On their sixth album, Why Make Sense? the British electronic band strengthen their legacy of song-driven dance music through a process of step-by-step creation and recording, deconstruction, and rebuilding into a powerhouse live band.
For more than a decade, London’s Hot Chip has helped define one of the rarest of musical acts: the song-focused live band that cranks out and performs electronic dance hits.
Their 2004 debut attracted the attention of DFA Records, co-founded by James Murphy, the head of America’s like-minded dance band LCD Soundsystem. With U.S. record deal in tow, Hot Chip released their second and third albums which broke through to U.S. alternative radio with the tracks “Over and Over” and “Ready for the Floor,” and the band shored up a sizable fan base grinding on the festival circuit. Their hits laid a foundation of expectation for Hot Chip devotees: well-structured, quirky, bouncy, melodic pop songs with funkier rhythms than you’d probably expect from such pale British kids.
The band’s next two albums, One Life Stand (2010) and In Our Heads (2012), proved that their formidable endeavor, which could mix and match ecstatic joy, heart-wrenching sentiment, mellow grooves, and dancefloor bangers, was built to last. Backed by hits like “Flutes,” “Night and Day,” and “Don’t Deny Your Heart,” In Our Heads fared the best yet for Hot Chip, hitting Number One on both the U.K. and U.S. dance album charts.
After extensive touring and side projects, Hot Chip returned with Why Make Sense? on the Domino label. It opens with the lead single “Huarache Lights,” a tour de force of mid-tempo pulsing synthesizers, rising energy, head-nodding swing, and vocoded soul. Of the many other standouts, “Started Right” injects ’70s funk into the album with clavinet grooves and Soul Train-evoking strings, and the multilayered synth parts of “Easy to Get” dance around each other with well-practiced choreography.
That’s when you notice that throughout all the styles, feels and tempos, Hot Chip expertly balances changes in energy, dynamics, and texture. It’s something that comes from not just being in a band, rather than a solo or duo electronic act, but being in a talented band for 15 years, that is firing on all cylinders. That cohesiveness shows through in the music, from song to song and compounded over the course of Why Make Sense?
I spoke to Alexis Taylor, Hot Chip’s crystal– voiced lead singer and co-songwriter about the band’s process of creating, recording, and then performing.
Casual Hot Chip fans may not realize how prolific you and your bandmates are with solo work, remixing and other group projects, like About Group, [Alexis Taylor], The 2 Bears [Joe Goddard], and New Build [Al Doyle and Felix Martin]. How is it, balancing those other pursuits with Hot Chip?
We tend to put a Hot Chip record out and then tour for like two years, and after that, we all feel like we need a break from Hot Chip for a bit. In that down time, we are afforded time to work on the other records we’d like to make, and then it naturally comes round to a time when we’d like to make a Hot Chip record again. So we quite like it in that respect. We found a pattern in a way of working that allows us to do other things if we want to do them. And it feeds back into the Hot Chip process; it allows us to not put everything through one particular lens.
Speaking of making music in different ways, what was different about your recording process for Why Make Sense?
We went away to a residential studio and stayed and recorded there. That means that you’re away from other distractions. You’re out in the countryside in this case, and you’re recording into the nighttime, and you’re all sleeping in the same place and eating all your meals together, but really just focusing on making the record. Also, the space we recorded in was large enough to track everyone simultaneously. It had a huge control room, so you could record like eight synthesizers all in the same room. And we have two drummers, really: Rob and Sarah. They could both be in different rooms if we wanted to track two sets of drums simultaneously.
You could go off and write in a different room, as I did, and whilst people are working on one track, others could go into another room and demo or rehearse another track. Some of the words were written quite quickly in the studio and left as they were, rather than being revised later. Actually, we liked them as the finished thing. I let go of the idea that the words need to make sense to me, because some of them don’t, really.
Was one of those lyrics on “Love Is the Future” when you’re singing about getting the guitar track right?
That’s a good point, but actually no, that’s one of the few lyrics that was always the lyric! I don’t usually revise many of the lyrics, but on this album, I wrote some words which I didn’t necessarily feel I totally understood. It reminds me a little bit of the earlier days of Hot Chip, like Coming on Strong  and The Warning —lots of sessions recording more tracks than you end up putting on the album, and spilling ideas out all the time and not necessarily knowing which things are going to be the finished.
Is it normal for you to do a lot of the writing while you’re also recording?
We get asked about the writing every time we make an album, and there isn’t really one method we stick to. Some songs Joe writes on his own; some I write on my own. Some songs, Joe writes the music and I write the words. Sometimes Al writes a bit of the words alongside me and Joe. But every time it usually involves some improvising in the recording studio, and the things we’re improvising are usually the chords that make the basis of the song, and then we do the vocals after that. So quite often we›re writing in a studio, but maybe that’s Joe’s studio in London before we take it to the rest of the band.
The last couple of records, there was a bit more solo songwriting, but most of it was more collaborative this time. We just try to have a free and easy approach to it, but the basis of the songs always come from Joe and myself as a starting point.
Hot Chip seems to live in two worlds—the electronic dance world and the world of live, song-driven bands. How do you balance those tendencies in the studio?
