Q&A: Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor On His Solo Album Await Barbarians
Alexis Taylor has always been the gentle soul at the center of Hot Chip’s effervescent dance-pop, his charmingly wimpy falsetto enunciating properly amidst the churning synthesizers. At times that band has scaled back the rhythmic bombast and turned Taylor loose on fragile ballads like “In The Privacy Of Our Love,” but in the course of his deep discography with Hot Chip, About Group, and solo, he’s never embraced his soft side like he does on Await Barbarians. Taylor’s latest solo offering was an intensely personal affair. Recorded at home, mostly by himself, it exudes the sort of intimacy you’d expect from demos — and indeed, part of the appeal of the project for Taylor was the chance to capture the initial burst of inspiration that often doesn’t translate from primitive first takes to scrubbed-up studio recordings. In a conversation last week, Taylor shared the thoughts, motives, and stories that informed Await Barbarians, touching on everything from Neil Young to Greek poet C.P Cafavy.
STEREOGUM: Await Barbarians is one of those solo projects that’s really solo, right? Didn’t you pretty much do everything for this album?
ALEXIS TAYLOR: Yeah, that’s right. There’s a couple of songs with a small viola and violin part from people in a group called Geese, who I’ve worked with before and who are on almost every Hot Chip record. But other than I did everything else and recorded it at home and mixed it at home.
STEREOGUM: What made you decide to go that way at this point?
TAYLOR: I don’t know, really. I can’t say that I remember the exact motivations for beginning in that way, but to be honest, nearly all of the music I’ve made that isn’t with Hot Chip or About Group is made in that way. I suppose I felt my place in the music and I didn’t really want to get it mixed by somebody else. I was happy with how it was sounding, I liked the feel of it, and I don’t think it sounds like it’s lo-fi or anything, even though it’s made in a home studio. I just wanted to keep getting better at recording, and perhaps in a few years time I’ll be back with it and not feel like that, but right now I was feeling like it didn’t seem to be worthy of changing what I was doing and working with other people. I was also just working in quite a lot of projects with different band members leading up to this record and I wanted a break from that, I think. I wanted to do something where I was in control of all aspects of it and kind of get on with it in a way, and I suppose that’s quite a natural thing to do if you’re in multiple bands. Bands involve quite a lot of coordination with different people’s moods and ideas and dynamics, and sometimes it’s nice to just do something yourself, you know?
STEREOGUM: Yeah, and these songs do feel very personal. I think there’s been a certain vulnerability to all of the stuff that you’ve done, but the music here — it makes sense that you wanted to kind of keep it to yourself.
TAYLOR: Also, things sometimes get lost in translation. I’m quite used to making demos and then sort of starting again with Hot Chip, and sometimes I don’t always feel like the best things you’ve captured in a demo or in a home recording make it through to the final stages because you can’t remember what is was you were getting at the first time when you did it, when you weren’t really conscious of what you were writing or coming up with. So it was important for me to not stray away from those things. One of the songs, which appears twice on the record, “Without A Crutch” — I did try to make that with a band. I just felt like it didn’t really have the right groove to it, it didn’t feel right. It was sonically a nice recording but it was too fast and didn’t swing in the right way and all of these things. And it’s sometimes easier to get those things right on your own, perhaps if you’re not a dictatorial style recording artist. And I’m not really, so I’m not used to being in the studio and telling people how to improve. So I find it easier to play the drums myself even if I’m not the best drummer and get them to sound how I want them to sound rather than rely on somebody else. But right now, I’ve finished this album and I’ve been making new recordings that are with other people, and I’m enjoying that too. So maybe it does depend slightly on the timing of when I was making it, what else was going on around me, and the material itself.
STEREOGUM: Speaking of the material itself, there are obviously songs on Hot Chip records that are quieter and gentler, but this is kind of a full-on embrace of that. Why do you think that you went in that direction?
