Ahead of his interview with MusicRadar, Alexis Taylor warns us that he’s not what some people would call a studio ‘expert’. “I love making music with technology,” he explains, “but I use it in a limited way.”
As an example, the Hot Chip frontman recounts the story of his search for a suitably twisted drum loop during the recording of his recently released solo album, Beautiful Thing.
“After I put together this particular beat, I sent it through various hardware phase and flange effects, recorded that onto CD, then played it back on a CDJ so I could radically mess around with the speed. When I worked out what I needed, I recorded that back into the computer.
“People will read that and say, ‘But you can do all that inside the computer. It takes two minutes’. I’m sure you can. The problem is that I don’t know how to do it, so I’ve developed my own weird, long-winded methods for manipulating sound.”
Taylor has ‘produced’ previous solo releases himself but, for Beautiful Thing, he decided to bring in someone to handle the tech: Mo Wax co-founder, Unkle/David Holmes producer and occasional Massive Attack collaborator Tim Goldsworthy.
The result is a rather gorgeous yet bizarre collection of new and old tech sounds, angsty experimental detours and nifty pop hooks. Yes, there are touches of Hot Chip here and there - no surprise, considering that Taylor is the main songwriter and vocalist - but this sounds gentler. And rather sorrowful at times. Hot Chip are currently working on a new album, and there was a period of crossover between the two, but Taylor reckons that the writing for both band and solo projects feels very different.
Is it a lot easier to write for a solo album?
“I don’t know if I’d call it ‘easier’. With the solo stuff, I tend to start recording the song a lot earlier; almost as soon as I have an idea. Then I just start layering things up. Drum machine, rhythm track, Fender Rhodes, guitars, Prophet ’08. It’s mainly processed in Logic, but I’ve also got a few pedals, like the Moogerfooger MuRF. It’s a fairly basic setup. No fancy preamps or anything like that. Just straight into my budget Focusrite interface, which seems to give me a decent sound.
“Once those layers are beginning to build into a song, I start taking away the beginning blocks of music. So, if it was written on the Rhodes, I take away the Rhodes. If it was written on guitar, I get rid of the guitar. What you’re left with are the textural overdubs and the extra synths parts. Maybe a few weird percussion noises. I’m deliberately trying to unbalance the track. You’ve got all this music which is seemingly essential but, when you remove it, the track becomes even more interesting.
“There are other times when tracks can almost feel like they were improvised. I’ll get a beat going on the Acetone Rhythm Ace and just play along to it on the Juno-60. Some basic chords, plus a few things from the arpeggiator. One bassline, throw some vocals on top.”
You’re making it sound very simple.
“It’s easy to make recording a long and complicated process these days. If you’re not careful, it becomes an endless process. I didn’t want that and neither did Tim [Goldsworthy, producer]. It’s one of the reasons the relationship worked so well.
“I like the idea of working with what you’ve got to hand, rather than thinking you have to buy a new piece of equipment or a new plugin to solve your problem. And I have to say that it’s never really been an issue for me. Some people might say my solo stuff sounds a bit lo-fi, but that sound is the best that I can get with the equipment and the skill set that I have.
“I’m not a great programmer… I don’t know all the ins and outs of Logic. But if you put me in a room with some stuff that makes a noise, I’ll have a go at recording a song.”
What was the setup for this album? Was it recorded in the Hot Chip studio?
“With Hot Chip, we tend to record in quite a few different studios, depending on where we are. Joe [Goddard] does most of the actual Hot Chip production and he’s got a place in north London. I’ve got a small setup at home in London, but I also share a studio space.
“The album ended up being recorded all over the place… my two studios, Tim’s place in Bristol, another studio in London. It became quite a journey to make it sound like it does.”
All done in Logic?
“I think so. When Joe and I first started putting Hot Chip together, he was using Cubase, so that became my sequencer of choice, too. But, with Hot Chip, I don’t really do much inside the computer because I’m working with Joe. Back in the early days, he was the producer and I was the player. He handled the tech side and my job was to play funky little synth parts and hit things. I hit things a lot! I’ve always liked drum machines that you have to play manually.
“When it came to recording my first solo releases, I decided to work in GarageBand. I wasn’t doing a lot of work inside the box, so I just needed something I could record and edit with. GarageBand was fine for that and the simplicity of the setup allowed me to learn the basics of production. I looked at the computer as a really powerful four-track.
