Beach House talks about their new album, licensing music, and artists oversharing on twitter
The dream-pop duo talk about maintaining integrity in a musical landscape seemingly hell-bent on squashing it, as well as their dramatic new album, Bloom.
By Jenn Pelly , May 9, 2012
Beach House: "Myth" (via SoundCloud)
Eight years into their career, Beach House have become the sort of group that regularly tour the festival circuit and do press at the Tribeca Grand, a chic luxury hotel in downtown Manhattan, where I met them in March. Singer/keyboardist Victoria Legrand, 30, and multi-instrumentalist Alex Scally, 29, fit naturally into the mood-lit lounge as they talk of "album cycles" and "the industry," but all while maintaining a vocal skepticism not only of journalists but of anything that could potentially dilute their artistic identity.
Recently, for example, they turned down a potential opportunity to distribute their upcoming fourth record, Bloom, at Starbucks. And they are cautious to unveil the inner-workings of their songs, or "the science" behind the four field recordings tucked into the new album (though Scally lets it slip that one is the sound of wild coyotes). They're a contemporary indie rock band that seems to remember the presence of a reporter is not always to their benefit.
And while the duo is in the position of having benefitted immensely from the internet since their start in 2004, they're weary of how its all-watching eye can diminish the steady growth of their unique musical language, or wipe away mystery at the speed of Twitter. We spoke about how to retain credibility in the treacherous world of modern music, the quickly forgotten glories of Myspace, and the Bob Dylan lyric that helped define their new album.
"A lot of people listening to music now just go, 'Good tones…' and that's it. But we're obsessed with songs. Sometimes, I feel like people aren't even listening to our songs, they're just listening to the sound."
Pitchfork: Teen Dream was your biggest album yet, how have your lives changed since it came out two years ago?
Alex Scally: We now play to bigger audiences, which is awesome some of the time, and also worse some of the time. It made us concentrate really intensely on our playing and presentation, but you also feel like you can't connect with some people in the back. We almost don't want to play bigger shows than where we are now. It's kind of perfect.
The shows are the main way our lives have changed. We wrote this record the exact same way. We still live in Baltimore, where we started. We had the same practice space for this record that we've had for years. Not a lot has changed from the beginning, except for our own development as artists, and our own desire. We're not satisfied with a song that only has this [small motion] much emotion. We want a song that has a much bigger feeling in it.
Pitchfork: Have you ever gotten an urge to change the way your music sounds?
AS: This is just what we do. This is Victoria's voice. These are the organs that we like. This is our band. We are not making some sort of conscious choice, like, "Let's stay the same." I hate it when bands change between records. They're thinking before they make music.
Victoria Legrand: Which works for different types of artists, because they're more intellectual.
AS: But that's not the way we work. Writing about us, people have said: "Do we need another album by this band?" What the fuck is that? That only matters if you're just listening to sound. Did anyone ever say, "Do we need another album from the Beatles?" It's this pathetic era we're in where people are like, "I'm done with them, I need a new sound; I'm a baby, I need something every five minutes." A lot of people listening to music now don't listen to the songs or lyrics at all. They just go, "Good tones…" and that's it. But we're obsessed with songs. Sometimes, I feel like people aren't listening to our songs, they're just listening to the sound.
Pitchfork: You guys have talked about Bob Dylan in interviews, but I feel like a lot of bands don't talk about classic songwriters as much now.
VL: Because they feel embarrassed. But it's OK to talk about Bob Dylan. We're not trying to imitate him, it's an appreciation.
AS: During this record, we went back to the verse in "Mr. Tambourine Man", which is a song I was obsessed with when I was 15: "To dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free." We were in the van, coming back from a show, halfway through writing the album, and I remember hearing that verse. We both wanted that feeling to be encapsulated in our record.
VL: You want the words to create feelings, and also these intense visuals. As a person who writes lyrics, it's not always about literal heartbreak, but rather the negative space and the feelings around it. How do you describe a feeling without saying "this is the feeling"? How do you take something completely natural, that will eventually transfer to the listener, but not just settle for that instant feeling of "you hurt me," and go to an imaginary landscape instead? It's the most intense task.
And I'm sorry, but musicians are not chefs. You don't like music because of the way it tastes, where [artists] never want to disappoint a paying customer. Music is about your feelings. Stop pleasing people. You please yourself, and if people like it, great. Beach House is our life. Someone asked us, "What are your hobbies?" And there are small things, but this is every day of our lives.
AS: Beach House was my life before our first album came out. It was weird, because people would always ask, "Why are you doing that all the time?" But now people don't think I'm weird because I play organs all day.
AS: To some degree, it's flattering. Sometimes it seems cool, and sometimes it seems annoying. We were asked to give our stems to a pretty big artist and we said no. It was an artist that sells millions of records. When we think about someone using our stuff for a big, major-label production, it's like: "Red flag, get away, this could ruin your life."
VL: It's always about maintaining how something feels special. The decisions you make can be upsetting to fans. I've experienced that, as a listener, looking at artists I've admired. It's sensitive. We really consider the idea of natural growth versus unnatural leaps.
