Bedknobs & Boom-Chiks - EMusician

Bedknobs & Boom-Chiks

Their latest album finds them probing the high-end wares of a professional studio, but at heart, the members of Hot Chip prefer to record right where they sleep
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Alexis Taylor is rummaging around his flat, looking for the lap-size Yamaha keyboard he bought at a car boot sale a few years back for three quid. “I know it's here somewhere,” he says, audibly sifting through papers, coils of patch cords and pieces of gear before pausing to make a larger point. “You know, I can't tell whether it's a good thing or not to give away all of your secrets, but really the secrets aren't in the equipment. They're more in what you play and what ideas you have. I remember when I first mentioned the Casio MT-70 that we used all over our first two records, and suddenly loads of people just started buying it. It was quite funny.”

Since the release of their sophomore effort, The Warning (EMI, 2006), Taylor and his band Hot Chip have been having a time of it for more reasons than mere copycat worship. Not only did that album make the final cut for the UK's Mercury Music Prize, but it became a certified hit in Britain with two Top 40 singles — no small feat, considering the band had been pegged as a quirky electro-pop art-funk quintet with bargain-basement production methods. Of course, with that style having struck such a heavy nerve (as evinced by the success of LCD Soundsystem, M.I.A. and Funkstörung, to name a few), it was only a matter of time before Hot Chip should start to make waves on this side of the pond.

Made in the Dark (DFA/Astralwerks, 2008) marks a new direction for Taylor and his bandmates — Joe Goddard, Owen Clarke, Felix Martin and Al Doyle — partly because it's the result of a few new recording approaches that Taylor and Goddard (Hot Chip's primary production brain) sought to experiment with. “There wasn't a massive change in a lot of the ways we worked on this record,” Goddard is quick to explain. “I still used [Steinberg] Cubase SX3 on my laptop in my bedroom for most of it. But Al and Felix worked on a few songs in their studio using [Apple] Logic, and we also tracked three songs at the Strongroom, which is a real studio in London — that's something that we've never done before. They just had a good live room, so we went in there and set up with all our amps. We actually recorded five or six songs, but three live takes made it onto the record.”

Rife with squiggly synth hooks, raucous guitar and bass lines, a sedulous mixture of programmed and live percussion, and moments of soulful introspection laced with wry humor, Made in the Dark is a multilayered, headphone-happy outing that brims with spontaneity — a hallmark of many a Hot Chip recording or remix. “We've never really been too good at bothering to get rid of the little imperfections,” Taylor admits, finally stumbling across the Yamaha PortaSound VSS-30 synth he's been looking for. “But I think that adds some personality, and it's good not to be too dogmatic about it if that's what suits the song. You shouldn't just say, ‘Oh we never do that, so let's not bother.'' If somebody's playing the guitar and they're only really gonna play a little melody once or twice, it's better just to record them doing it while they're in the right groove. As a group, we're working with a lot of different types of musicianship, so we almost have to be spontaneous whenever we can.”

BENDS IN THE ROAD

Leaked this past June, the ominous-sounding single “Shake a Fist” was the opening punch. The track had become a staple of the band's live sets and, according to Goddard, the studio version — which avails itself of a spoken-word sample from Todd Rundgren's Something/Anything? album as a bridge between sections — was nearing completion before The Warning had even been released. “I take my laptop while I'm on tour,” he says, “and so do Alexis and Felix. We're trying to constantly be working so that even if we're touring quite heavily, we can still build up a back catalog of stuff. ‘Shake a Fist'' was like that.”

Goddard generated many of the song's jagged, undulating synth sounds with Arturia's suite of plug-ins — in particular, the Moog Modular and Prophet-5 emulations. “I just got really into the Moog Modular,” he says. “There's one range of presets by a Japanese designer who uses the LFO a lot. You can hear this strange chorus and a wobbly LFO on some of these sounds, which I've used in lots of different productions. I also like to have two envelopes controlling noise and melodic sounds, so if you have the noise on a separate channel in Cubase but following the same melodic part, it just gets much punchier.” (The latter trick gets a real workout in the robotic banger “Ready for the Floor.”)

Meanwhile, “Bendable Poseable,” as its title suggests, swings hard in the rhythmic sense. Using just a Shure Beta 57A mic going directly into Cubase, Goddard recorded a number of different live percussion parts and fashioned them into a jittery, three-minute loop that he emailed to Taylor, who laid down the main vocal using his own GarageBand setup. “I used the Cubase plug-in QuadraFuzz to add a little distortion to the drums,” Goddard explains. “One is an analog drum machine setting that gives them a little more fuzziness and crackliness so they sound edgy and not dull. Then you can mix them so they all have their own space.”

STRENGTH TRAINING

Exploring new spaces became the operative method for the spate of tracks that the band recorded at the Neve console/Pro Tools-equipped Strongroom studios in London. Album opener “Out at the Pictures” probably best captures Hot Chip in a live setting, in part because the first third of the song is actually taken from a 2007 performance at The Fillmore in San Francisco. When the live energy of a packed house merges with the live in-studio take, the transition is virtually seamless.

