On June 21, Hot Chip return with their seventh studio album A Bath Full Of Ecstasy – a record which marks a number of firsts for the UK electro pop wizards. Daniel Gumble spoke to frontman Alexis Taylor to and out why the band decided to bring in outside producers for the first time and how they overcame studio tensions to take their biggest creative leap yet…
In a just world, Hot Chip would have attained national treasure status by now. Ever since founding members Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard decided to break with the homespun minimalism of their 2004 debut Coming On Strong and add multi-instrumentalists Al Doyle, Owen Clarke, and Felix Martin to their ranks, the band have been responsible for some of the most thrilling electro pop this side of the millennium. Their willingness to hop with gleeful abandon between all manner of sounds, styles and genres has seen them frequently cover more musical ground in a single album than most artists could hope to manage in an entire career: take a quick dip into any one of their records and you’ll find everything from wonky, synth heavy pop and R&B, to honey-soaked piano ballads and acid house, all bound together under the group’s unique sonic signature.
While Taylor and Goddard could accurately be described as the creative engine at the heart of Hot Chip, all five members have contributed significantly to the band’s sound, particularly over the course of the past few records, each bringing their own considerable songwriting chops to the table. The fact that all five are also skilled producers in their own right means that collaborators outside of the Hot Chip bubble have seldom been required.
All of which brings us to their upcoming seventh studio album A Bath Full Of Ecstasy. Released on June 21, Hot Chip’s latest offering sees the band take something of an unexpected turn. For the first time in their career, the band has called upon the services of not just one but two outside producers in the form of Phillipe Zdar* (Cassisus, Phoenix, Beastie Boys) and Rodaidh McDonald (The xx, David Byrne, Sampha). And while the move to bring two distinct new voices to the fold wasn’t without its difficulties, it was a decision both Taylor and Goddard were determined to make.
“One of the reasons for me was that I’d just made a solo album (2018’s Beautiful Thing) with Tim Goldsworthy producing and I enjoyed that experience a lot,” Taylor explains to PSNEurope over the phone, as gently spoken in person as he sounds on record. “That was the first time a solo record of mine was produced by someone else, so I felt very open to the idea of a new collaborator. And Joe, who is ostensibly the main producer in Hot Chip (even though we do some co-production), wanted to change how we operate in order to not make the same kind of record again. He wanted to see what would happen if we had an outside producer, or as it turned out, two producers. It was a way to explore new working methods, hoping it would lead to something fresh. And that’s what happened. Both producers were very different in how they operated, so we didn’t get two of the same type of producer. It was an interesting experiment, which paid off well.” Inevitably, the process of introducing two very different outlooks in the studio was far from seamless, with both Zdar and McDonald – as was intended – quick to shake up the band’s long held formula.
“There was some friction at points with Rodaidh because he was really pushing us to do things differently from before,” Taylor recalls. “I didn’t feel too much friction myself, but some people weren’t always ready for what he was encouraging us to do. We weren’t used to having someone else’s voice in the room and suddenly there is somebody challenging the songwriting approach and being quite forthright about what we could do with the songs, what needed improving, editing or rewriting. He was quite involved and there was a bit of tension at times, but that’s what we’d asked for. There wouldn’t have been much point in getting a producer in and then ignoring their advice, so we were quite open to it.”
He continues: “Phillipe was less challenging in those ways, more encouraging and more of a positive force in the room, getting the best out of us. He was strongly recommended to us by Franz Ferdinand, who are on the same record label (Domino) as us. We met him, really liked him and thought he’d be a good fit. We’d heard what an enthusiastic influence he’d been for Franz Ferdinand and I’d seen some footage of him on Instagram leading sessions and dancing in the studio, mixing and just being very into it. It looked like he’d be really fun to work with. He united the whole band and provided an environment and space for us to work with him that made it very comfortable for us to all get involved, play simultaneously and improvise.
“With Rodaidh, we knew of his work with The xx and David Byrne, so we met with him and he seemed like quite an intense, focused producer who immediately had good ideas as to what he’d like to help us with. He also liked us playing one person at a time, with each dubbing their parts.”
