Thursday, April 22, 2010

Beach House's Alex Scally: The Cream Interview

Posted by on Thu, Apr 22, 2010 at 10:13 AM

BeachHouseLookinFly.jpg
If you open up this week’s book (“book” is Newspaper Talk for “newspaper”), you’ll find my feature on Baltimore’s Beach House. You can also find the feature right here, printed in the pages of the Internet. Yes, Beach House’s show with Washed Out April 28 at Mercy Lounge is sold out, and Craigslist isn’t looking too helpful. But keep hope alive; those of you wily and/or resourceful enough will likely find a way to squeeze onto the guest list or sneak past security. (Helpful tip I picked up in Austin: If you show up with two bags of ice, preferably wearing coveralls and saying, “Ice is here! Gotta get to the bar,” your chances of getting in for free spike significantly.)

Anyhow, I got the chance to speak with the male half of Beach House, Alex Scally, and you can see the results after the jump. We spoke about the term “dream pop,” Victoria Legrand’s background in opera and her general amazingness, collecting “crappy” gear, cohesion, making their latest record and more. Many thanks to Intern Madison Conger for transcribing it for me. See the entire interview after the jump.

Nashville Cream: Something I noticed about your new record was its cohesion. Your past records have been consistent and have a certain tone, but every song on the new record feels like it belongs there. Was there anything in the writing and recording process that you did differently for this album?

Alex Scally: No, not really. That’s something Victoria and I always try hard to do, which is make an album that isn’t just a bunch of songs, but have it be a real family. There were times when we were writing this record that we would start to work on something and we’d say, “You know, this really isn’t a Teen Dream song, it just doesn’t sound like a song for this album.” Maybe it sounded like an old song we’d done or something, but we were very conscious that all the songs had this certain energy to them. We didn’t want any of the songs to be sleepy. We wanted them to all be bubbling ecstatic songs. So maybe that’s what people are hearing, we are very conscious to have our album be a family of songs. They all kind of “lock in” to one another aesthetically.

NC: So what is the actual song writing process like for you guys? Do you and Victoria co-write your vocal melodies?

AS: All the songs come about differently. Sometimes I’ll provide the opening notes or melodies and sometimes Victoria will, but we always work on them together. We kind of methodically jam, or some weird process that we do where we just play things over and over again and wait for the next thing to come. It’s usually pretty fun and a very inspiring experience. I’m more of the “arranger” type mind, adding layers and putting things in, and Victoria is the melody queen. She is so amazing at picking these melodies out of thin air that are absolutely incredible. But we do write together, nothing is independent. She’ll sing a melody and I’ll say, “Wow that’s amazing,” and she’ll just say, “Yeah, I know.” It kind of goes like that.

NC: Doesn’t Victoria have a background in operatic singing?

AS: She did take lessons in her teens. She was trained very classically. She was taught classical piano, and she can sight read marvelously. It was really good because she learned how to control and hold pitches really well, but she definitely doesn’t try to sing like that at all.

NC: There’s a certain sad sweetness to a lot of your songs, especially in lyrical content on songs like “Take Care” and “Walk in the Park.” A lot of times the tone of the instrumentation echoes the tone of the lyrics. Do you guys coordinate that content, or is it coincidental that it works out?

AS: Victoria never writes lyrics in a book or anything. She just slaps them on some music. The music comes first and then the lyrics and melodies emerge from there. So yeah, the melodies and lyrics are reactions to the sounds and music. They’re very interwoven though, it’s hard to dissect. One influences the other and then they influence each other back and forth.

NC: Sounds like a very organic process.

AS: It’s how we work, and it’s probably how we’ll always work. We go slowly sometimes, sometimes it happens fast, but we listen and wait. Sometimes it never happens; sometimes we have to abandon a song because it doesn’t go where it’s supposed to go.

NC: It’s pretty hard to read about your band without seeing the term “dream pop.” All lot of people describe or depict you that way. Does that bother you or does it work well?

