“Something can be repeated but it’s never the same,” muses Victoria Legrand.
Perched alongside her bandmate Alex Scally, the Beach House singer and keyboardist is describing her band – their “life’s work” – in both a micro and a macro sense when she talks about repetition.
Regularly billed as “dream pop” throughout their decade-long career, Beach House are indeed the masters of the modern lullaby; their songs unravel in circular arpeggios and shimmering slide guitar loops, tick-tocking forwards on drum machines rigged up from ancient electronic organs. Unlike some of their peers from the mid-00s indie bloom – Animal Collective, Vampire Weekend – their journey has been utterly inwards-looking; rather than expanding their vision, gobbling up exotic ideas to fashion in their own image, they’ve kept digging deeper into themselves, honing their essential Beach House-ness into an unmistakable, instantly recognisable sound.
Over the past 10 years the Baltimore band – who remain devoted to their city and its constantly renewing creative energy – have turned their magical chemistry into one of the sturdiest back catalogues around. After their 2010 breakout Teen Dream, they consolidated their gauzy, romantic songwriting on 2012’s Bloom and in August they release their fifth album, Depression Cherry, led by the heady shoegaze of lead single ‘Sparks’. Steadfast in their quest to refine rather than revolutionise, the band’s nine new songs are as spine-tingling as we’ve come to expect, but always seemingly effortless and natural – a word that comes up frequently in conversation with them.
I met them both in Shoreditch to find out about more their quest to stay natural, their addiction to the road, the guiding hand of fate and following The Arrow Of Time.
“Jet lag can cause weird creative epiphanies. Deprivation can create ideas”
Where are we in the Beach House story, and what’s the driving force behind this particular record?
Victoria Legrand: Well, we’re deep in. Over 10 years.
Alex Scally: We’re deep in the dirt now.
VL: We’re older. We have a lot of experience but we’re still figuring stuff out.
AS: It’s hard to say where we are in the Beach House story because we have no clue. Well, we know where started but we have no idea where the end will be. Maybe we’ll be one of those weird bands that puts out like 15 albums and never goes away, whether people like it or not. For us we’re at just another natural place. That’s all we’re ever trying to do, is just stay natural.
Tell me about the title of the album – it’s very direct to actually use the word “depression”.
VL: It’s probably a little bit more confrontational to an extent. Darker, playful. It has a myriad of possibilities.
Did you come up with it together?
VL: The words came to my brain through my mouth, but… they existed simultaneously together so they came out together. As far as their connection to the album, that took time. I guess you get lucky with a title, ‘cos you go looking for one but sometimes it takes a long time.
You wrote your own biography to accompany the press release for the album and you specifically referenced a couple of books, including the physics book The Arrow Of Time and Banana Yoshimoto’s novel Kitchen. What’s meaningful about those books for you?
AS: [Artist biographies] are this terrible thing – you send out a bio because you have to, and it totally informs the nature of every question that you’re asked so it’s such a pitfall, so we thought if we did quotes it would just lead to a more open world of questions. So let’s think of some stuff that doesn’t directly address this album but deals in the same realm. [We] very purposefully chose a female writer [Yoshimoto], a philosopher [Arthur Schopenhauer], a song [‘Into The Mystic’ by Van Morrison], and then The Arrow of Time, which is a lay science book, so all of these energies are converging from all of these different sources. We’re trying not to narrow everything down too much. Big quotes dealing with big things.
VL: And they weren’t even things we thought about during the making of it. I think it’s important to know that [they were chosen] after everything had been recorded.
But the quotes seem to reflect certain themes that run throughout your work, like memory, loss, transience.
AS: I don’t think that the songs on this record are like the ones on our previous records, personally. They could have never existed on the previous records. Maybe some of these themes… Anyone’s entitled to any of these things that they want to feel.
VL: But loss and transience and all that, there’s many things inside of it but I think it really does become about how you listen to it and you have this personal experience with it, but your neighbour has a completely different one. Something that really frustrates me about language is that by saying that you’re trying to be natural, are you really being natural? Just being is I think the most essential, important element in almost everything. And I think that being a couple of years older, we’re not that different, as people, but we’ve had our experiences and I think we want to just be.
How do you think your skill, your craft, as songwriters has changed or developed?
VL: Well, we’ve done every type of song structure. Alex is good at talking about this from a musicology standpoint but I don’t know.
Is it something you’re aware of when you’re writing, like, “how can we write a perfect pop song?”
VL: I’ve personally learned a lot about singing in a certain way, what I like and what I don’t like, what I find attractive in my own self. Subtle things too. I’ve learned more about myself and what I feel is a comfortable place for me, so there’s this beautiful thing that has happened, the realisation of one’s certain essences and how you can keep finding new things but in very subtle ways.
