Chairlift Explain How Opera, Improvisation & PMS Shaped New Album ‘Moth’: Idolator Interview
Chairlift‘s rise has coincided with the rise of modern pop. The band emerged in 2008, just as the idea of the guilty pleasure began to crumble, when Top 40 fare was starting to gain critical respect on a mass level and attract musicians who once saw “pop” as a dirty word. The Brooklyn duo has always toyed with mainstream and indie interpretations of pop (to the degree that there’s even a distinction anymore), so I’ve always used them as a sort of barometer for the current state of pop.
But it’s futile to try and use their forthcoming album Moth to extrapolate about the direction of anything other than Chairlift. Caroline Polachek and Patrick Wimberly have expanded the band’s palette on their third full-length, offering up bigger and bolder arrangements, but retaining that intangible Chairlift fingerprint — like a bunch of tentacles wriggling frantically but wrapping around a core. Parts of the album — like the brash, hooky “Polymorphing” and “Show U Off” — might lead people to believe their Beyoncé run-in rubbed off on them, but mostly it feels like the Bey encounter never happened and they’ve been hermetically sealed from the rest of the pop world — alt and mainstream alike.
I recently sat down with the pair in their Brooklyn studio, where they’d been hunkered down since February 2013 banging out what would become Moth, which is out in January. We talked about how improvisation, opera and New York City informed the new LP. We talked about periods and purple velvet dresses. We did not talk about moths, despite the album’s title, though we did talk about crickets. Read the Q&A below.
It seems like Chairlift is at the point where you control your own destiny. Third album, the iPod commercial, the “No Angel” collab, the solo project, production gigs. I imagine that sort of freedom is the ultimate goal for a musician. Is that how it feels? What do you want to achieve next?
Patrick: There have been times where I’ve thought more about long term goals. When I was 19 I was like, “You gotta have a record deal by the time you’re 26.” Which, we did sign that first deal right before then. But right now I feel like we have met a lot of our goals. And now it becomes one step at a time, make sure everything we do is stuff that we will be proud of. So to me, right now it’s all about putting together an exciting live show and bringing this record to life.
Caroline: I’m sort of the opposite of Patrick in that I have a really hard time with big picture stuff. Sometimes to feel creative, I have to forget that I ever made anything. It’s easy to see what you can do in terms of what you’ve done before. And I think the whole Beyoncé thing really was helpful in that way because it made me realize, “No, what you’ve done before has nothing to do with what you can do in the future.” And it really tore down some of those mental obstacles for me. I think every artist, whether they realize it or not, has put those up. So I find it very inspiring to forget, to intentionally tell yourself that you’ve never made anything. Someone else made that. A different person made that.
Moth has lots of moving parts, busy percussion, brass, all bumping into each other. Was that set in motion by “Ch-Ching”?
Patrick: It kind of informed the palette for the whole record. And at the time it was, I don’t like to say unintentional, but it came about very organically where this thing happened one morning where I had an idea for a groove. And it just so happened that my horn player friend called me, and it just so happened that we had these microphones laying around that I wanted to play with and see what they sounded like. It was really these experiments without really knowing we were starting the record.
There was one week at the beginning of the process where we decided we’d write a new song from scratch every day for a week. So we wrote six songs that week, and I think four of them are on the record. So about half of the album was written in one week. It was just sort of an experiment, and then at the end of the day just put it away. Don’t even listen to it. Then the next week we came in and listened to all five or six songs, and we were like “Hmm, this sounds like our new record!”
I was trying to pinpoint influences or comparison points, but more than anything, Moth just sounds like the next Chairlift album.
Patrick: That’s good. With both of us working on so many different projects all the time, things become Chairlift once every sound is something that I like and she likes. If one of us isn’t feeling a thing, then we keep working on it. That’s kind of become the definition of Chairlift. That’s kind of the only rule.
