Original Penguin Local is a series that celebrates artists living and working in America’s most iconic cities.
You likely know Patrick Wimberly as Chairlift’s bassist and resident music wiz, but he’s also a multi-instrumentalist and producer who has worked with artists as diverse as Das Racist and Solange Knowles.
During some downtime on his current tour with Knowles, where he’s handling drums, we caught up with Patrick about life in Brooklyn, non-stop touring, and what 2013 will bring for him and Chairlift.
Patrick, I’ve done a bunch of events with you and we’ve covered Chairlift a ton on Death and Taxes through the years, but I still don’t know the whole story. I know Chairlift technically started in Colorado, and you joined in 2007 when Caroline came to Brooklyn? Were you always in New York? If not where do you come from?
I grew up In Nashville, but Caroline and I met in Colorado in 2004 when we were both in college. We played in a different band together that year for a while. We didn’t see each other much for the next two years and were reunited in 2006 a couple weeks after we had both moved to New York. She had started Chairlift with Aaron [Pfenning, former guitarist] in Colorado a couple months before. I went to their first show in NYC at Cake Shop and was blown away.
I knew immediately that I wanted to be a part of it. I asked them if I could play with them and then showed up to their rehearsal space with a drum set. I don’t remember if they ever even said yes. There was another bass player in the band at that time so we were a four-piece. That Christmas he went to Colorado and never came back. Then we were a three-piece. We never replaced him, though. We just figured out different ways to split the role of the bass between the three of us.
I learned how to play one-handed drums so I could play a synth in the other hand. When I wasn’t doing that, Caroline would play bass on her synth or Aaron would pitch down his guitar. That’s a big reason why our first record has such a distinct sound from our second. On the second record, Caroline and I were writing—just the two of us.
We would record all of our ideas as soon as we had them. We wrote songs without worrying how many hands it would take to play them live. We ended up needing about 10 hands on stage so we got three others to tour with us: Jason McMahon (guitar), Jamie Ingalls (drums), and Olga Bell (keys).
Chairlift is one of the leading bands in Brooklyn, which continues to be emerging music’s biggest hotspot. Since you’re on the road so much, do you still feel a sense of connection with the scene and the community that spawned there in the late 2000s?
It’s hard to stay connected when we’re touring but right now I feel really close to Brooklyn. We got off a tour a couple weeks ago and I quickly found myself in some of the same situations I would have 5 years ago. I didn’t waste any time getting back in the studio with Victor and Himanshu from Das Racist, although now I work with them separately.
Das Racist was another band I saw live early in their career. They gave me that same feeling that Chairlift did when I first saw them. I knew I wanted to be involved. I like getting involved with newer groups so when I’m home I go to lots of small shows. That’s how I get reconnected after a long tour. Recently I produced an EP for Fort Lean. They’re another band that gave me that feeling. Go to one of their shows if you get a chance. You’ll see what I mean. You can tell there is something special about them.
You’re most known for your work with Chairlift, but in the media you’re always described as a multi-instrumentalist and producer. Most recently, you’ll be playing drums with Solange Knowles. How do you balance your ambitions and the people that want to work with you against your daily schedule?
Oh, that’s tough. I’m not so good at planning ahead. I’m more of a one-day-at-a-time guy. I’m ambitious and I always try to accomplish too much each day. Every day I have to figure out a few things. The first big question is, “Where the hell am I?”
Chairlift has taken me around the world twice this year. Sometimes I’m confused about where I am or where I’ll be tomorrow. Once I figure that out I have some other questions I ask myself: Who’s around me? What should I do? What has to be done? What can I put off ’til later? What do I feel like doing? Who’s asking me to do what? I kinda collect these answers in my head and make some decisions.
I get lucky sometimes. Solange (Knowles) asked me to play drums with her a couple days after the Chairlift tour ended. I had just realized that I had nothing planned during that time so I could actually do it if I wanted to—and I wanted to. Sometimes I’m not so lucky and I have to turn down things because of our hectic touring schedule.
Since you play everything, I was wondering if you’re classically trained or grew up in a very musical household?
I grew up in Nashville—a very musical community. My Dad was a radio DJ most of his life and all three of my siblings are musicians, too. When I first started playing guitar I played in garage punk bands (yes, literally in a garage). Then in high school I was really into marching percussion. I was even captain of the marching band. I know it’s dorky but I learned so much from that.
Then in college I studied classical percussion. I still have nightmares about hitting a cymbal crash in the wrong spot of a symphony. I wasn’t so good at that. I mostly focused on jazz vibraphone during those four years. I miss playing jazz, but I’m more into making pop music now.
