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Interview: Hot Chip

the world's most unlikeliest pop group?

This is a feature I wrote back in February for The Skinny, the week before Hot Chip released their third album. It all came together too late to tie in with the album release, so here it is on the eve of their T in the Park set…

Interviews with Hot Chip often begin with the writer grappling with the futile task of defining this most indefinable of bands. They will often indulge in a stream of made-up micro-genres: ‘lo-fi disco’, ‘future-pop’, ‘Fisher Price funk’, even. I realise I have just unwittingly perpetuated this trend, but for Hot Chip’s Felix Martin, all it means is that “people haven’t really been listening to the music, they’re too ready to just try and sum it up in one word.” But, he hastens to add, “I don’t get upset about it.”

What does concern Martin – whose role in Hot Chip is to “run the drum machines and laptops that contain the beats that drive the band forward” – is that it’s likely his band’s divergent sound probably lessens their impact on the charts: “We’re quite confusing. And it’s not particularly intentional on our behalf. It probably makes it harder for us to sell records! That’s just how we are.”

Despite Martin’s reservations, Hot Chip have already tasted crossover success with ‘Over and Over’, the eccentric groove that many declared the song of 2006. With major label backing on both sides of the Atlantic, could this quintet of late-20s, intellectual, studious record collectors by day / prolific remixers, in-demand DJs and synth rockers by night, become the most unlikely pop success of the year?

We’re talking a week before the release of the album that looks set to do it, Made In The Dark. It’s probably their most “confusing” record to date, but only in the sense that it takes several listens before the Pollock-esque sensory-splatter of sounds, beats and styles coalesces into their best collection of songs to date. “We never sit down and try and make an indie-pop record or a hip-hop track,” Martin explains. “We wouldn’t trust ourselves to do that, it wouldn’t be possible for us to do that. It’s not a really considered thing the way we go about putting music together, it’s on an off-the-cuff basis.”

This blind-sightedly experimental approach is exemplified in the title Made In The Dark. “It’s quite an ambiguous title isn’t it?” Martin ventures. “The song was written before the album came along and we just decided that the phrase was open-ended enough to not become irritating in a few years. I like it. The more I’ve heard it and thought about it the better I think it is.”

The embryonic form of Hot Chip began through the teenage affinity between vocalists/noisemongers Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard, who met at the same London comprehensive that gave the world Four Tet and Burial. What we now know as Hot Chip was kick-started in 2000 with the additions of Owen Clarke, Al Doyle and Felix Martin into the unconventional, synth-heavy collective. After numerous self-financed EPs they released their debut long-player Coming On Strong on the indie label Moshi Moshi in 2004 to muted critical acclaim. But their evident talent soon attracted bigger fish, and they signed deals with the DFA in America and EMI in Britain. Two years on, follow-up The Warning was stronger and more ambitious, mixing an ear for the dancefloor with a real soul sensibility.

Despite their international profile, Hot Chip still favour a lo-tech approach, scouring charity shops for old percussive junk and using Goddard’s bedroom for recording. With Made In The Dark they did book some studio time, but only for a handful of tracks, as Martin recalls: “It wasn’t a glamourous studio with lots of posh, snobby people coming in. It was just a room in East London where we got our sound engineer to help us set up our equipment as we would when we play live and tried to capture the sound of that. The songs ‘One Pure Thought’, ‘Out At the Pictures’ and ‘Hold On’ were recorded in that way. A lot of the other ones were just recorded in Joe’s bedroom.”

And is Joe’s bedroom spacious enough to accommodate his sleeping arrangements and a multi-instrumental recording set-up? “He’s got an average-sized bedroom actually,” Martin laughs. “I’m not sure how long his girlfriend’s gonna put up with it. He used to have a very small bedroom that was a bit of a broom cupboard really but that was a few years ago. We’ve moved on since then.”

With both Made In The Dark and the single ‘Ready For The Floor’ hitting the UK top ten in the past month, Hot Chip certainly have moved on, continuing their mastery of the commercial/critical tightrope. Is this important to Martin and his bandmates? “The most important thing for me is that we can come to Scotland or Australia or Brazil and have a crowd of people that want to come and see us play. That’s the thing that makes me happiest. It’s always nice to have a nice review or be offered an award but for me it’s always better to have people directly responding to the music and getting excited.”

While the band themselves may be soaking up the adulation, their employers EMI have been mired in financial crisis, culminating in 2,000 staff redundancies the week before we speak. What does Martin think of the record industry’s current strife? “I think they’ll have to do something, whether they just become a smaller industry that doesn’t make as much money. The revenue that you make from music has changed so much, it’s more focused on live music and record sales have obviously gone down. There’s not as much money to be made for the record labels, but as an artist you can still make a living out of touring, but it’s pretty tough for people like EMI.”

