Q&A: Hot Chip on One Life Stand, Recording With Peter Gabriel, and How Kebab Fat Ruined Their Studio
Ever since Hot Chip got home from its seemingly never-ending world tours in support of Made in the Dark, the English quintet has been laying groundwork for their next five years. Guitarist Al Doyle and synth player Felix Martin built their own recording studio. Vocalist and synth player Joe Goddard co-founded his own record label, Greco Roman. Co-vocalist and piano player Alexis Taylor got married and became a father.
That last thing, paternity, isn't much like the others, but Taylor's not the first member of the group to tie the knot. There are more married men in Hot Chip than bachelors now, and their new album, the boldly poppy, strangely grown up One Life Stand, reviewed in this week's Voice here, is the first to reflect that. We recently sat down with Joe, Al, and bassist Owen Clarke to talk about the new studio, collaborating with Peter Gabriel, and how the wives and kids affect their touring schedule.
I read that you wanted One Life Stand to be a big, upfront pop record. But given the band's status, isn't a big, upfront pop record the only natural thing for you to do at this point?
Al Doyle, guitarist: The Hot Chip project is basically a pop project. It kind of always has been, to a greater or lesser extent. So [the record] always was going to be [poppy].
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The interview made it seem like you thought of this as a new, bold change of direction.
Al: I think I was just trying to get people excited. It was nine months down the line, and if you tell people you're doing something weird, the label will freak out, and they'll call the management, and they'll call me. [laughs]
Your past albums have been informed by specific things. The Warning was, in part, a straighter and more aggressive reaction to people calling you guys goofs after Coming on Strong. Some songs on Made in the Dark were things you'd been touring and playing live for a while, and you tried to capture that on tape. Is there any sort of similar thing on this record, something that informs a block of songs?
Joe Goddard, vocalist and synth player: There's not much that defines this record, really. It's just kind of a collection of tracks that we made together. But we wanted to make something concise, direct, quite simple. Apart from that, nothing was really explicit between Alexis and myself while we were writing. We didn't say, "We have to write songs about relationships," it's kind of unspoken. But a lot of the songs turned out to be about love, and our families, which I guess is what everyone writes songs about. But the only other thing we wanted for the album, sonically, [was] to have kind of a spine of instruments throughout. So there's real piano on a lot of the tracks, which we haven't done much of in the past.
Also, steel drums. Was that for practical reasons? Touring logistics, for example?
Joe: With the steel drums, we really love those sounds. Alexis really wanted to use a live piano, and steel drums are just a fantastic instrument. But it was also because we thought it would give the album a kind of cohesion. The last record-and we're proud of that record-didn't have a sonic signature to it. Sonically, in terms of tempo, mood, it's all over the place.
This is the first record you've made since your studio was beset by catastrophe.
Is that your studio?
Al: Yeah, mine and Felix's. We had a terrible time of it. [laughs] What happened was, there's a kebab shop that backs up on the studio, and they were pouring fat down the sink, and then it all built up in the pipes, and then the pipes burst. And there's this weird dead space on one end of the studio, and so we didn't realize initially that it was building up, until all of a sudden it spilled over and got everywhere.
Al: Yeah, it was really bad.
But on the positive side, you maybe got to rebuild the space in a better way.
Al: Yeah, it gave us a real kick up the ass. We started it again, from the ground up, and basically built the studio purely to make the Hot Chip record. We have a particular way of working, and so we wanted to have things set up so any time we had an idea, we could just go for it. The keyboards were plugged in all the time, we knew where everything was, we could get down to recording very quickly. It just felt very comfortable.
Air recently got their studio, Atlas, opened up finally, and they've said that they mostly want it to be for them. Do you plan on letting other bands use this studio, or even producing other bands' records there?
Al: Loads of people have been in since that time, actually. That's already starting.
With you producing and participating, though? Or is more like you'd just turn the lights on and start charging people?
Al: Oh, definitely producing. We don't let people go in there by themselves. [laughs] It's too weird and dangerous! We have to be there.
Can't have them stealing your amps.
Al: No, it's not that. I'd just be afraid for them. The building's very odd. It's this old factory that's been derelict for many years. There's no light in many parts of the building, and it's very labyrinthine. I have to be there to hold people's hands, otherwise they'd find themselves in people's offices, or trapped behind cupboards and stuff.
This is also the first record where you've had guests helping on songs; Charles Hayward plays drums on "Slush." I know this is one of those questions that artists don't like, but is this something you're going to start doing more of?
Joe: We just choose these artists to come work with us in quite a practical way. We need a drummer to come play on a song; we'll call a drummer. If we need someone to play steel pans, we'll call this great guy, Bravo, to come play them for us. I'm sure that will happen again in the future.
In terms of getting collaborations going with other people, we've already started doing that. We did that collaboration with Robert Wyatt and Peter Gabriel.
Tell me about working with Peter Gabriel.
Al: That was a fantastic day. We went to his studio, Real World-
Joe: It's this old mill that he turned into a studio, and it's massive, an amazing place. And he's got all these studios there, I think Sade was recording when we got there, and he's got a shed out the back that's his own personal space.
Al: It's a big shed.
Joe: He's got amazing keyboards all around, and this engineer who's worked with him for years, this guy called Dickie, who's an amazing guy. He comes into the studio every morning before Peter does, and when he sees Peter coming up the path, he hits record. Because Peter Gabriel often comes in and starts playing on a keyboard, and he often feels like the first thing he plays when he comes in in the morning is the best thing he does, because it's kind of fresh and not thought about too much, and the engineer always knows to record that. And [Peter's] got lists up on the wall of hundreds of songs they're working on for a new record. And in the toilet, there's The Rough Guide to World Music [laughs] which I thought was good.
