Q&A with Alex Scally of Beach House
Baltimore-based duo Beach House (due at the Bluebird Theater with Bachelorette on Wednesday, April 7) is one of the rare bands that arrives on the scene with a sound so mature, singular and self-contained that you worry about its lifespan: How could something that seems perfect from the start ever get any better?
The band's first two albums are small masterpieces of woozy, autumnal, even ghostly pop, built entirely from Alex Scally's minimal, chiming guitar and ancient drum machines and Victoria Legrand's vintage organs and earthy, commanding alto, and they would have sufficed to secure a place for the band in the hearts of dream-pop fans forever.
But while new album Teen Dream -- the band's Sub Pop debut -- employs the same basic elements, Scally and Legrand have upped their tempos (a tiny bit) and removed some of the lo-fi haze of earlier efforts to reveal a sound that's grander and more immediate but no less haunting, bolstered by more live drums and Legrand's increased confidence in her magnificent voice. Certain to be one of the best albums to see release this year, Teen Dream proves, much to our delight, that Beach House has plenty of room to grow.
We caught Scally in the brief pause between the European and American legs of the band's lengthy 2010 tour, and he chatted us up about Beach House's struggle toward three-dimensionality and its similarities with Queen.
Westword (Kyle Smith): How are you doing today?
Alex Scally: I'm well. We're home for six days. We just got back from our European tour, and we're about to leave on the U.S. tour, so it's kind of this wildly chaotic time where we're trying to get our new stage thing together and do a million things like taxes, so...we're kind of in that wildly chaotic, extremely overextended, extremely exhausted stage. It's great. We're great.
WW: I'm sure you're really excited to do a bunch of interviews, then.
AS: No, no, no -- we're very grateful, seriously, for the attention. This is a much better part of the job than doing other things we have to do. It's fun.
So what kind of place is the Bluebird Theater? We've never been there before.
WW: It's actually a really nice venue. I like it a lot. It's a nice size, and the sound's really good.
AS: Oh, good. Awesome.
WW: Yeah, I think it'll be the perfect venue for you guys, actually. I'm really looking forward to it. So you mentioned a "new stage thing." What's going to be different?
AS: Well, with our limited means, we're attempting to do a lot more, I wouldn't say theatrics, but kind of more trying to work a narrative into the songs, like a visual narrative.
So in Europe, we had these LED lights that we controlled from the stage. And then for this tour we have these kind of piñatas that rotate that we've been building, and a friend of ours is learning this light program, so we're just trying to work on how we're going to do this show, and coming up with treatments, and those kinds of things.
Trying to bring it to that next level of performance, which is extremely exciting for us, because we've never had the means or the time to do that at all. And I think it's helping us take the songs from being these kind of two-dimensional things to being far more rich, more like the imaginative world that they come from.
WW: Yeah, the two of you often say that you think of your work very visually. Do you ever see yourselves doing something like video projections?
AS: Video projections are cool, but I feel like everybody has done those. They're too two-dimensional, like a movie. They're just flat. What we're really working on right now is trying to get all the dimensions. Like when you go to a club and see a stage, it's always the same -- like, the lights, the drums. Just so much, like, you know, a stage.
So what we're trying to do is break that up and take away that box feeling, try to turn it into, I don't know, maybe a little kingdom, or a little...just something that would be different from every angle that you could look at it from. You know, like you go to the back and you're seeing a different show than you would from the side. Just trying to bring it out of the banality of shows.
WW: How was Europe?
AS: It was great. We've toured over there like four times now, and it's always been really bad, but this time it was really good. I don't know what happened.
WW: How was it bad in the past?
AS: Well, we've been touring in the U.S. for four years, and every time we go out, it's better and better and better -- like there's more people at shows, more people know what we're doing, we meet cool people, and we're just stepping up and up and up in the U.S.
But when we'd go to Europe, no one would be at shows, no one understood, they thought it was very strange; everyone thought what we were doing just didn't make any sense. Which is fine, you know. We were just like, "Well, it's a cultural change." But then we did this record and went over and our shows were sold out and it was really crazy and everyone was really excited, so I don't know what happened. It just happened.
It was really fun, because every single country is wildly different. The U.S. is cool, because you can sense the similarities everywhere you go. I mean, there are differences between the South, the Midwest, the West Coast, the Northeast, but it's really easy for us to understand Americans, the artistic mind and energy of American audiences. With them, we just know it so well, and we love it. But in Europe it's kind of a strange experiment every time we're over there, to be like, "What are you? Why do you like this? You're German." It's always kind of crazy.
WW: I saw on your MySpace today that several of your U.S. shows have actually sold out already, a week or two ahead of time. How does that feel?
AS: It's awesome. It's weird, because it's all of the bigger venues that sold out first, but I think it's just because it's in the East Coast, West Coast, you know, the bigger cities. But it's awesome. We feel a lot of pressure. We've never really played venues this size, so we're feeling a lot of pressure to make something really amazing, not just be us sitting on stage playing songs we've played fifty times.
We're very, very aware that we need to make something amazing out of it, and I think we're going to be disappointed if we can't entice crowds this size. We've gotten a little bit of exposure to playing for 600-700 people, and it's much harder than playing for 250. So it's a lot of pressure, but it's good pressure. We've just got to figure out how to do it every night.
