Music

Hot Chip's 'A Bath Full of Ecstasy' presents a 'purer version' of its electro-pop style

by Shaun Curran

Contributing Writer

Hot Chip belongs to a lineage of great British pop eccentrics. The band’s two-decade career is full of gloriously idiosyncratic contradictions: the London five-piece is one of the best exponents of electronic pop the U.K. has ever produced, yet ridiculously boast only one actual hit single. The band makes euphoric, house-inflected electronica that beats with the heart and soul of the truly melancholic. Its members are reserved characters who transform into an all-dancing patchwork of garish outfits for their irrepressibly joyous live shows.

Across Europe, Hot Chip has reached festival headliner status, yet its members retain largely anonymous profiles off-stage. In the disposable age of Tinder, they exalt the virtues of love and monogamy in their music. They are equally at home DJing obscure sets in small clubs as writing for chart royalty, Katy Perry.

The band’s new album has led to a multi-continent tour, taking in North and South America, large parts of Europe and Japan, where the group will play in Osaka and Tokyo in early October.

The album, arguably their strongest yet, is titled (somewhat suggestively) “A Bath Full of Ecstasy” — even though singer Alexis Taylor says he has never taken the drug himself.

“That title is just a way of being playful,” Taylor quietly insists. “The lyrics of the song have the idea of inviting somebody to share an ecstatic experience with you. But Joe (Goddard, synths) changed the name of the song and it changed the emphasis and meaning, which is now playful and evocative, a bit like a tabloid headline. There’s a lot to unpack. What are the different meanings of ecstasy? Is it a drug reference? From my point of view, it’s not. But it sums up the psychedelic aspect of the music and the artwork. To me it feels like something that is very Hot Chip.”

It is the band’s great trick that everything it does feels very Hot Chip without it ever becoming repetitive (aside from, perhaps, 2006’s “Over and Over,” their best and most well-known track, with its unforgettable refrain “like a monkey with a miniature cymbal”).

Taylor formed Hot Chip with schoolmate Goddard in 1999, eventually sprawling to a quintet once Al Doyle, Owen Clarke and Felix Martin joined around the time of the band’s 2004 debut album, “Coming on Strong.” The group’s members moonlight elsewhere — Taylor released his fourth solo album last year; Goddard tours as part of the house revivalist duo The 2 Bears; Doyle also plays with LCD Soundsystem — but their music, from the floorfillers to the ballads, befits a band fully in tune.

“A Bath Full of Ecstasy” is case in point. Despite Hot Chip opening its doors (at Taylor’s request) to work with external producers for the first time — Rodaidh McDonald (David Byrne, The xx) and the late Philippe Zdar (Cassius, Phoenix) — the group’s seventh album sounds like the distillation of a vision: nine tracks that assimilate synth-pop, house and off-kilter soul with their melodic knack. It represents Hot Chip’s slickest, most satisfying whole.

“But that’s why it’s a more streamlined version of what we do, a purer version,” Taylor says. “And that’s why it’s maybe stronger. We had enough time to do the important creative things on our own, and then work with people who were skilled at editing and pushing us to do things in a bolder way, to get to the essence of what we were after. It’s a subtle combination of their approach and our approach.”

Past albums have often restlessly flitted between genres, at times employing quirks and curveballs (Hot Chip’s most commercially successful album, 2008’s “Made in the Dark,” is particularly skittish). Restraint is a hallmark of “A Bath Full of Ecstasy.”

“We’re used to our records having left turns here and there, and we’ve done that on every record,” Taylor says. “This time it’s still happening, but we didn’t really have a slow track. That’s a bittersweet thing, as some of those tracks are often my favorites. But we made something more coherent and easier to digest, but still powerful as it’s closer in mood from start to finish. It leaves people wanting more rather than outstaying its welcome.”

The Katy Perry connection was an early gateway into the album. Taylor and Goddard collaborated with the pop giant on her last album, contributing one song, “Into Me You See,” to 2017’s “Witness.” It had unforeseen consequences on Hot Chip’s next move.

“Writing with her in mind helped us to push ourselves and make something as inventive and mainstream pop as possible,” Taylor says. “It freed us from any boundaries. That helps you to clear your head, have a different perspective on things. The upbeat tracks that morphed into songs for us (“Spell” and “Echo”), she made us work harder to be melodically more interesting and make things that were catchier and fun.”

Speaking to Taylor, he comes across as polite yet very unassuming. How did he manage in Perry’s exalted world?

“It was surreal to be sat around George Martin’s studio working out harmonies and vocal melodies with her,” he says. “But I really enjoyed it. We had four days with her, she was really creative and fun to be in the room with. She was very quick to come up with ideas, and responsive to what we were doing. The track that made it on the album is something I’m really proud of.”

Conversation moves on to what qualifies as pop music. Perry obviously does; for many Hot Chip do, too. Are they essentially doing the same thing?

“We do sometimes crossover into it being the same kind of thing,” Taylor says. “Our career is very focused on classic pop and inventive new pop. But we’ve not always needed to concern ourselves with that — sometimes we just follow what’s important to us at the time. Occasionally we go back towards that pop world. I guess the difference is Katy Perry is always aiming for chart success.

“Another major difference is that she is successful in the pop world and we are not. Which is quite a major difference,” he adds with a laugh.

That is an understatement: 2008’s “Ready for the Floor” remains Hot Chip’s sole breach of the U.K. Top 10. Katy Perry, in contrast,has had four no. 1s in the U.K.

“We make things that are quite similar in terms of commercial potential,” Taylor says. “But we don’t reach the same number of people. I try not to think about things that are super successful, though. I end up being really cynical and depressing if I talk about things that are bland that are very big.”

He nonetheless goes into his irks. Taylor rejects the empty, soulless iterations of modern pop and says Hot Chip, if not overtly, is dealing with the world as they see it.

“With our music we might not always talk explicitly about politics and what happens in the world, but we’re affected by it, and it is there,” he says. “It’s not just escapism. It is engaging with how collectively we might feel as the world becomes a difficult place to exist in, or if the world gets too much for you at times, but without making a completely polemic political record.”

This takes us back to Hot Chip’s contradictions: You can listen and feel the emotion, or you can watch them live and lose yourself in an electro-pop party. I did the latter recently at France’s La Route du Rock festival and witnessed the band wearing what looked like lab coats, with Taylor in a bright yellow cowboy hat (he looked much better than that sounds). Those in Tokyo, Osaka and Shizuoka Prefecture can see it all for themselves at Hot Chip’s first Japanese shows for seven years.

“I have been to Japan in-between Hot Chip shows, to DJ and to go to Kyoto for a wedding,” Taylor says. “But it will be great to come back and play. It’s a dream trip, one of our favorite places to visit. I hope the fans are aware of how much we love going there.”

Hot Chip plays Bigcat in Osaka on Oct. 9, Akasaka Blitz in Tokyo on Oct. 11 and Asagiri Jam ’19 in Shizuoka Prefecture on Oct. 12. For more details, visit www.hotchip.co.uk.