Exclusive: Hot Chip Tells Us How To Find Our Wiggle
The story of electronic music in the new millennium must surely have an entire chapter devoted to the work of Hot Chip, a well-dressed five-piece outfit from London who have continually managed to churn out supremely crafted electro-pop for over a decade. Over the course of five studio albums since their formation in 2000, they have released some of the era’s most indelible dance records, such as Over and Over, And I Was a Boy from School, and the Grammy-nominated Ready for the Floor.
For their new album Why Make Sense?, released on May 19, the band have continued to build on the glistening synths and frenetic guitar that mark their sound, but this time around things have gotten funkier. Parliament and D’Angelo level of funky. At least that’s what we heard from band member Owen Clarke, who told us that their new album put the focus on the “chunky, funky sounds of turn of the century R&B.” This inspiration seems pressingly clear on the new singles ‘Huarache Lights’ and ‘Need You Now,’ both the kind of soaring anthems we’ve come to expect from the band with the added flavor of sultry funk.
Clarke has demonstrated a skilled malleability across Hot Chip’s albums, playing everything from guitar, bass, synthesizers, to percussion. Milk Made’s Jake Boyer spoke to Clarke to discuss their upcoming LP, what to do when the power goes out four times during a live set, hearing their songs in TJ Maxx, and how making dance music is all about ‘finding the wiggle.’
So tell me a little bit about how the band was formed.
I’ll tell it to you like a movie. It opens in South London, a long time ago, with three 11-year-old children. These kids went through school life together, and around 1997 they left to go make music together. They played a lot of acoustic instruments, listened to and played a lot of records, Beach Boys, that kind of thing. They went to University to carry on to computer production, but when it came to playing live they needed more people to play. I was making artwork at the time and I came into the band when they were in need.
Is it difficult to make the transition to live material with such complex electronics?
Yeah, it’s a challenge. You have to build things up, layering it in like magpie porridge. A lot of times bands won’t even know how to play their own songs once they’re on stage. We usually start with some core demos by Joe (Goddard) and Alexis (Taylor) with input from other members in the studio. When it comes to playing live we don’t actually know how to play it; all is in the mist of recording. It’s almost like an analysis: how do you do it justice and how does it work and how to bring it alive and play it. There is usually quite a few obstacles to be overcome for every live show, whether its instruments or a human element.
Your new album is waaaay funkier than your previous stuff. You really veered into more disco and R&B oriented territory. What informed that decision?
I suppose there are a lot of influences at work in the records we’ve done, usually a lot of international work. I suppose we were getting at an R&B sort of thing, very turn of the century. We were going for a sort of chunky, funky feel; very human but also lumped with the mechanical feel of an old funk tune. There’s a lot of things going on at once and it’ll come across as very different for each listener, but I think it’s one of the more cohesive records we’ve done.
You all have been together for over a decade now. How have you seen the band evolving?
We’ve come quite a long way. It’s curious to go back to listen things or come across something, suddenly you’re more aware of things in retrospect. Quite recently I was in a local pub in London and they had Coming on Strong, our first album, in their jukebox. I happened to be there when they first put the record on and stayed for the whole thing. We’re just such different people to ourselves now. We’ve had influences running through, things are changing and undulating and we’ve had movements toward different things but there’s no overarching sort of change I could think of, just that constant change that gets bigger over time.
What’s it like when you hear your music in public?
It’s pretty weird. Hearing how they sound in the club is one thing, that’s feels more fun to be part of the fabric of pop music, or nice to be contributing to that history in the same way. But to be in a TJ Maxx and our song will come on while you’re buying oversized sneakers and to have it out in the world like that is way different. It reminds you while you’re slugging away in the studio that there are real world impacts and it affects people’s lives, apparently people play Hot Chip songs at their wedding. We’re indoctrinated into people’s lives, and it’s really nice to feel connected in that way.
How does the process of song construction begin with so many members in the band?
I suppose an analogy of cooking with lots of ingredients would work, but it’s more like painting; removing layers of paint or you can build up something coming from a certain place. Club sort of songs you add things in or if it’s more of a ballad you strip it back and come in with something different. It’s not a committee but a team, trying to decipher what it is that we’ve created in collaboration in that way. Some leader is needed for decisions because there’s a lot of talking at certain points, but almost always it what’s unsaid that’s serving the song and dictates what must be done.
All of your albums usually jump between real club bangers and really toned down slow jams, is it difficult to go between the two?
It’s not really a conscious decision to make; sequencing a record takes a lot of deliberating and the right pacing and feel. And the slow ones come in at the right places. In terms of deciding to make slower jams, it was a much more conscious decision. We wanted a natural back and forth between the often big dance tracks that have that undercutting of sadness or emotional content along with the burst of joy. It’s nice to have those moments in isolation as opposed to the constant upbeat. It’s both sides to Hot Chip’s personality really. Increasingly since the last record we tried to keep them close together. I don’t’ feel like it’s a two-sided thing, its okay to have different aspects of ones personality. You’re probably in trouble if you’re dancing all the time; you’re due for a big sit down!
Let’s take a moment to talk about the album cover for ‘Why Make Sense?’, I understand that each one is different?
We’re really looking forward to it coming out, it’s been a while in the making but that goes without saying. We haven’t seen a copy of the record yet, but yes, each one is different. Me and a friend tried to figure out how to do it but our minds boggled at the logistics. Our friend Nick came up with some randomized printing technique where each copy of the record is different colors, with something like 501 different variations. There’s even a weird butterscotch colored one. Then we got two quite simple striped line patterns, and that variation increases it to an infinite range where everyone gets a unique record, each one is different from the next. And we really hope you don’t get one of the stinky colors, we’re not accountable for that.
What’s something you think people should pay more attention to?
I don’t want to come across as an old man, but people need to look up more, you know? Just the miracle of life I suppose, people get so caught up in their phones and need to look around more.
What’s the coolest show you’ve ever played?
Well we’ve done a fair amount of shows [laughs]. There is one that always tickles me though. It was this one show in New York, a well-known jean manufacturer put together this thing where they got people to collaborate live. It was crazy, Franz Ferdinand were with T.I. doing a track based on some Europop hit. But we did a live show with Chaka Khan, and for one night only, we were her backing band. That’s one where I forgot it happened, you get so involved in playing an amazing show that you forget. We also had a show in Orleans where the power cut out four times. If there’s a power out at a show everyone has this spirit like ‘okay! It’s gonna work!’ but after four times, you’re like ‘You know what? Maybe not’ [laughs].
Is there a secret to crafting the perfect dance beat?
Well I remember I was seeing a documentary, and this guy was making a track to make your shoulders move. Its very natural, you can’t help but dance, that’s the perfect dance beat. If there’s a track you’re working on and something’s wrong, generally you’ll feel it immediately. If it’s fun to listen to and fun to play then you’re probably on the right track, it’s a natural thing by design. Here’s a better answer: it’s more about finding the wiggle. The thing that makes you wiggle, something to catch someone off guard. Perhaps in the club they’re standing in line to buy something and they’ll have a little wiggle at the song playing, then you’ve done it. It’s the fun natural things that tell you everything.
‘Why Make Sense?’ is out May 19th via Domino Records, pre-order the album here
Photography by Steve Gullick