Two and a half years ago, Patrick Wimberly and Caroline Polachek stepped inside the 6,600 square foot complex in South Williamsburg where Pfizer had spent more than 150 years developing pharmaceuticals like Lipitor and Viagra. There were dining halls, deserted laboratories and enormous concrete rooms—but when they arrived at an area punctuated with defunct Dell computers, abandoned cubicles and wires dangling from the ceiling, they felt as though they’d discovered something special. “It looked like the final scene of Jurassic Park, everything was in ruins,” Polachek recalls. “We fell in love with it,” adds Wimberly.
With some help from their friends, the duo, who comprise electronic pop group Chairlift, transformed the space into a recording studio. “To get there each day, it was like traveling through different layers of the city and becoming exponentially more private in the process,” Polachek explains. In the morning they’d each have breakfast, leave their homes, blend into the subway and re-emerge sandwiched between the Marcy Projects and Woodhull Hospital. Making their way through the building to the studio presented yet another series of steps. “Even though we were embedded in New York, there was this feeling that we were protected by all of these layers. It felt private.”
And it was in this unlikely cocoon that Wimberly and Polachek would write, record, and self-produce Moth, their third full-length album which will be released by Columbia this week. In the four years since their last album, 32 year-old Wimberly spent time touring with Solange Knowles while 30-year-old Polachek released a solo-project under the moniker Ramona Lisa; she also wrote and produced “No Angel” for Beyonce in 2013, for which Wimberly received co-production credit. Though they have stated that Moth is a metaphor for vulnerability, the album title poignantly touches on the way both musicians have emerged from those experiences and from their unlikely Brooklyn chrysalis in metamorphosed form.
Chairlift has delved deeper into pop and they’ve never sounded better.
Though there are songs on Moth that are recognizably Chairlift (“Unfinished Business” and “Crying In Public” for instance), the record as a whole stakes out sonic territory that 2008’s Does You Inspire You and 2012’s Something didn’t venture into. The production is glossier and more vivid — and in a contemporary pop fashion, there is no shortage of 808-esque bass hits and catchy-hooks.
“We weren’t playing with the idea of genre as much as we had in the past,” Polachek notes. “We knew right away that we wanted it to feel like 2015. We wanted it to feel like New York City.”
The move is a bold one for an act that began in 2005 as a project intended to create background music for haunted houses. In moving further away from their avant-garde roots, Chairlift inadvertently touches on the idea of how “indie” an artist can really remain while releasing music that is consciously more mainstream; they set foot in the friction-filled grey area that can sometimes exist between genres. Take, for example, Grimes’ 2014 release of “Go,” a track that was written for, but ultimately rejected by, Rihanna. “Everybody was like, ‘Oh, Grimes is pandering to the radio,’” she said during an interview following its contentious debut. It wasn’t until the 2015 release of Art Angels, that fans by-and-large realized she hadn’t conformed so much as pushed indie to a polarizing new place where it sat on the fringe of pop.
What is similarly remarkable about Moth is that amidst the familiarity and catchiness, the tracks are never predictable; layers and layers of texture showcase the group’s expansive and complex approach to the pop genre. “Polymorphing,” with its lush saxophone interjections, chorused-out guitars, and free-wheeling vocals is perhaps the best example of this. Working with Beyonce, notes Polachek, “made us realize that listeners and the industry are more open minded than we may have previously thought. It changed the way we approached this album, it gave us a lot of confidence and erased boundaries.”
In a little cafe in Brooklyn, over quiche and mugs of coffee, the bandmates spoke in depth about the album and their hopes for the coming year. Here is an excerpt from that chat:
The more you listen to this album, the more you discover. Like that scream you do, Caroline, at the end of “Polymorphing.” I didn’t actually catch that the first few times.
CP: That scream was really funny, actually. We’d borrowed a mic that day from our friend Ben Goldwasser [of MGMT] and tracked a scream using it. We sent him an MP3 that had a lot silence and then a really loud scream as a practical joke. But it did make the album.