Almost every time, the drums, and often the bass lines, are programmed by Joe before there is any live playing. I’m making it simpler than it is, but there’s a second stage with me playing more keyboards on top of what he’s begun and doing some vocals. After that there’s often live band tracking on top: drums, live bass guitar, live guitar, live percussion, and more keyboards. We don’t just set up in a studio and have seven people play everything from scratch, but we do tend to overdub multiple players simultaneously that way.
The band hinges on this combination of MIDI programmed, computer-written, soft-synth based music combining with outboard equipment and physical keyboards—often ancient keyboards from the ’70s onward—mixed with ancient drum machines, and traditional rock band instrumentation. It’s kind of the MIDI programmed stuff meeting with the electronic synthesizers meeting with the traditional instruments. Then maybe we get a marimba player, a violin player or a steel pan player. It’s a quite a lot of live music, but we go layer by layer.
What’s the process of going from that writing and recording stage to performing songs live?
For this record, we’ve listened to the recordings and said, “how about Rob plays the vocoder part on this keyboard,” which isn’t the keyboard we had at the studio, because we don’t have access to everything we used. We figure out something that can do that job: “How about Sarah plays this bit of the drums,” which on the record were just programs. “How about Alexis plays a Wurlitzer and sings?” We just figure it out by listening, and then practicing, and then we think, “how about somebody else just plays this music they’ve come up with that wasn’t on the record, because that works better live?” You go through the process of learning all of the elements on the record, and then abandoning some of that to make it groove better live.
We have a set of instruments we tend to use live, but they’re not the exact thing we used on the record. We already have so much stuff that we’re kind of turning into Genesis or Toto. You have to be careful not to do that.
I’ve seen the Akai MPC in your performance rig. Are you using that to sample elements from the album you don’t want to re-create?
We borrowed that from the band Fridge, who were in school with us—one of them is Kieran Hebden, who writes music as Four Tet. The MPC was Felix’s instrument at the beginning; he would make new versions of the beats [that were] different from what Joe programmed for the records. He would run sequences on it, but also trigger sounds from the pads, beating out the rhythms. We were inspired to do that by watching early Anti-Pop Consortium gigs where all they seemed to have was an MPC and three vocal mics. Then gradually the Elektron Machinedrum took over from the MPC. Then Felix started using Ableton [Live], and I starting using the MPC on the last tour to trigger samples. On “Look at Where We Are” on the last record, we used the MPC in the studio to take vocals or keyboard parts or drums and chop them up, rearrange how they sound, and trigger them from the pads. For the last BBC show, Felix triggered samples from the Tempest.
Have you tried the iPad version, the iMPC?
I got the iMPC app just to see what it was like, and then while we were recording this album, I used it to try out little ideas, not because I thought it would sound better, but just because it was a shorthand way to do a little demo and play it back. I sampled something that in the end we didn’t get clearance for, so it didn’t go on the album.
You mentioned using Ableton Live and soft synths; what are some of your favorite music programs?
Ableton is for the live show. The records are recorded in Cubase and Pro Tools. Joe always uses Cubase, and Pro Tools we use in a studio as a multitracking, high-end device rather than for writing MIDI. Joe’s got more knowledge of soft synths, but I know he uses a plug-in version of a Jupiter or a CS-80, and then he replaces it after with the real vintage keyboards. I record using Logic, but I barely use any soft synths. But I did use the [GForce] M-Tron Pro Mellotron samples on my last [solo] record.
Do the performances morph and change much during the two or so years of touring for an album?
Yeah. We did rehearsals for a BBC 6 Festival, and I can already tell that we’ll change something from “Boy from School.” We played it different from how we played it before, but I think we need to change it again. Things change over the touring cycle, and hopefully you bring in songs you haven’t played yet, haven’t played in years or covers. We try to make it interesting for ourselves and the fans. It doesn’t tend to stay the same, which I’m pleased about. Also, it’s not like every day for two years straight. We have other things to do, like I have to take my daughter to school and be part of the family. It’s not like two years of joining the army.
Arturia Moog Modular VJOE’S SYNTH SHACK
One half of Hot Chip’s principal songwriting force, Joe Goddard also remixes and DJs prolifically, both on his own and as half of the genre-defying, critically acclaimed dance music duo The 2 Bears. He revealed to us some of his favorite software synths.
“I use Arturia’s [Mini V] Minimoog plug-in often to write parts,” he said, “which I then send out to old hardware synths like my ARP 2600, Yamaha CS-80, or Oberheim OBXa. I write lots on Arturia’s Moog Modular V plug-in, particularly the patches made by Hideki Matsutake from Yellow Magic Orchestra. The main synth in ‘Ready for the Floor’ was one of those sounds. I also use Spectrasonics Omni-sphere sometimes for unusual, atmospheric patches.”
HOT CHIP SELECTED LIVE GEAR
Dave Smith & Roger Linn Tempest analog drum machine
Dave Smith Instruments Tetra analog synth module
Dave Smith Instruments Prophet-12 Keyboard hybrid digital/analog synth
Moog Voyager Electric Blue Edition analog monophonic synth
Moog Little Phatty analog monophonic synth
Roland Juno-60 analog polyphonic synth
Roland SH-101 vintage monophonic bass synth
Roland SPD-S sampling drum pad
Roland SPD-X sampling drum pad
Wurlitzer electric piano