We had a great day. He's an amazing musician, someone we all admire, and we did a cover of the Vampire Weekend song, "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa" with him singing and us producing.
So we were all playing drums, Al played bass, Alexis played the piano and keyboards, and Peter Gabriel played keyboards as well. He's an incredibly humble man. He would sit down and play some amazing things on one of his synthesizers, then look up and go, "Was any of that any good?" [laughs] It was all very cool.
Owen Clark, bassist: Such a nice guy, too. And you'd get sit down, talking, and then he'd start singing, and it would sound like Peter Gabriel. [laughs] It's an obvious thing, but he'd make this incredible noise that we'd all recognize. It really knocked us out.
Sounds like a dream come true.
Al: Yeah, it was. In answer to your question, though, we've really enjoyed working with other people in the studio lately, especially vocalists who can do weird things with their voice. We were working with this woman, Janine Rostrand, who's going to have an album out on DFA under the name Planningtorock, and she's really fun. We had another day with Bravo, the guy who did steel drums on the record, where we recorded a song he'd written in the '70s, with Alexis doing vocals. And he also brought in these back-up singers, where one of the guys was from Senegal, and he'd open up his mouth and this like, classic Youssou N'Dour-style voice would just blow us away. So yeah, in the future, I think working with just a really kick-ass vocalist would be fun to do.
That song "Slush" seems to be a song about what the consequences of settling down and maturing. With people in the group getting married and having babies, do you see those things affecting your working or touring schedule at all?
Joe: Yeah. We're going to just tour a little bit less, and keep the tours a little bit shorter. We've had a good time being settled a bit more in London this year, making the record and doing this family stuff, nesting. We're still going to be on tour most of the year next year.
So it's not going to be like Radiohead, where the wives and the kids all come too?
Joe: We've toured, in the past, with bands that have brought kids along, and it was pretty great. But it would be really expensive, just on a practical level, so expensive for us to do that.
Yeah, you can't all cram into one hotel room anymore.
Al: Yeah, and besides, no matter how nice you make it, there's still traveling around, and not really an ideal situation. For us, we're trying to work out a situation where we can work from home on production projects, or maybe have our own music projects that are studio-based, which we won't have to tour as much. I don't know if that's a viable aim, but we're going to have a go anyway.
So there was never any plan to turn the wives into hypemen, or have Alexis's wife play cowbell or something?
[laughs all around] Al: I don't think that would suit our wives.
Owen: Alexis's wife did merch for a little while, but that's not exactly the most fun job in the world.
Joe: Last year, Owen had a girlfriend-she was from Brazil- who played bongos for us when we played Glastonbury last year.
Joe: She's a really beautiful girl, and BBC's Radio One filmed it, and they showed her 70 percent of the time. I'd be singing, and they'd have like, a half-second shot of me, and then back to the beautiful lady playing the bongos! [laughs]
In April, you're coming to the U.S. with the xx, who are kind of hanging on for dear life right now. One of their members quit, people are all over them in a very unpleasant way. Do you think Hot Chip would have survived scrutiny like that after the release of your debut album?
Joe: We've had different members over the years. We've had different drummers. This girl called Emma Smith, she played violin on this record, she's an amazing violinist, and she's played keyboards in the band, and we had our friend Scott.
Owen: He was our hypeman on glockenspiel.
Joe: [laughs] And anyway, the group's fairly settled now, and if one of us decided to leave, I don't know what would happen. Maybe that would be a moment where we'd all decide to give it a rest.
Owen: We have been quite lucky in that we've never had that sort of attention. Things sort of built.
Al: Back when we were coming up, the Arctic Monkeys came up a little bit after, and watching what happened to them, they were younger than us, and it just seemed really crazy. I think we probably could've coped with it, but we didn't want that, we didn't court it, and let's be honest, it would never have happened to us anyway! [laughs]
But we've been very lucky, in that every step it's been a bit more, and we felt we were ready to do what we had to do next. And for those bands, it doesn't matter how competent you are or good you are. If you were playing tiny shows, and then all of a sudden you're massive and you're playing a lot of big shows, it's just an issue of not having that experience of doing it. And throughout our career, we felt good about every step.
It seems like, every year, there's one band that gets set upon and eviscerated by the press. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Joe: Yeah. It seems like a crazy herding thing, the way the press kind of jumps. Like Al said, this happens to young kids, and being told that everything they do is incredible can be bad creatively, and really difficult to deal with personally. The other side of that is, I used to work at a major label, just for 18 months, and it was crazy to me how many bands came through the doors, and how such a tiny percentage of them ever had a career. I think that would be the most difficult thing: if you were told for 15 months or 18 months that you're going to be massive, and then no one buys your record, and you get dropped and you go back to working in a supermarket. How do you recover from that? It's a difficult thing to deal with. The whole way through our career, it was just about building something that was going to last for a while. And we've had a career-being in the band professionally for five years now, which is not that long-but I feel like we're doing alright. That's a lot longer than some people last.
You guys are about three weeks away from beginning rehearsals for your upcoming tours, and I'm wondering if there's a song each of you is particularly excited about working together into its live incarnation.
Joe: I'm most looking forward to "Hand Me Down Your Love." That relentless, hammering aspect is going to work really well live, something that we can turn into a relentless, Motown-esque, driving thing. It's going to build a lot of tension, the chorus is gonna really explode and sound lovely.
Al: I'm looking forward to "I Feel Better," because I get to manipulate Joe's voice on that one and he can't stop me [laughs].
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