With the 75th anniversary of the iconic sunglasses manufacturer, Ray-Ban underway, INTERVIEW celebrates the NEVER HIDE moments of a few influential leaders in art,fashion, music and film. We’ve met quite a few characters over thedecades, but here are some of our favorite interviewees and icons,artists who never shied away from marching to the beat of their owndrum. Here we talk to Hot Chip:
In Our Heads, the new album from electropop heroes Hot Chip, announces itself. From the first moments of its first track, “Motion Sickness,” it catches your attention with a building synth line, a defiant drum, a blasting sax—all of which resolves, 90 seconds later, into Alexis Taylor’s voice, velvety-smooth as ever, demanding, “Remember when the people thought the world was round, the world was round?”
Much of the album has that same mindset: standing in the present, gazing over the expanse of time that’s brought the singer—and the listener, as the band is generous with the second-person construction—to this point. If any contemporary band has earned the right to do just that, it’s Hot Chip. A dozen years ago, its progenitors, Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard, were at the forefront of something new—or at least long-forgotten—in music: along with pals like LCD Soundsystem, they began making dance music that was both experimental and accessible, absurdly danceable even with its sometimes intimately personal lyrics.
Five albums, a Grammy nomination, and a couple of marriages later, Hot Chip is no less relevant. In Our Heads is joyous and urgent and sure to be crowned the album of the summer immediately upon its release in June. Its first single, “Flutes,” released a few months ago, is an ideal appetizer (you can see the video below). It’s an intelligent album, too; Taylor and his bandmates could, between them, write a musical encyclopedia, and every homage and reference on In Our Heads makes perfect sense.
When we met Taylor, Goddard and Owen Clarke at the Tribeca Grand Hotel last week, they were gearing up for a DJ set there later that night. El Perro del Mar was on the radio, and the bandmates were relaxed and happy to discuss the new album, bad DJ-set requests, Lovesexy, and “You Can Call Me Al.”
ALEXANDRIA SYMONDS: In Our Heads starts off more bombastically than any of your albums have so far. Were you thinking about first impressions when you were writing that song?
ALEXIS TAYLOR: Not really—I think that track became more bombastic by the time we finished adding stuff to it. It had Charles Hayward’s drums and this guy Terry Edwards’ saxophone added quite late in the day. It’s very bombastic sounding, [but] it wasn’t really intentional that that should be—it wasn’t essential to the sound of the track right from the beginning… I think that me and Joe were a bit worried, in a way, that it was too bombastic to be the first track on the album. It sets you for something that doesn’t really follow in that vein. But then we just decided it sounded fine.
JOE GODDARD: It feels nice to have this bold beginning. I think we talked about it being the first track on the record quite early in the process, the way that it kind of comes together quite slowly at the beginning—it begins quietly and kind of builds and builds and builds—made it feel like a good opener.
SYMONDS: Is track order something that you spend a lot of time figuring out? There’s a very natural progression on this album that you don’t get much with dance music.
GODDARD: We do think about it, between Alexis and myself, and actually, this time our manager Nick was kind of involved. We tried out a lot of different orders and thought about it, and kind of changed it right at the last minute. It’s kind of a strange process. You have to accustom yourself to listening to all these songs as a group and then try to work out exactly what’s best. I’m glad that you feel like it works. I do.
SYMONDS: One of my favorite unexpected things on the record is the spoken-word bit on the closer, “Always Been Your Love.” It almost sounds like a ’60s girl group. How did that come about?
TAYLOR: That’s Lizzi Bougatsos, from Gang Gang Dance. I really like Lovesexy by Prince, so I just sort of suggested to Lizzie, who I know also really likes that record, she’s really into Sheila E, and I knew that she would understand the reference point. I just suggested that she did some vocals, some harmony vocals and some spoken things, and that’s what she came back with. It is quite different from anything else on the record, not only having a female voice but also having it speaking. I also felt like it brought something to the track that was missing before, a different element to it that lifted it in some way.
SYMONDS: I think that because Hot Chip is unique in that you write personal dance songs, the press tends to be very interested in, “What are you writing about right now?” On the last album, there was this whole narrative that was built up that the album was about how you guys had grown up. With this one, it seems you’re using the past tense a lot, like it’s an album about looking back at what brought you to the point where you are now. Could you speak to that?
GODDARD: There were some references to that just this morning, when we were doing other interviews. You think about the fact that it does appear on a few tracks, like you’re kind of alluding to, I think that might be the narrative to build up without necessarily having a basis in the truth. Well, for me consciously, there really wasn’t really a particular conscious thing. Was it for you?
