Towards the end of the first verse of “Freakout/Release,” the title track to Hot Chip‘s eighth studio album (out this Friday, August 19th), vocalist Alexis Taylor announces, “I need an escape and some primitive healing.” It’s a sentiment that will certainly ring true for many who hunkered down at home over the last two years, and it calls to mind the healing properties of bodies together in space, united in dance, song, or other physical sensations.
That request of “primitive healing” is a major theme in Freakout/Release, as its title suggests — though Hot Chip have returned with their usual dance floor euphoria, there’s an advancement upon the existential quandaries found in the band’s last album, 2019’s excellent A Bath Full of Ecstasy. Across Freakout/Release‘s 11 tracks are meditations on loneliness, anxiety, feeling undesired, and even commentary on the pursuit of music in a fractured digital age.
But for Taylor, the idea of “primitive healing” and ensuing tracks like “Hard To Be Funky (feat. Lou Hayter)” and album opener “Down” are not just about the absence of live music, but about sex. “There’s a kind of sexual tension there as well about people feeling inhibited, stuck in one place…” says Taylor, “It sounds a bit like the phrase ‘sexual healing’ from the Marvin Gaye song… it’s speaking about what it feels like to have this pent-up energy.”
The outburst of energy throughout the album is a perfect way introduce these ideas of “freakout and/or release,” but Hot Chip do a remarkable job of balancing that freedom with a sense of fear, doubt, and insecurity.
While connection has always been a major theme in Hot Chip’s music, Freakout/Release is by far their most vivid and successful exploration of it. The British quintet — comprised of Alexis Taylor, vocalist and keyboardist Joe Goddard, and multi-instrumentalists Owen Clarke, Al Doyle, and Felix Martin — are in search of a celebration on Freakout/Release, but they do so with a keen eye on the state of the world, the nihilism that comes with it, and the trappings and liberations of desire.
Of course, the album is still designed to get you dancing. After two years away from touring, Hot Chip returned to facilitate their usual communal freakouts with shows all across North America earlier this year, and will head to Europe this fall. But for now, Alexis Taylor is more concerned about having each band member in one place.
“We’re right at the beginning of learning stuff in time for radio sessions. We have to miss Al because of LCD Soundsystem commitments, and we have to miss Felix because he’s living in San Francisco,” Taylor tells Consequence. “Everything is about trying to make it work without us being at full strength and that’s a challenge. But by the time September comes around, when we start touring, everybody will be together,” he says. “Unless something goes wrong!”
A few days before Freakout/Release is out into the world, Consequence caught up with Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor to chat about the new album, getting back on the road, the challenge of assembling a setlist with eight albums to choose from, and much more. Check out the full Q&A below.
It’s release week for Freakout/Release. What’s going through your mind right now?
I’m really excited that it’s coming out on Friday. I’m getting a lot of nice messages from friends about the music that they’ve heard so far and about the artwork which Brian Degraw from Gang Gang Dance and a friend of ours has done. I was going to say “not to name drop,” but I got a message from Brian Eno today saying how amazing the artwork looks and that was really nice to read. Especially because Brian Degraw who made the cover is the biggest Brian Eno fan in the world, so it made me really happy that Brian Eno had seen it. So I’m feeling excited; we all are.
At the same time as that, I’m pretty tired, because we’re just right at that beginning of learning stuff in time for radio session days. It’s just a tricky time for us, we don’t have everybody in the band with us available to be Hot Chip. We have to miss Al because of LCD [Soundsystem] commitments and we have to miss Felix because he’s living in San Francisco. Everything is about trying to make it work without us being at full strength and that’s a challenge. But by the time September comes around, when we start touring, everybody will be together. Unless something goes wrong!
So that’s a bit of a mixture of feelings if I’m being honest. I’m excited about the record coming out and we’re going to play on Thursday and Friday in the UK, so I’m really looking forward to that. But we’re just trying to get ourselves well rehearsed and we’re lacking in essential band members right now.
Speaking of artwork, the album art for A Bath Full of Ecstasy was also fantastic. It’s hard to believe it’s been three years since that album came out — it seemed like you didn’t get the chance to tour it so much, correct?
In one way, yes, in another way, no. We would’ve kept touring on it for another full year, which would have been two straight years of touring, however, in that first year that we did manage to tour it, we toured more than we have toured on any record. So I feel like we really put the hours in to be on the road playing those songs, because we did like three different tours before it was released, and then we started to do more tours after it was released.
But we missed from March 2020 onwards and I agree with you, it doesn’t feel like three years ago that we put that record out. But I really like the artwork on that one too. We did that with Jeremey Deller and Fraser Muggeridge. I loved what they did and how it turned out.
Going back to March 2020, you were finishing up tour, then had to cancel everything and head back home to England. Did that give way to the origins of Freakout/Release?
When we got back from the tour, we came back from Australia in March, just before the pandemic. COVID was already been talked about a lot and it was beginning to be seen as quite a problem by the time we were in Australia in March. Something very stressful happened at the very end of that show for us where one of our bandmates had a serious health problem and had to be rushed into hospital and was lucky to be alive, really, so that was a very, very traumatic end to that show and that bit of touring.
