Caroline Polochek was crossing into Canada with her band Chairlift when she took the time to chat with PopMatters. The trio that released Does You Inspire You in 2008 was thrown into the spotlight when their song “Bruises” was heard repeatedly in an iPod Nano commercial. By the time it came to approach album number two, founding member and Polachek’s college boyfriend Aaron Pfenning had left the band. The band, now a duo of Polochek and Patrick Wemberly, have just released Something, an album of shiny synthpop songs as produced by London-based, dance music specialist Dan Carey. Polacheck has also been featured on Washed Out’s song “You and I,” as well as with groups such as the Acrylics, Flosstradamus and Holy Ghost! A natural vocalist, she says she didn’t take singing seriously until age ten or eleven, when she began joining choirs in suburban Connecticut. Polochek had moved there from Japan in elementary school for her what she called her “formative years.” But it was in college at the University of Colorado that her journey as a band member of Chairlift began. Polochek talked about those early days and more while sitting in front of a huge photo-worthy sandwich, which would provide more than enough for a late lunch after the interview.
During a recent show at Webster Hall in New York City, Polachek could focus on her role as frontman for the band with keyboards relegated to Olga Bell on tour. She told the packed venue how it was hard to believe they are playing where she saw her first concert, at age sixteen. Flanked by Patrick Wemberly on bass and Jason McMahon on guitar, Polachek’s stylized twirls and gestures served her well while sometimes contributing some tambourine or sleigh bells—similar to a romantic lead in a musical who doesn’t want to adversely affect her voice with too much activity. Occasionally, Polachek would sing down on her knees, while other times she’d travel back to Jamie Ingalls on the drum riser to jump up for a vocal flourish or sit dramatically in a tuck position. Black character shoes added to the theatrical nature of her look, along with high waist pleated pants and a long black vest over a black tank, which still showed some midriff.
The group started strong with the up tempo “Sidewalk Safari” and then went into a smooth groove of seduction (plus an invitation to do harm) in “Take It Out on Me”. With a nod to Wemberly’s wedding in a just few days, Polachek admitted how “all of these songs are love songs but this one is the most obvious,” before launching into “Met Before”. The song asks in a joyous melodic chorus, “Have we met before?” During “Bruises”, the music broke into another synth dance pop hit for the 80s band Modern English, “I’ll Melt with You.” They played two other songs from their first release Does You Inspire You, “Planet Health” and “Evident Utensil”. The rest of the set included tracks from the new album Something, ending the encore with the infectious single, “Amanaemonesia”.
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You’re just back on the road after playing SXSW—what made this year memorable for your band?
Well, this was the second time we’ve ever done SXSW. We actually vowed that we would never do that again – it was horrible the first time around. But when we got presented with the opportunity to go and it turned out so many friends were going to be down there, we kind of couldn’t resist. So we ended up playing quite a lot of shows, but I went there with the worst expectations possible about the sound quality and how the shows were going to go. We had gotten spoiled on our European tour with having sound checks so the prospect of having to run on stage, people seeing you set up, playing a drum kit that’s not yours… all that stuff. Anyway, I was sure it was going to be awful. Yet. one by one, all the shows ended up being really good. We ended up completely exhausted, but it was really, really a positive experience.
Tell us about the band’s beginnings in Colorado.
Well, it’s a pretty simple story. I met Aaron [Pfenning], our ex-member, in Economics class, and swapped demos on the second day of school once we found out that each other were musicians. We started as Chairlift playing shows in coffee shops at night and also friend’s parties. We’d bring delay pedals and Christmas lights to set up, playing a kind of ambient electronic folk music – no drums or anything, sometimes drum machines but a lot of looping.
Our first experiments in music were intended to be ambient recordings for haunted house soundtracks. But we’d keep writing songs over those, so it kind of tanked out as an idea. We just began writing songs instead. So we moved to New York when I applied to NYU and got in there. Pretty much upon arrival I ran into an old friend, Patrick [Wemberly] who I was in a band with back in Colorado. Patrick came to our show and he really liked it. He said he wanted to play drums but I said we definitely don’t need a drummer, although he could come play percussion. So Patrick shows up to try playing with us, and he brings a full drum kit. I had a heart attack, I told him, “We don’t want a drummer!” But then after an hour of giving it a try, I was completely convinced. If he didn’t show up with that drum kit, the band would be completely different. Now, the relationship between the beats, bass line and the vocals is a big part of our sound now. It’s a big part of how we write.
How did you go about putting out your first full length, Does You Inspire You?
We started recording our first record while I was in school and the boys were working odd jobs around the city, hustling to get by. Patrick was doing lighting displays at Ralph Lauren, which sounds like a glamorous job but it’s really anarchistic and insane. The guys actually stay up 48 hours non-stop. I was working four jobs and in school while we were recording our album during our free nights. It took around nine months because we didn’t have much time to devote to it. It was kind of a fun, recreational thing – we didn’t dream that it would actually be a serious project. We just never thought that we would be good enough.