AS: I don’t’ think it bothers us. I think it’s very natural for a fan or critic to make up a new category. It’s just something people do. I don’t really think genre exists anymore, or at least it exists less than it ever has before. People’s influences are so varied; someone could be listening to Hall and Oates, Billie Holiday, Michael Jackson and Kim Deal while writing a song. Our cultural consciousness is so massive that, unless someone is intentionally copying a previous genre, everything is going to sound unique. But I understand why people say that, probably because we really do love pop elements, such as pop structure. Just like a pop song, it’s based entirely around a catchy vocal melody. It has choruses and verses, like pop songs. It’s very much like the traditional pop thing that started in the ‘60s. I love that format, so I think that’s where the pop comes from. The “dream” comes from the kind of sounds we have an affinity towards. We really like certain guitar sounds, certain keyboards, certain drums. We just like these certain things; these are the aesthetics of our personal settings. I think when people hear it they think it’s not outwardly aggressive or dancey; they don’t really know where to go with it, so they dream. And whatever, that’s totally fine.

NC: Yeah, sometimes a band wants to be called a specific genre, and sometimes it’s like “I have no idea where that came from.”

AS: We’ve been doing it for about five years. We’re completely over what people think [laughs].

NC: You guys consistently receive critical acclaim with your releases. It seems like you guys gather a lot of blog buzz whenever you release a new track. Do you feel like there is an expectation to appease the audience, or do you not really care and see it more as a blessing?

AS: We definitely see it as a blessing. I don’t even think one of our songs has ever been on a radio station. We’ve been a blog band, and we still are a completely internet band. We started in 2005, and that was right at the point when the internet was becoming the most important thing a band could do. We’re very grateful and are very lucky. We don’t make outwardly appealing music, It’s not easy music. We’ve been so lucky to have all our fans and have people care about what we do. I don’t think we feel pressure, because we’ve always been very independent. We’ve done what we thought was best, and are very lucky that people liked it. It’s not pressure, but we are definitely excited when we put something new out and people are interested in it.

NC: How did you and Victoria meet and decide to start working together? Had you been in other projects before?

AS: She moved to Baltimore basically to do music. She was studying theater in France but decided she didn’t want to do it anymore. She knew some people in Baltimore and came here to start up a band she used to have, and I was recruited to play in it by one of the other members. I was doing music too; we were all young and playing music in Baltimore. That band was kind of dysfunctional, it was a band where you just party all the time. Hanging out and getting to know her, we had a very natural almost insane musical chemistry; it was really undeniable. We would work on things, just the two of us, and it was nothing like I’ve ever experienced. I’m pretty confidant I’d never have that relationship with anyone else. It’s a really lucky thing. I think it’s a lot like relationships. A lot of times, I’ll have friends who are great musicians but aren’t necessarily producing much. They’re making great music, but sometimes I think they haven’t found that person who takes what you do and makes it better, and what you are doing makes their music way better. It’s luck.

NC: Since you mentioned Baltimore, do you guys happen to know any of the Wham City people?

AS: Yeah, Baltimore is very small. We knew them, and then we did a big tour with them. They’re all great artists; you can’t really be doing music in Baltimore and not get to know everybody. It’s a blessing and a curse, but those guys are great.

NC: You guys are touring with just a drummer this time around, right? Has it always been that way?

AS: We started that with Devotion, but the drums have slowly become a bigger and bigger part of the show. I don’t think we could do a show without them now. It’s very important for all the things to come to life to have that live drum that you can’t replace. It’s a sound everybody can feel.

NC: I noticed you play a lot of slide guitar on this record, what draws you to that technique?

AS: I don’t know really. I started it on the first record, I don’t do it much, but sometimes it’s just the perfect thing because it’s not definitive, it’s just open. The note doesn’t have a beginning or end, it comes and goes. It’s a little like the “organing” of guitar.

NC: I read that you guys have a practice space, do you store a lot of vintage gear there?

AS: I wouldn’t call it vintage, it’s just kind of crap gear. All of our stuff combined, if it was burned for insurance money or something, would probably be enough to buy one Fender Rhodes. It literally is just crap we got from thrift stores. All of those old keyboards are mostly from the '70s, '80s, and '90s, and there is always one amazing thing on each of them. That’s this personal opinion I have. Every keyboard has one thing on it that is really amazing and completely unique. Even if about 95 percent of the sounds and presets are completely unusable or uncreative, there’s at least one amazing thing.

NC: Are guys working on anything now besides touring? I think you have a Record Store Day single coming out?

AS: Yeah, it’s a single with some B-sides and stuff. It’ll be cool for super fans, but nothing too special. We’re always working. We think that we’re kind of at a creative peak, so we don’t want to slow down. We’ve been working as much as we can amongst doing what we have to do to support ourselves. More to come as fast as possible.

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