“It was different from the other ones,” explains Felix Martin, Hot Chip’s rhythm maker, drum programmer, and part-time producer, talking about their new record’s creative process. “Previously, the music was exclusively recorded by Joe [Goddard] and Alexis [Taylor] at home. This one is all five of us together and we tried to capture that sound on record. We each had more of an influence on some of the tracks.”
From the first snare drum hit that thwacks into earshot a minute into Made in the Dark, it’s clear that Hot Chip’s new album is a more muscular affair than their previous releases. With several songs recorded live in an actual studio—including opening track “Out at the Pictures”—Made in the Dark stands as Hot Chip’s first, furtive step outside the bedroom burrows and home recording that informed their prior records. It is without hyperbole to say that the band is currently sitting on one of the most anticipated releases of 2008. (The Hype Machine, an MP3 blog aggregator, currently lists them as the second most hyped band, behind Radiohead, while a quick Google search of the band name and album title brings up 656,000 results).
Made in the Dark, released the first week of February in the US and UK, is their follow up to the Mercury Music Prize nominated The Warning. Despite its stylistic immediacy—The Warning was full of repetitive riffs and instant hooks, hypnotic grooves and ad hoc rhymes—the album took time to seep into our collective consciousness. Its rise was slow and seductive rather than sudden, but, with its mix of dance floor favorites, R&B-styled jams, hip-hop beats, and the band’s own brand of melancholic electronica, The Warning eventually worked its way on to many “best of” lists a year ago. This success, and the subsequent touring that supported the album, has made it a hard act to follow. And although Made in the Dark is, on first listen, less immediate and less scattershot, it is just as idiosyncratic yet decisively more cohesive.
The cohesiveness can be directly attributed to a consistent touring schedule that has kept the London-based five-piece on the road for the majority of the past two years. As a result, they have honed a strong group sound that was perhaps missing from their previous releases (The Warning and their 2002 debut Coming on Strong). Originally a vehicle for school friends Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard—who recorded the first two albums at home, in their bedrooms—Hot Chip has evolved, over time, into a proper band. On this album all five members (Martin, Owen Clarke, and Al Doyle round out the group) make telling contributions.
Perhaps befitting his expanded role, Felix Martin, is “cheerful” when I ask him how he’s doing via a quick phone interview two weeks before Christmas. Sitting in his London flat, Martin (who joined the group in 2002) was about to embark on a DJ sojourn to France and Spain, which is probably another reason for his sunny disposition. Despite this laid back demeanor, he was still eager for the album’s release (“It’s been finished for a few months now, 8-12 weeks. It’s quite frustrating as we want it to be out there”), a record that’s as influenced by Will Oldham and Willie Nelson, as it is by the willingness to get fans ready for the (dance) floor.
“There was no pressure,” said Martin, when asked about the burden of trying to not only follow up, but emulate, The Warning. “We managed to bypass that whole thing. It didn’t get too much attention until it had been out for a few months. And we’ve been playing a lot of the new songs live for over a year now.”
This solid, live foundation has not only taken pressure off the group, but it has also informed their current sound. “It came about because we play live together so much that it kind of became inevitable,” explained Martin, talking about the group’s current musical direction. “People were coming to our shows and what we played was radically different and people were confused, so we’re bringing them together. It doesn’t sound exactly live and it doesn’t sound like it was recorded in a bedroom either.”
“The role of everyone has changed,” Martin continued, when asked how his own role has evolved over the course of three albums. “We’re constantly better at working together than we had been.”
If Coming on Strong was a mid-morning wake up call, and The Warning an early evening pre-party, Made in the Dark works on multiple levels; an amalgamation of both albums, full of peaks and troughs, heady rumbles and melancholic ballads. It’s a record that dares to defy the accompanying press release calling it “faster and rockier”. Sure, first single, “Shake a Fist” fits that template, as do several other tracks (most notably “Touch Too Much” and “Hold On”). But, as LCD Soundystem exemplified last year, it may well be the slower, reflectively melancholic songs that define this record.
“Alexis likes to write those sorts of songs,” said Martin, citing Will Oldham as an inspiration. “And we thought it was appropriately reflected on this record.” Of the four slower songs, the album’s title track, a lilting piano-led tune, is the closest they come to appropriating Oldham’s Americana; let’s call it Putney Appalachia. Backed by a minimalistic drum machine and sparse guitar, the song is a beautifully executed fragment of a broken-down relationship (“Since we fell apart I’ve been nothing but blue”).
