Monday, 15 July 2024

Alexis Taylor

Pop star makes up one fifth of the band Hot Chip, for which he sings, writes songs and plays a variety of instruments

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A married man who is turning 30 this year, Alexis Taylor finds himself in the fabulous position of being a successful singer in a successful band. His work is electronic in nature and often melancholic in tone, and has an intelligence and style that elevates dance floor music far beyond simple debauchery. Spectacularly odd-looking, Hot Chip revels in a bookishness that endears them to many. Such fans will be happy to know that the band will be touring around the world for the whole of 2010. And for these dates, Alexis will make sure that the dressing rooms come complete with a supply of fresh hummus.

From Fantastic Man n° 11 — 2010
Photography by PAUL WETHERELL

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It is a Tuesday morning in southeast London and 29-year-old Alexis Taylor is taking a break from learning songs with the band he has been in since he was 16. That band is called Hot Chip, the name that was shouted out to them while they were playing to classmates at a particularly enlightened school in southwest London. Hot Chip has just brought out its fourth album, One Life Stand, and they are now working out how those songs should exist in a live format. “We’re starting to learn all the songs that we made and spent time listening to but don’t really know how to play,” Alexis says.

The fulcrum of the now five-piece band is Alexis and his old school friend Joe Goddard, whom Alexis has known since he was 11. Another school friend, Owen Clarke, has always provided the band’s artwork and is now a full-time member of the group. Although their musical output can be classified in some way as dance music because of its essentially electronic nature, there is something of an anthropological experiment that underlies it. Because of the way Alexis and Joe write and perform their songs, often seemingly addressing each other, it seems that Hot Chip embrace, exploit and explore the awkwardness of men who are working closely together.

There is already much evidence of this in the music videos that have been recorded to accompany their songs. The clip for the title track of One Life Stand shows the band stood tight, facing each other in a confined room, breaking normal boundaries of personal space. The lighting is harsh, and during the song they each play their instruments and dance with the discomfort of atheists forced to attend an evangelical prayer meeting. This setup has been something of a theme for them in their previous videos, so it must be something that they are willing to put themselves through. As individuals too, the band members are willing make choices and sacrifices to create something whole.

“We’ve never functioned in a normal way,” says Alexis. “We’ve more written as individuals or smaller groups and worked out a way to turn that into a recording.” These same methods of working together have developed from their earlier bedroom recording sessions into the way they now create works that are released on the major label Parlophone. Their singles are consistently playlisted on Radio 1 in Britain, and their most famous song, “Over and Over”, has been viewed over 2,000,000 times on YouTube. “Somehow between what Joe is doing and what I’m doing, and then with the whole band playing on the songs, we end up with this oddity.”

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Alexis was born in London, UK, on April 20, 1980, lives and works in London.

Alexis is a diminutive young man who tends to make his presence felt by wearing clothing in loud colours. Today, his trousers are a mustard yellow, his sweater red and his large Supreme coat of a different yellow to his bottom half. He wears tortoiseshell spectacles, his left ear is pierced and he has a ring on his wedding finger. His hair is neatly cropped and greying slightly at the temples. His preferred drink at this time of the morning is jasmine tea.

He is an intelligent young man with a plaintive, honest voice who began picking up literary influences at an early age. “When I was young, my dad had a Hockney print of the poet Cavafy on the wall in our living room,” he says, although he admits to thinking originally that it was a drawing of his own father, such is the resemblance. The late C.P. Cavafy was born to Greek parents in Egypt and died at the age of 70 in 1933. His poetry inspired the young David Hockney to visit Cavafy’s hometown of Alexandria in 1966 and create the celebrated series Illustrations for Fourteen Poems from C.P. Cavafy.

“My mum is Greek,” says Alexis, “so I was introduced to those poems while relatively young, and my grandmother was keen on us having a connection with our Greekness. You can tell that Cavafy was writing in a very plain form that was kind of unpoetic. It just seems like everyday speech and it’s very to the point. The poems are very compact and don’t use lots of metaphor, so you wonder what else is going on there. That directness has always appealed to me.”

Other sources of influence with a similar directness include the short stories and poetry of the late Raymond Carver and singers such as Willie Nelson. “The emotional side of things is so much at the forefront with all these writers,” says Alexis. “I feel most comfortable saying what’s most deeply felt, so there’s nothing to hide behind. And that in itself is quite confusing to me, because I think I’ve been doing that for years but then we’re often asked, ‘Are lyrics important to you?’ as if they’re only secondary.”

Though their songs are often classed as dance music, Hot Chip have never once put a purely instrumental track on any of their four albums—everything they do is song-based and structured as much around the lyrics as around the accompanying rhythm, with Alexis and Joe often writing different portions of the same song. Alexis says that Joe sees songwriting as a layered process of problem solving and often calls Alexis in to suggest a solution that may take a song off in a purposefully different direction. Alexis’ route is different. He prefers to write his own lyrics in one go and then record them in one take. He has a fondness for taking apparent clichés and stock phrases and turning them into something new: “one life stand”—from the phrase “one night stand”—being a case in point.

