“Sounds like Prince!”: Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor in conversation with Justus Köhncke
In our cover story from the Winter 2012 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine, Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor talks Scritti Politti, Hildegard Knef and post-production with German producer, Kompakt-signed Justus Köhncke.
Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor and German producer Justus Köhncke have developed an on- and offstage kinship that’s given rise to numerous mutual remixes, 12-inch collaborations and “sing-jaying” live performances—most recently under the moniker Fainting by Numbers. But beneath the dancey surface of the occasional duo’s vocal-heavy tech-disco is a core song structure that works just as well outside the discotheque. Theirs is a sound born from a balance between experimentation and strict arrangement, and starved of the unnecessary flab that weighs down boring dance music. “I actually hate improvisation,” Köhncke tells Taylor here in a spirit of friendly provocation. At least the two can find common ground in Scritti Politti and creative approaches to the post-production editing process.
Alexis Taylor: Justus, we’ve known each other for quite a few years, since Felix and Al asked you to remix “Over and Over”. I remember meeting you for the first time at Watergate in Berlin where we were playing a show.
Justus Köhncke: That I unfortunately don’t remember. But I know that Stephen Bass from the label Moshi Moshi was who put you on to me. I think he even has my first ever single—a pink vinyl I sold by hand and in a few choice record stores in Cologne. All three hundred copies. It’s covers of “Let ’Em In” by Paul McCartney and “Wie viele Menschen waren glücklich, daß du gelebt” by Hildegard Knef. Yeah, when he was still in the music business, Stephen was giving me remixes to pay my rent!
AT: He’s still in the music business. But I remember we met again in Cologne after a show we played.
JK: I remember. That was at the Sixpack in Aachener Straße.
AT: I got a bottle of beer and then dropped it by accident. So I got another one and I did the same thing. The bar staff was very angry with me. I protested that I wasn’t even drunk. I recall we spoke about you coming to tour the U.S. with us, but that didn’t work out. Then you asked me to remix a track, but I just ended up putting my vocal on it.
JK: If I remember correctly, that’s why the track is called “Sorry”—sorry for you not delivering a proper Hot Chip remix for my track “Parage”.
AT: But it was also about the tour not working out . . .
JK: Yeah. As much as we’re friends, I couldn’t have done it under those conditions. That would have been, like, hard labor. I’m too old for that.
AT: But I quite enjoy the DJ gigs we’ve done together, integrating your music into it and me singing on the top. Pretty loose, really.
JK: I’m glad we finalized our first single yesterday, finally. Hot Chip is bursting with side projects that the band can’t oversee anyhow. But Fainting by Numbers is a keeper, if you ask me.
AT: I also like that it’s a mix of things, with the John Lennon song on the A-side, “Watching the Wheels”, and a song of mine on the B-side that you produced . . .
JK: I thought it was ours, actually. I like the fact that Fainting by Numbers so far is both electronic and ballad-oriented. It’s definitely a sound I always had, I would say. I’m afraid I’m known more for uplifting disco stuff, like “Timecode” . . . which you are too, Alexis. But my favorite stuff by you is still Hot Chip. To me, it’s the perfect pop band. Even after having lost the sheen of being the hippest thing in town. As we all know, in the next six months it’s some band from Brooklyn that’ll be the next biggest thing. That is, if they haven’t drowned. But as I was saying: I have to praise Hot Chip because you all still do your thing even though some people think you might not be “exclusive” enough anymore. Just for being a perfect pop band that tours the world and makes people happy! I remember when you were on the cover of Spex four years ago, the title was “The Band of the Future”, in reference to your loose composition style . . . and the ability for the band to morph, stylistically. I think that’s what allows Hot Chip side projects to flourish. Also, your anti-rock stance is something I’ve always appreciated. There’s no machismo bullshit. I know people always ask themselves which one of you is gay, which is hilarious because none of you are! You have kids! And houses! And wives! It sometimes reminds me a bit of the band Freiwillige Selbstkontrolle from Munich—FSK for short. I really enjoy your set-up with the MPC and toys and percussion stuff. And originally without drums right in the front of the stage.
AT: The no drums thing was because our drummer left and we never replaced him. But setting up all across the front of the stage in a line came from always being the support band for someone else and having to set up our gear in front of theirs. I remember once in Berlin To Rococo Rot were very taken with the lack of the drummer as well. Of course, things are different now that we do have a drummer and we all play three or four different instruments live. Also, I used to watch old videos of Devo and I remember being impressed with how they played at the very edge of stage and had this almost choreographic thing happening.
JK: I’ve also noticed how you not only change instruments often, but also improvise quite a bit. The shows are really different from city to city.
