For an album as euphoric as 2019’s ‘A Bath Full of Ecstasy’, British dance-pop heavyweights Hot Chip’s seventh record came to be mired in surprisingly tragic, gloomy circumstances. At their final performance on the supporting tour in March 2020 in Australia, touring member and longtime collaborator Rob Smoughton was taken seriously ill with a heart issue that proved almost fatal, and was forced to recuperate in a Melbourne hospital as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. He has since recovered and rejoined the band for their live shows.
The previous June, two days before the release of the record, producer Philippe Zdar – one-half of French touch pioneers Cassius – fell to his death from a Parisian rooftop in an accidental fall. He had worked with the band on large parts of the record: this wasn’t how it was all supposed to be.
“It was a really stressful time,” Alexis Taylor, Hot Chip’s frontman tells NME over Zoom from his London home. “The ‘Bath Full of Ecstasy’ tour had been going really well and we’d really been enjoying that tour. So coming out of that and back into making a record again with everything that had gone on… it was one of the weirdest and darkest times for us as a group”
‘Freakout/Release’, the band’s eighth album (out August 19), makes for yet another career highpoint for the London group – one that is perfectly pitched between exhilaration and melancholy. It’s a trick that the band, completed by Taylor’s childhood friend Joe Goddard and fellow bandmates Al Doyle, Owen Clarke and Felix Martin, mastered so brilliantly during their rise in the mid-2000s and have since refined over the decades that have followed to become one of Britain’s most original and consistently brilliant bands. The group still pack an undeniable joie de vivre, one that would later serve them well in the making of their upcoming record.
‘A Bath Full of Ecstasy’, however, marked the first time they had worked with outside producers on their work, offering an opportunity to branch out creatively. The work was split between Zdar and Rodaidh McDonald [The xx, Adele], and while the latter’s approach was a tad more businesslike, the Frenchman’s methods spurred on the band to make some of the album’s most buoyant cuts: ‘Spell’, ‘No God’ and ‘Clear Blue Skies’. They aren’t necessarily the big hitters, but do provide the crucial moments that weave together the album’s bountiful musical threads.
“I just remember Philipe’s love for music,” Taylor says. “When we worked in an earlier part of making that album, it was very clinical. We’d sit in studios listening to what we’d already done and making judgments about what to take out and what to leave in. We weren’t really playing and having fun in the studio. But Philipe brought this liveliness to it, which was so special.
“He was good at making us feel like a band and unified and that everyone’s idea and work was valid. Philippe would stand there while we were playing parts on the keyboard and clapping and dancing – he just had so much enthusiasm. It was really tragic what happened to him, and it’s really cruel that someone who was so full of life is not there anymore.”
The album and tour that followed – with this joyous mindset at the forefront – seemed to mark a considerable transition for the group. On ‘A Bath Full of Ecstasy’, they found the equilibrium between pop precision, painting gorgeous symphonies of electronic wonder and feral enjoyment. It was on this tour that they busted out a cover of Beastie Boys’ 1988 single ‘Sabotage’ in their sets. Seeing Taylor, the mild-mannered frontman best known for his serene, dreamy vocals, screech the song’s furious opening lines (“I can’t stand it! / I know you planned it!”) was as fun and surprising as live music can be. The days of sneering descriptions as being ‘eggheads’ and ‘geeks’ feel increasingly redundant: instead, they are masters of so many crafts, even ones unfamiliar to them.
“I definitely see parallels between us and the Beastie Boys, particularly in terms of utilising the same influences of American funk and soul music,” Taylor says. “That song and sound is so far away from how Hot Chip tends to sound with us rocking out and me screaming, so we didn’t feel much of a need to change it so much like we would do with a pop production. That was a fun challenge for us.”
Once the band returned home from the end of the tour, they looked to new projects for a refresh. Taylor released his fifth solo album, ‘Silence’, which sees his jazz influences shine through, and the band compiled an entry in the influential Late Night Tales compilation series. Remixes of Hayley Williams’ solo material and Nina Simone classics accompanied a standalone single, ‘Straight To The Morning’, with Jarvis Cocker on vocals; released in October 2020, it became a kitchen-disco staple about the joys of debauched parties, when such things felt like sheer fantasy.
“If I didn’t have that freedom to release solo records, which really concentrate on quieter songs, I think I’d be frustrated musically.” Taylor says. “I need to keep moving musically to feel inspired, and that means I can come back to that band and all of the qualities that make Hot Chip so special are fresh to me.”