What inspired that song?
CP: It’s really an homage to a Japanese pop star named Tetsuro Oda. I had heard his music for the first time in 2012 and loved how feel-good it was. I love how he’s not careful with the vocals, how he really flings them around even as he sings on top of a band that is so surgically precise. That said, we did not approach this song with surgical precision [laughs].
PW: A lot of chaos. We had it mixed by Mick Guzauski who used to work on the Earth, Wind And Fire records.
CP: And then vocally that song has the most resemblance to songs like “Amanaemonesia.” I wanted it to feel as if you were listening to another language. It’s not really about anything other than that feeling of gushy-ness and mania.
The album is very much about New York. Would you ever leave this place?
PW: Sometimes I dream about leaving here but it’s hard to imagine the day that I’d actually pack up my things and do that. If I had to move anywhere I’d probably go back to Nashville.
CP: I’d like to try living outside of the U.S. for nine months out of the year and then coming back. I think I always have this sense of coming back, returning. I was born here and both of my parents worked in the city while I was growing up. I always had this sense that New York is the place Caroline goes when she is a grown up, and I still sort of feel that way. Right now I’m really compelled by Eastern Europe — that’s where my ethnic roots are.
Is there anything you do to take care of your voice, Caroline?
CP: A couple of little things. I mean, humidifiers, first of all. Especially this time of year. When I’m outside I keep my scarf wrapped around me because of the salt and the pollution; the scarf sort of acts like a humidifier in a way. And then just maintainance: singing as much as possible, humming during the day to keep it from closing down. Some singers prefer to warm up less, but I’m the opposite. The more I’m warmed up, the better.
It’s funny, I guess I always assumed using your voice so much would wear it out more.
CP: It changes over the years, actually. I’ve also started to be able to access a lower — if you think of the voice range as going from 1-10, I used to be strongest around 7. But suddenly 5 has woken up. I used to be able to sing it, but now I can really dig in there. And I haven’t lost 10, I haven’t gone lower than a 1, but suddenly its opened up.
Speaking of numbers, what does the code 27-9-9-23 reference in “Ch-Ching”?
CP: It was the combination lock of our recording studio at the time. Apparently it’s also the number of a certain Whirlpool washing machine though. There are some people on the internet who have really gotten into numerology and have tried to make connections between what the washing machine means with the song [laughs] and I’m not mad at it! Not just lyrically, but there are a lot of different motifs we’ve embedded in the album. For example, there’s a finger cymbal that plays in every single song but at a different moment in each of them.
What is the first instrument you learned? Each of you plays so many of them.
PW: Guitar for me.
CP: Besides voice? We had a piano in my house growing up. My Dad is a classical pianist and he was very sensitive to sound in the house. He got irritated by my playing the piano incorrectly, so my Mom got me a little Yamaha PSR keyboard because there was a volume knob on it. But there was also a transpose key, so I learned at like six or seven years old that if I wanted to play along with a Disney song, all I had to do was hit the plus or minus button until the chord I was playing lined up—then I could play along. As a result though, I only ever learned how to play in the key of C. I can hear intervals very clearly, but I hear everything relative to the key of C. Every Chairlift show, every Chairlift recording—even if it’s in other keys, I’ve transposed it to C. Which is why, unfortunately, I can’t really play actual pianos now, even though I love the sound of them.
Was it around then that you became interested in making music?
CP: When I got that keyboard, there were all sorts of drum sounds and synthesizer sounds. So I learned at a very young age what a synth pad was, what the difference between a kick and a snare was. Without realizing it, I was learning what the elements of pop production were. It had a recording bank where you could record six different ideas, so I’d make these little demo sketches of different songs and record them. But I was writing songs like that when I was in high school—very diaristic and probably horrible. In that sense I got really lucky that my parents didn’t force me to take piano lessons and that they got me the keyboard instead. I probably would not be making pop music if I didn’t have those little synths growing up.
