Music Interviews

Beach House: “People can call us whatever they want. People need titles” – Interview

Beach House

Beach House

Beach House have long been the kind of band other musicians cite as favourites. But their third album, Teen Dream, looks set to expand their appeal well beyond in-the-know musos to the public at large. Here is an album that plays like an album should, working beautifully in order from beginning to end, but one that balances this with some quite wonderful single tracks too.

Meeting in London ahead of the album’s release, to begin with guitarist Alex Scally is explaining Teen Dream on his own. We’re expecting the duo’s other half Victoria Legrand too, but she’s been held up. With beers to hand we take to a bench. Baltimore-born Scally pensively orders his thoughts.

“Teen Dream seems different (to their previous output) because we had more time and money to use to make it,” he says. “So it’s not recorded in that lo-fi way. But mostly it’s just a progression – we’ve been doing music together for five years and we’ve gotten much better at it.”

Legrand was born in France and moved to the East Coast when she was seven years old. Someone in her college band played in Scally’s high school band; she came to Baltimore after college to continue working in the band. “I was asked to join that band, then we went off to start our own band,” says Scally of How Beach House Came To Be. They’d both been members of a band called Daggerhearts. “It was more an excuse to party all the time,” remembers Scally. “There was a period where no-one was really making music at all, and we stumbled into working together.”

Although he’s worked with “tonnes of people” before, he swiftly found that Legrand was something different. He describes their relationship as a “ying yang thing”. “We just started writing one night and it was just like, waow, why didn’t we ever think of this? It was kind of miraculous. Everything I was good at filled in all her spaces. Everything I couldn’t do, she does amazingly. And our personalities… we have this lucky mix. I count my blessings every day.”

An eponymous debut and a follow-up, Devotion, began to cement the band’s reputation, but Scally feels that Teen Dream is a step up for the duo. “I think it’s the best record we’ve made,” he says proudly, but without a hint of arrogance. “It kind of makes sense that it’s starting to get a wider audience. It’s about growth. A lot of times with bands in America you slowly grow rather than come out with your best album straight away. None of our albums are meant to be our definitive or peak albums. Kind of like Neil Young; he never really peaked. He just carried on making amazing albums. When I look at bands that I really like and idolise, people like David Byrne, or Brian Eno, or Radiohead, their careers are based around their music, rather than creating an instant pop spectacle.”

Spectacle or not, Beach House’s output has been filed in the pigeonhole labelled ‘dream pop’. With the swooning melodies of Teen Dream tracks Silver Soul and Walk In The Park in particular capable of calling in siren tongues for repeated plays, their creators surely nurse a pop sensibility in there somewhere… don’t they?

“People call it ‘dream pop’ – but we don’t really care about that title,” says Scally. “People can call us whatever they want. People need titles. Everyone’s mind wants to find out what something is and call it something. I think the reason people call it ‘dream pop’ is the sonic textures that inspire us and that we end up using. They’re kind of warm and strange and fuzzy. And Victoria’s voice is really beautiful. It has this… quality to it.”

“People call it ‘dream pop’ – but we don’t really care about that title.” – Beach House’s Alex Scally

Scally’s home town Baltimore, in which Beach House is still based, is not synonymous with pop, of the dream variety or any other. Rather it’s known for springing forth musicians with something new to say. “There’s a really great scene there and you’ll probably be hearing more from it in the near future actually,” Scally enthuses. “People get to be who they want to be. There’s no ‘cool’ there. It’s very familial; everyone there knows each other. You can be as esoteric and strange as you want, and nobody reins you in.” There are other advantages too. “It’s very cheap! It’s somewhere we can have a huge space that we can write in and experiment in and feel free. You don’t have to work so much there; you can work 20 hours a week and pay your rent.”

One particular musician seems to embody that Baltimore scene just now; Dan Deacon, whose frantic electronic music is something like the opposite of Beach House’s output. “He’s an amazing performer, just an amazing human being,” says Scally. “He’s a real force in Baltimore, really helps everybody stay positive and keep a lot of creative energy moving around. Last Fall, 24 bands from Baltimore all went on tour together. We’d set up in a huge circle, everyone would play one song at a time, and the shows were four continuous hours long. We did two shows in each city. It was a really great moment for Baltimore, because everyone who didn’t know each other got to know each other. In that way Dan’s been very important to us, instrumental in getting us to know all the musicians in Baltimore.”

Teen Dream’s producer Chris Cody is another native of the city whom mutual friends there had recommended. But Scally had exacting ideas of what was needed from a producer; Scally and Legrand “completely arranged every song,” he says, adding “I’m an obsessive arranger. We wrote and recorded every single part of the music before we even got (to the studio). We made demos that sound exactly like the album with all the instruments. The focus of being (in the studio) was to record each part and each sound brilliantly. That’s what he set about doing.”

A month of painstaking and at times frustrating recording sessions followed. “Chris has a lot of experience of big studios, which mics to use, how to use the board really well,” says Scally, “and he was really, really good at getting us to do great takes. Some guitar takes he would get me to do 25 times. He was really great at forcing us to an emotional peak, or getting us to calm our bodies down to get a certain sound. He understood that side of things so well. And he didn’t seem to have his mind set on any one thing; he was really open and flexible. He’s a Gemini. I think Victoria really liked that about him too.” It transpires that Legrand is rather into astrology.

“Everything I was good at filled in all her spaces. Everything I couldn’t do, she does amazingly.” – Beach House’s Alex Scally on Victoria Legrand

We get on to Teen Dream’s taster download, the track Norway. “A Norwegian radio station asked us to write a song on our trip across from Bergen to Oslo,” recalls Scally. “And we did a melody and Victoria wrote some words. It’s kinda just a fantasy about Norway.”

