We’ve Got A File On You: Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor
We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.
Over two decades since their first EP, Hot Chip are an institution. Every couple of years, they come back with another collection of fizzy, addicting dance-pop, and on Friday they’re returning with their latest, Freakout/Release.
Aptly titled given how many of us have been feeling over the last few years, Freakout/Release was presented as an album on which Hot Chip were trying to harness their live sound. That prompt and lead singles like “Down” and “Eleanor” suggested a set of easy-to-love Hot Chip bangers right in their wheelhouse. The album is a bit different than that. Picking up some of the lush, softer synth textures the group deployed to great psychedelic effect across 2019’s A Bath Full Of Ecstasy, Freakout/Release isn’t a slow or restrained album but still finds Hot Chip in one of their quietest, most ruminative moods. The hooks and synths are, as ever, infectious, but in a way, the album pulls a bit of a trick — suggesting the “release” in its title is actually a wave of reflective reckonings, more so than the visceral escape of its title track’s heaving guitar breaks.
This week, we caught up with Hot Chip frontman Alexis Taylor. Over the years, Taylor and his longtime compatriot Joe Goddard — Hot Chip’s co-founder and second vocalist — have had their hands in a whole lot of other projects. Taylor has split off for solo albums, while the duo have written for and produced and remixed a host of other artists. While the web of Hot Chip expands to far too many moments for us to cover in one conversation, we took the chance to dig into Freakout/Release, Hot Chip’s 20-year arc, and some of the collaborations and detours that stand out from across Taylor’s career.
When you announced Freakout/Release, there was a lot of talk about the new studio and this impulse to capture Hot Chip’s live sound. I think that’s really evident in the singles, but the more I was listening to the album, it actually struck me as one of the more consistently mellow and melancholic Hot Chip albums.
ALEXIS TAYLOR: I don’t think it’s especially mellow. Maybe I’m not the best judge of our records. You’ve got these tracks like “Freakout/Release,” “Down,” “Time,” “Eleanor,” that are quite either uptempo or, in the case of “Time” and “Freakout/Release,” quite frenetic. We haven’t really got any ballads on this record. But what we have got is some lyrics which are quite serious, pondering quite dark subject matters or focusing on people who are struggling in their lives in some way. I think that was there on the last record also. We had this song “Positive,” which was about a couple recognizing that one of them is HIV positive and they don’t know how that will effect the future of their relationship.
Some of these things are quite obvious to me that they’re serious or dark, and they’re hiding in plain sight, because there will be other elements to the production or aspects of the song that will sound jolly, or optimistic, or enthusiastic in some way. I think the darker tones lyrically — they’re not the first time that those things are there, but maybe they’re a little bit more pronounced. Like I said, there aren’t many properly slow tracks. I wonder what it’s actually like to listen to it and not be a member of Hot Chip that’s made it. I wonder if it’s more chilled. To me, it’s quite balanced between these noisy moments and these other moments. I guess it doesn’t matter what I think, it matters how it connects to other people.
We weren’t going in planning to say something dark throughout the whole record. I think we just couldn’t help but be effected by a sense of isolation that lots of people experienced. We all experience things in different ways, but isolation as a topic is something that might’ve connected with a lot of people in the last couple years. Some of the things I’m talking about lyrically, are maybe effected by those last two years. Some of the people I was thinking about, maybe they were already in those situations before lockdown. I guess I’m keen to say, it doesn’t quite feel that way to me as an album. It feels mixed in tempo and mood, and even within songs that have darker subject matters, there’s a sense of optimism. Like “Eleanor,” I think it sounds fun and upbeat, yet I’m talking about people who are forced apart by circumstance and aren’t able to be together as a family. That’s a very difficult thing to sing about in a song, but it doesn’t stop there. It goes into a sort of fantasy world of Samuel Beckett and Andre The Giant and other things.
It’s funny you bring up “Positive,” that’s one of my favorite Hot Chip songs. But yeah I didn’t mean it as a reductive thing, but more so that idea that yes, while there were heavy songs like that in the past, there’s a more subdued mood across the album even if the BPMs are technically fast. Did you feel your writing moving in that direction in general over the last few albums?
TAYLOR: I think so, but like I said maybe I’m not the best judge of how these things come across to other people. That element has been there consistently throughout most of the albums. However, in the beginning of our career, we were a bit more overt with our sense of humor. You’d have a song like “Crap Kraft Dinner” on the first album, which was a very angry and bitter sort of unrequited love song, yet it would use language and phrases that would bring it down from being too lofty. It sounded more playful, just mentioning things like a Kraft dinner packet. Maybe we’ve moved away from that a bit over the years. Kept the melancholic edge that was there in something like “Boy From School,” but focused on darker subject matters.
