With killer beats and unusually melodic hooks for days, Chairlift's third album Moth, could easily be one of the best pop albums of 2016 so far. Some critics are hoping it'll reach mainstream success -- you can't read one article about them without a reference to their 2008 brush with hitdom, "Bruises," made famous from its placement in an Apple commercial -- but Moth doesn't have to reach back to those days. It stands on its own.
For the uninitiated, Chairlift is much more than the Brooklyn pop duo of Caroline Polachek and Patrick Wimberly -- they produce everything themselves (with the help of their talented friends) and have lent their talents to Beyonce's self-titled album in 2013. They bring art to their love-drenched music, mixing in menacing electric guitar, pizzicato strings, rumbling bass drum, funky brass and one of the strongest voices in the game. They take their music to the visual realm, telling a dark, cinematic, "Blade Runner"-esque story in the "Romeo" video and embracing color and choreography in "Ch-Ching."
On release day in January, they dug into the world of ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) and the YouTube trend of "unboxing" to celebrate Moth's arrival. ASMR is the phenomenon of a cool, tingly feeling you get in your scalp when you're triggered by soft sounds, like the whispering Caroline does in the video below, and it's where I began my conversation with Chairlift when they visited MTV.
MTV: I saw your ASMR unboxing video. I don’t think I can do it.
Caroline: Well, I either think you feel it or you don’t. So some people aren’t receptive to it at all, and some people are very receptive to it.
MTV: Can you do it to yourself?
Patrick: I doubt it, because you have too much resonating in your head when you speak.
Caroline: My husband can do to himself though, because he likes to read out loud. And he says that he gives himself ASMR tingles when he reads out loud.
MTV: That’s crazy.
Caroline: Yeah, he’s getting his grad degree in engineering right now, so sometimes I’ll walk into the apartment and hear him like -- he doesn’t whisper though -- he’ll just be like, [lowers voice] 'and for thermal insulation, you need to double the circumference,' and I’ll just be like, 'Ian! What’s up!' And he’s just like, 'Oh hey! Sorry, what’s up?'
MTV: To start, what is Moth about?
Caroline: Moth is our third record that we just put out last week. I think all the songs are about different things, but if we were to speak about it as a whole, it’s really about, it’s about joy, and about sensuality and vulnerability and also fun, energy, living in New York in 2015, being out of control, wanting to be in control, failing! It’s a sort of story of our lives.
MTV: Which songs are the most vulnerable?
Caroline: To me, the songs that are most vulnerable are “Crying In Public,” and the last song of the record, which is called “There is No Such Thing As An Illusion.”
MTV: How did you guys meet?
Patrick: We met when I had a different band back in like 2002, or ’03, or ’04. And we were in college at University of Colorado in Boulder, and we were just playing a show opening up for Cat Power and Caroline was in the crowd and came up and introduced herself afterwards, and then we starting making music together the next week, I think.
MTV: What drew you to each other?
Caroline: Well, I liked the music. Patrick had a band at the time – not Chairlift, before Chairlift – that made really jazz-inspired rock. It had a sort of like, dry, coolness about it, and I also like that they were using unconventional instruments, like vibraphones, so it just felt really cool. I was a college freshman, and I didn’t know anyone so I asked if they need backing vocals or a keyboard player. And they said 'no,' but somehow I weaseled my way into the band anyway. And then, within a month I was the lead singer. Then the band broke up, I started Chairlift, and then Patrick weaseled his way into it as a drummer. Thank god! Otherwise we wouldn’t be sitting here right now.
Patrick: I think we realized we had similar intentions and musical goals. And I have trouble articulating what those are sometimes, but I know that we share the same goals, musically.
MTV: What do you have in common -- musically, or otherwise?
Patrick: We’re very different, and we’ll have very different influences, separately, even if we’re working on one song we’re both being influenced or listening to something drastically different, and we both have certain things we’re good at…
Caroline: Patrick is like *here* [motions to heart, stomach area], and I’m more like *here* [motions to head], and then Patrick likes things that are very warm and groovy and soulful, and I’m more attracted to things that are like really textured, intricate, and formal….and Patrick is always on time, and I’m always late! I’m always tidy, and Patrick is always a mess! But you know, we work together well and we keep each other in line.
MTV: So you have gut instincts, is that what you mean about patting your stomach?
Caroline: I just mean sonically. Patrick gravitates towards like low end and subs, stuff that’s really warm and groove-driven. But for me more like texture and melody and harmonics. But yeah, we work well together. We’re also really good at filtering each other, which is good, because both of us are sort of maximalists – I guess that’s something we have in common – we both like to put too much in songs, so as we work together we’ve gotten better at sort of hearing each other's ideas and being like, 'I like that one!' and we’ve actually really learned to take advantage of each other’s filters, so we sort of make everything we do very specific, specific to Chairlift.
