In Full Bloom
Even for artists at the peak of their powers, the question of what fuels their creativity can prompt a pause: a ponder on past, present, and future.
After six wondrous records, Beach House, the Baltimore duo of Alex Scally and Victoria Legrand, found themselves wrestling with the question. As they began shaping ideas for what would become their seventh record, 7, they looked at their creative rulebook, decided to keep some existing chapters, craft new ones, and add new characters to the cast. But as with every Beach House record the heroes of the story remain Legrand, Scally, and their impeccable, elegant music.
When we meet it’s just like a Beach House record; the day itself seems full of metaphor, specifically those of new beginnings. It’s one of the first days of spring. Our meeting spot was formerly a Town Hall that has now been converted into a tastefully decorated hotel. The Museum of Childhood is just around the corner. It’s also the band’s first press day for 7 and Legrand picks out another theme straight off the bat, namely the symmetry and serendipity surrounding 7.
“Every record has had a place where there’s things we keep coming back to. We mixed 7 in London with Alan Moulder (Nine Inch Nails, Foo Fighters, Arctic Monkeys,) We keep coming back here. So it’s pretty fitting that our first day of discussing its unveiling, the ‘How did you write this?’ is in London. It happened right here.”
A conversation with Beach House isn’t your straightforward Q&A. Legrand and Scally ask me questions throughout the hour we spend together, such as what I’ve scribbled on my list of interview notes, if I’ve seen certain films, and what it is I get from music. We start in a beautifully ornate room, but twenty minutes in Legrand suggests we move somewhere quieter so we decamp to a vast meeting hall, where in the absence of furniture we sit cross-legged on the floor. They’re excellent company, with Scally the studious gentleman to Legrand’s philosophical counterpoint, both gamely offer ideas for the title of the article and giving each question immensely careful thought.
7 indeed marks a number of symmetries for Beach House. As well as it being their seventh record, it takes their output to 77 songs in thirteen years, which I tell them equates to roughly six a year. Legrand doesn’t think about their songs in terms of frequency. “I hadn’t been counting them. I don’t always know where I’m going and I kind of like it like that. I like a little mystery”, she says. Scally adds: “That sounds about right, that’s about how quickly they pop out in terms of good ones. It’s probably more like one song a month. It’s just that every other song isn’t worth pursuing.”
Beach House’s pursuit of perfection has been a constant theme of their career. When we spoke to their label boss, Bella Union’s Simon Raymonde last year, he marvelled at their attention to the smallest details, including designing the lights for their live shows. Scally emits the first of a series of laughs. “We’re kind of control freaks about the way we’re aesthetically represented in the world. We’ve always designed the stage so we can create the exact feeling we want.”
Legrand defines their approach as “an ‘in to out’ versus an ‘out to in.’ It’s a belief in, ‘Let’s just do it ourselves.’ You keep editing and refining, you get to be in touch with yourself in a more honest way by not constantly hiring out ideas. It’s, ‘You’ve run out of ideas? Give it some time, you’ll have more.’ That’s the way it’s always been with us; the philosophy that if we can kindle a feeling inside ourselves and focus inward, then the outward connection will follow.
“If you block out the people,” Scally adds, “ironically, you can actually communicate more with the people. If we insulate and go inward then something comes out and it gets everywhere.”
Legrand and Scally often finish each other’s sentences, in keeping with their intuitive understanding of how the other works. But they don’t talk over each other. Like the music they write together they add their own parts to a form a wonderful whole. When Legrand describes their creative process as, “It’s not meditating, it’s a filtering of things”, Scally picks up the sentence: “It’s weird, we like our shows to be very dark, womb-like and kind of trancy, but with moments of intense waking…” Legrand concludes, “It’s physical, metaphysical stuff.”
“Is that weird?” Scally asks. “We’re really crazy about writing the lights with our lighting guy”. He addresses Legrand: “I don’t know if you experience this, but so much of the way I feel onstage and the show I have is based on the lights.”
“Or it’s how you feel on the night,” Legrand adds. “You want to get lost onstage and then the audience gets lost. If you get distracted that’s going to be cut into the fabric of the ‘in and out’ thing.
“That’s what we’re constantly working towards and what I said about editing,” she continues. “It’s finding those spots where the cord was broken and not fluid. We want to party in that sense of relish in the energy field that’s in us.”
It sounds like a description of “Lemon Glow”, the contagiously energetic and immersive song on 7. Do they ever tire of hearing the word ‘immersive’ applied to their music? “No,” says Legrande. “Because when you go to concerts you’re either immersed or you’re stepping out. When you step out you get disinterested – it’s more fun to get captivated.”
