Hot Chip on Working With Late Producer Philippe 'Zdar' Cerboneschi

Ronald Dick
Hot Chip

In the world of modern French house music, Philippe "Zdar" Cerboneschi wasn't just a key player -- he was the headmaster of the movement. The producer made tragic headlines last week when it was reported he accidentally fell out of the window of a Paris building and died on June 20. Sadder still is that he was only a couple of days away from one of the biggest weekends of his career, involving the release of a new LP from his longtime outfit Cassius called Dreems, as well as an anticipated appearance as part of a French music festival in Central Park.

Zdar had another reason to celebrate this past weekend, as it marked the release of the excellent new album from Hot Chip, A Bath Full of Ecstasy, with which he played a key role as co-producer alongside future-soul astro traveler Rodaidh McDonald (the xx, Sampha). The English synth-pop group quickly took to social media and expressed their sorrow over the news of their friend's passing.

"Hearing of the death of Philippe Zdar has left us stunned and immensely sad," they wrote on Facebook. "He was a kind, open and endlessly enthusiastic man who brought happiness to everyone around him."

You can hear the joy Hot Chip associates with Zdar across the majority of A Bath Full of Ecstasy, their seventh LP and third for English indie powerhouse Domino Records. For Joe Goddard, who along with Alexis Taylor makes up the nucleus of the Hot Chip sound, the opportunity to work with the producer was a bucket list moment.

"Oh Philippe, I've been a fan of most of the stuff he's been involved with for a long time," Goddard tells Billboard. "He produced the last Beastie Boys record [2011's Hot Sauce Committee Part Two], which was massive, and also Phoenix and Cat Power. I love that his beginnings were in hip-hop making beats for MC Solaar. As part of Cassius, he is headmaster of the French school of modern house music. And for Bath, he really helped us with the sonics of this record. He's a really passionate and positive kind of guy, and he played a big part in helping us gain the confidence to make this album something slightly more epic and more powerful sounding than anything we've done."

For Hot Chip and Zdar, their common ground lead them to a heavy '80s vibe on A Bath Full of Ecstasy, an embracement of a sense of neon jubilation that sounds more directly pop than anything the group has crafted in their 20-plus years together.

"Vince Clarke in the early days of Depeche Mode and Erasure for sure," Goddard admits when asked about some of the classic '80s albums which might have seeped into the creative process during the recording of Bath. "To me, that stuff is as well written as a Motown record. He's such a fantastic pop songwriter as well. Bernard Sumner as well. And it's funny, 'cause when I was growing up as a teenager, some of that '80s music I considered to be kinda cheesy or something. Now, as an adult, when I go back to that, there's some fantastic stuff there. But in terms of what we were listening to, it's hard to put a finger on one specific group for the whole album. It's more like small references on each track. But I do love that Trevor Horn production, those glossy, powerful sounds he has on his records, which we try to aim for always."

However, Goddard believes they circumvented the danger of '80s overload by tempering that urge with a healthy diet of modern nightlife music.

"There's also tracks on here that are more hip-hop and R&B influenced, like the sound of The Neptunes on the song 'Echo' in which I wanted a little bit of their production style," he explains. "We are also out there DJing quite a lot on the weekends, and picking up a lot of new dance records to spin and try to keep our finger on that side of what's going on in modern electronic music as well."

And for Hot Chip, it was the input of McDonald that helped keep the album one foot in the next decade of dance. In fact, it was through their rapport with the xx that they were able to connect with the producer for this LP, not to mention coming off the heels of a project that directly catered to this outfit's Talking Heads-evoking hearts.

"We toured with the xx a while ago in the States, maybe about 10 years or so ago," Goddard recalls. "We've been friends with them for a while and catch up from time to time. I have a lot of respect for their work and Sampha as well, so Roddy was an obvious choice. It's funny, because he had just come off the back of making a record with David Byrne [American Utopia] as well. We have a lot in common in terms of our musical ideas and references, so we set up a meeting with him and found out he was incredibly good at taking a song demo and cut into the arrangement and strip it back so it's just the essentials of the song. He knows how to keep a song moving, keep a song constantly evolving. He is really good at that pop sensibility, making sure the songs never dipped in energy."

Yet it was Zdar's aforementioned connection with the Beasties that truly established the root of inspiration that ultimately propelled the creative trajectory of A Bath Full of Ecstasy -- especially for Goddard, who is a lifelong fan of Ad-Rock, Mike D and the late, great MCA.

"Philippe was actually working with the Beasties while Adam Yauch was ill, and he said it was an incredibly, incredibly emotional time for all of them, making Hot Sauce Committee," he recollects. "I have so much respect for them, and I went to see them recently when they were doing their book tour, and Ad-Rock and Mike D were such incredibly good, charismatic, funny and interesting guys."

As a matter of fact, those in attendance at Hot Chip's April 29th performance at the Brooklyn club Elsewhere were treated to the group doing a highly faithful cover of "Sabotage" just in time for Ill Communication's 25th anniversary—a rare punk turn from a band who hardly ever kicks it into overdrive.

"It was a super fun, super enjoyable experience," admits Goddard. "And yeah, we just have a deep love of the Beasties that goes back to the early '90s. I remember seeing them at the Brixton Academy in 1995. And their magazine, Grand Royal, was such influential reading at the time with all the stuff about skateboarding and food. They introduced me to a lot of stuff. I remember reading about Lee "Scratch" Perry in that magazine, and Ramen noodles and the Moog. It was just so on point culturally. They are such an important group in our lives, so to be able to do the cover and tip our hats to them, I felt, was the right thing to do."

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