Out Of The Frying Pan: Hot Chip Sizzle In The States

Originally published in the Stool Pigeon

In theory, America should be Hot Chip’s home from home. Few bands revere their Stateside musical influences so sincerely (even going so far as to claim that “the only good records come from America, except maybe Demis Roussos”). Even fewer can fish around in their musical gene pool and turn up odds and ends from such a diverse range of American artists: a speedometer from Prince’s big purple motorbike; shards of Madlib’s vinyl; Michael Jackson’s other glove.

Surprising, then, that softly-spoken co-vocalist and keyboard tweaker Alexis Taylor sounds so frustrated midway through Hot Chip’s inaugural US tour, which he says has been fraught with mishap and misadventure. First, there was the obligatory illness: Alexis is once again fighting the recurrent throat infection that caused the band to cancel UK support slots with Goldfrapp in February, while drummer Felix Martin fell ill at the beginning of March and missed almost the whole tour, forcing band members Al Doyle and Owen Clarke to take on two new instruments on top of the two they already play each.

Then there was the California snowstorm that stranded the band in “the most boring place on earth”, and the repeated technical interruptions of the Bowery Ballroom gig in New York, which Alexis describes as “the most miserable experience of my life”, despite having received (and graciously declined) a resounding encore. To cap it all off, there was the sleepless night that followed in the nearby Sohotel, where Alexis and his girlfriend – who’d flown in that evening – were kept awake until 9am by “the sound of flesh being smacked repeatedly, as an incredibly horrific fight between two men and a woman took place in the room next door”.

Yes sir, Hot Chip and the USA should go together like freedom fries and a flame-grilled cheeseburger, but this tour has been anything but easy on the arteries.

The band’s popularity with American audiences, however, continues to grow exponentially. Part of this is no doubt the transatlantic appeal of a group of well-groomed English lads so effortlessly aping the more ridiculous aspects of American pop culture, although Alexis is quick to brush off accusations that they’re in danger of being pigeon-holed as self-referential or ironic.

“A fair few people appreciate the honesty of our lyrics, just as much as the playfulness, so we’re not perennially miscast as pranksters, thankfully. The records are hopefully what will be remembered, not the journalism.”

Alexis Taylor: British as Apple Pie, American as roast beef

Point taken. In fairness, Hot Chip are a darker and more troubled bunch than the breezy humour of their debut LP, Coming on Strong, would suggest. The single Playboy may contain a line about ‘driving round Putney with the top down’ (a source of some confusion with American audiences), but it also opens with a blink-and-miss-it reference to TS Eliot’s The Waste Land. Indeed, Joe Goddard, Hot Chip’s other vocalist, has spoken of the bands early endeavours as being “all sixth-form poetry, acoustic guitars and songs about loneliness”. International stardom beckons, but these former bedroom musicians are still occasionally blinded by the limelight.

“Personally,” says Alexis, “I thrive on smaller, more intimate venues, where I can sense the atmosphere in the room and play off that. But larger venues have a strange appeal of their own – a sense that you’re not really standing in front of thousands of people at all, but in your living room or in front of the mirror or something, because you can’t see anyone individually and you feel very lifted out of reality.”

Nor has their uniqueness shielded them from the miseries of being signed to a major label, something Alexis never wanted in the first place. “I’ve found it very hard, because they’ve struggled to appreciate what exactly we are doing. There isn’t much in terms of a healthy dialogue between us and our label, which I’m sad about.”

All of which must be taking its toll on the impish glee that characterises Hot Chip’s releases to date. Is their mischievous edge being slowly eroded by a world-weary cynicism? Does the shapeless shadow of a Kid A loom ominously on the horizon? Alexis thinks not.

“There’s nothing of that sort lurking in the wings. But yes, the new record is slightly less overtly comic, although it is still just as playful. It’s more about pathos than bathos this time round.”

And what about fond memories of the tour? Alexis admits that having Pat Mahoney of LCD Sound System step in and play drums at the aforementioned Bowery Ballroom gig was exciting, not least because he’d learned the songs by chatting with the band an hour before the show. He clearly enjoyed meeting fans in places as far flung as Denver and Milwaukee, and he’s understandably thrilled at “being alive after our visit to New York”. But he also sounds pleased at the prospect of getting back to London.

“The tour has felt fairly insane from start to finish. It’s been a shit rollercoaster ride, as Felix is known to say. Personally, I’ve missed my home and my girlfriend more than anything. And food that doesn’t contain cheese.”

You can take the boy out of Putney, it seems, but you can’t take the Putney out of the boy.