Chairlift Quietly Reinvents Pop Music [Exclusive]
A great band can never truly stay the same. Evolution in musical style is a natural, and often necessary, step in artistic fulfillment, and music history thrives on tracking the precise moment where everything begins to change forever. The Beatles found weed, David Bowie found soul, Kanye found autotune. In the case of Chairlift, the sparkling synth-pop duo of Caroline Polachek and Patrick Wimberly, they found Beyoncé.
The Queen Bee herself was quick to discover something that not too many people have figured out yet—Chairlift are quietly reinventing the wheel of pop music. Which is why she enlisted their help in writing what might be the best song off her self-titled surprise. It was an experience that both members of Chairlift told me was simultaneously “surreal and natural,” and something that struck Wimberly “as a cool achievement given my years in high school as a closet Destiny’s Child fan.”
Though to attribute the band’s evolution on another artist alone is reductive; Chairlift have been a relentless creative force from the very beginning. They’ve written songs about having well-protected intercourse and eating fruit on ‘Planet Health,’ committing vehicular manslaughter on ‘Sidewalk Safari,’ and they even invented a new word to describe sensations of magic, ‘Amanaemonesia.’ They’ve made versions of their singles in Japanese, experimented with data moshing music videos, and began their career writing ambient music for haunted houses. Chairlift’s wholly unique aesthetic is one that delicately balances retro-nostalgia with the sensibilities of contemporary indie culture.
Such an eclectic character comes as little surprise when hearing about their respective upbringings. Polachek was born in Manhattan but lived in Tokyo for the majority of her childhood, relocating to Connecticut before finishing elementary school; Wimberly was reared in Nashville, Tennessee. Music was a clear influence for the both of them; Polachek was in seven different music groups while in high school, and spent her free time listening to early Medieval music alone in her room, an experience she described to me as “psychedelic and introspective.” Wimberly gravitated toward the punk crowd, but the kind of friend “who would keep you out of trouble, the right amount of trouble.” But to say they liked their youth would be a discredit, Polachek hurriedly warned “To any teenagers reading this, trust me, it gets better. Don’t worry. You don’t even understand how much better it gets.”
Their character has changed very little over their years, but Chairlift’s change in music can’t be stressed enough. The new single, ‘Ch-Ching,’ has more hooks, is more beat-driven, and has more diva-bombast than anything they’ve made before, signs that one can’t help but compare to their recent pop collaborations. “We’re both really interested in really HD, full-res, hi-fi sound on this record,” said Polachek, “before we were more interested in breaking sounds down and distorting them, crushing them. This time we just want things to have space to breathe and bloom. I think maybe you can hear that, as a change.”
You can hear a change, and it’s perhaps because the band’s upcoming album, Moth, was created without interference. Chairlift worked on their own terms, in their own space. “It was the first time we had our own studio,” Wimberly said, gesturing at the sea of wires, guitars, and rainbow-lit synthesizers stacked around the room. “It felt like we had a whole new wealth of knowledge to use, we really knew how we wanted to make this record.”
“I think freedom came with limitations too,” Polachek told me after ruminating on the concept. “On our last two records, we approached Chairlift as a place where Caroline and Patrick put all of their ideas. And this time around, we had the perspective to realize it can just be a place where only the things that both of us like go. It made things really simple, if the other person doesn’t love it, we don’t do it.” It seems like an easy enough method, and that might be because it is. Both of them fell into giggles after realizing it took eight years to figure this out.
“For a while, it was like ‘let’s not finish this. We don’t want to go on tour.’”
In fact, we’re lucky to have Moth at all. “We did drag out the recording process because it was so much fun,” Wimberly said, continuing to look lovingly around the cozy studio. “For a while, it was like ‘let’s not finish this. We don’t want to go on tour.’” Polachek guffawed, insisting that they do want to release this record, despite the idyllic process of making it.
All fun aside, the two put an inordinate amount of energy into bringing this album to life. “A lot of the record was written in one week. The two of us just came here and wrote a new song every day,” said Wimberly. “Very early in the process of making these songs, we started to unravel this world that we’re creating for each one. And it is different from song to song, and we work on it until we see that world clearly.”
Creating a world is of course not solely reserved for the songwriting process; Chairlift’s music videos are infamous for establishing a wonky universe. ‘Amanaemonesia’ featured Polachek performing inspired choreography in a teal catsuit while VHS style subtitles floated beneath her, ‘Evident Utensil’ used data moshing to deliver a sometimes nausea-inducing display of CGI imagery melting and blending into each other, and ‘Met Before‘ presented an interactive choose-your-own adventure style storyline of a fantasy-riddled college classroom. But with ‘Ch-Ching’ the band presents the stark reality of the hyper-cool New York around them. “This is really a body record, a very emotional record,” said Polachek. “And we wanted people to have a similar response with the visuals too, for it to really be about what’s happening on a human level.”
“This record is…that feeling of giving it your all whether it’s a good idea or not, that feeling of being delicate in a hard place.”
Given the shock of ‘Ch-Ching’ when stacked up with Chairlift’s back catalogue, expectations for Moth are really anyone’s guess. But Polachek revealed some cryptic clues when we discussed the title. “Moths are just worms with wings, but to me they seem like an emotional metaphor,” she pondered while sipping on a coconut water. “They’re so relentless, and they often do things that are bad for them. And a lot of things about them, the furry exterior and cocoon, get at the warm and tactile sounds that we wanted to use on this record. That feeling of giving it your all whether it’s a good idea or not, that feeling of being delicate in a hard place.”
Part of what makes Chairlift such a great band is their whimsy, a quality that both Polachek and Wimberly have in spades. Over the course of our conversation, they divulged that their respective ‘spirit fruits’ are persimmon and banana, that Polachek gets nostalgic for MySpace circa 2006, and that Wimberly is more of a Notting Hill than a Four Weddings and a Funeral kind of guy. Both of them admitted that the hardest part about being a musician in 2015 is dealing with the outside world; Polachek with “infinitely distracting” social media and Wimberly with “checking his e-mails.”
Whether they can handle the outside world or not is beside the point: the outside world is ready for them. If their change in sound wasn’t evidence enough, Chairlift is only getting bigger and better. I brought up a point to that effect with them, and both shrugged it off. “It’s hard for me to even imagine that we have fans,” Wimberly said, genuinely humble. If their ever-increasing Youtube hits don’t show it, or if their new legion of Beyoncé-driven fans don’t show it, or if dorky music writers like this one don’t show it, then the future prospects of this very capable band most certainly will.
‘Moth’ will be released in January 2016. Download ‘Ch-Ching’ here.
Chairlift photographed and styled exclusively for Milk by Miyako Bellizi