Contrary to popular opinion, Hot Chip will not break your legs, nor will they snap off your head. They are as unlikely to put you down, under the ground.
The five mild-mannered multi-instrumentalists from southwest London – singer songwriters Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard, Owen Clarke, Al Doyle, and Felix Martin – are a far cry in the flesh from the pugnacious lyrical claims they make on The Warning, from their 2006 album of the same name. And while The Warning was filled with belligerence lurking under its quirky electro, and 2008 follow up Made In The Dark revelled in more elements of electro-rock, new album One Life Stand is in many ways a more restrained, considered affair.
Or is it? Joe Goddard, when I meet him, Taylor and Clarke during a break in their punishing pre-tour rehearsal schedule, doesn’t necessarily think so: “It’s a common reaction to say that it’s mellow, but in our mind we were trying to making something exciting, something uplifting.”
Technically speaking it’s the fastest album they’ve made to date, he adds. “There are louder, more brash elements on Made in the Dark – it’s quite rocky and there are moments of raveyness too, but in fact that record had quite a few slow songs to balance it out.”
The majority of the band’s output has been written between Goddard and Taylor, each writing lyrics or music and exchanging them with the other’s music or lyrics to complete a track. But each has taken a more solitary, focused approach on this album, Taylor says: “This time around even though there are a few tracks written collaboratively, if Joe or I had written something that is self contained, those tracks are more personal, in the sense that the songs are more of a complete thought.”
Known more for dancefloor-oriented tracks from previous albums like Over and Over, Ready For the Floor, and A Boy From School, there is something thoughtful about the songs on One Life Stand that suggest it may be the album where Hot Chip grows up.
The album opens to a strong start with Thieves in the Night, where Taylor warns over urgent arpeggios: “A need is a want wearing disguise/It can be confused and fuelled by desire”. Hand Me Down Your Love, a future single, throws together a piano riff, snatches of modulated, synthesised speech and strings with a plaintive lyric. The third track, I Feel Better, is Hot Chip’s “obligatory autotune track”.
Goddard explains: “I wanted a high vocal to go with the low vocal that appears on the song, but when I recorded it, it was massively out of tune, and I thought – I know how I can sort that. I also quited like the idea about singing something quite doom-laden through a vocoder, something mournful in a robotic voice, like a 1980s science programme.”
There’s certainly never been any shortage of humour in Hot Chip, something they’re not worried about injecting into their music. “We’re really not taking the piss,” Goddard says. It’s an accusation that’s been levelled at them before. “When we’re writing something that’s been seen as comical it’s because it’s was something spontaneous because we’re having fun in the studio.”
“There is a comic side to us, so it’s there in the music as well,” Taylor adds. Though less so on One Life Stand? “It’s true that there are less moments of obvious sillyness,” Goddard says. “We’ve had moments like that in the past, I think it comes from when we’re making each other laugh when we’re writing and that comes through in the music. Perhaps there were just less of those situations while we made this album.”
One Life Stand, with its titular suggestion of in-for-the-long-run, seems like a record made with higher things in mind. “This album does feel like a piece, sonically. We did set out to produce these threads that run through the album, using the same instruments on different tracks,” Goddard says. But it’s probably the fact they took a year off from touring in order to record it that has formed the record’s sound, given it a more mature feel.
Taylor: “We were living at home with our partners, and perhaps the focus becomes more about your relationship with them, and you’re not just in a mad rush like you are on tour. Real life sort of… interjected.”
The second half of the album feels in some respects like tales of the home lives and loves of the now-married songwriters – loves songs from a Hot Chip that is older, wiser, looking inward to what they have near rather than out into the world.
You can hear it in the warm, luxuriant bass guitar on Alley Cats, as Taylor softly croons “We wear each others heads like hats/speak in tongues like alleycats/cradle them in both our laps/when we lie alone”, the atmospheric ambience of Keep Quiet, and the first single from the album, Take It In. Though it starts in a discordant, almost foreboding way, with Goddard grumbling “The wheel of fortune stops at six o’clock/so what am I supposed to do until midnight?”, the track then blossoms into a wash of guitars, piano and Taylor’s remarkable falsetto voice.
Was he ever nervous about using his voice? “I’ve sang from quite a young age, started doing it more publically at school and was quite aware that it was an odd-sounding, androgynous voice,” Taylor says.
“There’s been plenty of times people would say, who’s the black lady singing on this record? I don’t think it sounds like that, but people have said it,” he laughs.
“But I like singing, there was never any second thoughts about it. And I like singers with their own voice. I just don’t believe a lot of singers – those that put on American accents.”
There is a quiet determination from both Taylor and Goddard, a refusal to bow to others’ perception of what Hot Chip should or shouldn’t be, of what pop should or shouldn’t be. It is true, they do not look like the well groomed, highly-styled indie bands or hipsters we are too used to seeing, with their on-message words of wisdom or just-enough market-friendly rebel tendencies. Both look stony faced with the suggestion they are “music nerds”. Taylor, 5’ 5”, quietly spoken and with thick-rimmed spectacles, says: “I don’t really see it myself.”
“We’re not trying to overstate the fact that we listen to loads of records and that we’ve got influences. But I find it much easier to pinpoint the influences of other bands who are much more referential. I certainly don’t think we’re trying to show off our record collection.”
Goddard points out that Hot Chip doesn’t sound like anyone else, unlike all too many other bands: “With a lot of bands this question doesn’t need to be asked, because the answer is obvious. They sound like Joy Division, or Gang of Four, or some other touchstone band. You don’t need to ask what influences them because it’s obvious in every song they make.”
The band’s frustration with being pigeonholed is evident in their relation with the music press. “We’re kind of between a lot of things in a way, a little bit homeless,” Goddard says. “We’re not looking to be in any kind of camp or scene. We’re on the fringes of pop music. Sometimes we say we make pop music – and occasionally some people believe us and we end up on the Radio 1 Big Weekend. But we fall between camps.
“We’re not really popstars as people. We don’t really know how to deal with TV interviews, but at the same time we make music that is catchy and simple and straightforward, and so some underground people deride us for that.
“In the end,” he sighs. “We’re just doing what we’re doing.”
As “the nerd band”, the “electropop band”, the “thinking man’s pop act”, Hot Chip get thrust into pigeonholes unsuccessfully and often. But, despite – or perhaps because –they don’t fly the flag for any scene, nor dress to impress, nor come across like mouthy youngsters, despite being, at heart, some slightly shy friends who met at school and wanted to make music, Hot Chip are just getting on with making some of the most diverse and unusual ‘pop’ out there. The fact is that tracks on each album are dissimilar enough to warrant different pigeonholes all of their own.
“It seems like it’s really important for journalists to do that with bands and we’re no exception,” Taylor sighs. “We try and make music that is stylistically different from one track to the next and embraces a lot of types of music. So we obviously make it a bit harder for people.”
“Pigeon-holes,” Clarke says darkly, “are not for humans with diverse opinions and emotions and depressions and exultations. Pigeon-holes are for pigeons.”
[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, February 2010]