“Never do anything that’s not natural”, Scally says. Legrand adds, “It’s just trying to be yourself in a natural state, if you enhance that then it’ll be strong and artistically pure.”
What do they think about artists who’ve not gone with their gut reaction and got outsiders involved? Is that the point when they stop making good records? Scally smiles, declaring, “Or that’s when they make a million bucks and have a huge hit!”
“There’s something about this time period. It felt it was time to try new things. The two of us were having that same feeling, we were trying new things simultaneously and the result is this record. We spend so much time together it was just happening" - Victoria Legrand
Legrand thinks it’s up the artist how they evolve, that the point of creativity is finding a form of expression that moves them forward. “I’m an editor. You just have to do what’s right for you and keep going little by little. Sometimes there’s huge steps and sometimes there’s small steps. There’s nothing wrong with changing things, some things need to be forced so that they can continue to move freely. It’s like relationships in the world, there’s a babbling brook but then there’s a little dam that needs to be built. It’s the same thing with creativity but we’re lucky because it starts with just the two of us, so it’s very pure and direct.” She compares herself and Scally to “two matches, or a match and a flint. It’s simple and it grows from there, it fans out and eventually it goes in front of people.”
So other than being natural what are the other golden Beach House rules? Scally laughs, saying, “That’s about it! So many things come from being natural, like the writing process, everything comes from that.” Which takes us to 7.
Rather than a eureka moment, with 7 Beach House were driven by their ongoing desire to keep evolving. “Music aside,” Legrand explains, “on a personal level I believe you have to constantly work on things in life. You work on yourself and you should never settle for too long. There’s always change. Challenging oneself can be as small or as big as you want it to be.
“There’s something about this time period. It felt it was time to try new things. The two of us were having that same feeling, we were trying new things simultaneously and the result is this record. We spend so much time together it was just happening.”
Instead of recording songs months after they’d finished writing them, they invested in a studio to capture their creativity in the moment. Scally says that when they heard the first fruits of their experiment they started to realise ‘this sounds incredible, we’re getting great results in our practice space.”
That led to a lot of excitement and freedom. We did one thing differently and it started snowballing. The way we’d been working had dried up a bit, in the sense that you get into patterns without even realising it. We had this pattern that was driven by economics, where we’d write twelve songs, take them to the studio and hammer them out. We did that for four records.”
Those records are the peerless quartet of Teen Dream, Bloom, Depression Cherry and Thank Your Lucky Stars, all produced by Chris Coady (Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Grizzly Bear). For 7 they decided to change their approach to production, with Scally saying with no hint of rancour, “The way Chris worked was very rigid, there wasn’t a lot of space to let things grow. We’d been in this pattern for years without realising it, not of writing the music but the actual production of it…” Legrand finishes Scally’s sentence, “It wasn’t the kind of openness we were seeking.”
What they were seeking wasn’t a producer at all. Having admired his work with MGMT and Panda Bear, Peter Kember (aka Sonic Boom, former member of Spacemen 3) entered their thinking. Scally says, “Pete had this awesome role, he was a like gatekeeper. We’d stay up late listening to music and it kept this creative juice in the whole situation. That was really valuable. What we needed more than anything was to not feel stymied while recording but an openness and excitement.” He describes Kember as “a great spirit and a great mind.”
"It’s not easy making music together when your endpoints are different but for Victoria and I our endpoint is so similar" - Alex Scally
When the band and Kember first discussed working together, the theme of ‘right time, right place’ again came into play. Kember told them that Panda Bear had recommended Kember work with the band years ago.
“There’s a sweetness to it, for sure,” Legrand says. “Pete’s still very in touch with the same thing from the first moments he made music. He’s kept that absolute joy in messing with stuff and that was deeply rejuvenating and refreshing. It was a great break from the past for us because we all get into patterns. The stars align for certain things. Working with Sonic Boom and Alan Moulder are things that happened because it was the right time. The record exists because it was the time for it. 7 is the title and the number seven ties to a song on the record, there’s a menu of sublime lights to everything.”
They also added drummer James Barone to the recording team, whose presence announces itself on the opening seconds of 7 with a ferocious drum fill (“Dark Spring”). Scally feels their common musical interests made working together intuitive rather than prescriptive. “It was easy to say, ‘We were thinking of this kind of beat’ and he understood what we wanted. It was fun working with someone we didn’t have to censor.” Legrand describes Barone’s role as “a great convergence, with music you just have to physically do it, you can only talk for so long, you’ve got to actually start playing it, hitting it and testing it.”
