Over 20 years and eight albums into your career, how does a band maintain a sense of freshness? If you’re hot Hot Chip, you casually produce one of your strongest records yet.
The British synth-pop legends released their eight studio album, Freakout/Release, in late August, offering a grooving balm for difficult times.
It saw the five-piece sharpen their songwriting with more explicit political content – ‘The Evil That Men Do’ features a powerful collaboration with Cadence Weapon about racial tension – and darker reflections on the wider world.
As this is Hot Chip, though, the album still contained some of the catchiest pop compositions of the year; there won’t be many more imminently danceable synth-pop tunes than ‘Eleanor’ for a long time (their recent performance of the track on Later with Jools Holland is also worth watching).
Recorded during the difficult pandemic times, Hot Chip recorded Freakout/Release at their new East London studio, Relax & Enjoy, and that name ended up being prophetic: all five members sound revitalised on the album, with the recorded version easily transferring the live energy of the vibrant studio sessions.
Over a decade ago, music journalist Steven Hyden posited the five-album test to determine the true worth of a band’s catalogue. While it’s certainly true that most contemporary bands just fail to meet the test’s standards, Hot Chip performing so strongly on their eight release feels like confirmation that they’re one of the most consistent U.K. bands of their generation.
Just before they headed to Australia for a brief tour, which culminates at Harvest Rock Festival this weekend, Tone Deaf spoke with the band’s multi-instrumentalist Owen Clarke. Read the conversation below, which features comparisons between Australia and the U.K. and a thoughtful reckoning with changing band dynamics.
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Hot Chip’s Freakout/Release is out now.
Was it fully intentional to call the studio Relax and Enjoy, where the album was recorded?
It’s a phrase that Al (Doyle) mentioned he’d seen on a piece of gear somewhere, I think it might have been in the LCD Soundsystem setup. It was like ‘Relax and enjoy the synthesiser’ or something, and he thought it was a neat name for the studio. It’s very early days for the studio in a way but it proved apt as a name.
There were a few projects using it before we went in, but the first big one was Ibibio Sound Machine, we did production for them in the studio. Working with them was stimulating so we were excited to get in there ourselves and use the new setup. It stimulated us, it was good fun.
What were you trying to do differently between (2019 album) A Bath Full Of Ecstasy and this album?
We weren’t trying to do things that differently. Obviously every band wants to say that their new record is very different and you should go out and get it for these reasons, but for me it was more about building on the last album. We had this wonderful experience back then with Philippe Zdar in his studio, and I think Al saw a lot of things in that studio in Paris that he wanted to have back at home in our studio. A lot of technical stuff that wasn’t copied as such but was a loving homage to those things.
And obviously for everybody, the big difference between what happened before and what happened after was the pandemic, so I think it was more an attitude change. It felt sort of – not exactly naughty – but precious that we were all getting back together again and making the album. At the end of the day, however, you’d have to go and put your mask on and go into the outside world again. There was this nervous energy and the mood was very different, and that comes out in the sound as well. It’s edgy, distorted, sort of fried. Even the ballads have a sparser feel to them, it’s more of a mood.
I’m loathe to use the word ‘vibe’ but it probably applies here.
‘Vibe’ has become quite a prescient thing, I think!
I was going to ask about Philippe’s influence actually, so you’ve also answered that question.
There was the technical thing but also a spirit as well. You don’t want to overuse ‘joie de vivre’ with such a wonderful, lively Frenchman, but that’s what he was and that’s what he brought to everything. He also brought such a sense of fun to it all, just the spirit of him was the biggest influence.
There’s a noticeable amount of political content on this album. Was that just a case of realising the way the world is currently and deciding you couldn’t turn your back on it?
Yeah. There’s more to draw on because there’s so much information and so much more reporting to draw on. We’re not overtly a political band but personally we are because everyone is who’s got half a heart really. It’s good to have things we’ve always known brought to the surface and addressed.
We’re not looking to right any injustices but it would be bad of us not to acknowledge things. We’re a fun time festival band or whatever, but we’ve still got to talk about these issues. We’ve done it in the right spirit, hopefully giving it the gravitas it needs.
You’re not going to become Bono anytime soon basically.
No, no, I don’t think we’ve got the wallet to do that. There’s the track ‘The Evil That Men Do’ that Joe (Goddard) in particular wanted to be said, and it turned out good because it drew us all into something that needed addressing.
I was curious about the dynamic between you all now – it’s nearly 20 years you’ve been together as a band. Has this changed the dynamic? Both as friends and as bandmates?
I was about to say we’re not five lads cramming into a transit van anymore but that’s exactly what we’re about to do to go to our gig in an hour (laughs). You can’t be 19 and be in a band and be 42 and be in a band and expect things to be the same. People have families and that leads to different friendship groups and different pools of experience and things like that.
There is something about us knowing each other since we were 11 that is familial. We can read each other quite well, perhaps even too well. We do sometimes have problems with being preemptive with what the other person is about to do in recording. In other times though, it works out so well.
One’s loath to use the phrase ‘matured’ – I think we ‘matured’ on like our third record! – and now this is our eighth album, so ‘extra matured’ like cheddar? That’s probably the headline that’ll get used. It’s an evolution, I don’t think we’re going to endlessly mature.
Does knowing each other so long help instinctually in the live setting?
There’s an improvisatory element, you make space for each other, which is probably experience talking. We pay attention to each other. A lot of people actually point out that it’s quite different when we play live, and I think that’s because we essentially have to relearn our songs after we’ve made them. Our recordings are designed to need a bit of a deeper listen, but when you’re live you need more clear messaging to be heard.
Are you excited about touring Australia?
Australia is endlessly fascinating in the similarities and differences to the U.K.. Culturally we’re quite similar and then you look up and there’s just a bunch of bats and you’re like ‘oh yeah!’
When was the last time you were here?
It’s been a little while, it was at the start of the pandemic. We were at Golden Plains Festival, and at that point there were reports of one or two people at the festival with COVID. It was an interesting time to be travelling and away from home!
Have you only toured in the U.K. post-pandemic?
We did a tour of the States, which was our first proper return to touring. The first one we did was a sort of streamed one in Margate, and that was the first proper weird one, where everyone was in bubbles in a big outdoor thing.
I found the phrase ‘bubbles’ endlessly amusing: I saw a sign in a lift that said ‘only one family or bubble at a time or’ (laughs). So everyone was in a bubble and it was livestreamed as well, but it was super fun. We’ve basically been honouring engagements from before the pandemic. It’s been super stacked in terms of scheduling.
What we love about touring is going to different places, going to record shops and bars and nature, but at the restart of touring we were just in our hotel room or the bus. That sort of attitude of being a bit careful is still there but it’s changing.
Eight albums, nearly 20 years, how do you maintain a sense of freshness?
Oh dear (laughs). Good question. There’s lots of offshoots of course. Joe does lots of production work of course, Alexis (Taylor) has had quite a few solo records, and Al’s obviously off playing in LCD Soundsystem, so there’s things that feed into Hot Chip in terms of stimulus.
I think if we had been more successful, being more burnt out with a higher profile earlier on, maybe we would have taken a bigger break and then would have had to negotiate more of a comeback. We’ve always been bubbling along, and I think that keeps you hungry and world-weary enough to tread the line of not overly going for it and selling out and becoming sick of the whole thing. We’ve negotiated that quite well, I hope. We’ve still got a few more albums in us.