INTERVIEW

In the 80s and 90s, it was Levi’s. In the new century, it’s Apple who have a new ditty for each of their TV commercials.

chairlift

In the 80s and 90s, it was Levi’s. In the new century, it’s Apple who have a new ditty for each of their TV commercials, invariably from a buzz band who are perfectly happy to soundtrack the latest iWhatever if it means getting heard… and getting paid. The trouble is, while songs from the ads often make hits, they rarely make careers, as members of Spacehog, Orba Squara and countless forgotten others will surely attest.

Chairlift could’ve been saying that too, a year and a half ago. At the tail-end of 2010, the band had just finished an eighteen-month tour promoting ‘Does You Inspire You’, a promising, intriguing, if occasionally patchy, debut album that stylishly combined 80s kitsch and sombre electro pop. More pertinently, though, the album also contained ‘Bruises’, a bright, familiar (maybe a little too familiar for fans of The Cure’s ‘Close To You’) track that the wider world recognised as that “handstands for you” song from the latest iPod Nano ad. With the tour over but the ad still on the telly, ‘Bruises’ was bigger than the band, and now they had the unenviable task of writing album two in its shadow. To make matters worse, founding member Aaron Pfenning and lead singer Caroline Polachek had split up after three years together, leaving a two-piece where once was a trio.

But somehow, whatever didn’t kill Chairlift appears to have made them stronger and, after signing a major-label deal with Colombia Records and a year in the studio together working 9-5, five days a week, the remaining duo of Polachek and Patrick Wimberly came up with ‘Something’, one of the strongest, most cohesive collections of songs you’re likely to hear all year. Sung with equal parts longing and sass and then produced to within an inch of Madonna’s ‘Papa Don’t Preach’-era lawyers by Dan Carey (the man behind Kylie’s ‘Slow’, amongst others), the songs hang together effortlessly, and carry with them a real sense of craft. That particular care and attention to detail was a deliberate decision this time round, too: “With the first record, the songs weren’t written in a disciplined, or even experimental way,” explains Polachek, perched on a laundry basket in her dressing room at The Borderline, where she and Wimberly, who sits opposite her but says virtually nothing in our hour together, are about to play to a sell-out crowd. “The first record was more like, ‘Hey, this sounds like a song! It’s got a chorus and some verses! It’s done! Let’s record it! Yay!’ There wasn’t a lot of ‘well, could it be better?’; there wasn’t a lot of testing. But this time around we learned that that was possible, so from the very first day we started writing we wanted to make a super focussed record.”

That focus also extended to reining in the abundance of influences and sounds that peppered ‘Does You Inspire You’. Where album one had features as diverse as an ambient instrumental, a country ballad and a track that would best be described as indebted to Cyndi Lauper, ‘Something’ is deliberately streamlined. “We kept it down to about twelve synth sounds for the entire album,” explains Polachek. “Like, these are our two leads, these are our two pads, these are our two percussive sounds, etcetera, and it was a really good writing tool.” The effect works, too: despite having nothing sonically in common with the early days of rock’n’roll, the facepalm-simple musical palette which ‘Something’ keeps makes it feel frequently as solid and punchy as the equally basic ‘Jonny B Goode’, and while the album moves around in tempo and mood, there is a very satisfying sense of togetherness across the eleven tracks.

A by-product of this restrained palette, though, is a very distinct sense of time and place –

specifically, the major label music of 1980s America – but Polachek is unabashed at her fascination with the period. “For me, I’m drawn to it because of its mystery and formality,” she explains. “And I know that formality makes it sounds like it’s rigid, but I actually find it quite liberating for there to be a format to the music, so that you can almost hide behind it and play with it, and, in playing with it, that’s when you see someone’s personality. Maybe that’s just super postmodern, and maybe that’s my reaction to the overabundance of information in the Internet age, but I just want to feel in control of something, so I’m using an old medium that we’re all already familiar with to engage with that.

“You know like when you’re a kid you’re given animal toys, and you have this set of rules: here’s a lion, you can make the lion roar, but then in taking that lion and making it walk backwards or whatever, that’s your play. And playing with something that already has rules that you can break is fun.”

