Colours Are What Keep Me Alive
Hot Chip are sort of an enigma in and of themselves: a playful electropop dance group with a punk aura that doesn’t shy away from sincerity. Generally, deep house beats, which anchor the group’s sound, can be poetic in an abstract, visceral sense, but aren’t so often set to thoughtful prose. Hot Chip, though, manage to put it all together. And it’s in this marriage that set the English quintet amongst the signature bands of our generation.
I met with the group in the middle of a transatlantic tour to get inside their heads. It happened to be a day after the passing of the divisive former U.K. Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. The always outspoken Al Doyle, bespectacled and bearded, and often found shirtless on stage behind an electric guitar, said he hadn’t thought much recently of the Iron Lady. But the very mention of her name caused a stir in his eyes as he considered growing up amidst the coincidental rise of dance music in 1980s Britain and Thatcherism. Doyle recalled, “Entire industries were crushed; there was so much wealth being created for such a small number of people.” He finally lamented on today’s sociopolitical conditions and public apathy, “The policies of [David] Cameron today are just as, if not more, radically right-wing, but there’s not the protest or reaction from the people.”
This is not to say that Hot Chip are an overtly political band. In this time of delusion and disillusion, their talents yield something that is more satisfying: quiet subversion by way of gutpunching 4/4 kickdrums and heart-piercing lyrics. Hot Chip challenge a deeper status quo: that of not giving a fuck.
As I waited to speak with Doyle and fellow bandmate Owen Clarke, the group was finishing soundcheck ahead of their gig at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City. The old theatre, which can hold 2,500 for a dance party, can be found on West 52nd street, a few blocks north of the completely sense-deadening Times Square. With a substitute drummer on deck, warming up was not going so well. “I was suffering slightly,” Doyle relayed. “The sound is radically different on stage with new drummers. It’s exhausting, and depressing really.”
Doyle’s curbed enthusiasm was in stark contrast to your correspondent, who had just sat through a half-hour private concert of his favorite band of young adulthood.
Hot Chip didn’t always incorporate a live drummer; in the beginning they experimented with building rhythms on analog drum machines and computers. This was during the early 2000s, the days of Joe Goddard producing tunes with schoolmates Owen Clarke and to-be frontman Alexis Taylor. Felix Martin and Al Doyle joined up a bit later to round out the core five as they went on to release their first album and hit the road.
The Hot Chip discography is a journey of varying iterations, but a steady evolution. Their debut Coming On Strong was anything but. It is mostly subdued, at times melancholic, quirky and raw. Three more LPs to come and constant touring steadily garnered critical acclaim and a cult following, though never a hint of mainstream success. Instead of running out of ideas—as is often the case with bands trying to continually produce art and somehow make a living off it—their latest effort, In Our Heads, which I see as the definitive Hot Chip album, is basically an electropop masterpiece.
Taylor says some of his biggest influences for the album were R. Kelly, Prince, Neil Young and The Kinks—to which, upon hearing, one might nod and say: Okay, okay, wait, what? Not that having a diverse background in tastes is unusual, but it’s the melding of these contradictory elements into a cohesive piece that makes a Hot Chip record so layered and interesting.
Really profound dance music can take you to some faraway place through a good pair of headphones; being pummeled by a wall of sound in a pit of hundreds of your sweaty peers is not a prerequisite. But the studio album and concert atmosphere are not mutually exclusive. “We’ve fed the live experience into the songwriting more and more,” Clarke tells me. Songs often begin as a “kernel of an idea,” get transferred to the live show, and are ultimately refined and recorded in the songwriting process. Lyrically, Hot Chip wear their feelings on their sleeve, but always with a cheeky grin: In one song they quip, “I don’t got no Abba / I don’t play no Gabba / I like Zapp not Zappa / So please quit your jibba jabba;” They are never ones to shy away from sex: “The smell of repetition really is on you / And when I feel this way I really am with you,” (in a head-banging dance tune colored by a raunchy vocoder-affected guitar, i.e., far and away from your sappy acoustic indie rock song); And sometimes, Hot Chip lyrics even make shapes:
Then they take us full circle to the heart-swelling stuff. Set to a harmonizing choral background of “colours and colours and colours of colours,” Alexis Taylor pleads, “I’m everything a girl could need / There’s nothing in this heart but me / If everything you want is free.”
So where will the Chip—who promise to “hold you up again, if you ask me”—go from here? The guys are thinking of going into the studio, perhaps renting out Abbey Road for a couple of days, to record the live show as is—to have a living document of this moment in time. With a few side projects ongoing—including Joe Goddard’s DJ duo The 2 Bears, Al Doyle’s rock outfit New Build, and Alexis Taylor’s improvisation project About Group—the future looks wide open.
“I feel as though it would be weird if we got much bigger than we are. I just feel that we’ll never sort of make the kind of music that will take us to whatever possible next level there is,” Doyle says candidly. “The ambition is to make the best music that we can.”
Back in front of the packed dance floor, Taylor rejoices in the feeling of connection, “These chains you bound around my heart complete me, baby / I would not be free.” Many in the crowd reach toward the stage; others clasp their hands atop their chest. In the end, Hot Chip simply reject solipsism, even if society relentlessly calls for detachment.
I heard someone on a radio show once say of the Swedish electropop darling, Robyn: “No one else can simultaneously make me want to dance and cry.” It made me wonder if the caller had ever listened to Hot Chip, a band that, set to wonky dance beats, remind us, “A church is not for praying / It’s for celebrating the life that bleeds through the pain / It’s for celebrating the life that shines through your veins.”
Club music in the U.K. was apolitical in its inception, only to be pulled into the fray unwillingly. Today, one might ask if this particular music scene, whether in Britain or the States, and for better or worse, has returned to its days of agnosticism. But Hot Chip are believers. Not in any religious or political sense, but believers in the earnestness of writing passionately moral fiction that celebrates universal truths. “A heart is not for breaking / It’s for beating out all the life it needs to begin.”
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