Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Chairlift: Poetically Bored

Written by Jesse Sposato
Photos by Jason Rodgers
Chairlift is one of those bands that has something really rare going for them: they are aware of how lucky they are. I spoke with Caroline Polachek—vocals/synthesizer—and Aaron Pfenning—vocals, electronics, guitar—(Patrick Wimberly plays drums, bass, keyboards), who both had an air about them that was part thoughtfulness and part intelligence.
Photo by Jason Rodgers
It was obvious they had been interviewed many times before, and probably a majority of the interviews had taken place in the last year or so. They were well-rehearsed in their lines, spoke eloquently, and expressed themselves with inspiring clarity.

Polachek was sharp, take charge, and didn’t let anything go. Every mismark from Pfenning got called out and was met with sharp eyes and a stern but playful glance. Friends and music-mates since college, and even ex-lovers (though I didn’t hear this from them), Polachek and Pfenning appeared to have a special kinship deeply rooted in trust. There is an electric energy between the pair, possibly the kind that can only come from a certain type of closeness metamorphosized into another. My guess is that it’s not a coincidence that people have love/hate relationships while in bands, that they date, marry, breakup, and then continue being friends. It’s this kind of comfortableness and support that makes a powerful musical connection, as well.

The members of Chairlift were late bloomers, outcasts in high school, and basically everything you can be that sucks at the time, but totally gives you cred later. If only we all could have found a way to tell our teenage selves—and mean it—that it does get better from here on, we promise. Chairlift did the next best thing by sharing with us their stories of survival and success.

Jesse: OK, boring stuff out of the way first…when/how did you guys start playing together, and what were you going for in your band?

Aaron: Caroline and I started playing together in Colorado in our backyard.

Jesse: Nice. In high school or college?

Caroline: College. We were making these electronic soundscapes using a lot of loops. We were also really interested in making really pretty folk music. At the time…it’s funny because I had just spent a couple summers in New York, and I was getting into the noise scene for the first time—a lot of the Todd P bands, Japanese noise stuff—and I wanted to bring some of that into the mix too, but it was really meeting someone like Aaron that was into stripped-down arrangements of folk songs, really into acoustic sounds, found sounds, sampling, using non-instruments as instruments [that helped me to do that]. We made these forks that we covered in bells, and those were our percussion.

Jesse: Amazing. How did you guys first meet?

Caroline: Economics class. I was the new kid.

Aaron: I was pretending to be someone I wasn’t.

Caroline: You’re always doing that, Aaron. You’re doing that right now. You only think he’s named Aaron and in a band named Chairlift. [Whispers] It’s a lie!

Aaron: I convinced her I was from San Francisco…but, I wasn’t.

Caroline: Well, you went to the front of the class and you introduced yourself as Aaron from the Bay Area. It wasn’t just me.

Jesse: That’s funny. [To Aaron] But you’re from Colorado?

Caroline: Oh yeah.

Jesse: Cool. [To Caroline] Where are you from?

Caroline: I’m from just north of the city in Connecticut. I woke up there this morning.

Jesse: Nice. So, did you guys envision yourselves as musicians always…when did you first start playing music?

Caroline: The moment at which it started is indistinguishable.

Aaron: I think probably we’ve all always, the three of us, have been playing around with musical toys…

Caroline: Since the Big Bang, pretty much.

Jesse: So, you always wanted to play music?

Caroline: Totally. But, you know, playing music is different than being a quote unquote rock star. It wasn’t even that we wanted to play music, it’s just that we did. You know, the way kids go out for soccer…that was our thing.

Aaron: I feel like a lot of my friends watched movies like The Doors and [other] rock star movies, like wanting to be rock stars. Some of them are good movies, but I never watched them because I wanted to be a rock star.

Jesse: Did you ever think about stuff like that?

Aaron: Yeah. I thought that that didn’t sound interesting. Recording sounded more interesting.

