Photos by Stuart Leech
For more than 15 years, Hot Chip has been making its quirky racket in the space between dance music, pop, and indie-rock. Lead singer Alexis Taylor’s reedy warble has been a defining element of the London septet's success as they’ve racked up hits, a Grammy nomination, and festival headlining slots around the world. On Taylor's third solo album, Piano—out June 10 on Moshi Moshi—Taylor eschews the flashing lights and bombastic flair of Hot Chip's main stage fare for a small, empty room, a piano, a microphone, and some simple songs. The result is one of the most gripping works of his career.
“I made this album for anyone that likes songs, and anyone that likes pianos, and anyone that can put up with my voice,” Taylor says, wryly, from his home in London. “And I made it for myself, as well. I don’t know who I make any music for, really, but it comes from an impulse to make something.”
That impulse has seen Taylor’s work beyond Hot Chip run the gamut. His About Group plays avant-garde instrumental music. Solo, he's released two full-length albums and an EP, and has collaborated with Shit Robot of DFA Records, Carte Blanche on French electro megalith Ed Banger, and German housemeister Justus Kohnke on Kompakt. “That stuff is more dance-orientated,” he says. “They get me to sing on their tracks, and it doesn’t sound a million miles away from a Hot Chip track. The kind of music on this record is quite far away from that.”
Piano is 12 tracks of somber, meditative revelations rooted in folk, gospel, and pop, sung with a hymnal care and a tender touch. “I’ve always made lots of quiet music my whole life,” says Taylor. “But I think some of that got put on the back burner when I started doing Hot Chip––I put a focus on a more upbeat persona that is a more lively part of my character. But the music I make on my own is another thing. Sometimes I like things very simple and stripped back. I wanted to achieve that on this record.”
Notable tracks include a rendition of “So Much Further to Go” from Hot Chip’s recent Why Make Sense? and a cover of Elvis Presley’s “Crying in the Chapel," but the record's standout is opener “I’m Ready,” a soft and gripping canticle about love and death.
Taylor’s relationship with the 88 keys runs deep. He was introduced to the piano by his father, uncle, mother, and grandmother, all of whom played at home when Alexis was a child. “I learned to play and started writing music on the piano and a Casio keyboard,” he says. “One of my brothers taught me to play the guitar, and that replaced it as the main instrument. I didn’t really play a piano for a long time after that, until the Hot Chip album One Life Stand [in 2010].”
The allure of the piano called Taylor again during sessions for last year’s Why Make Sense?. “The beginnings of the writing of these songs was me grabbing a moment of quiet in the studio during downtime. I just went off on my own and played the piano in another room, not trying to make too much noise. I suppose that’s a strange and unconscious reason for it being so quiet.”
The video for the lead single “I’m Ready,” premiering below exclusively on Noisey, features an old man playing the tune on a piano, filmed on one static camera. The quietude and raw vulnerability of the song are laid bare, even moreso once you realize that the man at the keys is Taylor’s father. ”Simon Owens, who directed the video, had the idea that it should be a version of me when I’m older, so I decided to invite my dad,” says the 36-year-old Taylor, but he insists the song isn’t directly about his father. “There’s a tangential link––there are a couple of lines in a song that relate to my dad playing the piano when I was a kid––but the song isn’t about him.”
Shortly after the album’s release, Taylor plans to hit the road for a tour of small, intimate venues to perform the songs from Piano. Those expecting the cheeky bacchanal of a Hot Chip show may be surprised by the low key energy of the gigs. “For this record, because I’ve made it in such a quiet way, I’ve tried to pick venues where people are gonna sit down and listen,” says Taylor, who has only performed solo a handful times throughout his career. “I’ve literally only played one show in my life where the audience was sitting down, and I was so surprised and shocked by the reverence and the quiet that it was really nice.”
But don’t feel obligated to sit on your hands if Taylor’s gospel strikes you deep. “I’ve never been precious about people listening in the concert setting,” he says. “If people are talking. I’ve seen people on stage telling people to shush, and I just find that embarrassing. I could never do that. Your music has to tell people how to respond to it.”
For the Hot Chip frontman, this is a record made for the time between the parties, for moments when you want to feel far away from the world, but close to yourself. “It’s a record that works best on headphones. I quite like how it sounds when you’re on the underground or walking down the street, and you have this shut-off from that in this quiet, little space,” he explains. “You can still hear things around you, but there’s a calmness from being that notch quieter that asks you to listen to it. I really enjoyed the mood and the place it took me to.”
Whether it’s avant garde, or quiet folk, or disco edits, Alexis Taylor always finds his way back to Hot Chip. The famously collaborative group have fostered a multitude of side projects––from Al Doyle playing with LCD Soundsystem to Joe Goddard and Raf Rundell’s The 2 Bears––but like a monkey with a miniature cymbal, they always end up where they started. “I like partying and staying up late and drinking too much, listening to records.The fun of that is a big part of me, a big part of my life,” Taylor says, laughing. “I think I’d be miserable if I was only playing solitary piano shows for the rest of my life. It’s just something I’m interested in doing right now to represent these songs this way.”
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