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They'll give you a jolt

Hot Chip's plugged-in act defies genres. One thing is certain: It gets fans moving.

June 16, 2007|Richard Cromelin | Times Staff Writer

AMONG other things, the annual Coachella festival is about discovering artists with unexpected prowess and promise. Arcade Fire used the platform in Indio to emphatically announce its arrival in 2005, and although the competition was thick this year, with the Klaxons and Silversun Pickups making impressions, the consensus winner of the "Did you see that?" prize was Hot Chip.

A critically praised but fairly low-profile maker of what's been called "bedroom electronica," the London band shook the Mojave Tent with its forceful attack and unusual configuration of five musicians, each manning a synthesizer.

"It certainly felt like a great moment that we'll remember," Hot Chip's co-founder Joe Goddard said this week. "You could kind of feel that straight after the show."

Added co-leader Alexis Taylor: "I don't think we really felt it was that different from any other show on that trip. But I guess people hadn't seen us for a while, and not on that scale maybe, and it was the first time for a lot of audience members to see the band play.

"And also we don't really sound much like the other bands that were on the same bill. It did sound radically different from the Fratellis, who were on before us.... If you just come on immediately after that with a whole front row of synthesizers, dance music, all of those things can work for people, they're quite surprised by it."

But it wasn't just the surprise and it wasn't just the sonic aggression. Hot Chip seemed to embody a key moment of transition in the pop-music landscape, one in which old divisions among electronic and traditional music and the audience are dissolved in a molten, melodic glow.

Hot Chip was back in town Wednesday to headline at the Henry Fonda Theater, and the odd couple at its helm -- the bearded, bear-like Goddard and his slight, bookish friend Taylor, both 27 -- sat in an upstairs lounge before the show and that proposition.

"I never think in those terms, those divisions," Taylor said. "Everything that we've ever set out to do together has been about blending different styles of music, happily taking things from one place and throwing it in with something from somewhere completely different.

"But I think in the last few years there's been a bit of a trend of putting elements of dance and hip-hop instrumentation into more of a rock setup," Taylor said. "Everywhere we go now there's bands playing that have drum pads as well as a drum kit, and so on. People are more open to these combined sounds, I guess."

Said Goddard: "I think even though there is this kind of lowering of boundaries, sometimes we've felt that people don't really know what they're supposed to do at our shows. There's a kind of messiness we have in our music kind of deliberately. At times it's inspired by Miles Davis fusion stuff. We want there to be a kind of craziness.

"And sometimes I think people look at us and think, 'Well they're making dance music, but it's too messy. Why have they done that?' And other people might go to see us because they like the fey, indie kind of sweet elements of what we do, and they get annoyed by the fact that there's these pounding bass drums. So I think sometimes we kind of fall in between."

The capacity crowd of 1,300 at the Fonda that night didn't seem confused, dancing happily and responding heartily to the powerful attack, which has more rock urgency than electronic regimentation because the musicians are playing live and in real time, rather than simply triggering sequenced patterns a la Kraftwerk.

There was always an electric guitar and often some live conga drums and other percussion lacing the electronic wall, and the rapport on stage reflected the group's organic makeup.

Goddard and Taylor have been collaborating since they met as schoolboys at age 16, and they've known their bandmates Owen Clarke, Felix Martin and Al Doyle for several years.

"We like the idea of surrounding ourselves with friends, very old friends in the case of the rest of the band," said Goddard. "We want people to be able to develop their own parts and feel like they have the freedom to do that, and what you get from that is a bit more passion on stage, and you get this sense of fun."

Hot Chip also challenged its audience, playing several songs from its new album, which is nearly completed and will come out probably early next year. It's already been more than a year since its acclaimed second album, "The Warning," was released, and the group had simply grown tired of playing so much old material.

The Fonda audience never lost interest, but it responded most strongly to familiar favorites from "The Warning" and most enthusiastically during "And I Was a Boy From School," with its evocative, soaring refrain, "We try, but we didn't have long / We try, but we didn't belong."

This reflection on the elusive emotions of youth, perhaps Hot Chip's most fully realized hybrid of plaintive vocal, sweet melody and electronic sweep, underscores the importance of fundamental songwriting craft in the group's appeal.

"It is from genuine experience, but it's not specific enough to detail much of the story," said Taylor, who admires such lean writers as Willie Nelson and Raymond Carver.

"It's like a very nostalgic song," he said. "I was just thinking about going to school with Joe ... and about some girl I liked at school probably, and just trying to fit all those things together and think about where I was at that point.... Anyone could feel like that, slightly sad about where they are right now, looking back on how they got there."

richard.cromelin@latimes.com

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