Hot Chip's Alexis Taylor Explores Collaborative Contemplation on New Album, 'Listen With(out) Piano'
In conversation with the avant-electropop frontman about the duality of his latest project.
Photo by Anne Tetzlaff and Guy Bolongaro. This post ran orignally on THUMP UK.
Alexis Taylor, the arch and ever-so-slightly effete Hot Chip front man, has been a strangely omnipresent figure in British music for just over a decade now. The band he formed with former schoolmate Joe Goddard at the turn of the millennium have, in their own relatively understated way, gone on to be huge.
OK, so Hot Chip might not be Ed Sheeran huge but they're still big enough to pack out venues, sit near the top of pretty much every major festival bill going, and combine wonky avant-electropop with bangers even your granny knows and loves. Which is commendable for a group of musicians who don't look or sound like a conventional crossover act.
Taylor's been releasing solo material since 2008. That year's Rubbed Out was a tender, sparse collection of material—featuring a brilliant cover of Paul McCartney's "Coming Up"—that saw him veer away from the eclectically electronic melange he served up in his day job. That was followed in 2014 by the smooth and sad Await Barbarians, a heartbreak record for those of us who've wasted our life online.
Last year saw the arrival of his most intimate record yet, Piano, which as the title suggests, saw Taylor tinkling the ivories in fine style. Next month sees him release a follow-up of sorts. Listen With(out) Piano is a star-studded and slightly unusual accompaniment, which sees the likes of Beatrice Dillon, Green Gartside of Scritti Politti, and Gang Gang Dance's Brian DeGraw taking on Taylor's work. Here's the really interesting bit: these new tracks work perfectly well as standalone material, but are also designed to be listened to in conjunction with Piano itself. The result is a drifting and deep LP that explores the artistic importance of nuance and subtleties.
We caught up with Taylor to talk about Prince, pubs, and the unlikely connection between Al Green and Bill Callahan.
THUMP: Let's start with Piano itself. Minimalism has been an incredibly important part of contemporary music for nigh on 60 years now—from Steve Reich to Reinhardt Voigt. What does the term mean to you?
Alexis Taylor: I like Terry Riley's music a lot which is often associated with minimalism and also Steve Reich, but I wasn't really thinking about minimalism with a capital M at all when making Piano. I was more interested in the idea that the piano at Hackney Road Studios was enough. It has such a rich and beautiful sound to me, and I felt like I could make a record which put it, my voice, my songs and some covers at the forefront. I wanted to get out of the habit of adding extra instrumentation and see what happens if the songs are more bare in arrangement. For me the record was about things being 'reduced' more than minimalist.
I find the record has its own atmosphere and as a result stands out amongst the noise around us at all times. It forces you to either listen, turn up the volume, or reject it I think. I heard a bit of it again the other day and felt like it worked, to bring the listener into this quite different place that current music doesn't tend to go to.
When I listen to the Mark Hollis solo record or Plush's More You Becomes You they have a similar effect—but again different, because the personalities and songwriting voices are so different. I also like the Justin Bieber song "Purpose," another piano ballad, but that is a completely digitally processed record that shouts very loud about being it an intimate moment—his breaths are very deliberately pronounced and the piano is bathed in reverb for example. I wanted a more natural sound. For me the Piano record was about a manner of recording and playing that has existed for the duration of recorded music - setting up microphones to best capture live performances. I think the listener can hear and feel the difference, even if only on an unconscious level.
Your work, both as a solo artist and as part of Hot Chip, seems concerned with space, or at least configuring the limits of a kind of spatiality within the traditional pop song. Is that a fair assessment?
I think so yes. I think producers are interested in that generally. I think of Phil Spector wanting to create multi-layered bombastic records full of an artificial sense of depth but also wanting to capture the human performances of players and singers. He creates his own spatiality and recognizable sound world. I am very interested in making future recordings which play up the natural acoustics of a room recording and the positioning of players' instruments in that room.
You've been blessed with a unique and unforgettable voice. Are you someone who finds the grain of a particular voice inherently interesting?
Yes of course—I find Will Oldham's voice the most fascinating of all really, in its graininess, its cracked-ness and in all of its contours; and by comparison mine is pretty odd in that it is so devoid of texture and more bell-like at times. At least to these ears. Chet Baker's, although way way better than mine, is the only obvious comparison in terms of tone and sound that I have come across, but then again he is more croonery and I can barely hit the notes at times.
I don't really like short-hand stylistic indicators of supposed authenticity, in vocal styles. I find a lot of people at least a few years back would sing as if they were Billie Holliday and have her accent and drawl, as if that automatically equalled 'soulfulness'. To me a singer can be soulful with any accent really.
I was struck the other day how much Smog's album Red Apple Falls has things in common with an Al Green recording and how soulful both records, both singing styles and production styles, are. The simple functionality of the drums and the focus on the voice with the barest of arrangements really seemed to link the two, without deliberately referencing that Hi Records, Memphis sound.
With Listen With(out) Piano, what was the process for finding artists to work with, and how did the tracks themselves come into being?
I approached each musician individually, one by one with long emails trying to explain the concept. I never fixed on one way of describing what that concept was and then just sending a round robin email. I felt like I had to come up with the right list of people, as and when the ideas came to me.
I asked people I knew like Susumu Mukai and Green Gartside but also reached out to people I had never met before like Lung Dart—they were recommended to me by Stephen who runs Moshi Moshi. There were some real heroes on the list—Jennifer Herrema and Dave Pajo for example—and I just hoped they would understand and be into the concept. Somehow they were! I also got musical results back from my cousin Betsy who made one of the most beautiful pieces on the record, and got to hear my friend Rupert Clervaux sing for the first time on Lonely Vagabond, which was amazing. Beatrice Dillon asked me to work with her a little to make the version she did but again, like Piano, she took it in a very 'reduced' direction, with echoes of dub music, as did Ashley and John in their Spring Heel Jack version.
Growing up, did you ever think you'd find yourself working with Green fucking Gartside?
I didn't, no. But we met in a pub over 10 years ago and have remained friends ever since, and collaborated often, but still sometimes I do feel quite confused by the way things turned out! My brother used to have the "Oh Patti" 7" when I was growing up, and also friends of mine introduced me to Songs To Remember when I worked for Domino Records in about 2002 and I loved that. I came to the massive mid 80s stuff later than some. It wasn't part of my soundtrack in the way that Prince records were.
Do you feel privileged to be a in position to release records like Listen With(out) Piano?
Not really privileged, I hadn't thought about it like that. I feel pleased that the label believed in it enough to help it happen and that all the contributing musicians did too. I might be completely wrong but it does feel unlike other records I am aware of, in terms of the concept and dual ways of it existing for people to listen to. It also feels like each listener will have a unique listening experience even more so than with regular albums, as there is no one definitive way for the two records to be balanced together.
I know there is Zaireeka by The Flaming Lips of course, which was all their own music rather than collaborative or involving other bands—and as well as that people have been spinning two records together for a long time in hip-hop of course, and just the act of DJing in itself is a precursor to this. The Spiritualized Pure Phase Tones For DJs record was an inspiration too. But 'Listen With(out) Piano' was more about the fact that each track could both exist as its own entity and act as something that redefines the Piano songs and brings another dimension, another person's response to them, to the listener. It expands 'Piano' but also reduces it, and in turn maximizes its minimalism, when you fade Listen With(out) Piano down in the mix and return to Piano.
Finally...what's your favourite piece of unaccompanied piano music of all time?
William Eggleston playing "Somewhere Over The Rainbow". I wish he would record an album of his piano playing.
Listen With(out) Piano arrives in March on Moshi Moshi