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Sync, Festivals, and 'A Bath Full of Ecstasy': Talking with Hot Chip's Alexis Taylor

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Pitch & Sync chats to the Hot Chip frontman about festival season, The Coen Brothers, and working with brands

Sync, Festivals, and 'A Bath Full of Ecstasy': Talking with Hot Chip's Alexis Taylor

Everybody knows Hot Chip. They are on that level where you have sung along, hummed or danced to and driven your car to without necessarily knowing. Roughly twenty years into the game, they remain creatively vital and valid and on a gentle ascending trajectory.

They themselves seem charmingly oblivious to their significance as a thing which connects the mainstream daytime radio zone with the deepest and farthest reaches of “otherness” where experiments, improvising and lateral theory are the norm. We all know Hot Chip. We were introduced to frontman, Alexis Taylor a while ago in Amsterdam where he ended up giving a delightfully fragile performance on the ten octave piano that Pitch & Sync invented for reasons that have never been fully explained.

Q> ‘A Bath Full Of Ecstasy’ is a gorgeous title. And it looks exquisite in, I think, a sleeve designed by Jeremy Deller and Fraser Muggeridge. All in all a proper, old fashioned release occasion. In an era where music is listened to almost invisibly on phones and USB to Bluetooth, is it harder to get a record company to invest in the wider package of a release? 

Alexis Taylor> Domino (record label) are still connected to a fans way of thinking. Even though they are a major now, they are still independent and Lawrence (Bell) still sees the excitement in releasing records, which is great. We are releasing the new album in a limited cassette format which was actually his idea. Not many major label executives think like this now, but we’re lucky and appreciate it. 

Q> Yeah, I have a bunch of friends who still love the tape. Not in an ironic revival way but sincerely like them. I guess memory is a part of it even if we don’t immediately admit it. I love them. 

Alexis> Laurence doesn’t see them as an ironic retro thing at all. I still record on tape a lot and he listens to stuff on tape so it’s quite an intuitive thing. 

Q> The festival season is now a significant hay making period for the income of a band. I come from an era where the festival was many things but never, to my understanding, a commercially viable avenue for an artist or band. Sometimes they were free or sometimes not, but usually they broke down into free things anyway. It is hard to connect this to the corporate sponsored, secure payment website, downloadable app and superstar roster that we’re now used to. How do you view festivals from an artists perspective? 

Alexis> There is no escaping the commercial significance of festivals now. Both in the money a band earn, but also the exposure. I very rarely, if ever, go to a festival as a punter as we tend to be playing a lot. There is a complex debate to be opened on the sponsorship – it is easy to criticize the union between major brands and festivals but the alternative in a lot of cases, most cases, is that the festivals would not exist without the financial investment from these companies. Glastonbury is still the only one I can think of which feels free of any hard commercial agenda. 

Q> Are you playing Glastonbury?

Alexis> Yes, I love playing it. Again, I don’t get to see much as a fan because, aside from playing, we do a lot of DJing around the festival.

Q> How much say does your label have in any decisions and directions for the band? I am guessing, given the quality and diversity of Domino they are open to exploration?

Alexis> Goes back again to the fact that Domino is a very peculiar idea of a major record label. They, from Laurence right through the company, see creative risk, chance and curiosity as pretty important things to hold on to. Of course, they need to sell music to exist, but across the label there are artists who you would categorise as unpredictable and not driven by formula. 

Q> Would you like to write music for film?

Alexis> I would love to. I wrote the music for a short film for the director Guy Bolongaro called ‘The Last Emperor’. It’s a 25 minute film about a guy in Sidcup who lives dressed as Julius Caesar but is apparently pretty normal in every other way. I love listening to soundtracks and score music so, yeah, I’d love to explore that more. 

Q> Who would your dream director be to work with? 

Alexis> I guess The Coen Brothers would be pretty great. Any director and film that I appreciate the values of would be interesting. 

Q> I never heard it, but you played on the Pitch & Sync piano with the extra octaves. What was your verdict?

Alexis> I don’t know quite what I was expecting when I agreed to do it. There were definitely interesting elements and a lot of challenges! – I don’t know if there was ever an intended way to play the thing but I sort of muddled through and improvised with a borrowed laptop and a sort of nervous determination. I think it sounded interesting and I did eventually get a sort of command of it.

Q> What did you play? 

Alexis> It was a piece based on a Will Oldham interpretation of a work by Tagore who is an incredible Bengali poet. I used this as the sort of start point.

Q> You seem to be a frequent part of the luxury fashion world when it spills out into avant garde explorations. Fashion, from the low cost landfill high street end, to the luxury, is cited as a major problem in our society, but it is also, I think, a very fertile creative place to observe. Do you enjoy being implicated in that world? 

Alexis> I’m really interested in the fashion world as a cultural ideal. We have collaborated on some interesting things with Chanel, Hermes, Mulberry and Cartier amongst others. It’s a real dramatic contrast to the context of a pop or rock gig world. 

Q> Does much of your music get licensed or sync’d for commercial use outside of being released in the conventional sense? 

