquestionable winner of the lot, though, is “I Feel Better”, a track that showcases both Joe’s Auto-Tuned baritone and Alexis’ wispy falsetto, backed by a house beat seemingly cribbed from the Paradise Garage circa 1982.
I met up with Hot Chip on a blustery winter’s day in downtown New York a few months before the release of One Life Stand and the beginning of their subsequent world tour. It was a conversation I had been looking forward to since I first became a fan of their music, and they did not disappoint.
I’ve been listening to the new album a lot and I was wondering, do you consider it to be a more straightforward dance-influenced record than your other ones?
Joe: I don’t know. Yeah, I think there are a lot of different influences from a lot of different [types of] dance music. It’s also influenced by a lot of older soul music, like Motown-y things, and Detroit and Chicago things, not necessarily just dance music. A lot of different kinds of forms of soul music, basically. For me, the songs I wrote, like “Take It In”, are really inspired by ’80s classic house records – gospel-influenced, piano-driven house music. But then, you know, the first track, “Thieves in the Night”, is not so much strictly dance music. It’s more influenced by Moroder and faster disco tunes like Patrick Adams and all these old disco producers.
I ask because I find One Life Stand to be a bit more of a cohesive record than say, something like Made in the Dark, which when listened to as a whole seems purposefully disjointed. There’s less of a sense of, ‘Here are the dance singles, here are the slow tracks, here are the ballads’, which I think has been characteristic of your previous albums.
Joe: Are you saying that there’s less variation on this one, or more variation?
Joe: I guess if you looked at it like that, there’s still a big range of music, from very techno-influenced things to whatever, but it’s only 10 songs, so practically, it’s a bit shorter and more concise. Also, in terms of tempo, a lot of it’s around 120 bpm, which is typically dance music I guess.
Owen: We did want to make something where, as an album, you wanted to listen to all the tracks. Not that people don’t listen to all the tracks off our other records, but there were sort of massively varying moods within them, so you could put some [tracks] on if you wanted some quiet time, and some on if you were up and at it.
Alexis: We didn’t really do anything to try and make the songs more like each other. We just talked a little bit before we made anything about perhaps having a record that made less of a virtue of differences, whereas the last record was all about making a contrast of all these different things, in a way. For this one we just recorded a lot of songs, had about 20 or 30 different ideas at one stage and tried to whittle it down to the strongest songs. It just so happened that a lot of them were 120 bpm. There were some songs we were working on that were wildly different from what we put on the record. But it was a very natural process. I’m sure it is for most artists. We lived with the songs for longer than we did on any other record [we’ve made], and spent a lot of time mixing them our-selves, even before they were sent off to someone else who helped mix the record.
Al: Also, the recording period was quite concentrated, which we haven’t necessarily done much of before. I think the songs were written over quite a long period of time, probably a year and a half, from the oldest to the most recent – even two years, I suppose.
Joe: If you took it right from the beginning of the first track to the writing of the last track, it’s quite a long period of time.
Al: It’s similar to the previous albums, where they were written over a long period of time but the actual bulk of the recording took about eight weeks, in April and May . It was a really nice time of going into the studio and having these stretched-out days. There wasn’t too much pressure. We could try out a lot of ideas that could have ended up being dead ends, but just to go through that process was really nice. As a result I think the songs came out really fully formed.
Alexis: We were less distracted while making the record. Our usual way of making an album includes being on tour, having a couple of days back in London, starting an idea, finishing it later, going back on tour. This album felt easier to make in one way because we could just relax into the process. But at one point it became even more difficult to ever really finish songs, because you could just work on them endlessly trying to find something new because you’ve been bored with it for having worked on it for so long. I’m not really saying anything about the record by describing all of these processes (laughs).
The way you guys talk of songs as ‘ideas’ is really interesting because why I find One Life Stand to be different than your other albums is in some of your previous songs there were even dual ‘ideas’ fighting each other in the same song, even more so than just loads of ideas in one album. I listen to your music a lot and I’m very familiar with it, and there’s a simplicity to One Life Stand I feel is new.