TAYLOR: No, not at all. I think that if you write songs in a relatively short period of time, maybe there are few traits that hang around over those tracks and maybe you don’t notice them yourself. There’s a lot of seeing and looking and eyesight in this record, and I think that that’s true, but it’s not for any kind of deliberate reason—it’s not like we were thinking about making a record that has to do with seeing more clearly or anything like that, you know? We just make lots of songs and then we cut them together. There’s obviously things that emerge from different periods of your life, maybe things that you’re interested in, or things that you’re dealing with in some way, but it’s not a concept album, there’s no narrative. There wasn’t for the last one, but I remembered people talking about, as if there was a character and he was progressing over the album and then this happened. It’s certainly not deliberate; it’s not something we endorse as a kind of reading of it. But, at the same time, it’s hard sometimes if you’re doing it yourself, to notice, “What is this?” going on thematically.
SYMONDS: I guess that’s our job.
GODDARD: It’s nice that people can listen and imagine their own narrative to the record. It’s nice when people get that personal connection to the record and then imagine what it’s about. For us, now we’re starting realize some themes that weren’t consciously decided on but seem to be emerging. I don’t mind when people recognize those kinds of themes, it doesn’t bother me really, but yeah, there’s not just conscious things that we set out to do. It’s a fair question because some people do sit down at the beginning of making a record and decide that they want to make it about something. But we’ve just never really done that.
SYMONDS: To speak to the personal, too—most people who make music for clubs are making music about being in clubs, which you have done, and you do it well, but it’s not the bulk of what you do. Why do you think it is so hard for artists to write music for clubs that aren’t about people in clubs?
TAYLOR: I find that quite a weird subject, because there’s so much music that has a really strong emotional force to it that is club music, stuff prior to what we talk about prior to dance music now, stuff that’s obviously influential—disco, they were being made for clubs. But there’s lots of personal perspective within bands like Chic or Diana Ross or whoever it might be. Even in the ’80s, like New Order or something, they’re just as interested in the songwriting as they are working in the club and production values of things that they were influenced by from America. I can’t really understand why people think that us and LCD are new at doing stuff like that. I know that there is a difference. I’m not belittling it.
SYMONDS: It’s not that it’s new, necessarily, but more that it just stands out from what artists want to do today. In 2012, it’s much more rare to find.
TAYLOR: I quite like it though, I’m quite interested in what words can be, if it’s very few words, and it’s a kind of club track but it has a sort of uplifting or spiritual kind of feeling to it. Somehow, something bigger than just the words on the page happens when you hear it all together. Sometimes I notice when I’m DJing, I put on a lot of tracks that feature vocals, and the other DJs around me don’t really do that so much. I guess for me, it’s just from growing up loving songs, so maybe I’m geared slightly more towards dance music that features a song element.
SYMONDS: One of the lyrics on the album, “I like Zapp, not Zappa,” is a little joke on the requests that people make during your DJ sets. Are there any memorably awful requests that you’ve gotten?
TAYLOR: We’ve been asked for things like, “Can you play some Hot Chip?” when we’ve just played six brand-new tracks. We get that a lot, you’re thinking people might like a brand-new thing, and they just want an old one that you don’t have.
SYMONDS: And they don’t recognize that it’s Hot Chip?
TAYLOR: Oh, definitely. Joe is saying that he’s been requested garage music while he was playing garage music: “Oh yeah, I like garage music.” The two things weren’t related, somehow.
OWEN CLARKE: I did a show away from the UK, in Sweden, and there was a DJ set afterwards, and someone asked for “Solsbury Hill.” We didn’t have it with us.
SYMONDS: How does DJing inform your songwriting? Or do you consider them separate things?
GODDARD: We’ve been DJing a lot, for quite a long time now, and I think it absolutely informs the music we’re making. I mean just to begin with, this album has key tracks that are six, seven minutes long, in the form of DJ tracks, that begin somewhere and reach crescendos. “Flutes” has a breakdown, in the way that a trance song might have one. And then, in terms of all the different kinds of devices that you recognize when you’re DJing, some of those that are used in the tracks on the record. And we unconsciously use some of those things because they’re going to be fun and exciting to do when we play live, as well. I don’t think there’s any way you could DJ as much as we have and not have that inform what you’re doing. I’d say, similarly to what Alexis said, and when Owen is DJing, it’s very kind of song-based—more than what DJs, kind of like modern house sets, will hardly have vocals at all, until the last ten minutes or something, when they feel like they can play a classic or something. I kind of cut straight to that bit and do that for two hours.
SYMONDS: I think people appreciate that. Since you’ve been DJing for so long, do you have a sense for place now? Where you’re prepared and say, “I’ll be DJing here in downtown New York,” and know how that’s different from DJing in LA or Austin or London?