How does your environment and what all the bands in Brooklyn and New York are doing inspire you? Do you ever feel challenged?
One of my favorite things about this environment is being able to work with so many different people. I don’t always feel like I have a song to write. I don’t like to write unless I have an idea. I always feel like producing, though. Here, I have a bunch of friends I can call up and invite to the studio to work. I get inspired by working with lots of different people. I get inspired by working in different genres as well.
Most of the projects I’ve worked on are drastically different from one another. I started producing because I had the urge to work in different genres and with different people that inspire me. Now I’ve got a good situation where I only produce when I want to. Caroline and I have figured out how to make a living off of Chairlift. I never have to produce anything to pay the bills. I only produce when there’s something inspiring to work on.
I saw Chairlift at a couple of smaller shows in 2008 or so, but the first time I saw you guys in front of a really big audience was Bonnaroo in, I believe, 2009. The performance was incredible. When did you get a sense that the band was breaking, and did you expect it?
That was a big moment for me. My whole family was there because Bonnaroo is close to my hometown in Tennessee. Bonnaroo started when I was in high school and is now a staple of Tennessee summers. Less than a year before you saw that show, we didn’t even have a record out. That night my family got to see us play to 12,000 people.
We’ve had several great moments like that over the years. It’s a combination of all these moments that makes me feel like we’re still at the beginning of establishing ourselves. It’s a fickle business and as soon as your comfortable where you are it’s time to take the next step.
Can you explain the writing process a bit for Chairlift? The going assumption is that you compose all of the music and Caroline writes the vocal melodies and lyrics. Is that close to it?
No, we both contribute to all aspects of the songs. She’s written some of the basslines I play, and I’ve written some of the lyrics she sings. She wrote the bassline for the verses of “Amanaemonesia” and I wrote the words for the hook of “I Belong in Your Arms.” But that question is always tough for us to answer because each song has had a different process. The only consistent thing is that we will both do whatever it takes to get a song to a point where we’re both happy with it.
We have a lot of trust in each other’s opinion. If one of us isn’t happy with a song yet, then we keep working on it. She’s written entire songs and played them for me and I’ve thought they were already perfect. Sometimes the best thing you can do for a song is nothing.
Chairlift is known for experimental instrumentation against traditional pop songs. How do you balance all of this when you’re composing?
In the past we have just put all of our ideas in a recording. At some point we start stripping them down to our favorite ideas. It’s totally fair to say “experimental” because we are experimental in the studio. I have no traditional studio training. When we get a specific sound in our heads, we will actually try anything to get it. I never apply exactly the same process twice. There’s always some variable that can affect the outcome. Sometimes that effect is dramatic. Sometimes it’s small.
What’s life like for you when you’re not touring or in the studio? Or is that never the case?
It is kind of rare because I almost always have something I want to work on. In this work there’s a lot of traveling so getting people in the same place at the same time is half the battle. That lends itself to strange hours and a lot of them in small periods of time. The last time I had three days off I learned how to solve a Rubik’s cube and snuggled with my wife a lot. Then I got the call from Solange and was back to long hours of rehearsal and programming.
What are some of your Brooklyn rituals? Where do you hang out when you’re not busy touring or in the studio?
I hang out with my friends. My friends are family, and time together is precious.
I know the Solange gig will keep you busy throughout 2012—what are the plans for Chairlift and yourself in 2013 and beyond?
I’m with her for two weeks now. Then I’ll take some time off to spend with my family. 2013 is very vaguely planned as of now. I have lots of ideas and so does Caroline. Right now I’m planning to plan.
In the meantime, I take it one day at a time as usual. I’ve got a remix that I did for Nite Jewel about to come out. It’s a seven-and-a-half-minute remix with five rappers on it. It was a little challenge to myself to fuse indie, pop, west coast rap, east coast rap, and ATL rap. I drunkenly told Ramona from Nite Jewel that I could turn her song into a rap song the last night of our tour together. Then I actually did it.
I also think I’ll produce an EP of 112 covers with Himanshu before Caroline and I get back in the studio together. I might go to London for a few sessions with some folks that I’ve wanted to work with for a while in January, too. Wow, just saying all of this I realize that I’ve already overbooked myself. So I guess it’s onwards with the balancing act. It’s okay though. I love what I do.
Patrick is wearing Original Penguin’s Cavarts Jacket and was photographed by Nicky Digital in Soho, NYC.
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