So what makes Hot Chip such a long-lasting, fruitful project that they want to come back to? The band’s fortunes over the past two decades have nary dipped or wavered; though they may only have a couple of bonafide chart hits (2006’s Over & Over reached Number 27 in the UK Singles charts and 2008’s ‘Ready For The Floor’ peaked at Number Six), they occupy a special place as cult favourites. Next month, they will pack out four shows at London’s 5,000-capacity O2 Brixton Academy for a special residency.
Partly, Taylor says, it’s because of those various projects, and the joy and focus each member brings to the band. But it’s confidence in what they’ve done – and what they will do – they spurs them on, something that didn’t always come so easy,
“You want it to connect to people and that doesn’t mean you don’t care what anyone thinks, but maybe you just relax a bit about the process by this point. I’m not worried about that when we make and conceive records… maybe I should be! I definitely remember some years back we’d go to the newsagents and check what people had said about the album in the reviews, and feel disappointed if it was a bad review and pleased if it was good. At one point I was quite bad and wanted to read every review – but I guess I just don’t go into WHSmith much anymore…”
“I definitely see parallels between us and the Beastie Boys”
That calmer, more assured spirit bled into the making of ‘Freakout/Release’. It was recorded in the band’s aptly titled new studio, Relax & Enjoy in east London, a new recording and creative space dreamt up by Doyle and Goddard. For years, they’d been acutely aware of the spiralling costs of recording in someone else’s studios and wanted to make something of a base for the group and help lift the tension. They were inspired by Zdar once more: the new space’s feel and layout was inspired by Zdar’s Motorbass Studio in Paris, where Phoenix, Robyn and Metronomy all recorded some of their finest work.
For Hot Chip, Relax & Enjoy became a place where they could walk into the studio and put ideas down without too much faff, capturing that initial energy of songwriting inspiration. Recording sessions would blend into more social hangouts. “It felt like our home away from home and comforting to have a place to go into when the rest of your life in lockdown is about restriction – it was a bit of a party in the evenings with the band,” Taylor says, adding, drily: “It was only us there, though – it wasn’t like the Conservatives’ lockdown parties…”
The space has allowed for some of Goddard and Taylor’s most arresting songwriting. Lead single ‘Down’ supercharges a sample of Universal Togetherness Band’s cult disco classic ‘More Than Enough’, while ‘Eleanor’, a blast of Prince-esque sunshine, paints a surreal picture of playwright Samuel Beckett giving wrestler Andre The Giant a ride to school (which actually happened). As ever, they’re delightfully unique. The album’s title track, produced by fellow dancefloor heroes Soulwax, harnesses that ‘Sabotage’-spirit into a raucous electro-rock banger.
As for Taylor: he was able to delve deeper into his songwriting in a relaxed environment, notably on ‘Hard To Be Funky’, a ballad that toes the line between the blues and dark humour. He may note in the song that “funky is a funny word and I don’t know what it means”, but he’s nevertheless deep in a funk and “sliding down in the groove”. Today he explains: “There is a large part of what I say on record that I think connects with people because they [have] someone revealing something quite deep about what is going on inside of themselves emotionally.”
It’s at odds with ‘The Evil That Men Can Do’, a half-ballad, half-rage-against-the-world cut that cracks open the Hot Chip universe, allowing outside injustices to seep through. Written by Goddard, the track features Canadian rapper Cadence The Weapon, an old friend the band toured with over a decade ago and who happened to be in London during the album’s recording.
Goddard has described the song as a response to “racial tension and male aggression to females” and its lyrics are pretty blunt: “There needs to be an admission of guilt / For what we did / For all we see”. Cadence, meanwhile, raps that the “reckoning is coming” and that the silence is “deafening” among those who should speak up.
Today Taylor admits: “Joe is much better and able [than me] to say something political if he wants to. I don’t think I’m that good at speaking on a grand scale or on political topics. “I’m better at saying something personal and which hopefully becomes quite universal.”
This sums up why Hot Chip are so beloved, several decades since Taylor and Goddard met at school over two decades prior. They have been steadfast in their mission to emulate those bands that brought a colourful, playful edge to pop music – Pet Shop Boys, New Order – but to be open to change and sure about their place in the scene. “We have been doing this for a long time now,” Taylor says, “it doesn’t really feel like we’re here to prove ourselves to people anymore.”
– Hot Chip’s eighth album ‘Freakout/Release’ is due for release on August 19 via Domino Records