Hot Chip: ‘Escapism is the opposite of what we should be doing’

On the eve of their seventh album, the best British pop act of their generation talk about two decades of music-making

A quiet Friday afternoon by London’s Regent’s Canal. Two dads who have known each other since they were 11 – they’re now 39 – are having lunch without the kids. One is a smiling, broad-shouldered bear in a pink T-shirt. The other is smaller and bespectacled, hiding under a baseball cap. They look slightly hipsterish, but blend into the background seamlessly. A huge yellow bag and rucksack under the table contain their rather different outfits for later that day.

Five hours later, Alexis Taylor is in front of thousands at the All Points East festival in Victoria Park, Hackney, his cap removed to reveal rainbow-coloured hair, a DayGlo lifejacket with holes around the nipples swaddling his body. Joe Goddard, meanwhile, is rocking back and forth behind a bank of synthesisers, wearing a colourful jacket with a pattern by artist Jeremy Deller (also unfolded from the dad bags). Joining them are the rest of their crazily dressed band: guitarist Al Doyle in a linen tunic and trousers like a latterday apostle, brightly clothed multi-instrumentalist Owen Clarke, and synthesiser player Felix Martin smiling under his mop of madcap curls. Rob Smoughton (bass, congas, silvery beard, straw boater) and Leo Taylor (drums, lime-green top with pagan symbols) complete the live line-up.

Behold Hot Chip, the greatest British pop group of their generation. They look like cartoon characters, and for their devoted fanbase, that’s where their appeal begins. The band’s music and image suggests a poppier, ravier version of Talking Heads. Gloriously ordinary weirdos, essentially, projecting their most extravagant selves on stage and video. Their fashion is the 21st-century equivalent of the Pet Shop Boys’ Japanese jackets and Boy caps, and they have an art-school archness that is easy to appreciate, as their songs are never too serious, their live sets infused with humour.

Their best songs, from 2006’s Boy from School to 2010’s One Life Stand to their stunning new single, Melody of Love, undercut playfulness with a heart-tugging melancholy. Taylor’s voice – a high, pure peal in the tradition of Paul Heaton, Neil Tennant and Belle and Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch – is the heart, while Goddard’s electronic wizardry provides their guts and pulse.

Al Doyle, Alexis Taylor of Hot Chip at All Points East festival, Victoria Park, east London.
Al Doyle, Alexis Taylor and Felix Martin of Hot Chip at All Points East festival, Victoria Park, London, May 2019. Photograph: Burak Çıngı/Redferns

Hot Chip are a strange modern success story: they’ve become festival headliners while only ever having three top 40 hits. Since 2006’s The Warning, their breakthrough second album, tracks such as Over and Over (with its earwormy refrain: “like a monkey with a miniature cymbal”) have become ingrained in our pop consciousness, boosted by regular TV and soundtrack deals. Hot Chip’s reputation as a brilliant live band has also helped, their music uniting old ravers and young (their top billing slot at 2015’s Green Man was glorious; this year they headline Glastonbury’s Park stage and the electronic Bluedot festival).

And they only get better. On 21 June, they will release their best, most commercial album yet: the provocatively titled A Bath Full of Ecstasy. The summer solstice release date is no coincidence: the typographic design and psychedelic colours of the cover art by Jeremy Deller and graphic designer Fraser Muggeridge (adapted into the band’s stagewear by Cardiff designer Demi Amber) suggests pagan rituals and the early days of rave. It’s all a long way from the south London schoolyard where Taylor and Goddard first met in 1991...

“The first pop culture we bonded over? Honestly? Football and WWF wrestling!”

