Chairlift Feels Great Tonight
Published May 9, 2009
If you already know about Brooklyn-based pop trio Chairlift, chances are good it’s because of their single “Bruises,” one of the catchiest songs of 2008 and the star of its very own iPod Nano commercial. But if all you’ve heard is “Bruises,” you might have the wrong impression; you might think that the band is somehow a band caught up in the preciousness of its own delicate hooks and looping vocals. And you’d be missing the rest of Chairlift’s sophomore album, Does You Inspire You, originally out on Kanine Records last year, and freshly reissued by Columbia, remastered and up two new songs. You would have missed the fuzzy guitars of “Earwig Town” and “Dixie Gypsy,” the desolate horns of “Chameleon Closet,” and the wry millennial send-up of ye-ye music, “Le Flying Saucer Hat.” You’d have missed “Planet Health,” some of the best free association poetry about health class ever set to a Pentatonic Scale (or at least that I’ve heard): “Our intercourse was well protected/we made love each others eyes/I’m feeling great tonight.” A big component of why Chairlift can do all this without getting ridiculous—or worse, boring—is singer Caroline Polachek’s chameleonic voice. It’s no small feat to channel Kim Gordon, Amy Millan, and Francoise Hardy all on a single album, but Caroline makes it look easy.
ALEXANDRIA SYMONDS: How’s the tour going?
CAROLINE POLACHEK: The tour’s going great. We were on tour with Sebastian Tellier for about a week, and then Peter Bjorn and John for a couple weeks, and now we’re out with The Killers.
AS: What are the crowds like to see the Killers?
CP: They’re so young. Normally we’re used to playing kids like, our age, a little bit older, a little bit younger-generally, in their mid-20s. I was just at the merch booth looking out over the crowd and it’s flip-flop-wearing, fake tanned, 15-year-old girls lined up at the merch booth to buy Killers shirts. It’s insane.
AS: Is it weird that those crowds can’t drink at shows?
CP: They have a natural enthusiasm, so it doesn’t matter. 15-to-18-year-olds will go crazier than drunk 30-year-olds any day. They have the attention span of goldfish.
AS: How do they respond to your music?
CP: We’ve only had one show, yesterday, and to be quite honest, I have no idea. We played this huge theater in St. Louis. The house was completely dark the whole time we were playing. I looked out into the crowd and all I could see was this constellation of different cell phone lights. So either everyone had a friend on the line that they were playing the song to, or they were bored and texting. I couldn’t tell. But it was really beautiful from onstage.
AS: Do you have any crazy tour stories?
CP: Where do I even start? Our whole crew got in a huge bar fight in Chicago. Our tour manager and I were dancing, and we were being pretty raucous, thrashing around, and we knocked this guy’s beer over. And this guy flipped a shit. He grabs our tour manager by the back of his neck with his arm and forced him towards the bar and was like, “You better get me another fucking beer!” And I went up to him and was like, “Dude, calm down, everybody’s here to have a good time,” and he grabs me by the shoulders and kicks me really hard in the sternum and sends me flying across the floor.
AS: How did he kick you in the sternum? Did he, like, roundhouse kick you?
CP: It was just like a raise of the knee and then… right between the boobs.
AS: Are you OK?
CP: Yeah, I had the wind knocked out of me for a good ten, twenty seconds, but I’m totally fine. I could’ve hit my head on something, but it was fine.
AS: Did you have a bruise you could show off while you played “Bruises”?
CP: Actually, it wasn’t there. My knee got kind of messed up afterwards; I was kind of hobbling around the day after. I think I must have fallen or something. My chest was totally fine.
AS: Well, that’s good. So how did you guys go about deciding to reissue the album?
CP: We had two choices when we signed with Columbia-we could either continue to release the album as-is, or we could celebrate the fact that we were switching labels and re-issue the record with any changes that we wanted.
CP: We went into the studio with Chris Taylor, from Grizzly Bear. And by studio, I actually mean church-he recorded in a church in Brooklyn. We camped out in the church for two days and two nights and came out with the song “Dixie Gypsy.” The other track had been done a long time ago, we just had to go back in and fix it. Then we remixed and re-mastered the whole record-analog more, just to give it a really warm sound. It has a more physical, three-dimensional, environmental quality to it that the first one doesn’t have.
AS: So you guys haven’t had the clichéd experience of being stifled by the major label.