Caroline: This is sort of a boring answer but we’ve never had so few influences on a record. Our last two records I would say were enjoying playing with or riffing on certain genres and sounds and textures. This album was more of a feeling, like a really saturated emotional feeling that we wanted in the music. And a lot of the songs started in a really improvisational way. We weren’t coming in with a concept, it was more like we were just messing around and the songs just built and built and built.
In some cases we’d listen to the song, like “Romeo,” that beat came first and I was asking myself “What does this song wanna be about?” And it was so obviously a beat about running. Sometimes it’s interesting to almost feel passive as an artist, almost listening to what the song wants over what you want to say.
I’d say it’s your most dynamic album, and a lot of that comes from the vocals. Caroline, it’s almost the opposite of what you did on Arcadia. Is that what you were going for?
Caroline: Yes, actually, that’s very true. Arcadia was such a small process vocally, it was very close, me singing into a computer. And in terms of fidelity it was this crunchy, digital, flat sound. But as soon as that record was done, I just wanted to do the opposite and make something sort of alien and juicy and really rich. I was more influenced by the idea of pushing the voice like a synthesizer on this record, rather than like a storytelling device. I mean, the lyrics are also narrative and personal, but most of the vocal music I’ve been listening to the past couple years is stuff that’s not English. And when you listen to music that’s not in your language you’re mostly just concentrating on what it does to you tonally.
And then on the other end of it, I started practicing opera two years ago now, as a sort of cross training exercise like they do in sports. As a way to just make myself able to sing louder, and really use my body instead of just singing from my throat. Like, a cricket can make so much noise and it’s so small. I was just thinking, ‘I have so much more mass than a cricket! I’ve gotta be able to make more sound than this!’ So I think all those things contributed.
On “Unfinished Business,” your voice makes a particularly striking sound, where I couldn’t tell if it was strain or processed.
Patrick: I remember that day. You were just about to leave the studio. This is how things always work. As soon as it’s time to go, that’s when the thing happens. I was like, “Caroline just do one take of the song, just so we have something to listen to.” I think she did one, maybe two takes. We recorded it, it kind of got distorted on the way in, but it was a magical take. We never touched it again after that. She did the take and ran out the door.
Caroline: I think I started crying during the take, too.
Well one song is called “Crying In Public,” which makes sense because this is your New York record and doing that is basically a rite of passage here.
Caroline: It happens all the time for me. I cry a lot actually, but mostly because I’m overwhelmed with…I don’t wanna say happiness, but just with beauty, for lack of a better word. It happens to me all the time when I’m listening to music or, it’s almost always when I’m out in the world, rather than alone in my apartment. It happens to me — I’m sure a lot of girls can relate to this — the week before I get my period. I’m very sensitive. Not necessarily like “bitchy” or “don’t insult me!” It’s actually the opposite. And sometimes I try to take advantage of that spot that I know is coming, or tap into it to really feel stuff that I know I can feel deeply during that one week. So about once a month there’s a week where I’m definitely crying on the train listening to music.
But this song in particular is not about PMS [laughs], this song is about a little thing that someone can say that will suddenly make all the crap in your life that you’re so obsessed with that’s stressing you out and giving you anxiety, all of that falls away in a second and you realize how important this person is to you. Or how beautiful life is and how you’ve been a total idiot with your head up your own ass for the last week and you feel humble and sorry and small and awake, all of a sudden.
Do you ever see the band leaving New York?
Caroline: I’ve always known I was gonna live in New York, since I was a little girl and I had this vision of myself in a dingy New York apartment wearing, like, a purple velvet dress walking down the stairs and I was a cool, independent person. And that came true! Just like Patrick knew he’d sign with a record label. I lived in a dingy apartment, I’ve owned a couple purple velvet dresses.
Patrick: New York was an accident for me. I was supposed to come here for like a week. I stayed for about two weeks, then I went back to my house in Colorado and put all my furniture in the front yard for a yard sale. And then came back here.
Caroline: And joined Chairlift.
Patrick: Joined the band.
Caroline: Got a gig.