As we enter the realm of fantasy, Legrand suddenly skips up and perches on the end of the bench. “I was told to come over,” she says, looking a little sheepish. “He has some specific Victoria-oriented questions,” joshes Scally. “He lied to me,” she rejoins, apropros of something and someone else entirely, somewhat to do with marriage, and somebody (Scally?) proposing (to her?) but not having the courage to go through with it. “Sorry,” she says, bringing the conversation back out of the rabbit hole. “People playing tricks on my heart. Don’t let me interrupt.”

Scally brings her up to speed about the Norway chat. “It’s about the relationship between the heart… in motion, going through the land,” she muses wistfully. “Writing a song on a train is really intense. It’s a very poppy song but it has a certain level of darkness to it.” And its parent record? “I see Teen Dream as the beginning of a lifetime of defining records. Each one is different, and I think this one is the result of our full commitment to our world, our music. And our brains are becoming frighteningly… the bridge is getting smaller. Is there even a bridge?” “We get there and just fall off the cliff,” says Scally.

Despite the dream pop atmospherics, Legrand says “the lyrics are very important.” Scally embellishes: “I think what you’re hearing is, with all our albums we make music to be listened to again and again. With this, on first listen you get a feeling of the song, and maybe a few words, and then with each listen you get more and more meaning. You don’t get it instantly on the first song. Each time you listen you go in a little further.” A pause. “Till you’re basically in her bosum,” he smiles wryly. “That makes sense,” she says, nodding seriously. “We could have produced it with the voice up front,” rejoins Scally, “but that would have ruined it. But I do think the main, central focus is the voice. It’s a bit hidden, but it is the central point.”

Legrand indulged in a spot of moonlighting, singing on Grizzly Bear‘s contribution to the Twilight: New Moon soundtrack, Slow Life. Their appearance alongside the likes of Thom Yorke and St Vincent was rather surprising – these are not necessarily the sort of names one expects to find gracing the soundtrack for a teen movie franchise. “A quick phone call, I took a taxi over, and in an hour and a half it was done,” says Legrand. “I’m not trying to destroy any magic, but I didn’t write any of it with them. But it was fun. It reminds me a lot of the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack that came out when I was in high school. For me – I was 14 or something – I remember Thom Yorke being on that soundtrack too. It was like a gateway (to music) for 15-year-olds.”

“Teenagers in America these days have really bad choices. The radio is god-fucking-awful.” – Beach House’s Alex Scally

Scally picks up the theme and runs with it. “Teenagers in America these days have really bad choices. The radio is god-fucking-awful. Teenagers can either take (music) from the radio and not have any options of meaningful music, or they can dig into the underground. So sometimes you’ll see a 15-year-old at your show who has the most amazingly developed taste, and they’re so far along. But sometimes you see a 15-year-old and they don’t know a single good song; they only listen to the worst, most processed, meaningless music.” Legrand agrees: “What’s scary is that they don’t know bands that existed only in the last eight years that they could have heard about.” Scally nods. “It’s really polarized – if you only listen to radio, you never listen to a good song. If you get on to the internet, you learn about a lot of really good music really quickly.”

They see the radio problem as worse in the USA than in the UK. “Here you can still get cool artists on the radio,” concedes Scally. “Here you can still get things that are off the beaten path. Maybe there’s more of a sense of being allowed to do more original stuff on air. In the States it’s like the big labels…” – “ClearChannel own everything,” muses Legrand – “…it’s the giants dying and trying to control the last bit while they’re going down. Major labels don’t take risks in the States any more. They only do the biggest, stupidest shit that’s guaranteed to sell. We get emails from major labels here and there; we just ignore it. We don’t want to be part of that shit. It’s just a shitstorm.” And anyway, says Legrand, “It doesn’t make sense to be. You can do it by yourself or with an independent label. Why would you want to jump to a big label? For the money? You’re not going to get any money. You’re not in control. It’s an outdated mentality. Maybe it worked in ’89; somewhere in the ’90s they mattered, but not any more.”

By contrast they view their UK label Bella Union as a family of people who get them and are behind them, who connect them to the world of other creative people. “We’re going to Sundance this year, and they helped organise that trip. And that could be the time when we meet an amazing director; we both dream of working on an amazing film,” says Scally. Legrand pipes up. “I hope some filmmakers use something from (Teen Dream) because visuals are a huge inspiration.” “And it’s a great thing to do musically that isn’t an album,” says Scally, taking the conversation firmly in the direction of soundtracks. The cycle of making and promoting an album has, for him, become predictable, and Legrand points out that soundtracks are a freer form. “You can write a 25-second song that doesn’t have a verse or a chorus.” “I don’t want to slap our songs on a movie that’s already made,” clarifies Scally. “I want to interact with a director who wants to make a film together.” “We’ll do whatever,” says Legrand. “Movies. Visuals. Hit us.” Scally continues: “Acting, stripping…”

The following night sees the duo set up in a tiny back room behind a pub off London’s Columbia Road. They’re seated and, as the stage is at the same level as their standing audience, they remain unseen for the duration of Teen Dream’s UK showcase gig. Yet as eyes close and hips sway to the dreamy moods being created, Teen Dream’s intimacy is translated beautifully in this smallest of live settings. Afterwards Legrand and Scally are to be found at the pub’s bar, chatting amiably with all and sundry; and who knows, maybe even a film director. They’ve made one of 2011’s very best records, but its surefire success looks like changing nothing about how they conduct themselves.

Beach House’s third album Teen Dream is out now through Bella Union.

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