Beach House Talk Bad Holidays, Young Families and The Natural Order of Things
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Three albums, one DVD, one EP and hundreds of shows deep into a seven year career and dream pop torchbearers Beach House show no signs of resting. Resting it seems, is the only thing they can't do. Since 2006 the Baltimore duo have released an album every two years, tirelessly toured the world and developed a relationship to their own music which renders practicing a holiday. Teen Dream, their latest LP and first for Sub Pop Records ("Beach House" (2006) and "Devotion" (2008) were released via Washington D.C. imprint Carpark Records) stands among 2010's most highly regarded albums and updates Devotion's reverb-laden haze with Chris Coady's (Yeah Yeah Yeahs, TV on the Radio, Grizzly Bear) inviting production and a more crystalline approach to songwriting.
Pedestrian recently caught up with vocalist/keyboardist Victoria Legrand (caught between recording and releasing a Christmas song and preparing for their forthcoming trip to Australia) and discussed the natural order of things, vibe wrangling, synaesthesia and how to raise a family.
What's your phone voice mail thing? I thought I was accidentally listening in on a jam session and I was kind of excited. (Laughs) The music? It's something I just made up, I can't ever remember what it is. I think it's me playing guitar. Sometimes I'll just play something and record it and see if anyone likes it.
So where are you at the moment? I'm in Baltimore and we're doing a bunch of interviews this evening. It was snowing here today and it's very cold and very grey.
What did you do before all the interviews started? Today I made holiday cards to send to friends and people that we work with and we kind of got snowed in actually. Didn't go anywhere really, today was kind of a grey day.
Is that kind of weather conducive to writing music? Not always, I guess if you feel like it, it doesn't matter what the weather's like. When we recorded Teen Dream it was Summer and it was really nice out and when you're working you don't really pay attention to the weather at all. Your head's not really in the physical world so I don't think it needs to be grey or sunny, it just needs to be the right time.
And you guys released a holiday song yesterday... That was today!
Wow, today. It actually happened today. That's the magic of the internet, it goes all around the world in a matter of minutes.
And you get asked about it a few hours later... I know! You're the first person to ask about it. We just did that a couple of days ago. I was playing guitar and we made it in our practice space because we thought it would be nice to write something for people and give it away for free. Because it's the holiday season, it's the spirit. It's not about selling it, it's an innocent song and we had an idea and I had some things to say about the holidays. You know, it's always an intense time, the holidays, it's complicated. It's always more complex than it seems but it's also a really simple time of the year at the same time. There's a lot of love, there's a lot of sorrow. So we wanted to write a song and say thank you to people because it's been a very nice year for Beach House. For us really, it's not just this year it's been four years of touring and making records and we're going to continue doing that. And I don't see that stopping but I think a lot of things intensified this year, you know? Touring intensified, the attention on us intensified but with the exception of this wonderful little trip we're taking to Australia and New Zealand and Singapore, this is a time for us to return to ourselves. And return to writing. And return to being inspired about stuff.
Do you feel like you've afforded yourselves a holiday after how prolific you've been over the last few years? We're not good at holidays. Last time we tried to take a vacation we went to Florida and it was the coldest winter Florida had ever seen. So we tried to go to the beach but it didn't work out. For us, I think the concept of a holiday is coming back to Baltimore and going to our practice space and playing around and writing a holiday song. We've been working on new songs now and for us that's a holiday. It truly is happiness for us, in a way. You're free, you're doing things on your own schedule, your own time, you're surrounded by your own things. It really is a lovely moment.
You mentioned how big this year has been for Beach House, what was the most surreal moment of 2010 for you? Honestly there have been a lot of different moments. We played almost 160 shows this year so we've been to a lot of places. Some highlights? Primavera, Spain was great. Portugal's always fun, San Francisco. There are a lot of magical places on this Earth to play music and there are a lot of incredible people to play music in front of so I would just have to say everything. Everything combined is this huge, amazingly intense experience. Because it is, it's a very surreal life. To make music, to make something that people around the world hear which enables you to basically time travel and fly all over the place. I mean, it's just a surreal life so I would say everything my friend.
