Hot Chip: interview

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With an album recorded in their bedroom on knackered toy instruments, Putney‘s Hot Chip are reassuring proof that pop can still be oddball.

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    London’s lo-fi disco-funkateers Hot Chip – described as purveyors of ‘Fisher Price funk’ in this very magazine – are an anomaly in British pop. For a start they recorded last year’s polished, Mercury-nominated album ‘The Warning’ in one of their number’s bedroom; much of the record was crafted with beat-up old keyboards unearthed in charity shops; they line up onstage like a malfunctioning Kraftwerk; and yet they’re signed to EMI and this week step up to headline the Astoria. It’s much-needed evidence that pop music can be odd and inventive and still succeed.

    The five-piece first came to our attention in 2004 with laidback debut ‘Coming On Strong’, an idiosyncratic mix of hip hop, electronica and Prince’s balls that featured tiny co-founder Alexis Taylor rapping in his sweet, cockney-toned falsetto. It was a tribute to the sounds of the ghetto by way of Putney, Taylor and his songwriting partner Joe Goddard’s home. It was here that the two got off to a musical start when they met at Elliot Comprehensive, which appears to be south London’s unofficial leftfield music academy.

    ‘We went to school with Kieran Hebden [Four Tet] and Adem Ilhan,’ says Goddard. ‘They were two years above us but we used to hang out with them because we were all well into our music. There was this kind of community in the music department and we went to loads of gigs together. Oh, and [dubstep artist] Burial was in the year above.’

    Still friends with Adem and Four Tet, Taylor and Goddard made a non-Hot Chip appearance at Adem’s annual, folky Homefires festival in 2005. In fact, in stark contrast to Hot Chip’s in-your-face live shows, Taylor’s sweet, melancholy vocals lend themselves rather well to a folkier strand of music. Time Out saw him support King Creosote with just his voice and a squeezebox.

    ‘I do like folk music,’ says Taylor. ‘I listen to The Watersons, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and Richard And Linda Thompson all the time. But I’m not really into that whole nu-folk scene. I guess it [Taylor’s solo shows] came about because I’m influenced by, in the broadest sense, popular music: mainstream songwriting that takes in the influence of folk, soul and jazz. The songs I play on my own aren’t designed to be just folk songs and I change the arrangements all the time. The last thing I want to become is a traditional singer-songwriter.’

    Another scene that both Taylor and Goddard aren’t keen on being paired off with is the London-centric ‘new rave’ kerfuffle.

    ‘It feels like a novelty to be honest,’ says Taylor, ‘but then Joe and I are probably a bit bitter that we didn’t put out the rave tracks we made a few months ago. I’m keen to not be lumped in with that stuff because our band has much more about it than all that nonsense.’

    There comes a proper songwriting talent with Hot Chip – whose ranks are completed by Felix Martin, Al Doyle and Owen Clarke – that doesn’t exist in the thrashing indie-dance of the Klaxons. Or a lot of other dance music for that matter. Alongside the more orthodox dancefloor influences of Kraftwerk, New Order, Aphex Twin and UK garage, Goddard and Taylor are also obsessed with Paul McCartney, The Beach Boys, Smokey Robinson and fellow Mercury nominee Scritti Politti – somebody Taylor sees as a helpful point of comparison because of his hip hop experiments.

    Essentially, though, Hot Chip are fans of anyone ‘who pushes the boundaries of what pop music can be,’ says Taylor, ‘like Destiny’s Child. I love stuff that’s direct yet inventive.’ Their album ‘The Warning’ is certainly that. Effortlessly danceable, folk-pop gets a glitchy, two-step makeover; bouncy house meets lo-fi gospel; and electro-rock sits next to grimy funk – all providing a bed for Taylor and Goddard’s mix of falsetto and Ian Dury-like deadpan. It’s the kind of sound for which London psych-popsters The Shortwave Set coined the phrase Victorian Funk (V Funk!); disparate influences that really shouldn’t work together but do.

    ‘It’s what all of our favourite artists do,’ says Taylor. ‘Like Gang Gang Dance. See them live and you can’t get your head around the fact that they’re into UK garage as much as Can… but come from New York. How much can they know about UK garage? In the end you stop thinking about it and appreciate that they bother to take inspiration from more than one genre. Most people, especially in indie rock, are far too conservative.’

    ‘When we set out to make this music,’ says Goddard, ‘with five of us standing onstage in a line with keyboards and drum machines, it didn’t work. It took us a long time because we set out with such a crazy idea. But people need to think out of the box more these days.’

    For Hot Chip this means scouring London charity shops for odd bits of percussion, old keyboards and knackered toys. Taylor has some expertise in this – his wife runs a ’60s curios stall called ‘Sorry’ in Chalk Farm’s Stables Market. And, not surprisingly when you see the list of people they’ve covered on tour – Fleetwood Mac, Peter Gabriel, Chic, Phil Collins, Maher Shalal Hash Baz, Marvin Gaye, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – they’re also big record geeks, something that London is a rather large haven for.

    ‘There’s a shop called Sounds That Swing on Inverness Street in Camden,’ says Taylor, ‘but it’s much further down the road from all the other shops so nobody goes there. I really like that for rock ’n’ roll, soul and R&B from the ’50s. Then there’s Minus Zero and Stand Out [off Portobello Road]. It’s two shops in one and only opens on a Friday and Saturday. It’s great for psychedelic stuff.’

    These shared passions for Peter Gabriel, Fleetwood Mac and collecting records hardly suggest that Hot Chip deliver a banging night out but they undergo a huge transformation onstage. Recording in Goddard’s bedroom (‘It’s tiny and my girlfriend is getting really annoyed’) means that they tend to get rather deep and thoughtful about the recording process. But live…

    ‘We like to build up the energy and it’s really raw,’ says Goddard. ‘People who like the record often come and see us live and say, “It’s too noisy, where’s all the detail?” And people who see us live buy the record and say, “It’s too relaxed; where are the tunes to jump around to?” I guess it’s something we should remedy!’

    We’re not complaining and with two strangely brilliant albums and a Mercury nomination under their belt the music teachers at Elliot Comprehensive should be very proud indeed. One has to wonder how Lil’ Chris might have sounded had his parents moved into the catchment area.

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