Not many bands get better with the release of every record, to the point that their eighth album can be declared their best yet. But, then again, not many bands are Hot Chip. Their playful theatre of the absurd, combined with a rare heartfelt sincerity and an uncanny knack of crafting dance bangers, has made them one of the UK’s most cherished outfits. Not bad for a band who’ve played the music wrong in every town Manu Ekanayake discovers…
Hot Chip are a fantastic live band. They’re great on record too, of course, but if you don’t take the chance to see them live you’re really robbing yourself of seeing a five-piece live engine at their peak, as Disco Pogo found out when we caught them on the penultimate gig of their September five-night-takeover of Brixton Academy.
“It’s Friday night in Brixton!” frontman and co-founder Alexis Taylor exhorts the crowd, tongue ever-so-slightly in cheek as you’d expect from a band who know perfectly well how absurd the world is and for whom reflecting that truth is central to their art . Taylor’s just come onstage in a shocking pink boiler suit. Hot Chip fans will know that he likes rocking these on stage, but even for him this one is bright – when the lights go down for the absurdly funky ‘Night & Day’ he looks positively radioactive, which is fitting given how much energy is on display here.
The rest of the band look fairly subdued in shades of cream and white, which only makes Taylor stand out more. His freshly bleached and cropped hair doesn’t hurt either. Al Doyle on lead guitar is rocking his signature straw boater and a Sports Banger ‘NHS: Just Do It’ logo tee under his shirt for a touch of flair with a conscious message. Multi-instrumentalists Owen Clarke and Felix Martin keep it pretty low-key, as does Hot Chip’s long-time live member and studio collaborator Rob Smoughton on percussion and guitar. Only Taylor’s Hot Chip co-founder Joe Goddard allows himself a splash of colour, rocking an urban camo top behind his keyboards.
Earlier in the week he told us: “We’re rehearsing extra hard at the moment because during the year we spent writing the new album Covid happened so we’ve never had to play those songs as a live band. We’ve got a ton of stuff to learn.”
And while his usually cheery and garrulous demeanour betrays just a touch of worry when we caught up over Zoom days before the performance, it looks like everyone’s done their homework by gig time. They start off strong with two belters from that new album, ‘Freakout / Release’, which has been out barely a month on Domino: their fourth for the label and home for the last decade.
Opening with the album’s title track, which is a synth-heavy banger that is pure Hot Chip, they then progress onto ‘Eleanor’, which will delight those fans who love their ability to make classic pop songs which have a dark undercurrent. In this case, the song takes the POV of someone still not over their ex. One-part synth pop, one-part mental breakdown could actually be a good summation of a lot of the Hot Chip canon, but it seems especially appropriate here: ‘If you choose to remember me, hold me gently as you fall asleep. Even if you believe that there’s nothing more, I feel heaven knocking at our door’ trills Taylor, with just the right note of jadedness for the subject matter.
That signature Hot Chip mixture of occasionally dark topics, self-deprecating humour and great melodies is at play throughout their set – ‘Flutes’ from their ‘In Our Heads’ album, even gets a little dance routine, which sees Doyle, Clarke and Smoughton join Taylor as they come closer to the crowd to flex a short routine of turns and shimmies like a soul combo of yesteryear. And later on ‘Melody of Love’, from 2019’s ‘A Bath Full of Ecstasy’, Doyle and Smoughton come forward, guitars aloft in ironic homage to the hands-in-the-air nature of the track. It’s a bit of fun that the crowd is definitely in on, just like after their storming cover of ‘Hung Up’ when Taylor deadpans: “That was a song by a popular singer called Madonna.”
Everyone laughs, the one-line crystallising Hot Chip’s appeal as a gang of music obsessives who wear their influences on their sleeves and who knowingly recognise they’re five middle class white guys who love funk, soul, hip hop and house music.
Such bonhomie is clearly drawn from the fact that they are such good friends: Goddard and Taylor formed the band in the former’s teenage bedroom in Fulham in 1997; they met Clarke at the age of 12 at the Elliott School in Putney (a musically-inclined comprehensive that also produced Kieran Hebden aka Four Tet, Burial and The xx) and he joined the band formally when the band were gigging their first album, ‘Comin on Strong’ for Moshi Moshi back in 2001. Taylor met Doyle and Martin at Cambridge University, where he studied English Literature. Goddard did History at Oxford – so they’re admittedly more ‘smart gang’ than street gang. But they still feel like people you might know: middle-aged music heads with perhaps a fondness for worker jackets and selvedge denim, no longer out every weekend but still partying when they can get a babysitter.
Taylor is the more serious of Hot Chip’s co-founders and one-half of the band’s main songwriting partnership. Whereas the more garrulous Goddard spoke to Disco Pogo lying on a couch, eagerly recounting tales of dancefloor derring-do (“I once got thrown out of The End for handing out magic mushrooms to my friends – I was just handing out dried liberty caps and felt this tap, tap, tapping on my shoulder. So eventually I turned around and said: ‘Excuse me, I’m trying to pass my friends some magic mushrooms!’ At which point I was very kindly escorted out…”) Taylor is more strictly business. Though he’s unfailingly polite about a scheduling mishap and full of great detail about the band’s back-catalogue.
