Laneway Artist Profile: Chairlift
20 January 2012
Electro-pop eccentrics Chairlift began with a simple enough mission: to ‘make live music for haunted houses’. The sounds they started to create, however, after leaving their native Colorado for the indie mecca of Brooklyn, weren’t particularly scary — just odd, gleefully so, unconfined by any particular genre or normal logic.
From the beginning, Chairlift’s lushly strange brand of pop has centred on the hypnotic vocals and presence of Caroline Polachek, who formed the band in 2005 with Aaron Pfenning, the two swapping demos in the back row of their economics lectures. When Polachek was accepted into art school in New York that year, Pfenning followed; there they found fellow Coloradan Patrick Wimberly, and a fertile experimental pop community in which they felt immediately at home.
The eclectic Brooklyn pop scene of the time included the likes of Yeasayer, Grizzly Bear and MGMT – bands, Polachek says, united not so much by a common sound, but by ‘a lot of ‘young energy’, ‘entrepreneurship’ and ‘a love of pop’.
In 2008, Chairlift released their debut lp, Does It Inspire You. Though inspired by the 80s, Does It Inspire You wasn’t your typical homage to the synth-pop of the era, nor its newly fashionable kitsch: it was something stranger and more personal — the 80s refracted through the band’s memories of the radio, their childhoods and bad TV. An affable, wide-ranging and wonderfully odd record, the band’s debut took in skewed new wave synth-pop, electro-country balladry, prog excursions and bouncy, infectious pop.
For Polachek, such diversity wasn’t wilful so much as perfectly natural. ‘People get confused by how many different genres we play with, but to us it’s all part of the same movie,’ she told Clash Music recently. ‘By combining all these different things, the world that they all coexist in is our sound. It’s not that we’re juggling between different ones, it’s actually cross pollination.’
Soon after the album’s release, the lp’s most straight up pop track, ‘Bruises’, was used by Apple in an iPod ad, catapulting the band into living rooms everywhere. Polachek says she has ‘no regrets’ about doing the ad. ‘It was so crazy seeing it on TV between classes,’ she told T-Squat. ‘I remember not being able to speak for a while, I just thought, “We’re a real band, we really exist!”. That was a fun moment.’
The album was a critical success: Spin called Does It Inspire You a ‘startlingly impressive debut: astute, melodic evocations of plinky new wave and the Cocteau Twins’ smeary dreams that achieve a timeless emotional response.’ NME, meanwhile, wrote that ‘the sheer quality of songwriting justifies any retrospective leanings they may have’.
Chairlift spent ‘about a year and a half’ touring the album, a stint Polachek said ‘made our skin thicker and forced us to grow up’. In 2010, Pfenning left the band to pursue his solo work. Polachek and Wimberly kept themselves busy, Polachek directing music videos and playing with other bands in the Brooklyn scene, and Wimberly working as a producer (he counts Das Racist’s 2011 lp, Relax, among his production credits.)
Mid-way through 2011, Polachek and Wimberly holed up in an antique shop in Williamsburg to write the songs for Something, their much awaited sophomore lp. ‘The space was perfect – it had nothing but a couch and a piano in it,’ Polachek recalled to V Music recently. ‘So we brought one drum kit, one synthesizer, one guitar and one bass and we wrote the whole album with that set up in that little room, over the course of four or five months.’
Songs in hand, the band headed to London to record with a producer they ‘fell in love with’ — Dan Carey, known for his work with M.I.A, Hot Chip and The Kills.
The new album, Polachek says, will appeal most to people who know their debut. ‘On the first album, the songs were all over the map; country, spaced-out synth prog…on the new record we kinda defined more of what we like about our experiments, so it’s more muddled up and tied together, more restrained,’ she told T-Squat. ‘We are slowly figuring out what we like about certain sound textures. It’s a lot more consistent, but you might be surprised to find it’s more energetic and aggressive.’
Where their first lp had a ‘dreamy nocturnal sound’, Something is ‘high noon, eyes wide open, digging in your claws. It’s more grown up.’
Fittingly for a band so thoroughly in their own orbit, Something also finds inspiration in some decidedly strange places. Long obsessed with the cult of consumerism, Polachek said she and Wimberly had been thinking a lot about what they called ‘pizza punk’ and ‘infomercial spiritual’ in making Something. Pizza punk, Polachek told V Music, is ‘the feeling of living in this hyper commercial world but not exactly doing with it what you're supposed to, and using it in more of a self indulgent freaked out way’; infomercial spiritual is the ‘glowy, pastel, timeless feeling in infomercials’.
This ‘glowy, pastel’ feel is all over ‘Amanaemonesia’, the record’s great first single. The clip, which was directed by Polachek, features the singer dancing around alone in a lime green bodysuit, the whole thing feeling like something you might stumble on late at night on public access TV in a remote corner of the world.
Following Amanaemonesia came the Pitchfork Best New Music’d single ‘Sidewalk Safari’, and the driving ‘Met Before’, which you can listen to in the player above.
We’re super excited about the new album, and we're not the only ones: Something is this week's triple J Feature Album. We're also really looking forward to seeing Chairlift take the Laneway stage with their live band. Check out a great live take of the duo and touring band performing Sidewalk Safari above.
Something is out January 23 on Columbia/Kanine/Young Turks. Stream the album until January 24 via KCRW, and read on to find out how to win yourself a copy.
We’ve got a few copies of Something to give away. To win, just write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell us why you deserve one. Easy.