AT: Bob Dylan is a great reference point, because he’s always changing the words and the melodies to songs. He’s interested in the depth of a song and is a proponent of the idea that if a song is strong enough, it can be reconfigured. People like Will Oldham and Dylan as performers are incredible for exactly that: their ability to reinvent. I always wanted Hot Chip to be flexible, to get rid of rigidity. I think we’ve achieved that somewhat. Take “Boy From School”—I don’t even recognize that song anymore because we’ve been playing it so differently for so long.
JK: I don’t want to connect gender theory to what you do, but I always loved bands that didn’t attach specific roles to each member. There is no “front man”, or “drummer” or “bass player”. The band is liberated. And everybody sings, although I suppose you and Joe do that the most.
AT: Yeah, it was really Joe and I who started Hot Chip together and then expanded it into the group. But initially, we never really thought about our live presentation. We just thought about what sounds we wanted to make. And then we realized how to do it while we went along. You come to understand during your career, if you have one, that people expect certain roles. We don’t do it so much anymore, but when we made The Warning and Made in the Dark, we talked a lot about Can, who everybody loves. We talked about creating something new from endless playing together in a room.
JK: I know from talking with Irmin Schmidt that Can always travelled with their own sound system. There was no PA. The monitor was the PA. The back of the stage was a wall mounted with specially designed speakers, which were then assigned to each band member, but were hidden. There was no mix for the front of the house and that’s what must have made it an amazing live experience. It all came from the stage, kind of like the Velvet Underground. Even though I was born and raised with the Velvets, I only learned a few years ago how sound obsessed, or “sound-istic” as I like to say, they are. I read in a Lou Reed interview a little while ago that he hates the first VU record. It’s clear that being “sound-istic” means sometimes missing the point, if you ask me.
AT: When I met Charles Hayward from This Heat, we talked a lot about Can. When he and Gareth Williams and Charles Bullen formed the band, they had been obsessed with Can. I think they had actually visited the Can studio and had wanted to set up something similar. It’s interesting that so many people and so many bands feel drawn to them. I know you do film production work with Irmin Schmidt, right Justus?
JK: Yes. My original connection with him was through Whirlpool Productions. We wanted to record a track from the album Brian De Palma, but we didn’t have any way of recording the vocals, so we ended up getting René Tinner’s number through Hans Nieswandt’s wife’s brother. We went to Weilerswist, which, by that time, was a commercial studio. René Tinner then put me in touch with Irmin and now the three of us do film scores together: Irmin writing, René mixing and myself producing. I’ve learned a lot from Irmin Schmidt. I never went to university. Or rather, I did but to no avail. I don’t have a driver’s license. My last diploma is from high school, my Abitur. But Irmin Schmidt taught me. Would you say there’s somebody you learned from, Alexis?
AT: Certainly from Joe [Goddard] over the years. That may be obvious, but it should be said. We work in very different ways and have different methods of composing music, but playing with him has always been challenging and inspiring. We’ve been friends since we were eleven years old. Beyond that, I think Pat Thomas, John Coxon and Charles Hayward from About Group have taught me loads. Charles especially. He has such a different approach to music, and not just the actual sound he gets out of the drum kit. Although I think he gets the best sound I’ve ever heard. He’s just a very bright person and does nothing conventionally. You can tell he really listens to music. And live, he won’t play until he’s taken in what’s going on around him. A lot of the sessions we’ve been involved in, he’ll wait until he has something to say, musically speaking. He’ll never hit the drum unless it’s deliberate. But he’s also comfortable being the foundation for everybody else.
JK: Do you think you can still learn from the importance of thinking and acting spontaneously even if you don’t play jazz or avant-garde music?
AT: Charles once told me at a festival, “Sometimes I look at the shape of the crowd and play that as if it’s the music score.” It’s a very different approach. Another person who I have that relationship with is Green Gartside from Scritti Politti. You see, Prince was my main obsession growing up. I only had one Scritti Politti twelve-inch to begin with, which was “Oh Patti”, featuring Miles Davis. And I thought, “Wow! This sounds like Prince!” But later I discovered the first album from 1982, Songs to Remember, and I thought, “Wow! This sounds like Prince!” To me it was a lot like Sign o’ the Times, only five years before. I couldn’t believe it. It’s interesting to hear how “A Slow Soul” predates “Slow Love”.
JK: Songs to Remember is an absolutely classic record. Timeless. It survived the eighties big time. I remember I bought it on recommendation from Sounds magazine.
AT: It was just so ahead of its time.
JK: Not “ahead”—it’s not in any time. It doesn’t age, good or bad. It’s goddamn timeless. The next album less so, but it’s also brilliant. Cupid & Psyche 85 is high-gloss, sci-fi superbly programmed and totally fierce music. Something I’ve tried to emulate a bit on my own recordings.