As with their prior albums, Made in the Dark was recorded and produced by the band, with inspiration drawn, this time, from 1970s experimental British group, This Heat. Martin, who runs a studio in London with Doyle, talked about the band’s attempts to emulate the space in the rooms they played, a trick that This Heat employed during their seven-year tenure. “We liked the way they put music together with live elements and tape loops,” he said, adding that Squarepusher was also influential with his similar combination of live and programmed elements.
This mix of separate substances—man and mechanical—is evident throughout. “Out at the Pictures” kicks in with a combined smack of live snare and programmed beats. “Shake a Fist” entwines a Todd Rundgren sample with squelchy keys and a rumbling, deep bass. “One Pure Thought” introduces itself via several strums of indie rock guitar and devolves, on several occasions, into shredding solos atop of techno beats, while “Don’t Dance”, one of the album’s standout tracks, mixes Missy Elliot mechanics with Brian Eno’s detached emotionalism.
Despite the fact that they do take musical facets from a multitude of genres, cohesiveness, as mentioned earlier, is Made in the Dark‘s key word. Where prior songs, such as “Over and Over” would morph halfway through from one song to something completely different, the new album sounds more focused, more together. Mature, even. “We’re not feeling the need to mess around with things too much,” explained Martin, noting that this time the group focused solely on songwriting. “We used to be neurotic and change things too much.”
With over 30 songs to choose from (“We recorded six songs together and Joe and Alexis had 20 to 25 out there that could have made it onto the album,” said Martin), the band whittled them down to 13 tracks that are idiosyncratic and independent, yet they manage to blend seamlessly, changing moods and momentums without monopolizing the flow. Like their previous releases, Made in the Dark flits easily from glitchy bedroom-styled R&B to hip-hop to techno to forlorn electronic folk. But when I ask Martin which of the many tags attributed to the band he would use, his answer is instantaneously matter-of-fact: “A pop band. That ultimately is the easiest way to sum up everything in the band.”
The music isn’t the only facet of the band that has moved forward. Lyrically, Taylor and Goddard, the main songwriters, have also matured. Not that their cheeky, hip-hop referencing machismo has been erased completely, but they do sound more sincere, as exemplified by current single, “Ready for the Floor”, which finds Taylor crooning, “You’re my number one guy.” They still throw out cryptic lines (“Are you out at the pictures, or out at sea?”), but for the most part, their lyrics are thoughtful and reflective, indicative of the musical leap they’ve made from album two to album three.
Yet, for all this talk of maturity, the Hot Chip that stated they would “break your legs” on The Warning still rear their head from time to time. On Made in the Dark, they “Shake a Fist,” and state that “the gloves are off”. Violence, it seems, might get the better of them? “Not at all,” chuckles Martin. “But we do get angry sometimes just like anyone else. I think it’s for comic effect; kind of a joke. But maybe people shouldn’t mess with us, just in case.”
When pressed to name his favorite song on the new album, Martin plumps for “Wrestlers”, a wry, R&B-styled croon that uses wrestling moves as metaphors for relationships. It also happens to namecheck Willie Nelson—twice. “It makes me laugh when I listen to it,” he explains with a chuckle. “I like ‘One Pure Thought’ as well; it’s classic pop. I didn’t write it, so I can say that.” The song also happens to be the most overtly guitar-based tune on the album as well. “Al [Doyle] is a pretty wicked guitarist and you can hear that a lot more,” adds Martin. It’s true, guitars are more obvious, but the electronic elements that defined The Warning are still evident.
And, while Made in the Dark is a departure from the band’s prior sound, it’s not the “big” departure that many, including their press release, predict. But it does seem to be the moment when Hot Chip, like a teenager fumbling for identity, finally recognize themselves. But will the fans? “It’s more creative and interesting,” explains Martin, referring to the new album. “And I hope it satisfies the people that already listen to us and that other people get into it.”
As we finish up, I return to a comment Martin made early in our conversation. In it, he mentioned that the response of people who had heard the album was good, and, as I press him on this, he begins to laugh. “I’m talking about my mam and dad,” he explains. “It’s a hit with my family and I hope that bodes well for the world.”
// Notes from the Road
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