Do you remember the first time you guys met?
CP: It’s a funny story. I did my first two years of college at the University of Colorado. I got there early for freshman orientation and didn’t know anyone, so I looked at a school newspaper and saw that Cat Power was playing a free show down the street. I saw the opening band and as the band was loading the gear off the stage, I went up and to them and said, “Hey, my name is Caroline. I just moved here, if you guys ever need backing vocals or a keyboardist, I’d love to play with you guys.” And one of them was like, “Give me your number and we’ll hit you up.” So I watched the rest of the show and was like “Woah, I love college. This is awesome.” The next morning I got a call from an unknown number and it was Patrick. “Hey, Caroline,” he said. “This is Patrick. I just wanted to let you know we’re not actually looking for someone to be in the band. That was my friend Jason. He’s not even in the band, he just wanted your number [laughs]. If you want to come over and have a beer and listen to some records…” Having a beer with an upperclassman as a freshman was an exciting prospect so I went over to his apartment.
PW: We listened to Jackson Five, right? And Weather Report. [laughs]
CP: Patrick showed me a new song he was working on and I was like, “I think it’s awesome, but I think this one part would be better if it went like this.” I played for him and he was like “Wait. Do that again.” He called the rest of the band over and within half an hour I was in the band. When that band died, Chairlift started as a duo with me and another guy who I’d met in economics class. When he and I moved to New York — I got accepted to NYU — I bumped into Patrick on the street. We hadn’t realized that we’d both moved to the same place. So we invited Patrick to a Chairlift show and he was like, “I would love to play drums in your band.” We didn’t need a drummer, but I invited him to hang out at practice and then the same exact story happened. He showed up with a drum kit and played along. I looked at him and said, “Wait. do that again.”
What was the writing process like for this record? Did you journal, were you creating moodboards?
CP: With our writing, it’s really all audio. We were watching a lot of films while we were recording — really so that we had something for our eyes to settle on that wasn’t the computer. But the visuals are all embedded in the music for me, you don’t need to write them down anywhere. It’s in the lyrics, it’s in the sounds.
“Romeo” is the only song on the album that you wrote as a reference to a myth, right? It’s about Atalanta.
CP: Yeah, I’m glad that you picked up on that. That song started out as a groove first and I really wanted it to be about running but I didn’t have any stories I could pull from my personal life. I didn’t want it to be figurative, I wanted it to be about the physical act of running. So I thought, well, who has better stories than the Ancient Greeks? It didn’t take much poking to find that one . . . it’s so sick too. I was hoping to do a very literal music video for that one, to actually stage it on a track but then we started talking with the directors and whole other sort of look came up.
How many tracks were left over when you finished recording?
CP: Not many at all, maybe five or six. But for our last record we wrote almost 40 songs with full productions and lyrics.
Those are in the vault?
CP: They’re not coming back, there’s a reason they didn’t make the record.
Did you have to disassemble the studio you guys built for this album?
CP: We rent it out to other bands now, it’s still there.
PW: Originally we were going to move in there just to make this record but we cultivated a whole group of musicians and engineers while we were there.
CP: We got in there three years ago, just when it had sort of begun to open up and now a lot of food production companies are in there, not many musicians. The building is pretty much full now.
Now that the record is about to come out, what do you hope this year holds for you? What do you want out of 2016?
CP: I’d really like to connect with the people who are listening to our music. We’ve been in the studio for so long. We played a festival in Mexico two months ago and it was such an exhilarating feeling to understand that the music is really doing something in people’s lives that we have almost nothing to do with. We played for about 15,000-20,000 people and had a meet-and-greet, it was incredibly moving. I was actually crying while meeting fans and they were crying. I am just looking forward to more of that feeling.
PW: Yeah. We spent the last two-and-a-half years in the studio, going deep into making music. Now it’s just so exciting to see people singing along to those songs. There are songs we put out less than a week ago and people are singing them in the front row. It’s an amazing thing.