Hot Chip live in New YorkAnd in such rapidly changing times would Hot Chip consider following Radiohead’s lead and offering a pay-what-you-choose download? “Yeah I think we would think about doing something like that but we’re not particularly technically or commercially minded people so we wouldn’t be able to set anything like that up ourselves. We’d need someone from outside to help us do that. We want to concentrate on making music really and not think too much about selling records.”

If touring is where the money’s at, then the festival season is a lucrative time of year. Since I spoke to Martin, Hot Chip have been confirmed as one of the highlights of a stellar T in the Park line-up, which will delight those who have witnessed their hypnotic live shows, where their recordings undergo radical transformation. And Martin can promise that your frantic scrabbling for a ticket will be amply rewarded: “We definitely work really hard at it. It’s really important to us because a lot of the musicians that we like and respect have also been excellent live musicians and we’d never want it to be a small part of what we do. It’s always central to our musical development.”

Hot Chip play the Pet Sounds Arena at T in the Park on Sunday 13 July

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Hot Chip @ Barrowland, Glasgow, 26 Feb

Hot Chip

It’s not hard to see why Hot Chip chose Matthew Dear  (**) as support for their UK tour. The synth-prodding, cowbell-clutching Texan, along with his buddies on guitar and drums, treads the same not-quite-dance, not-quite-indie path as tonight’s headliners. But his club-oriented brand of electro sounds swamped in the expansive space of the Barrowland Ballroom.

Despite a similar aesthetic, Hot Chip (****) have no such problems in moving rafters on the roof and feet on the floor. Three years after they supported Mylo here to a handful of earlycomers, the London quintet are relishing their rapid ascendency, taking obvious pleasure in performing a set that weighs considerably in favour of new album Made In The Dark to a sold-out room. Hot Chip’s crossover appeal is reflected in the audience make-up: excitable clubbers more accustomed to sweaty weekend nights at Optimo, Topshop-clad indie kids in search of a danceable gig, and curious observers who only display signs of life at the first squeak of Over and Over. Not forgetting a bloke who has crafted a pair of glo-stick spectacles – a nice tribute to the so-called über-geeks on stage, even if the nu-rave connotations would annoy the hell out of the band.

Primal drumming opens proceedings, Shake a Fist’s tidal synths sweep in, and a storm of strobe creates a disorientating experience. This thunderous assault morphs into the familiar, Balearic beat of (And I Was) A Boy From School, and the club atmosphere takes a firm grip. Hold On turns it up a notch, ploughing deep into seriously heavy-duty dance. The only problem is that not all Hot Chip’s songs are this bombastic, so when the mellow Touch Too Much arrives there is an evident, attention-sapping lull.

Perhaps sensing this with their DJ sensibilities, the London band let rip with Over and Over, causing a stage-front surge and copious air-punching. Wrestlers is too ironic to maintain the excitement, the guitar-led Out At the Pictures is an improvement, and the garage rhythm of Don’t Dance has the reverse effect on the crowd. One Pure Thought is the highlight of the occasion though, its surging samba beat inspiring a rash of body shaking from clubbers and the curious alike. This renewed energy is channelled into current single Ready For the Floor, which receives a radical ’90s trance makeover, while set-closer In the Privacy of Our Love has the apt feel of the final, grab-a-girl slow dance.

Despite having aired all their finest musical moments, the band return for a passable encore. But this is of little concern to the diverse onlookers, who have forgotten their style-tribe allegiances to form one big sweaty mass of euphoria. Hot Chip may reject the nu-rave mutterings, but they certainly know how to conjure the spirit of ’92.

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Hot Chip – Made In The Dark

Hot Chip - Made In The Dark

Here’s a challenge. Describe Hot Chip to an indifferent friend in as few words as you can. If you’re struggling, that’s because all the usual tick-box tags fade as sharply as your friend’s attention span when faced with a band as wilfully divergent as Hot Chip. Their first album, 2004’s Coming On Strong, was broadly overlooked by critics at the time as ‘chill-out’, that most career-staining of rubber stamps. So it took 2006’s The Warning to alert the mainstream to Hot Chip’s strident, infectious creativity. And a certain song about ‘a monkey with a miniature cymbal’.