“And you’ve got to remember that this was the era when people were talking about Dizzee Rascal’s first album being recorded on a PlayStation. Whether that was true or not, I don’t know, but there was definitely this feeling that you could get by with quite a basic setup.
“I like that idea. Only use what you need.”
Zen and the Art of Studio Recording…
“All I need is a tool for recording my ideas… Logic and a laptop is perfect. I can do basic recording, but I can also get a bit more experimental. I can work with crude instruments and musical tools.
“Noises, spoken word. I can edit sound in interesting ways. I can record in a shower cubicle in a hotel in São Paulo at one in the morning, purely because it’s got a nice reverb.”
Any third-party plugins on the laptop?
“There’s a Synclavier from Arturia and the G-Force [M-Tron Pro] Mellotron. I always think it’s ironic that one of the very few plugins that I use is actually a sort of antique sampler. It’s like we’ve come full circle.
“I have had a look at a lot of soft synths and production plugins, but then my attention will be dragged away by some strange little Yamaha keyboard that I found at a car boot sale. It cost me two quid! Joe loved it so much that he made me go back to the car boot sale and find him another one. I did… that cost me three quid.”
He got the expensive one?
“Of course! I didn’t buy them for kitsch or novelty value. I had a listen to them at the car boot and thought, ‘Some of these are really interesting sounds’. Joe loved it, too, and we ended up using it on the Ready For The Dancefloor single. That just brings a smile to my face: that something that was probably destined for the tip and only cost me a couple of quid gets used on a song that then becomes relatively successful.”
Have you ever wanted to know more about ‘that side’ of the studio? Programming, digging into the heart of a DAW, twisting the hell out of a few soft synths, for example?
“It’s not my forte, and I would always be limited by that. Obviously I learn things as I’m working with people like Joe or Tim, but I don’t see the problem with finding something that you’re good at and sticking to it.
“On this album, there were things I wanted to do in Logic - things I didn’t know how to do - but I had Tim with me and I let him get on with it. Like I said earlier, neither of us wanted to go down the route of ‘Logic can do this and this. Let’s try this plugin and this compressor and this reverb’, because you’re in danger of getting lost. Where does it end? When do you stop trying to fix things or make it sound ‘better’?
“This is an album that’s been made on computers, but we tried to make it in an old-fashioned way.”
Could it have been made on tape? Properly old-fashioned?
“No. Even if you’re not going crazy in the studio, there’s still far too much going on… stuff that would be so difficult to do on tape. There’s no doubt that computers made it easier for me to make this album. The speed with which you can process sound. The way you can play around with production ideas. Experimentation. Stuff that Tim would be doing that I don’t even know about.
“Not to mention some of the other things we used in the studio, like the Polyend Perc Pro. It’s sort of a robot drummer that you can program via MIDI and it will play any percussive instrument. At one point, we had it playing a drum kit and a close-miked chair that was heavily processed. That was all in 3/4 time, and we then brought in a live drummer to play 4/4 over the top of it.
“The computer also allowed me to make use of an old upright piano that’s been left in my studio in London. Well, it’s just the innards, really… the harp. The guy who I share the studio with wanted to get rid of it because it kept reverberating whenever he was working on something. I decided to use it in the opposite way. I wanted to capture that reverb and add it to the song.
“For the first track, Dreaming Another Life, I played each chord on the ‘harp’ and recorded them into Logic. Then I chopped off the bit where the notes were hit, leaving it with this wonderful wash of ghostly reverb. A really unique reverb sound.
“That’s a good example of how I like to work. The combination of playful experimentation and traditional songwriting. Computers and discarded instruments.”
Can we ask a final question about the album format? Obviously, Hot Chip are an albums band, too… is it still your favourite way to listen to music?
“There are some people who’ll argue that, in 2018, the album feels slightly anachronistic. OK, maybe it’s less important than 20 or 30 years ago, but I still think that albums matter to a lot of music fans. As evidenced by the amount of people that are buying vinyl albums.
“I love the idea of sitting down and listening to a Prince album or a Sly Stone album and knowing that I’m going to be immersed in that for at least 30 or 40 minutes. And that’s how I prefer to put together my own music.
“People listen to albums because they take them out of the world they’re in. For those 10 or 12 tracks, you get the chance to escape. And people will always want to escape.”