Enjoyable case of mistaken identity
Felix Martin (left) and his band-mates in Hot Chip have dabbled recently in dancier tunes, having discovered their penchant for solo DJ sets.
SOME musical acts, whether through sheer inventive power or force of personality, stand out almost straight away. Prince, for example, was Prince and nothing but at the tender age of 21 when he released his self-titled second album. For many, however, establishing an identity takes years, and that's certainly been the case with Hot Chip.
The London-based electronic band have been making music together since the turn of the century, and have released five studio albums. It's only with the past two - 2010's One Life Stand and this year's In Our Heads - that the media and public have simply stopped trying to classify the five-piece and just accepted that they're Hot Chip.
''Partly that's our own fault because people expect bands to come along with a strong aesthetic of what they're meant to look like and what clothes they're meant to wear,'' says Hot Chip's Felix Martin. ''But we've never really been that focused, or dramatic, in what we want to do. We want to have fun with our identity, but there's no strategy.''
A multi-instrumentalist like his bandmates, Martin was once likened by an English journalist to a ''mad scientist'', and while that may break the heart of their record company's stylist Martin feels it's about right. ''It's quite fair,'' he concedes.
Hot Chip draws on multiple strands of British music's long and sometimes complicated affair with pop, starting with the first synthesiser band sounds of Erasure and early Depeche Mode, taking in the warmth of '90s club genres such as house and the subtle intricacy of minimalist techno, and adding the contemplative edge of alternative electronic rock.
Their songs are pocket symphonies of synths and drum sounds, less a matter of verses and choruses than movements that slip in and out of sharp focus.
On record there are no aggressive breakdowns or euphoric peaks, which matches the persona of bespectacled lead vocalist Alexis Taylor, who instills the songs with a sincerity that is almost startling, given popular music's insistence on the offhand and ironic.
''The starting point for the music is intensely personal,'' Martin says. ''It's not just a matter of sincerity, it's just integral to who he is as a person. You can't separate the songs from Alexis.''
''A church is not for praying,'' sings Taylor on How Do You Do, a single from In Our Heads, ''it's for celebrating the light that bleeds through the pain.''
Hot Chip's songs, begun by Taylor and Joe Goddard and finished by the collective group, often refer to long-term relationships and matters of faith, both public and private.
''The key is that Alexis and Joe are very good songwriters,'' Martin says. ''That's what keeps it going, keeps it interesting - they have good melodies and good ideas for songs. Joe is quite a curious person, willing to experiment with different ways of working and won't stay wedded to one dogma of how to make a song or an album. Often they reconceptualise one another's work.''
In the course of five albums Hot Chip have discovered how to keep their professional relationships from stagnating. One band member, Al Doyle, loves playing live, so he happily spent his time away from the group touring with recently ended American outfit LCD Soundsystem, and now he and Martin are working on a side project that will play live when Hot Chip's latest album cycle winds down next year. Most of the band have also started performing solo DJ sets.
''That has definitely had an influence on the records. It's made them dancier and tied them to house and disco,'' Martin says. ''They've become the starting points for our songs over the last few years.''
Recent tours have taken Hot Chip on to longer runs of shows and into larger venues, so there has been a focus on separating the live shows from the records.
Often the songs build to expansive outcomes, with a focus on steel percussion as augmentation for the One Life Stand shows, while this time they're touring with two extra musicians, to add to the breadth of the group's live sound as well as to satisfy studio nuances.
''We're always looking for ways to integrate the more melancholic outlook into the set so we're not just typecast as a dance-ravey band, which is a big part of what we do as well,'' Martin says. ''We want to present every different aspect of the band when we play live, so it's a matter of finding that balance.''
''People would wonder at the beginning why we combined electronics with singing and guitars, which wasn't particularly novel, but after 10 years it's become an accepted thing once more,'' Martin says, before laughing quietly. ''Only 10 years.''
Hot Chip play the Falls festival, in Lorne, on Sunday and the Palace Theatre, city, on January 9.