You mentioned the increased attention before and you guys really have received so much more exposure this year. Playing late night TV and the reception the album had in the music media and all the rest, what's been the hardest adjustment you've had to make with the increased attention? I think for us, music is something we've always done no matter how much attention is paid to it. Something which we're very protective of and very serious about. Being people who are creative, having time to write music, having time to be private - all those things. And that's something that'll we'll always maintain. The attention is wonderful and we're extremely grateful for it but really, what we see is the evolution of about five years of intensely hard work. Three records and with this year I think we've made a record every year and a half since 2006. So I think you have a certain amount of organic momentum and this year, you know, it increased. And we're going to go back inside of our shells and create something different and that's how we handle it. Our heads haven't gotten any bigger. We don't think any differently about anything at all. If anything we're probably more crazily obsessed with the idea of making music. If anything, it's gotten more internal and it's less about what the world thinks. And we're grateful, we're really, really grateful. Because the energy that people give us goes right into what we make. The energy we're given is going to come right back out in the next thing we make.
Have you guys thought about new songs yet? I mean with regard to songwriting I know Devotion was written incrementally between breaks and Teen Dream was written over a longer, more sustained time period. Do you guys now save songwriting til after the touring cycle has finished? We do. What's always happened with us is that when we're making a record we'll actually start writing songs for the next record. Or when we're touring we'll come up with little bits and pieces then when we get home we start to build those ideas and put them together. That's always what's happened. It happened with the first record, it happened with Devotion and it happened with Teen Dream. And every record has had its own unique time period, like how long it took and where it happened. Like writing Devotion happened between a lot of touring. And Teen Dream happened in a very succinct box, we had months. And this next record, I have a feeling, will happen in a fairly similar process. Months of not a lot of touring and months of being in the practice space but our recording process might be different. So each record will always come about in its own different way. While there are definite patterns for us as humans, how our brains work and why we're compelled to make things, how it's done and where it's done and how long it takes - all those things - will probably change and be very unique.
I like that internally you guys have a term for the vibe or the appropriateness of songs and moods. You call it "the family", is that right? Yeah, since the very first record we've always used that term. I remember because Todd who runs Carpark Records was like "Do you guys want to put another song on there?" and we were like "No it's nine songs. It's not ten songs. It's these nine songs and we don't have anything that we want to add." It's always been like that. When you're inside of it you start to get this instinctive sense like when you're looking at a sculpture and you know that you can't take another piece off or add another chunk to it. Same thing with painting, you can't add another colour when the composition feels just right. That's how we feel about records. There's an order to things, there's a very natural order. And you'd think it would become really intellectual like this means this and that stands for that but in the end, Alex sees an order musically and I agree. And that's it, there's nothing more said about it. It is what it is. It just feels right and we let it be. And in those moments, if you force things too much or you break things or jam things you lose that ability to have things fall naturally. It's like bad karma, you know? It's something we hold very dearly. It's kind of like our altar to creation - respecting the boundaries of things but also knowing when to push and when to let things explode and when to let things rush out of you.
And what does the family look like now? The family is very young. That's one of the most beautiful parts about this process, especially after so much touring, the family is very young. It's not a family yet. It's ideas and intense feelings and inklings and visions but you don't know where it's going yet. You just release these ideas little by little and everything comes out at different speeds. It's very cathartic which is why I consider it a holiday because you learn a lot. And we learn a lot when we're touring. When we're on tour we learn a lot about our music. We learn about what we don't want to do again. We learn to see some things deeper than we ever have before. We learn to move further away from things too. A song should be like a lover or someone you're close to - one day you aren't as close to them anymore and it's not necessarily sad or great it's just a fact. It's just time, it changes everything. So that's where we are right now, we're very early on in this thing. A lot of ideas are very certain but a lot of things will surprise us too.
You talk about following intuition as part of your M.O. and this is going to sound super cheesy but do you guys recognize or follow signs the universe throws out too? Like, are you guys superstitious? I mean, we're playful people. We're serious people but we're also very playful and we don't take things too seriously, we don't take ourselves too seriously. But we're protective of what we make and we want it to be special for people so we do have light superstitions, just like anybody. Everybody has some little superstition like don't walk under a ladder or knock on wood. I knock on wood a lot because I have a fear of making a statement about something because it's automatically going to be different. The minute you say this is going to be great - it's going to be awful. So I think we're lightly superstitious. We're very careful about what we say because we don't want to jinx anything. I mean, I shouldn't have told you there would be a next record.
