Interview – Al Doyle, Hot Chip.
A shorter version of this feature originally appeared in Metro and the Nottingham Evening Post.
Your new album (One Life Stand) feels notably different from your previous work. Do you see it in terms of a musical progression?
We can’t help but move forward in some ways, I suppose. As an album, it has its own identity, and it hangs together well. All those songs really belong to each other, if you know what I mean. We probably worked in a more concentrated way, and for a longer amount of time, on this record than we have on the previous two. They were sandwiched into the touring schedule, whereas last year we took a break from touring. So we had pretty much the whole year. We were busy doing lots of other things, but one of the things that we were concentrating on was recording this album. So we had eight weeks in the studio, and I think that comes through on the record. It feels as though it was made at a certain time.
So this was more studio-recorded, whereas your earlier stuff was more home-recorded?
Two songs on the record were still recorded in Joe (Goddard)’s bedroom, but the majority of the record is recorded in the studio that I run with Felix (Martin) in East London. It wasn’t really the five of us playing in a room so much, but it was definitely like setting up camp in a room and having all of our toys plugged in and ready to play with. We felt very comfortable there, basically. It was a nice way to make some music.
So it was over a concentrated period of time, where you weren’t doing anything else?
Yeah, but the songs were still written over quite a long period of time. It was about two years between the earliest one – which was probably Take It In or Alley Cats, which was actually played on the previous tour – to the newer ones like Keep Quiet, which was written in October last year. So they were written over a long period of time, but the recording process was quite concentrated.
Was there any prior discussion as to what direction you’d be taking?
Well, it wasn’t ever going to be like a strong concept record, or anything like that. We definitely had this idea of keeping the album quite concise, so we decided quite early on to have just ten songs on the record. And also to be a little bit less range-y in our musical mood. Made In The Dark [Hot Chip’s third album] is still a record that I really like, but I think it was quite confusing to some people. A third of it was slow-ish, introspective music, and then two-thirds of it was quite balls-out dance or rock music. So we decided to reduce those extremes.
You’ve reined in some of the more overt wackiness, I suppose.
Yeah. There are still some songs that have that kind of lightness of touch to them. A song like Brothers isn’t some sort of wacky comedy record, but it’s still got that kind of lightness. It’s probably the wrong word to use, but it does seem like a sort of music hall song.
We Have Love is also very stylistically diverse. You’ve got all sorts of unexpected twists and turns, but it still feels logical. It has quite an emotional vocal delivery, but you’ve also got these pitch-shifted chipmunk voices, and vocal cut-ups, and you’ve even thrown in an organ break for good measure. So there’s a sense that you’re still having fun experimenting, but in a very clear direction.
That was a funny one. That was actually the one I was trying to remember. There’s a kind of end-of-the-pier style organ in it, which was quite strange, and then the rest of the song is quite heavily influenced by current UK dance music, like this funky house movement that’s around at the moment. So there are these big bouncy basslines. Joe’s a big fan, so he was keen to reference a few of those things.
You’ve drafted in some guest drummers along the way. There’s a steel pan guy called Fimber Bravo, who crops up all the way through the album. How did that come about?
He’s somebody that we worked with before. He did the steel pans when we recorded a cover of Joy Division’s Transmission, about a year and a half ago. He’s actually one of the most in-demand steel players; he’s played with Brian Eno, and he’s been on the scene for many years. So we had him in for a couple of days, and we’ve ended up doing a little bit of production work with him on some of his own stuff as well.
And then we played with Charles Hayward, who is the drummer from a band called This Heat.
I’m amazed that anyone remembers This Heat; I’d not heard anything from them for years, so where did you dig him up from?
Alexis, how did you meet Charles?
Alexis Taylor: I went to watch him play once, and the gig was cancelled. He was standing outside the venue, saying that the gig had been cancelled, because the venue had been destroyed. And I just said, oh, I came to see your gig! (Laughter)
Alexis has actually been playing with him in his own side-project band, called About. He’s been to a couple of gigs since then, and we had a great day with him. The drum sessions were just one day with each drummer, so we had to really cram it in. He’s got an amazing kit that he’s built up over the years. It sounds very particular and he sets it up in his own particular way. He’s an amazing musician; he’s capable of doing extremely straight stuff, really powerfully played, but he’s also capable of doing incredibly rhythmically complex things.
