The League of Very Ordinary Gentlemen
Everybody seems to love Hot Chip's catchy, endearing dance pop. But are these bookish Brits ready to love everybody back?
If you want to see the workings of a band’s collective brain in physical form, visit their studio. In the case of English electro-pop eccentrics Hot Chip, this mission takes you down a quiet North London side street to the bedroom of Joe Goddard. Even with just five band members and one journalist, the apartment feels cramped. The only place to sit is Goddard’s unmade bed. Next to it stands a desk supporting a laptop, turntable, and blocky modular synthesizer, its red lights flickering like a console from some ’60s sci-fi show. In the corner, there’s a Yamaha keyboard framing some camping equipment. The floor is covered with sliding piles of vinyl, unsteady stacks of CDs, and boxes of tambourines, accordions, and peculiar percussion devices.
It looks like the home of an absentminded gadget freak who might release some music one day if he ever gets his head together, not the nerve center of one of the most garlanded upstart acts in Britain. But this small, cluttered room is where most of Hot Chip’s new album, Made in the Dark, was conceived. You suspect that Goddard’s fiancée is an admirably tolerant woman. “I don’t tend to work in the evenings much anymore,” he says with a wince.
“It was detrimental to his life,” adds guitarist Al Doyle.
Nothing about Hot Chip fits. The way they look, sound, and work is a matter of disparate elements clicking into place at odd angles. With all their various influences and approaches, it’s a wonder they ever manage to finish a record. The only two active bands that all five of them — Goddard, Doyle, singer and keyboardist Alexis Taylor, guitarist and keyboardist Owen Clarke, and drum-machine programmer Felix Martin (all 27, except Goddard, who’s 28) — can enjoy as a group are Kraftwerk and a French techno duo called Nôze. “It’s impossible to get five people to agree on everything,” says Taylor.
Yet it works. Their second album, 2006’s The Warning (released by tastemaking DFA in conjunction with Astralwerks), and its rampaging electroboogie hit “Over and Over” won over extrovert club kids and housebound indie snobs alike. Since then, they have remixed Kraftwerk, Gorillaz, CSS, and Amy Winehouse, and have been approached to work with both Kylie Minogue and Scritti Politti, which says a lot about the breadth of their appeal. “They do electronic music that has real soul,” says Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie, who dabbles in soulful electronic music himself with the Postal Service. “It’s not just about making beats or party anthems; they make songs that are really emotive and beautiful.”
“We don’t want to get bored,” Taylor explains simply. “That’s often at the forefront of our minds: What can we do that would be unexpected at this point?”
Studying their menus in a dimly lit, rundown Thai restaurant up the street, Goddard and Taylor are a mismatched pair. With his checked shirt and wild beard, Goddard could be a displaced member of Grandaddy, while Taylor is small and studious, with Coke-bottle glasses and a quiet, earnest voice. Speaking in hushed tones about his opportunity to remix his hero Robert Wyatt, he smiles wryly: “I don’t sound very excited, but I am excited. It’s just my monotone.”
Though all the songs are worked on together, Taylor and Goddard bring different sensibilities to the group. The former tends toward sparser, singer/songwriterly compositions (such as Made in the Dark‘s tender title track), while the latter is a studio rat obsessed with complex rhythms and layers (epitomized by the album’s fidgety opener, “Out at the Pictures”). But they have the comfortable chemistry of men who have known each other for well over half their lives. Goddard and Taylor met 16 years ago during their first days at Elliott Comprehensive, an average statefunded school in middle-class Putney, southwest London. Goddard’s parents’ apartment became the center of their social group. “People drinking for the first time and taking drugs for the first time, staying up every Friday,” Taylor remembers. “This is the place where ideas I had would get recorded.”
“My mum was really tolerant,” says Goddard. “She loved all of our friends. She used to cook for us all.” He smiles. “Maybe sometimes she wished that there weren’t 13 teenagers sleeping in her sitting room.”
Goddard and Taylor formed Hot Chip as a duo in 1996 and performed their first shows in the school’s drama theater, playing Pavement and Velvet Underground covers. Long before they embraced dance music, their passions were Will Oldham, Smog, and the instrumentals on Beastie Boys albums, influences that peep through their music even now. But it was seeing their schoolmates in the band Fridge get signed right after graduation — they became the U.K.’s answer to Chicago’s post-rock heroes Tortoise — that gave Goddard and Taylor confidence. “They were the first band of people we knew who’d got a record deal,” says Taylor. “For a while, all I thought was that we should make music together and try to get someone to release it, like Fridge.”