CP: The music industry has completely restructured itself in the last couple of years because it hasn’t been making money. Labels are signing bands they trust as artistic entities, instead of cash cows. They’re signing bands because they believe that the bands have tastes beyond anything they could concoct themselves. So far, they’ve trusted us with everything.
AS: That’s interesting that “Dixie Gypsy” ended up being recorded in a church-there’s almost a supernatural or gothic element to that song.
CP: I was actually inspired by this book that I was pretty obsessed with throughout last year called The Temporary Autonomous Zone, by Hakim Bey. It’s anarchist theory on one hand, but really crazy prose on the other. I became aware people throughout my life who were living in such a liberated way that it really destabilized me. When you meet someone, a friend, who’s living out on the road, or living semi-homeless, or leading their life in a radically different way, it makes you think about your own life in a really critical way and feel completely disoriented.AS: Who in your life has had that effect on you?
CP: There was a boy named Storm that I became friends with when I lived in Colorado. I was a freshman there, and I had a single all to myself. Storm was about my age, I think he was eighteen or nineteen, and he was a traveler. He ran away from home at like fifteen and was just playing guitar on the streets, being a hippie. I had a huge crush on him. He was beautiful-really ragged, not bathed, but he had the most gorgeous face. I let him sleep in my dorm for about a week-not in my bed, of course, but let him live in my dorm with me.
AS: What did he teach you?
CP: He saw my daily life so differently from the way I did. I’d take him down to the laundry room when I’d do laundry, and he’d poke around behind the dryer and find socks and be like, “Yes! I found a pair!”
CP: I’d take him to the cafeteria with me, and all the sorority girls would freak out. I’d get a plate and put my food on it, and he’d just put his food on the tray. He was a wild boy. He’d tell me about how he never wanted to live in a box-he wanted to live between the boxes; there was more space that way. Eventually, I had to kick him out of my dorm because it started getting a little parasitic. But I ran into him two years later in the middle of Times Square. And then he called me another time from France. So Storm’s out there somewhere.
AS: Every song on the album sounds so drastically different from the one before it. Do the three of you have really varied musical tastes?
CP: We all have eclectic tastes-we all grew up listening to a wide range of music. But at the same time, we each have a particular niche. I grew up more on a diet of classical and medieval music and then trip-hop-I’m more into the murky, melodic side of things. Aaron grew up loving everything acoustic, like folk music, and then the electric guitar. And Patrick has a funk, soul, hip-hop kind of background. The three of us have slightly different intuitive sensibilities when it comes to building beats and stuff.
AS: You’re really aware of that.
CP: It’s not a gimmick-it’s not like the differences in the songs make a “concept.” Everyone in our generation lives in a world where you’re surrounded by all sorts of music all the time. People’s tastes are made of combinations of genres. This album is a picture of different dots we want to connect, different locations that are all part of the same world. We made our own mixtape.
AS: How do you and Aaron split the songwriting?
CP: There’s only two songs on the record that we wrote together. The songs that I start tend to be more structured and poppy, and then the songs that Aaron starts tend to be more environmental or atmospheric or murky, like “Earwig Town,” “Deer Hunt,” “Dixie Gypsy.”
AS: Are yours the more narrative ones?
CP: Yeah, totally! [Laughs] But we write lyrics for each other’s skeletons, too. I totally have a more narrative writing style; Aaron has a more free-association writing style. It’s not that that’s what we prefer, it’s just that that’s what we’re able to do. It’s funny-in many cases, I prefer the things that come from Aaron’s imagination.
AS: Were you the one who wrote “Planet Health”?
AS: Where did that come from?
CP: I had this idea for the song building up for a long time, as all these memories of public-school health class started to come back to me, and I started thinking about how surreal they were. The information that they teach to you in American public-school health class is really volatile, perverted information. Think about all the things you get taught about, all in the same room: nutrition, eating disorders, sex, STDs, abstinence… fire safety.
CP: And all this is happening right between that girl that hates you and that you have a crush on that likes the girl that hates you. So you’re only half paying attention, and you’re squirming inside because all this shit is so disgusting and loaded. But it’s being presented in a way where they’re pretending it’s really sanitized. So the whole thing builds up into this teenaged firepot. It’s weird and cartoony and sexual. And then I started imagining all this information as a physical place-this ideal world that’s just as sanitized as they want to make you believe it is, but just as perverted as you know it is.AS: Yeah.CP: And then just to muddle matters up more, I started thinking about the Roman-Greek ideal of health, which involves sexuality, like nude sports. And then also the spiritual idea of health-that compared to the rubber-glove idea of health that you have now. It’s such a disjunct, and really depressing in a way that was interesting.
