When I first reach Alexis Taylor, he’s with his rock band Hot Chip, immersed in one of the least rock band activities imaginable: meeting with an accountant. This powwow has run long, as such powwows are wont to do, and so we agree to postpone our conversation temporarily. When we reconnect later, Taylor reveals that he’s been seeing a lot more of Hot Chip lately, outside of staid office confines: Three years after the release of the band’s sixth full length, Why Make Sense?, it has commenced work on a new record.
In the time between Hot Chip’s expansive Why Make Sense? tour and now, Taylor and his bandmates have kept busy with individual pursuits. Last year, Joe Goddard released his latest solo record Electric Lines. Drummer Al Doyle helped write and record LCD Soundsystem’s American Dream, and then performed its songs along an endless run of shows. And in April, Taylor put out Beautiful Thing, his fifth solo record.
But it’s not as if the five members of Hot Chip ever truly lose touch with one another. Fourteen years after the release of debut LP Coming on Strong, this is a group of people that still seems to genuinely get along swimmingly. Taylor says they meet up socially. They DJ together. They even contribute to each other’s records. Most recently, Taylor helped write lyrics for Electric Lines, and Goddard returned the favor with “Oh Baby”, the ebullient pop release at the center of Beautiful Thing.
“We do go away and do solo things, but we’re inclusive of each other in various ways – it adds to the good atmosphere in the band,” shares Taylor, calling from London. “It was nice to have Joe’s perspective on ‘Oh Baby’ and how it should be produced. He was there to help and support; he didn’t sort of just say, ‘This should be a Hot Chip track. Why don’t we just wait and include this on the next Hot Chip record?’”
There’s another, more notable presence on Beautiful Thing: producer Tim Goldsworthy, a prominent figure in ’90s and ’00s dance and electronic music, first as a member of UNKLE and co-founder of James Lavelle’s label Mo’ Wax, then as a co-founder of DFA Records and one-half of the tandem behind the label’s legendary run of remixes. It was in this latter role that Taylor and Goldsworthy initially crossed paths: Hot Chip released its breakthrough The Warning (2006) and its follow-up Made in the Dark (2008) with DFA and EMI before moving to Astralwerks and then its current home Domino Records. (Goldsworthy would leave DFA at the turn of the decade under far more acrimonious terms after a bitter falling out with James Murphy – a spat chronicled extensively in Lizzy Goodman’s Meet Me in the Bathroom.)
Beautiful Thing marks not only the unexpected reunion of these two “punk funk” survivors but also the first time that Taylor has used a solo record to collaborate extensively with another musician or producer. The result is his most physical and immediate collection of songs under his own name to date, which as Taylor explains, was both intentional and unintentional
What are you able to do on a solo record that you can’t do – or are maybe less prone to do – on a Hot Chip record?
Well, you can do whatever you want within any project. Or it should feel like that. Otherwise, you just make the same record over and over again. But I suppose with a solo project that you are able to make decisions quite quickly about what you like and what you want to focus on. You’re also the only songwriter. So, it can end up feeling even more personal.
In Hot Chip, there may be a song that I’ve written that’s very personal, but it changes with the way it’s produced, or the way people are playing on it, or the context. But that’s sort of the point of Hot Chip: You’re coming together with other people to make something. Even if one person is the songwriter, you might write a song a little differently just because you’re in the room with those other people. On solo projects, there isn’t that attempt to collaborate with four other people. It’s not a democracy in the same way that a band is.
At the same time, the point of this particular solo record was to not make it entirely on my own. All of the my other records I’d made almost entirely on my own. I’d create every element of music. I’d mix it myself. The one exception was Piano, which was recorded by somebody else, so there was another human in the room with me.
With this new one, I thought, “Actually, I want to take a break from that way of operating.” I still did all of the writing on my own, and I still did a lot of initial demoing on my own, but then I brought Tim Goldsworthy in to help shape the sound of the record. He was really great to collaborate with. I also invited different musicians in to play on different tracks, although I probably played most of it myself. I worked in two different studios.
I had more openness to people helping me make this record. I suppose it was still my record, as opposed to a group collaborative album, but it felt less solo in literal terms. The point was to make the best record I could make, and maybe by having Tim there and getting other musicians to come in and play on top of what we’d begun, it helped to bring it forward musically and not keep it so one-man.
What’s your history with Tim Goldsworthy – as a listener, during the time Hot Chp was signed to DFA, and afterwards?
The first person I met at DFA was Jonathan Galkin, who runs the record label. The next person I met was Tim. He came to watch Hot Chip in London, mostly because he happened to be over here. So, I met him around mid-2004. He met all of the band and took meetings with us and watched our gigs. We had quite a lot of communication, and I got along with him. We were very interested to work with DFA. Joe and I had been buying some of the label’s releases, and we had seen LCD Soundsytem play one of its first shows in the U.K. Then I met James.
We had quite a lot of meetings with those three, so I got to know them before we got signed. We then did a short tour in Spain and Portugal with lots of DFA acts, so I got to know Tim Sweeney, Juan MacLean, Gavin Russom, Delia Gonzalez, and various other guys. All of Hot Chip were very much friends with those people. It took a while for DFA to actually sign us – we kind of had to wait for EMI to sign their catalogue – but by then we had been working with them for a while.
I wasn’t familiar with Tim’s own music before Hot Chip worked with him. I didn’t know the particular UNKLE tracks that he’d been involved with. I knew of his reputation, and I knew about Mo’ Wax, but I only really got to know him through the beginning period of working with DFA. We came to over to New York and did some recording, which turned into the track “Just Like We Break Down (DFA Remix)”. That was with Tim and James. But that was really the only instance of working with Tim on music before now, and that was a long time ago.
