Polymorphing pop: a conversation with Chairlift

'We're bringing something to our performances that's uniquely ourselves.'

When Chairlift released “Ch-Ching” last October, it felt less like a typical lead single than an announcement: things were about to change. Slinky, brassy, and bold, it sounded more assertive than anything else in the band’s discography. It’s the kind of song you play when you’re strutting down the street to an interview, desperately seeking swagger. Caroline Polachek sums up the band’s new ethos with a single line in the chorus: “Getting what you want can be dangerous / but that’s the only way I want it to be.” It was one of last year’s most thrilling displays of musical self-determination.

The band’s new album Moth is being released this Friday, and it delivers on its lead single’s electric potential. Songs like “Polymorphing” and “Show U Off” are muscular iterations on the ‘80s pop and soul that influenced 2012’s Something; others, like “Romeo” and “Moth to the Flame,” share a rough exuberance with the work of contemporaries like Grimes and Sleigh Bells. The most exciting thing about the album is the confidence it radiates. It has vulnerable moments — like the wounded “Crying in Public” — but it never sounds bashful or ashamed; it’s the sound of artists who know themselves and how to execute a specific musical vision.

I spoke to Polachek and bandmate Patrick Wimberly on the phone last week about working with Beyoncé, David Bowie's influence on their work, and the energy they find in crowded subway stations. Both of them sounded assured, focused, and ready for the next phase of their career, and they’ve earned that readiness. The year is young, but Moth is one of its first truly impressive records.

chairlift moth album cover

Jamieson Cox: One thing that struck me about the album compared to Something and your past work is that it feels like a much more physical record. The songs hit a lot harder where they might’ve been airy in the past.

Caroline Polachek: That was very intentional. One of the goals we had when we started the record was making music for the body in a way we hadn’t done before.

I don’t know if you two have these, but I have these "strut songs" in my life — if I’m walking somewhere and I really need to pound the pavement and get psyched, I’ll have my strut songs. Do you know what I mean?

CP: Oh yeah, definitely. I think "Polymorphing" is our version of that song.

If you had to pick a personal one, what would it be?

Patrick Wimberly: That’s a great question.

CP: I’ve probably listened to "Try Me" by DeJ Loaf 500 times. It’s a little slower than your typical strut BPM, but it still works.

There are some assertive, horn-heavy parts of this album that really lend themselves to strutting, I think. You’ve called this your "New York record" — Is there a specific part of the city that really captures the spirit of the record?

CP: If you’re walking through the Union Square subway station — New Yorkers know it’s obnoxious and crowded, and in the summer it’s too hot — there are always amazing musicians playing, and sometimes there are multiple, different musicians set up in there. You’ll see every kind of New Yorker in there. You really feel like you’re in the belly of the beast when you’re in Union Square.

I want to talk a little about working on "No Angel." I know some of the material on the album predates that experience, but I want to talk about it in terms of interpretation — you write a song, you’re thinking about using it for yourself, it ends up with Beyoncé. Did hearing the way she interpreted the song change the way you looked at the material that ended up on the album?

CP: I wouldn’t say the way she sang it, specifically… It’s really easy to think of the way you sing as ground zero — as a normal, neutral place. Hearing Beyoncé do it made me realize the angle we’re approaching from isn’t necessarily normal or neutral. We’re bringing something to our performances that’s uniquely ourselves, and that experience made us see that a little more objectively. You get that every time you do a cover, actually, so this was sort of the opposite of that experience.

A lot of the experiences we’ve had over the last few years have given us an objective look at what we’re making. Every time Patrick works with another band on production, he comes back to Chairlift and says, "Oh, okay, now this is what we can do." When I work on a song with another band or another artist, I come back and say, "Okay, this is what I can do." Those ventures outside your zone can give you a more pointed sense of direction. It’s a contrast.

By working with other people, you learn something about yourself.

CP: Yeah, and you start to realize what your tendencies are when you step outside them. You can ask, "Why was I always doing things that way?" You can say, "Now that I’ve worked on a song that’s orange, I can come back and do something that’s blue." It gives you this conscious sense of feeling refreshed.

I will say hearing the Beyoncé track specifically was really interesting, because my own vocals had been really breathy and very delicate — to hear her do it with so much more body and power was really interesting. It served as inspiration to use my own power, and that’s why I started training. I wanted to be able to make more actual, physical sound with my own body, which I’d never been able to do before. One of the goals we had when making Moth was to have the vocals sound less treated and less processed than we’d ever had before, to just let them be exposed and very audible. It made me think in terms of the human body.

