RAWK TAWK: Q&A With Chairlift’s Aaron Pfenning

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meAVATAR2.jpgBY JONATHAN VALANIA Time was when licensing your songs for commercials was the kiss of death credibility-wise. All that was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, also known as the early 90s. Then along came a series of  stylish Volkswagen ads featuring choice cuts from the likes of Spirtualized and Nick Drake and suddenly the script was flipped. These days some of the best music can be heard in television commercials, artists get paid handsomely and their music spreads far and wide beyond the craggy walls of the indie ghetto, opening up further opportunities and vastly expanding sales figures. No harm no foul, right? Exactly, says Chairlift’s Aaron Pfenning who has no regrets that his band’s endearing electro-gem “Bruises” became an international earworm in 2008 courtesy of an iPod Nano ad. Recently, Phawker got Pfenning on the horn and discussed all the above along with Chairlift’s haunted house beginnings in Colorado, their Elliott Smith connection, Hunter S. Thompson’s funeral and the seven towns to hide out in when you have done something really bad and need to disappear completely. Chairlift plays Kung Fu Necktie tonight at 8 PM.

PHAWKER: My first question is about the name, where did it come from is that from your Colorado days? Is that perhaps a skiing reference?

AARON PFENNING: Chairlift, it’s not a skiing reference actually.  I mean, it does refer to the device that you know goes up a mountain, and well I guess the idea behind was that panoramic view, like a slow, panoramic view of the world. 

PHAWKER:  What is the reference to a haunted hotel that I read in some of the interviews that I was skimming through?

AARON PFENNING: The reference behind the hotel, that would be the Broker Inn in Boulder. 

PHAWKER: What was your connection to that?

AARON PFENNING: Well, basically Caroline, well the first weekend Caroline she brought me to the hotel, which they have a jazz night every Friday, and you know I went with her, because it was jazz night, which our current drummer Patrick, he was playing at this hotel, this really creepy hotel, sort of falling apart, but sort of renovated at the same time. It all these fish aquariums and the people that ran the hotel, no one came to these jazz nights, just Caroline and I basically and a couple of friends listening to jazz, and surrounded by fish.  And Patrick explained to me, I never met Patrick until we moved to New York, Patrick our current drummer joined the band. Caroline and Patrick were friends. So, basically Caroline and I went to jazz night like every Friday to drink gin and tonic, and just watch some jazz music and then we’d go home, we’d go like back to my house and I had a shed in the backyard and we’d stay up really late drinking and kind of almost rehashing the experience in itself, what it was. One night I was just like ‘we should go on a haunted house tour, because the music we’re making is great for a haunted house soundtrack.’ So, that’s kind if how we started making music together.

PHAWKER: I was also reading you went to see Hunter Thompson ashes putting shot into the atmosphere. Can you tell me a chairlift_1.jpglittle bit about that?

AARON PFENNING: Yeah. I can. I was still in school in Colorado when all that was planned, and my friend kyle and I just got in my car and went up to Aspen during that time and just hung out like right outside Hunter Thompson’s estate. Just Again, just like drinking some gin and tonic on the side of the road, and kind of witnessing the vigil.  It was just really him and me hanging out we had a mutual respect and admiration for Hunter so we drove and had a moment and watched it happen.

PHAWKER: Getting back to the haunted house theme, I also understand you are a Ouija board player. Is that correct?

AARON PFENNING: Yeah, yeah.

PHAWKER: I don’t know much about Ouija boards, except everything that I always hear is that how you wind up getting possessed by the devil, is there any truth to this?

AARON PFENNING: No, no.

PHAWKER: I mean, what if you are currently possessed by the devil, wouldn’t you be lying to me about this?

AARON PFENNING: laughs

PHAWKER: That’s your answer? Just that maniacal, evil laughter?

PHAWKER: You guys did some recording at New Monkey. That’s Elliot Smith’s studio, correct?

AARON PFENNING: Yeah. That was the first recording we did as a real band. I had a bunch of songs I wanted to do. This was while Caroline and I were still in school, so I just wanted to sort of, in a way, I just didn’t want to be in the world of academics for a period of time. So I emailed this guy, Joel, who runs Elliot Smith’s studio and put “I really want to come out there and record stuff for a week.” And he said yeah, and then I invited Caroline to come with me. I didn’t think that she would come with me, because she’s a very serious type of person, as am I , and we had our very serious things happening at the same time, but she wanted to come, so she came and we ended up writing songs together, and that became the first Chairlift EP. We did that in California at Elliot Smith’s studio.

PHAWKER: You were an Elliot Smith fan? What made you pick that studio?

AARON PFENNING– Yeah, the first song, the first cover we ever did as Chairlift was an Elliot Smith song. We did “Waltz #2.”

