Chairlift: ‘You have to be honest with where your inspiration’s coming from’

Inspiration lurks in the strangest places. Just ask New York duo Chairlift, who owe much of their new record to the sight of a gorilla-chested Sean Connery leaping around an Irish hillside in a red mankini. This was the scene that played out night after night in the duo’s South Williamsburg studio as they made their third album Moth while watching the grizzled Scot’s obscure 1974 caper Zardoz, found in a petrol station bargain bin, in which the former James Bond is chased by warring survivors and savages in a colourful, post-apocalypse world.

Chairlift can’t stop giggling about it. “It has the most stunning visuals, but the whole thing is falling apart,” says singer Caroline Polachek. “Patrick put a sticker on the remote control that said ‘Zardoz controller’ because that was all we ever watched on it. We must have played it on silent 500 times while making this record.” Listen to Moth with the film, she jokes, and “it probably matches shot for shot” – a nod to the Pink Floyd album that, according to stoner legend, syncs perfectly with The Wizard Of Oz.

So Chairlift set about outrunning Bruises’ shadow. In the five years that followed, Polachek and Wimberly parted ways with Pfenning and released 2012’s Something, digging deeper into their 80s pop obsession with added shadowiness and gothic murder ballads. Then came – to the surprise of everyone, including Chairlift themselves – a collaboration with Beyoncé. The pair dusted her 2013 self-titled LP with atmospheric haze on the track No Angel, joining fellow Brooklyners Dev Hynes, Dirty Projectors and Grizzly Bear in an elite bracket of Knowles dynasty-approved underground artists blurring the borders between the mainstream and its fringes.

Working with a megastar confirmed that, even as indie artists, Chairlift could sneak a seat at pop’s top table. “The experience of having something we wrote on Beyoncé’s record was one of our boundaries being teared down,” agrees Wimberly (who is also currently working on Solange Knowles’s album). “Just because people call us indie musicians doesn’t mean that’s our potential.” Polachek says that their infiltration into Beyoncé’s camp made “us realise how porous and freaky pop music is. It’s not glamorous. It’s people sweating over MIDI controllers, not getting sleep, making something asymmetrical and weird that somehow ends on the radio.”

In the two years since Beyoncé, they’ve experimented with new kinds of their own freaky, porous music, culminating in Moth. The album is indebted to and inspired by New York and soaks up the myriad influences that come from living in a modern multicultural city. Its lead single Ch-Ching is perhaps the best example of how they tie unusual sounds – oriental bells, 1970s saxophone – and the more familiar slink of R&B hooks and smoky synths into elegant knots. It was also accompanied by a striking video incorporating Jamaican dancehall choreography and Japanese costume design against the gritty backdrop of a New York industrial estate: a global-looking video for a global-sounding song.

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