Hot Chip Frontman Alexis Taylor Delves Into the Sounds and Sentiments of ‘A Bath Full of Ecstasy’
Nearly two decades into their colorful career, Hot Chip have returned revitalized, with a robust album, “A Bath Full of Ecstacy.” The brainchild of multi-instrumentalists Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard, the group has steadily imbued dancefloor punch and electronic texture into an engaging, dynamic live band format, with various sonic variations over the years. Widely regarded to have been at their peak around 2010’s “One Life Stand,” the group underwent a relative lull on subsequent releases, 2012’s “In Our Heads” and 2015’s “Why Make Sense,” exploring an altogether more understated sound. The new album marks something of a return to form, achieving a new grandness of scale, and matching, if not exceeding, the intensity of anything in the band’s catalogue.
For the first time, Hot Chip collaborated with outside producers, namely the late Philipe Zdar (Phoenix, Cassius,) as well as Rodiath McDonald (The xx, David Byrne,) each of whom has put a distinctive imprint on the sound. In many ways. There’s hardly a better way to celebrate the contributions of Zdar than with a record as ebullient as this. The new set of songs is indeed as bright and genuinely uplifting as its title suggests, both lyrically and musically. It’s a breath of fresh air and a delightful, invigorating jolt, coming at a time when such a message and feeling is more welcome than ever.
Prior to the band’s North American leg of their tour, Alexis Taylor spoke with Entertainment Voice for an in-depth conversation about the new album, shedding light on the concept behind its overall positive theme, and delving into the details of several specific songs. He dissected some of the more opaque lyrics, and shared stories of how the sounds came together in the studio.
Your album title, “A Bath Full of Ecstacy,” is outlandishly exuberant. How much of it is a bit tongue-in-cheek or are you as much of a wide-eyed romantic optimist as the title suggests?
The latter. It’s a song about the possibilities of things working out between people, whether that’s people in a relationship with each other or people being invited into a kind of musical world, which is, I guess, what Hot Chip represents. It’s a kind of invitation to enjoy a moment of ecstacy or a long-lasting period of ecstacy. It’s not about the drug. It’s written about some kind of shared experience, which could be wonderful. And when you make a song, you kind of enter into a fantasy world, so I don’t really mind if that seems like a grand statement, to invite someone to bathe in our ecstacy. It’s more about letting go, I suppose — inviting someone to let go, and enjoy something, and take pleasure in sound or love, not being so specific. And there are other things going on in the rest of the lyrics, which talk about more hard times. I think it’s about the creative process, and being lost in the moment, and finding some kind of transcendental experience.
Hot Chip’s music is primarily electronic, but has a certain organic feel to it, always sounding like the work of musicians collaborating in real time. How did you maintain the balance between studio wizardry and live band dynamics on the new album?
Well, I always find it quite interesting that people find the need to say that it’s an electronic group. Of course, I don’t deny that there are lots of musical elements in it that are related to what we call electronic music or house music or techno or whatever, but it’s very much a hybrid of a band playing songs live and some electronic elements mixed together, and it’s always been like that. There’s a lot of programming, but there’s a lot of live guitar playing, singing, percussion, etc. and there’s this kind of mix of, although still electronic, quite antiquated instruments like the Wurlitzer electric piano, in combination with guitars going into classic guitar acts and so on, and handheld percussion and things. And all those things are blended together with programmed drums, programmed basslines, and modular synths that are kind of brand new to us, as a band, or at least they’re modern-built things.
All of that synthesis, really, in combining layers of sound together for the sake of making something pleasurable and new-sounding, that process has been going on in other people’s records for some time, but the key records for, kind of, inspiring that approach in Hot Chip, I would say, are Beach Boys records, in which Brian would deliberately layer usual voices, as in instruments voices, together, to make, kind of, new instruments. So he’s got things in unison, like a banjo with a cello, with a piano, with a bass guitar, with an electric guitar, kind of based on Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” approach. We’ve always liked that approach to music making, and I suppose we just explore that, but in an era where we’ve grown up with hip-hop records and Prince records and lots of things that came after the Beach Boys, I suppose — house music, you know.
