Alexis Taylor is on reliably chipper form.
Clash has encountered the Hot Chip frontman numerous times over the years, and he's always represented a boundlessly intelligence fond of musical knowledge.
New solo album 'Beautiful Thing' represents a number of firsts for the singer, though, in that it's the first time he's handed the reins of a solo project to an outsider.
Whereas his previous few solo albums felt introverted - one consisted entirely of piano pieces, for instance - this feels outward, no less emotional but definitely more involved.
Tim Goldsworthy steps in on production, and the two draw on a decade-long friendship to construct a rather special LP, something that can honestly step outwith the shadow of Alexis Taylor's day job.
Stepping outside the rehearsal room for a break, we found a creative force relishing the chance to express himself.
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So, how is it all going?
Good! Really good. I’m just looking forward to playing more shows, really. I’ve played a handful and there’s more coming up – one in London, and then an American tour. I’m looking forward to getting into a bit of a rhythm.
The new album feels like a break from your previous solo records.
I’ve made other records that have been fully fleshed out, but with this one I was just looking forward for the opportunity to get away from just working entirely on my own. I think for a lot of the solo records I’ve done, the purpose of them has been to work entirely on my own and work without any outside influence from anyone. To allow myself to be as strange as I want to be on record, and to just not have any rules. Not that they’re all really strange!
This time I just felt like, well, I know how to do that, and I’ve done it before, so maybe it would be nice to get some kind of new energy, some influence from somebody else. Get somebody else’s perspective on the album and the actual songwriting, and the production. I still wrote everything on this album but I wanted another person in there with me.
By the time I thought of asking Tim Goldsworthy he seemed like the right choice because he’s very, very bright and he’s got a broad knowledge of music. He’s been involved in so many different things over the years, and I knew him reasonably well but I hadn’t seen him for 10 years or so. So it was really nice to work with him and get to know him again. It was very smooth and easy, but also quite fun in the studio, just working together. Maybe it was a nice thing for him too, something a bit different. So I felt like there was a good connection there.
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I wanted to make a record that was open sounding, for other people to find a way into it. I think all of the songs on the piano album are easy on the ear, but they’re not adorned with beautiful bright colours and things. It’s as stripped back as it could be. It’s a quiet listen. I didn’t want to do that this time, I wanted to make something that would reach out towards people, and also not just in a really obvious pop way. Still making a really interesting sounding record.
When you work with someone like Tim – a bit like when I work with Joe in Hot Chip – there’s lots of shared reference points, but there’s also things you get turned onto that you haven’t heard before. And also, he’s quite analytical and good at thinking about what I was asking for, and applying various techniques to end up helping me shape the album into the way it turned out. There were nice surprises, sonically, all the way for both of us.
‘Analytical’ is a great word to choose - is your own process as a songwriter analytical, or are you more instinctive?
I’m very impulsive, really. Not analytical. Driven by musical impulses, or often driven by things that come into my head from whatever I’ve been thinking about or working on or doing away from music. Sometimes that seeps into my thoughts, and I allow a lot of stuff to just come out. So I quite like tapping in to whatever your unconscious is thinking about. Just allow things that are bubbling under. I’m not analytical but maybe you’re quietly analysing what’s going on in your thoughts and feelings all the time, and then just tapping into that every now and again.
In terms of actually making music I’m not extremely slow and analytical, I’m quite quick to just throw ideas down in an off the cuff way. I record my first thought, my first idea, and I don’t always go back and revise those things. But you generalise.
One of the tracks on the record ‘There’s Nothing To Hide’ is a very old idea for a song, from years and years ago – maybe 2007 or 2008 – that I just didn’t ever develop into anything more than an a capella of those words and melody, and then for this album I just thought about developing it into something else.
And that was a really nice moment on the record, where something that I hadn’t thought about came back into my head and was resurrected and turned into something that was recorded very quickly with me and Tim working on it together, and it didn’t feel particularly like anything else on the album. I remember Tim feeling that he hadn’t worked on any other music like that before himself. In terms of the process and the sound.
The process involved lots of overdubbing on each thing I was building up, and yet it wasn’t made to a grid or to a click. He was saying, this is amazing for me, I’ve spent all my career working in a grid, doing everything to a click and now you’re just following your impulses, layering all these things over one another but it’s not tied down to anything except your own sense of that. So it has all these pauses. I think he found that refreshing – and I did too – so it was a nice, quick process.
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How fleshed out were your demos? Did you leave them deliberately under-developed to aid the studio process?
I didn’t have proper demos of most of it. I had maybe some recordings of me playing the song at the piano for, I guess, a third of the tracks on the album. Deliberately not thinking too much of the production so I could leave room for Tim to get involved in that. Something like ‘Dreaming Another Life’ was more demo’d, so I had made a drum part and you can hear that in the finished track. And the guitar sounds, and the pad sound which I turned into chords.
That one was the most demo’d I’d say, and still it transformed a lot once Tim worked on it. But that was something I could send to him and say, look, I don’t know exactly where this is going but it’s got a rhythm track to it, whereas most other things I’d been doing were devoid of any drum programming, as I’d made a piano record which was deliberately without any percussion.
