Phil Collins’ demonically leering expression of the cover of ‘No Jacket Required’. Mick Hucknall’s ginger frightwig looming ominously over a pneumatic blonde’s dirty pillows. The Style Council’s wretch-inducing sartorial faux pas: brogues-minus-socks. Yes, honky experiments with the dreaded ‘plastic soul’ can leave you with cold-sweat images so nightmarish that you may be lured into removing your penis with a rusty bread knife. However, Hot Chip – despite looking like the kind of MySpace-afflicted weeds who were a little miffed when Morrissey started banging-on about his fit-to-burst testicles – are salvation from this whitey nightmare. What was that about the meek inheriting the earth?
You may not expect this wily bunch, straight outta the harsh quagmire of the Putney badlands, to be the true possessors of the funk. However, Hot Chip – who’ve dabbled in the murky waters of slap-bass, Nintendo-fuelled 2-step and songs called ‘Sexual Chocolate’ – are not about to pander to your wanky preconceptions. The frail melodies and biting-wit of debut album ‘Coming On Strong’ won many fans (including the DFA, who wrangled their signature), yet also left style mag sub-editors creaming their Silas kecks and salivating over a supposed ‘iwonic!’ fantasy. “The music press was trying to work out half the time whether we lived in Hoxton or not,” smiles Alexis, “or whether it was too clever for its own good. Just cos you have a few thoughts in your music, or cos you like wearing a colourful jumper or something, you get grouped in with something so awful. If you make a record that has a sense of humour in some of the songs, like we did on our first record, people just decide you’re a novelty band.”
We’re trying to be something that displays how we feel about things, and it’s bound to feel quite light-hearted at times as well as being pretty fucking depressed at other times.
This hilariously misguided suspicion of Hot Chip as some sort of bedsit-bound students, with their botoxed-to-fuck arched eyebrows, did little to taint the music. Their delicate, yet by no means flimsy, approach – taking in everything from lo-fi biscuit-tin soul and blu-tacked electronics to scratchy melancholia and “the interesting syncopation and the rhythms of 2-step” – always had eyes beyond Nathan Barley and Brick Lane trustafarians. “Good pop music is something to be proud of,” Alexis notes. “We listen to pop music, we listen to avant-garde music - we listen to Terry Riley and Teddy Riley, the R&B producer. A few years ago all those Rodney Jerkins productions on Destiny’s Child and stuff, that was my favourite pop music around – it was sticking two fingers up to all these people that said ‘there isn’t any soul music anymore’”. This bracing and decidedly unpretentious stance means the band’s interest in “classic disco” and Kraftwerk could be pasted-together with a passion for songs “as good as ‘Dilemma’ by Nelly” without seeming clumsy. “Maybe none of the experimental stuff comes into the recordings in such an obvious way as for Hot Chip to write a lengthy, 35-minute exploratory piece of music, but we try and pack those things into 3 minutes – a lot of crazy solos and free jazz elements into pop songs.”
It was when thoughts turned to their second album and how these wonky ingredients could manifest themselves in “a pop masterpiece of a record” that dreaded ‘creative differences’ arrived. They were beckoned across the sea by the DFA – the uber-lords to ex-public school kids who wear only limited-run imported Levis, and who, in James Murphy, boast the bastion of the most underwhelming facial hair known to mankind. Though a deal with the DFA’s label was struck, their attempts to produce the record fell depressingly flat. “We thought ‘we’re going to make these songs all-together, rather than just me and Joe - record a five-piece live band’,” Alexis says. “The DFA guys wanted to produce… we thought they’d be the right people to capture all those qualities of our live show, not mess around with it and just give it a really good bottom-end. We went over to begin working with them and only had a week of preliminary sessions… we soon realised they wanted to do the same things that me and Joe already do on our records. We came back from that a little shaken-up, it didn’t really seem to work well at all, and some of the band were quite demoralised by that.”
This wasn’t helped by some tragic-comedy Stateside tour events that, suitably for Hot Chip, were so bizarre as to be beyond the bargain bin of rock & roll cliché. “Felix has a chronic illness that can flare-up and get quite nasty, he was in a lot of pain and had to wait for a good five days before he could even fly back to England. So we were at a disadvantage from really early on,” bemoans Alexis. “Then there was a big snowstorm that stopped us getting to Portland, and we played a sold-out show in New York where the monitors kept breaking. We had a funny moment on the last date of the tour in Miami where we had 2 gigs to do on the same day. We came to do the first gig but left half of our equipment at soundcheck at the second venue, and our tour manager had to drive off and try and get it in time for us to play. We got caught going over the water when the drawbridge went up to allow a boat to come through, and we were stuck waiting for half an hour while our equipment is sitting in an empty venue… pretty embarrassing really. We had to play for ten minutes of a 45-minute set to a confused set of people standing on a beach.”
