Hot Chip’s HQ in Shoreditch, east London, is a dingy, underlit basement studio with peeling paint and a ceiling so low even the keyboards look cramped. To get in, we barge open a stiff door that barely opens halfway and shuffle through behind the five-piece’s core duo, Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard. Inside the den, stacked gadgets and murky lighting give the impression of a deceptively brilliant scientist’s laboratory; one mysterious contraption, peeping out from behind an elaborate synth, features two lightbulbs affixed to a plank of wood. “There’s no daylight down here,” Joe grins as we settle in. “You could go mad.”
The place seems ramshackle, but there’s a certain order amongst the clutter. It’s an apt reflection of Hot Chip’s modus operandi. Dance musicians are often an obsessive bunch – behind every scene of manic rapture are many solitary nights fine-tuning rigid 4/4 beats – but few bands marry order and chaos quite like Hot Chip. For starters, Alexis and Joe look, talk and perform less like superstar DJs than dance-pop’s stuffy uncles, meticulously doing their ironing while the party blares downstairs. Joe is the chattier of the two, which isn’t saying much, while Alexis – dressed today in bright overalls that suggest a house painter gone raving – speaks in a worrywart whisper, as if seeking permission to finish the sentence. On record, as you know, this translates perfectly. Even on their bona fide bangers – ‘Over And Over’, ‘Night And Day’, ‘Ready For The Floor’ – Alexis sings in a shy, domesticated mewl that suggests he’d rather be filling the kettle than the dancefloor.
Party chops or no, the London five-piece are insurgent stars of Britain’s pop institution, following the Pet Shop Boys into a hallowed tradition of bright outsiders unbothered with looking cool. But press them on world takeover plans and you’ll struggle to get so much as a “maybe next year”. “I don’t ever really feel that successful, honestly,” mutters Joe, swaying idly on an office chair. Alexis concurs: “I just see other bands going up and up. I don’t think we’ve ever been that big a success. Not Number One hits or Number One albums. ‘Over And Over’ is probably the song we’re most well-known for and it charted at Number 33 or something.”
It peaked at 27, actually – and ‘Ready For The Floor’, the eminent crossover anthem of recent years, hit Number Six two years later. Still, you catch his drift: this May, when Hot Chip release sixth album ‘Why Make Sense?’ 11 years on from their debut, its very existence will be an unlikely triumph against indie-dance orthodoxy. As nu-rave, dance-punk and electroclash bit the dust, giving way to subtler fusions of mellow house and yearning indie vocals, Hot Chip were shuffling quietly into oddball-pop legend. “We see it as a marathon and not a sprint,” Joe reflects loftily, cuing giggles from Alexis. “And when we see the carcasses of all the overnight sensation bands that then split up or something, we slowly drive past, look at them, and get a smile of joy out of those moments.”
It’s been three years since Hot Chip released feted fifth LP ‘In Our Heads’. The delay stems not just from family commitments (both Alexis and Joe are married with kids) but their hefty musical workloads. Alexis has released two albums since ‘In Our Heads’: an exquisite solo LP, ‘Await Barbarians’, and ‘Between The Walls’, with leftfield soul outfit About Group. Joe, meanwhile, helms house revivalists The 2 Bears, as well as co-running celebrated underground label Greco-Roman. Given that they’ve found their creative niches, are there any question marks over Hot Chip’s future?
“I don’t think I’ve ever questioned it,” Joe muses, “although, if I had some enormo mega-hit outside of Hot Chip, I’d obviously leave the band and pursue that…” What keeps everyone coming back? “It’s fun!” Joe exclaims, sounding – and this is rare for Hot Chip, at least on a press day – genuinely, heartily enthused. “Besides, after slumming it with side-projects, it’s nice to have a budget. We’ve always talked about going to Nassau in the Bahamas and making an album. It’s just that, so far, we’ve always ended up in Kilburn.”
Even by the band’s unfussy recording standards, ‘Why Make Sense?’, recorded in three studios including this one, came together quickly. Now that Alexis and Joe have fatherhood to worry about, timing is stricter than ever. Nonetheless, they insist on recording spontaneous, improvisation-heavy jam sessions, before architect Joe swoops in to make sense of the chaos. To avoid endless nights toiling away in the studio, the band booked two five-day sessions at Angelic Studios in rural Oxford. ‘Huarache Lights’, the lead single, materialised in a single day, with little consideration for its radio suitability. “We tried to keep it awkward, in a pleasing way,” smiles Alexis.
Although spending downtime apart means in-band vibes are generally positive, there are, Joe says, “disagreements about a million different things – sometimes the music, sometimes someone’s annoying habit”, borne out of the brotherly comfort that’s developed since the band met in high school. Asked what habits rattle his cage, Joe answers immediately: “Owen [Clarke, multi-instrumentalist] has a habit of really aggressively trying to tickle me if we’ve both been drinking.” Alexis emits a delighted snort. “You get moments like that on tour,” Joe reflects. “One time, Owen was bent over talking to someone out of a window, and I could see his bum a little bit. So I put a brazil nut between his jeans and his bum – just balanced it. And he was annoyed by that, so he forced the same brazil nut into my mouth. It’s okay, though. I don’t bear a grudge. That’s just rock’n’roll.”
Traditionally, ‘80s disco music has been a sanctuary for social outcasts, and throwback producers like Hot Chip have caught flack for abandoning its political principles in favour of cheap thrills. One challenge to that school of thought came last year, when the group covered Arthur Russell’s mutant disco gem ‘Go Bang’ for ‘Master Mix’, a tribute album to the pioneer, with AIDS awareness charity Red Hot. “In Arthur Russell’s day, there was that idea of disco as a unifying thing, helping groups that were politically under the cosh in New York to feel like they had somewhere they could be free,” Joe explains. “In Arthur Russell disco records you feel like the production echoes that – they feel very free and alive. They wanted it to feel like a place you could be free at a time when, out on the streets, maybe you’d get beaten up if you were gay or Puerto Rican.”
Joe finds the “mindless escapism” of much modern dance music depressing and enjoys injecting club culture with “more serious and interesting things”. Take ‘Why Make Sense?’ highlight ‘Need You Now’, a euphoric, soul-infused house cut that explores the disorienting effects of terrorism and global hyperawareness on the modern psyche. “Never dreamed we would belong/In a world that’s just gone wrong,” Alexis mutters, dwelling on images of British terror-hostages. “I find it really hard to read newspapers or watch the news,” Alexis explains of the song, staring into his lap. “I don’t think that’s a good thing, and I find it more difficult since having a child. I feel more depressed by things. Sometimes I feel like there’s a lot more that we, as a band, could maybe be doing. ‘Need You Now’ was a direct response to reading the paper [about] the latest person that is about to be beheaded. It’s quite hard to get away from that and go about your business writing a love song. So it was an emotional response to that – just feeling helpless and accepting that you can sometimes feel helpless.”
If Alexis seems glum, he needn’t be: it’s Hot Chip’s willingness to be mystified, to ask the unanswerable, that marks a band of brainy pop overlords fidgeting into a pop cult of their own – a status they’ll steel-plate this summer, with festival headline slots ranging from leafy Green Man to Sonar’s party pandemonium. Not that they’ll be adding EDM bangers to their repertoire. “This modern dance music that’s enjoyed by thousands of people, it’s basically Mumford & Sons or Coldplay music but with a trance beat,” Joe concludes of Hot Chip’s latest adversaries. “What I’m interested in is the old, clichéd idea of house music, which basically works best with a few hundred people and no lights. No staring at the stage and it all being about a spectacle.” That very wobbly sound, readers, is Skrillex quaking in his spaceship…