This is like me beginning again to think about groove. Sending it to him and letting him play around with it, he did so much brilliant stuff in his home studio, and then brought it back to me, and when we worked together it took a long time to nail that track. So there’ll be example like that track which have some kind of demo, but most of the others didn’t really, they had a chord sequence and words. I didn’t engage with them too much production wise as I wanted them to find that with him.
And we talked about things I was interested in, reference points, and we built up a rapport in the room together. Him helping record what I was doing, or taking away my electric piano, processing it in whatever way he found interesting. That was where the demos were created, by Tim and I working separately and then coming back together. I think they were all different, every single on in the process.
After a while we got into our stride and we’d amassed more material than an album’s worth, but we were just trying to follow through and find the ones most impressive to us.
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The vocal lines are once again a superb feature of the record. Given your often improvisatory approach, were the lyrics left largely open until recording?
Lots of vocal lines, melodies, and ideas I will record quite early on in the formation of their structure on my phone as a little demo. They won’t necessarily drastically change by the final recording. They’ll often be a melody that I’ll think of very quickly and I’ll just capture the rough recording of that and follow through on that idea very quickly at the early stage.
I know that some people make albums where they do all the vocals at the end, they do them properly at the end once they’ve lived with all the material for a long time. I just have never really worked like that. So a lot of what you hear is the first version – the only version – of a melody and lyric, and what changed in the making of the record was everything around that… all the production, all the detail. In a couple of cases – like ‘Roll On Blank Tapes’ and ‘Suspicious Of Me’ there was a bit more pulling away from what I’d first started doing, and trying other stuff and throwing all different local ideas at things.
Particularly at ‘Suspicious Of Me’. That track grew out of ‘Roll On Blank Tapes’ so they’re linked to each other. There’s a lot more experimentation on those two tracks, in terms of taking this bit of gear that Tim had told me about, which was brand new at the time, a type of drum machine that would sound like a robot playing acoustic drums.
I suppose that shows a side of what he’s interested in. That track ‘Suspicious Of Me’ was built around a loop in 3/4 and 4/4 time, constantly shifting on each emphasis. We built around that and improvised keyboard parts and then had a song built on that a bit later. There were different ways that we worked.
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Are the words improvised as well? Or do you shape those around the final melody?
Nearly always the words and melody will be joined together from the beginning. So I won’t have just a vocal melody without words, I tend to have both together. That’s often the starting point. Then I find what chords I want to put underneath that, and start writing and recording it. The only instances of it not being like that is maybe ‘Beautiful Thing’ where I just had the chorus sections, but I didn’t have the verse for quite a long time, and I was really excited about the track, but I didn’t really know at what point I would be able to come up with the rest.
It was on some long train journey to Glasgow that I came up with the verse words and had to go and stand in between the toilets and the next carriage and sing it into my laptop speaker to remember the idea. And that was a nice little breakthrough where I thought, now I’ve broken the back of the track. Mostly lyrics and melody are at the beginning.
Quite a lot of it is done early on, and then a lot of the work with Tim is more to do with thinking, how do you present this music? What’s the arrangement? What’s the production? What’s the way in which this might be a bit more exciting to people, if we come up with some unique for it rather than just the first thing you think of… production-wise. A
nd it was also working with other musicians who I would bring in, who you know whenever you ask them to play they’ll either play a simple, perfect thing or something more experimental. There were different people that we brought to the tracks. Different ways to create a sound that feels – to me – quite consistent throughout the record. Not a record that lives in a natural space,but one that lives in an artificial space. I think that was the key element to the unified mood of the record, really.
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Was there a need to move out of your comfort zone during this process?
Oh completely. I could have chosen somebody else who in the wrong hands could have made a much more straight forward singer-songwriter record. And I didn’t want to do that. I like songwriting, and I’m a singer – there’s nothing really wrong with singer-songwriters but I didn’t really want to make something that sounded super trad. But at the same time it just depends where you’re coming from – to some people this is really trad, and really pop, and they wouldn’t touch it with a bargepole, and then to other people it’s quite weird sounding.
I think Tim himself, when he sequenced it he said: we’ve made a really strange album! He was pleased with it, but wondered what people would make of it. There are songs like ‘Roll On Black Tapes’ so it’s not actually that mainstream. I was very happy with that, in that regards. In terms of having set out to get some help from somebody creatively, and they did something in the rough area of what I was hoping to do.
You mentioned the plethora of material the pair of you constructed, will there be further adventures for Alexis and Tim?
Yeah. I do, yeah. I would love to work with Tim again. We’re actually working on something right now which isn’t for my solo music, and which hopefully we’ll get time to carry on with. And I would happily work with him again on some solo music.
Also, I’m starting to think about what I do next, and whether that should involve somebody else to bring it to a different place. I’m also busy writing with Hot Chip at the moment, so I’m not immediately beginning on another solo project just yet. I want to play this live before I get too far ahead of myself.
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'Beautiful Thing' is out now.
Catch Alexis Taylor at London festival All Points East this weekend.
Photography: Holly Whitaker
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