The experience - akin to some lo-fi, bespectacled take on ‘Behind The Music’ - left the deflated bunch to flee back to their roots; the place ‘where the magic happens’, otherwise known as the bedroom. Far from the world of 128-track jumbo-studios with liquid Nazi-crack flowing through the mixing desks and sado-masochistic goblins on-hand 24/7, they’d returned to a site of duvet covers, malfunctioning laptops and soiled mattresses. Ultimately, though, “retaining the homemade feel of the first record” helped them go all Derek Acorah and re-channel some spirit. “We started to say, ‘well, what’s wrong with the way that we record our music already, is there a need to change it?’” mulls Alexis. “I think we felt a bit of pressure to record live because the general public were saying, ‘Oh, you’re so good live, but your first album’s a bit of disappointment… it’s comparatively slow and quiet’. But I actually wanted to make the record sound like that and I wanted this record to sound different from our live show, so we ended up recording in precisely the same way - just Joe and myself, recording each thing very quickly and layering and layering all the tracks.”
The result is potentially chart-shagging pop nail-bomb, ‘The Warning’. It’s a record that could make the case of Last of the Summer Wine - even those consigned to the grave - dance like Michael Sembello, and beyond-parody faux-gangster Dave Courtney weep into his nut-brown ale. From ‘Over And Over’ - the tectonic flange-disco which has eaten your local indie-shithole alive for the past few months - to the downbeat robo-soul of new single ‘Boy From School’, through to the Paul McCartney-sampling pile-up of ‘Careful’ and ‘Look After Me’ - “a hybrid of a modern R&B song with an old song” - it’s a decidedly schizophrenic, yet somehow cohesive, listen. Both audacious and unpretentious, optimistic yet reflective, it deserves to re-unite the great unwashed and give hope to the disparate hoards. Alexis, however, it far more pensive over its impact.
If you make a record that has a sense of humour in some of the songs, people just decide you’re a novelty band.
“I like it, but only from a distance,” he says. “To my ears, it’s probably the most pop statement we’ve made. The songs like ‘Colours’ and ‘Boy From School’ seem quite emotionally and lyrically transparent and warm. I think at this weird moment in time Hot Chip manage to do lots of different styles of pop songs next to each other to make up an album.” Much of this can be cited to the conflicting, yet ultimately constructive, interests at work between Alexis and Joe. “I’m much more into long-playing albums, whereas Joe listens to 12” singles, or old compilations of things like Phil Spector where it’s hit-after-hit. Sometimes he wants to make the greatest party record, or the craziest-sounding rhythm, and I might be feeling like singing an incredibly sad song. Sometimes these tensions are good things and they make for a better song, and sometimes your moods are just so at-odds with each other. It’s a high-pressure situation to be in. Looking back it might seem odd that we were really thinking ‘can we actually make another record?’ But if you really rely on clicking with someone then when it doesn’t work it can feel awful.”
While hardly some red-top-friendly Pete N’ Carl-esque backstab-athon, the success of Alexis and Joe’s partnership and that of ‘The Warning’ relies on a certain degree of tension, and what those with shit-eating grins might refer to as ‘happy accidents’. It’s an album of floor-fillers with bleary, morning-after tears in their eyes and of neutron sex-bombs with broken limbs. “We’re trying to be something that displays how we feel about things, and it’s bound to feel quite light-hearted at times as well as being pretty fucking depressed at other times… maybe you feel both of those things on the same day or in the same song.” These sentiments paste ‘The Warning’s’ pop-nuggets into a consistent whole. “With people’s music, not only is there going to be stylistic traits but you’re kind of grounded by your voice. The Beach Boys were doing something completely different with the range of instruments that they had, and Kraftwerk never sound as clinical or cold as some electronic music can, but they’re always going to sound like themselves when they play their music. I always end up singing in this sort of weird girl’s voice, maybe that’s what keeps it obvious whose band it is - a band with different ambitions are grounded by who they really are, their characters come through in their lyrics and their kind of naivety.”
While ‘The Warning’ may not take the band to the commercially dizzy heights of morally-dubious pied-piper of R&B R. Kelly - “He’s a peculiar, quite frightening man judging by the stories you hear about him, but when his music works, it’s really good” - it certainly deserves to. If Clash wasn’t the shrewd voice of reason we’d drop some poster-friendly soundbites like ‘soundtrack of the summer, kids!’, but instead we’ll proclaim Hot Chip the genuine article; soul men in the true sense of the word. “I try to sing things that I actually feel, and not pretending anything, and that should be in anyone’s music,” proclaims Alexis. “That’s all people really want from a listening experience, they want to connect with someone or they want to feel something different from what they felt before. We all like going to great shows and listening to records that you get so excited about you want to hear over and over again.” Consider it mission complete. Fo’ shizzle.