Beach House – Collectors’ Items
August 21, 2008 § Leave a comment
Published: The Big Issue, #310, August 2008.
Baltimore-based duo Beach House have channelled their interest in all things kitsch and quirky into a collection of beguiling and ethereal pop songs.
For Alex Scally, the most alluring facets of life are void of definition and articulate rationale. Like the ageless musical craft of Beach House – the band he shares with kindred Baltimore spirit Victoria Legrand – Scally finds beauty in hints and traces from times past, in the evocations of the otherwise prosaic.
“Since a very young age I’ve always been like an obsessive collector,” he muses, pausing for a time. “When I find something that I like, I just keep collecting things akin to it.”
For the 25-year-old, it’s about loosening focus, about peeling back a layer. “You can find something so important in an object that so many people find to be completely valueless,” he says. “You can love it like a little kid does.”
“You know how little kids just love the weirdest things?” he laughs. “For some reason they’ll just love some object, some shape, and they’ll just play around with it and always have it near them. It’s wonderful.”
The covers of Beach House’s two records – 2006’s enveloping self-titled debut and this year’s shimmering follow-up Devotion – bear such artefacts. They are adorned with tangles of costume jewellery, with pearls and shells and feathers and figurines.
Scally and his 26-year-old musical partner, who tour Australian for the first time in late in August, bonded via collecting such seemingly innocuous curios. “I think one of the first things we really liked doing together was going to thrift stores,” he says. “We like the same weird stuff, you know. We have a similar way of seeing the world.”
It’s a sensibility that echoes throughout Beach House’s narcotic, downbeat pop. Crafted from strange old organs, antiquated four-track tape machines, gentle peals of guitar and Legrand’s wondrous, smoke-inflected vocal, their music is of a quixotic, all-enveloping ether.
“A lot of our instruments are like weird old organs and discarded sound-makers of different kinds and it very much feeds into that thing of the object,” says Scally. “I mean, there really wasn’t ever any question. We never questioned what we were doing or questioned the songs; we just kind of made them.”
“We’re both very confident people, I think, and we knew that they felt right and I don’t think we ever really imposed any limitations on that. I think more than anything, music brought us together. We have a real musical kinship, and it’s really pretty simple.”
The pair met and formed Beach House in 2005, six months after Legrand – the niece of French composer Michel Legrand – had arrived in Baltimore following a stint studying opera and theatre in Paris. Scally himself was rediscovering the city. Despite growing up in Baltimore, he’d been adrift for years studying geology at university in Ohio.
Returning home was a blessing. “I’m just really glad I came back here,” he says. “When you’re young, you only see this little fragment of the city; you don’t fully understand a place. Going away and getting that perspective on it was just great.”
“I never intended going back to Baltimore until it was right about time to make the decision, then I started to think about these other places and how wonderful Baltimore really was,” he continues. “It doesn’t have that really cosmopolitan thing; it doesn’t have people telling you what is in style or what is cool. It just has this incredible independence from the rest of the east coast and it doesn’t really have the job economy to support fair weather fans.”
The pair began writing and tracking songs in Scally’s basement, never with any real intention of starting a band proper. Before they knew it, they had the majority of the songs for their bare-boned debut. “It was very, very instinctual and very, very organic,” says Scally of the process.
“We recorded the bulk of it without knowing we’d have anyone putting out our record. It was like, ‘Now that we’ve got all these songs, let’s record them’, so we recorded them in two days in my basement.”
Suffice to say, once people began to hear the record’s beauteous melodies and opaque, Mazzy Star-esque atmospheres – not to mention Legrand’s sultry voice – it was only a matter of time until Beach House’s gently swaying psychedelia came to the world’s attention.
Devotion represents another luminous, wondrously intoxicating oeuvre. Glimmering with a new sense of sharpness and instrumental dynamics, the record adds sparkling flashes of clarity to their opaque musical aesthetic. The drunk guitar line and soaring vocals of ‘Heart of Chambers’ and the sunken melodies of ‘Some Things Last’ are two of their finest sketches yet. Legrand’s lyrics have also evolved wonderfully. Her take on devotion is one of both entrapment and romance.
“The feelings and the meanings of those songs are so much in the sounds of those old instruments,” says Scally. “I think it’s really hard to attach exact meanings or emotions to songs, and I think that’s why Victoria’s lyrics are so large and so amazing – they’re really a mystery and so non-specific. They just draw up these feelings and memories.”
“A song can be like sexy one night, or it can feel really depressing one night, or it can feel almost ecstatic – it can feel really old or new.”
And it’s within this mysterious, timeless schema that Beach House feel so at home. “It’s at its best when we feel completely lost,” muses Scally.
“It’s like I’m not even there,” he pauses. “Like I become an actor playing a role.”
by Dan Rule
Beach House tour Australia in late August
Devotion is out through Mistletone/Fuse