When you wrote Bloom you were still living in Baltimore. Is that still the case?
VL: Still living, still writing there.
What is it about Baltimore that’s so right for you?
VL: I think when you have a good thing you can’t take it for granted.
AS: It’s where we came of age, and all our friends are there, and it’s a music scene. And it would seem really weird to leave all of those friends and that whole world. I don’t know where we could go – expensive, miserable New York? Baltimore is our home, there’s no question about staying there.
In the past few years we’ve seen lots of bands coming out of Baltimore and doing well, like Lower Dens and Future Islands. What’s it like there now in terms of being a creative city?
AS: It’s always shifting, every scene is constantly shifting but it’s still alive.
VL: It’s a place where there’s a lot of privacy for people. People aren’t showy about what they’re doing, they just do it.
AS: Sometimes people hide out, you’ll not see somebody for three months and you’ll hear they’re doing an art show and you’re like damn, man, this is great.
VL: You can be very introspective there but you can also just be drunk and go out.
AS: We know most everybody.
VL: There’s also an art school so there’s always young people coming in. I definitely notice that as you get older there’s more people that you don’t recognise, and I think that’s really refreshing. Maybe it’s changing, maybe more people are staying now. I think the way cities have grown, more people are choosing to stay put in certain places.
“We’ve just tried to be ourselves and be natural at all times, and that’s really been the biggest struggle.”
Another thing you mentioned in this biography is the idea of letting yourselves evolve while ignoring the commercial context – maybe Baltimore is protected from that context? What are the pressures on a band like Beach House to become more “commercial”, to play bigger venues and so on?
AS: The only pressures that exist are the ones that we put on ourselves.
VL: It’s all tied into the natural thing. There’s a time and a place to discuss business matters, and you have to do a certain level of thinking about what’s comfortable for me, what’s best for the fans, what is best for the art. Well, what’s best for the art isn’t just getting bigger and bigger necessarily, it might be getting a little bit smaller.
AS: We played a bunch of shows last year in really big places that bummed us out, so we went to our booking agents and said “can we not have any shows above 1,500 [people]?” I bet the experience for somebody at a U2 show in the front row and in the back row is not all that different, ‘cos they’re getting these anthemic mega tunes blasted at them and everybody can feel them and sing along. But for our kind of thing I think there’s a massive difference between the front row and the back row in a 2,800-person theatre.
It doesn’t seem to have affected how you actually write songs. Some bands adapt their style to suit the stadiums, but your music has almost become more intimate.
VL: Intimacy is fascinating, because intimate doesn’t necessarily mean quiet. So you can have 1,500 people feel intimate, but it could be the music, it could be that night of the week… it can be powerful and intimate at the same time.
AS: We’re just trying to be natural all the time, so a lot of these changes we’re talking about, it’s just been this huge natural flow that’s occurred. This album is very much just another product of that natural flow. This whole thing about selling out, like, we’ve been on small labels, we’ve done it slowly – it’s not even something that’s come up.
VL: It’s not even an option.
AS: We’ve done some commercials, we’ve turned down some commercials. We don’t have these strong ideologies or anything, we’ve just tried to be ourselves and be natural at all times, and that’s really been the biggest struggle. We’re really happy right now because we feel like we’ve succeeded, we feel like this record is ourselves, nothing pushed us, we just made something and we ended up loving it.
Was it that the first time you ever played together it came out sounding like Beach House?
VL: The first thing we wrote was ‘Saltwater’.
AS: We had two organs, your white organ and the two organs in my house, and then this guitar, and when we just started working it was just what was there, and we loved it.
That’s quite weird… in a spooky way.
AS: There’s a lot of spooky stuff.
Do you believe there’s an element of fate at play?
VL: I definitely can go there.
AS: There’s a lot of weird stuff… we’re constantly having the same thought at the same exact time.
VL: But also totally not, too. We’re like DNA strands, we’re just winding around.
AS: It was the things we loved, and what we had access to – we had these organs that we were infatuated with.
VL: I still think, for me, when I found that organ, the white Yamaha, it was literally just sitting on the shelf and I swear to god I was just like, “ahhh” [mimics being sucked into its aura]. I’m a piano player and I’d seen lots of keyboards, but if you wanna talk about spooky, it was like, “I’m getting this, why has no one else gotten this? Why is this literally waiting for me?” And why did I meet [Alex], why does any of this happen? Are we compelled to do this because there’s a purpose? I have no idea. That’s for people to do decide.
AS: The drum machine in the keyboard on ‘Saltwater’, and on ‘Lazuli’ on the last record, it’s from this big organ that was in my house, a big console by a company called Thomas. So this organ that has become a big thing in our band has literally been in my house my entire life. It’s weird – would this band exist if this organ hadn’t been in my house?
