U.K. electro-pop quintet Hot Chip is full of surprises and contradictions. A quick listen through the group’s latest, Made in the Dark, reveals an album of danceable, synth-driven tracks with a few ballads thrown in.
But go back and listen a second time and you’ll discover that what sounds like a synth is often a guitar. A closer examination of the lyrics unearths clever wordplay like "And if this is Heaven, I might have to tell ya, I’m gonna give Hell just a quick once over" and "Half nelson, full nelson, Willie Nelson." Think Sparks on steroids.
MBL’s Nick Dewey, who began managing the band last year, said the tendency to be more than meets the eye extends to live performances.
"I think some people expect them to be knob-twiddling chin strokers with laptops simply because they’re classed as ‘electronic,’" Dewey told Pollstar. "So it’s a nice surprise when they see the show.
"To me it’s closer to someone like Talking Heads or New Order, electronic sounds and dance rhythms alongside acoustic instruments and beautiful vocal harmonies, played with as much heart and soul as any rock band."
The seeds of Hot Chip were planted long ago, when Joe Goddard and Alexis Taylor met in grade school. The pair began writing songs Goddard described as "a more singer/songwriter, very gentle kind of music," but were inspired by artists like Destiny’s Child and Timbaland to move in a different direction.
The group includes five multi-instrumentalists – Goddard, Taylor, Owen Clarke, Felix Martin and Al Doyle – but for most of its history much of the songwriting and recording was done by its founding members. Goddard told Pollstar that’s begun to change, especially with the new disc, and most of the music is very collaborative now.
Goddard has another surprise for those who think electronic music is only created with a mixing board or in a computer.
"Three tracks on the record were recorded by the whole group live in a studio in London. That was something we really wanted to try. We wanted to get the kind of excitement and energy we have when we play live and capture it. It’s hard to get that when you’re overdubbing things track by track."
Fans who turn up at a Hot Chip show won’t hear the album duplicated. The band is well known for deconstructing its songs on the fly during performances – which is pretty unusual for an electronic act.
"Right from the beginning, we wouldn’t tour with the same keyboards we used to create all the sounds on the album," Goddard said. "We wouldn’t tell the other guys in the group to slavishly recreate the parts. We’ve always reinvented the tracks live; we find that to be more exciting."
Apparently the ticket-buying public finds it more exciting too. Hot Chip’s recent North American theatre tour sold out well in advance.
Windish Agency’s Tom Windish, who books the band in North America, credits its success to a couple of different factors.
"They’re pretty serious about developing their career everywhere in the world and they’re pretty realistic about the steps that they’re going to have to take," Windish told Pollstar.
"I think their songs are so appealing to a lot of different people. In this new age of computers and MySpace, people trade them and tell their friends about them. It organically spreads really quickly. And that their live show is really, really strong doesn’t hurt either."
Of course things haven’t always gone so smoothly on stage. The band prefers to use vintage equipment, which has created difficult situations sometimes.
"We use an old Roland SH-101 and I think we’ve gone through like four or five of those," Goddard said. "They break down a lot. Now we use more recent synthesizers, which are a bit more reliable, but we’ve persevered with things like the Roland because we feel like it has such a great sound."
Dewey said the band is so adept, however, that technical issues or less than ideal playing conditions don’t present much of a problem.
"The first gig that we all worked on together was a charity event in the basement of an Oxfam shop in East London last year. It was packed, very hot and the band was set up in between racks of old records and books in the corner of this incredibly cramped little room – but against all odds it was a great show."
Hot Chip is currently hitting the summer festival circuit in Europe hard, something Goddard credits with some of the band’s recent growth.
"A couple of years ago, we found playing festivals quite daunting. We didn’t feel like we were quite ready for that.
"I think that’s something that’s really changing now. We understand what’s necessary for a festival, that you have to go in and really make a concerted effort to be as lively and energetic as possible and not let the momentum drop."
The band will get the chance to put its festival skills to the ultimate test next month, when it plays to 40,000 music fans – its largest audience to date – at the Glastonbury Festival.
Plans for the fall include a U.K. tour and then a return to North America to play larger venues and hit markets that got missed last time out.