GODDARD: You build up more and more ideas about that, don’t you? Yeah, we have more ideas about that, and that’s one of the fun things about DJing, I think, getting the sense of place. Right now, I don’t particularly take different CDs or vinyl—I have my CD wallet that I take everywhere I go; there are different things in there that cater to different kinds of times—but if there’s a special DJ thing coming up, I might go through my records and pick out this special selection. It’s one the things that means you’re improving as a DJ the more you do it, understanding what’s going to go down well in a specific place. It’s also kind of been lost as part of the art form of DJing because people used to take a bag of vinyl, and have to very carefully pick what they’re going to play. But most people now have the laptop and have everything available on any night. So that part of DJing, it used to be an amazing thing when you’d see a DJ pull a record out and just be like, “Oh my God, that is the perfect record for this situation,” and that’s a big part of the art form for me. But it’s not so much like that [now], I guess.
TAYLOR: I think for someone who DJs quite a lot, but doesn’t really go to that many clubs at the moment, the places that I really enjoy hearing people DJ are the places where it’s just two DJs who do it every week and who do it for the whole night. The Sub Club in Glasgow used to have the same people doing it every week, and when we’ve been up in Glasgow, to me, there’s barely any other sets I’ve enjoyed as much as their set, because they’re basically so involved in buying records all the time and digging through old music. Knowing how to shape the evening—when you hear something you’ve heard before in a new context, or you hear things things you’ve never heard before—I think there is something to be said for that, that older way of doing it, doing it for hours and hours. I really enjoy playing for hours and hours. These ones where you turn up over an hour and you’re on a festival stage, people basically expect much more pounding than I ever would play. I just feel like a fish out of water when I do those. They want something really kind of aggressive; that’s not really the kind of music that I’m into. That’s my experience of it, so I find it doesn’t consciously affect the way I make music in any way because it’s something that I’m not trying so much to bring back other things to music. But that’s not to say it’s not an influence. Whether I was in a band or not.
SYMONDS: Joe, you mentioned the limitlessness of DJing now. Do you ever restrain yourself? Do you ever say, I’m just going to bring these 30 albums and play them, and not bring my two-terabyte hard drive with me this time?
GODDARD: [laughs] It’s nice. Occasionally, I think you have to really know where you’re going to be playing and what the audience is going to be like if you want to do it that way. If I’m playing in London somewhere where I feel like I know the audience, then I might just take a bag of vinyl and do just exactly what I want. I occasionally do do that. Really, actually I love doing that, I love playing the music that I have on vinyl. I’d say, most of the time I don’t feel like I know exactly what the atmosphere is going to be, so I take my CD wallet thing, which just has all the options, you know.
CLARKE: I remember Al talking about playing with Felix [Martin] at Caesar Space, and he was talking about a time where they let go of their safety net, their “get out of jail free” records—something big and fun, I don’t know, “You Can Call Me Al,” something that’s like a safety blanket. They get to this point where they say, “No, we’ll just do these things that we really like,” that’s quite an empowering thing. I, for one, am a big fan of the safety-blanket sets.
SYMONDS: If we could get back to the album, briefly—you’ve been together a long time at this point, and have you found that’s changed your songwriting process? Do you read each other’s minds more? Do you have to discuss things less?
GODDARD: We’ve had a working method where we really haven’t had to discuss things for a long time now. I think the relationship that we’ve got has probably been the same for a few years. But, it just feels pretty straightforward. We send each other ideas and it can be quite kind of honest and say “I don’t know what I can add to this one,” or “This one immediately sounds good, I’m going to know exactly what we should do with this.” It seems to be pretty compatible still, pretty easy in the working method, that’s really enjoyable and exciting, you know? There was one track, this new one “Don’t Deny Your Heart,” on the new record that we worked a lot harder writing the song than we have done in a long time. It had three or four, maybe five different versions that were quite radically different. We tried changing chords, rearranging sections, really made an effort to work on the songwriting of that song. There were times when we maybe thought that we weren’t sure that the song would work, but we persevered with it and are quite pleased with it now.
SYMONDS: It’s a lovely song.
GODDARD: Thank you. It changed quite radically from point to point, it changes key occasionally. I’m pleased that we put time and effort into that. With other songs we might have kind of left that idea and worked on things that came more easily, more naturally.
CLARKE: I suppose, having recorded together before and in our own studio set-up this time, in a different sort of space, having learned from recording together before, it afforded a bit more space to each other I think in terms of playing and stuff like that. It was more about suggestions and things like that. It gave space for the songs to be themselves. I think that was quite a good thing. I enjoyed the freedom of that.
IN OUR HEADS IS OUT JUNE 12. FOR MORE ON THE BAND, VISIT THEIR WEBSITE.