AS: Most of our decisions-- including interviews and photo shoots-- are based on our ideas of trying to make everything we do special, or real, or mean something.
VL: There's an ethic to it.
AS: A real, big ethic.
VL: When you start out, you don't sit down and go: "This is our ethic." But after being a band for several years, your ethic grows on its own, and really informs your path as an artist.
"It's the most dangerous world for bands nowadays
because everybody's branding and trying to steal your
vibe as soon as you do anything that anyone cares about."
VL: Syncs are different because artists have control over those types of things. We do say no to a lot, but we also say yes; I find ways of coming to peace with certain things. Sometimes a writer or actor will reach out and make it very personal.
AS: With "New Girl", they said it was an episode about someone who had cancer, and the song came to mind while they were writing the scene. It didn't come from some person whose job it is to seek out "hot new bands" and get them into shows to improve the brand.
VL: Which happens.
AS: Those things are major red flags. We're not hands-off. We want to know everything that's going on all the time. All bands are in danger of losing their identity. Constantly. It's the most dangerous world for bands nowadays because everybody's branding and trying to steal your vibe as soon as you do anything that anyone cares about. It's very weird.
VL: You're just diluting your artistic identity by doing too many TV shows.
AS: We've only ever done two. But I don't want to come off as judgmental. This is a musical world unlike any other before it. I don't think it's inherently wrong when bands do certain things-- sometimes I'm really excited when I see a band has taken a big ad or sync. I'm like, "Awesome! They were all dirt broke a month ago, maybe they'll get a new bass now." And maybe there will come a time when things get fucked up for us, and we'll be like, "OK, let's do a sync, because we need to get a new van."
VL: Sometimes it's a gamble, but artists have to survive.
AS: It's great when a huge amount of money goes from a dumb corporation into the hands of an awesome band with brilliant ideas who can use it to keep being a band for a year, as opposed to a band that's already huge taking one of those things-- that's more pathetic.
Pitchfork: It seems like you guys have spent a lot of time thinking about this.
VL: We've had the time.
AS: We had a really slow start. Sometimes, for bands, everything just happens too fast.
Pitchfork: I feel like a lot of young bands can get confused and jaded by how quick things move nowadays.
AS: We're lucky because we came up right before the "super-fast" thing. Nowadays I hear about a band, and the next thing you know, they're playing for more people than they can handle-- you can't blow 400 people's minds in a packed house when you've played 10 shows before. We were playing for no one on our first couple of tours. And we needed that time. If we had gone and played in front of all these people in 2006, we would have embarrassed ourselves, and it probably would have been psychologically damaging to us because we'd just say, "Fuck, we suck!" Because we did suck!
VL: "Suck" is a strong word-- it was innocent; we were allowed to be exactly what we were. You can't put pressure on people who aren't ready. They go from their bedroom to a huge stage at SXSW playing for 1,000 people-- that's really difficult, and people get discouraged from that pressure. In 2006, we had support from the internet, but it wasn't this raging wind tunnel. It was a tad more innocent. Bands were still very optimistic, like, "Oh, you can put your songs on Myspace and people will listen to you!"
AS: I miss Myspace so bad. I remember the day we signed up for Myspace in 2005. We had made our recording ourselves in our basement, and I was so happy that anyone in the world could listen to our music. The genuine thrill was absolutely incredible.
Pitchfork: Myspace's Top 8 culture was great. You could find a band you liked and then go, "Who is in their Top 8? Oh, these bands kind of sound similar..."
VL: It's like when you open your locker and have your favorite posters of eight different things.
AS: It was fun, right? Honestly, I hate Facebook-- it has nothing on Myspace. I loved how weird and crappy and wild and trashy it was. Then there was the whole culture of pimping out your Myspace page. I remember spending 10 hours one day learning how to make our Myspace page look more like a message board from the mid-90s. lol
VL: Now the idea of pimping something out is vomitous.
"I miss Myspace so bad-- Facebook has nothing on Myspace."
Pitchfork: What do you think about Twitter then?
VL: It's important to use it as a tool and not as your identity. That's something to be learned: An artist's identity can be separate from this internet thing without being intentionally cryptic.
AS: We realized very quickly after starting it that we didn't want to talk about personal things on there. That's kind of cheap and gross.
VL: It's kind of boring, actually.
AS: It's really boring to talk about what you ate and have 48,000 fans listen to you. It's awful. There's too much emphasis on backstory and personal stuff in music now-- it's not going to make the music better if I hear that you did karate for the six months leading up to it.
VL: It's the "man behind the curtain" thing; let the Wizard of Oz be the Wizard of Oz.
AS: We've been fighting through all of our interviews to not talk about our personal lives. Maybe in 15 years, if people still care about us, we'll do some retrospective, and then we can talk about it. But right now it's really stupid. Do you want to hear about how I was following an ex-girlfriend and barfing in a hedge or something?