For example, he tells us that ‘Melody of Love’, the great E-pop song from ‘A Bath Full of Ecstasy’ – the same track that saw Clarke and Smoughton raise their guitars aloft like returning axe heroes at Brixton – was actually about ten minutes long before they worked with Rodaidh McDonald on it.
“It was more of an instrumental club track,” he says. “Plus it didn’t have half of the lyrics it does now. Rodaidh told me: ‘This could be a big pop song for you but it needs more writing and to be edited down.’ No one’s ever challenged me like that but it was what I needed. The others were sat around, I think feeling a bit worried about me, but they encouraged me to keep trying too. There was a moment where it was a bit of a breakthrough and the new chorus idea worked. That led to Al making a great melodic part on synths that lifted the chorus and then Felix thought of another synth bit and it all came together, but it was quite hard work. That’s how it is, we all work together as a band so well like that, though it was good having Rodaidh there as a taskmaster for that track, absolutely.”
‘A Bath Full of Ecstasy’ was the first time Hot Chip worked with outside producers, with McDonald, who’s worked with everyone from The xx to Adele, also re-working tracks like Glastonbury favourite ‘Hungry Child’ and the title-track itself. That album’s other co-producer was the late Philippe Zdar of Cassius. “Philippe was just so different,” Taylor explains. “His studio sessions in Paris were more like ‘all of you play everything at once and I’ll record you and we can add good vibey things to what you’ve already got.’ So everyone is having a great time and he’s recording it so well while dancing and clapping along. Then he tells us to go away for an hour so we get a drink or some food and when we get back he’s started putting some of those things into a mix already. It was a very enjoyable way of making music.”
Sadly that collaboration was not to last after Zdar died suddenly following a fall in June 2019. He remains a lasting influence though. “Philippe left a startling impression on us and we made the new album in Al’s new studio Relax And Enjoy, which he built with some inspiration from how Philippe had set up his own studio,” Taylor recalls, clearly moved at the loss of a friend. “In terms of the atmosphere, how easy it is to relax and create good music. You can play any instrument in there; they’re all plugged in and ready to go. You don’t need to take half an hour to set up the drums. Everything is ready for you to be creative and then much like Philippe, Al will want to make cocktails for everybody so that it feels fun and you can relax and enjoy yourself.”
The upheavals of the past couple of years have also had a serious effect, as Taylor mentions when we ask how rehearsals are going. “The more we rehearse the more I realise that so many of the new songs are about people with problems in their lives that are to do with getting stuck in a loop of behaviour, feeling unsatisfied with where they are in their life. And maybe relying on drugs to help them or maybe feeling unable to express what they’re going through,” explains Taylor, who is at pains to say it’s not all autobiographical. “I’m not just studying people for content – it’s just the things seeping into me over the year of making the record.”
As ever with Hot Chip, there’s a lot going on below the surface and, at times, on it: ‘Broken’ is clearly about depression and the difficulty of asking for help, with its dark final lines, ‘Sometimes I think I’m broken, And there is nothing left to bust…’. While ‘Not Alone’ is about reaching out to someone to offer that kind of aid. Tellingly, it features a bit of classic Hot Chip self-mockery: ‘We’ve played the music wrong in every town, but somehow people heard our special sound.’
Goddard laughs when we ask about this. “Yeah I think on that particular line Alexis is reminiscing on our career and the times when we’ve been pretty shambolic on stage occasionally, but people still get something out of it. But I know he used to worry about other bands looking slicker than us on stage. But they all sounded the same and we always sounded different. I think that’s why we’ve managed to have some longevity, because even though our path is pretty weird, at least it’s pretty different.”
One of the things that has always made them so distinctive has been their humour. It’s been a factor since their earliest releases, “mainly, I think, because what I’d done before as a teenage singer-songwriter with a guitar was so po-faced and serious,” Taylor tells us, acknowledging “the slightly juvenile humour” of tracks from their debut like ‘Playboy’. That had the memorable refrain of ‘Driving in my Peugeot hey, hey, 20-inch rims with the chrome now, hey, hey, blazing out Yo La Tengo, hey, hey, Driving round poppin’ with the top down, hey, hey.’
He sounds slightly annoyed that “… people [journalists] just kept asking about humour and irony and whether we were genuine about anything. But there’s a lot of other things going on: I mean I’m quoting T.S. Eliot about April being the cruellest month on that track, but then bringing myself down by saying: ‘This March hasn’t been great either’. We knew we weren’t from New York and we weren’t rappers, it was very self-aware in that we were mocking ourselves, not the things we loved, like hip hop in this case.”
He puts the humour that the band have always employed down to the early influence of acts like Smog, Will Oldham and Jim O’Rourke. “Those people on Drag City and Domino Records and all those records that they put out around 1999 and onwards. Their lyrics were either very obviously funny with a dark sense of humour or in Will Oldham [now Bonnie Prince Billy] and Bill Callahan/Smog’s case they were a mixture of very emotional and sad songs with certain one-liners that were darkly funny or something. So we were just influenced by that from our teens onward, even if we we’re doing something different.”
