After spearheading this past decade’s nerdy dance pop-movement with his band Hot Chip, Alexis Taylor turns to spontaneous recording with About Group, his new project. We caught up with the ever-polite British singer and musician last Saturday, minutes before his eclectic DJ set at a Los Ninos party in Brussels’ cultural-hub Congres station.
It started about two years ago, we were called About but it turned out another band had that name so we changed it.
How did the collaboration come about?
I made a solo album called Rubbed Out and released it on Treader, which John runs, and that had exclusively released improvised music before. He makes a lot of improvised music himself and he played guitar on two of the tracks on that solo album. We played some music and talked about doing a new record with people we were both interested in, and that was Charles Hayward and Pat Thomas. It was really as simple as that.
The improvisational element seems to be the core of this project, what exactly drew you to do this?
It’s a discipline I had not really been involved with, except maybe improvising within song structures. I had never actually made music where the point of it was just to start with no plan. So that was appealing to me, as a way of trying something new. It wasn’t that I felt trapped and I needed to express myself. It is liberating and quite nerve-wracking as well because you don’t know whether anything you make will sound good.
What’s interesting is that you dived in with people you had never played with before. Was it hard hearing and understanding each other as you played?
That’s definitely the challenge for every gig really, but it’s part of the pleasure, too. To find something that works well and listen to each other. The three other members have been improvising for years, so in a way that was the biggest pressure. I felt new to this, whereas they all knew what they were doing to some extent. When we started, the idea quickly changed from being purely improvised to adding in song elements. We’d have a gig and I would say: “I will sing three of my songs at some point in the gig”, but no one knew when that would happen. We were coming out of wild experimental sections and going into very melodic and sombre melancholic songs and when we hit on that – it’s not ground breaking at all, don’t get me wrong – we felt it was quite unusual to put those two things together. That’s what the new album was about.
It was a really stressful day. Abbey Road is the most prestigious studio and also quite expensive to book. Most people spend months recording an album there and we decided we wanted to have it wrapped in one day. That doesn’t leave much room for error. We started at 11am and finished at 11pm. The songs were completely written, but I had never decided the arrangements and none of the other members had heard them. What’s hard in Abbey Road is the very specific way they like to record. Everyone is far away from each other in the room and fenced off by screens. So most of the time we were in there, I didn’t have any idea if it was going the way it should or if anyone else was happy. But as soon as we finished, we listened to the result and were very pleased with it. The friction coming from the way we recorded was part of what made it work. I feel like it’s one of the best records I’ve been involved with.
Can you describe its sound?
As a band, it’s obviously ever changing. The music is propelled by Charles Hayward’s drumming, which is very complex but sturdy. It’s got a soulful and melodic sound to it, as well as being experimental. This new album is more like a very strange version of a 70s sort of Memphis soul sound. The album is out 18th April and the single comes out 14th March, it’s called You’re No Good.
Like the ESG song?
Yeah, it’s not a cover of that but I love that song. The single is a cover of a soul song that was made by Harvey Averne in 1968, of which Terry Riley did a 20-minute remix – before remixes even existed – the same year. That’s what we’ve covered. But I was thinking of covering the ESG song as well, maybe as a B-side.
What albums/musicians were you listening to whilst writing songs for the album?
John Coxon and I were interested by some early Will Oldham records, when he was under the name Palace. Like Flies on Sherbert by Alex Chilton was an album that we felt captured a real sense of spontaneity in the studio. So we wanted that kind of chaos to be in there.
How does the song writing differ from what you did for Hot Chip?
In some ways it doesn’t differ that much because I wrote a lot of these songs during being with Hot Chip and we even tried some of them. They’re much more close to the ballads that appear on Hot Chip records. I usually write with Joe (Goddard) and some of these I’ve written on my own and left them as simple, unadorned old-fashioned folk songs.
How have the live shows been so far?
We played some gigs at festivals like Meltdown and Glastonbury. It’s been really exciting every time because you’re just constantly reacting very quickly to what’s happening around you. It feels like things are falling away but at the same time forming. I also chose to use a keyboard I’m not that familiar with, so it gave it another additional element of surprise.
Especially after touring for so many years with Hot Chip, performing songs you probably knew by heart and could play blindfolded…
Yeah, like I said in Hot Chip, there’s a joy in repetition but at the same time, there’s also something enjoyable about going against repetition or the idea of a set list.
How has the audience responded so far?
Quite well. At some of our gigs, people came up to us convinced that we knew these songs and that they had been thoroughly rehearsed, which was a bit odd. I also think some people in the audience were a bit confused. There’s no lead instrument, there are long periods with no vocals. I guess that would be different with this new album, whereby we’d find ways of including the songs. We also try and play to audiences where it would hopefully make some sense.
Could you describe the other members?
John Coxon is one of the most enthusiastic and knowledgeable people about music I know. You couldn’t really pin him down to one style, and that’s something I like about him. Charles Hayward is similar in some way. He’s a really solid drummer and is incredibly enthusiastic, optimistic, but also very intense. Pat Thomas is an interesting character, and almost only plays improvised music. He’s an exceptional pianist and really into Sun Ra, and really far out in terms of what he’ll do. He’s got a really infectious laugh too, and a good sense of humour. That said, they’re all, like I am as well, just very serious about what we do.
If About Group were a car, which one would it be?
I don’t know much about cars, but maybe one that is found at a scrap heap and put together from different pieces.
If About Group were a city, which one would it be?
If About Group were a movie star, which one would it be?
If About Group were a colour, which one would it be?
And an animal?
About tonight, how do you prepare, if at all, for your DJ sets?
I try and think about what records I like at the moment and which ones go well with each other. It’s difficult to prepare more when I play abroad because I usually don’t know the club or what kind of crowd goes there, so it’s always a bit of a gamble in a way.
What do you hope to give the crowd?
This may be an unpopular idea, but I don’t try to give them a huge amount of something to look at. Lots of deejays now behave like rock stars and get over-excited about what they’re doing. What I’m doing is putting on music and mixing it together. I don’t feel that there is any use in pretending that something else is happening, so I never know if that’s confusing or annoying to people. I find it maybe easier to look more relaxed when I’m doing it with someone else or maybe if I’m drunk as well.
And what do you hope to get back?
I hope that people will show that they’re enjoying it. And I do care. But I don’t feel like I can get involved too much. It’s not like an art show, there is a real point to a deejay being there: to do his best for the crowd to enjoy themselves.
Can you name three tracks that are sure to make the cut tonight?
One that I just got the other day, an old house tune, Follow Me by Aly-Us. I’ll probably play Anansies Dances by Theo Parrish, which I like a lot. I might play one by Sticky, called Stuck To The Floor.
Did you have a little time to walk around the city at all today?
Yes, I spent the day walking around with my wife and daughter. Tomorrow we’ll go to the flea market in the morning, which we do every time we’re in Brussels.
Any stand outs in Brussels a part from that?
I like the cuisine, a lot of Belgian beers, moules frites, the obvious things. There’s a record shop I go to every time called The Collector Record Gallery.