Caroline: It wasn’t even that it didn’t sound interesting to me; it was that it seemed so inaccessible, like a completely different world. And I think that’s probably because [that world] is over. Those days are over, and I think musicians now are more entrepreneurs and artists than ever before. Before you were kind of a cash cow or a racehorse. It wasn’t so much in your hands. Bands were dependent on labels; bands were preened. Now I think being in a band, you’re responsible for the full picture: for the visuals, for the fashion, for the concept, for the business aspect of it, for the politics of the band, flyers, everything, so it’s a different deal. I mean, there are still bands that are genetically raised from the bottom-up by labels, but I think for the most part, musicians that get successful now are entrepreneurs.
Jesse: I like that thought. On that note, what do you think it takes to make it as a band in New York? New York specifically is such a tricky place, obviously.

Caroline: It takes getting out of New York. I think there are a lot of bands that don’t leave New York.

Aaron: Traveling?

Caroline: I mean, it takes touring. I guess that’s anywhere. I don’t know, I guess it’s hard to answer that question.

Aaron: Yeah, I feel like that’s a good answer [though] because that’s what we did. We didn’t want to be a local New York band.

Caroline: We did actually for a while, but there’s only so far you can go. We’re lucky to have found a nest of really creative friends here. That’s been really fun, and I think that makes New York, New York for us. But I don’t know if that’s quote unquote what it takes. I think what it takes anywhere is a lot of luck.

Jesse: Yeah, totally. That’s a good answer. What do you sing about?

Caroline: Life. The world.

Aaron: Earwigs…

Caroline: That is included both in the category of life and the world.

Aaron: It’s really not specific. I was just trying to be specific.

Caroline: [Laughing] Why?

Jesse: So [your lyrics are] more like poetry?

Caroline: We don’t sing about poetry, actually.

Jesse: I meant more like, not specific.

Aaron: I’ve been really bored by poetry lately. I don’t know why.

Jesse: Bored by poetry?

Aaron: For a long time, I was really into it…

Caroline: What was the last thing you were bored by, poetically? [In a funny voice] Chairlift: Poetically Bored. No, but seriously, what was the last poem that bored you?

Aaron: I don’t remember because I haven’t been reading any.

Caroline: Exactly! I think the thing is that we are in [such] a different realm than poetry. We don’t read it; we don’t consume it. If we actually knew what contemporary poets were doing right now, we’d be fascinated...

Aaron: Oh, I’m sure.

Caroline: Our generation is very, I don’t want to say illiterate in that we can’t read, but very unaware of what’s going on right now in contemporary literature circuits. Whereas music has such a pop media around it—so does fashion, and even art to a certain degree—I feel like literature is its own super insular bubble. So, let’s make that a goal. Let’s get some poetry that’s rad.

Aaron: Yeah…or just hang out with more poets.

Jesse: What would you be doing if you weren’t doing this, like what was your plan b, or what turn did you almost take?

Caroline: We don’t make plans. Whatever opportunities are there, we work with the best we have. I don’t think I could have predicted most of what happened to us in the last year if I wanted to, but the plan is always just to make really good music, no matter what happens. Like, we want to make the music that we want to listen to.

Jesse: What would you be if you weren’t a musician?

Caroline: I’d be making music no matter what. If the question is professionally, I’d probably still be working artist assistantship jobs.

Aaron: I think I would be a pilot.

Caroline: Yeah, I don’t doubt that about you…You’d have to cut your hair shorter. That’d be a bummer. Unless you started “Long Hair Air” or “Aaron Air” or just “Aar” for short. “A-A-R.”

Aaron: “Aar Air.” You’re flying “Aar.”

Jesse: What are the best and worst things about what you’re doing right now?

Caroline: The best thing is that we are always surrounded by really interesting things. Like even when it sucks, it’s interesting. Being on tour with the Killers we got to observe—I know this might sound unusual or even voyeuristic—but we got to observe high school kids.

