BEACH HOUSE: BREAKING OUT OF BALTIMORE

Originally published in The Irish Times, February 10th 2010

HAVE YOU heard the one about the bartender and the carpenter? They met five years ago, discovered a mutual love of music and decided to record an album together. Then they recorded another. Now that they’re on their third, they’ve given up their day-jobs for an altogether more fulfilling existence.

It’s hard to believe Victoria Legrand (bartender, singer and keyboardist) and Alex Scally (carpenter and guitarist) were still holding down monotonous nine-to-fives while 2008’s Devotion was getting exuberant reviews from the respected music website Pitchfork.

That album established them as a band with indie kudos, but it’s their new offering, Teen Dream , that has the potential to “do a Fleet Foxes” in 2010, as one journalist put it. Yet, driving through downtown Baltimore with Scally at the wheel, Legrand is nonchalant about the slog that their double lives entailed. Beach House, you see, are unfazed by hard work – the eccentrically voiced singer emphasises this several times during our conversation.

“We were still working because we’d be at home, but now we’re home in very small increments,” she says. “It’s not a question of ‘Oh, now we make money, so we don’t work’. We don’t really have that much money, but we work constantly, in this other sense – so we can’t have ‘normal’ jobs. But we’re lucky – we make music and it enables you to travel and have these amazing experiences. There’s nothing about it that isn’t completely amazing.”

The duo may not be millionaires, but they’re certainly happier these days. And better known – Teen Dream had the blogging world writhing in blissful anticipation before it was even released in the US.

“We really became consumed with the record,” says Legrand. “I think we’re getting more and more into the idea of simplifying, but at the same time intensifying. I think sometimes what happens is that as you make more records, it’s easy to make things more and more complicated. Making records that you can’t reproduce live, things like that, because you get more time and more money.

“For us, when we had more time – which was a month in the studio, the most time we’ve had in a recording situation – instead of piling more things on top, we used it to really hone everything. We had everything written and composed before we went in. We had demos for everything written, that’s how certain we were. We just didn’t want to let anything float out of our grasp. So yeah, we’re definitely into making a lot of very little.”

Comparisons have been made with their fellow Baltimoreans Animal Collective; although their sound bears little resemblance to the experimental doodlings of Panda Bear and co, their sudden rise, and the buzz around Teen Dream , has led many to expect a similar meteoric rise. Legrand, however, remains unconvinced.

“I’m sure that every record has a certain amount of hype, but I feel like we’re a very different band,” she shrugs. “They’ve had, like, seven different records, this is our third. I just don’t see us breaking out to that extent. I think it’ll be a very natural evolution for us, and we’re trying to keep away from things that don’t really matter to us – like unwanted hype. We’re just focused on playing live, doing the best we can, and keeping working, basically. It’s not gonna be a peak year for us.”

THE SINGER IS realistic about Beach House’s future, asserting that she and Scally are only just hitting their “creative stride” now. The fact that Teen Dream is their first album to be released on the highly regarded label Sub Pop in the US doesn’t suddenly make them see the world through rose-tinted specs, either, and Legrand is hesitant to relinquish responsibility for their accomplishments.

“I think we’ve worked very hard ourselves, and been so very DIY for a long time that it didn’t really matter,” she says. “Sub Pop helps you as an artist, and moving up to a different sort of label helps you materialise your visions on a different level. But I think our hard work is really what’s gotten us where we are right now. I don’t see us hopping through to the mainstream, or anything insane like that. Up until now, it’s been a very legitimate route that we’ve taken.”

Their groundedness could also be attributed to the fact they remain based in Baltimore. A relatively small city of 600,00, its music scene, nonetheless, is both thriving and eclectic – and far removed from the excesses of New York and Los Angeles.

“It gives you an environment that is not financially demanding, in the sense that it’s not expensive to live here,” Legrand says. “It’s not socially demanding in the same way as New York or LA, where if you want to, there’s something to do every night of the week. That doesn’t really happen in Baltimore, so people really sort of hunker down and internalise, and if you set your mind to it you can really get a lot accomplished here. It can be a real haven.

“There isn’t that much going on in the city, but the actual music community is very rich, in the sense that it’s only a couple of hundred people, but the music that’s being produced is so varied that it really feeds itself. You have crazy things like Dan Deacon and us, and Celebration, who used to be on 4AD, who are now releasing their music on their own, all free and online. And you have metal music. I think for the size of the city, and the size of the community, it’s a very, very healthy environment.”

HAVING A SPLENDID album under their belts doesn’t harm their chances of winning over a multitude of new converts, particularly those who may have dismissed their previous efforts as music for earnest hipsters. Teen Dream ’s lead single, Norway , is a particularly apt example of the record’s woozy, offbeat tranquillity.

“This album is a lot more hi-fi, in the sense that it’s not as drenched in reverb as the other ones,” explains Legrand. “There’s still reverb, it’s just a different type. We just got a bit more selective about where we want to put things. I think when you’re younger, and you’re finding your sound and all that, I think there’s a tendency to kind of overdo things, because you just get so excited.

“As you get older, you grow into certain things, and what you like and don’t like. We tried a few new things on this record, we brought things closer to the listener. I think it’s a much more physical record in the sense that you can feel it much more than the others, which seemed to be more fleeting, maybe.

“I feel like Norway is the least interesting song, in that way. It has the most pop sensibility, the vocals, the “hah hah hah” – it has a sort of sugariness to it, sure, but it still has this dark underbelly. I think what we really did was to continue the same equation that we’ve used since the beginning, which is Alex’s guitar, my keyboard, a layer underneath with a beat, and now, since Devotion , we blend a live drum with that beat to create a really unusual texture that’s neither live drum nor taped drum. So I think those woozy sounds that you hear are really us pushing our instruments further, getting much more imaginative with them, really using them and manipulating them to create these visuals that we see in our mind.

“I know with my keyboard, I used new sounds that I hadn’t used before on it. I used more strings, I played with things a lot more. We used what we had in front of us. We really tried to make a lot out of a little on this record. The songs are all on these epic levels, for us.”

Their continued development will undoubtedly push Beach House towards unexpected encounters, some of which may be daunting. But Legrand is confident that they’ll continue to meet – and enjoy – whatever challenges are headed their way on the back of this album.

The European tours she once spoke of as being somewhat disheartening, with meagre crowds, are surely as distant as her memories of pulling pints in Baltimore dive bars.

“We’re hard workers, so I think we’re ready for new experiences, especially if they involve hard work and lots of touring, and stuff like that. We’re a well-toured band, so it’s not something new for us.

“We’ll take it as it comes, and be very grateful as we go along. I think the two of us really are in our stride right now, creatively and energy-wise. We’re taking all the work we’ve done over the last four or five years, and just continuing to grow pretty intensely. I really see Teen Dream as a new beginning.”

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