Of course, today, with eight albums under their belts the idea that Hot Chip don’t really mean it seems laughable. Their live show takes in everything from the pure pop moments of ‘Over and Over’, with its ever-memorable monkey with his miniature cymbal, ‘Ready for the Floor’ and ‘Made in the Dark’ – which saw EMI bringing them to a deservedly bigger audience – to more emotional later works like ‘One Life Stand’, which has made them beloved regulars on the festival circuit.
Goddard shares a great Glastonbury tale about performing Wiley’s ‘Wearing my Rolex’ alongside the rapper at Worthy Farm. “This was when ‘Wearing my Rolex’ was the biggest pop track around. Now obviously this was before his recent antisemitism and my feelings about him have changed. But he is a genius artist, who’s said some awful things. This was at the time when he would bring out a string of amazing singles, but you never knew if he’d turn up and he was just smoking constantly. But he made it and when we were doing rehearsals a week or so prior to the festival he’d say: ‘We need to make space for the Oggies’. We didn’t know what he meant. It turns out he wanted us to add in 16 bars to the track so he could chant ‘Oggy Oggy Oggy!’ to get the crowd to reply ‘Oi Oi Oi.’ We were like: ‘We can do that if you want to.’ And it happened on the day. Turns out a Glastonbury crowd love doing the Oggies.”
Something else Hot Chip’s fans love is the band’s evolution with each album. They’ve never stood still. This is clear on 2009’s ‘One Life Stand’, probably their most affecting release at that point. “I think that album felt a bit more serious and that wasn’t really a deliberate thing, but it’s where we were at,” Taylor agrees. “Maybe audiences started to respond well to the emotion and passion of tracks like we did on ‘One Life Stand’? That title track wasn’t written immediately after I got married but some of my lyrics are about celebrating that. The strength of a relationship and even if there are any difficulties, it’s trying to say that this is a very beautiful thing to be doing.”
Up to this point Goddard describes their approach to recording as: “So here’s a track: now let’s make it a banger.” However, by 2012’s ‘In Our Heads’, their first release on Domino, they were thinking: “Let’s have songs on this album that are neither ballads nor house tracks, but some strange orchestral pop song with marimbas,” which is how Taylor rather succinctly sums up ‘Now There is Nothing’ on that album, which he also describes as “one of my favourite songs I’ve ever written”.
The mournfulness that had been lurking around since ‘Boy From School’ got full vent on what remains a wonderful piece of pop. Taylor says: “It’s a bit like a Paul McCartney song on ‘Band on the Run’ – not that I’m saying it’s of that quality. But those songs would be like three songs all jammed together. I was quite ambitious on the production of that one: I wanted to have marimba and xylophone playing on it. We had Emma Smith and Vince Sipprell on strings so we were stretching what the arrangement could be on a Hot Chip album.”
Their next album, 2015’s ‘Why Make Sense?’, gave us big Hot Chip bangers like ‘Huarache Nights’ (who else could name a track after a trainer and get away with it? Run DMC notwithstanding) and ‘Need You Now’. But their more singer-songwriter-traits are also at play on the wryly optimistic ‘White Wine and Fried Chicken’. The band has been known to change it to ‘White Wine and Fried Seitan’ when they play live, to reflect Taylor’s veganism.
“But chicken sounds better, it scans better!” laughs Taylor. “To me it’s an optimistic love song but there’s something very miserable about it too.” Again that contrast between extreme emotion and humour is ever-present for Hot Chip. It’s certainly there when they perform ‘Hard to be Funky’ from ‘Freakout/Release’, at Brixton. Taylor’s vocals take a throaty turn as Lou Hayter, formerly of New Young Pony Club, another band from the indie-electro era of the 2000s, joins them onstage for a sonic tale of struggling to function through depression. It features vocoder vocals from Hayter and references to Sun Ra’s ‘Live At Praxis ’84’ alongside Taylor’s self-aware paean to not feeling the funk.
Hayter is on top form and as an album artist nowadays, as well as a DJ, Goddard is full of praise. “We’ve known Lou since her days with NYPC but I DJed with her at Night Tales a couple of years back and her selection was just impeccable. Alexis wanted a female voice for this track and she obviously knows about yacht rock and Balearic so she knew just what we needed here. I’ve been working on a hip-house record with her and maybe her next record will come out on my label, Greco Roman, so there are a lot of great connections now.”
This telling comment might as well be uttered about Hot Chip in general. After eight albums their maze of collaborators and the stories behind them make the band seem more like a family business. Never more so than when Goddard welcomes his brother Jazz onstage for the backing vocals to ‘Miss the Bliss’. As he dances and plays tambourine while singing, the whole band look like nothing more than a family you’d really like to know. And that, in essence, is why nearly 30 years on from their beginnings in Joe Goddard’s teenage bedroom, we’re all still listening.
Hot Chip are playing Bugged Out! & Disco Pogo @ Drumsheds on 21 October. Get your tickets here