Tim split off from DFA, as everyone probably knows, and then he had nothing to do with them. But I was still going to New York a lot – with Hot Chip and solo – and bumping into all of the people from DFA and LCD. I got to know them better than Tim over time. And Tim was obviously kind of written out of the DFA story. Nowadays, because LCD is so well known, you can mention Tim Goldsworthy’s name and most people don’t know who that is.
When I got back in touch of him ahead of making this record, it really was the first time I’d spoken with him in ten years. But it was a natural phone conversation. He sounded excited to work with me. I wasn’t really looking for the punk-funk DFA sound for this record. I was hoping for something stranger and more interesting – something that didn’t relate to that scene. I knew that Tim had obviously moved on from that world and would probably do something quite different.
We began working together, and it was really nice actually. He was the same person I’d had this relationship with years ago. That relationship had come to an end not deliberately but because of a change of circumstances – because he’d left DFA and moved to Bristol. After that, our paths had just never crossed. But making this album, we spent hours talking to each other about music and other things. We did quite a lot of recording in his house, and I met his family again, whom I hadn’t seen in years. It was just a very nice experience.
I didn’t realize Hot Chip did a separate session for that DFA remix.
Yeah, it got listed as a remix, but it was really its own track. We had made a song called “Just Like We Breakdown”, and that version went on the album, but there was a whole new version that we recorded at Plantain Studios. It didn’t become the album track, so they just decided to call it a remix. And after we left, they just kept working on it. It felt like a remix.
We were in the studio with Tim and James for a week, and the memory of that session is part of the reason why I wanted to work again with Tim over a decade later. I remember how fascinated he was with certain bits of gear and the sounds that they could make, and he had good ideas. So, I thought he would be a good person to work with.
The role of producer can be a nebulous thing. Sometimes it’s fully collaborative, sometimes it’s not much beyond engineering. How would describe the back and forth with Tim?
We worked in a room together every week for a few months. Those were the most fruitful sessions. Lots of good things happened just from the two of us building up the layers of sound and Tim helping me record stuff without another engineer.
There were other stages where it was Tim arriving after I’d already done some demos, and there was an engineer working with us, and we were in a proper pro studio environment, and we would see what we could do with Tim’s input. That was really good, as well.
There was also a stage where Tim would work on his own, in his house, adding production and programming to what I was doing or what we had done together.
So, it was kind of made in all of these different ways.
As a producer, Tim was hands-on. He wasn’t just a mediator or facilitator. I’d written everything myself, and he didn’t really get involved in suggestions about the songwriting, but I wanted somebody like him to help me to make it sonically interesting and shape the sound of the record, and so things came quite a long way from some of the demos that I’d begun. I might have had a vague idea of what I wanted it to sound like – and I know how to make records myself – but I wanted to have somebody else’s input, and I wanted to allow them to feel like they could play around with the songs quite a lot. Tim was good at that.
I guess the way that anyone makes records is quite piecemeal or hard to describe later, but it wasn’t like he could go away and change everything so drastically that I was just writing words and melodies and he was doing everything else. It was much more collaborative than that.
Sometimes the programming or a new piece of equipment would change the mood or feel of the track quite a lot. I remember different moments where the discovery of a new sound would happen because of some gear that we were both a bit unfamiliar with, and that often led to more of a breakthrough of things sounding exciting. With the track “Beautiful Thing”, I remember that once we started using the Sherman Felterbank to process the drum sounds, the track started to feel much more original and quite tough sounding and strange with all these wayward screeching noises happening. And then that led to Tim involving more samples. He’s got this big database of samples he’s recorded over the years. So, quite odd ambient or textural elements were being brought into a track that could have otherwise gone down a more straightforward route.
That was exciting to me: to bring it away from the obvious. I felt like Tim was the right side of avant-garde; he really knew about lots of strange and interesting sounding records, and he wanted to help me make something like that, and that’s what I wanted, too. I suppose if I went with a different producer altogether, there could have been much more emphasis on how do we make this the most poppy record it could possibly be, and how do we get these songs played on the radio? That wasn’t really what Tim and I were thinking about. We were thinking about strange and beautiful records that we loved, and how to make this the most interesting record we could.
The irony is that you ended up making your poppiest solo record.
I mean, there’s all different degrees of how pop or mainstream something is, aren’t there? I don’t know if “pop” is the right word, but I wanted it to be the most outward-looking record I could make. I wanted to make a record that people would not see as hard to get into.
I think the Piano record had songs that were easy on the ear but the presentation of it was quite “quiet home listening”, and that’s not going to reach that many people. So, I was wanting to reach out by working with Tim and making something more mainstream, but we didn’t really do that in a very systemic or thorough way.
I mean, some of the lyrics are quite strange, and they’re not classic pop songs in most cases, though some like “Oh Baby” are. I agree with you, though: I did end up with a more mainstream record despite the thinking while we were making it.
But I think you’re always trying to balance things. So, how do you make an interesting-sounding pop record rather than one that is bland or follows all the rules? That’s just not something that’s interesting to me. I believe that you can make adventurous and challenging music sonically that can still reach people and be something that they enjoy on a pop record. I think that’s the challenge, really.
This is the first album cover with your face on it. Is there any significance there?
I wanted to do that, yeah. Obviously, it doesn’t look the most like me, but it was another way of trying to make a more open and outward-reaching record, something that’s more accessible to people. It was conscious on my part – that should be how the record is presented to people, just something more visually appealing.
That doesn’t mean that the other sleeves weren’t visually appealing. I love the artwork on all of them, and they were me choosing Oliver Payne to come up with beautiful artwork for me or asking permission to use his work. But just having your face on the cover does make a different statement. I don’t know how much that effects people – I’m not a marketing expert. But I guess if you’re noticing it, it might register on some level.