Joe Goddard is great company: funny, interested, polite. Taylor is much quieter, but curiosity and warmth bubble through his conversation. The boys met at the now famous “pop comp”, Putney’s Elliott school, whose other notable alumni include Burial, the xx and Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden, one of their early mentors (Goddard once got Hebden’s university email disabled after sending him “enormous sound files”). The friends’ first musical bonding moment was Beastie Boys, whom they watched on The Word (“they were incredibly charismatic and silly and fantastical, and that’s what we wanted to be”). Later, they got into alternative American singer-songwriters such as Smog’s Bill Callahan, Jim O’Rourke and Will Oldham, who remains a big influence on Taylor. “He’s so interesting and contrary, a great lyricist, and so prolific. It’s funny: the music industry these days almost trains people to offer less stuff. I like challenging that.”

Watch the video for Hot Chip’s Melody of Love.

Their interest in pop culture was helped by their parents being arty, curious types. Taylor’s father was a university English professor, his Greek mum a psychoanalyst (they divorced when he was young). Goddard’s father was a film editor in Soho, which fascinated Joe, and Hot Chip’s adventurous videos, such as the recent eight-minute short film for Hungry Child in which a couple get possessed by the song, suggest a continuing interest. Goddard’s parents would throw open their basement to their son’s friends, including Clarke, on weekends, and after playing football on nearby fields, they’d convene to learn songs, play guitars and use “really rubbish, rudimentary” computer programs to take loops off CDs.

Then, in 1999, the pair went to university – Taylor to Cambridge to study English, Goddard to Oxford to study history – but their resolve to make music together set in. “Everything was changing quite quickly at that point,” Taylor says. “Joe was getting into house and UK garage, I was listening constantly to Destiny’s Child, but we still travelled to be together often and started trying to do our own weird take on the music that we liked.”

Hot Chip’s first EP, Mexico, was released in 2001, “outselling Eric Clapton’s new release in Cambridge’s Parrot Records on the day it came out,” Taylor says, proudly. Another EP, Sanfrandisco, followed in October 2002, after the friends had graduated. By this point, Goddard was a marketing assistant at Island Records (“I worked on the first Keane album!”), and soon after heard the EP playing in the office of A&R Stephen Bass, who also ran indie label Moshi Moshi. In 2004, Bass released their first album, Coming on Strong.

By the time of its follow-up, The Warning, Hot Chip had signed to EMI and were everywhere: popping up on TV background tracks, getting a Mercury nomination and being sent on huge tours. “We were a sales priority! Not that that lasted,” says Goddard. “We went on this semi-amazing, semi-crazy trip across Spain and Portugal, being shipped from festival to festival in this coach in boiling heat – but the air conditioning was broken. We were all, ‘Yeah, we’re the new music business thing, guys!”

2008’s Ready for the Floor remains their only Top 10 single (No 6). “I loved that moment,” Taylor says. Does he mind not having had any more? “It’d be nice, but it’s not that I’m studying the charts, desperate to get in.” He laughs. “It’s hard to talk about this without sounding ancient and miserable but the best pop, in my mind, is imaginative, immediate and accessible – but also challenging. I hate the amount of bland pop music around now. In our early days, Timbaland and Neptunes were producing big hits in really interesting ways. There’s hardly anybody doing that now.”

The band (l-r: Doyle, Felix Martin, Taylor, Goddard and Owen Clarke) at the 2006 Mercury Music prize ceremony
The band – (l-r) Doyle, Felix Martin, Taylor, Goddard and Owen Clarke – at the 2006 Mercury Music prize ceremony. Photograph: Nils Jorgensen/Shutterstock

After EMI collapsed in 2012, Hot Chip left the majors to sign to Domino, a label where Taylor had worked in his university holidays, doing admin. “They let us be who we want to be, and do what we want to do,” he says. This has included them doing lots of extracurricular music in the last decade: Taylor’s jazz improv four-piece, About Group, and his and Goddard’s solo albums have come out on the label too. Taylor was also one of the first signatories on the letter to save Radio 3’s experimental programme Late Junction earlier this year. “An institution like that having platforms for interesting, diverse music is really important,” he continues, “whether it’s Late Junction, Later With Jools Holland, or the Maida Vale sessions. It underlines that creativity is worth paying attention to.”

