HOT CHIP with THE MAGIC at Sound Academy (11 Polson), Sunday (July 15). 8pm. $25-$35. RT, SS, TM. See listing.
What's the first name that comes to mind when you read the words "power ballad"? Mariah? Céline? Hot Chip?
London-based electro-pop outfit Hot Chip have become an increasingly reliable source of heartwarming pop ballads, a fact that band co-leader Alexis Taylor says is lost on music scribes who fixate on the eccentricities and spastic silliness of their earlier material.
A fan of sad songs and waltzes by the likes of Willie Nelson, Will Oldham, Bob Dylan, R. Kelly and Prince, Taylor is one of the most unassuming belters on today's pop landscape.
"It's as if people don't notice that side of [our music] that much, whereas I feel like it's coming out really explicitly," he says over the phone from his home in London. "Maybe I don't really understand what it is we're doing, or maybe we're not doing it quite how I think we're doing it.
"I get the most from music when it's sad and affecting," he adds. "I'm not sure what it is or why it touches a nerve. It's a hard thing to put your finger on, and yet it's visceral at the same time. It actually makes you break down. I like that a lot, and that's what I try to get out in my own music."
That earnestness is essential to the band's songwriting, even though it's been hard to categorize "the Hot Chip sound." The quintet has gone from playfully riffing on R&B and soul conventions on their 2005 debut, Coming On Strong, to the hooky left-field pop of their Grammy-nominated 2006 breakthrough The Warning, to serious detours into techno, electro and folk in recent years and the more streamlined - yet persistently peculiar - pop of their fifth album, In Our Heads (Domino).
More than any of their previous albums, it's the one on which Taylor's understated falsetto and co-songwriter Joe Goddard's burly baritone flow most melodiously across their pulsating mix of escapist dance beats, uplifting choruses, zany lyrical non sequiturs and melancholic balladry.
Many pop artists falter attempting to emulate youthfulness as they get older. Hot Chip, refreshingly, prefer to keep it age-appropriate, extolling the virtues and tackling the complexities of long-term love in songs like Look At Where We Are and These Chains.
All the band members are in long-term relationships. Taylor has a three-year-old, and Goddard has a one-year-old and one-month-old, making it tricky for the band, which also includes guitarist Owen Clarke, programmer/keyboardist Felix Martin and multi-instrumentalist Al Doyle, to juggle musical commitments and family obligations.
"Definitely there's a push and pull in the lyrics," explains Taylor. "There's quite a lot of talk about striving toward something rather than everything being as it should be.
"Whatever comes out of my way of expressing myself is always affected by the fact that it's in combination with Joe's songwriting," he continues. "The music we make together is never going to be one-dimensional. The sentiment in each song is quite confused - more confused than if it were written by just one person."
The emotional complexity in Hot Chip's lyrics is mirrored in the music's eclecticism, something the band works toward by tossing contradictory elements into the mix as they're composing. If a bass line starts to sound, say, too disco, the band will cook up something to counteract its retro quality.
"We get uncomfortable when anything sounds too conventional," says programmer and synth player Martin in a separate interview. "If a song starts to sound too much like a polished dance track, we put weird guitar in it or do something that wasn't meant to be there. We're quite perverse in that way."
He points to the epic seven-minute dance track Flutes, one of In Our Heads' most euphoric numbers, as an example. Its repetitive rhythm is structured like a Balearic house track, but as it progresses it encompasses aerobic chanting, spacey synths, drum breakdowns and woodblock percussion over pop verses.
Of all the tracks on the album, it's the most influenced by the members' experiences as DJs.
"We've got back into understanding the dynamics of really good dance records and letting them have an influence, albeit a subtle influence, on the kind of pop music we're making," says Martin.
In the past year, Hot Chip have splintered into several side projects that helped inform the recording of In Our Heads in various ways. Taylor put together the improvisational band About Group, Goddard is one-half of house revivalist duo the 2 Bears, and Martin and Doyle formed the band New Build.
Taylor's interest in improv plays out in Hot Chip through those weird guitar and piano solos that help disrupt the pop orderliness.
"There are things about the tracks that I don't really understand still, which I quite like," he says. "Flutes is one of my favourites, and yet when we were making it I was thinking it was good but kind of unfocused because it doesn't really have a chorus of any kind; it doesn't have verses in a regular way. It just seems to be quite unorthodox. Now I like that."
On that track, the first song composed for the album, Taylor wrote and sang his part in half an hour after Goddard had sent him the music. Any changes after that were minor. He says that quick way of working was essential to the album's evenness of tone despite its odd flourishes.
"That's part of the reason it's still hard to know exactly what the song is doing, despite its working - if that makes sense," Taylor says. "It's not something I spent a long time poring over. It was quite a natural process of writing."
That kind of intuitive shorthand only comes from familiarity. Taylor and Goddard have known each other since their early teens. Before he joined the band, Martin had met Taylor in a record shop when he was 19, and knew Doyle even before that.
Both Taylor and Martin consider In Our Heads to be "quite clearly" Hot Chip's best album. So how is it they all continue to work so well together?
"We have an underpinning respect for each other's opinions. Without that, it's hard to make suggestions and accept it when you don't get your own way," offers Martin. "When you trust that someone else's judgment might be right, you have a partnership that can work over a long period.
"More often than not, when people aren't willing to respect one another, they have to stop working together." And then, adopting a wry tone, he adds, "We probably will get to that one day, won't we?"