Don't Write for the Barbarians

Hot Chip singer Alexis Taylor explains why he tries to forget critics—and his own self-consciousness—when creating.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Claire Messud, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

Alexis Taylor, one of two frontmen for the acclaimed British electro-pop group Hot Chip, has struck out on his own again with his second full-length solo record, Await Barbarians. The album’s title is an overt reference to a poem, published in 1904, by C. P. Cavafy—the Greek Alexandrian journalist and poet whose work focused on eros, nostalgia, classical myths, and Ancient Greece. In our interview for this series, Taylor explained how “Waiting for the Barbarians” helps inform his musical approach. We discussed his appreciation for the subconscious, unpolished, and unpredictable aspects of songwriting; his resolve not to cater to the mercurial tastes of critics; and why he writes only for himself.

Await Barbarians is a pure solo record in the vein of Paul McCartney’s Ram or Stevie Wonder’s Music of My Mind; Taylor wrote and recorded the whole thing on his own, playing and producing every instrument. It's a clear departure from Hot Chip's familiar brand of glittery, amped-up grooves: Twelve intimate, down-tempo numbers swell with melancholy synths, grand piano, and the fluttering, aching presence of Taylor’s voice.  

Alexis Taylor spoke to me by phone.

Every Saturday morning, when I was a child, my grandmother used to give us Greek lessons. It was an attempt to keep us—me and my brothers—in contact with that part of our heritage, though it never led to us being any good at Greek. She gave us poetry as part of her lessons, sometimes—and some of them really stuck with me. I was still very young when she gave me C. P. Cavafy’s “Waiting for the Barbarians” for the first time. As a famous Greek poet and cultural figure, he was someone my family really admired. My dad used to have—still has—a David Hockney sketch of Cavafy hanging on the wall of the house where I grew up.

“Waiting for the Barbarians” takes the form of a series of questions and answers, as you see in the opening lines:

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn’t anything happening in the senate?
Why do the senators sit there without legislating?

            Because the barbarians are coming today.
            What laws can the senators make now?
            Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.

Even in my earliest encounters with the poem, I found Cavafy’s use of repetition striking. Each time the poem’s speaker asks “why this,” or “why that,” the answer follows: “Because the barbarians are coming today.” The questions function almost like verses, and the answers are like choruses—responses that recur again and again. It’s quite musical in its way, and beautifully simple in its construction. The pattern of the poem is simple enough for a child to appreciate, as I did—even if the larger meaning remains more mysterious.

Cavafy depicts a society structuring its every effort around the arrival of a group of outsiders. All the legislative and civic proceedings are influenced by this imminent appearance. The legislators don’t don’t do their jobs, because everything will change once the barbarians arrive. The rich wear their finest jewels to try to please them. The orators keep silent because barbarians are bored by public speaking. But these barbarians don’t come in the end, and all their preparations are in vain. The final line—“They were, these people, a kind of solution”—suggests that society perhaps needs the barbarians, or the idea of them, as much as they don’t want them to appear. The interaction with this alien or foreign or barbaric element, threatening at all times to come, is what gives their lives meaning.

Beyond this, the poem resists easy interpretation. You can read it in many different ways: as a meditation on politics, maybe, or the motivating force of fear within society. Personally, I read “Waiting for the Barbarians” as about preparing for the arrival of what you can’t control. Life is like that: Things show up when we don’t expect them to, or don’t show up when we do expect them to. Nothing develops in ways we can predict. So if you’re structuring your life around the anticipation of what will come later—well, be prepared that things will play out differently than you expect.

This is the idea I was playing with when I lifted the line for my song “Without a Crutch,” which references Cavafy’s poem directly. In some ways, it’s a song about songwriting, deliberating about how much of your life you should put into your music. The line “I don’t await barbarians / Who never leave their maskings on” is about the critics, or the general public. No artist can know in advance how other people will respond to their work. You make art on your own terms, with an understanding of what’s going on in your own heart—but other people come at it fresh, without a sense of everything that went into it. That’s why, once the work leaves that personal realm, you no longer have any control. You wait for the reception to your music—but like Cavafy’s barbarians, you can’t anticipate what form that arrival will take. When I say “I don’t await barbarians,” it’s a resolution to not let myself be judged. I’m not going to await their response, or let that affect the kind of music I try to make. You know, it’s possible to let the anticipation of criticism pervert their entire art. You can try to second-guess what will or won’t play well with the critics or the public. You can structure everything all you do around your expectations for that moment of arrival—when the critics weigh in, when the barbarians come. I don’t want to let control what I create, because you still never know what will arrive—maybe nothing will arrive at all. It’s best to stay true to your own pure intentions.

For me, it’s a pleasure to release music into the world. It’s enjoyable to play gigs and play these songs, which are quite personal. When you people come up to you to say how powerful certain songs have been in their lives, that’s very rewarding. But there’s another side to it. Something that’s happened to me quite often with my most personal music, with the things I’m most proud of, is that people will try to destroy it. Or say it’s meaningless, or of no worth. That kind of revealing yourself to the public is a little bit disheartening. You hope that the people who supposedly represent an intelligent response to music, the journalists, will try to enter the music, and not just trash it. You put so much of yourself into making the work that you expect someone else to give a lot back towards it. But that won’t always happen. It’s just the nature of the beast, so you can’t change what you do to suit it. You might do everything in your power to please the barbarians, and then they don’t arrive.

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Joe Fassler is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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