While many people are familiar with Alexis Taylor’s upbeat work with Hot Chip with whom he creates upbeat dance music (he is, after all, the lead vocalist, keyboardist and guitarist), his solo career has focused on the extreme opposite; rather than inspiring people to move on the dancefloor, he aims to touch their inner selves.
In Rubbed Out, his solo effort from 2008, he didn’t completely detach himself from the kind of sound people associated with him, but still managed to introduce glockenspiel-infused pieces and Paul McCartney covers to his repertoire. Traveling from project to project, he’s been able to maintain a distinct sound in each new work challenging the notions of “side work” as lesser or vanity outlets, but rather as branches that compliment a larger view.
In his new solo album Piano, Taylor has created one of his most compelling works yet, by completely removing electronic elements and focusing instead on the title instrument and his voice. The collection of a dozen ballads, each one more gorgeous than the previous, is perfectly curated pop music that feels like a recently rediscovered treasure from a long gone era.
Taylor’s voice too, which demands you join along and sing with him in Hot Chip recordings, takes on an intimate, heart-wrenching tone in Piano. It’s the kind of devastating work you’ll want to revisit time and time again. PopMatters spoke to Taylor about how he put together the songs, his view on recording covers, and how he unconsciously became part of a trend that’s taken the pop world by storm.
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“I’m Ready” is the first single and the first song in the album. You say in the song there is “no point in pretending” and in a way proceed to explain what the rest of the album will be about.
I hadn’t thought about that but I see what you mean. Things are quite unconscious sometimes, so that was not deliberate.
What was behind the order of the songs in the album then?
“I’m Ready” was one of the first, if not the first song I wrote after making the last solo record so it felt like the beginning of the next thing, whatever the next thing would end up being. It feels like the start of an album too because it’s a song about beginning something, so it felt it made sense to place it at the beginning. I was also using it to open my shows at the time, when I play solo shows I often play new material that’s ahead of the release schedule so it wasn’t like a strange decision to be playing that song.
I recorded two versions of that song, too, one with drums and bass and guitar, and the one on the album. I was very undecided for a while on whether I’d captured the right performance. So when it was picked as the first single it became the focus of people’s attention, I learned to like that version more the more I heard it. There were other songs I knew I liked right from the beginning. This one lived with me for longer, so I was unclear on what version to use, which seems like a funny irony for a song called “I’m Ready”.
It’s a song about confidence but at the end I say “I’m ready as I’ll ever be” which is also a slight defense mechanism, it’s very similar to “Huarache Lights” from the last Hot Chip album, which is also a song full of telling people how it is and being confident, but also saying are we about to be superseded by the younger generation? Are we getting old?
It’s really interesting your bringing that up because in “Closer to the Elderly” from Await Barbarians you say “the older I get the younger I seem to be”, and the theme of Piano is very much about legacy and what you leave behind. Is this something on your mind?
I don’t know really. I think every time you’re making any music you’re contributing to that dialogue or thought process about what you’re going to leave behind, by releasing it you’re asking people to have it out in the world, you’re not playing it once on a live show, by recording something you’re making an attempt at it being permanent.
I guess I’m engaging with that, I hadn’t thought of the album as having that theme but I can sort of see that by me choosing to put these songs together it’s kind of making a collection from my own songwriting, new and old, and asking people to consider it. It’s also not doing that though, it’s songs coming out of me that are direct, songs that don’t necessarily want to be considered in a more serious way.
Perhaps I just overanalyzed the album…
No, I’m glad you did. Perhaps I just haven’t figured out myself what it is that the record is. I never know how to put into words what it is, or how I’ve done it. I hope people get something out of the experience of being allowed into that personal experience, that’s what I get from other people’s records, the experience of taking a journey into somebody else’s innermost feelings and thoughts. It has nothing to do with you in terms of the writing, but it still connects with you and that’s what I’m trying to do with all the music I make.
The album has a couple of covers, is that why you included them as well? To recreate this experience you’re talking about with other people’s music?
Cover versions are a strange thing, I don’t know why anybody covers anything other than the satisfaction you get from figuring out what the song is. It’s pleasurable to sing other people’s songs, it’s pleasurable to be involved with it, but you also put your spin on the cover. My version of “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue”, for instance, is fairly radical because it doesn’t try to smooth over any cracks, the song is a heartbreak song.
At the same time I didn’t intend it to be like that, I did one take without knowing if it would work with a piano and vocal, but I liked the vulnerability of how it ended up sounding. If things don’t hit me emotionally I leave them out of the record.