I guess this is related to the lover analogy before but another interesting thing about you guys is that arc from a decidedly lo-fi sound to much cleaner, hi-fi territory. Was that change a byproduct of confidence in your songwriting ability or more of a straight stylistic change? That was something we were definitely conscious of. I mean, we know what our records sound like, we've always been our own Producers ultimately. We worked with Chris Coady who's amazing but we've always been at our own house and we know what's going to happen. We didn't go into the studio with an open book. We went in with everything already recorded and demoed, we knew what we wanted. And we knew we didn't want to sound the way we sounded before because that's not the natural way. Things are going to change whether you like it or not. We wanted to bring things closer to people not in a cheapening way but emotionally and physically, like how sounds come closer. There's still reverb and a lot of the things are still the same but it's our third record and we've evolved. We have a clearer or a better sense of song structure, our ears are stronger and we hear things that we couldn't six years ago, so the record is more hi-fi than the others. But that's not necessarily the place that we'll stay, it's a place that we felt was appropriate for the emotional landscape at that time. So yeah, that was something we thought about. We were very aware of that. We were aware that things sounded better. With lo-fi it's an aesthetic and we've done that but it can be boring and very old to drench things in reverb because it's just a style, really. Lo-fi is a style. And unfortunately, I think there's a lot of that right now. I don't mean unfortunately, I mean a lot of things are sugar coated in reverb and that's fine if you want to do that but for us it actually masks a lot. It actually drowns a lot of feeling in the end. Reverb doesn't compensate for your ability and we were aware of that on this record.
Just on the care and conviction with which aesthetics are portrayed, I thought the accompanying DVD that came out with this record was an interesting move. And for me what's interesting about that is how different the videos are to the stereotypical "vibe" of your music. Like, I read a Pitchfork interview where you described that stereotypical vibe as "girl in a floral dress" which was completely different to the videos. What's closer to the spirit you conjure when you play? Like, what do you visualize? It's always intense. It's like moving photographs. When I hear music I see moving photographs. There's always colour and there's always some kind of scene but it doesn't have to make sense. Sometimes there's very powerful imagery and when we're writing music a lot of our language is visual, we'll describe things visually. When we were writing "Silver Soul" for example, that's when the title Teen Dream came about. It was this feeling and the words Teen Dream flew out and we knew it had to be the title of the record. There's no deep definition of it we just knew it made sense. It was dark, it was light. It was young, it was old. It was all these things and it wasn't about being literal. Vision is a huge part of the process, it's something that I can't help and it's something that we can't help. With the DVD we were just acknowledging that undeniable thing which is when people hear something they see something. Between artists and video people and music, it's a beautiful relationship. When you make a good music video it can be very powerful and now with the internet you can make a video for anything. I think the medium of music videos has changed a lot. It's not what it used to be at all - it's actually way more dispersed and crazy now and now you have a lot more room to express yourself through video. For us they're not music videos in the nineties sense of the music video where it's like Aerosmith and Alicia Silverstone and Liv Tyler though they were awesome music videos. For us we knew that if we gave a song to an artist and said "do whatever you want" we were going to get something wild. And we wanted that for us and for you. I think as an artist you're always looking for something that challenges you that takes you some place that you didn't expect. And for us to give our songs away to nine different people that's what that was. It was freedom and fun and it was a risk. You know, it's nothing definitive it's just there to give you other imaginations, some other adjectives, some other things to discuss.
So what's next? For right now it's just about finishing this year and our trip down where you are and having Summer and writing. It's very simple right now.
Victoria, thank you for your time. I hope the family grows up healthy and well adjusted and in a loving environment and other terrible metaphors. (Laughs) It was very lovely speaking to you, I had a wonderful time.
Beach House tour Australia in February as part of the 2011 St. Jerome's Laneway Festival.
January 22 at MULLUMBIMBY CIVIC HALL in MULLUMBIMBY,
January 25 at HI-FI in MELBOURNE
January 26 at HYDE PARK BARRACKS MUSEUM in SYDNEY (SYDNEY FESTIVAL)
January 27 at CITY RECITAL HALL ANGEL PLACE in SYDNEY (SYDNEY FESTIVAL)
January 31 at LANEWAY FESTIVAL in AUCKLAND
February 4 at LANEWAY FESTIVAL in BRISBANE
February 5 at LANEWAY FESTIVAL in MELBOURNE
February 6 at LANEWAY FESTIVAL in SYDNEY
February 11 at LANEWAY FESTIVAL in ADELAIDE
February 12 at LANEWAY FESTIVAL in PERTH