Hot Chip Interview: Hope Is Important
It’s been a full 15 years since their debut, and with A Bath Full Of Ecstasy their first album since Brexit and Trump appeared on the scene, Hot Chip tell John Earls why the feeling of community and hope is more important than ever…
It’s ironic that Hot Chip’s previous album was called Why Make Sense? On its release in 2015, it was a mischievous title, as the band spoke about answering their own need to carry on making music as they entered their second decade following 2004’s debut album Coming On Strong.
Four years on, post-Brexit, post-Trump, amid a world in a state of permanent confusion, Hot Chip realise that, more than ever, their music has to make sense.
“We’re consciously affected by the breaking down of community,” states Alexis Taylor. “In the UK, there are a lot of barriers being created by people being in opposition to each other. Scapegoats are being used to push right-wing views. You can’t escape those things going on around us.” Joe Goddard, Taylor’s partner in crime since they met at secondary school in 1991, adds: “It’s something I often think about. Everybody has a sense of responsibility to switch on politically and try to keep abreast of what’s going on. It’s very easy to engage in mindless hedonism, to plug into an online world where you don’t have to face reality. But it’s important not to get lost in that, because there are people on the far-right throughout Europe and in the United States who are politically engaged and who are determining the political landscape.”
Hot Chip’s music has rarely been explicitly political, but it’s easy to gauge from the communal spirit they foster at their shows that they aren’t exactly into setting people against each other. On triumphant new album A Bath Full Of Ecstasy, the moving Positive is more socially active with its tale of two homeless people falling in love and their resultant struggle to stay together. “Positive feels different to anything we’ve written before,” Taylor agrees. “Although it’s an electronic track, it reminds me of Morrissey in the melodies I’m singing. I was thinking about people with struggles like addiction and potential homelessness. Homeless people aren’t necessarily offered much support in the community around them. Positive touches on that, thinking about things I was seeing around me and people close to me suffering from different problems.”
‘Our band rides the lines of music being fun and people coming together’
It’s a stunning epic, and something we might see more of from Hot Chip in future. “Our band hopefully rides the line of music being fun and people coming together,” says Goddard. “I think our lyrics are mindful. Alexis is our principal lyric writer, and his lyrics are often personal and emotional. But politics finds its way into the music and, without sounding too much like a bleeding-heart liberal, we promote love, togetherness and unity; opposing the divisive politics thrust in our faces all the time. There are times when I wish doing something more overtly political came more naturally to us, as we all feel strongly about the way politics is heading. But what we do feels a truer response, and there’s a lot of value to our music, by hopefully nourishing people’s souls. It’s hard to remain positive in the face of the ecological and political fears we face, and there’s value in providing people with those moments of community.”
For Taylor, Hot Chip themselves offer a textbook example of a community working together. Goddard and Taylor’s alma mater Elliott School in Putney, West London, is a music-focused comprehensive whose other pupils have included Four Tet, The xx, Burial and The Maccabees. “We first became friends over our packed lunches,” laughs Goddard. “It’s been a long development of sharing hip-hop tapes and coming from a DIY perspective of self-releasing CD-Rs. We never could have expected Hot Chip to last this long or grow to this size.”
Along the way, Hot Chip have expanded to encompass Al Doyle, Felix Martin, Owen Clarke and Sarah Jones. All multi-instrumentalists – Doyle also plays with LCD Soundsystem – you couldn’t find six more different looking people, but their series of matching costumes on stage and in publicity photos rivals Devo for unlikely uniformity. Goddard is a friendly giant, his other band The 2 Bears with Raf Rundell aptly named. Taylor, more intense but equally courteous and thoughtful, is shorter, rainbow-haired and wears trademark outsize glasses. “In a very local way, our band is a small community,” Taylor notes. “We’ve been working towards this album for three-and-a-half years, and coming back as a small unit reinforces how we bond together to create something. We express ourselves in a powerful way. What I sing isn’t super-explicit and I’m not trying to wag a finger, but hopefully people are affected by what we do.”
As much of a close-knit community as Hot Chip are, for A Bath Full Of Ecstasy they let outsiders in for the first time. Having produced everything themselves before, for album seven they recruited The xx producer Rodaidh McDonald and Philippe Zdar, who’s one half of Cassius as well as Phoenix’s producer. “We’d always tried to control every aspect of what we do,” Taylor explains. “Seven albums in, we wanted to see what would happen if we had outside influences.” Goddard adds: “The point was to shock ourselves out of doing our normal pathways of making a Hot Chip song. The record that comes out of our established process is good – I’m not unhappy with our previous albums – but it becomes predictable. When those pathways are ingrained, it’s hard to get yourselves out of that. We wanted to be challenged, pushed into a different way of doing things.” Taylor agrees, explaining: “We didn’t want a producer who’d just do exactly what we already did.”
That sounds great in theory but, after so long as a self-contained unit, how hard was it in practice to cede control to outsiders? “There were times when I thought it wasn’t so easy with this approach,” laughs Taylor. “I’d sometimes think, ‘Maybe this song is better with the approach we started off with’. But that tension is inevitable. It was smooth most of the time, and there were never any difficult discussions. It was always about what was best for each song.” Goddard emphasises taking on board Zdar and McDonald’s advice was the reason for working with them, saying: “There’d be no point in hiring them if we weren’t going to listen to them. They’ve produced some big records and it wasn’t a small amount of money to hire them! I’ve seen other bands hire huge producers only to shut them down, as they don’t like their control being taken over. We were determined to be open to that process.”