Does bringing other people into the mix mean 7 is more collaborative than their previous records? Scally pauses. “It’s not necessarily ‘more collaborative’ in that sense,” he says. “I think it’s more naturally collaborative. That’s a hard word because when you work with anybody it’s collaborative, whether you want to or not.”
Legrand thinks it’s, “More openness, ‘collaborative’ is maybe too strong a word…”
Scally: “…We’re pretty picky people, we’re pretty…”
Scally feels it’s being wise to the fact that recording often means working with people in a functional, rather than creative sense, such as needing an engineer, but that 7 was instead “collaborative in a way we enjoyed, rather than collaborative in a way that bummed us out.”
The nature of collaboration is often the undoing of artistic relationships. When Kember was recording Spacemen 3’s final album Recurring with Jason Pierce, Pierce was in the process of forming Spiritualized. This was while Kember was recording songs as Spectrum. Their working relationship broke down to the point where each took a side each of Recurring. Legrand compares such breakdowns as “just like a bad marriage” and for Scally it underlines why he and Legrand work together so harmoniously.
“People change. It’s not easy making music together when your endpoints are different but for Victoria and I our endpoint is so similar. We never discuss it, it’s just who we are creatively. As we’ve changed and gotten new music into our life, we still have a very similar endpoint – the thing we see as the unspoken end goal of the song and where it can go.”
Legrand feels that creative partnerships are doomed to fail unless they’re built on artistic respect and love. “It does comes down to the end goal, but there’s also got to be the relationship, which has to be like a love relationship or any kind of partnership. I’m not saying a love like ‘kissy-kissy’” – Scally laughs again – “but a love, a trust, and a language of love. Two men can have it, two women can have it, and a woman and man can have it, but if they get broken, like any love it falls apart.”
Scally is sanguine about how artists can end up taking different creative paths even if it’s not something he and Legrand have ever experienced. “As you grow and take more things in yourself, you become a different person. When you hear Spectrum and Spiritualized they’re very different kinds of music, people just naturally go in different directions sometimes. We’re lucky. We’ve very naturally gone in a similar direction and it makes making music together a lot easier.”
Legrand provides an example. If she thinks they should put a noisy beat into a song, “Alex isn’t going to be, ‘What the fuck are you talking about?’ He’s probably going to say ‘I’m into that.’
Scally adds, “I’m most likely going to be ‘this sounds awesome.’”
Trying new things was integral to 7. Legrand says that when Scally played “Black Car” to her, she thought, “Where the fuck did this come from? You have this?” Scally thinks that if he were to play Legrand a song and she said, “What the hell is this?” then we wouldn’t be sitting here. It’s that common sense of what makes something exciting that allows us to move forward so harmoniously.”
"I think that’s how 7 could be viewed as political...the transformations we go through, the tumultuous changes within us, the violence of catharsis, all of that stuff is in there. So in that sense, sure, why not?” - Victoria Legrand
On 7, Beach House make an explicit point of calling out the lack of harmony in society. The bio for the record includes the line, “the societal insanity of 2016-17”, which they compare to a “dark field”. Specifically, they bemoan the way that elements of society still have Neanderthal-like attitudes towards women. I ask if 7 is a political record. In keeping with the open-ended nature of the conversation, Legrand turns to Scally, asking, “I have a question for you, Alex. Is this a political record?’ Scally pauses again and says he thinks the definition of a political record is something that’s different for everyone. “In modern times it’s almost hard not to make a political record,” Scally says, “in the sense that it’s dominating every aspect of our existence these days.”
Legrand thinks 7 can be as political as the listener wants it to be. “You can listen to “Dive” and feel whatever you want – be that rebirth, where you’re on the point of a change – it’s the politics of nature, the predestined, inevitable sign-waves of things.” She says that if we were to “freeze-frame the world, remove the names, titles and faces and leave behind the feelings, the colours and the formations, I think that’s how 7 could be viewed as political. Not in the semantic meaning of the word, but in the organic forms of the way things make you feel, the transformations we go through, the tumultuous changes within us, the violence of catharsis, all of that stuff is in there. So in that sense, sure, why not?”
I explain the question was prompted by a personal experience of finding catharsis in Beach House’s songs. A line from Depression Cherry’s “Levitation”: “When they knocked on the door looking for you / When the unknown will surround you” helped me to understand what a friend who was in a dark place was going through. So hearing Beach House addressing societal issues feels different – good different – but a change nonetheless. Legrand emphasises, however, that she’s never been driven by escapism. Instead, Beach House’s musical expression has always focussed on taking something quite literal and processing it in an artistic way.
