Pop Music Is Not A Dirty Word: An Interview With Hot Chip's Alexis Taylor

For the past 16 years, the quintessential British electronic group Hot Chip has been releasing album after delicious album, with a bevy of catchy tracks that are pop magic at its majestic finest.  At the core of Hot Chip is a singular voice that is longing, soulful and demonically angelic. That singular voice belongs to Alexis Taylor, who this month released a new solo album, simply titled Piano, that is perhaps best described as antithetical to the grand pop balladry of Hot Chip, or even his own past solo records, but still maintains that signature wistful expressiveness. If Hot Chip is music to get high to, and to dance the night away to, Taylor’s newest album is music for reflection, introspection and soul-searching. The entire album, recorded at Hackney Road Studios by Shuta Shinoda, is simply Taylor at a piano and the reverberating notes – notes that are politely infused with his delicate, intimate vocals. Each refrain is a love letter to past mistakes, spiritual burdens, regrets and lost love. There is also a stunning cover of Elvis’ Crying In The Chapel that blends so well, it is almost in disguise. And if you hear religious incantations in the songs, you wouldn’t be so far off – Taylor calls it an “atheist's gospel album.” Nevertheless, it’s an important album that deserves a full listen – all the way to the surprise, untitled bonus track that crackles like a warbling 45 on an old phonograph, until it fades out and simmers on a low heat in your brain’s limbic system, even after the song is completely over. We caught up with Alexis Taylor at the Ace Hotel in London to ask him a few questions about pop music, Hot Chip’s place in British musical history and what he enjoys doing when music is not on the menu. 

FLO KOHL: What was your musical diet growing up? Was there a certain style of music that was always on repeat, or was it all eclectic?

ALEXIS TAYLOR: Definitely very mixed. A wide-range selection of music. I grew up in the 80s. I had heard all the massive records that were on chart rotation: Peter Gabriel, Prince, Dier Straits. Pop singles. I had two older brothers who were really into music, and my parents were really into music. My childhood was soundtracked by music, all the time. My oldest brother, Will, bought quite a lot of interesting music. I think he had good taste. He was into hip hop in the late 80s, early 90s when it was coming through. He had all the Prince records, one after the other as they were released. It meant I was paying a bit more attention to things, rather than music being this background.

KOHL: I don’t think that’s sort of normal. My parents weren’t into music at all. I didn’t become musically aware until I went to school. At home, there wasn’t always music on.

TAYLOR: With me, it was records playing, tapes playing. Both my parents occasionally played the piano. Never professionally, just as a hobby. But they could read music a bit. It wasn’t like being brought up to do music. It was just around.

KOHL: You’re often called “the soul of Hot Chip.” Did it take you a while to embrace the unique vocal style? Other electronic bands have to sample to add that soul.

TAYLOR: Maybe they do. We weren’t really trying to be like other electronic bands. We weren’t scratching our heads like, “How do we put soul into this music?” It just came out the way it came out. I don’t think people thought it was soulful in the beginning. But we were interested in soul records. That was a big influence, those older, more classic bits. But more pop than R&B or soul: Destiny’s Child, Whitney Houston. Things that were produced by Timbaland and the Neptunes. That was a new, very exciting phase of pop music that was, to us, soulful. To some people, they didn’t get it. I wasn’t the same as that northern soul. People came around to it over time. It’s still a major influence on pop culture.

For us, it was a combination of wanting to completely do our own thing, and also wanting to make records in the spirit of those people. People like other indie rock bands, hiphop artists, electronic producers, classic pop people. We weren’t able to study what they did. We just took a little but of inspiration from them and came out with something else that felt pretty far away from sounding like those. We’re not very skilled at copying. Some people are, and that’s great, but it doesn’t lead to original music. It does mean that people get where you come from. Whereas, with us, people are just confused.

KOHL: You have the DJ culture right now, these musical curators who might be very good at grabbing things and putting them together, but might not be creating something.

