Calling a band “an institution” can feel like putting them out to pasture, critically. It would be more accurate to peg Hot Chip, now on their eighth album, as a perpetual motion machine, rarely faltering – a particularly fine example of British engineering. It’s a surprise, then, when this theoretically urbane electronic outfit come to an abrupt halt because their beast of a drummer has burst the skin on his kick drum. And yet here is Hot Chip percussionist Leo Taylor, greeting the news that he’s been playing too hard by leaping up and doing some double devil’s horns to howls of approval.
Hot Chip have maintained a metronomic pulse at the heart of British song-making for more than 20 years, pairing Alexis Taylor’s sweet vocals with a kaleidoscopic range of percolating sounds. Over and Over was their first hit, in 2006. It remains not just a reworked live staple, faster and harder than the original, but something of a tenet for the band to live by. Hot Chip called their 2010 album One Life Stand, in part to explore the beauty of committed relationships as distinct from fraught one-night stands: another title-as-creed. They’ve never split up, directing any non-Chip energies into solo albums and record labels such as Greco-Roman, co-frontman Joe Goddard’s side gig. Both Taylor and Goddard have recently put out standalone works: Taylor’s touching lockdown meditation, Silence, in 2021, and Goddard’s disco- and house- fuelled outing with Amy Douglas, Hard Feelings, earlier this year.
Hot Chip are as much about swabbing dancefloors wet with tears as they are about continuing the legacy of Kraftwerk
Tonight, they arrive dressed all in white, except for token black sheep keyboard player Felix Martin; Alexis Taylor is wearing a waterproof white cape over a hot pink Comme des Garçons windcheater, his buzzcut tinged pink by the light show. The stage doubles as a synthesiser trade show, an array of gear punctuated by the odd cowbell and wooden block, courtesy of percussion-leaning multi-instrumentalist Rob Smoughton. Hot Chip’s music has regularly drawn from house and funk, electro and synth pop, harnessing blithe dancefloor energy to classic pop melodies; if their records are good, their live shows are immersive. You’ll be familiar with Hot Chip’s fellow travellers by now, with the revolving door of touring band members they operate with LCD Soundsystem, the way Hot Chip recall everyone from New Order to Pet Shop Boys while remaining instantly identifiable as themselves.
Alexis Taylor in waterproof cape. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer
What’s less discussed is how they share with Gorillaz a very British love of vintage US hip-hop and its source materials; how their club savvy tallies with that of their schoolmate Kieran Hebden of Four Tet, who recently guested with Hot Chip live in New York. It bears repeating that Hot Chip have been ahead of the Covid-era disco reboot curve by pretty much a decade. They wrote a song for Dua Lipa in 2020 that they ended up keeping for themselves. That’s Straight to the Morning, which featured Jarvis Cocker on guest vocals. (Cocker is due to join the band on evenings three and four of this four-night London residency; tonight, Goddard handles Cocker’s vocal parts.) As with their penchant for disco, Taylor in particular has long brought a strong vintage eyewear game too, favouring engineer glasses long before everyone started looking as if they were working at Microsoft circa 1979.
Crucially, though, Hot Chip’s adamantine consistency contains just enough variation to keep your interest piqued. Just when you think you know them, something happens: a record like the recent Freakout/Release, for instance, in which the title track goes much harder than usual towards dancefloor catharsis, and Taylor sings about lust and “primitive healing”. Or a song such as Down, which is decidedly funkier than usual, with Taylor playing off various meanings of “down” (getting down, feeling down) as the bass syncopates all over the place. Or … they will puncture a kick drum. What happens after this hitch, though, is somehow tremendously Hot Chip. Half the band fall upon the kit like a Formula One pit stop crew, veteran multi-instrumentalists helping their techie with the spare.
Looking on, Taylor croons “Is it still broken?” Naturally, the song that has silenced the kit is called Broken. A standout from Hot Chip’s latest LP, it finds him trying to solve an emotional crisis. Words are inadequate. How do you actually help anyone? As the six-strong band bring the party, Taylor’s vocal resonates with the tenderness of veteran chansonniers, like Neil Tennant singing Roy Orbison.
Tenderness and vulnerability have, of course, long been Hot Chip staples. What’s new, perhaps, is the depth of crisis-awareness, of mortality. Philippe Zdar, their collaborator, died in 2019. As Covid was breaking out across the world in 2020, Hot Chip were touring Australia. Rob Smoughton was taken to hospital with a life-threatening illness and recovered; his bounciness tonight is especially joyous to behold. The songs on Freakout/Release – of which they play a generous sample – deal in great part with the fallout of living; of being stuck in one’s own head, of being unable to seek or accept help; about deep funks. Like much of the best dance pop, Hot Chip are as much about swabbing dancefloors wet with tears as they are about continuing the legacy of Kraftwerk. They can make everyone dance on a school night; harder and more bruised than their mild-mannered reputation suggests.