A small man in big glasses is hunched over a keyboard. His audience, an assembly of sombre hipsters packing out a sticky loft in a Hackney bar, east London, nod along in silence. His voice quavers out from the gloom as he sings a string of ballads, broken up occasionally with some self-deprecating rapport. “Some of you might know this one,” he blinks. “And I was a boy from school…”
Alexis Taylor, the frontman of electropop crowd-pleasers Hot Chip, is having his melancholy phase. Fans of the group in all their fresh, disco-friendly glory might be a little perturbed when faced with their main man’s new direction. More lovelorn teenager than dance music pioneer. Certainly some in that east London crowd appeared bemused, swaying along to the pared-down version of “Boy from School” – free of the wiry, synthy bounce of the original 2006 Hot Chip hit.
The singer is touring his new solo album, Piano, which was released in June. It’s a departure from his previous solo records as well as Hot Chip. Piano is a raw, introspective album that simply consists of his voice and a piano. No loops. No samples. No perky basslines. No robot voice croaking enigmatic instructions; a goofy Hot Chip trademark.
Instead, it’s a hotchpotch of original music written by Taylor, reworks of songs he’s done with various bands and projects in the past, like Hot Chip and About Group, and a handful of covers. Original songs on the album, such as “I Never Lock That Door” and “In the Light of the Room”, are compelling for their country-inspired crooning, though there’s no obvious genre.
Photo: Guy Bolongaro
A few weeks after his gig, we meet in the lobby of an arty north London hotel – all mismatched furniture, naked lightbulbs, and Penguin Classics. Taylor, 36, lives down the road from here with his wife and young daughter. We have a cup of tea while he waits to pick her up from primary school.
He perches on the edge of a sofa, sipping his Earl Grey. His appearance is at odds with his shy manner. He wears a fluorescent pink Snoopy sweater declaring “Surf’s Up!”, thick-framed oversized glasses, and his pink-and-white striped gym socks poke out from camel suede boots.
Taylor grew up southwest of here in Chiswick – a leafy outpost of west London suburbia. It was there where he first sat down at a piano, aged seven. His parents arranged for him to have lessons. Both read music, as did his grandmother, but he was equally inspired by his uncle who lived nearby.
“He knew how to play really well, but he didn’t really read music,” Taylor recalls. “I was just as influenced by this idea of basically making it up, if you’ve got an idea.”
It was at this uncle’s piano where he and his songwriting partner Joe Goddard recorded one of their first Hot Chip songs, when they were still at school. “It didn’t get much of an official release,” he grins. Only ten copies of the album containing this early song existed, handed out to Taylor and Goddard’s friends, with hand-made covers.
Although just one CD of this forgotten album, called Breoke Summ, remains (in Taylor’s house), its piano track was the first of countless songs he wrote and recorded on a piano. He sees Piano as a continuation of elements of his work for Hot Chip; a lot of their fourth studio album (of six), One Life Stand (2010), was written by Taylor on his Steinway at home. And a much earlier song, “My Piano”, is an ode to the process of writing music on a piano.
“We’ve been known as an electronic act really, but actually we’ve recorded using a lot of acoustic instruments as part of what we do, forever,” he says. “Percussion, guitars, pianos, woks with water in them – anything acoustic was just as interesting to us as programmes or electronic music.”
Photo: Guy Bolongaro
Taylor has mainly played keyboard in Hot Chip, but then switched to an electric grand piano on stage. “I’ve always chosen things like that over a synthetic or a digital substitute.”
He has a similarly traditional attitude towards lyrics. Although Piano’s ballads are a far cry from his dance music, there is the same vulnerability in his songwriting for Hot Chip. Fans will note slow numbers like “Look After Me” and “In The Privacy of Our Love”.
“There’s loads of similarity, because of the melancholic elements in the Hot Chip songs,” he says. “The words I sing in Hot Chip [are] very exposed. They’re not just an upbeat chorus. They’re not a catchphrase that exists over dance music in order to just make people come together and feel good.
“I feel just as exposed when I’m singing a Hot Chip song, because the lyrics are very confessional or introspective. They’re all about intimacy and deep connections to other people and to music, and that’s just the same as in the piano music.”
Taylor’s close friend and long-time musical collaborator, Vince Sipprell, died by suicide while Taylor was making Piano. Although he had written most of the songs beforehand, he says, “the mood of it feels for me while I listen to it quite clouded by his absence from my life”. He included a version of “Just for a Little While”, a song written by Sipprell’s older brother, on the album in tribute.
Tied to other painful memories are songs like “Repair Man”, which he wrote years ago. “That was about being in a relationship and it being broken in some way and trying to repair it. So that’s from a particular emotional place.” It also reminds him of his father playing John Lennon’s apologetic lament “Woman” on the piano when Taylor was a child. “My dad was singing it when my parents broke up. I started crying when he was playing it,” he recalls.
Photo: Stuart Leech
Taylor has also had more recent angst to contend with. He was one of 300 high-profile UK creatives to sign an open letter against leaving the European Union before the referendum. He appears quietly devastated about the result.
“Terrible. Terrible,” he sighs. “It makes me think about leaving, but I don’t know if that’s really helpful – better to stay put, try and change things. I don’t think I’ve ever felt like that before . . . I just feel like I can’t really understand why people would be separate in this way. I just find it demoralising. It just feels sad to be separate cultures.
“It’s been depressing enough, this Tory government, it’s very worrying that Donald Trump may become President. It just makes me think people are valuing stupidity and aggression – I suppose that happens in times of [difficulty] . . . I do feel depressed by this state of things.”
Although Taylor says his head is usually in music rather than politics, he did have hopes for the new Labour leadership. “I felt supportive of Jeremy Corbyn, as were many people, but he hasn’t seemed to be very good at doing what he’s trying to do, so…” he trails off.
Britain’s music industry has faced more localised adversity with the iconic London nightclub Fabric closing down. Taylor finds it “really sad that any club space closes at all that is a place to celebrate music”, and has DJed at many such venues.
“Dance music goes hand-in-hand with drug-taking, so I can’t really talk with any experience about that,” says Taylor, who doesn’t take drugs. “But I can say that to close a club doesn’t really seem to deal with the idea that somebody could get hold of those drugs elsewhere. And it just pushes people away from a place where they could come together with other people.”
But he does admit his lack of enthusiasm for big clubs, finding them “quite claustrophobic, or intimidating. It’s not really my natural environment.” I get the impression he’d rather be at home of an evening, tinkering around on his piano.
Taylor has recently been writing some new Hot Chip material; he was up just the night before, working with a drum machine. “There’s a soul sound, we’ve always liked soul music,” he reveals. But it will be a while before their next album.
Does he ever clash with bandmates over his tendency towards heart-breaking over floor-filling? “I think very occasionally we’ve had that tension,” he admits. “I’m a songwriter and producer of music who’s made just as much music that’s slow and sad as the opposite . . . what Joe is most inspired by is dance music, and what I’m most inspired by is more songwriting, I suppose, that isn’t necessarily to do with dance music.
“I don’t really know how to make dance music on my own; I don’t think I’m good at that.”
Alexis Taylor’s new album Piano was released by Moshi Moshi in June. He is performing with Scritti Politti at the Barbican’s Rough Trade 40 collaboration night, celebrating 40 years since the opening of the first Rough Trade shop. Barbican Hall, Saturday 22 October 2016. Tickets £20 – 27.50 plus booking fee.