Alexis: There’s a clarity. One thing that’s changed without us really trying to change it is that there are more songs on this record Joe has written independently and I have written independently, and then we worked on them together. Whereas every one up to now was a little bit more, ‘I have this section and you write that section,’ and we kind of—
Joe: Molded them together.
Alexis: We would always talk, at the beginning of [the One Life Stand sessions], about not wanting it to sound like a Frankenstein’s monster way of making music. We didn’t have to try that hard. Circumstances meant that we focused on writing slightly more as individuals and then bringing it to the project. There’s still collaborative writing on this as well, but I think just not being on tour, living in your own house with your wife, having a bit of time to concentrate and not feeling like everything has to be rushed out is quite a good thing for clarity in songwriting.
When I was listening to “Thieves in the Night” for the first time, I was like, ‘Okay, this is a little more ’80s dance influenced,’ and then in the middle there’s that awesome, retro-’90s Britpop guitar solo and I was like, ‘This is so good!’
Alexis: I was going to applaud Al but then you said ‘Britpop’ and I kind of stopped myself midway (laughs).
Joe: It sounds to me like Lou Reed, a kind of Velvet Underground-sy guitar.
Al: Yeah, I was supposed to be—
(Laughs) I take it back! I’m all like, ‘It sounds like Blur!’
Al (laughs): I’m not trying to be prickly!
Joe: I used to be a fairly big fan of Blur.
Al: The point is that he liked it, okay? (laughs)
Alexis: That’s the thing. You can try and make whatever music you want, and people will always surprise you with that they think it actually sounds like. People tell me, ‘You sound like the guy from the Housemartins!’ And I’m like, ‘Really?’
I’d say you look a little bit like the guitarist from the Housemartins. It’s the glasses!
Joe: There’s this one guy who told us that there’s an ABBA song we must have heard before we wrote “Ready For the Floor” or something. He said the little keyboard bit was exactly the same. He couldn’t believe we hadn’t heard it. People form their own opinions about what influences you have all the time.
I really wanted to talk about your use of Auto-Tune on “I Feel Better”. You did use Auto-Tune, right?
Joe: Nah, that’s my natural singing voice (laughs).
(Imitating T-Pain) Yeah, shorty-y-y!
Al: Yeah, we were directly influenced by Auto-Tune. Nothing else!
It’s just funny because I feel like in America right now, there’s a big stigma attached to Auto-Tune and I didn’t know if in England it’s perceived the same way. People are kind of backlashing against it, and I wanted to know what your impetus for putting it in the song was.
Al: When Joe first brought that song into the studio, I was doing some wiring or something and it was on quite quietly, and I was bopping around like, ‘Yeah, this is really good,’ and then I was like, ‘Joe, you should put some Auto-Tune on that vocal!’ and Joe was like, ‘Yeah… it’s already Auto-Tuned.’ (Laughs)
Joe: For me, it was a mixture of things. The most practical one being when I was singing the falsetto, it was a little bit out of tune, so I literally needed Auto-Tune.
So you actually used it for its intended purpose (laughs).
Joe (laughs): Yeah. And I’m really unconfident about my voice anyway, so I had an excuse to put it on it. But I also like the fact that the song is essentially quite mournful and quite serious. I liked the idea of making that sadness sound sort of robotic. I thought it was an interesting combination, because usually it’s like T-Pain singing about a bartender. I like the idea of doing something with a song that’s very far away from that. But yeah, there has obviously been a big backlash against it, and to be honest I get a bit sick of it sometimes. Even when people aren’t using it for the really processed Auto-Tune effect, you can tell that everyone’s just been Auto-Tuned anyway, even subtly.
Alexis: It’s like airbrushing.
Joe: It sucks the life out of the music.
Alexis: I think Busy Signal is using it really well, actually. Everything he does is Auto-Tuned, so you just kind of forget. Those records sounds really good.
I think Auto-Tune the News does a really good job of parodying that trend, though.
