Chairlift’s Caroline Polachek talks music, danger, and what the band once did at the First Unitarian Church altar

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Chairlift
Chairlift | photo courtesy of the artist

Caroline Polachek, vocalist, songwriter, and one-half Brooklyn pop duo Chairlift, has for many years now earned a reputation as one of indie’s most mesmerizing front women, thanks to her smart lyrics, strong pipes, and ability to completely immerse herself in a performance. Together with band-mate Patrick Wimberly, Chairlift has helped refine and defy expectations about pop music for over a decade, moving from a trendy band in an Apple commercial to an innovative musical force, whose repertoire includes everything from re-appropriated action-flick music to choose-your-own-adventure-style music videos—and has continued to grow and evolve with time.

Case-in-point: the band’s third full-length Moth, which dropped earlier this year and might be their best record yet. A glistening, sun-soaked journey through lows and super highs, Moth navigates vulnerabilities and triumphs while always remaining firmly planted in the groove. This month, the band will bring Moth to Philadelphia, playing Underground Arts on April 12. In advance of the show, we rung up Caroline to talk writing, tour, and what Chairlift once did at the First Unitarian Church altar.

The Key: So Chairlift has released three records since 2008, or about one every 4 years, which is less frequent than some other bands. Is this pacing deliberate?

Caroline Polachek: The pacing is not deliberate. It comes down to two things really: one is that with all these records, we toured pretty intensely—we toured our last record for about a year and a half, then spent about another year and a half making Moth, which was actually mastered last February [2015]. But the other factor is that Patrick and I are crazy perfectionists—and usually what that means is once we finish writing a song, production will take quite a while before we’re happy with it. We love layers, we’re very particular about the sounds we use, and we’re tweakers. It’s hard to finish a song—we’ll always want to tweak it further. We want add, add, then pull back, pull back.

On this record we were very optimistic—we were like “yeah, we’ll get this done in 9 months; it will be awesome.” And then we ended up building our own recording studio, and all other sorts of collaborative projects came along… so all of these things slow down the timeline. But they also add to the project too, in they build our vocabulary and our community.

TK: You’ve spent a ton of time on the road. How has your approach to touring changed over the years, both in terms of the logistics of touring, and the physical and mental preparation?

CP: For our first record we were touring in a very scrappy way—we were touring without any crew, not getting any sleep, getting sick all the time… it was brutal. We were also doing like 70-day-strings at a time, so we were on the road for months and months and months. The shows back then were very cool though—our first record was written to play live, so it was very satisfying because we could recreate the arrangements every night.

For our second record, we were very determined not to do things the same way. We had a slightly larger budget that time around, and we had a five-piece band. But our record was a more complicated endeavor—Patrick and I had learned a lot about production since then, and we had multi-tracked a lot, so the record was very dense and very layered. So it was trickier to recreate live, but we were hell-bent on bringing those recordings to people live. So it was very athletic to play—almost like a recital in that we were very locked into our parts and played them the same way night after night. So although the shows were very tight, and the band very skilled, it wasn’t as satisfying. It was surgical almost.

Then this time we said, ‘ok—let’s pare everything down, let’s go back to basics.’ This record is more improvisation-based—when we were writing, we often started with a groove, and there was a real feeling of playfulness. We wanted to bring that feeling of playfulness to the live show. So we completely abandoned the idea of re-creating it line for line, and brought in two musicians who were interested in re-appropriating the sound—a brilliant jazz saxophonist […] and a guitarist. It’s a very minimal set-up—we have less equipment, less people on stage—but we’re having more fun, and we’re definitely feeling freer. We’re more excited about the live show now than we ever have been.

TK: That makes me excited to see you!  So switching gears a little: the record is called Moth, and there’s this overarching metaphor of moth to the flame. Where did the idea for the moth metaphor come from? 

CP: It’s funny, because it’s sort of a bookends story—the song “Moth to the Flame” is actually an outlier on this record. All the other songs were written between 2014 and 2015, but “Moth to the Flame” was actually written much earlier, from the backseat of our tour van at the very beginning of the tour for our last record, Something. I was messing around with my laptop, trying to learn how house music was made, trying to see if I could build a house/pop song. So I wrote the song, and then I forgot about the demo entirely until about 2 weeks before we were mixing the record.

Once I found it, I brought it in to the studio and played it for Patrick and our engineer. And our engineer was sort of bouncing off the walls and was like, “Oh my god, you have to put this song on the record.” And so it got turned around really fast—we spent maybe 2 days on it. Then a few days later we were thinking about names for the record and Patrick suggested Moth.  And we had been toying around with a few other names—I really wanted to call it “Peach,” which was in reference to “Crying in Public” and also I felt like really captured the sweetness of the record. But “Moth” just looked so cool written, and I also loved the metaphor of fragility and persistence and optimism—the idea of this fragile thing that could end up in New York City, where it doesn’t necessarily belong. It’s poetic.

TK: New York has long played a role in Chairlift’s life—both as the city where you’re based, and also as a sort of silent character in many of your songs. But you have played Philly a few times too—do you have any specific memories you associate with our city?  

CP: We’ve played so many shows in Philly—but I remember one particular show especially, opening for Yeasayer back in 2008. It was this unusual venue—it’s like in a church, and a basement under a church.

TK: I think you mean the First Unitarian Church. [Kate’s note: I was at this show!]

CP: That’s it! So we were playing the First Unitarian Church, and I remember we got Chinese food around the corner first, then we signed our record deal with Columbia Records that very night. They had the record contract faxed over to us in Philly at the show—and we snuck upstairs into the chapel and signed the record deal on the altar of the church. So I will always remember that show! The show itself was bananas—if I remember correctly, there were low ceilings in the venue, and people were crowd-surfing during our set, and it got really rowdy. We did a bunch of covers during that set—“Sensual Seduction” by Snoop Dogg. It was a really fun show.

TK: Something about the Church always brings out the need to mosh. So what’s your favorite way to spend a Saturday when you’re not touring?

CP: I love cooking, so I’ll go to the farmers market, get a bunch of vegetables, and bring them home to cook. I love it so much; I find it very relaxing, and also very sensual—the smells, and the textures. Particularly after touring, it’s something I really miss.

I also love hiking, which is sort of an exotic thing in New York, in that you really need to get out of the city to do it. There are these cliffs on the west side of the Hudson River that are very, very dramatic—and it’s actually a pretty short drive from Brooklyn, about half an hour. So I like going out there—there’s a trail there that basically goes right down the cliff face—somehow the New York City government failed to notice that it’s a sheer drop—it’s very dangerous, and just the craziest thing. But I love it. It makes me feel like I’m in a romantic era painting—so scary, and so dramatic. It makes you aware of your own sense of mortality.

TK: That sounds like an amazing experience!

Chairlift performs at Underground Arts on Tuesday, April 12th. Tickets and more information on the show can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.

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