When the Chips are up
Amid cries of ‘Have Hot Chip gone soft?’, guitarist Owen Clarke describes why the band are happy juxtaposing their trademark electropop with something a little sentimental
STANDING ON the doorstep of his London flat, phone pressed tightly to his ear as early morning traffic screeches past, Hot Chip’s Owen Clarke is trying to ignore the light dusting of snow that’s falling on his shoulders. He’s far too preoccupied with the more important things in life, like his band’s new album. One Life Standhas been two years in the making, after all; it comes on the back of their longest period of downtime since they “blew up”, as bloggers might put it, with their dinky dancefloor-filling full-length The Warningin 2006. But it’s not just that, Clarke says. The Londoners’ fourth album arguably features some of the electropoppers’ bravest moments, to boot, and having heard the aptly-titled slow-moving ballad Slush, we’re inclined to agree. They’re primarily known as a dance band, but do Hot Chip feel like they’ve finally earned the right to be indulgent by juxtaposing sentimental numbers with their trademark bouncy electronica?
‘I SUPPOSE WE kind of indulged ourselves with time, and just allowing the songs to be themselves,” says Clarke. “With the last record, we were trying out different ends of our spectrum – loud, sort of crashing songs like Shake a Fistand Bendable Poseable, and also doing ones that were quite the opposite of that, like Made in the Dark, the title track. So, this one is more a synthesis of those two, ’cos we’ve always been unconsciously doing those sort of things. It was more of a method to make distinct songs that were trying to be pop in their melody and songwriting, but without Grammy-type production. The songs are more content in themselves, I suppose, if that doesn’t sound too smug.”
The quintet have certainly earned the right to be smug, though. 2008’s Made in the Darkwas their most successful record to date commercially, in terms of sales if not chart positions. An extensive worldwide tour saw the band gather plaudits as well as momentum on a global scale, but Clarke says that the only pressure to maintain that impetus came from within the Hot Chip camp.
“You are your own competition, you are your own pressure, I find,” he chuckles. “Obviously we’d toured the previous album quite extensively, so we had those songs and they’ve had a life with us – so moving on from that, we wanted to do something that was quite focused, and neat, and distinct. It felt like a leap of faith in that respect, I suppose. There wasn’t any pressure to replicate anything, though, success or otherwise. Whatever we try to do always tends to unintentionally go in a different direction to how we mean it to. If we try to write a hip-hop song, it ends up being a ballad, or something. Surprises are always thrown up.”
Their fans may be surprised at just how wide the gaps are between styles on One Life Stand. Hot Chip have always thrown a cocktail of genres and tempos into the mixing bowl, but placing songs like anthemic house tunes alongside bare-boned number Hand Me Down Your Loveseems a little drastic.
“We always try to make records that sound good both played out loud and in the home. I think that’s a measure of a great pop song,” says Clarke of the disparity. “I suppose what we’re trying to do is just take those pop records that have really influenced us in particular, like Destiny’s Child, or Donna Summer’s I Feel Love, or Phil Spector songs – they’re songs that you can listen to at home and they sound wonderful, but you can dance to them, too. All pop music should be music that you want to dance to, to a greater or lesser extent.”
Funny he should mention I Feel Love: One Life Standdefinitely maintains that distinctive Hot Chip quirkiness, but there are traces of both The Human League and Giorgio Moroder’s influence in there, too. Yet although Clarke claims that the Italian disco-house king provided inspiration, it was working with other people that proved their biggest muse. Charles Hayward, drummer of 1970s post-punk band This Heat, as well as steel pan player Fimber Bravo are amongst the contributors here.
“The past year we were lucky enough to work with some of our heroes, Robert Wyatt [on last year’s Hot Chip with Robert Wyatt and GeeseEP] and Peter Gabriel, who we did a session with [which included a cover of Vampire Weekend’s Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa],” explains Clarke. “I think that had an impact, in that we were more open to, well, having a relaxed attitude to playing with other people, perhaps doing things in quite a patient way, being exposed to different recording techniques. It wasn’t that it was difficult to do before, but it was very much ‘they’re going to come in and do this thing now’, and maybe we’d be a bit precious about it. Having the time off from touring last year, we were able to collaborate with new people, as well as people we’d collaborated with before – strings players, etc. And having other people around didn’t feel tokenistic or precious, it meant that we could just enjoy working with them and feel very relaxed about it.”
Lyrically, too, it seems that Hot Chip have become more open to experimenting with different themes. One Life Standseems especially preoccupied with the notion of love and friendship, and that’s no accident, says Clarke. “I think having been touring for such a long time with the last record – almost continually since the second record, as well – it just meant when we came home, I suppose we got to see people, and pick up the things we’d been missing,” he says. “We drew on those experiences and how it affected us being at home, being in London and seeing our families. These things only often come out in the analysis afterwards, but there definitely were themes of love, and domesticity, and paternity that came to the fore, just by virtue of being at home. Everyone’s a big softie at heart,” he laughs.
Not everyone spent their time off in such a restful manner, however. Joe Goddard, co-vocalist of the band, has kept busy over the past year by co-producing Little Boots’s Handsalbum, as well as his own solo record Harvest Festival,while bespectacled frontman Alexis Taylor’s solo endeavour was quietly released in late 2008. Such elements must cause minor fractures in even the most fraternal group.
“I think it’s a healthy fracture,” Clarke argues. “Joe’s had his solo record and everyone in the band was DJing and travelling around the place. Alexis got to do a collaborative record with Charles Hayward, too, and then he came in and drummed on our record – so things like that can be healthy. It means you can try out the extremes we had on the last record, then come back – and it gives you focus to realise that the songs need their own space and attention. It makes you more cohesive, I think.”
Besides, after 10 years together, he says – the past five of which have been a whirlwind of hits, festivals, surprises and disappointments – there’s little that could dampen spirits when the Chips are down. Clarke is confident that the quintet will continue to make music together for the foreseeable future, whether or not One Life Standis a hit.
“I think we’ll go as long as it goes. Over the past year, solo things have happened and that can be seen as a death-knell for a band, but what it actually meant was we’re able to try out different things and come back to Hot Chip with a fresh attitude. As long as the drive is there and everything feels fresh, then of course we’ll carry on. People can become more creative as they get older as well, just with the progression of life, really. New things will change the world, and we’ll be able to deliver, hopefully.”
One Life Standis on EMI Records