Just four years ago, Chairlift — then a collection of undergraduates at University of Colorado at Boulder — was playing at a garage party for singer/synth player Caroline Polacheck’s art class. As students displayed their classwork along the walls, they debuted new songs.
An art major from New York, Polacheck had met Aaron Pfenning — a singer/guitarist studying creative writing — in an economics class, of all things.
“The actual class was 300 people, but the recitation section was just 15 and he stuck out like a sore thumb,” she says during a telephone interview while breaking from band rehearsals. “All the other kids were homogenous jocks going to into business school because that’s what their parents wanted. And then this kid walked in late with long, scruffy blonde hair, sunglasses indoors and a leather jacket, and sat down next to me. It was apparent he and I were the only ones in class with any interest in music. So at the second class we swapped demos and then started playing together.”
At first they envisioned their collaboration as her lending support to his singer/songwriter projects. But as she started contributing to the writing, a band name was in order. Earlier, Polacheck had proposed Chairlift as the name for another group she had played with and quit.
“One day, when I was supposed to work on my French homework, I had my little French translation book out and there were a lot of single words I thought would make band names,” she says.
She wrote out 100; all were vetoed. “I forgot about the file, but left it on the computer. Aaron found it and thought the name Chairlift was really charming.”
Fast-forward to 2009, and Chairlift is long gone from Colorado. The trio — Polacheck, Pfenning and drummer/bass player Patrick Wimberly — has become ensconced in the thriving Brooklyn Indie Rock scene. They are friends with Grizzly Bear, Vampire Weekend and MGMT. (They moved to New York so Polacheck could get her art degree from New York University; Pfenning has put his degree on hold.)
Their highly regarded debut album, Does You Inspire You?, is such a hot property that Columbia Records acquired the rights from indie label Kanine Records and re-released it with new tracks. (In support of it, Chairlift has previously come to Cincinnati as an opening act.)
And, most crucially, Chairlift released a “hit” — an effortlessly catchy, sunny-with-dark-shadows exchange between Polacheck and Pfenning called “Bruises.” Her strong yet pleasingly fluttery voice evoked both mystery and clarity. You should know it from its use in last year’s ubiquitous iPod Nano commercial, the ironically playful yet disturbing song that sounded like it could have been sung by Michael Cera and Ellen Page in Juno.
Apple chose the song before Chairlift had even released a debut album — in fact, the trio had to rush-release the album, with its version of the song, to have it widely available when the campaign started. At the time, an earlier version of the song was available on their self-distributed EP, Daylight Savings. It contained cuts that Polacheck, Pfenning and an earlier Chairlift bassist had recorded at New Monkey Studio in Los Angeles in 2006.
Two years later, Chairlift — with Wimberly, who knew Polacheck from Boulder — were playing at their first L.A. gig as an opening act. By accident, the girlfriend of Nic Harcourt — at the time the influential host of Morning Becomes Eclectic on radio station KCRW-FM — was in the audience.
“She was not even there to see us, but she loved us and bought a copy of Daylight Savings,’’ Polacheck says. “And the next day ‘Bruises’ was played on Morning Becomes Eclectic and continued to be played as this weird Indie song. We think that’s where Apple heard it for the first time.
“We wouldn’t accept just any ad campaign — we have strong feelings about the way commercial products get marketed and all the bullshit that goes into it. But Apple, in general, is a company we all completely stand behind. It has changed the way music is made. It’s made music so much easier and cheaper and intuitive and ergonomic.”
CHAIRLIFT plays the MidPoint Music Festival at 9:30 p.m. Saturday at Grammer's "Topic Design Tent." Buy tickets, check out performance times and get MPMF details here.