Hot Chip has always been a prolific band, but after Why Make Sense (2015) it was time for a fairly extended break. Co-frontmen Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard each released solo albums—Taylor even two—while guitarist Al Doyle became a full member of LCD Soundsystem, the band he toured with only before its breakup and subsequent comeback. Four years later, the mothership is back with A Bath Full Of Ecstasy.
Written by: Reinier van der Zouw
Photos: Bibian Bingen
After this interview, in the week before the release of A Bath Full Of Ecstasy, Philippe Zdar passed away, at much too young age. The French producer and half of Cassius left his mark on Hot Chip's new record. Below, Joe Goddard and Alexis Taylor praise the collaboration.
A Bath Full Of Ecstasy is not only the record in the Hot Chip oeuvre that has been delayed the longest, it is also the first record in which the band completely surrendered to outside producers. The choice ultimately fell on Philippe Zdar, a French producer who is best known for his work with Cassius and Phoenix, and Rodaidh McDonald, the regular producer of The XX, among others. Goddard explains how that happened: “We consciously wanted to open ourselves up to a full collaboration with the producers. So there were times with both of them where they took us out of our comfort zone. Not in a difficult or annoying way, but they did help us make decisions we wouldn't have made otherwise.”
One of those decisions was on the song 'Spell', a six-minute indietronica trip on which the band sounds more exuberant than they have done in a long time. Goddard: “It was produced by Philippe and he pushed us to maintain a rather long breakdown – one of two, two and a half minutes – in the middle of the track. It felt quite confusing to me at first. As if the track is completely falling apart and being put back together again. So in the beginning I think that was one of those moments for all of us where we wondered, 'Really? Is this what we're doing? Okay, I'll have to get used to that.'” 'Spell' was one of the songs the band took a demo of to Zdar's Paris studio. “It was pretty much the first thing we worked with him on,” Goddard said. “We played together in his biggest studio room, which has a lot of great keyboards. Philippe modeled a song from the jam sessions: he recorded for a long time and then extracted small moments from the recordings, which he then made a whole track with.”
So the breakdown continued, something Goddard certainly doesn't regret now, judging by the reaction that the moment evokes live. “The live response to that piece shows that Philippe has a lot of experience with house music and understands its dynamics very well. Because when we play that song live now, that moment when everything kind of falls apart seems to get people excited, in a really nice way. So I'm really glad we finally trusted him and ourselves."
Taylor is also very pleased with the collaboration with Zdar. "For me, Philippe turned out to be such a good producer and work partner because he really has his own way of working. He's a lot of fun and lively in the studio, very optimistic about the possibilities of what you can do with a song. He has the skill and knowledge of an engineer and at the same time he understood a lot of our reference points: club music, German dub, techno, more classic, disco stuff. There was a lot of overlap between things we are both interested in so it felt like a good match.”
If you don't know that the record was produced by two different people, you probably don't hear it, the style remains consistent. In the studio there was a difference: the two producers were quite different in approach, although they complemented each other well. Taylor: “They were both a good fit for what we wanted to do. Rodaidh knows himself and his mindset very well, so he was also very clear about what needed to be done. He was very good at making decisions. Together with him, we changed tracks in ways we might never have done if left to our own devices. He was quite harsh at times, not afraid to say what we could do better. But he also knew when to say, 'Keep it up, this works.'”
The title track, on which there is wild experimentation with autotune, is really a Rodaidh McDonald track, says Taylor: “We had already started with that song ourselves, but in the end he contributed a lot to it. For that track he brought software where you can edit the tone and sound of your voice and that ultimately created a kind of hip-hop feeling, although there is also some seventies trance in the track. The song goes back and forth between two different sound worlds. Those ideas came from us, but he helped make it more clear”
With some songs the gentlemen can easily point out who was responsible for the production, with other songs things got more mixed up. Goddard: “Some of the songs on the album that are assigned to either Rodaidh or Philippe are sonically mostly stuff that we recorded in my studio and one of them mainly helped with the arrangement or something like that.” As far as he is concerned, this method is certainly worth repeating. “They pushed us to do something stronger than what we would have done if they hadn't been involved. We definitely wanted to go with that process, not create a situation where we hired a great person and then ignore all their suggestions and just make the record we wanted to make. We really wanted to work together. I think it made it a better album because of that.”
Taylor agrees and cites McDonald's working method to confirm this. “What Rodaidh did sometimes was take a song that started out as an 11-minute track and say, 'I can imagine a version of this that's more of a pop track, rather than a deep house track or a club track.' We could also have resisted that and have stood our ground: no, we want it that way. But we have been quite flexible. In the process with these producers, we explicitly asked for their thoughts. "What do you hear in this that can help us make a record that takes us musically to places we've never been before?"
Where the story of the album seems to be that it is the record on which Hot Chip opened the door for the first time, the band kept that door closed on another level. Taylor: “In the case of our other albums, we often invited musicians to be part of the process: we did everything we could to enhance the sound of the band. Now we really wanted to stick to the five of us.”
“The five of us” here refers to the original line-up of the band: Taylor and Goddard mainly on vocals and synthesizers, Al Doyle on guitar, Owen Clarke on bass and Felix Martin behind the drum machines. According to Taylor, this more compact composition was a relief. “We made a few records that we were certainly happy with, but in the making process it felt like not everyone had the same amount of space to contribute or didn't feel comfortable enough to do so. This time it seemed like everyone was more at ease.”
Not that A Bath Full of Ectasy sounds like a band record. Hot Chip is more than ever with two feet on the dance floor. For example, listen to the first single 'Hungry Child', a club track with a capital C. Goddard explains: “In the recording process, we really put that song together as a dance track. It's not much jaded, we approached it from a house perspective.”
Goddard and Taylor certainly still have a place in their hearts for guitar music, although you wouldn't say that based on the last few Hot Chip records. In the warm-up tour for A Bath Full Of Ecstasy, this is reflected in the flaming cover of 'Sabotage' by Beastie Boys, which opens the encore as standard. Certainly not the first time the band has ventured on a cover – a wonderful Hot Chip adaptation of Bruce Springsteen's 'Dancing In The Dark' was released a few years ago – but this one stands out because it remains quite faithful to the original.
Taylor realizes that may seem like a crazy choice, but it makes perfect sense to him. “I grew up with Beastie Boys. The influence that an album like Paul's Boutique has had on Hot Chips way of making music is quite big.” Goddard adds: “It's an important part of who we are as music fans. Beastie Boys is a band for which we were able to share our love from a very young age. They were very important to me as a teenager. On Paul's Boutique, for example, Mike D mentions all kinds of old soul singers, musicians from the seventies. I then went on the hunt for their albums again.”
A Bath Full Of Ecstasy ends with 'No God' slowly building up to a euphoric climax. A striking and memorable closing, which almost did not make the record, says Taylor. “When I wrote it, I didn't envision it as a Hot Chip song. I envisioned it as an epic ballad for a singer. But when we were making the album, I threw it in anyway. I suggested we try it as a somewhat slower, midtempo house track. We ended up trying a lot of different versions. At one point, it had pretty much the tempo of Bob Marley's "Could You Be Loved." As a group, we gradually started giving up the song, because we didn't know what to do with it. But Joe still saw a certain strength in it. He suggested we use a piece of piano that we had already recorded, which really feels as an essential part of the track and something we missed in those previous versions. Then it clicked.”
Hot Chip will play Into The Great Wide Open on Friday, August 30th. A Bath Full of Ectasy will be released on June 21 via Domino Records. Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.