PHAWKER: Oh, I love that song!

AARON PFENNING: It was just Caroline and I. It was just me playing an acoustic guitar and Caroline playing keyboard. Like really stripped down sort of thing that we did.

PHAWKER: That’s my favorite Elliot Smith song.

AARON PFENNING: Yeah, it’s probably one of my favorites, too.

PHAWKER: You were studying at the University of Colorado?

AARON PFENNING: Yeah.

PHAWKER: And what were you studying there?

AARON PFENNING: I was studying video and philosophy and Caroline was studying art.

PHAWKER: And where did you guys come from? Are you from Colorado?

AARON PFENNING: Yeah, I grew up half in Colorado and half in Oklahoma and Caroline grew up in Connecticut. She went to college in Colorado and I went to college in Colorado, so that’s where we met.

PHAWKER: So what prompted the move to Brooklyn?

AARON PFENNING: I just finished school, and I wanted to keep making music with Caroline and she’s like two years younger than me so she got into school, art school at NYU, so she wanted to move to New York and I was always planning on moving to New York. I was like ‘well, I’m going to move to New York at some point, might as well move now and keep making music.’ So we moved together. She went to NYU.

PHAWKER: Are you guys romantically linked or just friends?

AARON PFENNING: We were at the time, but now she and I are just best friends. We’re not romantically linked anymore.

PHAWKER: I understand, well that has a semi-happy ending, doesn’t it?

AARON PFENNING: Yes, so Caroline is my best friend.

PHAWKER: That’s great. You guys are planning to record a new album in the wintertime?

AARON PFENNING: Yeah, I think in January. The idea now is to move to New Mexico and get house with a bunch of horses and ride horses in the morning and record in the afternoon.

PHAWKER: Well, that sounds pretty great. Where in New Mexico? Like Santa Fe?

AARON PFENNING: (laughs) I can’t say exactly, but it’s kind of out in the middle of nowhere.

PHAWKER: Have you been to New Mexico before?

AARON PFENNING: Yeah.  It’s a great place for art.

PHAWKER: Yeah it’s really, really beautiful. I read this in a recent article that you talked about one of the ‘seven disappearing towns’ you were thinking about recording in. I’m not sure what that’s a reference to.

AARON PFENNING: (laughs) Yeah, we’re going to go to one of those seven.

PHAWKER: Explain what one of these ‘seven disappearing towns’ are, I don’t know what that means.

AARON PFENNING: One day Caroline and I took a car upstate and just parked in the middle of nowhere and walked through a forest and ended up coming upon this old cemetery in upstate Connecticut. There was no one around, it was right when the sun was going down. We were walking through this cemetery and we were just talking to each other like, well, if either of us ever committed some kind of really heinous crime, where would we go hide out? Would we just have to hide out and just disappear for a while. So we came up with a list of seven towns that we could just go to and disappear if we had to. It’s not like we would ever do that, it was just a thought.

PHAWKER: I understand. Can you disclose the towns?

AARON PFENNING: (laughs) Well, No, no I can’t then we would be found.

PHAWKER: See, you’re actually pretty good at this. I thought I could trick you into telling me where your hideout would be and then I would wait until you guys committed this horrible crime and send the authorities. You have a knack for this, so you might want to consider a life of crime. 

AARON PFENNING: We are criminals, musical.

PHAWKER: Musical criminals, right, yeah I have heard that. Last thing I want to ask you about is, do you worry about the iPod thing? Do you worry about just sort of being thought of as sort of an iPod commercial novelty act?

AARON PFENNING: Well, it’s crossed my mind, but only because other people have brought it up. My answer is no, because I fully support iPod and Apple and their forward thinking and innovation. We would never support anything that we didn’t fully believe in. So for good or ill, I think, Apple and everything that Apple stands for is the healthy thing.

PHAWKER: I agree with you, I’m totally behind Apple as well. I also happen to think that some of the best music going on is in commercial these days, it’s kind of an inverse.

AARON PFENNING: It’s a different way of thinking. I think the early 90’s it was a different, it would be different the idea, the concept behind selling out was different in the 90’s than it is in 2009. I think more and more bands are molding their ideas and music to licensing and it’s their choice whoever they want to support and it’s a way to get ideas out there. It’s like showing an art piece in a gallery.

PHAWKER: I’m guessing those gigs play pretty well, like, $10 billion or something like that? Can you tell me how much they pay?

AARON PFENNING: Yeah, I could, but then we’d have to disappear.

PHAWKER: Go to one of the disappearing towns?

AARON PFENNING: [laughs]

Chairlift plays Kung Fu Necktie tonight at 8 PM. 

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