Al: Yeah, we were just talking about that.
Al: We have to figure out how to do it live. Antares Audio Technologies used to do this Auto-Tune hardware thing but it’s not available anymore. We’ve got this keyboard that does a similar thing so hopefully we’ll get something good out of it.
It’s weird to think that the first song to use it as a performance tool was “Believe” by Cher.
Al: When you go on Antares’ Website it literally says: ‘Auto-Tune: the Cher/T-Pain effect.’ Those are the two references.
Alexis: There’s a really nice use of a different vocoder effect on those Roger Troutman and Zapp records.
Alexis: Not exactly the same thing, but a similar effect.
Al: Like that Stevie Wonder one, “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”.
Joe: There’s a beautiful Stevie Wonder one where he’s doing “Close to You” with the talkbox as well. I bought Auto-Tune because I thought you could do much more choral, harmonic things with it that people don’t really do, generally. It’s always on a rapper’s voice doing weird little things, but I thought you could actually make interesting harmonies and stuff, in a Beach Boys-y kind of way. There are tracks that we’ve done that with.
Al: There’s a really good Brian Eno one on that album, Another Day on Earth (Hannibal, 2005). It’s really eerie and ethereal – it must be Auto-Tune, I suppose – but used in a really good way.
I’ve never seen you guys play the same show twice, there always seems to be a transformation in your live set-up from one album to the next. What’s the plan for the One Life Stand tour?
Al: All steel pans (laughs).
Joe: It’s more of a subtle shift from what we’ve done in the past this time around. It’s not like any sort of crazy new thing. We will try and get Fimber Bravo, who played the steel drums on four of the tracks. We’ll have a drummer called Grosvenor – or Rob Smoughton is his real name – who used to be in Hot Chip years ago. He left right before we released our first album. So we got Rob back. It’s kind of hard to explain – he’s just a great friend of ours and an incredibly gifted drummer and multi-instrumentalist. We’re suggesting to him that we cover one or two of his own songs within our set, though we’ll see. People might not take to this Phil Collins-style singing drummer (laughs).
Owen: I like it when drummers sing but their rig is so complicated that they have a little guy swing the microphone in when the singing bit comes, and then swing it back out again when they’re done. It’s like fishing for vocals.
Alexis: Have you seen that footage of the Beatles playing, I think Shea Stadium or something, and they’re doing “I Wanna Be Your Man”, and Ringo’s the singer on that song? He’s just totally, excitedly drumming away, like bopping his mop-top hair back and forth, and the microphone is like, nowhere near his face. He’s just so engrossed in his drumming. It’s great.
Al: I think there will be some technical stuff we may have to overcome which might change the sound live, which might be interesting. There are some sequenced bits and Joe sings a lot more, so that might change the way we play the songs.
Owen: We felt really good about how things ended last year; the live drummer and the way the stage was set up. When we were starting out we just sort of had a row of keyboards and it made a bit of a barrier between us and the audience, and we were really trying to find a way to open that up and we did. It worked really well to have a bit of performance space at the center of the stage.
I really liked the row of keyboards. I thought that was pretty cool.
Al: No, it is visually arresting and I liked that, but it became just like, this huge thing in front of us all the time.
Alexis: It was difficult to leave the stage sometimes. You’d get stuck (laughs).
In a maze of keyboards.
Al: We still have a lot of those keyboards. We always have more instruments onstage than we can play at any given time! That seems to be the unwritten rule.
Speaking of arresting, I’m really into the lead title track from the new album. What is the importance of “One Life Stand” for you as a band?
Owen: We like it.
Joe: Well, there were quite a few contenders for the first single, I suppose.
Alexis: The honest answer is that our record label felt like “I Feel Better” was going to be the first single, and for ages they obsessed over getting a radio edit they were happy with. But then they started playing the song to the rest of their label, and everyone was like, ‘I think “One Life Stand” is the first single.’ And so it just shifted after all this work and all of these ideas like, ‘Oh, we’ve got to put the chorus at the front for this radio edit!’ Everyone’s like, ‘Um, why don’t you release that other one instead? It, like, works a bit better as a single?’ (Laughs)
Al: We all realized that, as much as we all like “I Feel Better” as a song, we’d been away for such a long time, comparatively. It’s quite a curveball in a way, because people will talk about the Auto-Tune or talk about things that aren’t really [relevant], whereas “One Life Stand” seems like a very representative song on the album, but also a very representative Hot Chip song. It’s a synthesis of loads of different things that have been going on, but in a very kind of direct way.
Alexis: No idea how it will go down, really.
Al: Also, the whole idea of releasing something—
Owen: Yeah, that’s what I was about to say. The notion of your single, or your album – you’ll read a review of a record, and it will say like, four tracks out of 10 are downloadable, and also [whichever song leaks online first] can be mistaken for your first single, just by the nature of it coming out first and being by itself.
Joe: The idea of a single—
Al: Is increasingly irrelevant.
I know! It’s sad.
Joe: It is really sad. The sad thing is that it used to be so wicked that on Monday morning, a lot of people would go to the shops and be able to hear this thing for the first time. That was so cool, and everyone would be excited at the same time. The DJ played it that Friday night.
Owen: It united people.
Joe: Yeah, the idea of a single coming out and selling a quarter of a million copies in one week —
Alexis: And waiting to see if it would go to Top of the Pops or whatever.
Joe: That was a great culture, and as a DJ it was great as well because you had records that instantly united people. You really don’t get that anymore.
Alexis; It’s just a lot of people trying to understand how to make money by filtering some music out to an audience.
Or how to stop losing money.
Al: There are a lot of fingers in a lot of dams, I think.
Alexis: People like us, and hundreds of other bands, still try to make albums. You can get a bit bogged down with like, ‘Will anyone even listen to this as an album?’, but it is quite a nice art form, even if it’s now almost anachronistic. It still feels like an enjoyable experience for me personally, to listen to an album from start to finish.
Al: It’s enjoyable to do as well, you know, making an album. There’s something that would be very liberating about releasing music literally as it’s made, but there’s also something challenging and testing about trying to gather things together and make them into this larger form.
Joe: The record industry is just desperately trying to scramble to find ways of doing it [properly]. Recently bands have just said, ‘We’re going to put out an album next week,’ and done it. No one knows what the fuck they’re doing.
Al: As far as singles go, I think if it’s performing any role it’s just so that band can say, ‘We want you to think about these songs first,’ because it’s what you’re emphasizing about the album and what you feel represents you really well.
Well, it ties into what you were saying before about making a cohesive album, and making something that’s meant to be listened to in one go. I saw Rihanna perform recently, and I find with pop stars in the past, the industry had set up a very rigid model. You had your lead single, then second single, then the album, then like, a third throw-away single or something, but for Rihanna’s last album, like six of the new songs all leaked online, but they had full-on artwork and videos released in really short time periods. As a pop music fan it was just a very confusing experience, like I didn’t know what was going on – if it was just one big spew of music, or if she had any kind of campaign or strategy, or if she even gave a shit.
Alexis: I suppose as a fan of music, consuming it, you get used to the way that it’s given to you. When people start messing with that structure it can be very confusing (laughs).
Al: On the flipside, people get frustrated about the drip feed of information. Like, ‘Just tell us!’
Owen: It’s like, ‘You’ve got the music. Can I just have it?’
Alexis: While we’re in this pop group and waiting for some sort of anticipation [for our new material], we’re lucky enough to be able to do other music and other projects that maybe don’t have that whole apparatus attached to it. I made an album of solo music, and I just released it the moment the copies were in existence. The only interview I did about the whole thing, they just couldn’t understand that it wasn’t out next week – it’s out now. It was confusing to them that they couldn’t be the first people to announce it to the world. Is suppose it’s nice to have that immediacy in some form, as well as also being in a band where you do take a lot more time and try and reach a lot of people.