The spirit of collaboration with others has changed them, they say – and it’s the same for Al Doyle, who joined LCD Soundsystem live in 2007, before co-writing seven tracks on their 2017 album, American Dream (“Al’s in James Murphy’s classy world now,” Goddard smiles).

Taylor’s 2017 Listen With(out) Piano project also saw him giving songs over completely to other people to finish, among them Green Gartside and Royal Trux’s Jennifer Herrema. When Hot Chip came back together, he knew a similar approach would enliven them. So instead of producing themselves, as they always did, they got in Philippe Zdar, of French dance duo Cassius, who went wild on the psychedelic effects (“He’s got a bottle of acid in his fridge, actually,” Goddard says). Xx producer Rodaidh McDonald was harsher. He pushed them to rewrite lyrics and edit song ideas drastically. “We signed up for it, though, so that’s OK,” Taylor says. “And it’s thanks to him that Melody of Love is a big pop single rather than a 12-minute instrumental.”

He loved that idea of “connecting to people”, he says. Live is equally meaningful for the band. “It’s important to me that we come to life on stage: being upbeat, not too subtle, and I love to see people’s reactions if that’s possible,” adds Taylor.

Watch the video for Hot Chip’s Hungry Child.

But other things have changed Hot Chip’s approach to making music in recent years. One was having kids, which they did relatively young (Taylor was married in his early 20s and his daughter, Prudence, is 10; Goddard’s daughter, Edie, is eight, his son, Albert, seven). “Parenthood teaches you a lot about your ego,” says Goddard. “Having a sense of self-importance is crucial if you’re in a band – that your ideas are important and need to be sung to people. Having kids battles that, makes you focus, and also makes time much more precious, which is a really wonderful thing. You can’t have this wonderful spontaneous lifestyle of just being able to read the newspaper in a cafe for three hours on a Saturday morning any more. Instead, you’re rocking your daughter because she will cry if she’s put down, and you’re thinking of the bassline and the beat you’re going to work on. And when you do it, you make it special.”

But tragic events have affected them too, several around the release of 2015’s Why Make Sense?. Schoolfriend and longtime collaborator Vincent Sipprell, a violinist, killed himself in January 2015; Taylor has said that the loss deeply influenced that record.

Then, on 18 November, the band were due to play in Paris. Five days before, 90 people were killed at the Bataclan. The band had played there previously; they knew people directly affected by friends dying. “We really didn’t want to do our gig if it seemed like the wrong message,” Goddard says. But they played, and Al Doyle read a statement at the start of the gig that he had written in French. “He said that it’s incredible how just playing a show becomes a political act after something like that happens. People thanked us for helping them to be able to be together as a group of people, enjoying something that they wanted to enjoy.” He sits quietly for a moment. “You could see from the stage people who were dancing but also in tears. It was an incredibly moving experience, to be honest.”

With that in mind, A Bath Full of Ecstasy feels like a record for our terrifying times. It takes the communal spirit of house and splices it with the DNA of pop: music as a conduit of hope. The band’s image in 2019 – all sugary pastels and pure joy – is wrapped up in that feeling. We’ve moved to a photo studio next door by this point, where the Observer pictures are done and dusted in half an hour, Taylor and Goddard changing in and out of their candy boilersuits like pros.

“I wrote the [new] songs for people to bathe in, or be lost in an active way,” Taylor explains, as we order an Uber afterwards. “To have a deep listening experience with it, without any distractions, if they can.” Both have railed before about how they dislike mindless escapism in pop. “And escapism is the opposite of what we should be doing in our lives, for political and ecological reasons.”

They find the world around them frightening: Goddard regularly retweets anti-Trump and climate change messages. But Taylor would never write direct protest songs. “Rather than just saying, ‘Oh, there’s Brexit and there’s Trump in power’, instead we’ll write songs like Positive, which is about looking for positivity – asking people to support those around them suffering from mental health problems or facing difficulty with poverty or homelessness. I’m thinking in songs instead, to try and figure out an answer.” Mindful escapism, perhaps?

