Interview: Crazy P's Chris Todd
Since the mid 90s, disco five-piece Crazy P have been delivering a consistent stream of uplifting grooves that, now spanning across 8 studio albums, are known all over the world. We had the pleasure of chatting with Chris Todd, founding member and guitarist, be
fore his set at Belgrave Music Hall. Along with his work with Crazy P, Chris also writes and performs under the alias Hot Toddy, and had just returned from touring in America.
For those who haven’t heard of you, how would you describe the sound of Crazy P?
Well that’s always a difficult one to sum up.
It’s a bit of a melting pot, isn’t it?
Yeah, it is a bit! I guess we’ve come from, essentially, a disco-y, soulful kind of place. A lot of our influence are disco and soul from the 70s and 80s. So it’s a melting pot really, because we’re into our contemporary sounds, electronic music; house music, bits of techno, acid, you know? So it’s all thrown in there but it all comes from a disco-y place.
Well you can definitely hear that in your sound. That’s actually what I wanted to start with- your musical origins as an individual. As a guitarist, what sort of artists and genres did you first come into contact with in early life, and how did you encounter them?
Well I’m not sure how far back I should go with this. My dad’s a really good guitarist and he tried to get me onto the guitar from a very early age, but I never quite took to it. I was always up for playing around with his electronic keyboard with its auto-accompaniment drums and bass and stuff. When I was 13 I had an epiphany and I saw Back to the Future! So I asked my dad to teach me how to play ‘Johnny B. Goode’ and this kind of made me see playing the guitar in a bit of a cool light. After that I just loved playing blues and rock ‘n’ roll- people like Chuck Berry. But then I was also into quite dubious soft metal bands like Bon Jovi and things like that. I wasn’t necessarily trying to emulate them, but I was playing a murky mixture of stuff. I was always focussed on Prince as an early influence that’s carried on through right to this day. It wasn’t until I got to 15/16 when bands like The Stone Roses in the Manchester scene really helped me find my footing. I was maturing a bit and it was that crossover of indie and rave/ dance sort of thing.
So moving forwards in time- you went to University in Nottingham- tell me about the music scene in the city back then, and how it ended up influencing your musical career?
Well I arrived in Nottingham in ’93, and back then it was a really cool music spot. There was a really good underground house scene going on.
Was house a key genre for you then?
Kind of, yeah. But there were a couple of things going on. There was collective called DIY who were very much coming from the free party scene. They were made up of about 14 DJs, and they put on free parties across the country, but they were based in Nottingham. They were never about profit- they never got into the money side of clubbing. It was just about putting on parties. They were really influential in the city and hosted a lot of quite influential club nights like Bounce and Floppy Disco. And their record label, Strictly for Groovers, gave quite a big helping hand to a lot of Nottingham producers like Charles Webster and Rhythm Plate. They were very much a bit of a fulcrum in the scene. The other thing that was influential for me was a course I did called Contemporary Arts. I studied music so I got to know a lot of musicians- a lot of really talented song writers, and being a guitarist myself, you know?
What aspects of music did this course cover?
Well the course itself was very much about being experimental and not doing conventional styles. They wanted you to be quite cutting edge and avant garde.
Well that sounds quite beneficial and interesting.
Yeah, it was. At first I found it a bit too much, but a lot of us learned that we could pretty get away with doing what we wanted. We had these really cool basement studios and it was that mixture of this music scene which was, for me, centred around the course I was on. Then you had the house scene with all these clubs- it was a really creative time. Loads of stuff going on. The DIY nights and other nights got me into house, but then off the back off that I got into disco as I was learning what sort of records were being sampled.
Well I suppose that’s the essence of Crazy P- an amalgamation of your instrumental ‘guitary’ side and then dance end of the spectrum. Back then, the group’s original alias was Crazy Penis- tell me about the reasons for this rebranding?
There’s a few reasons, really. One of them was possibly when we started to get more serious as a band and Danielle, the singer, came on board and it started to kind of grate a bit. You’ve got this sassy lead singer and you’re called Crazy Penis. At one time we were trying to cross over singles and get on the radio, and basically the name was just a joke that had gone too far.
Well wasn’t it originally ‘crazy penis’ in Spanish?
Yeah- ‘loco pingo’. It was basically some B-Side of a record that a friend had suggested. When me and Jim signed our first record with Paper Recordings in Manchester, they wanted to know what ‘loco pingo’ meant. So we said ‘we think it means ‘crazy penis’’, and they said ‘you may as well go with that’. So we just went along with it because we were so made up to be on Paper Recordings, little did we know we would still be doing it now. We didn’t want to change the name because we had built up a following. Although it sounds a bit wanky, we had built up a ‘brand’ which costs money so we didn’t want to just ditch it altogether. So we thought the easiest thing to do would be to lop the end off the name.
Well that would be the logical solution. So, being a live band, hardware is inevitably a large part of your sound and setup. What sort of stuff are you using at the moment, and are there any longstanding pieces of kit that have really stood the test of time and still come into use today?
Yeah, I mean a lot of our hardware, especially synths and keyboards, we generally use hardware- we don’t use that much stuff in the box. We’ve got dependable stuff- Juno 106, Juno 60 which are brilliant and amazing polyphonic analogue keyboards. Really easy to use as well. Nords keyboards are a big part of what we do- the Nord 2, Nord Electro. We’ve got a Moog Voyager as well. More recently we’ve got a Korg Prologue and Odyssey which are really good. They stationed another staple old school workhouse. We love the pedals, the weird effects and stuff too. We don’t have much out-board effects or dynamics processing- that’s general done in the computer. Being a guitarist obviously we’ve got a fair few guitars and amps and things like that on board as well.
