NME: Chairlift

January 21, 2012 § Leave a comment


Published in the Jan. 14 issue of NME. More about Chairlift via their website.

Chairlift know the exact moment they finally lost their shit.

It was January 2010, and the end of 18 months on the road for the trio off the back of a patchy first album and one major single, ‘Bruises’, that was used to soundtrack an iPod advert. Caroline Polachek and Aaron Pfenning, the couple that started Chairlift during college in Colorado, had broken up a year before and were scraping through their final live dates in Australia. Then one night, feeling like they had nothing to lose, Caroline, Aaron and third bandmate Patrick Wimberly decided to go onstage topless, with flourescent pink tape over their nipples.

“We were in Tasmania on New Year’s Eve,” Patrick explains from the corner of a quiet bar in their home of Greenpoint, Brooklyn. “That’s where the hole in the O-zone layer is and it was very, very hot. All of the women had tape on their nipples!”

“That’s not true!” Caroline shoots back. “But when you’re that far from home, and you’ve had such a crazy, strenuous day, you’re like, ‘Alright!’”

“Not even a crazy strenuous day,” he starts.

“Well you weren’t the one fighting with your boyfriend!” she interrupts.

“This was not just a strenuous day, this was a strenuous fucking year and a half, and it was almost over.” Patrick says with finality, and they both look at each other over the tops of their cups of coffee.

Yet somehow, Chairlift have walked away from their miserable first-album tour and the Brooklyn class of 2008 in which they emerged (think Vampire Weekend, MGMT) to come back with a killer new, ‘Something’. Its sound – inspired equally by French new wavers Indochine and English pop legends Roxy Music and Tears For Fears – is an addictive combination big, clean production and huge pop hooks that sets the bar for the news album of 2012. It’s a massive leap forward given that the ‘strenuous fucking year and a half’ nearly spelled the end for Chairlift, too.

Watching them trading lines and finishing each others’ sentences in the Brooklyn café, it’s clear Patrick and Caroline’s brother-sister relationship have a lot to do with their unexpectedly brilliant comeback. She’s the tiny, pale-skinned art school grad who spent a year in Belgium before college, hanging out with older jazz musicians and going to crazy parties that “would end in everyone turning the lights off and trying to improvise noise”. He’s the geeky indie guy from school who used to wear fedoras and ties before moving to New York, turning into a manic pixie dream boy and dating models way too tall for him.

Though Aaron and Caroline’s relationship dominated Chairlift’s early days, the foundations of the band disappeared when Aaron left after the Australian tour, walking away from their major label contract with Columbia and two years of hard graft pushing their debut, ‘Does You Inspire You’. The album had received mixed reviews when it was released in 2009, disappointing early fans hoping for more of the cutesy ‘Bruises’ with a patchwork of other styles including a country ballad (‘Don’t Give A Damn’), French disco (‘Le Flying Saucer Hat’), and new world atmospherics (‘Ceiling Wax’).

Lacking a sound they could really call their own, exhausted from touring, and with one band member on his way out the door: Chairlift could have called it quits. In the end it was Patrick, a school friend from Colorado who joined Chairlift later in New York, who knew they had to find a way to make it work.

“It was my job to keep the band together,” he says, looking serious, when NME ask him how he coped with touring with a couple in the middle of a break up. “And the band still is together.”

Patrick’s tactic was to get him and Caroline back in the studio straight away. They decided to approach the next record completely differently – starting with writing everything together in one room, rather than separately, as Caroline and Aaron had written the first album. They set about creating a coherent sound from the outset. “On the last record every song had its own synth sound,” Caroline explains. “Whereas on this record I made a palette of ten or twelve sounds that I would go to. For example, ‘Cool as a Fire’ uses the same synth sounds as ‘Amanaemonesia’ uses, and it’s in the bridge of ‘Sidewalk Safari’, there’s a lot of crossover. Those are the kind of things you would never hear but you would feel.”

Behind all the ice-cool synths, soft machine drumming and echoing vocals, you’ll also feel a whole lot of break-up rage.

“I remember the day that Caroline came into the studio that we were writing in,” says Patrick. “We’d barely begun writing the record and we didn’t really have any direction yet for what we were going to write about. She just walks into the room, takes her headphones off and says, ‘I want to write a song about running people over with a car!’”

“No, running over one person!” Caroline interjects. “It’s not mass slaughter!”

While she won’t say who she means, there’s plenty of sadness and anger under the surface of ‘Something’, starting with that hit and run fantasy, ‘Sidewalk Safari’. You can almost see the cartoon motorbikes from the start of A-ha’s ‘Take On Me’ video driving right through the bass. Over the top, Caroline adopts a murderous purr: “I’m bad with bows and arrows, I’m not so good at guns, poison seems old-fashioned and hired help’s no fun… but I do know how to drive a car, faster than a man can run!”
“You stalk the animals too, you don’t just kill them,” Caroline explains of the safari in the song, half-smiling, half-serious. It’s amazing how much of the time Chairlift end up talking about guns and violence for a band that started out singing about frozen strawberries and handstands.

There’s the gunshot that ricochets through ‘Take It Out On Me’, a song that, Caroline explains, started life in a dream. “In my imagination of what’s happening in that song, something really bad is about to happen and I’m trying to scoot my whole family out before the bad thing,” Caroline says.

Then there’s the machine-gun range where Caroline spend her days during the band’s week-long residency at a Las Vegas casino last April. Chairlift played twice a day to bored, chain-smoking gamblers. In between times, Patrick worked on his black jack and Caroline drove out to town to shoot.

“I had a lot of steam to let off, personally, so I figured that would be amazing!” she
says brightly.

Chairlift are certainly tougher – and smarter – than they first seem. A lot of art theory goes into their work, from the photograph on their chin-stroking, Man Ray-inspired album cover, to Caroline’s spandex-clad ballet routine for single ‘Amanaemonesia’, which was inspired by sex-obsessed French choreographer Maurice Béjart. But at the heart of it, they’re a band who seriously know how to put a pop song together. You could have almost guessed it after ‘Bruises’, a track Caroline admits “plopped out in twenty minutes”. After two years learning how to turn that song-writing into an album’s worth of gold, and pulling their band back from the brink of breaking up, Chairlift are finally ready to go back on the road.

“We’re dying to go back on tour, absolutely dying,” says Caroline. “We feel like we’ve really made something, as opposed to scraps of a bunch of things. It feels like a declaration of life.”

Patrick smiles: “This is ‘Something’.”

Intelligent Life: Chairlift apply the eighties gloss

January 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

I wrote the music part of ‘This Season’ for the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of Intelligent Life, which is out now. There is also some fantastic stuff in there by Ian Leslie on serendipity and Matthew Engel on 1962. Chairlift’s new album ‘Something’ is currently streaming at KCRW.

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