Chairlift taps childhood memories of Japan for inspiration

by Craig Exton

Special To The Japan Times

Next week will mark Brooklyn, New York-based synth-pop duo Chairlift’s first gig in Japan, but it won’t be the first time here for Caroline Polachek.

The singer and synthesizer player lived in Japan in her early childhood and says the experience had a lasting effect on her artistically.

“The things that I recall the most vividly are the kinds of things that children would care about: illustrations, colors, the sound of the language (without actually being able to speak it), and the way it looks when written (without knowing how to write more than a few characters),” she recalls. “Tea, rice, candy, shaved ice, a pink kimono with golden cranes embroidered on the back that I loved. But despite the specific nature of my experience, I think the delicate quality of Japanese composition and aesthetics really got into me at a young age, and that hearing a foreign language all the time in a familiar way gave me a love for unfamiliar sounds and vocal textures, and that I try to recreate that feeling now; familiar strangeness.”

Polachek says she has been itching to return to Japan, and is glad she can do so with her musical partner Chairlift bassist Patrick Wimberly.

“I want to go dancing in clubs where they play J-pop or K-pop, eat as much Japanese food as possible, go record and clothes shopping in Shibuya, and visit an onsen,” she says. “We’re so excited to play our first show in Japan, we’ve been waiting for a long time to go.”

Chairlift will play a one-off show in Tokyo at Under Deer Lounge next week with Los Angeles outfit ESP and Tokyo’s own Group A.

What has really caught the curiosity of fans in Japan (and perhaps Polachek and Wimberly themselves), though, is the surprise success of a video they made for a Japanese version of their song, “I Belong in Your Arms.” The video was meant to appeal to both Japanese and Western audiences but has become surprisingly popular on music blogs in the United States. Polachek thinks, “It’s just as fun for Americans to watch, and maybe more unusual because American audiences aren’t used to seeing Westerners singing in foreign languages, and I think it’s good to question that. We’re not a rock ‘n’ roll band, and I don’t feel any special affinity to American music as an influence. It’s funny to realize that some of the bands that influenced me most when I was a teenager, like Bjork, Mum, and Air (who have English lyrics) were all singing in a language that was foreign to them.” (Both Bjork and Mum are from Iceland, and Air is a French band.)

Polachek and Wimberly prefer the Japanese version as well. “Once we recorded it, I realized I liked it much more in Japanese than in English, it felt more like it was supposed to from the beginning,” she says.

Singing in Japanese did prove to be challenging though. The duo had to make a lot of changes to the lyrics, “to keep the lines short enough to fit the melody in, because Japanese has so many more syllables. But the spirit of the song was more important than literal translation — “banana split” became “kakigori,” or shaved ice, because I wanted it to be something fun and traditional to Japan, the way a banana split is a classic American treat.”

One part of the song that remains in English is the line, “something something something” in the second verse, which is reminiscent of when you’re singing along with a song and don’t remember a certain part, or when you’re singing a Japanese song at karaoke but can’t keep up with the characters on the screen.

Fittingly, the video that Polachek directed for “I Belong in Your Arms” features her and Wimberly performing against a green screen karaoke video. When the song was originally being developed, Polachek says she was already visualizing the imagery that appears in the video.

“I always imagined the character of that song to be a Japanese schoolgirl in love, with petals falling and pink clouds, to the point of it being excessively pretty.”

Chairlift’s most recent album, “Something,” was put out by Kanine Records early this year and Tokyo’s Big Love is handling distribution of the Japanese version of “I Belong in Your Arms.” Both releases achieve a lush 1980s feeling without losing their modernity.

“As a synth player, I have so much admiration for ’80s synth bands like Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Yellow Magic Orchestra (or anything by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Yukihiro Takahashi), and producer Thomas Dolby, and it’s hard not to absorb some of their aesthetic,” Polachek says. “I love how luscious the textures are, like wood and metal and alien grass. There’s a lot of amazing textural stuff happening in current electronic music, too. But the thing that probably associates us more with ’80s synthwork is the play with chord progression and long-form melodies.”

Chairlift is also good at making catchy melodies, something that wasn’t lost on Apple — the track “Bruises” featured on an iPod commercial in 2008. It’s these kinds of songs with catchy hooks that also provide a connection to the ’80s.

“For me a hook is a mental dance move that’s enjoyable to do; either with your voice or running over it in your mind,” Polachek says. “So I guess all of our songs do start that way, either with a beat or bassline that’s a hook in itself, or a lyrical idea which is like a verbal hook,” she says before admitting her discomfort with using the word “hook.”

“It’s such a mechanical word for such an intuitive thing!”

Chairlift play with ESP and Group A at Under Deer Lounge in Shibuya, Tokyo, on Oct. 10 (7 p.m. start). Tickets cost ¥3,500 in advance and are available at peatix.com/event/6838 .