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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 – 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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