That circular drum machine gives your music a completely different atmosphere than having someone hitting real drums.
AS: I hate drummers. Drummers are so boring. They cannot control themselves. Drums should always just be going “boomboom-crr, doomdoomdoom-crr”, but they’re never doing that, they’re always going “doomdoom-crr-tz-tz-tz” [he continues to mimic an elaborate drum fill] and it’s just like, stop it!
VL: Keep it in your pants!
AS: There’s a million great drummers, but the best drummers are always the ones like the Fleetwood Mac drummer where there’s so little going on.
Or any krautrock drummer, where they just keep going with no fills.
VL: People think it’s the same thing every time and it’s boring, but something’s always happening. They’re like, “I don’t wanna play the same thing over and over,” and you’re like, “Actually, do it for five minutes, and by the five minute mark you will leave your body and something awesome is going to happen, and it might just be a little fill, but that little fill is worth 15 fills.”
You’re on the road a lot. You must actually enjoy touring?
VL: We love it. We’re weird but we like it. I’ve been a little gypsy since my early days – whether it was my choice or not I’ve moved many times throughout my life. I’ve not stayed in the same place for more than five years, so the fact I’ve lived in Baltimore for 10 years is definitely for a reason, it’s Beach House. But travelling is very natural for us.
AS: For me personally, touring is so zen – all you have to do is you get there in the morning, you set up your stuff, you soundcheck, you find some food, then you play, you tear it all down, put it in the van, go to sleep, and do the same thing the next day.
AS: I think bands hate this kind of stuff because they feel like they lose passion for it when they’re doing the same thing every night. I think doing the same setlist every night is murder, no band should do that. But they do because it’s easy. We change things up every night and we find ways to keep it fresh.
The idea of it being monastic is a way of looking at the repetition and seeing something beneficial from it, like meditation.
VL: And in the best way, like in electronic music, or in anything, something can be repeated but it’s never the same. I’m not a huge electronic music nerd or anything but in the pieces I’ve enjoyed the most it’s the same – it’s the same thing repeating, technically, but it’s just finding new meaning.
If you repeat something 10 times it’s boring, but you repeat it 1000 times and you enter a whole other level of perception.
VL: With touring the cycle is technically the same, but every time you do it it’s not exactly the same.
Do you write when you’re touring?
VL: The road is the road. It’s very difficult to write, but you store up things. Jet lag can cause weird creative epiphanies. Deprivation can create ideas.
AS: A lot of ideas have sprung forth right after tour, the second you get home, because you don’t even have a second to play an instrument by yourself so you’re starving. It feels really good.
Is it still important for you to be writing and recording without touching computers and digital things?
VL: We touch computers [laughs]. We are not anti-computer. I think the mixture of elements is interesting.
Wasn’t Bloom recorded to tape?
AS: Bloom and Teen Dream were both recorded to tape but we still used computers to edit it a bit. But we didn’t do it on this one, because it takes so much time. We were coming through this Neve console, this old beautiful console from the 60s that was putting so much warmth and tone onto everything that tape would have almost been too much, almost dull sounding. There was already, like, no high end, there’s very little high end on this record. We didn’t need tape.
Is there anything you’ve done differently with your voice this time, in terms of microphones or even your approach to singing?
VL: It’s just me. It’s just me now. I can’t think about it too much. Every time I’ve done what I felt was me at that time and that’s as much as I know, I swear.
AS: For me, as her bandmate, I think it’s my favourite singing she’s ever done, personally. I just think it’s so nuanced and controlled and full of beauty, and not at all over-singing, which is such a constant in today’s music.
Do you disguise your lyrics – are you really writing about yourself and your life?
VL: I’m not trying to disguise it, that is the way that I just happen to be writing. One of my biggest pet peeves is, like, in trying to do something you’re actually not doing it. So just doing it is the best thing to do, it’s a lot stronger.
AS: That’s very theatre.
VL: It’s very theatre, and it’s very much like… all you need for you, you have it all inside, it’s right there. Just maybe that particular day you didn’t see it. So I just feel that that’s been the path for me with writing, just telling the story the way it seems that it wants to be told. There is labour… there is a labour of love in all the words that I’ve written. It’s definitely a craft and I’m very fascinated in the way that people interpret it. I think I get upset when I don’t want to be boxed being abstract or oblique, because I do think that there have been some direct lyrics. It’s not that I don’t ever operate on an “I and you” level, and I definitely use “they” and “us”. It’s trying to keep things open but also personal.
Maybe part of the reason people have such a strong emotional connection with your music that sense of it being open. There are very resonant nuggets of words with multiple meanings, potentially.
VL: You don’t know why it affects you, it just does. That’s the fascinating thing about language, – it can be so trite, or violent and just narrow-minded, but at the same time language can be incredibly open and imaginative.