And you kind of have this—at least I always have this—idea like, yeah, I remember what it’s like to be in high school cuz it wasn’t that long ago. [But] it’s like they’re different. They’re a different animal than we were. These are the kids that were in elementary school…

Jesse: With cell phones…

Caroline: With cell phones and BlackBerries...

Aaron: And iPods! iPhones too maybe.

Caroline: You know, like genetic implants. I don’t know what these kids have.

Jesse: I know what you mean. It’s kind of crazy.

Caroline: And it was amazing to be in this world of high schoolers. We’d watch the Killers and we’d go out and surround ourselves by these kids and these middle-aged people singing along to the Killers and just observe wide-eyed the kind of people that being in a band normally keeps us away from.

Normally, we’re lucky enough to be surrounded by twenty-something-year-olds who are super eclectic, have really cool taste, hipsters quote unquote; but being on tour with the Killers, we really got to see the kids.

Aaron: The best thing for me about this tour was playing ping-pong with the Killers, and the worst thing was not getting enough exercise because my cholesterol got too high.

Caroline: You got high cholesterol?

Aaron: I mean, by like a couple points.

Caroline: No way! He’s totally making that up. Aaron likes fiction.

Jesse: Is it hard to eat well on tour?

Caroline: Yes!

Aaron: Yeah.

Caroline: Not well, like lately the food has been tasty, but it’s hard to keep your caloric intake to a balance. You always think every meal you eat is gonna be the last one you’re gonna get for a couple days, and it’s hard to remember that it’s cool; you’re probably gonna eat in the next six hours, chill out. But since you don’t know where your next meal is gonna be, you always assume you have to stock up.

Jesse: I think people are like that in general. I find I do that at almost every meal.

Caroline: Yeah, like, I’m not that hungry, BUT it’s here, and I should take advantage of it. I should eat now. It’s an upward spiral.

Jesse: How was your tour with Ariel Pink? He’s one of my favorites.

Caroline: Awesome! Us too. He’s so cool. We love Ariel.

Aaron: Yeah, he is one of our favorites. And I think his new album’s gonna be amazing.

Caroline: Whoa, it’s gonna be a mind fuck. I can’t wait to hear it.

Jesse: Cool. What about artists that you admire?

Caroline: Ariel Pink! Actually, I think we can run through the list of bands we’ve toured with...We admire Yeasayer, Sebastien Tellier, MGMT, Yacht. We just went out with Peter Bjorn and John. That was really fun.

Aaron: Crystal Antlers.

Caroline: Yeah, we love Crystal Antlers.

Jesse: What’s the hardest lesson you’ve learned through this whole experience so far?

Caroline: Patience and organization. Being nice.

Jesse: Like it’s hard to be nice to people you don’t know?

Caroline: It’s hard to be nice when you’re furious. But if you get furious at people, it totally springs back at you, and it proliferates like the plague…

Jesse: Yeah, I think that’s a good life lesson. Why would you be furious in the first place?

Caroline: Being on tour is stressful when you’re so dependant on a lot of people for the way you’re gonna sound…

Aaron: You also don’t really have much free time.

Caroline: Well…

Aaron: Or time away from anyone…that’s what I meant.

Caroline: Right! That’s it. We don’t have alone time…ever.

Jesse: Oh, that sounds hard.

Aaron: I think that’s the hardest part.

Caroline: Yeah, it’s like the elephant train, always being on a fucking elephant train. Whenever you go off by yourself, you’re usually in trouble and whenever you stick with the herd, you’re usually waiting for something [laughing].

Jesse: Totally. What was your high school experience like?

Caroline: [To Aaron] Yours seemed pretty wholesome and nice.

Aaron: Wholesome?

Caroline: I just imagine that home video of you and Tom playing Radiohead covers in pajamas in your basement after prom.

Aaron: You’re right. I had a pretty nice high school experience…but junior high was terrible.