I don’t know about for Joe, but for me, I’m just aware of people around me, people I’m friends with, some of them are in quite difficult situations in their lives. Maybe some of those things come into the lyrics, because I’m preoccupied with what those friends are going through. As you get older, you experience the harder sides of life a bit more. People start to pass away from alcohol abuse, or from suicide. In a slightly less extreme way than those examples: I’m 42, you start to have friends who are getting divorced. I don’t think any of this is new. But maybe for me, some of these subject matters started to be very present in my mind. It’s very personal to me. At the same time, it’s a break from talking exclusively about myself. I started to feel like maybe I’d written myself into a bit of a corner where all I’d do is talk about my feelings. I quite like doing that. Maybe it’s OK to do that. But I didn’t want to do that all the time. Even if it’s about my feelings, I wanted to change the focus of that. This isn’t conscious. I didn’t just decide I was going to take from elsewhere. But things started to be on my mind and feed into what I would write about lyrically, just trying to work out what’s important to me and what I want to say and to move away from one particular mode of writing.
Mexico EP (2001)
Hot Chip has now existed in some form for over 20 years, with your first EP coming out in 2001. Can you recall what you imagined as the scope of the project back then, or how differently you might approach Hot Chip now?
TAYLOR: In those early days making recordings with Joe — and at that point it was just me and Joe, nobody else was in the band — we were barely ever playing live. We were recording, usually, a song I’d written or a song he’d written. We would both play one each other’s tracks and co-produce them, but we weren’t duetting or co-writing. We were making a strange mix of sounds. We’d gotten very into Smog. We really liked Jim O’Rourke. I also really liked Tim Buckley and Elliott Smith. I would write songs on an acoustic guitar that was tuned down one whole step. Then Joe would help me produce them. He’d write his songs on a guitar, and it was quite lo-fi, the sound he’d make and the way he’d record it. There began to be bits of programmed drums and baselines and synths, but we weren’t really exploring that territory — and certainly not exploring dance music in any way at that point.
I don’t think the music was completely po-faced. There was an element of humor to some of it, and it was a little bit chaotic and experimental and noisy and weird. But it was definitely leaning towards a more confessional singer-songwriter approach, even if the production was trying to do something unconventional around that.
Yeah it’s almost jarring to go back to those early songs, it sounds very different.
TAYLOR: I think now we’re influenced much more by disco and dance music and house music than we ever were at that point. I really liked a lot of soul records from the ’70s back then, but that didn’t really creep in as an influence. A big discovery and a big turning point for us as a duo was the productions of Timbaland and Rodney Jerkins. In my and Joe’s minds, that was very adventurous, experimental approach to pop music. It was mainstream, it was on the radio, and everyone connected with it or had the option to connect with it. You just heard it everywhere. It was quite futuristic sounding. When Joe and I listened to those records, as well as various other ones — garage music in the UK was quite important as well — it started to seep in to the sounds we were making.
I was quite happy to go away from the singer-songwriter acoustic guitar music that was very popular at that time. Jeff Buckley, Tim Buckley, Elliott Smith — these were all things I was into. But the more Jeff Buckley influenced everybody, I found it a bit tedious. There were much more successful well-known bands that came after him, and I found they were borrowing from him but doing something less interesting than what he did, and maybe I found Jeff Buckley less interesting than his dad, and I was just like, “You know what, I need to put down this acoustic guitar and never use it again, because I don’t like what it’s become.” Obviously since then it’s become other things, like Ed Sheeran, or whatever. Now I can pick up an acoustic guitar and reconnect with all that music that I loved, like Townes Van Zandt and all those things. It’s an amazing instrument. But then I was having a knee-jerk reaction against this thing that I had accidentally become a part of and I wanted to move away from.
I wanted to do something with Joe where you couldn’t put your finger on what it was. It wasn’t too conventional, it was a mish-mash of things. It was hard for the listener to know whether we were serious or joking, and actually in my mind we were both of those things at once. That was important to me. I think we’ve developed away from that to this thing that is maybe closer, in some way, to where I started. It’s quite earnest. I started this conversation talking about people facing hard times in their lives. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being earnest. Back then, I felt like I had to not do that. Maybe as I’ve gotten older I’ve become more comfortable with taking things seriously. I always do — people maybe think I take things too seriously. Perhaps I was trying to shake that off and do something fun. I think there was something good in that. Maybe where we are now with Hot Chip is the production and the music is where it strays from an earnest singer-songwriter, but I’m still at the heart of it somebody who is quite earnest. I’m kind of finding my way through how you present yourself, what you make. I definitely think collaboration and combinations of different people are where things start to get interesting. That’s why Hot Chip is something I really like. We’re all bringing something different to it.