Although the band members find it frustrating that some fans are overlooking the songwriting aspect of their work, Alexis admits that they get some satisfaction from seeing that the music works in clubs. “I guess it’s nice if you can say all of that with the lyrics and people don’t even know,” he says. “Or if they want to know what it’s about, they will get to deal with something more that’s in the song. It’s also nice if a song works in a club and if people who hear it will just have a sense of melancholy mixed with euphoria. That’s what most of these songs should do if they are to be successful on their own terms.”

Before this new album, Hot Chip consisted of Alexis and Joe working together at the core, with the rest of the band being called in to play on records or tour, as and when they were needed. One Life Stand marks a change, says Alexis: “For the first time now, we’ve made a record in the studio with everyone there.” Having the eyes of others on their work resulted in a more harmonious sound than their earlier albums, which revelled in dissonance. “Before, we would often embrace those moments of things clashing or going off in a new direction that a song wouldn’t normally go in,” he says. “That was just the way we would do things. An idea would be recorded on a computer by Joe or me, then the other would write a new section, and that section would have to fit in with something that already existed on the computer.” The result was often like a musical tag team where someone would purposefully drop the baton just to see what happened.

“That led to quite a discordant form of songwriting,” he says. “What we did on this album was think more about what would support these songs. I think Joe’s songwriting has gained a greater clarity and I think mine has, too. It’s quite fortuitous that both songwriters have that. It means the songs have their own identity, so we’re not forcing loads of ideas into them that are somehow playing off each other or fighting with each other.”

For a male singer, Alexis has an almost unnaturally high voice. “I’ve always been quite mistrustful of singers who have invented a singing voice,” he says. “It was important to me that I accepted what my voice sounds like, and for a long-time people didn’t even know if it was a man singing. They thought it was a girl singing, and rather than being frustrated by that, I just think that if you’ve ended up with an androgynous tone, you may as well put everything on display.”

I had previously asked Alexis about what I see as a lack of masculine bluster in their work. “It’s what you were saying earlier about not hiding behind certain male…” and he stops. “Putting things on the line in a way that isn’t really expected of a male singer, that’s how it feels to me.

I think the starting point in a lot of these songs is a weird, slightly vulnerable position. But you’re not really vulnerable if you’re writing the song and making a declaration about something that the person you’re singing to hasn’t put out publicly,” he says. Later he elaborates: “The words are sung from the perspective of a person who’s not able to talk to someone in reality, but who’s having a very straightforward dialogue with that person in a song.”

Last year, Alexis became both a father for the first time and a brother once again. “I’m married, and I’ve got a child,” he says. “But still a lot of the songs have this melancholic feel, like trying to understand the gap between you and another person.” He and his wife had their first child, a daughter, and the family are happily ensconced in an outer borough of north London, in a house they bought that is large enough for children. Meanwhile, he had previously been the youngest of three brothers, but last year his father provided Alexis with a new half-brother. “It was quite strange to become the older brother for the first time at 29,” he says, “and also to have these comparisons with my dad, with both of us taking similar parental roles at the same time; him re-learning things and me learning them for the first time. I like it, to be honest. It is nice spending time with his wife and new son and our daughter together.”

Alexis is a musician who strives for communality rather than seeking isolation. The band consists of polite young men of different heights and sizes, which means they form a rather odd-looking group indeed. “We don’t feel comfortable being something that we’re not,” he says. “I think I’ve just known Joe and Owen for such a long time. We’ve spent almost every day of our lives together. We went to a mixed school, but it just turned out that Joe’s house was always the focal point. He and his brother would have people around every week, stay up, listen to music and drink. I didn’t drink at that stage, but everyone else did, so it was quite a male-orientated group of friends, aside from everyone having girlfriends and everything. Maybe staying in touch with those people to make music, which to me is a very intimate process, maybe that is what lends us such a very close bond. I think I’m quite comfortable with that bond, and I think Joe is as well.”

As with all bonds, some things are outspoken, but much is not. “We often don’t really discuss the subject of our songs,” says Alexis, and this seems such a key point that he goes on to repeat it in two other tenses: never have discussed and will never have discussed. “And somewhere amongst whatever I’m writing about, there’s always an underlying thread which is that this song is partly about each other, so that it works from more than one angle. You can be singing about a relationship with a romantic partner, but then at the same time, within the same song, another verse or another line could be about your musical partner and friend. It feels like a blurred boundary. The songs are never about just two people. The way I see it, they are always about three people. That for me is very central to the feel of the songs. It’s not a band led by one person singing exclusively about his own experience; it’s about the relationship between you and the other members of the band as much as it’s about you and a lady or you and your brother. It’s all of that co-existing.”