The pair cite the album’s opening song Melody Of Love as one of the key songs that changed under McDonald’s influence, transformed from its original club-focused nine-minute epic into a taut four-minute pop banger. “We worked with Rodaidh before Philippe,” Taylor recalls. “From our first meeting, Rodaidh was very decisive. He’d make the point of a song as clear as it could be. He wasn’t brutal or insensitive to nuance, but he’d help streamline songs, get the most out of their potential to be a pop song. Melody Of Love was the song where Rodaidh suggested we try alternative lyrics. That was early on in working with Rodaidh, and I’d maybe second-guessed what he’d want in a pop song – I was trying to be universal, but the first lyrics were a little generic. We ended up with something much more direct and personal, more emotional. Rodaidh helped shape the title track a lot too, and that’s another single.”
The band decamped to Montmartre to work with Zdar, with Goddard happily eulogising the city’s coffee and breakfast pastries before they started work. Hot Chip were partially drawn to Zdar because they’d seen footage of his studio on YouTube. “Stevie Wonder’s favourite synth is a rare Yamaha CS-80,” Goddard explains. “It’s this massive beast from the early 70s. It sounded so incredible when I saw Philippe playing it on these videos that I had to go out and buy one. I’ve followed Philippe’s career since. He’s worked with Beastie Boys, Cat Power, Phoenix… there were all these ways that I sensed he’d get where we come from.” Zdar’s studio was every bit the Willy Wonka playhouse the band had hoped, full of vintage gear and studio wizardry.
Zdar completely reworked Spell – one of two songs, along with Echo, that Taylor and Goddard had written for Katy Perry’s last album Witness in 2017. A third song, Into Me You See, is Witness’ closing track. The three songs were worked on at Goddard’s home studio in East London before they spent three days with Perry at Air Studios.
‘We wanted to see what would happen if we had outside influences’
“Katy is brilliant at writing pop melodies very quickly,” says Taylor. “Her dedication is strong, she’s got a great sense of humour, and she’d generate lots and lots of melodic ideas. It was good to see someone else at work like that.” Although Spell has changed since it was considered for the pop titan, Taylor says: “Just working with Katy made us think about our songs in a different way, because we were aiming for something more direct and pop. Writing lyrics for Katy, Spell is about seduction and that’s unusual for us, too.”
In a reversal of Rodaidh McDonald turning Melody Of Love into a pop song, Philippe Zdar transformed Spell into a psychedelic groove. “Philippe had everyone jamming together on some really nice old synthesisers,” says Goddard. “He took it all and found good moments to build up into a great track.”
Although their collaborative spirit helped finesse A Bath Full Of Ecstasy, the album needed one other major refinement. Once they handed it in to their record label Domino, the band had a celebratory dinner at Goddard’s house. “I ordered sushi in and we had champagne,” he recalls. “At that moment, Domino and our management rang and said, ‘Yeah, we think the album is a bit long. We think it needs an edit’.” The dinner fell flat and Goddard admits: “There was a moment of thinking, ‘Well, that’s weird’.” But the band eventually realised Domino had a point: the album became tighter and more upbeat after dropping songs planned for near the end of the record, companion pieces to the moment of calm still provided by Clear Blue Skies. “There were a couple of unusual songs with creative left turns,” says Goddard. “There are eight finished unused tracks we’ll try to find homes for.”
The irony of Domino advising Hot Chip to alter the album isn’t lost on Goddard. Before signing to the label for 2012’s One Life Stand, the band released three albums on EMI. “When we were on EMI, you might expect there to be an A&R presence going, ‘Give us hits!’,” he says good-naturedly. “But we’ve been left to our own devices throughout before. What Domino advised has made for a more focused record.”
Ye Olde Psychedelia
The other important external influence on A Bath Full Of Ecstasy was Jeremy Deller, the Turner Prize-winning artist who designed the album’s gothic sleeve. They first met seven years ago when Deller played at Glastonbury with Steel Harmony, a steel band who perform unlikely covers – their steelpan player Fimber Bravo guested on One Life Stand. “We didn’t expect Jeremy would be up for it when we asked,” admits Taylor. “What he’s come up with is quite simple. His font references psychedelia, which connects to the album title and the euphoria of the music. It’s also got a Ye Olde England look, as if it’s from pagan culture. We like that it’s something you wouldn’t expect from an electronic record and is more like writing you’d see in a book from William Blake’s era.”
Deller is also a fellow judge for Koestler Arts, a prison charity based at Wormwood Scrubs jail which encourages inmates throughout Britain to create art as motivation and to lead more positive lives. On the day of our interview, Taylor and Goddard had just finished judging the Computer-Generated Music category for the fifth year. “It’s become part of what the band does,” says Taylor. “I’m always impressed by the standard of the music, and it seems to help the people who take part.”
Made with workwear company Workshy, Deller’s sleeve design is the basis for the latest Hot Chip stage costumes, which debuted at their festival appearances this summer. The shows also saw Hot Chip premiere their unlikely cover of Beastie Boys’ Sabotage, with even Goddard joking, “I didn’t expect Alexis to bust out the rap!” Covering the Beasties is a throwback to the start of Taylor and Goddard’s friendship. Taylor recalls reading Beastie Boys’ fanzine Grand Royal at his friend’s house after school, while Goddard says: “They were so much a part of mine and Alexis’ upbringing.”
Would Hot Chip ever launch their own Grand Royal-style fanzine? “I don’t know about a mag,” ponders Taylor. “We have spoken about curating our own festival. It’d be nice to have Funkadelic, Maurice Fulton and Devo play. I’d love Plush to play his album More You Becomes You and Moodymann do one of his all-Prince DJ sets. If we’re talking improbable, then Kate Bush, Crystal Gayle and Sinead O’Connor with Gang Gang Dance as her band.”
Meltdown Festival need to get Hot Chip booked as their next guest curator immediately. In the meantime, expect the band to carry on providing their own community. A Bath Full Of Ecstasy shows that everyone is welcome.