On a range of levels it is possible to look at making music as a cooking recipe. You have your chefs – the band – and then your core ingredients – the instruments. Musical acts have varying levels of difficulty in preparing their songs – for example, The White Stripes used minimal ingredients to produce something very satisfying (the comfort food of the music biz), whereas UK five-piece Hot Chip are at the scientific end of musical gastronomy with their melding of genres from disco to folk to deep house. Alexis Taylor shares the head cheffing of Hot Chip with Joe Goddard. and Taylor also contributes the main vocals to most Hot Chip’s songs. Taylor gave us a master class on how Hot Chip cooked up their fifth album in ten years, In Our Heads.
He begins by explaining the album's title. “It is to do with the music sounding like it's coming from dreams and a dream-like space and inviting listeners into that idea and therefore into our heads,” says the softly-spoken Englishman – his immaculate annunciation betraying his Cambridge University education.
Taylor and Goddard have been friends since high school and started writing the songs that would become Hot Chip’s first material while they were still in school. The opening track to In Our Heads is actually a celebration of those formative days in Taylor and Goddard’s musicianship and songwriting. However, this wasn’t the starting point for the lyrics – that came from the blog of New York group Gang Gang Dance’s Brian DeGraw.
“Brian had written one sentence at the top of his blog that was there for a few weeks that said, ‘Remember when people thought that the world was round?’. For some reason that line – that concept – just really got me thinking,” says Taylor. “So I just kinda wrote some lyrics that flowed on from that thought and were related to how everything has been turned around and I was thinking about listening to music and how it spins like a CD player or an iPod with a hard drive inside it spinning.”
For those of you taking notes on the lyric writing aspect of the Hot Chip recipe, Taylor now reveals how he linked this concept back to personal experience and added real heart and feeling the song.
“When writing the words I was thinking about moving parts spinning and also nostalgia to a time when Joe and I first listened to Phil Spector records together and the momentousness of that occasion.”
He concludes on the cooking of this song by elaborating how the grand nature of its themes matched the musical make up. “We built the track up from its demo to something bigger and grander sounding. Charles Haywood came in and played drums on it and he added another level of intensity with his drumming. And we got Terry Edwards on saxophone to bring a Phil Spector-y quality at the beginning of the track,” says Taylor. Charles Haywood was drummer for seminal British experimental group This Heat and Terry Edwards is an musician whose collaboration credits reads like a 'who’s who' of credible rock: Nick Cave, PJ Harvey, Jesus & Mary Chain and Tom Waits.
Above is one songwriting method for Hot Chip in preparing their delicious sounds, or as Taylor refers to it, “method two”. He now goes into more detail on both this method and the soon to be explained method one.
“Sometimes I write songs on my own and sometimes Joe writes a song on his own. That’s method one,” Taylor says simply.
“Method two is Joe writes some music but doesn’t finish it. Leaves it deliberately unfinished and doesn’t write words. Then I come in and write words and a melody and help him finish it.”
However, pay attention wannabe master music chefs, because method two has changed in recent years.
“It used to happen around at his house in a small room; Joe and I working for hours on things, starting one track, moving on to the next track and then going back between them all. In more recent years things get sent by email to each other in an Mi4 version and then we come together to finish them up in the same place."
Now you may be thinking to yourself, ‘Isn’t Hot Chip a five-piece? Where the hell do Owen Clarke, Felix Martin, and Al Doyle fit in?’
“Well they don’t so much fit into the songwriting as into the recording and producing of each track,” explains Taylor.
“There have been times, however, where they have been involved, like with Over & Over Felix was playing with us in the room as we were writing the song. He was involved in coming up with the bassline for that and then helping when I wanted to have these stupid lyrics put into the 7/4 time ‘K-I-S-S-I-N-G’ section of the song we kind of wrote together,” offers Taylor as an exception to the rule. Over & Over was the most successful single from Hot Chip's 2006 release The Warning – an album that was many people’s first exposure to Hot Chip.
Taylor now takes us through the more common roles of Hot Chip’s sous chefs in the metaphorical kitchen, the studio. “Al is very good at playing Prince-style guitar, bringing that disco sound to a track through guitar. Owen is also great on guitar and also on various odd synth sounds and Felix is really good with textural things, drum machines and so on.”
The track on In Our Heads where the parts of Hot Chip’s sum are most tangible is Flutes. It was the first taste of the album ‘leaked’ by the band and the first two minutes of the song scared the shit out of many Hot Chip fans because it is almost pure ‘Goddard’; that is, edited tribal chants over the top of a deep house beat. Taylor explains how he took this song from a fully formed dance track and added the organic flavours that would make Flutes a Hot Chip song.
“When Joe sent it to me it was a fully formed instrumental deep house track that I then turned into a song. I did that by adding a vocal melody as well as a wurlizter electric piano kinda outro. I also fleshed it out by playing some percussion that features throughout: a small wooden box that has different tones depending on where you hit it.”
Well readers, you now have an in-depth picture of how the Hot Chip songwriting process works. I expect you to all have all a fully formed piece of music by the time Hot Chip get out here at the end of the year. Wait, was I meant to say that? Hmmmm… I’ll let Taylor tell you, “Well I can definitely tell you that we will probably be out by the end of year…”
BY DAN WATT
In Our Heads is out now on Domino/EMI.