Hot Chip front man Alexis Taylor pares everything back to just piano and voice for an intimate record of new songs, reinterpretations of his own writing, and a selection of favorites both well known and unheard before by other artists. His latest offering, Piano, invites the listener to be privy to a very private recital, with Alexis’ vocal and piano captured live and up-close, preserving each beautiful moment. In this extensive interview we explore Piano inside and out, Alexis’ song selections, and what it all means to him now.
Northern Transmissions: Hi Alexis, thanks for taking the time to talk to Northern Transmissions and congrats on the upcoming release. How has it been received so far?
Alexis Taylor: That’s okay, no problem. Thank you. I don’t really know actually. I’m not sure if I’ve seen anything, any reviews yet. I think there was one that I read that was very nice, but I’m not really sure what the reception is overall [laughs]. I think it’s in the next few weeks or so that the reviews will come out, I guess.
Northern Transmissions: You mentioned that the initial idea morphed into the second About Group record, what made you try to pursue it again at this time?
Alexis Taylor: Well, it wasn’t so much that this particular project is the same project, it was more that making a record at the piano had begun all that time ago. I made a whole record at my home piano, but then I decided to do the songs with a band rather than just release them like that. That was a much more of a homemade, lo-fi recording of a different set of songs, although there’s a tiny bit of overlap. This new record was much more of a kind of… I suppose the seed of the idea of there being an Alexis piano record, a set of songs of mine that I wanted to do in that way, that did begin a long time back but I wasn’t really still thinking about that first album that I didn’t put out or finish, you know? It was like a new thing really.
I guess why I was doing it now was just writing some songs like “So Much Further To Go”, “I’m Ready” and another one which became a track on the last Hot Chip album, which I didn’t end up including on this album called “White Wine and Fried Chicken,” just a few songs like that they were kind of piano-based songs that I really liked in their piano setting, in that piano arrangement. So I just began thinking about doing a piano record, but I didn’t give it a huge amount of planning and preparation as I have alluded to in the press release. I was just in a studio working on another record and I had some down time after I’d finished doing some vocal tracking for another band and I’d sung into this really nice microphone there at the studio, this probably 1950s RCA mic which is something that used to be used on a lot of kind of Nat King Cole or Frank Sinatra or Chet Baker or Elvis Presley records. It was kind of the microphone of that era. I just happened to like that mic, and I happened to like the piano at the studio so I just thought I’ll just try recording now and see what it turns into. That ended up being the beginnings of the album. So it was a very spontaneous thing but in the back of my mind I’d been considering doing a record with piano music for a while.
Northern Transmissions: Beyond the vision of being an unplanned piano record, would you say it’s also an album that ties up loose ends on some songs you wrote here and there?
Alexis Taylor: Yeah, I think in a way it does that. I mean there were some songs that had come out on different albums like “I Never Lock That Door” was on the third About Group record and I just felt like the song was always slightly more of a kind of traditional sounding country song than the way we had chosen to record it in About Group and I just continued playing it live in solo shows and About Group shows over the years and it just never really went away as a song. So I felt it would be nice to put a very kind of simple arrangement of it on this record and that was the same for a few other ones. But I think I just chose to play things that were personal to me, that meant a lot to me whether they brand new written for this record, whether they were covers or whether they were songs of my own that have come out or not come out over the years. So yeah it was kind of like looking at what’s a collection of best work as it were songwriting wise and this kind of work in this way rather than requiring disco beat or kind of production that does something else with the songs. If you just strip them back to their barest elements which ones would you want to hear? Which ones would I want to hear on a piano record? So that’s what it was about really.
There were other tracks that I could have included. I didn’t want it to be too much of a retrospective. I wanted it to be more of a new record overall so that’s why I didn’t just go down that route of like looking back at everything and trying to… you know I could have done “Made In The Dark” or various songs, put the spotlight on these things that work on the piano, but that wasn’t really the point of it. It began as new songs, and new writing. There were other tracks that I still haven’t released which I had written at the same time as this record but I happened to write them on the guitar so I kind of felt like I didn’t want to try and retransform them into piano songs for the sake of it. So it ended up being that this totally thought out, pure vision of brand new piano songs, but rather an amalgamation of what ever I ended up playing on that first session really.