Pitchfork: In terms of Twitter, do you feel as though it might be less necessary for you to connect with your fans that way since you're already establishing strong emotional connections with them through your music?
VL: Maybe I'm a traditionalist, but that emotional connection is extremely special, and I have a fear of weighing it down, or interfering with it, or obstructing it, with something that doesn't have anything to do with the music.
AS: Twitter has to be about art. It can't be about banal things. Banal things and art are two different worlds. When you get home from work with your significant other, and you're like, "Oh, my back hurts, blah blah blah"-- all those boring pieces of life that are almost terrible are all down here [signals down], and art is up here [signals up]. Art is what gets communicated at a live show, which is why live shows are so amazing. To communicate in a different way is a mixed message. It devalues everything.
VL: You're not being yourself. If you exist primarily on the internet, and then people come to see you live and all of a sudden you don't want to talk to the crowd, people will be confused. Why have such a vocal identity on the internet-- which is actually very unemotional and unsympathetic and anonymous-- versus live? That can get an artist in big trouble with fans.
AS: When I'm on a stage, I don't feel like this dude who's sitting here drinking Amstel Lights. I'm trying to temporarily become something else that can deliver a feeling. Not just what I am: a stupid dude who grew up in Baltimore who likes reading books about black holes.
VL: From my theater background, I absolutely feel that presence. Being onstage is so... sacred is a heavy word, but it feels different than everything else. That's why we like touring, because we get to go deep back into what we've created, and rediscover those moments that lift you off to somewhere else.
Pitchfork: Reading about the last album, you used the words "blossoming" and "flowery" to describe the sound. Why did you choose to title this one Bloom?
AS: It's funny that everyone's obsessed with the idea that it has to do with flowers because we thought it sounded dark. The word is like an object-- we were thinking "bloom," "doom." It encapsulated tons: the bloom, the end of the bloom, and then coming back the next year.
VL: It's more about the cyclical nature of all things.
AS: And the word "bloom" is much different than "grow." It implies something goes away, and stays that way. It is very temporary. If someone just sees it as happy flowers, I feel really sorry for them, because that's not what we want; I kind of wish it wasn't coming out in the springtime, because I don't want people to feel like that.
Do you know what algal blooms are? They are these terrible events that happen because all of these chemicals that pour out from the Mississippi into the Gulf of Mexico. The chemicals feed certain algae way too much, so the algae consume all of the oxygen in the water, and the water becomes anaerobic, and nothing can live in it. It's this deadly thing, and it's called an algal bloom. I don't know why I told you that.
VL: It's an example of opening the word, and not limiting oneself to one experience of the term. People put a lot of weight on album titles, but it's an open, abstract, sculptural thing. It's the same way when you title a painting-- you look at the painting, and you have the feeling the painting gives you.
Beach House : "Lazuli" (via YouTube)
Pitchfork: Where does the title of the song "Lazuli" come from?
AS: First of all, it's a gemstone.
VL: But the word itself can give me such a feeling-- looking at it, saying it. I fall in love with words. I felt like it had a real imagination to it. I had written it down a while ago and always thought I'd love for this word to be in the Beach House world. It was only a matter of time before the music of "Lazuli" was erupting. That word and the feeling completely merged and became one. It's not about the meaning, or the actual stone. "Irene" is another good example. People go, "Who's Irene?" It's like, "Well, c'mon. It's more crazy than that."
AS: Your mom. The answer is your mom.
VL: But isn't it more interesting to feel many possibilities?
Pitchfork: You've both joked about side projects. Victoria, do you think you'd be perceived differently as a solo artist? Even in 2012, it seems like female musicians undergo certain types of scrutiny in the media that male artists are rarely subject to.
VL: It's so complicated. When I started performing, there were certain issues that never came up when you looked at a girl in a band. But, without using any names, I do think that in 2011 there were setbacks to female imagery. We went backwards very briefly to a time period almost like the 80s. It was archaic. Like, "Why are we talking about this? This is so sexist." It sucks for her, and it sucks for us. Who does it suck for more?
I just try to do what I believe in and think is strong. I don't like wearing dresses on stage, because I'm not a girl. I'm a 30-year-old woman. I'll wear dresses in my private life, but artistically I prefer a structural, androgynous, theatrical, simple, classic format. (Ugh, I'm not fond of I have to be less feminine and more androgynous to be taken seriously approach tbh.)
Pitchfork: Have there been any particularly memorable high points for you as a band over the past few years?
VL: Things intensify for me as I get older. I try not to look back because I find nostalgia to be a waste of space. But every once in awhile, you hear an older song and you can't believe how much you've made, how much you've worked, how much you've lived. All of a sudden it hits you and you can't believe what has happened. Those moments can be very, very beautiful.
AS: I also think that we're not very satisfied people. If we were, we wouldn't be doing this. I don't think I'll ever feel satisfied, and that's why we have to do this endlessly.
VL: When I stop finding things to be fascinating and beautiful, that's when I'll stop.
It's a kind of a long interview but worth reading beyond the bold parts.