With two decades of music behind them, Hot Chip are a staple of synth-pop. Now the silver-hairs on the dance floor, founding members Joe Goddard and Alexis Taylor met as schoolmates in the United Kingdom. A few years later, they added three more members, including synth player Al Doyle (also of LCD Soundsystem), and quickly established themselves as festival favorites.
Cliched but true: some bands you just have to see live. While Hot Chip have an extensive catalogue of strong studio work and outrageous music videos, it’s on tour where they really let loose. Their music lies somewhere under the “pop” umbrella, but their melodies and inspirations differ broadly across genres. They bring this even further to light on stage, deconstructing songs and improvising on the underlying rhythms and beats, unpacking each one into its own dance party. It’s a group that have always known how to keep things fun.
With the June release of their seventh album, A Bath Full of Ecstasy, Hot Chip are finding new ways to reinvent themselves. In a first for the band, they brought in outside producers in Rodaidh McDonald and the late Phillipe Zdar of Cassius to work with them. The album still feels very much like a Hot Chip record—beats somehow both catchy and irregular over lyrics that often appear empty but sometimes turn meaningful and even morose, and it’s elevated in places by McDonald’s pop prowess and Zdar’s mixing mastery.
Then there’s the videos. Ten years since the viral success of “I Feel Better,” wherein heartthrob boy band members perform for adoring fans until a bald, berobed figure starts destroying them with mouth lasers (just watch it), Hot Chip hit on more hilarity with “Hungry Child,” the single in April, ahead of the release of A Bath Full of Ecstasy. In this one, Martin Starr and Milana Vayntrub (Silicon Valley, Party Down) go through the passive-aggressive death throes of a faltering relationship as they’re slowly consumed by the incessant dance music following them everywhere they go. “I said you’re a PICKLE DICK,” Vayntrub shouts.
“Would that make you a jar of vinegar?” Starr yells back over the music.
With some much quieter music playing in the background, I talked to Doyle about where the bands humor came from, the value of escapism and which of his children he loves most.
You guys are playing in a bunch of places you haven’t played before. Peru, Spain. And Sacramento?
It’s the first time in Sacramento for Hot Chip. Not for me. Tyler [Pope] from LCD is from Sacramento and I’ve gone there with him to see his folks. He used to be in Sacramento’s most famous band.
Yes exactly! But it’s not somewhere I know well, so we’re looking forward to it.
Did you guys set out on this tour to shake things up with different locations in the same way you did with making the record?
The boring answer is sometimes it’s just the routing that makes sense and places that are available. We get to make our feelings known where we’d like to go, and if we can, we like to play places we’ve never played before. We’ve been in the game for a long time now, and after awhile it feels like a treadmill if you’re always hitting the same spots. Particularly in America, it’s such a big country and people are always complaining that you’re not going to their town.
Is avoiding that “treadmill” feeling the reason you improvise so much in your live show?
We’re conscious that if you’ve been to a festival in the last 10 years, then you’ve probably seen Hot Chip. So we always want to do something different and unexpected, and it keeps us sane and provides a surprise for the crowd. Right now the new record is different to everyone, but as it ages it’ll change again.
Some of the lyrics in Bath … sound more Zen than usual. The hook “All you need is here,” for example. Was that deliberate?
We played David Lynch’s club Silencio in Paris a couple of times. It’s on the edge of our consciousness but it’s not something that anyone in the band is particularly into. We probably should be [laughs], mindfulness. I think that’s just where those kind of lyrics cross over into U.K. dance floor “be in the moment,” positive vibes. But we usually try to temper that by going into more melancholic moments. We’re not as young as we used to be, and we’re not going out every night to the club, so it doesn’t feel very honest to plug away at that vibe the whole time. But it does feel good when you’re in a field in the middle of a festival and that’s what you want to hear.
Hot Chip played at the Bataclan just a few days after the [November 2015] Paris attacks. Now you’re coming to the United States after the shootings here, particularly Gilroy being close to Sacramento. How does something like that affect your mindset going into a show?
That one felt different because it was one moment for all of Europe for two or three years, whereas in America now there’s two or three a week. You go through mental gymnastics of whether it could happen again. Earlier today, the motorcycle backfired in Times Square and everyone panicked because everyone’s on a knife’s edge, people are just traumatized. And we see that from a distance from the United Kingdom and don’t have to live it or experience it in the same way, so for us, we get to come to the States and give people a few hours to forget about things, and come together in one place and be accepted for whatever they are. It’s really the only gift we’re able to give, so we just try to do that and not think too much about anything else, because that’s where madness lies.
