Don't Write for the Barbarians

By Joe Fassler

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. 

On another level, I see Cavafy’s poem as a metaphor for the unconscious, the subconscious feelings—mysterious, frightening, powerful—that are totally unpredictable. The barbarians represent the forces we can’t fully control. Writing music, I try to tap into that uncertainty. I try to allow things to happen that I don’t control in any conscious way. I like ideas that come without too much deliberate construction, especially ideas that come in dreams. And a lot of my songs are written at the moment of recording. Often, lyrics come as I’m recording them, rather than being pre-written. The same with melodies, actually, and chord structures. That’s quite important to me: allowing the unconscious to have its say, as it were.

Of course, one’s relationship to unconscious ideas changes the moment you start recording—the process becomes more conscious the moment you commit anything to tape. But there’s still a possibility you can resist the temptation to over-analyze what you’re doing as you do it. That’s something that I’ve always tried for in Hot Chip and outside Hot Chip: allowing the first thing you record to be part of the finished song, rather than changing things or ironing them out.

I think that’s why the earliest recordings of a song, or of individual performances within a song, are often the best. The second version of “Without a Crutch,” which appears as the final track on the album, was the earliest version of the song I recorded. And the vocal take is by far the best one I did. When I listen to it, it’s clear it’s just much more affecting than any other version I tried to make. The natural, relaxed delivery was captured nicely in the recording, and it makes the whole song more emotionally resonant. It may not be the most glossy, high-end recording, but it had a certain feeling I couldn’t capture again in any future takes. The song has the potential to sound jaunty in the chorus, but that version sounded very sad to me—and that was the point of the song. It’s a sad piece, about how some things seep into songs which are too close to the bone, too painful for other people or yourself to really be included in there—and yet you do it anyway. So I wanted to keep that melancholy version, and not disregard it just because the audio was a bit hissy and demo-like. The whole record is a bit like that—I looked for compelling performances, not the best sound. One person’s demo is another person’s finished record. 

I listen to a lot of demos and outtakes and b-sides and things. I don’t always think those things are better, but there’s often something very intimate about a first take. On Await Barbarians, most of my vocal recordings are a first take. For “Elvis Has Left the Building,” the vocal and the piano came together simultaneously and were recorded in one day. Rather than reprocessing them, trying them again, or fixing them, or tuning them, or any of those things, those initial performances made it to the finished version we released.

I think Hot Chip works that way as well. Most of the vocals on Hot Chip songs were first takes, too. And they get edited, if they need to, but they don’t get replaced. We’ve never been the people who go back and do all the vocals at the end, in one day, to get consistency. Even in recent Hot Chip records we tend to record the bassline or the Rhodes part from start to finish, not in a piecemeal way. It’s about capturing a live performance, even if we’re known as an electronic act. We all believe there’s something to be said for retaining a first-take feel. And we try to capture performances first and foremost, rather than the highest-quality audio we can use. 

There’s a kind of magic when you don’t yet know what a song is going to become, or what it’s going to be about, in the moments you’ve first written it. It’s still fresh to you. You’re trying to understand the song as you perform it, and that’s important—it allows for a kind of mystery and depth and openness of expression. Sometimes, when you start to feel you understand a song fully, you can’t invest the same emotion. That’s a feeling I try to avoid. I’d much rather capture something that feels interesting and unusual to me—trying to understand better, while I’m doing it—than wait until it’s really settled in.

I think Neil Young—who I listened to a lot while I made this record—often demonstrates this approach. And most of his records, it sounds like the vocal is a live vocal, sung as he and the band play together. He doesn’t sound like someone who goes back again and again to fix everything. At the same time, he’s interesting in recording things really well. That’s quite an interesting balance. Most people would record really well and they’d try to get this faultless performance. With Neil Young, the performances can have faults in them, but they’ve got to be captured with high-end audio equipment. On a record like Zuma, you can hear his voice is not always the same distance from the mic throughout a song. That’s because he’s moving while he’s playing guitar. I love that sound, but not many other people make records that way. A lot of musicians take quite an artificial approach, moving away from the documentation of a live performance. Neil Young mostly tries to capture the feel and sound of a band playing in a room. And so he leaves in the bum notes that happen, here or there. 

At the same time, interesting things can also happen as you move away from the original. Some songs develop on stage, and as you’re playing them, they become something else. That’s the mark of a good song as well, the ones you don’t get tired of playing, that can be reconstructed or rethought. “Made in the Dark,” a song I wrote and recorded with Hot Chip, is a song I’ve been playing in my solo gigs with the band of people I’m on tour with. The song has come a long way from the initial demo, as well as the initial album version. It’s still the same words and the same chords, but it’s developed into a better groove. I love that it’s something I can still be interested in, and other people can connect to, years and year later. But there aren’t that many Hot Chip songs that we all agree we want to play, or feel excited about in the same way. Many of them fall by the wayside quickly, and others sound great on the old record but they aren’t something we know how to play live now.

It’s depends on each session, really. If you have a demo already, and you have an idea of what you want the song to be, and then you go play it with other people, and they don’t understand what you had in mind, or you don’t tell them how you want them to do it, the song is always going to turn into something else. The best music that I make with other people happens when I don’t know what the song is meant to be before I bring it in. It’s all happening for the first time with that group of people. If I construct a demo first at home, I tend to never be able to get away from the demo version. It’s an annoying problem—you get tied to what you had in your mind for the song. A bandmate might try something really different from the original—but even if it’s brilliant, but you won’t be able to see it because you’re so attached to the demo. So it’s more fun to do the work entirely on your own, or to work with other people in a truly collaborative way where you don’t have it all mapped out. 

In that way, the collaborative music can be surprising and interesting and refreshing. My musical relationship with Joe [Goddard] from Hot Chip has always been fun, even after how many years we’ve been doing it, sitting in rooms together. Because I’m always strung along by his ideas, and I come up with things in the room that he hasn’t heard before. It helps to write songs and make something new—and on your own, you can’t really have that. 

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/07/dont-write-for-the-barbarians/375010/