Hot Chip - From Ready for the Floor to ready for the long haul
Hot Chip's recently released fourth album is not called One Life Stand for nothing. The indie-electro band tell Elisa Bray why longevity is more important to them than fame
Friday 23 April 2010
Hot Chip should be celebrating a milestone, having made it on to the Radio 1 A-list for the first time in their 10-year career. But despite this embrace by mainstream radio, the songwriting duo of the singer Alexis Taylor and the keyboardist and producer Joe Goddard are not as convinced of their climb to success as their critics are.
"They haven't done the same with the new single. That was our little blip, really, of Radio 1 supporting us," Goddard says, in a wry grumble, when we meet in a London pub before they appear on Later... with Jools Holland. "People have been writing that we're poised to be more successful, but I don't think we will be more successful than we are. I don't think we're going on an upwards trajectory anymore."
If there was talk of the band being poised for more success, that would be because over the past few years, with their hip electro indie-pop, they have made some unforgettable indie-dancefloor tunes ("Boy from School", "Over and Over"); scored a Mercury Music Prize nomination for their 2006 album, The Warning; racked up nominations for a Grammy ("Ready for the Floor") and an Ivor Novello ("Over and Over"); collaborated with stars across genres, including Wiley, Will Oldham, Robert Wyatt and Peter Gabriel; produced Little Boots; and had a Top 5 album with Made in the Dark. Their latest album, One Life Stand, received glowing reviews. You could be forgiven for mistaking such an underwhelmed response for glumness, then, but Hot Chip would rather stay as they are than become pop stars.
"I feel like we're lucky to be able to make music for a living – at the moment – and it's not affecting our lifestyles by being celebrities or anything like that," Taylor explains. "We're just going about our normal lives and also making music, too. To me, that's quite an ideal situation to be in rather than being how can we get to the next level."
"I would like to make more money," Goddard concedes. "But just not be any more famous. We could be like CEOs of big companies."
Any band paying heed to Liam Gallagher's words of wisdom in the latest edition of Q magazine will note that a band's image is as important as the music itself. Not so for Hot Chip, whose frontman has found himself compared to indie film's biggest nerd, Napoleon Dynamite, and whose penchant, alongside Goddard, for dressing in as much colour as possible – today he is wearing his trademark red overall – is in direct opposition to his three other band-mates' sombre attire.
"It's funny isn't it," muses Taylor. "I think people are often trying to work out what our band is all about. And it doesn't make any visual sense. Three-fifths are more conservative in their palette, so we must look bizarre with people in their smart, formal wear and me and Joe not going in that direction. We don't coordinate at all and we don't have any kind of stylist, which is probably obvious. We literally wear what we want." Their label has in the past suggested that the band abide by a colour scheme for an album launch or a show, but they find it so hard to agree on a look, it has never worked out. They wouldn't want to impose an image on the band: their "geek-chic" look seems deliberate but the term has previously sent Taylor into confused denial, although an encounter the day before our interview prompts him to finally acknowledge his image.
"I was just about to DJ and was carrying all my records, and these two little kids walked by and said, 'Going down the pub?' I didn't say anything and one said 'Nah, he's too geeky.' So I can't argue with accusations of geek chic."
He stresses that he didn't start wearing glasses until after his school days at the Elliott School in Putney, south London, where Taylor, Goddard and Owen Clarke met and started writing music together. Musical alumni at the school include the dubstep artist Burial, Kieran Hebden of Four Tet and members of The xx and The Maccabees. "People think of my glasses as part of my face now as I've always got them on. Actually, I still think of myself as late to glasses. It's quite a confusing thing when you're so known in a certain way."
Looks aside, there is a precision to their electro-indie. Four of the five members are Oxbridge graduates, and a simple question about their songwriting technique prompts a methodical answer from their frontman. To cut it short, their favourite method is the collaborative approach, when Goddard sends Taylor the beginnings of a track to work on and add lyrics.
Goddard says: "A lot of the best things are things that are finished fast. That leaves me feeling so elated. We had an instance of that recently. I made an instrumental one evening and Alexis sent it back a couple of hours later with great words and melodies. Those are my favourite moments – I can enjoy listening to that for weeks afterwards, thinking, that happened so fast."