TAYLOR: There’s a couple of reasons that spring to mind. One of them is that that was just the mood I was in whilst making it. I wasn’t really feeling the need to make more upbeat music. I just didn’t feel that way. But for the EP I had made just immediately before this, Nayim From The Halfway Line, it was a bit more upbeat and kind of rhythmically-orientated and based around drum machines and things like that as a kind of starting point — basslines and synth basslines and things. I don’t know, for some reason I kind of quickly moved away from that by the time I started making this music. And the second reason is that I feel sometimes like I’m not naturally suited to making more upbeat music. Particularly on my own, that isn’t something that I think I’m so good at doing. Maybe I will be at some point, but I find that it’s the collaboration within Hot Chip that helps to make that kind of music. And I listen to a lot of music that is dance music or punk or different things that are rhythmically driven and propelled by basslines and things like that, but I don’t really find myself making that stuff on my own.
STEREOGUM: I think this album definitely exhibits what you bring to the table in Hot Chip. There’s a warm-hearted humanity to it that meshes well with the upbeat synthetic music that you make in your other projects, but it seems to work really well in this laid-bare setting as well.
TAYLOR: I’m glad that that’s how it comes across to you.
STEREOGUM: The first song that was revealed from the album on the internet was “Elvis Has Left The Building.” How did you select that one as the first one to share?
TAYLOR: It just always felt like the first one people should hear, and within my own understanding of the music, it felt like an important song on the record, a kind of centerpiece of the record. I don’t know what anyone else thinks of it, but I felt when I made it really happy and proud of the mood of it and the attempt at something slightly more with beauty as the goal rather than anything more playful. Hot Chip sometimes surprises people, they don’t seem to equate our band with sincerity or something, or everything is more about kind of a different tone. And the tone of this and the mood of the music and the sounds within, I was trying to make something that I felt you couldn’t really get away from this attempt at beauty, but I don’t if that’s how it really comes across to anyone else. But I just liked it and felt like the song was a strange song, an interesting, odd narrative, but also something that’s not all about the deeply personal but is on a bigger scale than that.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned that “Without A Crutch” appears twice. Was that just a matter of having two versions of the song that you loved?
TAYLOR: The one that appears at the end of the album was the first significant recording towards this album. It felt like that was the beginning of making the record, and maybe “Immune System” and “Elvis Has Left The Building” are the next two. I always planned to replace that version that appeared at the end with a more band-sounding version where I played the drums and everything as well, a more full-sounding one. But I really liked the vocal take from that one at the end, and whether or not the recording clarity is as good as some other things, it just felt like the best bit of singing I had done up to that point in anything I’ve done. It just felt like it would be a shame to not include it. And also I felt like it made sense to me to sort of semi-bookend the record with that song. I hadn’t really considered this before you asked me, but thinking about it now, I suppose there are people like Neil Young who have done that a number of times with “My My, Hey Hey” on the Rust Never Sleeps record; “Rockin’ In The Free World” as well. Actually, even though those weren’t the records that I listened to, I was listening to quite a lot of Neil Young and have done over the years. I always listened to quite a lot of him during the making of this record, so maybe that kind of encourages you that it’s okay to put a song on the record twice. But to be honest, I didn’t give it any thought other than I just liked them, I felt they were important to the record, and I wanted them to be on there. And right towards the end of making the record, I made a new song which isn’t on the record, and I wondered whether that should come on the album instead of having two of the same song, and I thought maybe I’d made a mistake, and I left that issue alone for a while and the next time I heard the record I was really satisfied with it having that alternative version at the end. I felt like just a bit of distance from the music was all I really needed at that point when I started to question my decision-making.
STEREOGUM: I’m curious about “Immune System.” You say “Immune system don’t fail me now” and then “School system don’t fail me now.”
