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Interview: Felix Martin (of Hot Chip)

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    Last month, UK export Hot Chip issued its fifth studio LP, In Our Heads, to critical and commercial acclaim. Self-produced alongside Mark Ralph, the album, according to our own Harley Brown, “fills the perfect middle dance floor between their disparate influences, which range from Luther Vandross to Nightlife Unlimited to, of course, Prince.” Currently, the band is touring overseas in support of the LP, but they’ll make their way stateside this month with a handful of dates, including an appearance at Pitchfork Music Festival. Recently, Consequence of Sound had a chance to speak with Felix Martin about recording, Zappa, soul music, and maintaining relationships.

    Joe Goddard said it’s “a brilliant thing… when a band or producer hit a trademark sound.” Is that what In Our Heads represents, you guys finding a signature Hot Chip sound? Because it could be argued that you found your stride as far back as 2006’s The Warning.

    Yeah, I’d say so. I mean, it’s kind of an evolving sound. Ever since we first started making music together, we’ve always been interested in some of the same ideas, and we’re always kind of going back to those, which is really about trying to mix a lot of different kinds of music and kinds of arrangements together, basically. It’s kind of eclecticism and an open-minded approach to produce the music.

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    I think there is a distinctive sound of Hot Chip… more so than ever on this record, I guess. I’m not sure I’m the best one to describe it.

    When you recorded 2010’s One Life Stand, Al Doyle said that it was “quite exciting for [the band] to work with [a] palette of instruments.” I’m assuming you continued doing that with this album.

    Yeah, yeah, yeah. We used loads of different instruments, and we actually worked away from our own studio for once. We worked with a different engineer called Mark Ralph, who’s got a really nice and kind of small DIY studio, still. It’s nothing kind of fancy, but he has the mixing desk that was built by [German record producer/musician/engineer] Conny Planck, so it was used on lots of classic and ’80s albums like Ultravox, Human League, and things like that. That definitely lent a different and unique character compared to other albums we’ve made.

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    You guys are obviously happy working with Mark Ralph, because you’ve said you’d like to do something with him in the future.

    Yeah. All of the side projects that we’ve got–Joe’s 2-Bears, Alexis [Taylor]’s About Group, and me and Al’s New Build–we’ve all done work with him separately as well. He’s someone we really connect with. It’s very easy for us to work with him, and he understands where we’re coming from. He knows when to intervene and when not to, you know what I mean?

    Regarding working with an engineer, it’s already been said by band members that there is no point in putting too much emphasis on the recording process, but a lot of the press does stress that this is the first time the band collectively worked together in the studio with an engineer. I don’t want to know who did what necessarily. I’m more curious as to why you guys chose now to bring somebody from the outside in when you’ve worked together so long by yourselves?

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    The real reason was just a spirit of being open-minded and trying to make the process a little different, as we’ve done for each of the albums, just in the hope of provoking us to produce albums that evolve. Mark is someone that Joe and Alexis had already worked, as I said, with these other projects. They had already had experience working with him. That was one of the benefits of continuing to be involved in all these different projects outside of being Hot Chip–that you’re still building up your knowledge and experience of different people that are good to work with, and that, obviously, was very beneficial in making this album for Hot Chip. He was someone that we already trusted, so he didn’t have to go through a whole kind of trial period wondering if it was going to work or not.

    Regarding the song “How Do You Do?”, Alexis has said that it was his ideal Hot Chip track. Do you have a personal Hot Chip track that you think is your ideal, not necessarily off this new album?

    [laughs] I think “…Boy From School” is really one of my favorites, and there’s another song called “Crap Kraft Dinner”, which is on the first album [2004’s Coming on Strong]. I really like them because they both experimented with this kind of wistful and melancholy romanticism to some extent and combined with these kind of 4/4 rhythm and house-y or disco rhythm tracks that we used kind of sparingly initially, and then we used them more. They were early examples of that kind of sound, and I’m really kind of fond of them for that reason.

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    It’s funny that you mentioned “Boy From School”, because that resurfaced in a Simpsons’ episode. It’s been over six years since that song became a hit, and when things like that happen now, are you, “Yeah, somebody remembers our song! Great it’s our song,” or is it more like Michael Corleone: “Every time I get out, they pull me back in”?

    [laughs] Not with that particular song, because as I say, I’ve got a little affection for it, and I think in terms of melody it’s probably one of the best that we’ve written, so it’s nice to see it in a different context. I thought that the way that they used it was actually quite touching. It was a nice, new light for it to be put into.

    Let’s talk about some soul, because there’s some soulfulness on this album, especially on songs like “Look At Where We Are” and “Now There Is Nothing”. Everyone’s been writing about the “Zapp vs Zappa” line, and I’ll talk about that in a minute, but there’s obviously disco infusion in some of your rhythms. Joe Goddard even said that when he’s relaxing, he wants to listen to artists like Luther Vandross. Is it safe to assume that the ’70s is a prime era for you?