You can hear on the record that your voice has changed. There’s "Polymorphing," there’s the note at the end of "Show U Off" — that big, swooping Mariah Carey note — there’s a real difference there. How you did train in order to do that more physical stuff with your voice?

CP: It was very basic things. I started working with the same opera teacher I’d studied with casually when I was a teenager. I still had her number in my phone. It wasn’t until we actually started the record, after recording songs like "Romeo" and "Ch-Ching," that I realized, "Oh my God, if I tour these songs — especially if I tour them for a long time, like a year or more — if I don’t sing these in a healthy way, I can lose my voice permanently. At that point, I realized I should get help. I could handle them in the studio, and it was fun, but the thought of actually singing them night after night was a scary, scary prospect.

So I called her up and said, "Hey, this is Caroline Polachek, your student from 12 years ago. Do you remember me?" And she said, "Yeah! How are you doing?" And I said, "I’m doing great! Are you still teaching?" And she said, "Yeah, come over!" So that week I took the train out to suburban Connecticut, and we picked right back up with some of the same song pieces we’d left off with when I’d last seen her 12 years ago. It was mostly classical music: Rachmaninoff, Handel, some Mozart. I love the baroque period, so I love anything from that time with that austerity and that branching feeling. And then I’d come back to Chairlift and see if I could get that same sense of volume and richness in the voice when singing pop music.

You mentioned recording covers a few minutes ago, and you covered "Always Crashing in the Same Car" back in 2010. I think it’s easy to hear David Bowie in your work, and on this album too — what was your relationship with his work like? How does it affect the music Chairlift makes?

CP: His influence is so deep within our music I probably don’t understand it. I think he wrote the book on what artists should aspire to be — even before music videos were an influential part of pop music, he was making them —

PW: I just don’t think there’s any other artist that had the same effect on people, and on the world. David Bowie had a category by himself. He affected everybody: every creative person in the entire world was influenced by him at some point, not just musicians.

CP: I think the attitude he approached his career with affected me even more than sonics or the look of his work. You never see a picture of David Bowie where he looks stressed out. He has this sort of balance that seems zen-like or divine or something, and he manages to approach every single situation with a sort of elegance and humor and formality. He was such an elegant man. At a time when punk rock and industrial music were emerging, he was always such a gentleman, and that elegance had the biggest impact on my life.

I want to shift gears a little bit and talk about the length of the gestation period for this album. There were four years separating your debut and Something, and then another four years between Something and Moth. Does being signed to a major label help to facilitate a period of that length, or does it apply more pressure?

PW: The amount of time we spent making this record was always our own decision, and the label was amazing throughout the process. They let us do it exactly how we wanted and they gave us space and time to do it. I feel like they were happy with the record long before we were; we just wanted to keep going deeper.

We had a very different experience with the last record. We were happy after six months, they were really encouraging us to keep writing, and we were much happier with the result because we took longer. This time it was the opposite: six months into the writing process they were saying it was great, and we were just starting to get a clear picture of what it could be. We also worked on a lot of other projects in that time, which I think is essential to the way we both like to work. Patrick was producing and mixing records for a bunch of other bands, and I put out and toured a solo record in that time. All of it was experience we added into the Chairlift record.

Is there a particular song or two you’re really excited to take on the road and have people hear in a live setting?

CP: I think "Look Up" is immediately satisfying, and it’s kind of surprising to hear live, too. You don’t really think of it as a live song, but it’s so exciting to play live, and it was probably the biggest surprise for us. We didn’t expect it to sound so good or to be so much fun to play live, but it is.

You’ve been working as a band for almost a decade at this point. The industry has changed a lot in that time: you had a song break in an iPod commercial, and now iPods have been totally marginalized. What’s something you’ve learned over the course of that decade that feels particularly valuable?

CP: I think the biggest thing is that hard work pays off. We’ve worked crazy hours, we’ve worked on things for a very long time without stopping. You can change your mind and change it back, but I’ve never looked back on this experience and thought, "I should’ve stopped sooner. I should’ve taken more time off. I shouldn’t have bothered." I can’t look back on that. I think you have to trust yourself and trust your desire to hear something, to see something. If you want to see it, it’s going to take hard work.

PW: I think it’s important to trust yourself, and to have people around you that you trust. You can get so deep into something. If you’re working on a song in the studio or you’re spending a lot of time getting so close to something, it’s good to have a strong network of people. For me, it’s the engineers we work with and a bandmate I trust. Having that support system is the most important thing to me.