Hot Chip frontman Alexis Taylor and steel band virtuoso Fimber Bravo tell Tim Hughes about a remarkable  collaboration about to hit Oxford

LIKE all the best combinations, this one really shouldn’t work.

Take one of the biggest and hippest names in electronic dance music and team him up with a veteran steel pan player from Trinidad. The collaboration between Hot Chip frontman Alexis Taylor and steel band virtuoso Fimber Bravo is among the most unlikely unions imaginable... yet the result is magical.

Having contributed tropical backing tones for Hot Chip, Bravo disappeared into the studio with Alexis. They emerged with a remarkable body of work, fusing slick indie-pop and Caribbean warmth. And they are now taking to the road – with a show at East Oxford’s Pegasus youth theatre.

I caught up with the pair on a break from recording in a studio in Dalston, East London.

“We had been playing lots of gigs so it made sense to get together and start making some music,” says Alexis.

For Alexis, whose Grammy and Mercury-nominated band had hits with the songs Over and Over, Ready for the Floor, Boy from School and One Life Stand, the tie-up is not as strange as it first appears. Fimber, a founding member of the 20th Century Steel Band is, after all, responsible for 1975 single Heaven and Hell is on Earth – which has been sampled by everyone from Soul II Soul to Jennifer Lopez, who used the vocal loop on her hit, Jenny from the Block, and has played alongside trip-hoppers Morcheeba.

“We had been looking to make some music with Hot Chip with steel pans as I’d fallen in love with the sound,” Alexis goes on. “It was not just a novelty.”

Now Bravo has finally got round to releasing his first solo album, Con-Fusion, featuring production from Optimo and collaborations with electro-funk-hip hop artist Zongamin, James Savage, dance music producer Mickey Moonlight and South Africa’s Claude Depper. But it is Alexis’ vocal contribution on The Way We Live Today, which is the album’s highpoint – the singer’s sweet vocals gliding over Bravo’s gently rippling steel rhythms.

“I love that song,” says Alexis. “Bravo wrote it in 1985 but we’ve done a new version produced by Joe (Goddard) from Hot Chip. I don’t know how it’s going down, but I like singing it. It’s very direct and doesn’t hide behind anything, and that’s the kind of song I’m drawn towards. It makes more of a grand statement than the songs I write.

“I write about love more than anything political, but this song is more honest, to the point – and beautiful.”

“He’s got the voice!” says Bravo. “He has a gentle, lovely voice. The lyrics are simple and direct, though, and last a long time. The song seems to work.”

For Bravo, the record and the subsequent live shows are all part of his mission to see the steel pan recognised as a serious instrument. “It has its roots in the slave experience in the Caribbean,” he says. “Slaves were banned from playing drums and masters only allowed them because the slaves played European classical music by people like Bach and Benjamin Britten.”

He goes on: “People used to play oil drums, starting with one note. “It was basically someone banging a piece of metal, and it developed from there.

“For too long since it has been associated with cruise ships and ‘rum and Coca Cola’ and looked down upon. But I want to get away from that and let people see steel bands in a different light.

“They’ve been around for a while but I’m always looking at doing something different.”

“Bravo is very adaptable and has an open mind,” says Alexis, adding: “On paper it sounds wrong, but I don’t know why. If you put any instruments together it will work – and this all makes perfect sense.”

Bravo agrees. “Any instrument can work – even if it’s just someone knocking stones together. It depends on your mindset. Music has such a wide range and it’s all about what you want to do. I like to work on abstract forms rather than things I know. I like to go beyond the obvious; you never know what you are going to get. You just have to see what comes out at the other side.”

And both men agree, the key is improvisation. “The thing that attracted me to Bravo is my background in making improvised music,” says Alexis. “There is a lot of room for improvisation in the way we create a track live, which is how it works with Hot Chip. That’s how all the music I make begins.”

Bravo, however, has bigger plans. “Now I need to get Alexis on the drums,” he laughs. “I would look forward to seeing that!”

  • LIVE Fimber Bravo and Alexis Taylor perform Con-Fusion at Pegasus, Magdalen Road, Oxford, on Friday, October 11, 8pm. Tickets are £12, £8 concs, £6 under-18s.
  • See or call 01865 812150