WW: Moving along to the new album...I'm interested in the title. You've talked about how it's a reflection of its more exuberant sound, but the music still sounds very old-soul to me, as in when you call someone an old soul. Do the two of you think about that at all, or do you hear that?
AS: People say that they hear a lot of "classic" things in our music; maybe that's what you're getting at? That has to do with the fact that both of us have been very into, you know, oldies, '60s music, classical music, old forms.
I think we're very much writers of old forms. And Victoria's voice is developing into this amazingly soulful thing that sounds very mature, you know, this sort of seen-it-all vibe. So maybe those are the kinds of things you're picking up on.
WW: Yeah, that's what I was thinking of.
AS: I mean, everyone hears music really differently, but if you're hearing that, then that's where it comes from.
WW: Sure. From the start you've built a very unique and sort of timeless sound out of just a few simple elements. Was that a happy accident, you know, just the equipment that was lying around, or was it by design?
AS: I think it was a little bit of both. I think it was a happy accident that Victoria and I found each other, because the more and more I'm around musicians and artists, I've found that the most important thing, if you're not a one-person thing, which I think few people are, is finding your partner.
I'd been using organs and four-tracks for a couple years before I met Victoria; I'd been kind of obsessed with organ sounds, particularly the organ sounds that we use, since my teen years, when I started collecting them.
So I had a lot of recordings, but they were all very rigid, structural things, you know, like studies in drones and beats and stuff like that. And I was really fascinated with lo-fi recording; like, I loved lo-fi bands and lo-fi recording.
And then I met Victoria, and she's not only an amazing trained pianist, but she just writes the best melodies in the world. I remember one of the first times we met, everyone was getting drunk, and somebody had a guitar and everyone was jokingly singing, like, early-'90s hits, like Stone Temple Pilots, Red Hot Chili Peppers, just dumb radio hits from the '90s that we all loved.
And [Victoria] was in this group of people, and everyone was singing stuff, but nobody could get it just right. But Victoria knew every single melody perfectly. And not even just the melody, but like subtleties of the melody, like she knew how the melody worked and why it was so catchy.
And she has this insane ability to find these melodies that are, just, otherworldly, transcendent, narrative. Not just like someone singing a tune, but like transcendent, narrative melody. You know what I mean about the difference between the two?
WW: Sure, absolutely.
AS: So she had this one thing, and I had this other thing, like I'm also really good with arrangements, the knowledge of how to flesh something out, how to arrange a group of people. So part of it was just that these were sounds that we were both interested in the time, so our aesthetics matched each other, and part of it was just that happy accident of two people happening to find each other. And from the beginning the sound was very complete. And since then it's just grown out of these things that we naturally love.
WW: Do you ever see that basic sound changing much?
AS: Well, I think it has changed a lot already, but I don't know where it's going to go. We're writing new songs right now, and they're amazing, but...we're so inside of it that it all seems like seamless change to us. When I listen to something from our first record I almost can't even believe it's us anymore.
WW: You've talked about the two of you having a tendency to work very quickly and intuitively, but also having had to temper that a bit to get the more carefully constructed sound of the new album. Has that led to any kind of definitive change in your process?
AS: I think we're going to keep doing things the same way forever, because it works so well. When we write, we write things together and just let things grow. The only thing that changed [with Teen Dream] was the recording.
We wrote everything the same way we always had written and will continue to write, but when we went to record, instead of doing what we did in the past, which was to record really quickly and as soon as you get something that feels right just go with it and not question it, we spent a long time saying, "OK, here's this organ through this mic, here's this organ through this mic," and then after that finding the one we thought was right.
Or doing a take, and "Oh, let's do another take. Let's do three takes. Oh, with that one we finally got to the right energy there." You know, just trying to be extremely precise, and I think it came out perfectly. We got to all of the emotions we wanted to get to. We got back to what we had at the beginning with most of the songs. They're better than the demos, whereas on previous albums, I think some of the demos ended up coming out better than the album as it was released.
WW: Do you find that a difficult balance to achieve, between overthinking and underthinking?
AS: Yeah, I think all musicians struggle with that. You know, you write something, and it's amazing, but then between writing it and getting into the studio and releasing it, many things can happen that can take all of the life out of something. So I think for us it's about trying to keep everything very natal and keep everything innocent and keep everything feeling like a real piece of art until it gets released.
WW: Today was the first time I'd heard about the Queen cover ["Play the Game"] that the two of you made a year or so ago.
WW: I haven't gotten a chance to hear it yet, but will that ever resurface? Do you ever play it live or anything?
AS: We don't play it live. I doubt it'll ever resurface; it was recorded for a charity compilation [2009's Dark Was the Night] and then it was pulled by Queen's record label because apparently Queen's record label doesn't do charity stuff, which is unbelievable. You can only get it on iTunes. But I don't think it'll ever resurface. It was kind of a one-time thing; it was really cool, but it was very much a studio thing, not something we could play live.
WW: How did the two of you decide on that song?
AS: The similarity between us and Queen is that both bands are based around very ornate and traditional melodies and chord changes. You know, it's not I-IV-V music, it's not rock. Like, their chord changes are incredible. Their melodies -- you can tell it was all written on piano.
But a lot of times that gets run over by the fact that they're, you know, a rock band, and people just hear the thumping bass and the beat. They don't hear these beautiful, well-thought-out melodies that are so killer. I always loved that song, because I thought the chord progression was so wild and beautiful, so we decided to highlight that side of it, take the beat out of it.
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