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A Quietus Interview

"It's More Like Washing Up Music": Hot Chip Interviewed
Ben Hewitt , April 29th, 2010 10:12

Al Doyle speaks to The Quietus about Hot Chip's new album One Life Stand, looking like geeks and the reading material in Peter Gabriel's lavatory

As Hot Chip guitarist Al Doyle will allude to in his interview with The Quietus, his band have a tricky task in trying to appease two sets of fans who, seemingly, fell in love with the band for two entirely different reasons. There's the one faction who revel in the pulsating dance-monster smashes such as 'Shake A Fist' and 'Over and Over', and then the other sect who prefer the slower, more subtle strains of 'We're Looking For A Lot Of Love' or 'Made In The Dark'. Sometimes, it's impossible to please everyone.

The former group of Hot Chip devotees, then, might have been concerned when details of One Life Stand, the band's fourth studio album, started to be revealed. For starters, there's the punning of the title, which indicates a preference for a nice quiet night in with a mug of Ovaltine and a loved one rather than a drunken and debauched night on the tiles. Fears of an LP focused on domesticity over the disco were hardly likely to be quelled, either, by talk of marriage, fatherhood and "settling down" in interviews. And when rumours started to spread that Britain's Got Talent warbler Susan Boyle had influenced the album, it's easy to imagine them giving up hope altogether.

But as Hazel Sheffield observed in her review of the LP earlier this year, growing old seems to have done wonders for Hot Chip. Compared to the sprawling ideas and offshoots of its predecessor Made In The Dark, One Life Stand is their most coherent and concise record to date - and one that feels like an album proper rather than a collection of singles.

That's not to say, however, that all of the band's fanbase are convinced. "It's been interesting to see the response to the record," says Al. "There was a bunch of people who liked it straight away and a lot of people who really hated it. And then following those responses it's been a case of people giving listening to it and giving it a bit more of a chance and then coming round to it, which I thought might happen."

Why do you think some people hated it?

AD: Well, I think that some of it was quite light and very overtly poppy, maybe in a way that some of the previous records haven't been. It's also...I don't know, there's less kind of in-your-face style songs like 'Shake A Fist' from the previous record.

It's one of those albums you can put on in a domestic situation. It sounds like a put down but it's more like washing up music. And some of my favourite records are the ones I play when I do things round the house.

So would you say it's less dance orientated than your previous records?

AD: Not really. There's songs like 'Slush' or 'Alley Cats' that are a little bit more restrained, but that's just a very obvious thing, and that's also something that's happened on previous records. People are talking about ballads, but for us we only see 'Slush' as being the actual ballad on the album. Even songs like 'Brothers' or 'Alley Cats' are a little bit more down tempo but they're not really ballads.

I think it's one of your most coherent albums.

AD: Yeah, that was something that was an aim. We felt we wanted to make something that felt of a piece, and part of that came through the tracking sessions which were all kind of cramped into about eight weeks in the studio, so even though the album took quite a long time to make we did the bulk of recording in one place and at one time.

How much was that a reaction to some of your older albums, which were more sprawling? At times, especially with Made In The Dark, it almost felt like there were too many ideas...

AD: Yeah, Made In The Dark started off as a possible double album. There were a lot of songs on there, a lot of sort of different moods. Some people really loved it, but a lot of listeners found that quite confusing.

We've always been a band that's kind of taken some note of criticism, because you might as well. It's so easy at the moment to get a lot of feedback about what you're doing. It's just very hard to come down on what people actually really want. Because we feel like we're in the pop business, as it were, then these things become quite important. I think we started off being a much more obscure band because nobody knew who we were and we had a bit more freedom to explore what we wanted to do. Now we've tried to take all those different interests and siphon them off into side projects, and make the Hot Chip thing as pop as it can be without them being boring.

There's a conscious desire to give people what they want, then?

AD: Yeah, but not to try and second guess them, because that would be paralysing I think - to keep on trying to figure out what other people think. You have to have some level of belief in your own skill and abilities as a musician. At the same time, you don't want too indulge your own kind of peculiar foibles and interests too much, because that's something that's very individual to you and you're writing something that's supposed to have some kind of mass appeal.

I mean, the way that I'm talking makes it sound like it's some sort of exercise in marketing, but that's not really what I'm talking about. We want our music to be listened to by as many people as possible, and that's quite difficult to do. Pop music is a really difficult thing to perfect. It's a very constrictive form of verse-chorus-verse and hooks and melodies - it should be easy to tie together but when you actually try and do it....we've probably only achieved it four or five times in our career, these perfect pop songs.

There's been a lot of discussion about members of the band settling down, having children etc influenced the record - and that kind of ties in with what we were talking about earlier, with it being more suitable for a domestic situation. How much has that maturity changed the band?

