The English electronic band Hot Chip have been building an impressive body of work steadily over the past decade by merging indie-pop songwriting with the sounds and dynamics of dance music. The quintet’s fifth album, In Our Heads (due in stores June 11th), is their first release for Domino Records and their most accomplished record yet. Rolling Stone talked to three members of the band – Joe Goddard, Alexis Taylor and Owen Clarke – about the new songs, their experiences as DJs and the worst requests they’ve received from people at clubs.
You have been producing and engineering your own albums since the start of your career. How did you decide it was time to bring in an outside engineer for In Our Heads?
Joe Goddard: Alexis and I had really good experiences working with this guy on our other projects. Alexis worked with the engineer, Mark [Ralph], with About Group and I worked with him on 2 Bears. He’s a really, really talented guy with a really great studio. It’s something that we probably, really should have done earlier. An engineer that really knows what they’re doing just makes such a massive difference to a record. It just means that every sound that is recorded just sounds as good as it can.
Alexis Taylor: I basically hadn’t worked with any other engineer where I found it so easy to work with him before I met Mark. So that was the way in, which made a difference. There was an extra person, in which it wasn’t a producer that was really quick to make everything run smoothly.
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When you go to the studio, do you have the songs fully formed or do you write in the studio?
Goddard: A lot of the songs are pretty much fully formed. Like, we’re working from versions that Alexis had written at home or I had written at home. Some tracks were as simple as we got the songs sort of planned out and structured, even with most elements really there. Like “How Do You Do,” for instance, or “Don’t Deny Your Heart” or “Night and Day.” All of the bits were kind of there, and the arrangement, all of midi for each different part, most of them were written. And we took them to Mark using all of this great gear, like a really classic, youthful 1970s synth. Using that very often just kind of replaced things. Took each element of the track and made it infinitely better.
We have always tried to work quickly. But I think with the last album, we kind of quickly got each song to a good point and then kind of sat there for months. Thinking about them, twiddling, tweaking, slightly agonizing more about whether we should add something or redo something. With this, there was none of that; it was very much like, “That sounds good, that’s finished, let’s move on.”
Why do you think you labored more on the One Life Stand record?
Goddard: I think only just because the studio was not really costing us any money because it was Alan Phoenix’s place. I don’t particularly remember why, but we kind of had long periods of just listening and thinking.
Taylor: I think there were certain things that maybe on that record, on some tracks, we seemed to be wondering, “Well, is this really even finished as a song?” Whereas with this one, we didn’t really have that debate so much while we were in the studio. I think we sort of believed in the song structures by the time we were in the studio; we had a sort of bank of them ready to try and record and only a certain amount of time to do it in, because we chose to try and not spend millions of pounds making a record. We didn’t go to the Bahamas and do it, although we kind of thought we may have. We did it in a quick way.
Owen Clarke: One of the things we always find quite fun is removing stuff. The most fun thing is sorting things out and getting it sort of streamlined. We have a similar wealth of sounds as in the last record, but it seemed like they sat easier and were not hard to edit.
You’ve said that you wanted this album to be very joyful. All of your records convey this sort of relaxed, calm joy. Is that intentional?
Goddard: It wasn’t particularly conscious from the onset. It was just a kind of observation of what happened. I think maybe there’s some calmness because I feel at ease and positive about my situation currently, quite family-oriented. My wife and family are at home and I just feel good about that. Maybe there isn’t such a manic quality about the music in general. Maybe you could say that “Night and Day” is slightly more manic and bizarre-sounding.
Taylor: I think that description of it, what you were saying, could be just a much a description for the last record. I don’t feel like this one is necessarily super calm-sounding. The difference isn’t that we’re trying to write about a kind of joyfulness or necessarily writing from a place of straightforward ease or comfort. It’s more that maybe we’re getting better at making records that the songs glue well together.
You all DJ in addition to performing as musicians. Does that influence how you write and play?
Taylor: It’s got to be filtering in while we do it. It’s really a big part of our professional lives at the moment; it has been for a few years. I think it’s that thing of learning what makes a crowd move. As a DJ, you’re constantly learning. It’s like chess or something. After a couple of years, you think you’re good, then you see a real DJ that’s been doing it for 20 years and they just blow you away. I think that’s one of the things I like about DJing: you can get better and better and better. I love putting a record on and seeing people respond to it. That comes into the records that we make a lot, in my opinion.
Goddard: I think that one of the things that probably helps Hot Chip to sound the way that it sounds is the fact that there are different sets of influences coming in without us necessarily openly discussing it. So I would say even though I DJ a lot, I’m not so consciously influenced by club music. I’m probably more at ease listening to R. Kelly or Prince records that are kind of mid-pace and not really to do with house music – even though when I DJ, I play stuff like that.
Does DJ’ing change the way you think of pacing a live show?
Clarke: We think of the arc of songs.
Goddard: Yeah, massively. Not to sound cheesy, but points where you have breakdowns, all of these things are massively important in the live arena. I have been reading the [producer and musician] Nile Rodgers’ book and he talks about the same thing; he talks about the early days with Chic and he says the point they really love is the breakdowns in music and [to] only write a song so they can have a chorus, so they can have a breakdown. For them, Chic tracks are some of the first tracks to really have the idea of a breakdown that is now kind of the biggest part of house and techno. The bit where people put their hands in the air or whatever, it has become a very obvious thing. But they kind of, in some ways, invented that. For them, it came from seeing a James Brown show or something like that. We love to do all of those things ourselves in our live show and just try to make things as exciting as possible.
In particular, Felix is very experienced as a DJ now, and he’s the person in charge of drum machines and computers in the back of the stage with us. So there might be subtle things like when you bring in a particular piece of percussion, or a heavier kick drum, or more subby kick drums or something like that. Those are very specific DJ traits that he’s learned over the years.
On “Night and Day,” you have a few funny lines about people asking you to play songs when you’re DJing. Have people actually asked you to play Frank Zappa?
Goddard: I kind of wish they would, actually.
Do you get a lot of requests?
Taylor: It’s usually for, like, Rihanna.
Clarke: I remember our first trip abroad – I think it was Sweden – and this guy was desperate to hear “Solsbury Hill” by Peter Gabriel. I was like, “That could actually be quite good but I don’t think it’s the time.”
Goddard: I had a person come up to me and say, “Can you play some garage, please?” And I say, “Yeah, this is a garage track,” and he just said, “Yeah, I like garage.”
Taylor: We got someone asking us when we were playing live, “Can you play the Amy Winehouse remix that you did?” We were like, “I don’t know how we would do that live, as we are not her and it was just a remix.” We’ve also had someone, when we played at a fashion thing in Italy, who went up to the sound guy that was mixing for us and asked him to play a different kind of record. It’s fair enough if people want a different kind of music. I was a bit worn down by a particular incident where there was a lot of foolishness – and I probably followed it with some foolishness myself when I threw my record up against the window.