"We wanted it to feel very percussive and yet kind of coasting, like a car through a desert" — Caroline Polachek on 'Something'.
Brooklyn-based band Charilift (made up of Caroline Polachek and Patrick Wimberly) are like a brilliant 80s electro-pop duo who have visited the future, met up with ambient outfits, lo-fi rockers and dreamy pop songstresses, and then come back to share it with us. We like them so much that we shot them for our Music Issue when they were in Australia last. We recently called up Caroline to talk about recording Something in an antique store in New York, style icons and wanting to tour with the Presets before they come back here to play Parklife.
Leesa Gallaher: What are you up to at the moment?
Caroline Polachek: I'm sitting in my kitchen, I'm not wearing any shoes, and I'm listening to you in massive headphones right now so you're kind of in stereo.
How have the dynamics of Chairlift changed, going from a trio to a duo?
It's really exciting to work as a duo in the studio because there's never anyone who's slacking off. If there are three people there's usually one person going out for a cigarette or something, but when there are two people, the entire album exists in that rapport between just you two and the whole album is written in a collaborative way, when of course the first one was just written by the guitar. For Something we wrote everything in front of each other, which was really amazing and actually a little bit scary for me because I'd never written a melody or lyrics in front of somebody before, so there was a lot of trust. We have vey complementary skill sets, and that made it really nice.
Can you tell us a bit about the story behind Something?
It's kind of about a moment in our lives, and the kind of energy that we wanted to capture. We'd been touring our first record for about a year-and-a-half and we felt this itching need for change. We wanted to do something that had a lot more energy and was more vivid. We were also experiencing a lot of tension in our personal lives — Patrick and I had met people, and we were going through a lot of challenges to be with those people. We were both interested in writing songs that were more personal and experimenting with sound. Out of those desires the album came about organically without any kind of concept. We wanted it to feel very percussive and yet kind of coasting, like a car through a desert.
Was it a challenge working with a major label for the first time?
It was, but it was actually nice. I don't have any regrets musically and they didn't ever censor us which was great, but at the same time we were really artistically frustrated by how long everything took. There are so many people you have to get approval from and go through. It almost becomes very unnatural and it just gets so protracted that you get bored of your own work before anyone else gets to hear it. So that's kinda frustrating, but you wouldn't be able to work with a producer like Dan Carey [who they worked with on Something] if it wasn't for that.
What kind of influence did Dan have on the album?
Dan came in at a very late stage of the process so we'd already demo'd our songs in quite a lot of detail. Dan was getting a full picture of the character of each production, like for example 'Sidewalk Safari' felt very yellow… and 'Ghost Night' was dark and haunted. His role was to take these songs and amplify them, make them as extreme as he could. Dan's obsessed with texture so we really got obsessive working on different sound, for example, the sounds in 'Wrong Opinion' where the synths that do that roar in the chorus. We'd all tweak out for days getting really into making these sounds as extreme as possible. All the vocals for 'Sidewalk Safari' were recorded in Dan's car so the sound of the engine running is in all of the vocal takes. We put a plastic head in the backseat so that you'd get a backseat passengers perspective of all the vocals.
You also produced a lot of the album in the back of an antique store — how did that come about?
It was a massive stroke of luck! We wanted a place to write in in New York that was private and where there wasn't a metal band practising next door, and a place that wasn't our apartments either... We came upon this guy named Sven who was opening an antique shop and had an extra room in the back with a couch in it and a small window and a ceiling fan and that was it. It was perfect. The interesting thing about that room was that it was very easy to forget where we were, what era we were living in, and even what city we were living in. It felt like stepping into some kind of closet without any information at all. We had one synth, one bass, a very minimal drum kit, one guitar, and monitors and piano.
You guys get compared to 80s synth pop all the time, how do you feel about that comparison?
You are what you eat. I was listening to a lot of 80s synth music before working on this record — not because I wanted it to be a reference but just because that's what I was enjoying at the time. Particularly Yellow Magic Orchestra, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, and Roxy Music. I really like the combination of beautiful epic melodies and very sweet, pretty vocals and the diffident percussive metallic quality of the beats.
Last time you were here you were on Triple J's 'Like A Version', covering Beyonce. Are you a fan of hers?
I'm a big fan of Beyonce's last record. I think it goes into some crazy territory and she's really brave for having put that out.
What other artists are you into?
My guilty pleasure at the moment is the new Frank Ocean record. I don't even know why I'd say it's a guilty pleasure. I think that song 'Thinking About You' is totally fucking brilliant. I'm into it a lot. I'd like to write something that's that simple and touching and beautiful.
Did you read the coming out letter he posted online a few weeks ago?
Yeah, I did. I thought that was great too. Good timing…
Who is your favourite pop star of all time?
I think I know immediately who it is. It's not someone who gets enough credit but I think in the near future he might — singer and songwriter Paddy McAloon from 80s band Prefab Sprout.YouTube him. He's incredible. He cuts to the centre of these stories and it feels like real life. The way he sings is so expressive.
You did a shoot with us a few issue ago. While you were here did you discover any Australian labels that you loved, that you wanted to take back home?
I really like Sara Phillips' use of military detail and also the new age quality is very much up my alley. She does halter necks and works with camouflages, and the label has a touch of Blondie circa the 70s as well. It's really, really cool.
You have awesome style. Who are your influences?
I can't help but be influenced by women who I love who don't care about fashion that much — women like Delia Derbyshire from the late 50s and 60s at the English BBC. I think she's the most stylish person ever because she never really left the basement. I went through a phase recently when I was obsessed with the way Jane Goodall was dressing out in the field in the 60s. I just love the idea of clothes being functional and at the same time flattering. I was living in Italy for a while and I became obsessed with the way the street workers dress there. They have burgundy uniforms that turn orange and they've got reflective stripes on them. It's almost arbitrary but there's something so cool about it, almost like Jil Sander or something.
Do you dress differently whether you're on-stage or off-stage?
I think of it as the same style but just turned up or turned down. I've been getting more into minimal shapes and things that are quite graphic. It's good for stage because I like the shapes it'll leave from far away. There's a couple of New York designers who I love like Yara Nomia and Mandy Coon, and a British Designer who I love as well named Hannah Marshall — all of whom do really graphic, futuristic without the bullshit, shapes.
You shared a bill with Nite Jewel (who we interviewed for Oyster #99). What was that like?
It was amazing! Nite Jewel is one of my favourite contemporary artists, hands down. I think Ramona is a genius. It was a real pleasure to hear those songs every day and be on the road with those guys.
I can imagine. If you could tour with any artist who would it be?
It would probably be the Presets reunion tour!
Have you got any collaborations in the mix at the moment?
I did a duet with a good friend of mine and one of my favourite New York musicians, The Ice Choir. They're about to put out their first record and I sing a duet which is the last song on it. It's called 'Everything is Spoiled by Youth', and it's a kind of fucked up song because it's a duet between an artist and his suppressed imagination that he's intentionally suppressing and exploiting, and it's crying out at him for help, to be released. It's almost like a horse who's being treated badly by his master. At first I thought it was a really pretty, poetic duet and then I started listening to the lyrics and got chills up my spine reading what they actually were.
Photography: Ryan Kenny for Oyster #98
Introduction: Jerico Mandybur
Interview: Leesa Gallaher