As Taylor attests, the influence of McDonald and Zdar on A Bath Full Of Ecstasy has indeed paid off well, but not necessarily in the way some may have predicted. Rather than forcing the band into unfamiliar, potentially uncomfortable territory, their input has had a galvanising effect, producing arguably the band’s most coherent and streamlined body of work yet. Where previous records have veered dramatically in tone from one track to the next (see 2008’s Made In The Dark) this one sees the band’s artistic threads wound in tightly, rather than joyfully unspooled. The result: nine tracks of euphoric, expansive pop to stand alongside anything in their stellar back catalogue.
“I don’t want to pretend it’s a radical overhaul of our sound, recorded with acoustic instruments under water or something,” Taylor chuckles. “It’s more a development and a refining of the process. We were jettisoning ideas if they felt familiar or if we thought we were falling into certain musical traps, things we’d tried that hadn’t worked out in the past. The presence of other people in the room helped us structure the songs a bit differently, maybe making the pop elements more pop and the more expansive elements more expansive.
“Also, the fact there are only nine songs makes it feel more concise and a bit more brutal in terms of editing. It doesn’t go off in different directions and tangents like some Hot Chip records do. That was deliberate. We could have gone in all different directions with this record. We wrote loads of songs and recorded about another 12 or so that didn’t make the finished record. It was just a case of stepping back at the final stage and saying, ‘What is going to work best as a sequence and what’s going to play to our strengths?’ With Made In The Dark we were embracing the idea of a sprawling double album feel. This time it was key to make something quite tight.”
In addition to hiring McDonald and Zdar, the band also spent time in a variety of different settings to record and mix the album, moving between Zdar’s studio in Paris and numerous London locations, all of which, Taylor says, made a tangible impact on the finished record.
“We worked very hard at the beginning, demoing lots of material before we were with either of these producers, just getting a bank of good songs together,” he states. “We did that at Joe’s studio in Shoreditch. Then, on the sessions with Rodaidh we were in Konk Studios (Ray Davies’s studio) where we’ve never worked before. We also did some of it at RAK. We were changing location quite a lot and that changes the music quite a bit. We were getting out of our comfort zone – working in places we weren’t familiar with and with new producers. We were trying to use some equipment we wouldn’t have necessarily used much before, lots of newer modular synths of Felix’s and Joe’s and some software Rodaidh introduced us to for vocal manipulation.
“With the song ‘A Bath Full Of Ecstasy’ it feels like there are modern production techniques that help make it relevant as pop music, rather than just referencing classics of the past that are easy to fall in love with. And a song like ‘Melody Of Love’ began in such a different way from how it sounds on the record. It was about 11 minutes long and was much more of an up tempo disco track. The first time we played it to Rodaidh he suggested just leaving the first five minutes and making it a really epic pop song, rather than a club track as it began. I’m conscious of how it developed with Rodaidh and I’m proud of how it turned out.”
Zdar also coaxed new sounds and studio techniques out of the band during their stay in Paris.
“When we were with Phillipe, just being in Paris was a good change of scene, making us feel refreshed and lively about the music making process,” Taylor says. “We felt revitalised by being in his studio, and we used almost all of the equipment he had there, instrument-wise. That was really exciting. ‘Spell’ is a good example of where Phillipe helped create different sounds to anything we’ve done before. For a band like Hot Chip it’s important to
be challenged, to be in a situation where you’re going to focus and also have a good time. Access to some of those instruments is a key thing to the sound being developed. We don’t do so well in a studio where there’s not much in the way of equipment for us to enjoy. It’s supposed to be a place of play. That’s where we thrive.”
With a tour in support of A Bath Full Of Ecstasy about to get underway, Hot Chip have had little time to discuss future recording strategies, although Taylor suggests it’s likely they will embrace the new once again when it comes to making album number eight.
“We haven’t discussed it as a band but I reckon we would work with outside producers again,” he ponders. “I’d like to go into the studio with a producer right from the beginning of the process and let them hear new music as it develops so we can record everything live with that producer from the get go. With this album a lot of preliminary work was done by ourselves before we met with them. That shapes the sound quite a lot; that’s why it still sounds like a Hot Chip record, but it would be interesting to move further away from our blueprint.”
As for what the next evolution of Hot Chip brings, who knows? For now, they continue to tread a path all their own; their inimitable, kaleidoscopic sound still standing apart from anything or anyone else.
*Please note, this interview was conducted and published before Zdar’s tragic death on June 19.