Northern Transmission: Can you give me a bit of a snapshot of the process of writing and recording the album, and the selection process you went through with the songs?
Alexis Taylor: Well I had no list in front of me written down and I didn’t have any practicing for it. I just knew that “So Much Further To Go” was kind of essential to the record. I knew that “I’m Ready” was very much a new song so I wanted to try that. Beyond those songs everything else was much more kind of unplanned so I literally sat down at the piano, at this studio called Hackney Road Studios got everything sounding good and then said to the guy, Shooter, can you just press record. So then I just played through anything that came to mind. That was the process. You finish a song and then you think, “okay I’m going to try this now,” and then you start playing Lone Pigeons song called “Lonely Vagabond” and you kind of release that you don’t exactly know quite how to play it but you’re quite happy with the first take, the feel of it. Then Crystal Gayle “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue,” had been playing that a little in solo shows for the last album, and touring shows for that so I kind of knew that song and I liked that song since being a kid so that was one I wanted to do. But with all of them they were just trial and error, I didn’t really try more than one or two takes of things. If I felt like it worked I used it, if it didn’t, I didn’t bother. There was a version of Smokey Robison “Tracks of My Tears” which is another kind of old favourite song of mine which I have played on the guitar at certain gigs. I tried that at the piano but I didn’t really know all the vocal on it very well and then I felt like, “oh you know what, I don’t really need to go back and do that, I’ll just leave it off”. So yeah the process was… I wish I could give you more of a story but actually I think I’ve done some thinking in my head before making the record but on the day itself I didn’t really know exactly what I was going to record. And there are other tracks from these sessions, but I just tried to kind of listen as objectively as I could. I kind of found like the ones that hung together were a real mixture of the brand new ones like “Without Your Name,” “So Much Further” and “I’m Ready”, and things like “In The Light Of The Room” which no one else has heard before, it’s never been released before but I wrote it maybe five years ago or something. So the combination, what ever was right mood was what I kept in there.
Also I knew the whole time that I didn’t want the record to be too long. I knew that it would be a hard listen for some people, just the piano and the voice so I kept trying to trim it back to less tracks. Right at the mastering session I added back “Don’t Worry” as the final song. Originally the final song was always “Just For a Little While” which is my friend’s song that I was covering, somebody who died who was potentially going to be a collaborator on this record but he died so that wasn’t ever going to be possible so I wanted to do a tribute to him in covering one of his songs. But that was a kind of perfect end to the record but in one sequence I had “Don’t Worry” came immediately after that, and I like what happened lyrically between those two songs. And at the mastering I just said to a couple people I know, whose opinion I trust, “what do you think about this? Is the album too long if I add that song back on?” and they said, “how could you not put that song on there, that’s going to be a strong song, and it’s one of your own songs, and it’s weird to not have it on there.” So it was just little things like that really that helped me piece it together.
Northern Transmissions: Did you ever at all find it difficult to pair some of the original songs with some of the reinterpretations or covers?
Alexis Taylor: No not really. They all kind of… I suppose the ones that didn’t make it on there I felt…there was a version of “White Wine and Fried Chicken” which is a song I released with Hot Chip but I wrote on my own, there was a version of that with different lyrics, different chorus and I thought that was essential to this record but I never got a take of it that I was happy with. Every time I played it something wasn’t quite right and I was doing everything live so I wasn’t really willing to edit it or overdub it to try and make it work. So that was one that was difficult to get my head around. I felt like that was a big part of the album, and one of my best songs in my opinion so I felt sad to not included it but if I didn’t have a take that worked then it was better to not hold on to that idea of it and just get rid of it really from the sequence. So that was one that was a tiny bit tricky to fit together with it. It felt like on paper it should work and yet it wasn’t. Covers wise, I suppose there aren’t that many covers, there’s four I think, and one of them no one has ever heard before except people who used to watch this band that my friend Vince was in when they were teenagers, so it wasn’t like covering this world famous tune. I don’t know how much people know about what they listen to anyway. If you listen to Tidal or Spotify it doesn’t tell you who wrote the tracks necessarily or anything, so I was keen for it to just feel like they fit together mood wise.
