SETTLING DOWN HAS BEEN GOOD FOR THEIR MUSIC
ALEXIS Taylor and Joe Goddard, the singing, songwriting, synthplaying core of Hot Chip, are sunning themselves in the courtyard of the British Library. This is a favourite location for band meetings with their three absent colleagues: Al Doyle, Felix Martin and Owen Clarke. It’s no Chateau Marmont-style pleasure pit but, as we should know by now, the South Londoners have never aspired to conventional stardom.
They’ve never aspired to it, but it may be claiming them anyway. For more than a decade they have been making literate, danceable music, built around Taylor’s pristine falsetto and wry deconstructions of everything from the repetition of dance music (‘‘like a monkey with a miniature cymbal’’) to the retro joys of the Sony Discman (‘‘everything spins on my hip’’). But the arrival this year of their fifth album, In Our Heads, felt like the moment at which they joined Pet Shop Boys, Depeche Mode and Scritti Politti at the top table of intelligent British electronic pop.
The last time I met them was in 2006 at a slightly shabbier table, in a Lebanese restaurant in West London. They were about to break through with their second album, The Warning. What’s changed since? ‘‘ It’s still the same menu, I went there the other day,’’ deadpans Taylor behind his Joe 90 spectacles. Goddard, ursine and affable where Taylor is tiny and precise, lets out a snigger. He concedes that they have moved away from the hip-hop and R&B that informed, often obliquely, their earlier albums in favour of dance and pop influences: the new record takes in blissed-out Balearica, confessional electro-pop and Miami Vice- style synths.
Another change is that both men have hit 30 and become fathers. Here, too, they have bucked the muso trend by simply taking their kids on tour with them — or at least Goddard did until the arrival of his second made it ‘‘ mind-bendingly difficult to take them on a small tour bus’’. Now, Goddard admits, he ‘‘ would accept doing things for the good of my children. Some gigs we get offered might be sponsored by a mobile phone company. It’s hard to earn a living through music and not engage with the commercial world.’’
But settling down has, overall, been good for their music, deepening the detail and frankness that have always been their hallmarks. In Our Heads is an unapologetic celebration of domesticity and monogamy: ‘‘ When you wake me in the morning, that is my favourite thing,’’ Taylor sings on You Do?
Their sincerity and specificity contrasts with the blithe homogeneity of the charts, much of which Goddard finds conservative and bland: ‘‘ Sweeping statements like ‘ You have to live as if it’s your last night’ feel quite empty.’’ Being genuine, he thinks, ‘‘ makes a massive difference as to whether people really connect with a song. Sometimes I do feel kind of strange getting older and making pop music and not essentially being that popular,’’ he admits.
In terms of units shifted, Hot Chip does have way to go before it threatens Depeche Mode,
How Do but the band’s sold-out tours suggest it’s not now out of the question.
Even Taylor’s three-year-old daughter, Prudence, is humming its songs now, although her awareness extends only so far. ‘‘ The other day somebody in the park said to her, ‘ What does your daddy do?’ and she said, ‘ Daddy’s job is drinking beer.’ Which is quite impressive given I was teetotal for 22 years.’’ The latter admission fits with Taylor’s sense of lucid containment: he didn’t drink until he was 22 ‘‘ because I didn’t like what drink and drugs might do to me’’. Were his fears realised when he started? ‘‘ I just liked beer.’’
The best thing about Hot Chip is its uniqueness: its members have influences coming out their ears but they sound like nobody else. Their closest cousins may not be musicians at all: with their rigorously constructed interior worlds, their Oxbridge degrees (Goddard went to Oxford, Taylor met Doyle and Martin at Cambridge) and their ability to combine fun with intellect, they have more than a dash of Monty Python.
Like the Pythons they have a bundle of side projects: Goddard’s dance-floor-geared 2 Bears, Taylor’s improvisational work with About Group, Doyle and Martin’s spin-off band New Build. Doyle, a multi-instrumentalist, has also played with James Murphy’s now defunct LCD Soundsystem. ‘‘ James and Al get on very well; James rightly thinks Al’s an amazing player, so if James had another musical project Al would probably be involved,’’ Goddard says.
They played a recent concert under their various guises and there is talk of developing a revue-style live show incorporating all of their aliases. ‘‘ It’s very harmonious, really,’’ Goddard says. The more their music becomes cherished, the more their sincerity continues to chime, the less people will fixate on their geekiness. It’s the tag that has followed Hot Chip around since day one. Not that they have ever resisted it. When I first met them, Doyle pointed at Taylor’s charity-shop top and said: ‘‘ Look at that shirt. Is he worried about it? Of course he’s not.’’
But slowly the geek chorus is fading. They played a minor role in the Olympics, writing the introductory music for the table tennis. It also turns out that Taylor is a useful footballer. ‘‘ We used to play together loads at school,’’ Goddard says. ‘‘ Alexis is really good. I was a defender and he and Owen were kind of creative midfielders.’’
Taylor, Goddard and Clarke met at the music-friendly Elliott School in southwest London’s Putney, whose alumni include the xx, the Maccabees and Four Tet. They were precious years, when they first began making music at each other’s houses. ‘‘ We weren’t exposed to criticism so having your own little world where you can have your own fantasy and ideas was quite easy,’’ Goddard says.
Now they have swapped their teenage bedrooms for what Goddard calls ‘‘ a massively loving environment’’ with their wives and kids. Lest they get smug, they have Goddard’s dad to keep them on their toes. ‘‘ He invests quite a lot of time in our music,’’ Goddard says. ‘‘ He’s always pushing us to be weirder.’’
After their recent gig at Heaven in London, which I found rather rapturous, ‘‘ Joe’s dad actually gave me a pretty rigorous review,’’ Taylor says with a hint of a smile. ‘‘ He said that we needed to work on the shape of the set and that we lost people at certain points.’’
But after all that, what’s most striking is how much they haven’t changed. The fact there is a recognisable Hot Chip sound makes Goddard ‘‘ feel really proud, but I also wonder if people just think we’re repeating ourselves’’. He needn’t worry. They have simply gained confidence in their whimsical world and waited for everybody to catch up.