Hot Chip's Owen Clarke on A Bath Full of Ecstasy
Ahead of the release of their new album, A Bath Full of Ecstasy, we catch up with Hot Chip multi-instrumentalist Owen Clarke
For a band that makes such jubilant, emphatic music, Hot Chip have made it through their career in fairly unassuming fashion, curating a string of consistently fantastic records that have dabbled in electro-indie, synth-pop and even dance/house, while never straying far from a signature 'Hot Chip' sound. Since their second and third albums (The Warning and Made in the Dark) made them household names with a string of hits including Over and Over, Boy from School and Ready for the Floor, they've been flying somewhat under the radar, despite critical plaudits and a cult following for their immersive, original live performances.
Having just completed a month of touring in the US/UK ("a good innings") and with a new album on the way, the band are taking a little break before a packed summer/autumn schedule. However, Owen Clarke (synthesiser/bass/guitar) has more domestic concerns on his mind when we catch up with him on a gorgeous May afternoon. "I have this jacket that I've been wearing on tour," he begins, ready to spin a yarn, "and I've washed it, and it's shrunk." There's an uncertain pause that belies his concern for the jacket's future. "I've had the rubber gloves on, going inside and out with the bleach to try and fudge a new copy, but I think I might've been a little too... not shy... but timid with the bleach. Anyway, it's my problem to deal with... so that's been my morning. How're you?" It's a charming introduction, a homely scene that fits perfectly with the group's quaint image and seeming inability to take themselves too seriously (see also: their barnstorming cover of Beastie Boys' Sabotage in recent sets).
The band have also been airing new material on tour, a process that "makes the songs come alive... they feel like they're yours again, after the long, fragmented process of recording, editing, mastering and everything else." Having to reconfigure and practise for live shows also helps to see how new material fits in with the older stuff. "One thing we're noticing is with songs that start quiet, on record you can [restart] each time, but during a live set you have to think about where you've got to in the previous song and how you're gonna get into the next one. Melody of Love is good for that because the focus on the vocal feels very intimate at first, before it really gets going."
However, tour life is not without its perils, especially in the US; "I think I've gained some weight... they just do calories very differently out there; it's powerful stuff," before a lightbulb realisation: "Maybe I sweated some of it off in the desert [at a show in Pioneertown] and that's why the jacket shrunk!"
The aforementioned new album, A Bath Full of Ecstasy, leans into the band's club-ready tendencies, exemplified by lead single Hungry Child, with its slick bassline and punchy melody, and backed up by other certified indie-ravers like Melody of Love and Positive. But why a Bath full of ecstasy? "Well, it could've been a shit-ton or a tankerful, some sort of excessive amount (which a bath is), but it's a little more domestic, or attainable. There's also the idea that you can immerse yourself in it – it's too much and just enough.
"It's also kind of stupid – I don't mean stupid! – but it's situation dependant, it's hard to carry a bath full of stuff around (or that much ecstasy), it seems like both a small amount and a big amount... you wouldn't need much more." Tying himself in verbal knots, Clarke encapsulates the apparent ambiguity in the title, along with the nebulous imagery it conjures in the mind's eye: "It's ridiculous and kind of accurate, it's a stupid amount but it's the right amount, it's particular without being specific."
The idea that the word 'ecstasy' might not be universally appropriate only dawned on him when talking to a member of their merch team who mentioned that some people maybe don't want to buy clothes with 'ecstasy' written on it; "It hadn't really occurred to us. We weren't being naïve, we know it could be a drug reference, or a feeling. We just found it quite playful. It's probably not a literal bath of ecstasy, that would be punishable by prison, that much..." Clarke trails away, seemingly pondering the legal ramifications of a literal tub of mandy.
For the album, the band brought in outside producers, Philippe Zdar and Rodaidh McDonald, for the first time. "It's not a groundbreaking idea: 'Band goes into studio with producer' – not exactly a headline, but for us it was a big change." Fighting the old adage of 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' against the fear of creative stagnation can be a tricky line to walk, but there seems to be enough awareness in Hot Chip that you can shake things up without throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater (or the ecstasy).
"If you get five people in a room doing the same thing for years and years, you'll inevitably get similar results," Clarke explains. "But we go away between records and do different things; solo records, DJing, other projects, it gives you space to experiment and bring ideas back to the band. When you're in a band, there are certain itches that you can't scratch with the group, but the same is true with solo stuff, so you bring back ideas you think will work there and keep other things for a different project.
"We've been rattling along for quite a while [almost 20 years!] and we've got the things that we're into. Between the five (or six or seven) of us, there's enough going on that we all have ideas, but we do have our sound. So it was good to work with someone else who approaches things in a different way. We weren't trying to go into the woods and clang things together and find a 'new sound', but we were trying to challenge ourselves."
An outside perspective can sometimes give that creative jolt that musicians need every once in a while: "Having someone else come in just shakes up what you're doing – it's good to have someone there to say 'I like that guitar or synth part you did, but the structure's wrong'. No one in the band is going to pipe up in the midst of recording good stuff and say that. It's quite hard to say that to your friends. I'm not saying [the album] was created from conflict, but there was this sense of new, unfamiliar ideas being shared. Sometimes they seem super obvious, but unless you've got someone else saying it, it can't really happen.
"There's a lot more killer intention [on A Bath Full of Ecstasy]. Having a new producer makes you go for things a lot more directly. Sometimes we think something sounds too much like this, or we could do this another way – which is still present – but there was more of an inclination to really go for what we wanted, whether that's a Vangelis motif or a bit of reggae or something we'd heard on an Al Green record."
Despite the generally euphoric arrangements, Alexis Taylor's lyricism feels more personal than usual, threading a melancholy streak through the album that doesn't just revel in the good times, but details the struggle to reach those points: "There's a lot of stuff about reflection, redemption, it's quite introspective, but the lyrics do get offset by having something joyous or 'up' behind it. It's a thing we've always been into, in a similar way to Smalltown Boy [by Bronski Beat] or old disco records, where [the music] makes the sadness sadder or the happy moments more beatific. I think it comes together nicely on this record."
And with that understated confidence, Clarke seems lifted once again, ready to take on the world, or at least his jacket woes. After wishing him well on his quest for appropriately-fitting concert attire he states defiantly, "don't worry, it's definitely going to be ready for the next tour."
A Bath Full of Ecstasy is released on 21 Jun via Domino
Hot Chip play Playground Festival, Rouken Glen Park, Glasgow, 4 Aug