Northern Transmissions: What is the most important moment of the album for you? Or perhaps a song that encompasses the album as a whole?
Alexis Taylor: Well the song “So Much Further To Go” is my favourite on the record, and favourite song really from anything I’ve written recently. It’s not the most immediate song, it’s not the most poppy song on there but it feels like the mood of the record is summed up in that track. And I like the lyrics of it, I like contemplative nature of it, and I like the fact that it’s not really a song I fully understand myself. It’s not really a transparent song, whereas “I’m Ready” is so direct. I would find it hard for anyone to not understand that song. With “So Much Further To Go” it’s a little bit more oblique, but in it’s obliqueness it actually covers a lot of ground I feel and it talks about kind of the subject matter of the record which is a) process of making music, writing and finding out what your place is, what your voice, and finding out whether there’s an audience for it; the song is partly about that. It’s also partly about certain difficulties people have in just being in the world, and although it’s not written about, my friend committing suicide because it was written before that happened, it actually alludes to that kind of difficulty that people have in how they find their place in the world, or function. I like the fact that it alludes to these different things, or it can be interpreted in those ways. It depends how people hear it really.
Northern Transmissions: What did you take out of the process of the album, and what do you hope people who listen to it take out of it?
Alexis Taylor: Well when I listen to it now I’ve had enough distance from it after working on it, and mixing it, and mastering it. Now when I hear it I just feel like I hope other people enjoy the kind of calmness of the record which I feel is pretty different from other records out there right now. I don’t feel like it’s extremely precious and quiet, and yet it is a fairly empty record in terms of its production. So it feels to me like a place you might want to go to as a listener if you want something that takes you out of the kind of business and the drama of the world around you. It’s also full of its own kind of dramas and difficulties and also love and acceptance of things that are difficult at times.
I hope it’s something that people get a kind of deep response from or connection to but that’s not for me to say. It may be too personal for people, but I don’t think that’s the case.
Northern Transmissions: What are you most excited for this year? I know you’re doing some solo shows and then some shows with Hot Chip right?
Alexis Taylor: Yeah, that’s right. Well the solo shows are all kind of different from each other so some of them I’m playing solo piano like the record in small venues where you’ll be able to hear the piano acoustically in the room, and you’ll be so close it that that will be quite intamite and feel different from any show I’ve done before I hope, and imagine. That’s one way of doing it that I’ve got to look forward to. Then there are some other shows I’m doing with a drummer, and with an electric piano rather than an acoustic piano, and they’ll be some shows maybe with a band, the solo band I’ve toured with before, and some shows I’ll play totally on my own with drum machine and keyboard and different things. Different ways of presenting these songs in different environments so I’m looking forward to all of those and how different they are from each other. Also looking forward to playing a show with Scritti Politti, one of the bands that I really like, grew up listening to, and am friends with that’s in Cardiff on the 9th of June, gonna do a show with them. We’ve done work together over the years, we’ve collaborated, so that should be quite a nice show in terms of collaborative elements. I’m also looking forward to playing Glastonbury in a very small place there called the Crow’s Nest, which is always fun to play at. I’ve done that in a number of projects over the years. I’m looking forward to DJing at Glastonbury, I’m going to play a Prince set late at night on the Friday night.
I’m looking forward to the live shows with Hot Chip that we’ve got coming up on Saturday we’ll be in Paris for our second show of the year since stopping January. Then we’ll be in the States in San Diego in late August and FYF in California, in LA the day after that, so a lot of different things to look forward to. Playing with Hot Chip is extremely fun. It’s a very kind of different experience playing on a big stage usually dance music in front of a big crowd and then playing these solo shows and not trying to do that in front of people who might want to listen to something very quiet and different in mood. So they offer me different opportunities to play music in environments that appeal to me in different ways.
interview by Sean Carlin