Jesse: [To Caroline] What was yours like?

Aaron: Was it glamorous?

Caroline: No, it was not. It was actually very unglamorous. I was kind of an outcast in high school.

Aaron: Well, we both were.

Caroline: Yeah. I think we’re just late bloomers. I think in the end, [that] ended up being a huge advantage cuz I became really immersed in music, and if I had had a super active social life—which isn’t to say I didn’t actually—but if I’d had a more fulfilling social life, it probably would have taken up more of my time.

But I was just really frustrated for a couple years in high school because the kids I went to school with were just not cool.

Jesse: Where did you go to high school?

Caroline: Greenwich, Connecticut. They were pretty white-bread, athletic kids, and I kind of had a desire to end up in strange or ecstatic interpersonal situations, and it’s hard to do that when you’re really shy and developing slowly…I ended up running with a bunch of guys. I was kind of that one girl [who] would hang out with the stoner guys in high school, like wore my black hoodie and [would] have headphones on. I kind of got into boys through music and got into music through boys…

Jesse: That’s nice.

Caroline: So, yeah, that took four years.

Jesse: I think that definitely happens to a lot of girls.

Caroline: Yeah! It was really awesome.

Jesse: If you could set any records straight or debunk any myths or preconceived notions of what people think of you guys, what would they be?

Caroline: Ooh, that’s cool…Myths to debunk, that’s a really good question.

Aaron: Are there any myths about us? I’m not sure there are.

Jesse: Or preconceived notions…

Aaron: Maybe something about the iPod commercial.

Caroline: Yeah!

Jesse: Yeah, I guess that’s sort of what I was thinking might come up. What kind of reaction do you get from people about it?

Caroline: Well, we get a lot of people that approach us about it with a really snobby attitude like, ”So, do you guys think you sold out? Cuz I think you were cooler before all my friends knew about you!” I think that’s actually a reflection more of what it means to be a music fan now, than a band.

Jesse: What do you mean?

Caroline: I think people take a lot of pride in their ability to crate dig and find stuff before other people know about it, and they gage the goodness of something based on how well-known it is, instead of the music.

Aaron: Everyone does that.

Caroline: Of course, of course. But I think certain music has the idea of a mass audience built right into it. We’re a pop band. We’re making pop music, and the idea of our music is that it’s for the public.

Jesse: Totally.
Photo by Jason RodgersCaroline: And I think pop music is really cool when it’s underground—I think it’s actually cooler—but I think it’s really awesome that “Bruises” got used in a commercial because…when we were making that song, we wanted it to sound like an ad for mattress coils from the seventies coming out of a long lost radio under a bed or something. We wanted the production to sound like a pop [song] from another time, not necessarily one that you know but kind of weirdly nostalgic, but kind of right now, as well.

So…we wanted that song to be strange candy that ended up on the record to contrast everything else, and a lot of people [that] hear about us hear [about us] through the commercial and think…that’s like our average song…but the funny thing is that song is a total outlier on the record.
Jesse: It definitely sounds different, yeah.

Caroline: Yeah, yeah! That’s not even close to being one of our average songs.

Jesse: That’s funny.

Caroline: So it’s interesting seeing people’s reactions cuz I think we get a lot of young, mainstream fans into denser, more atmospheric music than they’d ever find by themselves because of “Bruises.” But on the other hand, people get disappointed when there’s not a record full of “Bruises.” So it’s a really interesting barometer of where fans are at right now, how they react to the commercial and the song.

Jesse: And the whole boy-girl duo…more recently, Postal Service did it, and the Moldy Peaches…Are there any older school examples of people who did it that you admire?

Caroline: More Mamas and the Papas than anything, I’d say. A lot of those bands actually really annoy me, [the] male/female back and forth. It’s just too narrative.

Aaron: Well…only when it’s a gimmick. Gram Parsons [too]…Fleetwood Mac

Caroline: Oh god, yeah!