AT: Well, we had a bit of a situation some time ago where we pulled a track from a Fosters advert. Basically our track “Over & Over” was selected for use in an advert. The song is possibly the one that people think of when our name is mentioned, so it has a significance to us. It’s hard to explain exactly why we made the decision to not permit its use. It wasn’t a moral decision as, well, we drink beer. We have discussed it quite a bit since it happened. Something just didn’t sit right with it. Maybe we felt the advert would have become a permanent association for us as a band and override other aspects of what we do. 

Q> Would you have made a different decision had it been for a more high end product? 

Alexis> We’ve been asked that one as well and I don’t think the outcome would have been different. I, and we as a band, are not opposed to the idea of our music being used, but it has to just feel like an intuitively appropriate thing which doesn’t compromise either our integrity or the commitment our fans invest in us. As a pop band you cannot be removed from commercial motive. So it was never an artistic decision either. What we do is commercial in itself, so we didn’t refuse because we were bothered by the notion of our music being a consumer device or anything like that. 

Q> I remember it was a talking point in the music and media industry. I think it ultimately reflected pretty well on you really. Has the decision affected approaches from other opportunities within that corner of the commercial zone? 

Alexis> Well, it’s not like we formed a band to make music that gets used in adverts. I can say we don’t get many requests! Maybe it got us labeled as awkward or difficult but I don’t think that’s the case. We would always be open to possibilities. Just not that one I suppose. It’s strange, it’s still a difficult question to answer effectively, sorry!

I’d also add that we have happily and effectively collaborated with, and permitted our music to be used by lots of other brands. Our track “Ready For The Floor” has been used by Chloe which just feels right for the brand, the song and us. We did a song with Bernard Sumner called “I Didn’t Know What Love Was” – this was commissioned by Converse. Again, the brand felt right, it was great to work with Bernard and the song that resulted is, in its own right, a really great piece of work that has a value outside of it being a piece of brand content. 

Q> Who makes the decision? 

Alexis> Felix has an instinct for researching the ethics, facts and values of brands that approach us so he is, unofficially, the guardian of that. Beyond, it is a band decision which we agree democratically and to, hopefully, everybody’s comfort.

Q> I guess it is an accepted part of the existence now of a musician to get earnings from allowing your music to be used in film or advertising in exchange for, let's be honest, really useful chunks of finance. Do you ever think about the licensing possibility when you write or record? 

Alexis> No. Not at all. Not with Hot Chip or with my solo work do I ever consider it’s potential as a piece of brand collateral. 

Q> I thought maybe ‘Huarache Lights’ might have been a shot at getting a Nike sync?! 

Alexis> We have worked with Nike, but that song was never written with that intention. Most people don’t make the association between the song title and the sneaker. They think it sounds like the lights in a place called Huarache or something like that. So, no, that was never the idea there.

Q> What about brands you would love to work with? 

Alexis> There are lots of them, you know? If a product, or a brand or organization feels right to us then we would be happy. On a personal one, I would be really happy to have our music used by Marimekko. I have always loved, and worn, their striped T shirts and I love the whole aesthetic and values of the brand so that would just be a nice thing to do. 

Q> So, you’ve been together for almost twenty years. How long do you think you will keep going? 

Alexis> I’ve never really thought about that. I mean, I cannot see a reason why it would come to an end. As long as we all enjoy working with each other and there are people who enjoy what we do, then, and again, I don’t know about the other members, we will be Hot Chip. I hope. 

Q> What about the almost mandatory thing of playing, or touring, a classic album played in entirety? 

Alexis> Pretty much there is no chance that we would be interested in that. It is not something any of us enjoy watching or listening to by other artists. I am not commenting on those that do it, but it is far away from our way of thinking. 

Q> Hey, sorry Alexis, I’ve taken up far too much of your time. You’ve got some huge festivals to play in the coming weeks. So, to finish up. What are you up to the rest of the day? Do you get incrementally nervous in relation to the size of a crowd? What’s the first thing you do when you come off stage? 

Alexis> I get nervous because we are trying new arrangements of songs and playing new material. That always makes you a bit nervous, of course. Being honest, huge gigs in major cities and things like Glastonbury, they are significant events and there is a lot of anticipation and build of nerves, all of that. But, equally & honestly, I get that wherever and whenever we play. I hate the idea of a show in a provincial town on a midweek night being somehow less important than a big show in London or New York or any big city. 

As for what I do when I come off stage. There is a need to decompress after a performance. I get changed out of sweaty clothes and I hang out with friends, have a drink and just relax. Before a show we do pretty much the same. We hang out and listen to music to get us into a certain mood. 

Q> Finally, really, last question. Let's spin back to the years of Smash Hits. You’re now in the same issue as Bronski Beat, Thompson Twins and Pete Murphy from Bauhaus. What, Alexis, is your favourite colour and what is your favourite thing to have with chips? 

Alexis> I love colour but I guess, at a push, my favourite colour is yellow and, no contest on this one, my favourite thing to have on chips is Fimber Bravo Hot Sauce. You cannot buy it but it is made by a friend and it is the only thing to have on chips. 

Q> Thanks and good luck with your album and your Summer of playing. All of that.

Alexis> No, thank you, it was great to chat. Thanks. 

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Genres: Music & Sound Design

Pitch & Sync, Tue, 18 Jun 2019 11:22:22 GMT