AS: What was it like recording the video for “Evident Utensil?” The data moshing effect-was that you guys, or your director? [Note: data moshing is a slang term for compression hack fade, a video technique designed to use what appears to be a glitch-the ghost of a leftover frame-to the director’s artistic advantage.]
CP: That was one hundred percent Ray Tintori, who came up with the idea of the data moshing video. Ray’s awesome; we’ve known him for a long time, because I did work on the MGMT videos for wardrobe and we’ve been extras in a couple of the videos. He’s really fun to work with. He’s wanted to do a video for us for a long time, so last June he said, “Let’s sit down, have a beer, figure out an idea for a music video.” So I said, “I really want a video that reflects the idea of torture, or sadomasochism, in a way that’s at once grim and innocent-playful, but with dangerous undertones.” So we set up the idea of a torture forest that different kind of kids would end up in-city kids, punk kids, all different people from different backgrounds would end up getting walked through this metaphor for the struggles you have to go through as an artist in order to get your work done.
CP: We set it up in the woods and spent a long time building all these nooses that came out of trees, and apparatuses that would tie people to trees or lift them up by their feet. And in the end, almost none of that footage ended up getting used. The video ended up being almost entirely a performance video of the three of us. [Laughs]
CP: But we had the craziest day out in the woods with our friends. And in the end, we had this half-waterboarding, half-baptism in the river. Aaron was this preacher that was dunking everyone and holding their heads underwater for thirty seconds. And I think the people that were at that shoot emerged feeling like they’d been tortured and baptized at the same time. We all came out covered in bug bites and scratches and blisters and thorn wounds and sunburns, all feeling amazing, like we’d gone through something crazy together. But the final product ended up being a little more psychedelic than any of us imagined, because of the data moshing. Like, we didn’t give Ray that color palette, that psych feel.
AS: Do you think you’ll ever end up using that footage?
CP: We put out “Evident Utensil” over a year ago now on seven-inch, and Aaron and I had a record player in our apartment, and we thought it was really fun to set the record player to the slow RPM and play it on slow. It sounds hilarious. It’s half-beat, I sound like a giant manly monster, singing really low, down the octave. And the whole thing feels so drugged out. So we always thought it would be really cool to take all the unused footage of those friends getting beaten and slow that down, and then data-mosh that to fit the “Evident Utensil” low-RPM version.
AS: So did Kanye actually rip the effect off for his “Welcome to Heartbreak” video?
CP: It wasn’t Kanye that ripped it off-it actually goes right back to Ray Tintori. When Ray directed the “Electric Feel” video for MGMT, he was working with a team that was partially borrowed from Kanye West’s video team. Kanye’s team learned the effect from Ray and started working on a video for Kanye with the technique that Ray taught them. It became this weird race. As soon as Ray heard that Kanye’s team was working on a data mosh video, all of a sudden they had fires under them and our video got made in about two weeks and beat Kanye’s as being the first data mosh video. Kanye put up this thing on his blog about it, when his video came out. He said, “Yes, we know there was another band that put it out, so we had to rush production to get this one out.” But I don’t get it, because if we put our video out first, why didn’t they just take another month and make theirs look better?
AS: Well, Kanye has a short temper.
CP: I actually saw him a couple weeks after the videos came out in a club in London during Fashion Week. I went up to him and introduced myself and told him that I was Caroline from Chairlift, and we did the data mosh video. And he just turned his back and walked away. He was not happy. I thought we could laugh about it together, or at least make a joke, like, “God, isn’t it funny how it happened the way it did-how our two bands are somehow getting compared when they’re so different?” He had no sense of humor about it. It was total hate.
AS: Isn’t he like 5’7″ or something?
CP: He’s not a tall man, I’ll say that.
Chairlift will play at The Bell House in Brooklyn on May 10 as part of Deli magazine’s Best of New York festival; tickets are $12 and can be purchased online. Does You Inspire You, remastered and with new tracks, is now available on iTunes and at Amazon.