“Straight To The Morning” With Jarvis Cocker (2020)
Speaking of collaborations — there have been a lot in your career, with and without Hot Chip. I’m a big Pulp fan, so one I was particularly excited about was when you had Jarvis on “Straight To The Morning” in 2020.
TAYLOR: When you get to know people personally, that’s often how these collaborations take place. I grew up hearing Pulp records, my oldest brother had some of them. I thought they were fantastic songs, but I wasn’t as into Britpop myself as much — I was slightly at a distance from that music. Then many many years later, we went for a meal in Paris with these friends of ours, one of them is called Cédric. His DJ name is Pilooski. I was DJing with him and Joe quite a lot, and he introduced us to Jarvis Cocker and Baxter Dury at this dinner. I really enjoyed Jarvis’ sense of humor and talking to him, and we went for a drink after the dinner. I started to think more about his modern music. My friend Emma Smith — who has played on every Hot Chip record, and who I went to school with with Joe and Owen [Clarke] — she happens to be in Jarvis’ band, Jarv Is. We just started to get to know him.
I can’t really explain why “Straight To The Morning” ended up the way it did. We were asked to make a song for Dua Lipa. The demo was written with her in mind. Instead, we ended up inviting Jarvis Cocker to guest on it. We thought he’d bring something characterful of his own to the song. He wasn’t the most obvious person you would ask to be on a disco-pop track, and yet I think it was more interesting for it being Hot Chip and Jarvis rather than the first person you could think of that was doing a throwback to disco the year we made that track. There were lots of other people who were doing things in that vein, young up-and-coming pop singers. We went for somebody left of that whole world. I’m into those combinations, which are surprising. When a person has a lot of their own personality to bring to it.
Writing “Into You See Me” For Katy Perry’s Witness (2017)
The fact that “Straight To The Morning” was originally written for Dua Lipa was something I was curious about, because you and Joe also wrote “Into You See Me” for Katy Perry in 2017. That was one of the things I’d found that actually came out, that you’d written for a pop star —
TAYLOR: We don’t have a great hit record of getting our songs recorded by million-selling artists.
[Laughs] I know you also remixed a Sia song way back in the ’00s. Is this something that comes to Hot Chip every now and then? In an instance like Katy Perry, what is your experience of dipping your toe in that mainstream pop world?
TAYLOR: I’d like to do more of it, if the people we’re working with are interesting to me and Joe and the rest of the band. Basically, it depends on the pop people in question. I think if we had been able to work with Dua Lipa, and meet and be in the studio rather than send a demo in response to a brief, it could’ve led to something really good. I’d still like to try that in the future.
With Katy Perry, it was a very enjoyable and rewarding experience to work with her. We worked on two songs, and one of them came out. I found her to be very, very good in the studio. Amazing with melodies. Very good at writing lyrics quickly that summed up the topics we were collectively focused on. She had a co-songwriter with her. They seemed to work together a lot, and he was fantastic as well. I just enjoyed that experience a lot. Sometimes I wonder if we don’t push hard enough to do these collaborations. I also think that maybe I’m quite open to certain kinds of pop music, and not everybody in Hot Chip is as open to that. It depends on the combination of people working together. Sometimes I write songs on my own, where I think, “This would be great to get to Sinead O’Connor” or to Adele, or to Dolly Parton.
How you actually do that bit of getting it to these people, that’s the challenge. That’s why meeting people makes all the difference. That’s why it was nice to work with Jarvis Cocker. It came about naturally. There’s no pressure. When you ask somebody like that, they’re just so talented that they can deliver. They can step up. He did his parts within a couple of hours. Then when we asked him to join us live. We asked him the day before we had two festivals. He was such a great performer onstage, connecting with the audience. And he stepped in for Joe, who had COVID and couldn’t be there. He learned how to sing one of his songs. It’s been great to work with him, and I hope we can do more with him in the future.
Playing In David Byrne’s Atomic Bomb! Band (2014)
You’ve also had some interactions with people you’d imagine could be influences or progenitors of Hot Chip’s, like remixing Kraftwerk or making a song with Bernard Sumner. Another thing I wanted to bring up was when you played in David Byrne’s Atomic Bomb! band, as part of a William Onyeabor tribute tour.
TAYLOR: One of the good things about that experience was, you’ve got somebody like David Byrne, who everybody in the rehearsal room is very excited to meet and play music with and is in some way in awe of. Then you meet him and he seems immediately very friendly and easygoing and easy to get to know and to talk about music with and to make connections with. He doesn’t seem as if he’s treating himself as a star in any sense. Probably the first time I met David, he was watching everybody else rehearsing and he was waiting for his turn to try out one of his songs. He was just dancing in his chair, seeming so enthused about it. That’s kind of how I felt sat where I was watching the other people doing what they were doing. It was easy to not be too daunted by the prospect [of playing with him]. I never got know him really, really well. We did a few things together, a few Atomic Bomb shows. He was always amazing onstage. He always had a unique approach to the songs. He didn’t cover them and try to get them phrasing of the William Onyeabor songs. He just made them his own. That was wonderful to see and hear.