I want to go out on a limb and say this is the most Adele I’ve ever heard you sound …
Your voice sounds great in this album. Have you been doing anything with it?
Thank you! I haven’t done any extra work, I’ve never had any singing lessons. There are moments in the album where the voice is not so strong — “Crying in the Chapel” is not the most robust of performances for example. When you say it reminds you of Adele did you mean the vocals or also the type of music?
Both. There’s a rawness to the song but they also feel very contained, like you know exactly what notes you want to hit and what you want them to make people feel.
Yeah that’s true, it’s a record that began with no planning as to what songs I wanted to include, but the final songs are very deliberate, they’re sort of poised or something. I find that quite an interesting reference point though because you can make an album and think what you’re doing is you on your own making a piano record. The closest thing you can think of are records from the past like Plush’s More You Becomes You or Mark Hollis’ solo album, but in fact you’re making a record that’s completely out of step with modern records in one way, but is also completely in tune with them.
Because like you said there are Adele records that are big piano ballads, or the last track in the Justin Bieber album Purpose, the title track, is just piano and vocal, so it’s kind of connected to a bigger movement in terms of what’s in fashion. Even if I don’t intend it to be a part of that, it’s connected to it. The way in which I made it, the references or the approach are not related to the Justin Bieber or Adele record, they’re more about simplicity in terms of recording. The Bieber track I’m thinking of you can tell just by listening that it’s not a piano, it’s a digital version of a piano, even if it’s great sounding or affecting it’s kind of modern and digital.
My record is the opposite of that, it’s about making something sound great using old fashioned methods, just putting some microphones near an acoustic instrument that sounds good to start with, or putting the microphone very near you which is a very deliberate choice because my microphone I happened to find and liked, because I thought it reflected the sound I hear when I sing much better than other mics I’ve seen. This record could’ve been made in the 50s if it was recorded on tape, it was recorded on Pro Tools but it’s all live. I supposed Adele by working with people like Rick Rubin means she’s interested in recording in a classic way. I know there’s always a hybrid of these things in the process.
I like that you’re saying this because I think your albums have a natural progression that reflects this, from Nayim From the Halfway Line to Await Barbarians and then to Piano we see a distillation of your sound so to speak. There is a natural progression towards the simplicity of Piano, was this arch done on purpose?
You’re right to say about this distillation, I think that has a lot to do with what you become interested in over time. I felt I was reducing layers trying to get to the essence of something. I didn’t know why I wanted to have less instruments, I just knew I wanted to do it. I like the fact that you can see that connection from one record to the next because to me I can see that connection too. I’m wondering what the next solo thing will be like, it can be bigger, more expansive, but at the same time I feel like I can reduce it even further, distill even more.
Sometimes I think about making a record where the music isn’t even made with an instrument, maybe try “found sounds” or “field recordings” as the texture, and the voice lies on top. I don’t know of there are legs in that or if it’s just a fancy, but I like the idea of being able to hear the tap recorder or the hiss of an amplifier, and then the voice fitting together. Something extremely quiet interests me.
Do songs for Hot Chip ever start out as simple piano melodies as well?
Some of them do start with a piano or a keyboard: they’re empty in the way the songs on Piano are. Sometimes there’s already a beat going on and I play something along with that rhythm, it’s different from one song to the next. A song like “Started Right” from the last Hot Chip album was improvised on the spot, but another track like “Made in the Dark” might have been written on piano first and didn’t have a vision when it began.
My favorite track in the album is “Without Your Name” which in the notes you say is about leaving god behind. I find it fascinating because many people still believe of electronica as lacking soul, but I believe your work is in fact about finding the soul in electronic music.
The music that I like generally is soulful whether or not it’s made with synthesizers or not. I wouldn’t say I only like soul music but I like soulful music, I hope there is a soulful quality in all the music I do. It doesn’t seem like a dichotomy to me. That song I wrote at the same writing session as “So Much Further to Go”, and “Without Your Name” is one of the songs I really like in the record but nobody’s ever said anything about it, you’re the first person — journalist or otherwise — to respond to that song, it’s a strange song because I’m not religious but I was interested in that as an idea.
By the second verse its perspective changes, it touches on something I was referencing in the previous record with “Elvis Has Left the Building” which is about Elvis, Bob Dylan, Whitney Houston and Prince, and this one references “How Will I Know” which I quote within the song. I don’t know why I did that, I allowed a series of ideas to just happen without second guessing them. It goes through different places lyrically, but yeah there is definitely a soul in the album.