Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor talks beauty and harshness on ‘Beautiful Thing’
From its humble beginning as a duo at an English secondary school, UK indietroncia act HOT CHIP have been a powerful force in electronic music in the eighteen years they’ve been around. From classic mid-noughties hits like ‘Over and Over’ and ‘Ready for the Floor’ to the unique mixture of R&B and house on their latest album Why Make Sense – there’s a good chance you’ve gotten down to Hot Chip at some point in your life.
A driving force behind the catchy bleeps and bloops of Hot Chip is ALEXIS TAYLOR. With a long list of collaborations like ABOUT GROUP and FIMBER BRAVO, he also has a considerable solo discography under his belt. Shedding ear-worm pop for more homely ballads, albums like Rubbed Out and About Barbarians showed a more complex and contemplative side of Taylor. His last release, Piano was exactly what it said on the tin – a collection of minimal piano ballads that let Taylor‘s knack for songwriting shine in full force. The companion pieces Listen With Piano and Listen With(out) Piano featured reworks of tracks from Piano with other musicians, and allowed the listener to listen to the additions on their own, or to create a cohesive whole with the two together.
This year Alexis Taylor announced his latest LP Beautiful Thing, due out on April 20th via Domino Records. He also dropped a title track that was the kind of poppy experimentation you wouldn’t expect to hear on a solo record. The record was produced by TIM GOLDSWORTHY, a mammoth force in the electronic world whose impact was felt as a founding member of UNKLE and the co-founder of the label DFA alongside LCD Soundsystem‘s JAMES MURPHY. The album marks an interesting progression in Taylor‘s craft, as it is the first time he’s worked with a producer on a solo record – and if the title track is anything to go by, might be unlike anything we’ve heard from him before.
We sat down with Alexis Taylor between rehearsals to get a little background on Beautiful Thing .
Beautiful Thing is your first solo album with a producer; what did you want to do differently this time around that made you seek out Tim Goldsworthy?
I felt like I’d made a few records in a row, each of which was quite different from the last, but they all involved me recording and producing them and mostly playing all the instruments. I kind of wanted to be in a different headspace and a different environment, and to collaborate with somebody, and to also have the help of somebody else to think about what these songs were, whether they could be brought to their best potential [or] maximise their potential, rather than doing what I might do left to my own devices. I wanted perspective from a producer, but I also wanted their expertise thinking about their imagination I suppose; imagining how songs can be produced and sound.
I got given a record with a remix by Tim Goldsworthy on it, on this label called Public Release Records. I was given it by Eugene Whang who’s the label boss of that, and it was such a brilliant sounding remix, I just felt so excited by it, and so I wondered, “I wonder what Tim is up to right now? Maybe he’s a good person to write with.” So, I contacted him and he explained that he was trying to quit the music industry all together, and just go into studies, to go to university for the first time because he’d never done that before. But he liked the idea of working with me, and I managed to sort of persuade him to do this record. We had a lot of fun making it along the way, but he had to fit it in around his studies completely. [I]t wasn’t like having full access to him all the time, it was just one day a week that we could work together. But, yeah, he’s a really fascinating guy and I feel like he’s quite… what’s the word… He hasn’t necessarily been given credit for the stuff he’s contributed to or good at over the years, and it was nice to work with him and see him enjoying working on it. It felt like he brought a lot to what I was trying to do so it was a really fruitful collaboration.
In a lot of ways, the album sounds a bit like an extension of your work on Piano and its accompanying releases, in the sense of sparse piano arrangements with experimental, almost ethereal soundscapes. Is there something about these kinds of sounds that draws you in?
I guess the songs – a lot of them were written at the piano. That is the main instrument I write music on. Often piano and sometimes guitar. Maybe given that I’d made that Piano record and that I began writing these songs on piano, maybe that’s why it kind of emerged in that way. Whereas if I’d made a complete break from the piano as an instrument and just started writing in a very different way, perhaps writing with drum rhythms at the beginning rather than chords, or writing on a guitar or an instrument I wasn’t familiar with, it might have gone off in a different direction all together. I guess I just like the piano – its the instrument I play, so I guess a lot of what I do is based around that. I think that there’s room for things to be piano based but have other stuff fed into them or emerging out of them sonically.
Exploring sounds a little further, I found there’s a really interesting balance between beauty and harshness on the album – for example, how the title track becomes noisier as it goes on, or how the lyrics on ‘Oh Baby’ twist on themselves. Was it hard striking a balance between these two factors to create something cohesive?