TAYLOR: Well, it’s more of a parallel in terms of a play on words on thinking about both of those things. So the immune system is something that you need, when you’re an individual, to support, and it needs to support you. So you need to provide it with nutrients, you need to provide your body with the right ingredients to be able to have a strong immune system and to not be ill. But you also need to have a good school system that requires—I have a daughter who was just starting school when I was writing that song, so in my mind that’s obviously what I was thinking about. The school system is reliant on the children and the parents, it’s not just a school there to provide a service. So it was quite tongue-in-cheek in a way to write “School system don’t let us down” because I don’t really believe that it’s all down to the school to do your lot of the work. To me, that’s one of the more interesting pieces of music I’ve made, but I don’t really know how to explain it, but I’m happy with the sort of stream of consciousness, minimal style of the lyrics in the song. It kind of just makes its own strange sense to me. But yeah, I was thinking about illness and trying to fight back from it, and also just thinking about being on the cusp of something, on the cusp of a child starting at school and not knowing what’s around the corner.
STEREOGUM: How’d you settle on the album title?
TAYLOR: It’s a line from “Without A Crutch,” and also it’s a phrase that’s been in my head for years because it’s from a poem that I know well by C.P. Cavafy, who’s a Greek poet from the early part of the 20th century, a sort of very significant modern Greek poet. And he wrote a poem called “Waiting For The Barbarians,” or at least that’s how it’s translated into English. And that’s kind of about expectation, and it makes more sense if you read the poem, but it’s essentially about what happens if you are reliant on barbarians or some trigger that you’re expecting. You and your culture are expecting this other, this alien or this foreign force, barbarians, to appear at some point, as they have done before, and give meaning to your own situation. And in the poem it talks about waiting for them and what’s going to happen when they arrive, and then at the end of the poem, the narrator says they haven’t arrived, they haven’t come, what does that mean for us, where are we without the barbarians? So it’s a quite complicated poem, in my opinion. I guess something I was thinking about, thinking about that phrase and thinking about meaning being given to something or to someone by the potential appearance of something else and what it means when that doesn’t happen. So I’m talking about not being in anticipation of something, because that thing that would connect with me doesn’t necessarily do the thing that I would expect it to do or want it to do. And it’s also about whether or not that’s true, it’s slightly unclear where I stand on that point when I make that statement. Does that mean anything to you?
STEREOGUM: I’m going to have to ponder it for a little bit, but I think I’m grasping what you’re getting at. And I think I might have to read the poem.
TAYLOR: That song of mine, “Without A Crutch,” it moves around from different places within the song, so it’s not always speaking about the same subject. But at that point, where I say “I don’t await barbarians,” I was kind of thinking about the interaction between myself and the reception of the music from the outside world. I feel often, if I’m honest, I feel let down by the lack of getting to grips with what I’m trying to say in my music from critics. But I don’t always feel like that, I just sometimes feel people write off something that they don’t understand and write off something as being either not serious or meaningful when in fact it’s very serious and it’s very full of meaning for one person or for multiple people that listen to it. Or sometimes there’s a criticism of the music I make which really surprises me, which is that it’s not emotionally true or resonant, which is exactly what I would hope it would be, emotionally true and resonant for other people. So the song is partly about that situation, when you make something and then you’re waiting for the reception of it and you’re waiting for an audience, waiting for a response from people that you know but also from critics as well. But also, in the song I suppose it’s kind of trying to get away from that expectation, because you’re saying, well, it’s not really worth waiting for people that won’t engage with something.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned you’re working on some other projects now…
TAYLOR: Well, a new Hot Chip record we’re making at the moment, I can’t say when it will be ready but we’re enjoying doing that and that’s sounding good. A new About Group record we’ve started, and some new solo music I’ve started. So those are the main things, and also the music of a friend of mine whose band I play in called Fimber Bravo, we’re making another record together, myself and him and Leo Taylor from the Invisible, and Susumu Mukai, whose alias is Zongamin, we’re working together on that record. So I guess that’s about all records.
STEREOGUM: So no shortage of records, then.
TAYLOR: No, but when we come off tour, as well as family life, it’s what I enjoy doing, trying to make music, because you can’t make it so easily when you’re on the road. But I’m doing lots of DJing as well and I just got back from Barcelona, where I was DJing, and I’ve also started playing solo shows in support of Await Barbarians, so I’m busy doing that and making my way back to America to play a couple of shows, one in New York and one in Los Angeles in July. So the solo music and just kind of keeping busy with all of that.
Await Barbarians is out 6/17 on Domino.