Chairlift formed in Boulder, Colorado in 2005 as the duo of co-songwriters Caroline Polachek and Aaron Pfenning. Relocating to Brooklyn, they met producer/drummer Patrick Wimberly, and set out work on their debut LP. Does You Inspire You was released in 2008, and after the song "Bruises" was featured in an iPod ad, Chairlift proved one of the biggest breakout bands of 2008. Pfenning departed the band in 2010 to concentrate on his own project, Rewards, leaving Polachek as the undoubted star of the show. Chairlift's second LP, 2012's Something, moved away from the genre-hopping nature of their debut, with a set of sleek, stalking synth-pop songs.
Interview: 27 January 2012
So I —like everybody else, I suppose— read your interview on Pitchfork. It was interesting seeing you speak out on the gossipy nature of internet commentary, and the specifically gender-biased, sexist nature of it. That feels like something that doesn't get talked about in the indie world, which is theoretically this gender-equal, 20-years-post-riot-grrrl place. Is that something you'd been thinking and feeling about for a while?
"'Post-riot-grrrl is an interesting way to look at it, especially now when there is this whole sector of all-girl bands, like Dum Dum Girls, Vivian Girls. I think Vice Magazine, and all these other post-modern, Terry Richardson Era kind of commentaries have made it acceptable for porn to has its place in pop-culture. Which I agree that it should; it does, it always has, and it always will. But, when you bring that kind of way of looking at women into discussions of music is when it gets really fucked up. That's all I have to say about it."
Have you —as woman fronting band— felt that you have been looked at through that lens?
"I don't feel very personally effected by it. It's weird, I look at the press that goes on around us as being this completely different realm, completely out of my control. But, seeing the mechanics of it for the first time —seeing that it is my stuff being written about, and being a part of it— gives me a different insight into it than I had when I was just on the outside. Being a reader of a blog is a lot different to being a reader of a blog where they're writing about you. When you know what you said in an interview or what is written in your press-release, it gives you a much different sense of the mechanics of it all."
Have you felt misperceived or misconceived by the world?
"No. Not at all. And, even if there is a some of that out there, I'm not really concerned about it."
When Chairlift began, what did you want the band to be?
"When we started we were actually a very different project. The band formed in Colorado, in late-2005, and at the time we were very inspired by living in a place where country and folk music were the predominant traditional musics. We kind of wanted to make folksongs that had surrealist and electronic elements in them. That was actually a very good way for us to start because we didn’t need a lot of gear. We'd play shows that were predominantly acoustic and very quiet, we didn’t have a drummer then. It was very much about lyrics, and writing very simple folksongs. It’s obviously expanded now to include a lot more production elements, and the idea of pop music, and synths and beats and dance music."
Something feels more focused or streamlined; there's obviously less difference between the songs, less hopping around, and a much more reduced sound-palette throughout. Was that something you wanted to do on this record?
"That was our intention from day one. On [Does You Inspire You], we were very much experimenting with different things; it wasn't that we set out to make out to make a coherent record at all. We were literally just pleased that we could make things that sounded like real songs. So the record ended up being just: 'Hey, here's another way we can make a real song!'; and: 'Guess what? Here's another way we can do it!' Whereas, on this record, we had already figured out how to do it, then take all those lessons we'd learned on the road through a year-and-a-half of touring —what feels good to play live, what we found ourselves skipping over or cutting out in songs— and use those to inform this kind of energy that we had pent up in ourselves, and then channel that in a coherent way."
How much did losing a member, another songwriting voice, accelerate or streamline that process?
"It definitely streamlined it. Patrick and I worked in a room by ourselves, just as a two-piece, throughout the entire making of this record. Which actually ended up being really cool —not that it wouldn't be otherwise— because so much was left unspoken. Since things were written in each other's company, we never had to go back and explain why certain decisions were made, or persuade each other of things, because we were always in the same moment together; so we had a shared understanding of where things come from. On a creative level, we had changed a lot as people since making the first record. So it's impossible to say, artistically, how much has to do with losing a third member or not."
Is the fact that you're both Geminis part of your unspoken understanding?
"We just have a lot in common. I make jokes that it's because we're both Geminis. We both have multiple facets to our personalities, and that plays into the schizophrenic nature of some of the writing."
Is that what 'Amanaemonesia' is about?
"That's not what the song's about, but we do reference it, yes. 'Amanaemonesia' is about irresponsibility and guilt, combined with confusion and anarchy and being very small in a sea of a big population. Splintering ourselves into multiple personalities within the song, that's a good perspective to approach the song from."
In 'Met Before' you talk of the buzzing of billions. Has that been weighing on your mind: being one of seven billion, and, at this point of the 21st century, being constantly aware of those other seven billion?
"That's exactly it. And that's the perfect lyric to point to, to connect that to 'Amanaemonesia.' That's a big part of living in New York City. Every single day you go out on the street, and you’re reminded that you don't mean shit."
If you ever forget that you're supposed to be on ant autopilot when you're in the city, that you're not supposed to look every single person in the face and recognize that they're a unique individual and they have their own individual stories, then it becomes quickly, completing overwhelming. It's just mentally too much; your ape brain isn’t made to cope with living in such close proximity to so many other humans.