“It's all about playing in one take,” Taylor explains. “It's a completely different way of recording for us — even of making music and writing — because we're so used to working in a bedroom [see sidebar ‘While You Were Sleeping'']. We wanted some of the instruments to go through amps, and we wanted the sound to leak from each mic and amp so that you could hear that we were all together in a room.” The track also features bandmember Martin laying down live beats on an Elektron Machinedrum SPS-1, which was mixed by Dan Carey (M.I.A., Kylie Minogue), who worked his magic for six other tracks on Made in the Dark.

“Dan did record some things onto tape, as well,” Goddard says. “He took our basic mix of the drums that we tracked at the Strongroom for ‘One Pure Thought'' and bounced them to 2-inch tape, which really created an amazing effect. It just brought them all into one sonic space and made them sound less like a digital, clean drum machine. Your ears can make better sense of the track now, and it just sounds lovely, you know?”

SOUL INSPIRATION

If you saw them in a pub or riding the Tube, you'd probably think the techno-geeky lads in Hot Chip would be the last bunch on Earth capable of delivering some legitimately funky soul, but the churchy “We're Looking for a Lot of Love” and the Chi-Lites-meet-Eno vibes of “In the Privacy of Our Love” dispel all such preconceptions. What's more, Taylor and Goddard really outdo themselves with “Wrestlers” — a slippery clap-track based ballad that's an homage of sorts to R. Kelly's “I'm a Flirt.”

“Even though the song was made in a bedroom,” Taylor says, “it had to have no surface noise on it because it's meant to be a loud, mid-tempo R&B groove that would work in a club, even if people don't normally sing about wrestling. [Laughs.] Me, Joe and Owen made that song in an afternoon, and I like that there's a lot of force behind that bass synth line and the vocal melody.”

Layered vocals, in fact, fuel this and just about every other track on the album. “Usually, we do two takes of the same vocal part and then just put them together,” Taylor explains. “They'll be slightly different — there will be tiny little idiosyncrasies in the way I've sung or Joe has sung, so if you stack them together they just work because they don't sound too artificial. Other times, we just double one performance and shift it a little bit out behind the beat. I do it more with records I've made on my own; it's that short delay you get on early rock 'n' roll records, like Jerry Lee Lewis, or even later on with John Lennon.”

When it comes to creating the beats for Hot Chip's soulful excursions, Goddard claims one producer in particular as a key influence. “I always want to make something that's funky,” he says, “but there's also a desire to make something that's just weird. It comes a little bit from Timbaland — the layers of percussion that are just these perfect little strange grooves. He's a massive inspiration probably to a lot of people, but particularly to me. When you put headphones on, there will be rhythms coming at you from all over the place, but all the patterns work perfectly together in the best way, so your ears are constantly being excited. If I can create that feeling, then I know the track is working.”

While You Were Sleeping

As veterans of low-to-the-ground production setups, Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard are veritable poster boys for what a good old-fashioned bedroom rig can achieve when pushed to its limits. And they're not the only ones who think so; besides the DFA's James Murphy, whose label handles Hot Chip's U.S. distribution, everyone from Amy Winehouse to Kraftwerk has been lining up for remixes. Their latest client is Robert Wyatt — like Kraftwerk, another hero of Taylor and Goddard's rug-rat days.

“Whenever I'm looking through a gear magazine,” Goddard observes, “I think about Lee Perry and the fact that you don't need all this stuff to make music. You can get it, and you can make good music with it, but it's about imagination more than equipment, pretty much always. But having said that, I'm starting to miss the fact that I can't get this lovely tone on a guitar just in my bedroom. In the future, I might try working with a few other things. But I still think it's really important for people to stretch what they've got and to learn the ins and outs of all their equipment.”

As for the nature of that equipment, again, Taylor prefers to keep at least a few production secrets close to the vest. “We don't really like it if people can tell exactly what we're using,” he says, “which is why I think we like to combine live sounds with preset or programmed sounds. There are things that are literally played with your fingers on a keyboard, and there are some things that are written on the computer. It's just more interesting to me to combine an electric guitar with a synthetic pan sound, for example, than to do it all on the computer or all live. The bedroom setups we use are great for achieving that.”

GEAR IN THE DARK

Computer, DAW, recording hardware

IBM ThinkPad laptop
Steinberg Cubase SX3 with Edirol soundcard

Mics, effects, plug-ins

Arturia Moog Modular V, Prophet V
Focusrite The Liquid Channel
preamp/compressor channel strip
Moogerfooger MF-103 12-Stage Phaser,
MF-104Z Analog Delay pedals
Neumann U 87 mic
Shure Beta 57A mic

Instruments, amplifiers, drum machines

Aria AG-20 practice amp
Casio CZ-101, MT-70 keyboards
Doepfer A100 analog modular synth
Elektron Machinedrum SPS-1 drum synthesizer
Encore E375 3/4-size electric guitar
Fender Rhodes electric piano
Gibson Firebird electric guitar
Sequential Circuits Pro One mono synth
Teisco/Kawai 100F synth
Yamaha PortaSound VSS-30 keyboard,
DD35 electronic drum pad unit

Monitors

Mackie HR824 active monitors