The five-man party that is London's Hot Chip must confound those poor CD-sticker-blurb writers. On their debut album Coming on Strong, the band mixes absurdity and realism, detail and grandeur, boom-bap and hush hush in equal measures, with lyrics that range from literary to Ghostface-ian and beats that recall grime, Scritti Politti, Timbaland and the Postal Service, sometimes all at the same time. Their weirdly original and seductively unpredictable tunes defy easy description, yet make sense to the ear, as attested to by the three new members who have joined the original duo of Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard.
The new additions--multi-instrumentalists Owen Clarke and Al Do It, plus drummer Felix Martin--were drawn to performing a record they had occasionally added to, but mainly heard as friends. Coming on Strong, bedroom-recorded by Taylor and Goddard, was released in the UK in 2004 on Moshi Moshi; this month, it arrives Stateside courtesy of Astralwerks.
And while the Yankees are just coming to terms with Coming on Strong's curious crunk/IDM/blue-eyed-soul blend, the new five-strong Chip has already churned out another album for spring 2006. Led by the surging,
DFA-remixed dance single "Over and Over", an ode to loops and repetition punctured by snarling guitar, ghostly organs, calls-and-responses and more woodblock and chimes than you can shake a stick at. With five musical partners pushing in every conceivable direction at once, we thought we would find out what makes the individual Chips tick.
Chip 1: Alexis Taylor
Alexis' soft, high voice forms the core of Hot Chip's vocal identity, though at times he is undercut by Joe's faintly ridiculous baritone. "I suppose it fell to me to be the singer because I started writing some lyrics," muses Taylor. "There wasn't any grand plan behind it. We didn't really know what we were doing except we were quite keen not to sound like other people. I don't set out to confuse people particularly, but I do want to surprise them and give them some new pleasurable sounds they really can engage with." Though normally he delivers heartfelt (sometimes heartbreaking) lyrics, he'll get in and mix it up, as on "Down With Prince," where he uses a pitch-perfect Prince imitation to take to task those who would ironically cover the Purple One. "I had to deliberately try and make a record that sounded like Prince in order to get the point across that there's no point in ripping off someone like that. Do you see what I mean?"
If you don't, skip to "Playboy" instead, a deliberate homage to an unlikely source: Justin Timberlake's Timbaland-powered mega-hit "Cry Me a River." As Taylor remembers it, "Literally, we stopped watching the video and went upstairs and made the song as an attempt to make a song as good as that. I wanted it to be as grandiose-sounding as possible--no one could possibly start a song quoting from T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land and expect to be taken seriously."
Truly, it is easier to stomach as it's punctured in self-aware fashion by Joe's boasts of rolling in his Peugeot blaring Yo La Tengo, making it both ridiculously sincere and sincerely ridiculous. "The whole album's really self-referential," explains Taylor. "There's other tracks that didn't make it on [the record] where Joe just sings about the band Hot Chip every other line (in the way that hip-hop people talk about themselves all the time). I would describe how we are a bit like Stevie Wonder but we can't really play our instruments very well. I think there's quite a sense of bathos in most of the tracks on the album because we're really quite serious about what we're doing but we can laugh at ourselves at the same time."
Chip 2: Owen Clarke
Owen Clarke admits he can't play his instruments very well, but at least he has a good excuse: he's not really a musician. "I did fine art, so painting's sort of my slant really," he says, shrugging. From creating the album cover, this longtime school chum's "roving role" has grown into playing guitar and keyboards, his discordant Casio riffs pepper the record. Where other members are likely to break off into antigravity free jazz or minimalist fake house, Clarke pulls them back to earth: "I listened to the radio when I was young; I was never an album kid. I like things with a groove and funky and...that sounds awful! I like inventive pop melodies."
Chip 3: Felix Martin
Felix Martin plays drums and drum machines with the funky efficiency of his beloved minimal techno records, pushing the groove forward with an ear toward labels like Kompakt and Traum. But don't expect robotic rhythms to take over, as he has four other people and his own diverse listening to cope with. Plus, you'll hear touches of his obsessions with dancehall and American archive music creep in. "I try to reinvent the way I do things so it doesn't become just button-pushing," says Martin. "We're five quite different personalities and we've all got our own musical background that's quite strong, so something comes out that's a little bit strange. It's not like we're all five people that want to make clean techno records or banging hip-hop records.We haven't managed to resolve our musical differences."
Chip 4: Al Do It
On occasion, Martin and his melodic partner, guitarist/keyboardist Al Do It, break off into their own remix unit, united by their fondness for minimal dance rhythms. Al, a former Warp Records employee, admits his social life isn't that of superstar DJ or rocker ("I live the life of a retired 50-year-old schoolteacher. Really''m even wearing a few corduroy trousers these days," he says), but in minimal techno he hears an approach that's useful in pushing Hot Chip in unpredictable directions. "All of those guys look after their sounds so well, [with] that clean and jacking flavor that is useful to bounce things off of. They're not necessarily complete song structures--we quite like to take songs that Alexis is writing that have traditional verse/chorus structure and crash them." On their post-Coming on Strong material, Al promises to crash the party even harder with "noisy textures and free jazz breakdowns" worthy of Ornette Coleman.
Chip 5: Joe Doddard
Hot Chip started in front of Joe Goddard's first computer, recording simple acoustic songs with Taylor into Cubase. Their teenage friendship has grown into an easy working process, with each adding lyrics and vocals, and Goddard tweaking the loops and music. "Sometimes if the lyrics are kind of serious I'll think it could be funny if there was something kind of dumb after this, just to make the songs interesting in where they go," Goddard offers. "We do it in a very haphazard way; we just think of something and record it very quickly. We let each other do what we feel is right enough and it comes together at some point."
Goddard's lyrics tend to take the form of hip-hop paraphrases--dreaming about Escalades and his "boo"--but they're delivered with a seriousness that keeps them from slipping into easy irony. These are the idle fantasies of an Englishman who would be Jay-Z if he had the chops, and they add a gently weird humor to Alexis' emo confessions. "We wanted to make the rhythms interesting so you could get addicted to listening to some loop or a keyboard melody and then discover there's a lot to some of the lyrics. Some of them are quite heartfelt or quite sad, and then another moment there might be a bit of light relief and give you a quick laugh. It's nice to have things to discover in music--you don't want to put a CD on and feel like you got it the first time."