"I read somewhere —and I'm not sure if this is accurate or not— that the human brain is programmed to have 50 faces always on call, but that the average city person has 200 to 300 faces immediately on call. It makes me wonder: 'Where does that extra hard-drive space come from? Doesn't that have to come from somewhere?' I feel like something else must be lacking. Or maybe it's just like a muscle, and if you work extra hard, it just gets stronger."
How does the touring lifestyle treat your brain?
"It definitely suits the ADD nature of our personalities, where we like to have a lot of new stimulation all the time. I love hearing different languages, different accents, trying different foods, getting to know different parts of the world that I never knew before. We particularly love seeing the differences between crowds in different places; in the way they act, in what they enjoy, even different social rules. But, on a more day-to-day level it's sometimes very difficult. Your sleeping hours are so regulated, so different, from day-to-day. Oftentimes we'll get back from a show at 3AM, and we'll have to wake up three or four hours later to get back in the van and keep driving. As a singer, it's difficult to have your body —your instrument!— so tied to how much or how little sleep you can get. That's the hard part of the performing lifestyle."
Does your voice get stronger the more you perform? Or does it actually grow weaker, like you end up taxing it?
"Honestly, I feel not so much that my voice is getting better, but that my brain-to-voice connection is getting more specific. It's like learning how to drive a car better. My voice isn't changing, my ability to drive it is getting tighter and tighter."
Did you grow up wanting to be a performer?
"I never desired it as a profession, I just always knew that I would be writing and making music. Growing up I never considered that I'd have access to the music industry. I saw it as something mysterious, like Hollywood; this secret fraternity. I never assumed I'd have access to it. It's surprising. I'm still surprised every day when I wake up and find that this is my job; I'm excited and grateful, for sure."
What were your beginnings in sound?
"When I was little, I lived in Tokyo, but from my late childhood into early adolescence I lived in Connecticut. There was always a piano in the house I grew up in, so when I was little I first started to learn how to bang out Disney songs. My parents noticed, when I was about four years old, that I was playing on the piano a lot. So they put me on piano lessons from the age of five, but I was taking very well to it, so I only did it for a year. From six on, I always just improvised. Because I never had any proper formal training on piano, I never really learned how to read music very well. So I had to make all these systems in my own head for hearing things and figuring out how to play them on piano. So I only ever really learned how to play them in one key, which is the key of C. Then, when I was in middle school, my parents got me one of those cheap, plastic, Yamaha PSR keyboards. And it had a transpose button on it, so I learned very quickly that if I couldn’t play something in C, I could just press the plus or minus button until it lined up with whatever key I was trying to play in. So, that just allowed me to come a much bigger cheater than I would’ve been able to be otherwise."
When you went off to school, were you going to study music? Were you going to study art?
"I initially wanted to study music, and that's why I applied to the University of Colorado, because they have a really amazing music program. But before starting at Colorado, I took a year off, and lived in Belgium during that year. And one of the few options to me available to me in Belgium —something that I could do for free— was to go to this art school that my parents helped me to find. The school allowed me to go there as kind of this 'shadow' student. It was all an elaborate excuse to learn French, really. But going to this art school, I got absolutely seduced by studying drawing, so that by the time I went to Colorado, I switched to an art major. But I found that it wasn't the right school to be going to to study art. So, after a year-and-a-half I switched to NYU, where I studied art, and switched my focus to video art. I ended up graduating with a concentration in video art. I still make standalone videos."
How much of a relationship, or correlation, is there between video-making and music-making, for you?
"On a couple of abstract levels there's a very strong connection. I like videos that have very simple but confrontational framings, and I think that's similar to favouring very audible lyrics, having much more upfront pop vocals as opposed to, like, chillwave, where the vocals would be drowned in reverb, semi-audible, singing one note. And it felt really intuitive to pick up video-editing after using music software, because it's all the one format, really."
When you are writing songs, or lyrics, do you see them or think them or imagine them visually?
"Definitely. Sometimes that comes straight out of the music. For example, on 'Ghost Tonight,' the first thing that got written in that song was this particular keyboard sound playing the chords. I remember thinking that there was something really gross about that sound, in a way that reminded me of like a carpet that had two decades of cigarette smoke soaked into it, in a really gross color like orange or alive or something. I was like: 'Yeah, that's the environment the song takes place in, this disgusting jazz-club from the '70s!' That set the tone for everything, from the vocal performance to the melody that ended up getting written over it: the idea of that place."
Are there lyrical themes stitching the songs on Something together?
"Definitely. But that's a difficult thing to talk about in an interview. Because I'd rather people just listened to the record and interpreted it for themselves, to be completely honest. I really enjoy hearing the interpretations of other people. Much moreso than speaking about my own."
Most enjoyable? Least enjoyable?
"I gave a friend of mine the 'Take Me Out Tonight' demo a long time ago, long before we'd ever recorded it properly. And she just knew with 100% certainty that it was a breakup song about an ex-lover, which was crazy because it was not at all. I love that she thought that, that she made such a personal connection to it, and put it to use for herself. Whereas, my least favourite, I was a little miffed at how definitively Pitchfork said 'Amanaemonesia' was about healing rituals, which it definitely is not!"