A crowded, sweaty roomful of Bay Area Anglophiles and interested indie kids surprised UK synth quintet Hot Chip with a bouncing, screaming sold-out show at the Independent in San Francisco August 1. The crowd didn't quite know how to dance to the garage sale of drum kit, drum machine, bongos, bells, guitar, and about five synthesizers but dance they did; from the underwhelming feet-planted chest bounce to the platinum-blonde, small-pursed, full-body freakout.
The twentysomething Oxford- and Cambridge-educated dudes came to San Francisco supporting their first major label record The Warning, just before their huge American festival debut at Lollapalooza August 2-4. Released this summer with high honors by DFA/Astralwerks, The Warning's cross-Atlantic labels also represent notables like LCD Soundsystem and the Chemical Brothers. Adding to Hot Chip's pedigree is its recent nomination for the UK's prestigious Mercury Prize alongside the Arctic Monkeys, Thom Yorke, and Muse, as well as gallons of positive press in Slate, The New York Times, and Spin.
"We're still sort of just surviving," says guitarist Al Doyle, who lives in an apartment in London with his girlfriend and rarely goes out. "We're overworked and, I have to say, a little underpaid."
Great press does not placate your landlord, the middle-class boys have learned, but The Warning lays the groundwork for future releases. Now they have to build a reputation atop the odd public questioning of their street credibility.
"People have been saying, 'Five English white guys all out of university play this kind of cerebral dance music that's not going to catch on with the kids,'" Doyle says. "On one hand we're cooler than cool for being on DFA, and on the other people are sort of saying we're pasty white nerds with science degrees."
Hot Chip holds degrees in English, art, and history, thank you. But it may take an electro-acoustic specialist to properly amplify all their gear. Sound check at the Indy ran two hours late trying to equalize drum kit to drum machine to synths to vocals. "Yeah, we're interesting to mix," Doyle says. "We're a little surprised by how hard it is to characterize. I tell my mom it's classical. 'I'm in a quintet, Mom. I play clarinet.'"
Indeed, classical 4/4 beats, verse-chorus-verse structures, and the use of the pentatonic scale validate Doyle's simplification. But the layering of all that gear generates bizarre genre-blurring. Disco-punk? Indie-garage? Devo-Phish? Hot Chip often follows the Queens of the Stone Age philosophy of "Treat All Instruments Like a Drum." Almost every song features pumping, synth-based bass backed by the drummer from LCD Soundsystem robotically playing live loops. Doyle slashes ska-like distorted riffs while all manner of agogo bells (the descendant of the West African cowbell) and bongos get bonked. The whole team rocks behind its gear in a flying V, harmonizing into the mics.
Hot Chip's encore "Over and Over" sends the back half of the Indy bouncing toward the front row, upsetting cross-armed, black-clad indie kids who came to stand and stare. Even the doom patrol ended up wiggling just a little.
As for the name, core group founders Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard played a high school show back in the day and students asked what they were called. They didn't have a name, and took suggestions. "Hot," said one kid; "Chip," said another.
"They kind of liked it because of like a hot chip [aka a french fry], when you put it in your mouth it gives you that bit of a shock," Doyle says. "Also computer chips. [pause] Wood chips."
Okay, got it. But watch out for the "stale" puns if these guys ever cool off. This fall, Her Majesty's French Fry tours Europe and pieces together a new album. The Mercury Music Prize winner will be announced on September 5.
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