“It’s seeing all the colours, that’s what helps us as people: the transformative power of notes, colours and light give us something to jump onto and keep moving forward. To deal with the reality of living sometimes you do need to escape for a few minutes, but I’ve felt for a long time with 7 there’s this force within it that’s going through you and the songs are alive in a certain way. I keep saying the word violence, but there’s just something really heavy in it.”
Legrand returns to the point about artists being true to themselves, where the emotions they feel spill into their art. “I’m a person that has a very hard time hiding my true feelings. I like to confront things almost immediately. I have emotions right there,” she holds her hand over her heart. “I’m not an empath but I feel I’m in tune with the natural world and I’m not sure if everybody is like that. I think the music we make has those elements in it and that resounds with certain people, where they can be like, ‘I haven’t felt like this before’ or ‘this reminds me of that aspect of living.’”
“In America, especially, we’re really ploughing through our wounds right now and I believe we’re getting somewhere better" - Alex Scally
There’s a song on 7, “L’Inconnue” that’s an example of how creativity can be the result of something stored in the back of an artist’s mind but serves as a metaphor for the times we live in. It’s a reference to a macabre death mask that become popular in late 19th century Paris. A woman was found dead in the Seine, but because of the lack of any signs of violence, the assumption was that she committed suicide. Scally says, “The guy in the morgue was so taken by her expression that he made a plaster of it.”
The title wasn’t consciously driven from the story, which they first heard when visiting a friend in Paris a few years ago. Legrand explains, “The order of things is pretty fascinating. With that title there was a strange thing where the French aspect of the lyric was written before the realisation of, ‘What was that story that we’d heard?’ It was a really eerie thing that occurred.”
Scally echoes his partner’s thinking. “We had other titles for it. ‘7’ was a one of them, but it was such a strange coincidence that Victoria wrote this part with the word ‘L’Inconnue’ in it and there was this thing that we completely forgot about.” Legrand returns to the theme of creative links. “It was one of those titles that was meant to be. As a person who aides in the wrangling of words, that kind of moment where you have something and it ties to something else. It’s that wonderful moment of, ‘Yes’. It’s very exciting, it’s that interconnectivity that occurs where all of the lightbulbs light up, and that’s the ‘meant to be’ part.”
The conversation returns to politics. Scally thinks that a wonderful thing is coming out of chaos. “The cool thing about this political season is that it’s infecting everything in a way that’s full of life. I honestly believe that the #MeToo movement wouldn’t have happened the way it’s happened had Trump not come to power, because of the glorification of a person who was on tape behaving and talking that way. It was like society was just…” Scally raises his voice for the only time in our conversation and shouts, “NO!
“That’s the light coming up and it’s so exhilarating. You can look at endless metaphor, I constantly see metaphors everywhere all the time about everything, but that is so much the experience of civilisation and it’s the experience of an individual’s life. Through the biggest wounds and the biggest traumas come the most wonderful and beautiful moves forward.”
Scally asks if I’ve seen Hayao Miyazaki’s film The Wind Rises, which is set in World War II. “The title is part of a phrase and I think the whole phrase is, ‘the wind rises, we must also try to live’, or something like that. It’s about living through an insane experience with the directive of, ‘you must live’, despite the way you feel when you wake up or what you’ve lost. It’s like you have to live.”
The idea that an artist must continue to express themselves artistically and reflect the world they live in is something that Scally feels is prevalent on 7. “I’m not sure if reconciliation is the word I’m looking for but the experience of living is a painful one for a lot of people, maybe even more painful as you get older. But one thing that I’m so excited about getting older is this feeling that every day you get a little bit more wisdom and information. It’s a reassuring feeling.”
Legrand says with candour, “There was a brief window in time where I felt like my lack of emotion was pretty under control, but I feel as I’m getting older things are becoming more emotional. You get much better at deflecting certain things, but then the joy or the pain is a lot deeper and more intense. The ride of life intensifies as we get older, but at the same time your skin is thicker.”
Scally says the process of ageing actually provides solace and perspective in turbulent times. “In America, especially, we’re really ploughing through our wounds right now and I believe we’re getting somewhere better. I think it’s better to be born right now than any previous time in American history, especially for women and for any minority. It’s still way better than it ever was in the past. We’re getting somewhere. It’s brutal and I think that’s exhilarating and interesting.”