"We've been working together for so long, maybe 10 years in that way since being school friends, so it's quite a natural musical relationship, you can tell quickly when an idea is going to turn into something that will be on the next record or be the single," says Taylor.
Where their first three albums mixed playful, poppy tracks embracing the hedonism of youth, One Life Stand – its punning title aside – is more serious, full of songs about monogamous love and relationships, suggesting the band members have grown up. Now all having reached or on the cusp of turning 30, they have new responsibilities. Goddard has just this morning returned from settling the deal on his new house with his wife, to make space for the arrival of their first baby. Taylor, meanwhile, became a dad less than a year ago to Prudence, and both baby girl and mother have been on tour with the band. Not the most rock'n'roll addition to a band's dressing room, but Goddard points out: "To be honest our dressing room wasn't the rowdiest of places anyway. It tends to be people sleeping, chilling or drinking. It brings a real calm to the dressing room, which I guess you wouldn't expect, but Alexis's little girl is quite happy. It takes you out of yourself as well. Having a baby there, you take a step back and realise that there's other things in life than playing gigs."
The maturity also shows when they reflect on their earlier albums, which feel to them like they come not just from another era in their lives, but like they were made by another band. Goddard has been listening to their first album, Coming on Strong, because Moshi Moshi, the indie label that put out their earliest music, wanted to release a vinyl version for Record Store Day.
"There's a very nice naïvety to the whole thing, like there are kazoos, and lots of instruments deemed to be really unprofessional, all over that record. When we were making it, in my mind it sounded like a Dr Dre record and that was so massively ill-considered. It's laughable now, but I really like the idea that we were ensconced in bedrooms thinking we were making these banging hip-hop songs. It just shows that we were very innocent. But that's the nice thing about first records – you make it without having the experience of people being critical of your records so you just do exactly what you want."
"I quite like the oddness of them," Taylor agrees. "The first one is really slow songs that are made by people who are doing exactly what they want – just really odd combinations of sounds put together and lyrics. We've got a little more structured. Certain things we've done in the past have been a bit more silly and put the humour at the forefront. I try to write autobiographical songs. I can't really hear anything that relates to the fact that I was about to be a father in the new record, but maybe the focus of it was more adult."
Still, they are not averse to reverting to the playfulness of their earlier works. Goddard says: "We wanted this record to be quite concise and focused, but I think in the future we could go back to doing things that are more chaotic or crazy or unusual. I still get excited by making a bizarre rhythm or writing some words that don't make sense. I don't feel like it's the end of us doing bizarre things or things that aren't just about monogamous love."
Perhaps the real reason they are not going to be any more successful lies not in a lack of ambition, but rather the direction of recent pop music. They don't even like current pop music, says Goddard. "I'm in love with the way records used to sound in the 1970s and 1980s", he says with a sigh. "The way that records sound now has moved so far away from that, I don't find the sound of pop music very pleasant anymore. Everything is so incredibly bright and over-compressed that some of the life is squashed out of pop music. It's well documented that records are mixed and almost made to sound good on a mobile phone or on your Apple speakers, and the sounds of the things I like go in the opposite direction. Making 'Ready for the Floor', I felt like I wanted to make something new – that was the limit in terms of where I wanted to go with a big-sounding pop song. And I find the songwriting dull in a lot of new pop music. I used to be in love with more pop music than I am now."
He laments the period of time in the 1990s when there was a correlation between music that topped the charts and music that was pushing the boundaries sonically. "In terms of the rhythms used, hip-hop and r'n'b was very creative at that time, and I think it has lost its way a little bit. I miss the fact that there could be something at Number 1 that is really bizarre-sounding. There's a real renaissance in bizarre club music, but none of that forward-thinking is going into pop music at the moment."
Hot Chip will always remain a forward-thinking force in pop music, though. "We just inevitably want to make songs that are successful on the radio and sound like good pop songs," says Taylor. "We're ambitious to be successful but it's only against our own previous small versions of success. We want to make something that is going to sound good for a long time and give people pleasure."
Hot Chip's latest album, 'One Life Stand', is out now (EMI). The band play Glastonbury and Lovebox festivals
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