Jesse: What is something you admire that you’d never want to be…like, you know, maybe a trapeze artist or something?

Aaron: Oh, totally! A janitor for me.

Jesse: Yeah?

Aaron: Like, a high school janitor, probably.

Jesse: Why?

Aaron: Cuz it’s hard…like cleaning up shit and…

Caroline: Biologist. I admire biologists.

Aaron: But you’d never want to be one?

Caroline: It’s so much work.

Aaron: You told me that you would love to be a biologist, a little [while] ago.

Caroline: I would, but I guess I feel so far away from being able to complete that kind of career path. It requires so much memorization. That’s what kills me, is memorization. I like to be able to interpret a situation.

Aaron: See, what kills me…[are] routine things, like going to the same high school every day and [having] to clean up the same lunch…

Caroline: Well, there [are] tons of jobs like that.

Aaron: That one’s so dirty though.

Caroline: …Of necessary but unpleasant jobs.

Aaron: Plumbers, I admire…

Caroline: Yeah! Plumbers or electricians cuz [those jobs] take brains. Well, not plumbers so much.

Jesse: Different brains…I wouldn’t have that set of brains, for sure.

Caroline: Gynecologist. They’re good people. I’m really glad they exist, but I totally don’t want to be one [laughing]!

Jesse: Right…

Caroline: Aaron’s like, oh my god [laughing]!

Aaron: What about bus drivers?

Jesse: Bus drivers, that’s a good one.

Caroline: Hmm, only if they’re nice.

Jesse: Guilty pleasures?

Caroline: I’m not guilty about much.

Jesse: For example, Bret Easton Ellis is my guilty pleasure...

Caroline: What am I actually guilty about? Because a lot of our pleasures, we should be but aren’t…

Jesse: We could come back to it. I just have a few more questions anyway.

What’s the most positive way you plan to use your success, or that you have already? Like charities or benefits…or [a way] you would love to be able to use your success down the line…

Aaron: Can we invest our success? I’m into investments.

Caroline: Aaron wants to become one of those Wall Street bloodsucking types.

Aaron: No, not at all.

Caroline: Great, fuck charity.

Aaron: What? That’s not what I said.

Caroline: I’m joking [all laughing].

Jesse: What would you invest in?

Aaron: Fuel cell research.

Caroline: That’s awesome! I’d like to use our success to be able to play in front of broader and broader audiences. A lot of people don’t have access to good music cuz they have a filter of mass media between them, and that’s the music they end up finding out about. I think what would be really cool would be to get into people’s lives that would otherwise not be able to find out about us.

Jesse: Yeah, that’s cool. I like that too. That’s what I want to do with my magazine in a lot of ways. It’s important.

Aaron: I still can’t think of anything I’m guilty about…We’re hard people to embarrass.

Jesse: Well, that’s good. That’s a great quality to have.

Caroline: I keep thinking about the cliché stuff, so I’m trying to think of something I’ve been listening to that I totally shouldn’t be…Oh yeah, I totally take baths and listen to new age music.

Jesse: See.

Caroline: That’s super guilty. I listen to really corny new age music.

Jesse: Does it help de-stress you?

Caroline: I just like those synths a lot. I like taking ideas for sounds from it, but not melodies.

Aaron: Enya?

Caroline: Yeah, Enya’s only the tip of the iceberg. Steven Halpern or Vangelis.

Aaron: Steven Halpern, yeah. “Deep Healing (Synths).”

Caroline: That’s the only really good song! The rest of his stuff is kind of bad. But there [are] a couple songs that are totally genius.

Jesse: That’s a pretty good guilty pleasure. I just have one more question. What’s the larger message you’d like to get across as a band?

Caroline: To be unafraid of enjoying life.

Jesse: That’s nice.

Aaron: Yeah, don’t have any guilty pleasures.

Jesse: [All laughing] Those are good last words.
Photo by Jason Rodgers

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