By Philip Runco
Over and over on Hot Chip’s “Separate”, a processed, slightly robotic makes one request: “Separate the head from the body, and dance with me.”
Maybe it’s a plea. Maybe it’s an order. With Hot Chip, the line between sincere emotion and puckish humor is rarely easy to suss.
Regardless, it’s a timeless sentiment in the world of dance music. For as long as people have made disco and house and electronic music, they’ve encouraged bedroom listeners and dancefloor participants alike to let go of their anxieties and inhibitions and the banal realities of everyday life.
One of the pleasures of listening to Hot Chip, though, is that deactivating cognitive functionality – separating the head from the body – is not a barrier to entry. Its music has always allowed space for the head and the heart.
Take “Need You Now”, the second single from the band’s recently released sixth LP, Why Make Sense?: On its face, it’s a wistful house track that samples “I Need You Now”, a disco cut that, naturally, begs you to “let yourself go.” It should be a straightforward proposition of lust and desire. But underneath the steady thud of the track is a quiet despair. “I never dreamed I could belong to a state that don’t see right from wrong,” Alexis Taylor laments. “Never dreamed we would belong in a world… that’s just gone wrong.”
“‘Need You Now’ was a direct response to reading the paper [about] the latest person that is about to be beheaded,” the bespectacled frontman explained to NME recently. “It’s quite hard to get away from that and go about your business writing a love song. So it was an emotional response to that – just feeling helpless and accepting that you can sometimes feel helpless.”
Helpless is how I find Felix Martin on a Friday in early May. “It’s kind of a shitty day here to be honest,” he shares from his home in London. “We had this election over here and the bad guys won.”
At the time, Why Make Sense? is a few weeks from release, but the soft-spoken drum programming maestro is more interested in talking politics and the emotional hangover from the previous day, when the Conservative Party resoundingly maintained control despite predictions to the contrary. “I don’t really know why British people are punishing themselves with such terrible choices,” he says. “You can either choose to try to help other people in society or you can choose to protect your own interests. Over here, the people with money decided that they wanted to keep their money and not help the people who don’t have it.”
Martin feels better about Why Make Sense?: “It’s most coherent thing that we’ve put together.”
It’s hard not to agree. Hot Chip’s latest may lack the grand standouts that have carried past albums, but it’s easily the band’s most consistent record from front to back. The ten songs of Why Make Sense? are all fully realized, each unfolding in an unexpected way, each a playground of sonic lushness.
On lead single “Hurache Lights”, another disembodied voice makes a different request: “Replace us with the things that do the job better.”
That won’t be happening any time soon.
Now that you’ve had a chance to take a step back, what does Why Make Sense? represent to you?
It’s hard to step back, especially with it still being so new, and not really knowing how people will like it. But from my perspective, it’s most coherent thing that we’ve put together. That goes from the artwork to the actual campaign to release the album – everything about it has been the most satisfying. From that point of view, I feel very positive about it.
Musically, we worked very hard on refining a lot of ideas, and testing different combinations of songs for the actual tracklist of the album. We had a wealth of different options. On the individual level of songs, there different arrangements or versions of almost every song. Hopefully we got the chemistry of all that stuff right, because in terms of the raw material and the way those songs were produced, it was definitely the best experience that we’ve had making an album.
In the past, Hot Chip songs could sound like an amalgamation of individual elements, each stacked on top of the each other. The songs here seem to breathe, though. The instruments co-exist in space together.
I agree with that, and the reason for it is having fewer elements, and choosing a smaller palette of sounds and instruments for certain songs. Everything has its own space. That’s the art of mixing music in an interesting and engaging way.
I remember listening to Primal Scream’s Screamadelica when I was a teenager. I was probably stoned, but the beautiful thing about how Andrew Weatherall mixed the record is that you could almost listen to each part of each song individually and just enjoy one part of it, and then you could immerse yourself in the whole of the music. Our music is obviously quite different than that, but it’s nice to hear that we’ve maybe produced something similar, where everything feels like it has its place.
With almost every song on the album, you introduce a new wrinkle in the final minute or so. In those moments, the songs really seem to bloom. On older Hot Chip LPs, you could listen to half a song and have a pretty good grasp of the entire thing; that’s not the case here. Where you conscious of that shift?
We learned a big lesson when did some recording with Peter Gabriel. We did a cover version of a Vampire Weekend song with him at his Real World Studio, and he made reference to the idea of keeping your powder dry in songs, and introducing elements towards the end. It’s quite a common device that he uses: He’ll have a sudden change in tempo in the last thirty seconds of a song, or a change in rhythm or a change in time signature.
It’s almost like a coda to a song. You wouldn’t think that it would really work when you’re only making a four-minute piece of music, but sometimes it’s a nice way to reflect back on a song.
It’s a very different thing than dance music, which has repetitive blocks of elements being introduced and then taken out in a formulaic way. We still like those kind of structures, as well. Bu it was nice on this album to have access to things like string arrangements that we haven’t really used before – that comes in on a few tracks, and it takes the atmosphere somewhere else.
