Some like it hot
‘I DON’T MEAN this in an aggressive way, but I just think if you lay your heart bare, you expect people to notice. For a long time, people have been digging around and trying to work out what our band is about: ‘Are they ironic? Are they joking? Are they real? Are they geeks?’. I thought I was being as plain as possible with the words, but then most of the time people say the words aren’t important. It kind of confuses me.”
Spare a thought for Alexis Taylor. The Hot Chip frontman – who is about as aggressive as a cotton wool-swaddled puppy – has spent the past decade pouring his life into songs, only for a faction of the music-listening population to dismiss them as the musings of a sardonic hipster. It’s true that the most people think of the Londoners purely as purveyors of floor-filling electropop hits – Over and Over never fails to set an indie disco alight – but, five albums in, the quintet have finally cracked it.
Their new album, In Our Heads, will set the naysayers straight, mixing as it does their trademark quirky beats, zippy effects and effervescent melodies with songs that are contemplative without being dour. They dipped into experimental territory on parts of 2010’s One Life Stand, and their newest collection, a nicely balanced medley of upbeat indietronica tunes and ballads, is something of a rejuvenation.
Perhaps this is due to the outside endeavours of several members after the One Life Stand tour wound down in late 2010. Co-writer Joe Goddard has been busy with The 2 Bears as well as with his solo album; Al Doyle became a temporary member of LCD Soundsystem before their split; and Taylor had his own outlet as a member of jazz improv superband About Group. Rather than clashing upon their return to the Hot Chip camp, however, each came back refreshed, with a new musical perspective.
“I actually found it pretty easy to come back to making this record,” Taylor says. “For me, it’s good to be juggling lots of different things and playing lots of different types of music. Even at the beginning of Hot Chip, we would always work on three different songs in one day, so that kind of approach – just changing what you’re doing when you’re in the middle of something – is quite inherent to how we work, really.
“ I suppose, people had had other outlets to express themselves fully in ways that had to do with specific ideas that maybe don’t fit into Hot Chip. So you come back to Hot Chip a bit more focused on Hot Chip itself, and on what works in that band.”
Core songwriters Taylor and Goddard began writing and demoing songs last summer, and the band went into the studio of Filthy Dukes man/sometime engineer Mark Ralph to begin recording in September. Although they had engineered their own records previously, Taylor had also worked with Ralph on the About Group record, and Goddard on the 2 Bears album.
“It wasn’t somewhere we’d made a Hot Chip record before, and Mark was someone we both respected,” he explains. “The writing and demoing was done as usual at mine or Joe’s house, and then we just brought it into the studio. It was only about six weeks of recording; we’d do a week, then have a break for two weeks, another week and another break . . . [but] we worked quite quickly because we’d written the tracks already. The point was to record each one in one day, and mix them in a second day. We ploughed through 12 tracks in six weeks.”
There’s no question that much of In Our Heads is more upbeat than its predecessor: lead single Night and Day is one of the best songs they’ve written in years, a superb sliver of earworm-inducing pop with a chanted refrain made for heaving crowds to shake their rumps to. Don’t Deny Your Heart is a cheerful synth-pop tune that veers endearingly close to cheesy, while the euphoric refrain of Motion Sickness is one of several tracks that sounds heavily influenced by 1980s dance remixes, an omnipresent element in Hot Chip’s music. Even so, Taylor says, the way he writes songs has not altered over the course of Hot Chip’s existence.
“My lyrical preoccupations, personally, are always to do with relationships and music. Almost every song I’ve written has something to do with a relationship I’m trying to make sense of – whether that’s with my partner, or my daughter, or my bandmates, or a friend, or whatever.
“I guess on One Life Stand, maybe Joe was writing a bit more about family things, which I’ve always been writing about, but maybe if the second songwriter has also been writing about a certain topic, it puts the emphasis on it a bit more. It doesn’t feel to me like the new album is off in a wildly different direction; it feels like a continuation if anything. But maybe it’s just that people have quite slowly noticed that we write love songs and quite sensual songs, as well as other things.
“Whether it’s accidental or whatever, we’ve come together with this collection of songs that have the same sort of tone. Maybe they’ve got different moods, but they don’t feel like they’re disparate, whereas every record we’ve made before has had quite a lot of disparate elements to it. I like listening to other records where there’s a lot of change – but I think [this one is] a bit more focused.”
Taylor says that sense of focus brings with it greater confidence as a songwriter, but admits that there are certain outside influences that are always present.
“There were a few key things, like If I Was Your Girlfriend by Prince. I have continually, throughout my life, been trying to make a song as good as that and failing miserably,” he laughs. “It was the same with some music from R Kelly’s album, R; that’s an influence on Look at Where We Are, in terms of the sound of the music. We were trying to do things that felt quite pop, but experimental, in the same way that we always do.”
“Pop, but experimental” pretty much sums up Hot Chip’s approach over the years, but In Our Heads also achieves their other objective more succinctly than before – to write dance music that has meaning behind it.
“Artists like Stevie Wonder and The Beach Boys and Prince have been more of an influence throughout my life than house music,” says Taylor. “Those Stevie Wonder records make people get up and dance, but they have interesting lyrics and they’re pretty direct, emotionally. The same with Beatles records, or Prince records.
“That’s how I’ve grown up listening to music, and where I’m trying to come from, rather than being into electronic music specifically, or trying to represent dance music specifically. So I don’t see it as odd, marrying emotional words with dance music. I see it as just trying to write songs that are moving and that make you dance.”
With the fifth album in the bag, Taylor is confident about his band’s continued progression. Working with an outside producer for the first time is on the cards (Steve Albini is top of their wish list), but either way, outside influences won’t prove a distraction as long as being in Hot Chip continues to be fun. “I just find making records enjoyable, I don’t really find it something to be stressed by. I think all of our album sessions have been similar – enjoyable experiences mixed with occasional moments of tension.
“That’s a pretty boring answer, isn’t it?” he laughs. “I just don’t wanna give the impression that there’s been this really difficult, torturous period of making an album, cos there hasn’t been. Other people in the world have much more difficult jobs to do than sitting around playing instruments and writing songs. So, yeah. It’s been pretty good going, really, hasn’t it?”
* In Our Heads is out today on Domino Records and is reviewed on page 14. Hot Chip play the Electric Arena at Electric Picnic 2012, Sunday, Sept 2nd