AD: I don't know. It's really hard to talk about it, because music is such an abstract thing. I think it might be a little bit of a blind alley. Joe, for instance, is still incredibly interested in modern British underground dance music and all that kind of stuff, which is obviously quite frantic. I think their are a number of men in their late 30's that are still extraordinarily interested in that.

I think personal circumstance is always going to dictate how people are going to interpret something, to some extent.

AD: Yeah, you've got to have something to write about. I mean, it is definitely where we are - we're all a little bit older. It's not really the years, it's the mileage, and we've all had quite a little bit of that.

It's strange, because in the past I think there was a conception that Hot Chip were kooky, or didn't even take themselves completely seriously.

AD: Yeah, I don't know what word I'd use, but we're not po-faced. We're not like, 'Hmmm, we're musicians and we've got to make these serious songs'. The most overtly funny song on the album is 'Brothers', but again, we've never felt like we've written an out and out comedy song in a Flight Of The Concords Style. We feel as though that that aspect of our characters - we're quite light-hearted and joky - is probably worth reflecting in some of the music.

Do you think that makes a change from British music now, where humour isn't really prevalent anymore?

AD: Yeah, it's a bit of a relief valve in a way. There is a danger that you could be seen as a kind of novelty act, and that's what we had when we started out.

Did you find that frustrating?

AD: I think in retrospect, we were probably a bit wrong to be frustrated. I have to speak for the other guys at this point because I wasn't really involved in the album, but Coming On Strong was an attempt to write something that would stand up next to a Timbaland or Missy Elliott production, or Destiny's Child, or like a DFA record. And it just wasn't [like that], but it was its own thing which was also good. We didn't possibly realise it at the time, and that's why I think that record still has a lot of charm and people have an affection for it. But maybe that came out as being a little bit comedy, when it wasn't necessarily intended to be. That's kind of a good thing - as long as it still stands up in some way.

A lot of people refer to you as geeks, too. Is that frustrating as well?

AD: [Laughs] Yeah, it's become this meta level of answering questions on this. People don't ask us about being geeks anymore - it's questions about being asked about being geeks. I don't know what's going to happen next - is there going to be a third level?

It's fine, basically, because that's become our image. It's something that kind of happened out of our control. In my opinion, it came down to a very simple matter of their being, a) Three people onstage who wear glasses, because we have to as we can't see without them, and b) We're quite a strange looking group of men. Physically we go from from very tall to very thin to quite stout to quite small. And then we all just have a really badly coordinated set of clothes. I think people look really good individually when you have Alexis and Joe wearing bright coloured sportswear next to me and Owen and Felix who wear quite drab tailored suits. It looks quite odd on stage. We've had many offers to be styled but we couldn't quite bring ourselves to do it. We had people telling us to do it, and us refusing. I think it would be weird now if we came on stage and we all looked the same.

I think if you came out looking like Kraftwerk, it would be quite strange.

AD: Maybe we should do that - it would be a curve ball. But it probably won't happen.

I wanted to ask you about the remixes that Hot Chip do. Do you ever think there's a danger that they might detract from your own work?

AD: Well, I personally haven't done that many since the Kraftwerk ones, which was a long time ago. I think Joe continues to do them because he enjoys doing them and he finds it quite hard to say no to people. I do think they're good ways of experimenting, and an opportunity to do a little study of studio techniques that might not get to do on one of your own songs. But I know what you mean - it's as though every release has a Hot Chip remix on it, and maybe we're saturating the market a little bit. I don't know. But Joe likes doing them, and I'm not going to stop him.

You recently worked with Robert Wyatt and Peter Gabriel. What was that like?

AD: The two days we had with Robert Wyatt were probably the best two music making days of my life. He's such a nice guy and obviously a big hero, and in no way was he a disappointment.

What was he like in person?

AD: Tremendously self-effacing. He hasn't got a trait of rock & roll to him at all. He's very down to earth, very kind and thoughtful. He's one of the most capable all-round musicians I've ever met, whether he's playing the piano, or the drums, or the cornet, or just singing. He's just made of music basically, that guy. He was there with his wife and she was making us sandwiches and stuff.

The moment I'll remember as being a really good moment was when I recorded some cello, and he said, "Al, that was really good. If Brian were here, he'd have said that was the best thing we've recorded all day" - meaning Brian Eno. I was like, "That's wicked!"

How about Peter Gabriel?

AD: He was also very nice. He's a little bit more reserved. I'm sure he works with so many people day to day. He made a good cup of tea. He had a copy of The Rough Guide To World Music in his toilet which was quite funny.

Who do you prefer: Peter Gabriel of Phil Collins?

AD: I'm a bigger Peter Gabriel fan although I do still like Phil Collins. I've got time for him. I'm not a hater of Phil-Co. But if it came down to one or the other, I'd go for PG. I didn't call him that to his face, by the way.

Did you call him Mr Gabriel?

AD: [Laughs] No, I called him Peter.