Aaron Pfenning’s Just Rewards

Chairlift’s Caroline Polacheck told us last year that Chairlift’s songwriting duties are split between herself and bandmate Aaron Pfenning, with Pfenning’s work being the more “environmental or atmospheric or murky” of the two. So when we heard news this fall that Pfenning is striking it out on his own with a solo project he calls Rewards, we were expecting the music to sound like Chairlift’s more abstract compositions. And it does, sort of. But there’s more to Rewards than first meets the ear. Pfenning’s crooning voices meshes well with his chosen influences, which run the gamut of early-’80s musical culture: “I Used To,” for example, mixes a moody, echoing synth with an early-U2-style melodic guitar line and a New Romantic electronic beat. Fans of Echo and the Bunnymen, the Cure, and Mark Ronson’s collaboration with Boy George will all find something to love in Pfenning’s music. (DFA Records agrees: they’re soon putting out a 12″ vinyl Rewards single that also features Lightspeed Champion’s Dev Hynes and Solange Knowles.)

Pfenning braved a very cold tour bus during his current British tour to chat with Interview about his Web presence, his chosen cologne, and his parallel life with Brandon Flowers.

ALEXANDRIA SYMONDS: Rewards is all you—you did all of the producing and engineering, and you play all of the instruments on your album, is that right?

AARON PFENNING: I did. Plus a few special guests.

SYMONDS: Do you feel like this project gave you more of an opportunity to be a control freak than playing with Chairlift—since everything is to your exact specifications?

PFENNING: Yeah, of course. I’ve always been a control freak, though—mostly with food. Usually with food, but with music too.

SYMONDS: Are you one of those people who won’t let different kinds of food touch each other on the plate?

PFENNING: No, I just… Yelp is something I’ve been really into lately, so I started a Yelp profile and I got really into it. I might actually delete my Facebook account because I use Yelp for everything. But yeah, I love writing reviews, discovering little eating spots.

SYMONDS: What are some good places you’ve eaten lately?

PFENNING: Actually, I have everything bookmarked. I’ve been eating a lot of curry since we’re in England, been reading up on that. It’s been 400 years of Indian food in England. Oh, that’s it! This isn’t curry at all, but it’s called Hackney City Farm, it’s in London. It’s actually a farm in the city of London, like a farm in Brooklyn or something. It’s sheep and pigs and chickens running around outside and the food is really good, they cook it right there. Hackney Farms is probably the best spot from the last couple of days. I had an English breakfast that was fantastic.

SYMONDS: The English really know how to do breakfast in a way that Americans never quite perfected.

PFENNING: Yeah, yeah. It’s really something else. So yeah, being in the studio, I’m kind of a control freak, I guess. It’s really just about the music; you just want the music to be the most important part. If someone steps in and is like, “You are wrong!,” then I’ll fix that.

SYMONDS: Does that happen a lot?

PFENNING: [LAUGHS] No, no. Not too much. Maybe more with Chairlift, because we’re all pretty vocal about things.

SYMONDS: Where did you record it?

PFENNING: Oh, lots of places. I did one song with Peter, Bjorn & John in their studio in Stockholm, Sweden. I did a little bit in LA, did a song in New York.

SYMONDS: How is the process of recording different when it’s all on you? Do you feel more pressure?

PFENNING: No, I actually feel less pressure.  It’s nice to explore anything I dream up in my head, and just go at it. I’ll have my friends come in, Dev Hynes from Lightspeed Champion, he plays guitar on a couple of songs. He gets to come in, and kind of feel it out, and he and I have a very sibling-like musical connection. We both understand what both of us are trying to do with a song.

SYMONDS: Chairlift went on tour with The Killers and now you’re on tour with Brandon Flowers—are you and he leading parallel musical lives, first being in a band and now doing it solo?

PFENNING: Oh, that’s funny. Yeah, I hadn’t even thought about that. Sure, why not!

SYMONDS: I read that you had some filmic inspiration for the new songs, too.

PFENNING: Yeah, let’s see, this summer I started watching a lot of Dario Argento films. Suspiria and Phenomena, mostly. I think the first twenty minutes of Suspiria is some of the best filmmaking that has ever been made. I actually have been trying to get in touch with him, because I want to do [a soundtrack] for his next movie.

SYMONDS: Have you had any success in getting in touch?


SYMONDS: I’m sorry to hear that.

PFENNING: I feel like he is just hiding away in Italy somewhere. Probably not. I don’t know, I don’t have any idea, I just imagine.

SYMONDS: What is it about the films that appeals to you, exactly? I think you mentioned David Lynch, as well.

PFENNING: Oh yeah. I love horror films. I just really love sci-fi, thriller films. And it’s a real art, because you either succeed or you make a comedy.

SYMONDS: Yeah, without meaning to.

PFENNING: It could work both ways. There are good horror films that are just bad movies, but really funny and enjoyable to watch. I think that it’s a real art to make a successful sci-fi horror film.

Another thing, this is an interesting line of connection, but I started wearing cologne this summer. And I went on a little hunting spree trying to find the perfect cologne, and I did, it’s called History of Perfume 1828. It’s called 1828, it’s named after the year Jules Verne, the science-fiction writer, was born. And I discovered that after I bought it. I was like, “Wow, I just bought the cologne that I should be wearing.” And reading more Jules Verne—turns out that he actually did pioneer the science-fiction genre.

SYMONDS: What does the cologne smell like?

PFENNING: It’s a kind of an organic, earthy smell, it’s real nice. You should… it’s actually—what is that called? Gender-bender? Not gender-bender.

SYMONDS: Gender-neutral? Bisexual?

PFENNING: Yeah, bisexual.

SYMONDS: What were some of the ones that you rejected along the way? Do you remember? I don’t want to get you in trouble with any cologne companies.

PFENNING: I rejected most of the colognes that are made specifically for men. And it’s not that I don’t identify as male; I think that they smell kind of gnarly. I really loved this one, this 1828, because it’s not so strong. If you just hug someone or something, you just smell nice. I just really like the idea of feeling fresh and feeling good.

SYMONDS: What made you decide that this was going to be the summer that you started wearing cologne?

PFENNING: My friends Ethan Silverman and Chris Taylor started this record label called Terrible Records, and they were having what they like to call “Dudes’ Night Out.” Girls are invited, but it’s called “Dudes’ Night Out” and usually involves lovely, fulfilling, very nice wine and cooking for everyone and some kind of musical listening party. We had one Dudes’ Night Out where Chris made scallops, and then it got to a point where everyone was complimenting everyone on their haircuts, and the way that everyone smelled. Anyway, I recall Chris just being… I’ve known Chris for a while. He’s a really good chef, he always looks nice, he is just a well-presented gentleman. Then I got jealous and was like, I need to step it up.