It’s pleasing to hear that this sense of subversion is deliberate, because it makes the complexities that lie beneath the surface of ‘Something’ that much more delicious. For while this is ostensibly a collection of pure pop songs with killer hooks and huge choruses, unsettling lyrical images are also abound: ‘Take It Out On Me’ is a break-up song dressed up as an execution (“I’m not afraid, so take me outside / I know what you’re here to do / Shotguns up familiar sleeves / Undercover but nobody’s fooled”) and ‘Cool As A Fire’’s piercing observation that “weakness wins if weakness shows” is not the only one of its kind. Indeed, Polachek enjoys this duality of disposable pop with a slightly sinister background hum. “I’m really interested in the idea of a Trojan horse, like sending something to radio that deep down in its soul is very strange and subversive and leads you astray,” she explains. “I like the idea of bundling these very accessible songs with not just cookie-cutter emotions, so that ten-year-olds hear us on the radio but get something different to their usual. When I was ten years old, that’s when my first really big, emotional interactions with music happened. It would be really cool to be that kind of band for them, but at the same time make music that’s rich, and not dumbed down at all.”

But by far the most attractive thing about ‘Something’, which elevates it above similar recent 80s-tinged pop records from the likes of Nite Jewel and Zola Jesus, is the strangely cinematic melancholy that it so frequently evokes, as if providing the soundtrack for the closing scenes of a film or the endless backwards panning shot that serves as a backdrop to the credits. The album’s anthemic stadium choruses deliver an immensely pleasurable jolt that’s somewhere between the Proustian rush brought on by digging out your old Walkman and the comforting warmth of a familiar jumper.

But alongside the enjoyment is the longing sigh of a thinly remembered bygone era, and it makes for an emotional impact akin to being slightly sad-drunk in the back of a minicab at 3am on a Saturday night, while Heart or Magic plays in the background. However, Polachek insists that although this nostalgia is not coming from Chairlift’s side, the poignancy and melancholy certainly is. “I never heard that 80s music when I was young,” she explains. “The reason I’m attracted to it now though is that it’s only on in gas stations and banks and supermarkets late at night – these cultural graveyards and desolate places. We wanted to reference those b-recordings from the 80s, these big pop songs that nobody listens to anymore, and I think that’s where the album’s sense of melancholy comes from – there’s definitely an attempt to evoke that loneliness.”

Live on stage, however, there’s no such thing. Indeed, Chairlift – now augmented to a five-piece live band – give a performance that’s nigh on euphoric. Polachek is a commanding frontwoman with a classically beautiful face, but is out to be weird: she dominates the stage with a series of moves half-way between Peter Crouch and Jarvis Cocker, and sings with alternately demented yowls and seductive purrs. She also strikes the crowd into utter silence during the songs – when she sings the final line of ‘Ghost Tonight’ a cappella, the show feels more like a recital than a gig. They play most of ‘Something’ and a couple of oldies – including ‘Bruises’ – and it’s an undeniably slick, glossy performance that is as impressive as it is enjoyable.

Indeed, there’s an undeniable sense of the well-oiled machine to this entire incarnation of Chairlift and its current output that inspires confidence in the listener. The whole of ‘Something’ swaggers not with any arrogance, but just a sense of satisfaction and honesty at a good job well done. Equally, Polachek elegantly walks the fine line herself between smugness and self-deprecation, both on and off stage, and comes across as eminently thoughtful and wise, particularly with regard to the future of her band. “We’re frankly just not that interested in playing a lot off the first record,” she explains, when I ask if she feels any obligation to give a nod to the past at tonight’s show. “I mean, we like those songs, we’re proud of the recordings and we’re proud to have our name on them, but no-one has requested them, so it’s fine.”

Of course, that’s not the case of the old “handstands for you” track. As I ask specifically about ‘Bruises’, Wimberly’s iPhone chirps with a Jobsian sense of timing. “We love playing ‘Bruises’,” Polachek insists. “We love it because we love how excited people get, taking out their iPhones and dancing around like maniacs. It’s endlessly ironic. We mustn’t see it as a millstone, even if we have played it a million times – we accept we’re at the beginning of our career, and we haven’t written anything bigger.” The pragmatism is admirable, but the thing is, they have.

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