This took awhile. Hot Chip’s lineup fluctuated around the core duo and had to fit around their college schedules: Goddard studied modern history at Oxford; Taylor, English literature at Cambridge. In 2000, they put out their first record, the Mexico EP, on a tiny indie label called Victory Garden. “They did 500 copies, which sat under their bed for a long time and sold maybe 30 copies in a shop in Cambridge,” Taylor says sardonically.
Their self-released Sanfrandisco EP secured them a proper record deal for their 2005 debut album, Coming on Strong. Inspired by their love of R&B albums like Destiny’s Child’s The Writing’s on the Wall, its cerebral Caucasian crunk was greeted by some as a witty riff on cultural differences and by others as a sniggering conceptual prank. Exhibit A: “Playboy,” an homage to Justin Timberlake ballads that quotes T.S. Eliot and features the lyric “Driving in my Peugeot / 20-inch rims with the chrome now / Blazing out Yo La Tengo / Driving round Putney with the top down.”
The perception still rankles. “Yeah, it was a novelty,” says Goddard, frowning. “It’s weird that it should be such an issue-a white band influenced by black music. You have an innocence before you first put out a record, which really evaporates once you’ve read 50 reviews that basically concentrate on the fact that you’re white and you mention driving around Putney.”
“It’s almost like people felt there was no place in music for any sense of humor,” says Taylor, the son of a Shakespeare scholar and a psychoanalyst. “We love a lot of the records we were referencing. We weren’t trying to make fun of them. Joe was making an interesting point about what it’s like to be a particular person in a particular place and love a culture you can’t really be a part of, but that doesn’t mean it should be mocked. I guess people either get it or they don’t.”
Goddard was determined that nobody would mistake The Warning for a pop-culture in-joke. On it, the now five-strong Hot Chip (Clarke and Martin were friends from Elliott, while Taylor and Martin both attended Cambridge with Doyle) treated house and techno the same way Scottish post-punks Orange Juice approached disco, with both sincere passion and a certain distance, at once earnest and tongue in cheek. “Over and Over” is a repetitious dance record about repetitious dance records, with Taylor slyly answering critics of Coming on Strong‘s bedsit slow jams: “Laid-back? I’ll give you laidback.” “Boy From School” is a sleek house groove steeped in nostalgia and disappointment [Ed. note: Click here to download a stellar cover of “Boy From School” by post-emo denizens Maritime].
Made in the Dark was originally planned as a full band album to reflect Hot Chip’s live sound, but only three tracks panned out that way, with the rest crafted in Goddard’s chaotic lair, the results perhaps more off-kilter than The Warning, but no less inviting. The stuttering funk of “Shake a Fist” stops short with a Todd Rundgren sample and a blast of rave noise as violently alien as a Cylon attack. “It has a lot to do with editing,” says Goddard. “My dad is a film editor, and I often find myself cutting up tiny bits of music and rearranging them.”
Even more persuasive than The Warning, Made in the Dark is likely to swell the band’s fan base, but cocksure rhetoric is conspicuous by its absence. They’re already uneasy with the disproportionate popularity of “Over and Over,” even though it’s not exactly “Umbrella.” They cringe at their inadvertent association with the Klaxons-spearheaded new-rave movement — the U.K.’s Local Government Association absurdly accused them of encouraging illegal raves in the English countryside. And they wish they’d never mentioned the offer (not taken up) to write for Kylie Minogue’s post-breast-cancer comeback album. “We have to talk about it every day of our lives now,” says Taylor with a sigh, as if being asked to work on a potentially huge pop record were not a compliment but a curse. ” ‘Ready for the Floor’ was not written for Kylie Minogue, not ever played to Kylie Minogue, not about Kylie Minogue, and not rejected by Kylie Minogue.”
But this is what makes Hot Chip so interesting: Their conversation, like their music, is riddled with conflicting impulses. They make funny records that they want to be treated seriously, dance tracks that won’t get played in clubs, and pop songs that they don’t necessarily want to be popular. Ask Goddard to describe the ideal Hot Chip song and he says: “Something that all of us love are genius pop moments that are ubiquitous, like a brilliant Timbaland record or Brian Eno producing Talking Heads. Any of these great moments that can be simultaneously otherworldly and bizarre and also everywhere.” For a moment he seems genuinely, unambivalently excited. “It’s just such a joy.”