“A Bath Full of Ecstacy” found you working for the first time with outside producers, Philipe Zdar (Phoenix, Cassius) and Rodiath McDonald (The xx, David Byrne). How did each of these producers shape the sound of the album?
What we did this time that kind of continued that process was we started working in Joe’s studio in London, and did lots of writing of songs, writing of chords. Maybe some of it’s written on a Wurlitzer, but then we immediately go to the synth where we can get Midi information from the chords that I’m playing, and then we can send those chord changes to other instruments, and mess around with the sounds and the parameters of the sounds. We did all of that as we always have done, with quite a lot of freedom about what it was that we were making, and not too many rules, and then, once we had built up a bank of songs, we took those songs to Rodi McDonald and wrote with him on about five of them, and took all of the stems to studios in London, and got his input and his influence on where those tracks could go, and did lots more recording and editing and writing, and then we did the same with some other tracks with Phillipe Zdar, maybe five or six tracks or something, and got a kind of overview as well, from Phillipe, on what this batch of songs sounded like together. We did lots more production with him, and then he mixed the whole thing.
Part of the process of working with Phillipe involved live, simultaneous playing by all five of us in the room together, and him capturing our, sort of, curiosity of playing new synths — synths that he had in his studio, that we hadn’t played on the record already, so we had that kind of joy of discovery of the sounds that we were making in his studio, but also him steering that process, and encouraging us — you know, coming into the room and shouting, and saying, “This is fantastic! Keep going,” or “This is not working,” or whatever it might be, and he kind of organized a lot of that chaos and playing. But we were doing that on top of tracks we’d already written and demoed. We had already done the groundwork. I think the main thing that Phillipe brought to this whole process was a dynamism in the mixing of the music, so that things would really feel quite well-organized, but also quite extreme in terms of the levels of one instrument to the next in different sections of the songs, so that maybe the chorus could really be massive-sounding, but the verse could be quite tiny-sounding. We were really helped by working with him and Rodi, and I suppose they helped to see what we already do as a band, and to make the best of that, and also to see what we don’t know how to do, and how to get us to do things in a slightly different way, maybe refining the songwriting, or expanding the tracks in certain ways, if need be.
Rodi was very, sort of, studious and focused, and he was quick to make decisions about what he thought we should do differently. So if he would hear a track, he could say, “This section is not working. You need a new set of chords or a new vocal line,” or “These words are great, but the song is too long. I see this song as a three and a half minute song. It doesn’t have to be an eleven minute song.” He could just take the things that we presented to him, and say, “I feel good about this,” or in different instances, the whole thing needs a radical overhaul, but then something good will come out of it. He was good at directing all the recording sessions. Something like “Melody of Love,” I felt like he really pushed us to keep writing until the chorus was bigger and better and made more sense. We didn’t really have to do that with any other songs on the album, but with that one, we did do that, and I think it made it a better pop song than it was before.
Your single “Melody of Love,” and other new songs like “Positive,” come at a perfect time, as it seems more important now than ever to harness the uplifting potential of music. Expand on the sentiment at the heart of these songs.
Well, I think of “Positive” as an overtly despairing song really, rather than a very positive song. It’s got a positive sentiment in the song, which is that people need some help and support when they are in difficult situations, and the things I’m talking about — people facing illness and depression and homelessness, and relationships breaking down, due to the pressures of becoming ill — different things like that. It talks a little bit about that way in which society can try and turn away from people who are living on the streets. It talks about that in the opening lines. It kind of takes the angle of people that are angry with somebody for ending up on the streets — as if it’s drugs or whatever, you know. It’s not talking about all homeless people, summing up everybody. I’m talking about a kind of conservative, reactionary response, but I’m also talking from the perspective of somebody who may be imagining somebody being in a relationship with somebody else, and feeling angry with them, and so on, so it’s from lots of different perspectives. And it’s from experience of knowing some people close to me who were going through very difficult times, and it’s not all about homelessness. It’s also about just the relationship between two people. So I’m kind of touching on lots of different things that I’ve picked up from people around me, and trying to say something about a need for people to offer whatever they can offer as support and knowledge and love towards people that are struggling. That’s what that song is about, and of course, the chorus is quite a bit more of a positive sentiment.