I would say that, because David Byrne wasn’t in every Atomic Bomb show I played — I played many more without him than I did with him — the main people I connected with were the members of Sinkane, who were the main band, and Money Mark, of the Beastie Boys and who I’ve remained good friends with and collaborated with in New York. Jonny Lam, who was in Sinkane then, has gone on to be a collaborator with me and with Hot Chip. Hearing the Lijadu Sisters sing each night was very exciting. There were lots and lots of people I met through that. I remember feeling, at the time, unsure whether it was the right thing to be doing. For all these other people, like myself, who aren’t William Onyeabor, to be inhabiting his world and bringing his music to other audiences. I remember finding that quite strange. I started to wonder whether people were losing sense of the importance of mentioning him every night onstage. Nobody else seemed to feel the same way as me. And the music is so good, that of course I enjoyed playing it. But to have some slightly conflicted thoughts is maybe a good thing when you’re doing something like that, because you’re engaging with what it means to bring to life somebody else’s music. I really miss it. I’d like to play more with all those people again.
I do think there is something rewarding in covering other people’s songs and you not having to be the author of them. But, yeah, even though I miss it I wonder what it would be like to continuing on paying tribute to his music. I got into a similar place where I was paying tribute to Prince by doing lots of DJ sets after he died. I was like, “Well, this is my favorite producer and maker of music.” It’s really fun for me, depending on the crowd, to play a few hours of Prince-only productions. But after it went on a while, I thought: Well, that’s his world and his identity, and am I just sort of in one way losing a sense of my own identity by paying tribute so closely to somebody else’s world, but also am I earning off the back of somebody else having passed away. It started to feel strange and not the right thing to do. I definitely think my intentions were right in both those projects.
Hot Chip Covering “Dancing In The Dark” (2015)
You have me a convenient segue. One of my favorite Hot Chip footnotes is the “Dancing In The Dark” cover with a bit of “All My Friends” in it — which combines two of my favorite songs of all time. Before you guys did that I always imagined those songs going together. In this conversation we’ve talked about Elliott Smith and Tim Buckley and all these things. At the time, though, I was taken aback that you guys chose to cover a Bruce Springsteen song.
TAYLOR: When I was at school with Joe and Owen, Joe’s younger brother Jaz covered “Dancing In The Dark” with my friend Sean. I think they did an acoustic version of it at a school assembly. I wasn’t there, maybe I’d left the school already. Sean was always good at doing covers and making them his own. I never heard their version, but back then people weren’t really doing acoustic guitar covers of massive pop songs. Now, every [British department store] John Lewis advert is based on a sad rendition of a famous pop song. Even some things I do at home at the piano, some people say that reminds them of that way of doing a cover — that’s not really intentional. Back then, it seemed like an inventive idea, to strip back that song to its core.
I was just thinking how much I love “Dancing In The Dark.” That’s the starting point. If I love a song and I can imagine singing it. It’s a bit like doing karaoke — the song has to be something you just really know well. That always means I can put something of myself into the song, and it’s not a task to learn it. It’s just inside of me, I’ve known it my whole life. Luckily, the others in the band also seemed to connect to that song in the same way. It wasn’t hard for me to say we should cover it, I didn’t have to win anybody over.
In terms of what we then did with it… I don’t know why I thought of this, but I wanted our version to sound like Spacemen 3 or Suicide. I know there’s this weird link between Suicide and Bruce Springsteen because he was a fan of theirs, but I don’t think I knew that at the time I was suggesting this combination. I wanted to make our version quite motorik and psychedelic and frenetic. It has this bit in it where it just keeps going between two adjacent notes on the keyboard, an almost drone like section in our version. I wanted it to sound harsh and aggressive in some way, really sort of passionate. I don’t know that we really managed to make it that version. My vision was what if Spacemen 3 or Suicide covered it. I think what we ended up with, luckily people like it, but it doesn’t sound like that. The reason it doesn’t sound like that is I didn’t tell anybody we must make it sound like that, I just tried to bring elements of my own thought process about it to the way we play it live, and others were trying to do something else with that song.
One of the nights we were playing it live before we recorded it, Al threw in a bit of the LCD song. It grew to be part of how we covered it. But it wasn’t talked about, it wasn’t planned. It wasn’t like, “What if we put these two together, are these songs related.” It was just an off-the-cuff thing. There’s quite a lot of that about how Hot Chip works, actually. People who talk to each other while not recording, but when recording are just sort of playing. Not discussing what we could do or what would work, just trying stuff out.
Freakout/Release is out 8/19 on Domino.