And then the third person was Leo Taylor, [drummer from The Invisible], who played live with us for a whole year prior to working on this record, so we were very used to playing with him. Again, he’s a very technically proficient drummer.
Are any of them going to come out on tour with you?
Well, we’ve actually gone for a third option, which is a guy called Rob Smoughton. He’s actually the original drummer in Hot Chip, and he now has a solo project under the name Grosvenor which we’ve been championing for a good few years. We’ve asked him many times when we’ve gone on tour if he’ll drum with us, and he’s always not been available, but this time he is.
Have you played any of the new songs live yet?
The only one is Alley Cats. That’s actually changed quite radically from what it was – so no, we haven’t played any of the new songs. In fact, that’s the funny thing about the way that we go about recording. We couldn’t play any of the songs until (last month), because they weren’t recorded in that way, if you know what I mean. We’ve actually got to re-learn all of the songs. When they’re recorded, we’re recording track-by-track, and also a lot of the time we’ll be using instruments in the studio that you won’t necessarily want to take out on the road, like old analogue synths that aren’t very stable. And working out how to do all the percussion, and that kind of stuff live, is totally different.
So that could potentially take the songs in different directions?
Yeah, everything’s a little more stripped back and a little more raw and powerful, and I’ve had to learn how to play the steel pans.
I’m glad they’re getting an outing. That fits in well with your UK Funky influences, because there’s that kind of soca element to the percussion.
Yeah, definitely. They’re fun to play.
But you haven’t completely left behind references to Eighties synth-pop, either. During the first track, Thieves In The Night, I kept hearing a bit of the chord sequence of Visage’s Fade To Grey.
I think in retrospect, if you had to say something about the album, it is relatively Eighties; there’s a lot of arpeggiated synths.
I link that more with Nineties dance, actually.
Yeah, maybe, but maybe I’m thinking more of (Giorgio) Moroder, and Italo-Disco.
The Eighties revival never went away for the whole of the last decade, but it seemed to come to a head commercially last year. There was an awful lot of it about in terms of chart pop. Do you feel any sort of connection with what’s been going on there?
I think there’s a big difference between being influenced by bands that happen to be in the Eighties, and sort of “cod” Eighties, when you’re deliberately trying to label your sound in that way. There are bands we like that span the decades, like Joy Division and New Order, and then into Brian Eno and Talking Heads, that have always combined synthesisers with guitars. Or even something like Leonard Cohen, who uses a lot of synthesisers. An album like I’m Your Man is incredibly Eighties, but it’s also its own thing; you can’t reduce it to being that label, if you know what I mean. So we never felt as though we wanted to be some kind of retro band.
There’s an emotional warmth in there, which I think sets it apart, and I think that’s maybe the quality I’ve picked up on most. A lot of it is quite uplifting and positive and joyful, but it’s also quite plaintive and yearning at the same time.
There’s a stability that’s come from being married and having houses and families and that kind of thing, and being the age that we are – which is not tremendously old, but it’s still older than a lot of the young kids that are coming through. And so automatically we’re not going to be talking about going out and partying; it just wouldn’t make sense to do that. But at the same time, we’re still in the business of making pop music, so it’s got to feel like a bit of a party somehow.
Even before we’d written the record, Joe was saying that he would quite like to make an album of end of the night songs, which is quite a good way of thinking about it. Songs that aren’t necessarily quite as upfront as something like Ready For The Floor or Over And Over from the previous albums, but have that kind of euphoric sensation that you might get from finishing a big night.
The way that the tracks have been sequenced, that would certainly fit. The more euphoric, upbeat stuff tends to be more in the first half of the album. Then Slush is your big ballad, and then there’s a kind of a wind-down that goes from there. So you could put it on when your feet are still twitching a bit.
Well, that’s just the major label front-loading making it like that! (Laughs) But we wanted it to be that as well.