The pair mention the role of comedians in society and how vital they’ve become. “Comedy is becoming as absurd as reality has become absurd,” Legrand says.
Scally feels that comedians are almost becoming therapists, and that the best he could hope for with 7 is that it becomes some type of therapy for listeners. “Whether personally or socially, that would be the greatest, loftiest purpose this record could ever serve, because ultimately that’s what I’m looking for from music. I’m looking to bathe myself inside a feeling or state.”
Scally asks how I’d describe what I get from music. I say that, similarly, sometimes it’s a mood, to get lost in the world of a song, but other times it can simply be a song with a great beat. “So that’s energy? Where you want to have fun?” Legrand asks. “It’s how it makes you feel? I like to transform through music, too. As a young child my first relationship with listening to music was absolutely losing myself in a vision, absolutely tripping and going into another place listening Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, for example. Children do it so easily, because that’s what childhood is, you haven’t been totally dented yet.” Scally laughs and says, “’Totally dented!’ That’s the title for you!”
Legrand compares the feeling that a child has listening to music as like being blind drunk but with no idea of what alcohol is. “We all listen to music for different things and sometimes they’re the same thing. So when you make something, if someone responds to it on any level, that’s wonderful, because it’s connecting with someone else in an exciting way. It’s mysterious. There’s some things we’re not meant to fully grasp and why people listen to our records is one of them and I think that’s OK. That’s why you keep going. Because if you’ve grasped it all and knew exactly why it was happening then maybe you should stop. Maybe when you think you know it all, that’s when it stops happening.”
This idea of intuition prompts me to read them a quote from Lizzy Goodman’s book Meet Me In The Bathroom. It’s by Tim Goldsworthy, James Murphy’s former partner in LCD Soundsystem and ex-founder of DFA Records, where he laments the rise of the technical musician in alt-rock in the mid-noughties. “This new generation, it makes me feel sick…can a technically skilled musician make great pop music? No you can’t. It gets in the way. It’s just not going to happen. You’ve got far too much baggage.”
They agree with Goldsworthy. Legrand says, “If there’s someone who knows how to play the guitar really well and someone who doesn’t, the person that doesn’t might find a chord by accident that fits exactly what they’re trying to express without overthinking it. The extent of the knowledge of the subject can be a disturbance to the purity of the emotion.” Scally cites the example of session musicians. “It’s like, ‘Give me a Hendrixy thing’ and they do it perfectly, but there’s something utterly soulless about those kinds of musicians, where they can’t take a real step forward, it’s always dead.”
He’s not speaking from a snobbish DIY perspective. It turns out that Scally could also be a session player. “Weirdly, I actually have two musicians inside myself. I trained really thoroughly and proficiently at the bass, I can play every type of bass.” The bass was the first instrument Scally learned to play and he mastered the style of slap-bassist Jaco Pastorius, to which Legrand chimes in, “It’s his party trick.”
"It’s very exciting to be releasing a record into this world. These songs are influenced by it and they come from inside us, the outside goes in, the inside comes out, it’s a big cycle" - Alex Scally
In spite of his technical prowess, for Scally, being over-schooled in an instrument doesn’t facilitate the creative expression he’s looking for. “Even now when I play bass I’ll do somebody else’s fill that I learned when I was 14. The process of learning an instrument that well infects you with a disease, where you can’t find your own voice. It depends what you’re going for though. If you’re trying to make a Nashville hit, like a great Glen Campbell song, even though everything on them is played perfectly, those songs are pieces of art. I still can’t really play the guitar, but I never wanted to take lessons or change the way I approach it, because it let me just play music.”
Before they depart to catch the Eurostar, Legrand wraps up our conversation by returning to the theme of communication and her excitement about the connections happening across the world despite the divisive political climate.
“People are extending,” she says, “we have much more in common with each other than we realise. That’s the whole thing. In America there are people that want you to be more divided than you actually are, but you’re not as divided as they want you believe. You’re living in England and we’re living in America, but there’s similar shit going on.”
Scally says, “It feels like a huge thing – the old way versus a new way. It’s very exciting to be releasing a record into this world. These songs are influenced by it and they come from inside us, the outside goes in, the inside comes out, it’s a big cycle. Hopefully 7 will be the same therapy it was for us as it is for others.”
Legrand feels there’s no better time to be making music than right now: “What else are you going to do? Just stand there frozen, locked to the television screen? No, it’s, ‘Turn your back for a second and do something.’ I think for us that was the nearest true-blue thing we could do.”