Hot Chip videos have always been terrific and had similar vibes despite working with different directors. Does each idea come from the director, or do you all get together and gives ideas? What’s the creative process like?
“I Feel Better” was the director, [British comedy actor Peter Serafinowicz] but he’s a friend, so we collaborated closely. Sometimes they’re director-led and sometimes we all get together. We just try to do whatever is the least expected thing. The “Hungry Child” video, Saman Kesh was the director, and it’s barely even got the song in it. It’s a lot of dialogue. The fact that it even got past the record label is crazy. But it didn’t seem to bother anybody and people were still talking about it. It’s got some funny lines in it and people love it.
Where did the decision to work with outside producers for the new album come from?
It was weird for us. We’re seven records in and haven’t done that before. Maybe it wasn’t necessary, it was just something we wanted to bring us into a place we hadn’t been before in terms of our process. We were very comfortable the way we’d been working before; we know it works, we could probably make pretty decent records just doing that again and again. But in order to break that cycle and risk something else happening, then we had to give up the reins a little bit. But it was very freeing and liberating, we got something that is still very recognizably a Hot Chip record but has a different presence and a different kind of energy. That’s particularly because of Phillipe’s mix, the way he worked it in towards the end of the record, making some bold decisions that we might not have been so comfortable with if we hadn’t consciously given in to working this way. So I feel very good about that decision, about what we ended up with. Hopefully it’s opened up a door that means we can work that way again with somebody else, get in somebody else’s head and mode of working and see how we adapt to that, and how it produces a fertile situation for making music.
Have you reached a point as a band where it’s like, you’re just gonna do it until someone decides they don’t want to?
Oh we’re probably beyond that already [laughing]. Personally, I always try and think a couple of albums ahead, because I’ll be going straight into the next LCD record as soon as we finish this record cycle. But we’ll be touring on this into next year, so that’s a good stretch. Then we’ll do the next LCD record and tour on that, so I’ll be … 42 by the end of that. So [laughing] … probably time to reassess everything about your life at that point?
And LCD is back together now, but is that forever or just for this record?
Well we can’t break up again. That’s the thing. Once you’ve retired once, you’re not allowed to do that again. So we’re officially back.
How is playing with LCD different from playing with Hot Chip?
That’s a really hard one. It’s like choosing between your children, you can’t have a favorite. They couldn’t be more different bands in some ways. We were just talking about how Hot Chip change things up when we play things live; the recording is very much just a jumping-off point, whereas with LCD, the recordings are very sacrosanct, so you have to play exactly like that and there’s a very clear right and wrong. So there’s two different joys there, there’s the joy of just being free and improvising and finding something in the moment that works, but there’s also a lot of joy in getting it right and knowing that you got it right, that you play it that way and you can replicate it every night. So they’re kind of activating different parts of your brain, those two approaches to making music and they’re both very pleasurable, but very different from the ground up.
It seems like Hot Chip’s lyrics have gone from outright funny at first to more ironic on these later albums. “Cruising to Yo La Tengo” was one off your first record I always remembered.
[Laughing] That was a great line. But that’s the aging process. You start off being funny and then you get an edge. You get the joy beaten out of you. Sometimes we have our own funny songs that we make ourselves, but we’re not necessarily gonna put them out. Once you lose something, it’s hard to get it back. You can’t get your innocence back.
What music are you enjoying right now?
OK, great question that I should have prepared for. There’s an ambient record by Christina Vantzou, just called No. 4 that I’ve been enjoying very much. That’s a real blissed-out, going-to-sleep one that’s quite good. A super fun group from [Democratic Republic of Congo] called Kokoko. I don’t know if they’re doing well in the United States, but they’re doing well in the United Kingdom. And then older stuff, this Bob Dylan re-release, the bootleg thing. That’s what’s been tickling my fancy.
See Hot Chip live at this year’s City of Trees Festival on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019 at Papa Murphy’s Park in Sacramento. Also performing will be headliners Incubus, as well as Portugal. The Man, The Strumbellas and others. For more info and for tickets, go to Alt947.radio.com.
**This piece first appeared in print on pages 18 – 19 of issue #298 (Aug. 14 – 28, 2019)**