We’d play shows around New York: Pianos, Cake Shop and Glasslands, places like that. So we started to get a small following of people, first people that we knew and then people we didn’t know that started coming to our shows. During that time, we started making friends with other New York bands such as MGMT, Grizzly Bear and Yeasayer. There was a small scene forming which was really exciting. We finished our first record and before it even came out, we heard we got offered the iPod commercial. It absolutely appeared out of thin air. There was no pitching or anything. When they contacted us, we were like ‘this has got to be a joke, it’s just not going to happen.’
I remember I was in finals when the commercial got put up online. I ran between tests to the computer lab to see if it actually existed. Patrick had emailed it to me, and I was like ‘what is this?’ It showed an iPod dripping color and I wasn’t really able to see it. But that night I saw it on TV, and was hardly able to speak for a while.
So all this happened while you still in college?
Right, I was still in college. We left on tour right away, after I graduated. Our first record came out and we toured internationally – we were on the road for about a year and a half. During that time Aaron started writing his own stuff, so when we were done with that tour that’s when he left Chairlift. He’s doing his own thing now. But Patrick and I went immediately into writing a new album.
With your debut album so well received, did you think it was a blessing or a bit of a curse?
I don’t see how that could ever be a curse. It’s a curse for bands that get too excited about the attention and don’t keep moving forward. But we stayed really focused. I think the fact that we toured those songs for so long gave us a good look at what we liked about those songs, and what we didn’t like about them. So when we went back into writing, we had a lot of ideas that were inspired by the first record and we knew we could pick up from them. It wasn’t like we got too caught up by the way anyone else felt about the music.
And when writing these new songs for Something, did the music or the melody come first and then the lyrics or…?
It’s different for every single song, but often we’ll start with a concept. Maybe a dream that I had or an idea like running someone over with your car, which is what “Sidewalk Safari” is about. Then we have a totally different way of writing a song, which is when a melody or a progression comes first. For example, I had the bass line of “Amanaemonesia” pop into my head when I was in the shower. So I jumped out of the shower and recorded it on my phone. And we just took it from there. The lyrics for that one took a really long time to come up with, because we couldn’t find anything that fit in with the music. So it’s really song-by-song, each song has its own demands.
As you mentioned, the song “Sidewalk Safari” is about running someone over with a car, but this is an urban nightmare you experienced on the other side of the equation?
Yeah, I did get hit by a car a couple of years ago in New York – not very seriously, thank goodness. I got a bunch of bruises because I got knocked over. It was completely my fault, but ever since then I’ve been having these really gruesome visions. Like I’ll cross the street in front of a stalled car or a stopped car and I’ll think the car will just manically go right through me, out of enjoyment or entertainment. So I kind of wrote the song in the point of view of the sick or insane driver that would actually enjoy doing that. I had also just finished reading Crash by J.G. Ballard, so I suppose the idea of mania and driving all tied in together, circling in my brain.
During the creation of Something, both you and Patrick fell in love with other people. How do you think this affected the music?
My boyfriend is a musician; so being able to play stuff for him was an amazing part of the process. Regardless of what he would actually say, just playing the song in front of someone you see it through their eyes. You know when you’ve been working on a song all day, it’s hard to have perspective and see what you’ve been making. Even if they don’t react, all of a sudden you know what you’re embarrassed about or think that something is actually kind of cool. So it’s amazing to have someone to come home to and play your stuff for, someone that you respect so much. Also to have someone who’s so supportive too. There were a couple of periods of working on this record that I got kind of depressed. The whole thing was feeling like it was taking forever and was never going to be done. It was really nice to have the support of someone, telling you how the record is going to be amazing and everything’s going to be fine.
The video for “Amanaemonesia” has you dancing solo; is it safe to assume you’re a dancer as well as a musician?
No I’m not, I actually just taught myself how to dance. It actually took me quite a while, practicing sections of it and putting myself through a kind of regimen for training in order to be able to even do it. When I went into it, I didn’t have a very close connection to my limbs. I think there’s a kind of sense of humor that you can have with dance and also a sense of confrontation that you can’t have with singing. It’s a very different thing. It was exciting to think about both and parallel the two.
In order to take these songs on the road, you added touring members. How is it playing things live with this group?
As you’d expect, it’s a lot more physical. There are a lot of things we stripped out of the recordings to make space for the sounds we thought were the most important. But I look up to bands like the Talking Heads who can go back and forth between really tight songwriting to this super percussive and instrumental, semi-improvisational and playful experiments on stage. With our shows, we go in and out of these jams or moments to the ballads—into something more serious and dark pretty seamlessly with our current ensemble, which is really exciting and fun for us.
Are you the type of musician who is always writing new things or are you allowing yourself a bit of a break while you’re on the road?
Until now, I’ve not been one to write on tour but I’ve been writing a lot recently. So who knows?