I want to talk a bit about sampling- specifically one song which is a personal favourite of mine- ‘There’s a Better Place’. What’s the story behind the track?
So Jim had the soundtrack to the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I can’t remember what the piece of music itself is called, but it’s the bit when they first walk into the chocolate room where the river is. Jim brought the sample in and we were just like ‘wow, this is an amazing starting point for a track’. Specifically, the bell chime melody at the start- that started the process.
Well that melody continues throughout the whole track, doesn’t it?
Yeah, exactly. So from that little loop, we were able to hang all of the riffs on top of that. Then halfway through, like we did quite typically in those days, we had what we called a ‘game of two halves’. You get to the halfway point in the track and there’s some sort of breakdown and it turns off onto a slightly different direction. Yeah, that was one that really got us noticed in Australia.
Oh really? How did success in Australia come about?
Well the second album was actually licensed by Universal in Australia and it got really pushed and promoted and got played on their equivalent of Radio 1. So we went from playing 1-200 capacity venues and getting a really quite mixed reaction over here to playing like 1500 capacity venues in Australia. It was rammed and everyone was going nuts and we were just like ‘Woah! We’ve made it now!’ We then just floated in this little dream bubble for a few years, then things sort of died off in Australia, but luckily for us things slowly started to pick up back home to the point where we have an actual following in England. In Australia, people sort of our age know us from back in the day but the scene has moved and changed so much out there I don’t think it’s really for us anymore.
You’ve been making music for about 20 years- how do you continue to find inspiration and keep things fresh?
Well one thing we do is just to try and keep our ears open for new music that’s happening and to keep tabs on what’s going on musically out there. Going to gigs, of course. Some gigs have been so inspirational and have provided us with so many ideas. I remember seeing Moloko- one of the first tours we did in Australia was a festival tour called Good Vibrations and we were on the same bill as Moloko so we saw their show every night. Other artists like Grace Jones or David Byrne who I saw last year and was just incredible. So that always gives you inspiration- watching other people and seeing how they do it. Especially someone like David Byrne, who is such a unique and artistic person who’s shows are verging on a theatrical performance. Collaborating with other people is a big thing as well, and for me personally, travelling is as well. It’s not directly linked to music, but for me, getting out of Nottingham and travelling to places and experiencing other cultures helps to revitalise your senses a little bit. It makes you come back a bit fresh and energised.
Besides from Crazy P, you also make music under the alias of Hot Toddy- tell us a bit about that- what sort of avenues has this solo path allowed you to explore that were perhaps restricted whilst working with Crazy P?
I wouldn’t say there was anything particular in avenues or directions that stand out. I think the main thing for that project was that it allowed me to express as an individual. In the early days it was all about sampling- it was making the most out of an Akai sampler and an Atari computer which was kind of what the early Crazy P stuff was really. When I got back into the playing the guitar, I started to really get into the production side of things. I suppose a big part of the Hot Toddy stuff has been remixing, so that’s sort of a collaboration as you get given something to work with. I like being able to put my spin on it and being able to do it in quite a cut off bubble. It’s nice to a point, but I wouldn’t want to work solo all the time. As I like that aspect of interaction. I would say Hot Toddy has a bit more of a groovy disco edge to it. The albums are a bit more left field and I get into my guitar playing a bit. More recently I’m doing some Balearic chill out stuff that has a strong sound to it. I just like to have fun with it which is the main thing.
So you’re here at Belgrave tonight. Have you had much to do with Leeds in the past?
So we used to play here with PVR Street Gang and they used to do a night called Asylum at Mint Club. That was a really good night and it was properly full- on hedonistic but really good vibe. We’ve always had a strong connection through those lads actually. Leeds always has a place in our hearts.
Crazy P is a live band that plays electronic dance music, but tonight you’re doing a DJ set- what sort of stuff can we expect from you tonight?
I’ll be playing a lot of our own productions as we have a lot of stuff that we knock up which isn’t released yet. Me and Jim have started this little side project called Hot Jams. That’s a bit more sample-heavy stuff that you can’t really release officially which is just really for our own use. Then Jim does his Ron Basejam stuff which is awesome and that I play a lot of. Hot Toddy stuff as well, new Crazy P stuff, you know? We tend to write stuff that we want to play out live because we do struggle a bit to find stuff to buy. I’m not trying to say that there’s nothing good out there. There is, but the style that we play is quite hard to find stuff. So there’ll be a mixture of that and then there’s always a sprinkle of disco and maybe a bit of house. We’ll see what the crowds like.
So finally, what can we expect from you guys in the future?
That’s a very good question- I’m not sure. It’s to be decided. We’ve got some new stuff on the go at the moment but we haven’t talked about doing another album yet but I mean this current one only came out in May. So we are still pretty much touring that one at the moment. We’ll just have to see where we are all at in the New Year I think.
Well there’s no pressure at the moment after your recent release, so you may as well enjoy that now as see what the future holds down the line.
Exactly. And then like I said we have some stuff that’s on the go at the moment. Some of it’s finished- it’s not like we’ve stopped writing as it’s an ongoing thing.