MTV: Is songwriting something you work on sporadically, like when you get an idea? Or do you carve out a chunk of time to go down to the studio and write?
Caroline: For us, songwriting is sort of like a tap that we turn on. We could write and write and write and write and write for days, but we actually wrote these songs for this record quite fast, and then once we had the songs that we felt that fit together we just stopped writing at that point, and just focused on production. Because as we learned on this record just because the song is composed does not mean that the production is right. We actually had a song on this record called 'Show You Off' that we scrapped the production, including vocal takes and everything, and rebuilt from the ground up six times because we weren’t happy with it. We know this song is good but this just isn’t working, and we just had to start over.
MTV: That seems so frustrating.
Caroline: It’s frustrating, but we learn so much every time. No regrets.
Patrick: And it’s never too frustrating; it’s always fun. It’s such a fun song to work on – it would excite me. We would be like 'let’s scrap this whole production and start again! Let’s do it again, sounds fun.'
MTV: 'Ch-Ching' was filmed in Harlem and Queens. 'Romeo' was filmed in Chinatown. Do you have any more videos planned to shoot in other parts of New York?
Caroline: We’re shooting a music video next week for “Crying in Public.” I can’t wait.
MTV: So when you’re writing your music and producing, what kind of stuff triggers you? And what inspires you?
Patrick: A lot of times when we are starting a new song we like to come up with a bit of a groove first and that’ll set off a lot of trigger for us. Often, it’s about laying down – we might talk about a tempo or something that might, for some reason, match up. It might be like calculations of how much coffee I’ve had and her coffee divided by two. It’s a very scientific process, and then we kind of pick the tempo and we start laying down the groove. And we’ve gotten good at being able to do that really fast. But then we’ll have this thing, this kind of loop and it’ll trigger lots of ideas for us. We try to keep it very minimal at first, and then we kind of run around our studio and start jumping on different instruments. Caroline always has a microphone or her cell phone to record any melodies that she gets.
Caroline: We’ve got a really child-like approach; it’s almost like playing with toys – especially for this record. I get melodic ideas all the time, almost every day, walking around the city – it’s really when I’m in motion actually, like when I’m biking or walking. And I record them on my phone; my iTunes is full of them, it’s totally embarrassing when they come on my accident. But for this record we kind of decided from the get-go that we weren’t going to come in with pre-set ideas. We liked the idea of having all the songs come out of this space, out of this vibe, and starting with improvisations. So yeah, like Patrick was saying they all start with a groove and then the lyrics, are, actually in a lot of cases, are inspired by how the music makes us feel.
MTV: I wonder why a lot of the ideas come out of movement... maybe it's all the coffee?
Patrick: I think it was intentional for us on this record. We wanted it to be moving, and we meant that in a physical way and an emotional way. We wanted some movement. And then when we would work on some of these productions and these songs – none of it was done until you could finally step away from it, and turn it up and move to it, and make sure it felt good.
Caroline: Rhythms are really comforting. Like, your heart is always beating and oceans are always going like *this* [waves], and babies like to have *this* [cradles arms] happen, and people like house music because it’s all about the regularity and the build and the pulse. So this was sort of our first time approaching our record from that point of view.
MTV: What’s your favorite track on the album?
Patrick: 'Ch-Ching,' because I like the way that it makes me move. Now that the record is out, it’s nice to go back and think about the whole process from the beginning to end, and that happened in the very early stages. And I just have very fun memories of the whole process, and I put that song on, and it flashes before my eyes – and then I think about how the record is finally out, and people can hear it, and that makes me feel good. I spent two years in that room working on this record. It’s exciting to hear it outside of the room.
Caroline: My favorite song is 'Crying in Public,' just because it feels sort of like the most 'us,' like the most “Chairlift” of the whole record. It feels so relatable to me in a lot of different moments. I think it relatable to a lot of other people too.
MTV: Important question: Is 'Ch-Ching''s '27-9-9-23' lyric a real combination?
Patrick: It was. We had to change the combination though.
MTV: I can see why. What was it to a safe?
Patrick: It was the combination to our studio. It was right when we got our first recording studio basically.
MTV: Why did you decide to put it in there?
Caroline: The song sort of has the feeling like a heist. It’s like the metaphor for the jewel thief taking something without permission. It’s a song about individualism essentially, which is why it starts out with the cowboy whistle. And I liked the idea of there being a magic number or a cheat code or a secret that’s getting passed from one person to the other that’s going to let you get access to something. So, that number just came in handy but it’s also just fun to sing numbers instead of singing words. And we invented a little hand movement that I’m going to teach you guys right now!