TAYLOR: We were influenced a lot by sample-based music: DJ Premier, Public Enemy records. We were sort of sampling ourselves, as it were. We would play loads and loads of hours of music, and then we would chop and edit, taking the best bits. It was a way of sampling. There were so many rediscoveries of little phrases that you didn’t know you played because there was so much improvising. Sometimes, I have a song that I’ve written and exactly how it goes. Other times, you’re literally just improvising things over a beat. You realize you’ve got some good things later on.

KOHL: When you first started making music as Hot Chip, where do you think music was historically in the UK?

TAYLOR: Honestly, we weren’t thinking about the state of electronic music. Maybe with hindsight, you might look back and do that. What I remember is that we seemed quite at odds as a band. We started out playing small gigs. Nobody else had five people and a drum machine, no drummer. That was a weird lineup. We didn’t intend for it to be so weird. It was just what we wanted to do. It was a way of learning how to play what we recorded. It all stemmed from recordings. We were thinking more about those R&B pop records that looked nothing like the performance on stage. We didn’t have the production value to do a Destiny’s Child-style show. And yet, that was the music that was exciting to us. We weren’t referencing the tradition of New Order or Depeche Mode. We were ourselves. I don’t know what state it was in. I know the more genuine dance music we had grown up. Joe was really into grime. I was more into UK garage. Some of the drum programming was influenced by that stuff, like a sticky record. We didn’t’ try to comment on electronic music.

We kept thinking about pop music. Maybe we went out on a limb. Pop music is kind of a dirty phrase. It came back in vogue, with Justin Timberlake when he was no longer in a boy band. It was taken more seriously. Where I was, there was a lot of resistance to that, initially. I used to work at Domino, the label that we’re on. I used to listen to all these different albums: Smog, Scritti Politti. But when I put on the Justin Timberlake album, some people were like, “We can’t deal with this.” They were form a very indie mentality. I just liked it.

KOHL: It was the sound at the time. Pop music wasn’t boy band pop music anymore.

TAYLOR: It’s funny, talking about it now. Everyone takes it for granted. That music was at the center of culture, and it has kind of drifted away since.

KOHL: Was there a community in electronic music?

TAYLOR: Gradually, we met people. Generally, they were from America. We met the DFA label, and through that James Murphy and Jonathan Galkin. I was in New York, visiting my girlfriend at the time, who was a student. I went to this talk at her university, and in the same building, there was a talk with James Murphy, Trevor Jackson, a member of Public Enemy. I just happened to bump into Jonathan who runs DFA outside the building. I was wearing a Hot Chip badge, and he didn’t know how I could have heard of that band. I said, “Oh, I’m in the band.” We ended up signing with DFA and going on tour with LCD, Black Dice, and Chk Chk Chk. At that point, there was a community of people who were interested in performing dance music live. You could see their influence, years later. Every band had a drum machine on stage. We were an indie band, but we had one token synthesizer. It began to have an impact.

KOHL: What makes the perfect pop song in your eyes?

TAYLOR: Honestly, don’t know. Still struggling to find out, after all this time. I suppose I’m interested in the song and the production combing together in an interesting way. The song could feel hooky and immediate, but it still have a strangeness to it. Like an ABBA song. There are so many things going on melodically and harmonically that are easy on the ear but interesting. Then the production will be glossy, but at the time, kind of adventurous. Those records still stand out now. A different kind of example would be a Neptunes production from the early 2000s. It may have very little in the way of long flowing melody. It will be more in the rhythm, and the hook would be something incessant or interesting in the keyboard parts. A lot of people talk about the classic pop song coming through on the acoustic guitar or piano. I don’t think that’s really true. I think it’s built on the way it was produced, the construction in the studio.

KOHL: When you aren’t in the world of music, is there something really far removed from it that you like to indulge in?

TAYLOR: I do spend a huge amount of my free time traveling around flea markets and garage sales, looking for bargains and bits of musical equipment, records, all kinds of different things. It’s not always to do with looking for music. 

Click here to download or purchase Alexis Taylor's new album Piano. Photographs and interview by Flo Kohl. Intro text by Oliver Maxwell Kupper. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE