Interview: Hot Chip
After having spent eight years refining their dance/rock/geek personae (Exhibit A: videos populated with dancing monks, boy bands with super powers, and all matter of absurdist imagery) Hot Chip are ready to be seen as more than the class clowns. Seriously.
It isn’t that the London-based five piece (Felix Martin, Al Doyle, Owen Clarke, Alexis Taylor, Joe Goddard) are strangers to sincerity. Alongside songs bursting with giddy chants, head-bobbing hooks and a plethora of puns, their catalogue contains a lion’s share of heartfelt refrains, folded into dance floor-ready beats. It’s a combination that co-bandleader Alexis Taylor is aware may go over many listeners’ heads. “These days, most stuff that’s written about us isn’t about feeling,” he says. “It’s about what we look like and whether or not we’re to be trustedâ€¦to me, that’s a shame that people aren’t able to see levels of irony coexisting with things that are warm and tender.”
eMusic’s Laura Studarus caught up with co-frontman Alexis Taylor to talk about making albums outside of journalist-constructed narratives, emotion in dance music, and training the next generation of musicians.
Your press release claims that In Our Heads was influenced by 1980s dance music. Was that what you were listening to as teenagers?
That was one influence. There were a lot of different influences. Most of them were more unconscious than things we were listening to at the time. The record was primarily produced by two people — me and Joe. So there were different things going on in our heads. What we were listening to while making the record, when you get together you don’t talk about influences. It’s hard for us to work out what has been an influence.
My relationship to music, my relationship with my family, my relationship with friends, my thinking about being alive, has more of an influence than specific records. I listened to, quite a lot, Don’t Be Denied by Neil Young, which you can hear in an oblique way in “Don’t Deny Your Heart.” I listened to Dongs of Sevotion by Smog quite a lot. Not in the studio. You can’t hear it in relation to any of the songs. Just on my own. It’s a record that I absolutely love and admire. But in terms of dance music, I was listening to 1980s dance music a lot more about two to three years ago. It’s just one thing that’s mentioned in a press release, and I don’t think it’s that relevant to the way the record might make someone else feel when they listen to it now.
What this record sounds like, how it was made, if anyone is interested in any of it, they should be more interested in how it makes them feel.
Well you know how press releases are; they condense a record down to an easily regurgitated story.
Yeah. The story of the record is that Joe and I wrote the songs like we always do. Some of those songs have to do with my relationship with my wife, some of those songs are probably Joe talking about his child — he now has two children but at the time he had one child. Some of the songs might have had to do with the process of making music and the enjoyment of making music. They might have been about the actual sounds themselves.
Even that doesn’t really help that much. Anyone listening doesn’t need to know that I’m married, or that I’ve got a child, or that Joe’s got a child. It’s just detail, really. But the story of the record is us making songs, getting excited about those songs, and going into the studio. It was a very simple process.
Today one of my friends tweeted about you, calling Hot Chip “One of the most consistent bands working today.” Do you feel like your camaraderie has helped with that?
Yeah, of course. I think we’re comfortable with each other up to a point. There are differences in options and different things that world because of how we work together. One of the things that helped in my mind is the fact that people had expressed themselves in other outlets before coming back to this record. So there was no frustration about trying to shoehorn in things that didn’t really work in a Hot Chip record. People had their own space. Therefore when we were all together making it, we were relaxed about making a Hot Chip record. I think that can only really happen if side projects exist. Me and Joe were involved in so many different things, when we came back to this record, we were really focused and enjoying it. It’s important to go and come back to it, rather than always being in it and having nothing outside of it.
Do you see yourself working with your side projects again before putting out another Hot Chip album?
Yeah. I’m just finishing the next About Group album this month, when we get back from Japan with Hot Chip.
But to come back to the question you asked before about feeling comfortable, I think part of what makes Hot Chip function well is we find it comfortable to sing about things that might be uncomfortable. I don’t really think that people get the right picture if the word comfortable is used all the time, relating to this album or the last album. The music is full of tension to my ears. The lyrics are not all about comfort. They’re more about working through things, working out something. They’re not about saying “it’s fine” or being upbeat. So I think that that’s slightly overlooked. If you have songs with a slow tempo or strong feelings within them, people decide that they’re straightforward. But I don’t find them so straightforward myself. This isn’t a record of comfortableness or domestic bliss. There’s much more to it than that.
I think you make an important point. Songs like “Alley Cats” are actually pretty heartbreaking. Do you find that people still have an automatic tendency to view dance music as something potentially disposable?
Yeah. I can’t really write off how the population feels or behaves, often journalists, or fans narrow it down and make it sound really simple. Sometimes I think they’re missing a little bit. But that’s not always the case. I certainly pick up on a huge emotional response to the music when I’m on stage and I can see people moving, and I can see their expressions and I can see that they’re engaged with it. That suggests to me that there are a lot of people who feel it deeply.
At the same time, these days, most stuff that’s written about us isn’t about feeling. It’s about what we look like and whether or not we’re to be trusted. Whether or not there are levels of irony. To me, that’s a shame that people aren’t able to see levels of irony coexisting with things that are warm and tender. I don’t know if that has to do with dance music or not.
Even outside of music, it seems like there’s a social construct that it’s not cool to be sincere.
Maybe that’s the case sometimes. But it is cool to be sincere if you’re Joy Division. Or if you have great angst or drama in your life. That seems to be okay with loads of people. Or if you’re Peal Jam. That seems to be acceptable. But if you’re not playing something so melodramatic — or dramatic — people are like, “What is it you’re saying?” or “What is it that you mean?” I quite like music that you have to ask that about. I also want it to affect me, and I don’t want it to be soulless at all. I don’t listen to any music that’s “clever clever.”
But that sounds like I’m complaining. I just don’t really care. Sometimes I feel like if I do interviews I need to articulate something that’s a bit more true to how I feel.
Do you consider yourself to be an optimist?
I think I am quite optimistic, yeah. I’m quite upbeat most of the time, despite what this conversation must sound like! [Laughs.]
You mentioned that you’re inspired by your family and friends. Does your daughter have an option on Dad’s music?
I don’t really play it for my daughter, but she does hear it when I’m working on it. She’s in the house. She’s started to come to concerts quite a lot. She seems to like some of it, because she sings it and engages with it, in the way a three-year-old can. She’s been to concerts more recently where she can actually make sense of me doing it. At the beginning she was pretty young and not really even aware that it was me on stage. She plays music a bit herself, as much as anyone that age can do. She has fun playing music by herself. I play music and sing with her. I suppose people growing up are very connected to music, aren’t they? They don’t necessarily stay that way forever.
Well here’s hoping she does. You’ve got to train up the next generation of Hot Chip members.