There wasn’t for me – I felt like it was a cohesive whole and it had a sort of ‘sound’ to it as a record. I know that for some other people listening to it they might find it changes from one song to the next, but that’s also been the case with Hot Chip records as well. Other people find it surprising, having a slow song next to a fast song or something. I didn’t find it difficult, and I didn’t plan to make contrast between harshness and beauty throughout the whole record, it was more just some of the tracks felt like they needed pushing in those different directions so that there was a bit of tension in the music. But I also think that there’s a tension sometimes in the words – it’s not just a kind of really, easy going mood or atmosphere in terms of what I’m singing about. That’s kind of inherent in the music.
On a similar note; the title track and ‘Oh Baby’ sound to me like poppy, almost (for lack of a better word) palate cleansers in a way. Did you feel like you needed those songs as a sort of ‘breather’, or that they aid the sequence of the album?
I think it does. I think it would be too one page or one mood if it didn’t have those songs. Not really one mood but it would be quite ballad heavy. I don’t tend to write loads of fast poppy songs on my own – these were ones that I wrote in that form, and I was kind of glad at their existence. I wanted them to be on there.
A lot of the tracks seem quite introverted to me, and that’s why thought the album cover was quite fascinating. Can you tell me a little about the thought process behind it?
I’m a fan of John Booth, who designed that [and] made that ceramic vase. My wife came across his work a couple of years ago and bought a couple of ceramic face plates. My wife and I got to know him and we started hanging out a lot, he’s a really lovely guy. I said to him, “Would you consider doing the album cover?” What I had in mind was something a bit more inviting I suppose, than the artwork I’d used before. I felt with this album I wanted to have my head or my face visible – my face has never been visible in any form, photographically or other, on any Hot Chip or solo record. I just felt like he would do an interesting job of making something that, as a work of art, would look like a ‘beautiful thing,’ and would be quite a pleasing and inviting album cover. I think of the music being like that too – you were saying it sounds quite introspective to you. I can see that, but I also think it’s fairly a pop record, to me.
I’m interested in the ideas behind the track ‘There’s Nothing to Hide’ particularly the titular mantra that repeats throughout. What was the idea behind that song in particular?
It’s just about the idea that the kind of music that I make, you don’t really need to ask questions of me about what it’s about. Because it’s all there, ‘unhidden’ in the music I make. It’s a kind of point of that song, I suppose. It’s about what the song title says its about: nothing being hidden and everything in plain sight. I suppose that’s kind of how I operate musically, generally.
I was interested if you were talking to yourself in that song, or if you were talking to, I guess, people like me, music journalists probing your songs for answers.
[laughs] I wasn’t talking to myself so much, because I feel like I know that already. More for other people. But in the song there’s a small bit of accidentally recorded speaking between Tim and I that was left on the track. I quite like that that’s there because it feels like the song is about there being nothing to hide but there is a kind of hidden element in the track. I liked that juxtaposition. Also, the song sounds quite mysterious in a way. While saying that there’s nothing to hide, it’s kind of asking the listener to think, “What is going on?” in the song, when there’s so little lyrical content. It’s like a riddle or something to solve.
Thinking outside the box a little, you’ve talked in the past about doing live shows – especially for Piano – where the audience was seated and you felt the audience gets to pay more attention to the music and the lyrics, as opposed to a Hot Chip show where everyone is standing up and dancing, and it’s more rhythmic and emotional. In terms of that balance, would you define Beautiful Thing as a sitting down kind of album, or a standing up kind of album?
In terms of a live show, it’s a bit more of a standing up record. I think tracks like ‘Beautiful Thing’ and ‘Suspicious of Me’, ‘Oh Baby’ – more kind of dance-y. I would hope people would feel that way when they listen to it. To me, it works quite well to listen to while travelling, engrossed in the record on a headphone experience. I think it will sound good on record too – it’s a nicely recorded record with analogue and digital elements there. I can imagine it being listened to at home through a stereo too, rather than just the kind of Spotify phone speaker kind of way.
Do you know what shape the live experience will take? Will it be more band focused or perhaps a more solo thing like your tour for Piano?
I’m in rehearsals at the moment with bandmates – Susumu Mukai and musicians I’ve worked with before on another project called Fimber Bravo. It’s already being organised, the live shows.
Do you think you’ll make it down to Australia?
Yeah! I’d love to come to Australia with this tour and these songs. I’m just hoping there’s an offer to do that at some point.
Beautiful Thing is out 20th of April via Domino Records.
INTRO BY MAX LEWIS