There aren’t many obvious singles or “bangers,” if you will. Was that something you noticed or discussed as a band?
“Hurache Lights” and “Need You Now” have both done really well as singles, at least in terms of people listening to them and being excited. They’ve performed that function pretty well.
I’m not sure that we’ve ever been that great at making bangers. Maybe there’s an expectation when you’re an act that’s related to dance music that you’re going to produce that kind of thing, but in our heads, we basically make songs in the tradition of soul music. It’s not really an ambition of ours to make that kind of track.
However, we’re always really happy when something ends finding its way into people’s DJ sets, and when we play live, its much more of an energetic, dancey type thing. There’s a few different side to the band, I guess, but making club anthems is not something that we’ve been necessarily aiming for.
The accidental club anthem.
To some extent, yeah. [Laughs] There’s some stuff where we’ve definitely made an effort to make it pretty banging, or we’ve been more influenced by that clubby or house music sound, but it’s just one of a range of influences.
Is there anything on the record that you’re especially fond of at this moment?
I’m especially fond of “Need You Now”. It’s one of my favorite things that we’ve come up with since “Boy From School”, which was another real favorite of mine. It has a similar kind of elegiac, quite melancholy vibe to it. I love to hear Alexis’ voice in that mode with a dancey arrangement.
At this point, everyone has his own outlet or side-project outside of Hot Chip. I would imagine that each member has developed his own voice in a way that when you were working on, say, The Warning, wasn’t the case. Has making music in New Build had any effect on how you approach Hot Chip?
Al [Doyle’s] involvement with New Build and his experience playing with LCD Soundsystem has made him into a more confident, forthright voice within the band. You’ll actually hear him singing a lot more and writing some lyrics on “Need You Now” and “Why Makes Sense?”, where he’s contributed some verses. It’s a bit of departure for us.
In terms of my own input, it’s more about the experience of making more records and music, and the time that you spend mixing things and seeing what works and what people like. I can bring all of that to the table in Hot Chip, but it doesn’t really push anything in one direction, because the music that we end up making is a negotiation between the five of us, anyway. There will always be those different influences coming in.
You say that there are negotiations, but Hot Chip comes off as such an affable and good-spirited collection of people. When you’re creating music, is there ever any tension?
At times, there definitely can be. A lot of the creative spark of the band is Joe [Goddard] and Alexis’ relationship, and what comes out of that. They have the longest standing partnership. They do the vast majority of the writing. There’s an element in which the music will be related to their relationship in some way, but there are lots of bands that successfully use conflict or problems to generate exciting music, and we’re not one of them. That’s not how we operate.
At the same time, we haven’t always communicated a lot verbally about what we’re doing. It’s more of a musical collaboration. It’s not something that’s worked in conversation. It’s worked out in the studio, playing instruments and seeing what works, and trying to agree on that afterwards.
Over ten years, Hot Chip has continually expanded its reach and following. When you joined the band, what sort of expectations did you have? In your heart of hearts, where did you think it might lead?
In my heart of hearts, I was really just trying to help Alexis. He asked me to help with some drum programming and the MPC, which is a particular type of drum machine that I have some experience using.
I had very limited expectations, but I believed very strongly in the ability of Alexis and Joe as songwriters. I knew that they had a unique voice. I knew because when I listened to their songs, it would make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. They were very, very talented, so I was happy to be involved, but I didn’t have a burning desire to be validated through having a successful career in music. I was obsessed with working on computer music and listening to records, but I didn’t for a moment think that I could have a career out of it. I was just along for the ride.
Happily, we’ve been able to build on it slowly over the years that we’ve been together, and I think that we’ve been able to do that means that we haven’t burned out. We’ve been able to choose our own pace. We’ve never really felt a huge amount of pressure for the next song to be a huge single, because we’ve only really ever had cult success. It’s given us more time and space to make the decisions that we want to make. We haven’t been pressured by management or record labels, which is something that a lot of young artists who are successful initially have to deal with, which is tough.
At this point, when you’re performing, is there an increased confidence that comes from having such deep stable of songs? When I saw you at SXSW, I realized that you could essentially play an entire set of crowdpleasers.
We try to keep a sense of perspective on it. We always refer to it as our “greatest near-misses” set, because we don’t feel like we’ve ever had a bona fide hit.[Laughs] Amongst people that know our music, they’ll probably be really excited to hear “I Feel Better” or “Ready for the Floor” or all those kind of songs. When we do those songs, people are excited.
But when it comes to playing festivals, I think that we have to rely more on actually interesting musicianship or producing a good sound rather than just playing songs that people know. The experience of doing a lot of festivals makes you more confident, but then again, we’ve been out of the loop for a while. We’re just starting up again next week. We had the one-off show in Austin and a couple of shows in the U.K. earlier in the year, but now we’re getting going for real. We’re all quite nervous for that.