The good news is that Made In The Dark only ups the idiosyncratic ante, while adding a deeper thrust to their made-in-the-shed aesthetic. One Pure Thought embodies their crossover appeal, starting with a harsh, jarring, very un-Hot Chip guitar and a dark, stormy synth, before unexpectedly breaking into a booty-shaking beat. Elsewhere, Shake A Fist is a swirling blast of tribal disco that just about gets away with that Todd Rundgren interlude, and the band’s trade in after-hours copulation soundtracking resurfaces in soulful ditties like We’re Looking For A Lot Of Love – Hot Chip somehow manage to alternate between ironic zest and spine-tingling sincerity without it seeming at all jarring.

What prevents this from being incontestably exceptional, though, is the inclusion of one or two throwaway, whimsical tracks that should have been left on the drawing board. It may also fail to impact upon any one audience – indie kids or electro-heads – but, then again, often it’s the music that falls between the formalistic cracks that’s the most intriguing. So don’t even bother trying to describe Hot Chip to your friend. Just tell him or her to buy the fucking album.

Out now.
Hot Chip play Barrowland, Glasgow on 26 Feb.

  •  A slightly shorter version of this review appears in this month’s Skinny magazine.

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random playlist – volume one

random playlist - volume one

Because there are no rules for how music affects us, the way we listen can be pretty random. It’s not like we decide to listen to nothing but Canadian indie one week, then nothing but conscious hip hop the next. Instead, it depends more on the way we feel at the time than the style of the music. Sometimes I like nothing more than to put on a Prince record. Other times I just can’t be arsed with the nymphomaniacal glam-funk of ‘the vertically challenged one’. But the point I may or may not be getting to is that musical taste is something that’s constantly changing, from day to day and month to month, just like us. So here are a few tracks that could happily occupy my headphones at this precise moment in time (but not next week of course!)…

Brian Eno/David Byrne – Help Me Somebody

I just finished reading a Talking Heads biography, which turned me on to the underrated Eno/Byrne collaboration My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1981). It’s an astonishing record – ambitious, ethnic, pulsating, haunting, and hugely influential on later dance music in its use of sampling. This track is pure visceral rhythm, sounding more like the green jungle of Africa than the concrete one of its inception.

Best heard: in a dark basement club, or through a bass-heavy PA system in a disused church. Yeah.

Hot Chip – One Pure Thought

From the eagerly-awaited new LP Made in the Dark, this quirky number is one of the best of the batch. It begins with a very un-Hot Chip intro of chilly, ragged guitar, followed by a stormy synth. It then takes a thoroughly unexpected direction when a booty-shaking Jamaican beat kicks in. It may be too stylistically wayward for some people’s tastes, but it is proof if we needed it of the London band’s genre-mangling creativity

Best heard: on a bus, gazing blankly at the rain-soaked streets and dreaming of summer.

The Enemy – You’re Not Alone

I know I know I know. At the risk of holding a lighter and an aerosol can to the last shred of credibility this blog may or may not have, let me state the case for the defence of this much derided, hugely derivative band. When I first saw The Enemy on TV I was not ennamoured. The singer looked like a drowned rat, the average age of their audience was about 14, and their sound is a lawyer’s baw-hair away from The Jam’s Greatest Hits. But then I bought this single on 7″ for 99p (there aren’t many records I won’t buy for that price) and took it home for a quick spin before work. Ok, so it’s basically the same football-terrace, angry-yoof posteuring of primitive lad-rock. But there’s something about that yelled chorus ‘you’re not alone’ that’s also completely valid and thrilling and exciting in its own right. The kids love it, and I can kinda see why. If you’re willing to suspend your chin stroking for three minutes and forty-five seconds, you might too. [If you still hate it, you must explain why you’re right – and I’m wrong – below.]  I’ll probably regret its inclusion in a month’s time of course.

Best heard: at one of their gigs, too wasted to care what your peers think of you.

Rob St John – Tipping In EP

I have to apologise to Rob St John for not getting round to this sooner, as he alerted me to his debut EP a month or so back. I don’t know why I haven’t mentioned it already, because this three-track release from the Fife Kills label has been on my MP3 player a lot. The Edinburgh songwriter is a rare talent, his hushed, melancholy songs full of timeless character (especially The Acid Test). With his finger-picking guitar playing, cello/accordian accompaniment and fireside voice, the obvious comparison is James Yorkston. I don’t know if he’s already tiring of this reference point, but it’s a huge compliment in my opinion.

Best heard: lying awake in the wee small hours.

Digitalism – Pogo

Their album Idealism has really grown on me. Their vocoder-led electroclash may be a bit obvious in an age where Daft Punk are the biggest dance act on the planet, but it’s still pretty fucking enjoyable, uplifting music. Pogo is perhaps the most human track – the only one that doesn’t sound like the bastard lovechild of Stephen Hawking and Nintendog.

Best heard: when you’re in dire need of a holiday.

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