It’s time to talk about Hot Chip‘s perpetually classy live show.
Now in their fifteenth year, they have morphed almost beyond recognition from a pair of bedroom R&B auteurs to a septet of supremely confident performers, swollen in size and talent.
You can get an early taste of their bouncy energy from watching old Jools Holland performances. I certainly did. Back in June 2006, they showed a punkish spirit performing “Over And Over”; a couple of years later, playing “Ready For The Floor” and “Hold On“, you see their embryonic aspirations to evolve into an LCD Soundsystem-style outfit (specifically with the bongo breakdown on the latter track).
But it wasn’t until 2010, with the release of One Life Stand and its attendant tour, that everything fell into place. That’s the year I saw them for the first and second times. With Rob “Grovesnor” Smoughton joining them on drums, they adopted a more limber persona, willing and able to reinvent their back-catalogue each time they took the stage. At Glastonbury that year, they brought the carnival to the campsite, with the many-piece marimba band Steel Harmony augmenting the closer, “I Feel Better”. A little earlier in the set, they deployed a stadium-rock intro to “Ready For The Floor” (in a manner reminiscent of Talking Heads’ performance of “Crosseyed And Painless” on Stop Making Sense). It was an unforgettable set, with exactly the kind of naïve joy festivals were intended to deliver.
In the autumn of 2010, against the backdrop of students’ protests, they shared equal billing with LCD Soundsystem at Alexandra Palace. The set’s opener, “Boy From School”, emerged from a burbling wave of arpeggiated synthesiser before settling into a chin-stroking anthem for a bittersweet generation. Compare it to the rather misty-eyed swirl of the original recorded version, and the two acts seem galactic light-years apart. The transformation of another supposed sacred cow, “Over And Over”, from indie-disco stomper to caustic, jagged celebration of wigging out, is one they have never subsequently abandoned—including the febrile intro, copped from Gala’s “Freed From Desire”.
Hot Chip’s transition is best adumbrated by Felix Martin. Adding a live drummer meant the bespectacled, moustachioed DJ was now unencumbered by the responsibility of providing clattering drum machine rhythms, and could instead perform the melodic bedrocks of tracks. This in turn freed other members of the band, most notably enabling Alexis Taylor to take on a true frontman’s role. In 2006 you couldn’t have imagined him crooning into a microphone or performing a natty dance routine. But by 2012, and the supporting tour for that year’s In Our Heads LP, performances of “Flutes” were set to just such a combination.
By then, they’d hired another gun. With Sarah Jones, formerly of New Young Pony Club, holding the sticks, Smoughton could flit between auxiliary percussion, vocoder, bass guitar, whatever—he’s a true multi-instrumentalist. Al Doyle could spend more time wielding a guitar like a noise-rock warlock (frequently draped in a a flowing tunic to boot).
Sets around that time typically began with “How Do You Do?”, the ode to domestic routine building up from the faintest patter of synth and then culminating in a high-life breakdown, as at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago that summer. A year later, at the festival’s Parisian counterpart, the band reached their apotheosis. (The full set can be enjoyed here.) That same song, cutting into the piped-in playback of Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You” and synced to a barrage of alternating mint-green spotlights, takes on epic proportions. The arpeggiated synthesiser motif is buttery-rich, and Smoughton’s bass guitar kneads you in the gut. Halfway through the set, the band pulls out of nowhere a cover of Wham!’s “Everything She Wants”, and it sounds like Christmas on a cocktail of rum, Prosecco and barbiturates. The synths are extra-squelchy; Jones’s drumming, studio-perfect. Taylor imbues George Michael’s lyrics with even greater emotional heft—he sounds genuinely hurt. From a band with a legacy of strong covers, this may be the high-point.
Once again, “I Feel Better” closes the affair. There’s no Steel Harmony on this occasion; instead, we get the song’s umpteenth reinvention; one that I would place on a pedestal alongside that Glastonbury performance. Joe Goddard coaxes a yearning plea from his Moog; urgent stabs of synthesiser pulsate through the arena; someone plays the Doctor Who riff. Eventually, all these disparate elements crescendo and resolve around a thumping beat, and the song takes hold. Doyle adds accents on the marimba, and Goddard’s lead vocals are the most cavernous they’ve ever been. At the song’s climax, the synthesisers collapse in on themselves, like a star in the throes of implosion. The rest of the band take a bow, while Taylor mans a keyboard, torturing it, refracting their triumph into a thousand questioning fragments of oscillating waves.
I saw them most recently at the Brixton Academy in October. They took to the stage backed by the churchly, anguish-filled strains of the Beach Boys’ “‘Til I Die”, and they neared that outfit’s pop perfection on several occasions in the set that followed. Their latest album, Why Make Sense?, is not their best, but they chose from it judiciously. A deep-cut, “Cry For You”, was chewed up halfway through and spat out as a rendition of “Shake A Fist”—a genius-like splicing. “Need You Now”, a beatific number in spite of its angry subject-matter (“I never dreamed I could belong / To a state that don’t see right from wrong”), reached new heights in bliss. Mining another of their lesser albums, they began the encore with “We’re Looking For A Lot Of Love”. Unshackled from its constituent album, its hymnal quality pierced through the fundamental oddness of the song.
I’ve seen Hot Chip in person on three occasions, and through YouTube countless more, and all evidence suggests their reinventing and remixing of their back-catalogue is ceaseless. Each concert yields a new modulation on familiar forms; nothing really becomes a trope. At Brixton Academy, they shut the night down with a gleeful cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing In The Dark”, which interpolated lyrics from LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends”. Okay, they’ve been finishing with the same cover on every gig of the tour. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Sometimes they bring out special guests to play alongside them—Caribou, Sinkane, Nancy Whang, inter alia—and other times they isolate and amplify a specific element of The Boss’s chart-topper. Every time it holds true that every time is different. What a manifesto.