AT: My wife was obsessed with Gartside when she was a teenager, and then one day we saw him in a pub in Dalston. We were all excited but never did anything about it. We didn’t recognize him at first because he looks way different now. He wears a lot of Carhartt, kind of looks like a skateboarder. But he ended up recognizing me and then came up and we got to talking about playing together, which we did. When we started out it was strange, because he works like nobody I’ve ever collaborated with. He would force me to get a song as strong as it could possibly be on guitar before we could do anything else with it. I imagine The Beatles would work out songs like that, with John and Paul battling it out and throwing ideas back and forth. In Hot Chip, with Joe and me it was never about stepping back from the computer. The songs were recorded from the moment we wrote them. With Gartside, he’d translate everything we did into MIDI and get rid of the original guitar thing. But it would become something new. I’m so used to having tactile instruments all around, playing and touching them. But after the music is “translated” into the computer, everything else is done there with a MIDI controller. It’s bare, like your studio yesterday.
JK: I consider it a compliment when people tell me how minimal my studio is. I find it interesting that in England people would always ask about gear, what synths I have and all that crap. I always just tell them that: it’s software. It’s plug-ins. It’s presets. You just have to find the right ones and then you’re good. I don’t give a fuck about instruments. For producing I prefer a total recall system. I can find layouts, blueprints, and ideas from years ago in the music software. It’s all there! My good friend and collaborator Eric D. Clark is the opposite. He believes a lot in improvisation and inspiration. And that’s the strange thing when it comes to thinking about these great bands like Can and Charles Hayward and all them: I actually hate improvisation. Even if it’s on the highest level, I have a hard time being in it. Because to this day, I can’t play a single instrument. Especially with great musicians I find it almost impossible. I play two notes and that’s it. I don’t solo. If it’s jam time, I leave the room. I always thought it was hippie shit. Maybe that’s why I hate THC. But I guess Charles Hayward or Can had the amazing idea of taking massive improvisations and condensing it into the best few minutes.
AT: In terms of the editing process, I think This Heat were mostly inspired by Can and Teo Macero’s productions with Miles Davis.
JK: Being in love with your own improvisation and releasing all of it on record is a seriously bad habit which, for certain musicians, will never die. And then they label it art! That’s what separates Amon Düül from Can, in my opinion. Amon Düül recorded everything and called it a political statement, instead of creating a precise and concise piece of music.
AT: There aren’t that many albums of purely improvised music that I enjoy listening to, but Pat Thomas from About Group is one of those musicians who pretty much always plays something brilliant everytime, be it on acoustic piano, synth or a radio plugged in to a stylophone. The same goes for Han Bennink, too. I think a lot of these people aren’t interested in recordings, you know? They don’t need documentation. I like meeting people who have a different musical approach.
JK: Very good, Alexis.
AT: I like a lot of the bands that aren’t only involved in the electronic music circuit, so to speak. The bands that we get asked questions about in interviews are never bands we really listen to. Interviewers always ask us about some contemporary of ours who makes indie dance music and I just think, “Well, I don’t listen to them.”
JK: Are you crazy? Ever since “Over and Over” that’s what you’ve been making! Don’t you think? Don’t you like that music?
AT: I can understand the connection, but I don’t like it. Maybe it is what we do. Although we do have noisy guitars sometimes . . .
JK: So it’s indie dance! Oh my God! So what? Back in the day when I first started singing in German, Wolfgang Voigt said, “You’re making Techno-Schlager!” Schlager is a kind of contemporary German folk music, which I don’t mind. But I don’t consider my music “Schlager”. The label follows me to this day.
AT: I suppose no one ever likes labels.
JK: But there are people who are considered Schlager who have absolutely nothing to do with it. For example, with Whirlpool Productions we recently released a series of Hildegard Knef remixes. I consider her to be the best German lyricist ever, next to Ingeborg Bachmann. As Cole Porter said, “She’s the best singer without a voice the world has ever seen.” Every homosexual has a diva and she’s mine. The vocal remixes we did came about through Hans Nieswandt who’s been working closely with the label Bureau B in Hamburg. They got hold of the rights of a whole bunch of late seventies stuff and we made a kind of monument to her. The only problem is that with up-tempo disco music, you can’t expect people to listen to the lyrics. The track I remixed, “Und wenn ich wage, dich zu lieben”, I chose deliberately because of the lyrics. It’s about being madly in love with somebody, but it starts out with a description of how much she hates the world; about how depressing it is and people are. Only after that comes the love. Then in the chorus it goes from darkwave to hippie disco, and Knef throws in the most important lyric of all. It’s a question: “If I dare to love you, would you become like them?” It’s a fear we can all relate to, I suppose. ~
Main picture: Alexis Taylor, photographed in Berlin by Luci Lux.
Picture 2: Justus Köhncke photographed in Berlin by Luci Lux.
Published April 12, 2013. Words by Justus Koehncke.