Chip off the old block
Cambridge-educated electro kings Hot Chip tell all about One Life Stands, R. Kelly wearing Devo hats and why life as an undergrad is not always chipper.
by Paul Smith
Friday 15th January 2010, 18:33 GMT
Confined to a London Bridge rehearsal studio, Hot Chip are frantically preparing for their imminent European and North American tour. Time is running out. “We haven’t really played together for over a year,” admits Felix Martin. “We have a whole new album of songs, and old ones to go over. Everyone plays different instruments, we’re touring with a new drummer and it takes a while to figure out who exactly is playing what. It’s fun; I just wish we had more time to do it.”
Such conscientiousness is not surprising. Since their formation a decade ago, the Grammy-nominated London electro quintet have recorded four critically-acclaimed albums and conquered festivals across the world, while still finding time to remix acts as diverse as Amy Winehouse and Kraftwerk. Rarely does a night out pass without finding yourself doing the robot to ‘Ready for the Floor’ or dancing “like a monkey with a miniature symbol” to ‘Over and Over’. Next month they release One Life Stand, their most assured offering to date. Once the product of Joe Goddard’s bedroom, they have garnered an enviable reputation for raucous shows. You may remember hearing new track ‘Alley Cats’ at their Corn Exchange show in October 2008: “we played that everywhere we went” says Martin, “and it ended up developing and changing, going through dozens of different revisions before we found the version we felt was definitive. With this album it’s been a more collaborative process, we’ve naturally worked together as a band more than before.”
Their camaraderie is reflected on ‘Brothers’, surely the soundtrack to a future buddy movie with lyrics like “I will drink my fill with my brothers / And if one of us is ill / Then my brothers / Will watch over me.” Was One Life Stand as frivolous to record as it is to listen to?
“It was stressful at times,” he sighs. “We had lots of musicians come and play and it was a big project. In retrospect we had lots of fun sessions but there were times we felt like we were having a nervous breakdown putting it together.”
Heightened ambition is at its most evident on ‘I Feel Better’, with its propulsive strings and Caribbean steel pans. It also features Joe’s vocals undergoing some serious technological wizardry. Is this the Hot Chip take on Jay-Z’s controversial ‘Death of the Auto-tune’ debate?
“You do hear it so much,” says Martin, “But it wasn’t necessarily made in reference to that. Joe wanted to use his voice in an unusual way, but it’s quite different to the ten million other auto-tuned voices out there.”
Since their time on the cult Moshi Moshi label, the lads have maintained a striking aesthetic vision. Co-frontman Alexis Taylor’s sartorial boiler suits and fluorescent green specs have become synonymous with their live act, and One Life Stand’s sleeve is the latest in a trajectory of visually arresting artwork:
“Owen, our guitar and keyboard player, got interested in images of statues being lifted up into the air using strapping, when they are taken off their plinths to be cleaned. Heavy, solid objects being suspended mid-air was the starting point.”
A pronounced attention to artistic detail also extends to their merchandise. T-shirts featuring R. Kelly bearing a Devo helmet are on sale from their website. “It’s quite strange” laughs Felix. “It’s something a friend came up with quite a long time ago. Maybe that’s a comment partly on some of our influences and our approach towards making music,” he suggests. “It’s putting two things together that are a little incongruous, but we’ve got time for both.”
Hot Chip will be “getting around a bit” in the coming months, including a flurry of festival appearances lined up for summer. In North America, they’ll be supported by The xx, fellow alumni of the Elliott School. Although Taylor and Joe Goddard’s time at the creatively-inclined Putney comprehensive has been well documented, it comes as a surprise to many that three fifths of the members are Cantabrigians. Martin and Doyle read English at Sidney Sussex, while Taylor graduated with the same degree from Jesus. Felix recalls how he met his bandmate as a student: “I used to go to this really weird record store along Mill Road, run by a big fat guy who was always talking about how he had loads of wicked records at home, but couldn’t be bothered to bring them in in his car.” Overheard asking about records, Felix was approached by Alexis in the hope that they had similar tastes. “We walked down Mill Road together and found we enjoyed the same things, and had the same attitude towards life in Cambridge.”
This attitude, though, is not overly positive. Felix is unlikely to become a poster boy for Cambridge Access anytime soon: “I found it really difficult,” he confesses. “For the first couple of years I wanted to be like the normal student, go out, take drugs and have a party, and I couldn’t find anyone that wanted to do that. I felt there were so many people who were protected, having grown up in a bit of a bubble, and Cambridge in itself is quite a bubble. It’s a very protective environment where you can act a bit like a child if you want to, and I found that really frustrating and wanted people to have a dose of real world.” Things improved, though, in his final year, when he began to focus on his English degree. “I found a tutor I enjoyed talking to and I started going to the library lots. I enjoyed it much more once I started to get into academic side of it.”
Has there been a conscious endeavour to downplay their time here?
“It’s not conscious at all, especially given the non-privileged backgrounds of people in the band. I’m proud I got into Cambridge, got a first and worked hard. I’m not ashamed of that at all.” He’s keen to point out that they are not a Cambridge band, despite Goddard and Taylor playing the odd gig as Hot Chip in the Portland before he joined. “I do look back fondly,” he insists, “But I hope things have improved since then,” he trails off.
Individual experience will determine whether or not this is the case. We no longer have that peculiar record shop, but we do have One Life Stand to blast in our rooms or dance to in Fez. With its humungous heart, the warmth of closer ‘Take It In’ is possibly Hot Chip’s finest moment to date, the conclusion to the perfect record to ease you through another term in the bubble.