“Melody of Love” is quite similar to that. It’s talking about when things are really, really bad, and people may be kind of despairing, and society seems pretty fucked, they may not have any chance but to find some solace in something else, which may be music or art, or some sense of community that is represented in melody and music and sounds that resonate with you. It’s not saying that’s the solution and that’s going to help everybody, but rather, that’s, from my perspective, a kind of world in which you can be transported somewhere else more positive by the effect music can have on you, or the effect that family can have on you, or some connection with others can have. That’s part of what the record is about — that need for unity and community and music and escapism and warmth you get from being surrounded by sound, when it’s working for you, when it’s offering you something good.
The album abounds with lyrics that seem lighthearted and effortless, yet open-ended in a quite profound way. One example is, “Been trying hard to pull you back all my life / It’s momentary,” from your lead single “Hungry Child.” Untangle this paradox.
In “Hungry Child,” I was trying to respond in the chorus to what I felt the lyrical subject might be, from Joe, in the rest of the song, and I don’t know if I got that right or not, but I was talking about how sometimes you can be affected by a very important moment in your life, like the loss of a loved one or a family member, and it stops everything. I’m not saying it is like a heart attack, because I’ve neither had a heart attack nor lost a parent or anything, but that’s what I was getting at — some big event, some tragic event, that stops everything, and yet, it’s also momentary. It’s a moment in time, but it also does stop time and affect things for the rest of your life. That’s the hard juxtaposition, I suppose.
Another interesting snippet is “a memory in reverse,” from your song “Spell,” which grew from a bit you wrote during your studio time with Katy Perry. What is “a memory in reverse?”
I think I was trying to talk about when something is happening — like two people are drawn to each other, and I guess it’s about fate or something. From the moment that something happens between them, all you really have is a sense of trying to reverse that moment of connection between two people, because it maybe shouldn’t have happened or something. The song is about a relationship, and what happens when you accept being drawn towards something, but then you’re also pedaling back from it as soon as it’s happened. So you maybe have a memory of an event, and then you try and reverse that memory. (Laughs) You try and reverse what happened, but you can’t, you know. That’s what I was getting at, and I never really knew if I expressed it eloquently enough, but I also have never talked about, or thought about that after the moment of writing the song. I quite like the sound of it, and I like the symbolism there, and I like the idea that somebody would have to, kind of, unpack that for themselves. It feels like a nice narrative device as well. What is a memory when it’s reversed? Because a memory is already a going over of something from the past — kind of taking time and going back to something that you can’t actually ever get back to. And then, if you reverse the memory, maybe you make something not happen, but yeah, I don’t know.
The album’s final track, “No God,” celebrates human connection in lieu of nebulous concepts of God. You’ve spoken of initially writing the song to be performed by your mother-in-law for a televised talent show — a premise that begs for further elaboration. Why and how did this come to be?
So I didn’t set out with that in mind, but that song, when I first wrote it, seemed to be a kind of piano ballad, a very epic-sounding thing, and the only vocalist I could think of who could sing it was my mother in law, who’s a singer. I thought of her maybe wanting to have a big song like this to use as a kind of platform for showing her voice. I guess I was thinking about those moments you get when Susan Boyle or somebody suddenly becomes a megastar. I thought of it as a song that was not really for me or for Hot Chip. I never really thought about it for Hot Chip initially. Essentially, I had a kind of fully-formed, epic piano ballad at my fingertips, and I just didn’t know what to do with that, so that’s what I was getting at when I said I had her in mind. And then, one day during Hot Chip album sessions, I thought, “Oh well, you know, I’ve got this song. I’ll play it for Joe, and see what it can become,” and then it became about three different songs before it became the version that’s on the album. It went through quite a long process of changes. At one point, we were going to take it off the record, but then I wrote a new section for it, and I felt like I fixed it and made it better. And then Phillipe really produced it well, and added lots of amazing percussion to it, and Joe had a good idea of some piano part that he wanted me to play, so I did that, and it all gelled and came together. I think those initial ideas for what songs could be can be interesting because they can be very far away from the finished thing.