Because they never actually talk about the songs that they are partly singing about each other, Alexis’ own understanding of the band’s songs exists somewhat in isolation. “I’m not saying that to impose an idea on it,” he says. “Often if you don’t talk to each other about what your songs are about, you can only guess what the person’s songs are about, and often my starting point is wondering what Joe’s subject is, and sometimes it feels like the subject might be me. So then I’m feeding back into his song my response to what he’s said, and it’s like this dialogue that we never openly have is there in the music.”

Has Alexis ever been upset by Joe’s writing? “Quite often there’s a bit of antagonism in the lyrics,” he says, “but the problem is: if you don’t talk about it, you might find out that you’re completely wrong, or that you’d never have realised what the song was about yourself. It’s quite a grey area.” He gives an example: “With something like “Bendable Poseable” on the last record, I got the impression that Joe thought I was describing our musical relationship as being quite malleable and not having a backbone.” Alexis says that Joe had written a song once before about lacking a backbone, which never made it onto any album, at a time when they had just signed to a major label and Alexis was having difficulty adjusting to the corporate way. “We had an A&R guy who I felt was cutting away at everything that was our strength,” he says. “I felt like the backbone had been lost. A year later I wrote my part of “Bendable Poseable”, and Joe’s lyrics in that song sound very angry, like he’s saying: ‘I’m not like that, we need to not lose time, we need to get on with things.’ It’s almost like the unspoken tensions that are there in the band all come out in that song. But we’ve never talked about whether we are singing about each other or not.”

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We meet again at 10am on a Wednesday morning a few weeks later. Alexis is slightly late due to his long bus ride from the far north of London, but he had passed the time by listening to a recording of a Richard and Linda Thompson concert from 1981. At first we go to the rehearsal room, but the band have started to arrive for rehearsals—Owen is sat in the corner—so for privacy we head out to a cafe where we talk about their beginnings.

Alexis and Joe attended the Elliott School in Putney, southwest London, which has also been the breeding ground for bands such as Fridge, Four Tet and, more recently, The XX. All of these bands are highly lauded, yet none of them are ever identified as having a distinctly London sound. Maybe it’s the distance from Putney to the centre of town that causes that remove. Indeed Hot Chip, like some of the other bands from their school, actually have more in common with their contemporaries in New York. Hot Chip’s records are released on DFA in the US, and Grizzly Bear recently covered Hot Chip’s song “The Boy From School”. A series of three gigs in Manhattan this spring, with The XX in support, sold out even before One Life Stand was released.

It was seeing bands from their school such as Fridge that spurred on Alexis and Joe. “We began recording stuff in 1996,” he says. “We all went off to separate universities, but we’d carry on making music during our breaks from that.”

Their first release was a six-track demo on London’s Victory Garden records in 2000, but their first success only came in 2004 with their debut album, Coming On Strong, which was recorded at Joe’s house and released through the influential London label Moshi Moshi. “We were barely a proper live band,” he says, “but we had enough material for an album, “so we just put it out as it was, and then learnt how to be a band after making the record. It’s the other way round from being a four-piece band of guitars, drums and vocals that rehearses for hours and then goes and records.”

By virtue of their age, they became aware of music after the birth of house music in the mid 1980s and the dance music explosion that happened afterwards. It meant that, to them, there was nothing unusual about making lyric-based electronic music at home, while that could cause hang-ups for those of older generations.

“It didn’t feel like a rebellious act to be
making music,” says Alexis. “It just feels like something we’ve been doing for a very long time, and taking seriously, even if no one else had any reason to imagine that we were so committed to this project.”

It seems very much that of the two, it is Joe whose interests are more dance-oriented. Indeed, he has a side project called 2 Bears, who offer a selection of their wonky house music on Myspace. Alexis released an improvisatory solo album, Rubbed Out, in 2008, a work of lo-fi guitar experi-mentation in the vein of one of his favourite bands, Pavement. Before Hot Chip found enough success to provide him with an income, he had worked for a time at the record label Domino in London, home to many of his favourite bands. He is a particular fan of Will Oldham, and was pleased when Oldham recently agreed to provide alternative lyrics for the album track “I Feel Better”, called “I Feel Bonnie”, which will be released imminently.

He soon needs to return to his friends to rehearse more, but we talk for a while about the shifting sands in the music industry: how the decline of a physical product might affect the finality of an album; how bizarre a concept it seems that it could be illegal to listen to music; how frustrating it is when playing live to be limited to whichever songs have been programmed into the various on-stage machines.

“It’s taken me a long time to realise that we’re so different from some of the bands that I aspire to be like. We’re not Will Oldham’s band, we’re not Royal Trux,” he says, referring to a celebrated ’90s band of much noise and chaos. “We’re not a band that can totally rearrange a song live and do it in a different way. We’re a band that does rely on its clean, synthetic sounds and strictness in rhythm. But it’s taken me so long to work out that we’re something other than either of those things. There’s room for all these ideas to co-exist.”