And then, once we got the good news that he was going to be alright and that he was stable and was going to be totally okay, we started to realize that the world was changing very quickly. There was a new thing to worry about, which was that maybe all of us were not going to be okay. So that was a pretty weird thing to be living through all of that.
Then, in a more positive way, I started to have some time with my family and not be on the road and have some time in my own house to do things that I didn’t normally do or have time to do. I would do nothing but walk around and talk to each other as a family and spend time together and explore our local area because everything was closed. It gave me some time to write some songs and think about a new solo record. I made that sometime between March 2020 and November 2020.
I wrote all the songs and then recorded them and collaborated remotely with a few amazing musicians that I wanted to work with. Most of whom I’d never worked with before. So it was kind of a new thing for me. It was all about the new in terms of the approach to the music, and just as I was toward the end of making that solo record, we just decided to make a new Hot Chip record.
I think we started that in December 2020, so I kind of finished the solo record and went straight into Hot Chip. So that felt exciting to be getting busy while we hadn’t really been able to be very busy. But it also meant that I had written some songs for a solo record that were in a way thematically and stylistically linked to each other. I hadn’t had time to think about what songs would be forming a new Hot Chip record because I had been immersed in making that record.
So that meant that when we started making the Hot Chip record, I think I wrote most of my own contributions to it either in the studio with everyone there, in conjunction with the others, or quickly with a sense of everything being quite fresh, because I hadn’t had time to plan to write that material, and we hadn’t really as a band.
So I feel like the record came together quite quickly, or at least about half of it. It was an outpour of new ideas and collaborative ideas. That was an enjoyable way of making a record, and we were doing it in Al’s new studio, which was just a great place to make the record. I’ve just been in that studio again and it’s got a good atmosphere about it and a lot of good equipment, and we can do it all on our own terms. That was really rewarding.
There are some pretty illuminating lyrics on Freakout/Release — especially the title track, which starts off with “music used to be an escape/ now I can’t escape it/ I feel trapped in the world.” What were you trying to express with that song, and how does it relate to the overall themes of Freakout/Release?
What I’m noticing the more I get asked to explain my lyrics to people is that very often the words are talking about more than one thing simultaneously and not spelling that out to the listener. So the words in that song are jumping around from one subject matter to another. On the one hand, I’m talking about the sense of claustrophobia when you’re obsessively trying to create musical ideas and they’re running through your head all the time, whether you are awake or asleep. So you can’t escape the sound, and that once was something you longed for but maybe, at times, it plagues you to be hearing things all the time (and never not hearing things).
That’s one aspect of it. That feeling I think was momentary. I don’t always feel like that. I think I just felt like that at that particular point in time, and I wonder if was because nearly all stimulus had gone away. I wasn’t traveling anywhere, I wasn’t seeing any people. I wasn’t on the road, I wasn’t touring. I was just in my own thoughts and in my own head trying to make music a lot of the time.
The idea that now I can’t escape it leads me into other lines in the song, which are talking about how music is easily taken for granted now — by some, not by everybody, and not at all times — because it is not very costly to access music, and it can be heard coming out of everybody’s smartphones’ speakers, for those that have smartphones. It’s everywhere, it’s ubiquitous, but it’s also in the background. It’s throwaway to some extent, because it’s just one of many apps that you can access.
The music itself isn’t an app but the way in which you access it… the music that somebody’s made in a recording studio or in a home and has come out of themselves in some way and maybe has been really meaningful to them or taken a lot of time and creativity and energy, is just something to be played in the background while doing something else, or you just hear a bit of it and you just stop and move onto the next thing.
So, this song is talking about all of those things that I mentioned at once. And then it moves on to saying, “I’m waiting, like we all are, for that point in time, to be back with people in a community to be able to share music… able to perform music or hear music coming from speakers on a stage or coming through the speakers at a club or some collective experience of performing or hearing music.” That, to me, is this primitive healing that I’m talking about.
But at the same time, those words are deliberately ambiguous and, similar to other songs on the album, there’s a kind of sexual tension there about people feeling inhibited, stuck in one place, wondering when they’ll be doing things like hearing music or connecting with other people physically again. There was a lot of that going on for people all over the world.
The reason why I highlight that second meaning is that it sounds a bit like the phrase “sexual healing” from the Marvin Gaye song. I was referencing that in a way, but also in this other song, “Down.” That song is all about on one level being put to work and working hard and making music, but it’s also about physical interaction with somebody else, and that being pleasurable. Work can be used as a metaphor for physically being intwined with somebody else and that kind of topic of just working hard or rubbing up against somebody else.
So it’s kind of there in “Down,” and it’s a little bit in the song “Freakout/Release.” What I’m saying is that those songs are not spelling any of that out to the audience, but it’s speaking about what it feels like to have this pent-up energy.
That also reminds me of another terrific track on the album: “Hard To Be Funky” with Lou Hayter. What were some of the ideas that went into that song in particular?