In a way, A Bath Full of Ecstasy began life as a Katy Perry project. She had asked for Taylor and Goddard’s services while making her 2017 album, Witness, and they spent four days in Air Studios together. “It was incredibly exciting,” says Goddard, giddily. “I loved writing for somebody else. She was great, very funny and easygoing, unlike the people around her. They’d text: ‘Katy’s coming in 20 minutes’, ‘Katy’s walking through the door’, ‘Katy’s standing in front of you.’” One of these songs, Into Me You See, made it on to Perry’s album; two others, Spell and Echo, have been reworked by Hot Chip for theirs.

Joe Goddard and Alexis Taylor.
‘Gloriously ordinary weirdos’: Joe Goddard (left) and Alexis Taylor. Photograph: Ellis Parrinder/The Observer

Then came their own sessions – and that eyebrow-raising title. Surely it’s not a midlife crisis drug-taking record? Goddard admits that he’s been “microdosing on mushrooms a bit, which is a bit zeitgeisty”. Taylor revealed earlier this year in a Q interview that he has never taken ecstasy. “But that wasn’t meant to be a forceful thing. It wasn’t an anti-drugs message. I mean, I haven’t taken it.” He looks at Goddard. “But everybody else in the band has.” They both laugh.

The title came from a line from a song they wrote early on, “and it was just the most evocative and interesting and fun that endured, and just a bit of a break from too serious a title. And I didn’t think it’s a problem to have a title that could be fun or playful or light-hearted in some ways. Ecstasy is just a nice thing to be talking about these days, isn’t it?” He stops. “I mean, the actual feeling of ecstasy.”

“And trying to present a kind of positivity in this world also feels like a valid contribution,” Goddard says. “It’s a worthwhile thing to do.”

It’s now 3.15pm and we’re standing outside a corner shop. Our Uber keeps getting cancelled. We hail a black cab in a hurry, piling in with the boys’ costume bags on our knees (this doesn’t happen to Katy Perry, I suggest). Goddard talks about the last time Hot Chip played Victoria Park in 2007. He had been DJing after a gig the previous night, finally falling asleep at 9am. He woke up at 5pm, just as the band were coming off stage. (Clarke had been with him too, although he made the last 20 minutes of the gig.) “I can still remember the dread,” Goddard shudders. Things are slightly different these days. Now he’s planning family camping trips across Europe around the band’s summer festivals.

A few hours later, we’re backstage ahead of the gig. Primal Scream, Little Simz and Kate Tempest are Hot Chip’s neighbours. Among them is Hot Chip percussionist Rob Smoughton, who talks about the time Elton John invited all of Hot Chip backstage at a festival in California in 2015. “He was so knowledgeable about the band – he knew everything! – and was so bloody nice.”

Then comes Owen Clarke, recoiling when I mention Goddard’s missed gig recollections (“oh God”), Felix Martin and the cheerful Al Doyle, who confirms his position as the “classiest” band member (Goddard’s description) by telling me about a party he went to at former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger’s house and by making me a G&T from their rider. An hour later, he’s dressed in that tunic and wide trousers, joining his strange parade of bandmates to raise hell on the All Points East stage.

The opening notes of Huarache Lights shimmer, and we’re off. The set is fantastic, old and young singing along like total converts. Taylor drags a Leffe bottle over his guitar strings and bursts into laughter during Ready for the Floor when a refreshed teenager wearing a silver bumbag shouts its chorus line back to him (“You’re my number one guy”).

And then comes something absurd and completely brilliant: Hot Chip cover Beastie Boys’ Sabotage. Taylor shouts into two microphones, Goddard nearly rocks himself off the stage, everyone else going berserk. Twenty-seven years of friendship distilled into six minutes of euphoria and the spirit of a teenage basement transported to the open air. Hot Chip make us bathe in that feeling. And it’s worthwhile.

A Bath Full of Ecstasy is released by Domino on 21 June


Jude Rogers

The GuardianTramp

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