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    Yeah, the ’70s. I guess the ’70s and ’80s definitely had an influence on those kind of bands, because that’s when we were growing up. That was the music that was around then. I’m not quite sure where this desire comes from, but it’s partly influenced by three things, one of which is probably Al Doyle’s involvement with LCD Soundsystem, being the guitarist and having to learn this very managed, specific style of playing disco guitar in a knowledgeable way. That style’s been used on a few of the tracks. And then I think the involvement of Rob Smoughton, whom we don’t really talk about that much, but he’s kind of the sixth member of the band basically. He has quite a lot of involvement on some of the recordings on this album. His project, which is called Grovesnor, is very influenced by smooth R&B and soul and stuff like that, and maybe his involvement also exaggerated some of those parts of Hot Chip that have always been there.

    “Don’t Deny Your Heart”:

    Well, like I said, I’ve seen this brought up elsewhere. Regarding the line in “Night and Day”, “I like Zapp not Zappa”… Now that’s evident in your music, but I have a hard time believing that none of you guys like Zappa. I can understand avoiding Jazz From Hell, but Apostrophe…We’re Only in It for the Money…”Willie the Pimp”?!  (Laughing)

    [laughs] Yeah, it’s so silly. I love Frank Zappa, actually. In fact, Alexis has got a lot of affection for some of his recordings. I think it’s just one of those lines in the context of the song; Alexis is kind of in character as this kind of DJ that’s knocking back requests and getting into a certain state of mind. It’s really hard when you listen to songs, and there’s a lyric, and you’re like, “Well, does this mean the band hates Frank Zappa?” There’s no way we’d dismiss someone’s work in that way. Sometimes when we play it live, he changes the line. He’ll talk about different artists. The other day he sang, “I like Zapp and Zappa,” a bit more open-minded about it. [laughs]

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    Regarding playing live, Al Doyle’s commented that the band tends to change the songs from the original recordings. Do you add more space and make them breathe more, or do you actually deconstruct the songs and rebuild them?

    Yeah, we do kind of rebuild them to an extent. I mean, depending on the song. Like “One Life Stand”, for instance, the way we play that is quite faithful to the recording, just because it works. It worked that way on the record, and it works that way when we do it live. For example, “How Do You Do?”, that wasn’t really working in its original form. It felt too much like a pop song and not like something we could make dramatic, or work live, so you kind of mess around with the arrangement quite a lot. It helps to have a lot of studio experience, and also experience remixing things as well, because you could think about isolating, repeating certain elements, and build up the dynamics of things. We almost think of it as a DJ set or something like that, where the whole sequence of songs works in sequence, and certain parts of songs are repeated and blended into other ones. We try and do it in quite a creative and unique way, even though as much as possible is actually played live. We have a drummer. There’s seven people onstage. It’s a real hybrid of lots of different things.

    It’s like a giant, live mixtape.

    Yeah, kinda. It is to an extent. We try to have it be as dance as possible, so people really can dance and get lost in the music without lengthy delays in between each track.

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    Regarding mixes, you’ve been involved with two compilations, the DJ Kicks series for K7!, and Hot Chip put out the Bugged Out Mix compilation. What was the difference between the two of them when you were compiling those, aside from content?

    There was quite an obvious difference. The first one, the DJ Kicks one, was one mix where we tried to basically squeeze everything in. So, I had everything from Ray Charles to German minimal techno and Joe Jackson and all kinds of weird combinations of things, just because that was the format we were working with, and we wanted to include everything that we liked. The Bugged Out one was spread out over two CDs, so I had the opportunity to work on the kind of techno, house-y kind of dance mix, and it was much more of, I suppose, a conventional mix of those kinds of tracks. The other one was more like a house party mix with lots of different kinds of pop and disco. It was more like separated into two sides.

    Taylor & Goddard, it’s been quoted, have joined apparently a very British tradition that “arguably begins with Lennon & McCartney, then stops to take in the likes of Morrissey & Marr, and Tennant & Lowe.” Now, that’s a nice quote, and that’s great company, but two of those three relationships ended in flames. Wouldn’t it be fearful to join that company?

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    [laughs] Yeah, when you think about it.

    Here’s hoping you guys are more Pet Shop Boys than you are Beatles.

    Yeah. [laughs] I don’t think relationships have to end badly. It’s just like any other kind of partnership. A key part of it is basically having some respect for the other people involved, because if you can retain that feeling of respect for each other, it’s much easier to make compromises and make mutual decisions about things, because you feel like you’re on solid ground. That’s what you really have to work on doing. I’m sure at some point it won’t be necessarily a good working relationship anymore, and it won’t exist. But you can’t predict that until the music stops happening, and we haven’t come to that point yet.

    I know it’s a bit tongue-in-cheek to name a super danceable song “Don’t Dance”, but wouldn’t it suck if you played a dance song and nobody danced?

    [laughs] Yeah, I guess it would. There was a weird kind of dance phenomenon in Europe a couple of years ago; I don’t know if it’s reached America or not. It was a weird dance where everyone would sit down and just stop moving for a bit and then stand up and suddenly be excited again. I guess you get these weird kind of phenomena, and maybe “Don’t Dance” was an attempt… I don’t know what it was really. It was partly this frustration with the kind of clichéd language of dance music. You know, like, “put your hands in the air, da da da da,” and all this kind of stuff that you get repeated over and over again. It was very tongue-in-cheek, but yeah, we have played some gigs in the past where people haven’t really danced. We’ve been on the receiving end of it, but not so much anymore, hopefully.

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