I really like funk music, and I think that Hot Chip tries often to be funky. It’s something that we’re interested in. Some people shy away from funk. I think it’s kind of embarrassing to talk about it. I think funk music is deeply related to sex, and it’s there in Prince and James Brown and in countless things. I wanted to talk about what somebody might feel like if they are lonely and not necessarily feeling confident in themselves, in a sexual way, they’re feeling like they’re in a funk and they’re a bit down.
Just the line “It’s hard to be funky when you’re not feeling sexy,” and vice versa of that, was the opening idea of the song and I just wanted to see where I could go with that thought and I thought it would be really revealing, and at the same time, quite humorous. I like in songs where you stop and listen to what the singer is saying and what they’re getting at and wonder: “did they really just say that? That’s quite personally revealing,” or, “That’s quite a new way of phrasing something.”
As much as it was coming from my feelings at that point in time, it also was me imagining a Smog song that doesn’t exist. I was thinking “this is the kind thing that Bill Callahan would say.” I guess he has that song “dress sexy at my funeral,” maybe there’s a link there between my song and that song. So that’s the beginning of it, but having gotten past that opening statement, I really wanted to explore telling somebody who is listening what it might be like for somebody who has sat alone wallowing in some kind of self-pity, and they’re doing that, in some way, justifiably because while they’re feeling like that and they’re not feeling too confident, they’re also facing the potential end of the world, because COVID is happening and looks like we’ve totally fucked up the planet through our own irresponsible behavior and at the same time, war is breaking out and continuing in different places.
There’s a sense of despondency, and then needing to keep all of that in check with a different perspective, which is more words written by me but they’re sung by Lou Hayter. She’s answering that and saying “what’s it like for the other person to hear you being so gloomy or being so revealing? What about getting over yourself and getting out of this funk that you seem to be dwelling in.” It’s connected a bit to another song on the album, “Out Of My Depth.” There is an element of “Out Of My Depth” saying “don’t dwell in that place, which is a dark place.” When you recognize that you’re in the ditch, don’t sleep there for too long.
Besides Bill Callahan and Smog, were there any other reference points that made their way into the song?
Although I think all things come from our own ideas and our own take on our things, they do reference other things loosely, too. So just as I was describing “Hard To Be Funky,” it got me thinking of that song Neil Young called “On The Beach,” where he’s talking about “the world is turning, I hope it doesn’t turn away.” There’s a similar sentiment in my words in “Hard To Be Funky.” I’m talking about being in the ditch. I really love Neil Young’s “Ditch” trilogy of albums, Time Fades Away, On the Beach, and Tonight’s the Night, so it’s probably me obsessively listening to these things for years, which feeds into some of the language that I use and some of the places that I go to when exploring what I want to say in songs.
But to get away from the words for a moment, I love the idea of Hot Chip to make a track that engages what it’s like to be funky while talking about that in the words. I just thought that Al, Owen, Felix ,and Joe just made really brilliant, funky sounds along with what I was playing on the Fender and with the drum programming that I’d done, and Leo [Taylor] joined on that song and did amazing drumming.
At one point, we were thinking it reminded us of the Jellies’ “Jive Baby On a Saturday Night,” which is an incredibly funky track. But Joe was saying that this was like “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” by Paul Simon and I hadn’t even heard of that, because I thought I’m writing a song a bit like a Smog song but if Hot Chip was doing a Smog song. So there were all these different thoughts about what it sounds like, what it relates to, what it is.
The real nice moment was getting beyond those reference points and allusions, and when you have Lou’s voice in the spoken part in the end and the music that Felix wrote for that end section… I just feel like it takes the song to another place that I would’ve never have gotten to on my own. So in a way, the song about being on your own and caught up in some sort of funk ends up by collaboration coming out of itself and having something to do with other people, connecting with other people. So that’s kind of nice.
You’ve finally gotten to get back on the road and play some shows in the last several months. How is the live show feeling?
Yeah, we did a tour earlier in the year in the US, and that was our first tour back. We’d done a few festivals, but that was our first tour since March 2020, and it was amazing to play again to just play back-to-back shows in different cities and see people in America, with audiences that were just really excited to have us back again. It felt very rewarding, but that was not completely to do with our new album, because it was so far ahead of our release date. So we only played two songs from our new album on that tour, and now we’re trying to rethink things again — we’re not really sure exactly how it’s going to be, but we’re planning some changes for the set and the visual presentation for the show.
Now that you have eight studio albums, how difficult is it to craft the setlist for each show?
I’d say in one way, we’re not very good at playing lots of songs from our early albums. I don’t know why that is. We seem to just forget the existence of certain songs very quickly and move on. Maybe lots of bands do that, I don’t know. We have these songs that feel like the core elements of the set, but even if we have those, we tend to revisit them and change them. But now we’re enjoying thinking about which new songs to play from the new record, and we like to think of cover versions as well. But there will be songs we haven’t played for years featured in this set too.
It’s difficult to choose, but sometimes there are ones that we don’t play live because we don’t feel like we got it right or the words are too embarrassing or something. So we don’t play them anymore, but then it’s interesting to hear sometimes that those are the tracks that people want to be played. So maybe we just need to get a fresh perspective on them.