Interview – Beach House
February 8, 2010 § 2 Comments
Published: The Vine, February 8, 2010.
Victoria Legrand has a way with analogy and metaphor. She speaks of herself and creative partner Alex Scally as wild animals; as horses in their stride. She pithily compares creative process to ten-pin bowling; to hitting a series of strikes. She laughs at herself, sets off again.
Speaking from her home in Baltimore, the former French opera student and now frontwoman of haze-pop duo Beach House is on-edge; energised, electric. Mention she and Scally’s momentous new record Teen Dream and she takes off – elaborate adjectives, justifications and creative philosophies unfurling, spilling and darting every which way.
Considering the shimmering scope of Teen Dream, Legrand’s disposition comes as little surprise. Spend some time with the album – the duo’s third – and you’ll be transfixed. Where 2008 opus Devotion expanded on the woozy, vintage organ atmospheres and beautifully oblique, sun-drunk melodics of their 2006 self-titled debut, Teen Dream bursts with sweeping dynamics and an almost insatiable sense of drive and momentum. Put simply, it’s their most accomplished and ornate work yet.
Legrand – the niece of prominent French composer Michel Legrand – speaks about she and Scally’s artistic growth, their fluid creative process and uprooting their lives in Baltimore to record with Chris Coady in the isolation of upstate New York.
I love the new record.
Thankyou, I’m glad.
I’ve only had it for a couple of days, but I guess the thing that struck me immediately was the dynamics. There’s such a sense of momentum and layering compared, even, to Devotion.
I’d love to here your thoughts on that.
I feel like every record we’ve done is different and that’s just natural thing, you know. That’s just what happens when you make something; it’s never going to be what it was like before. We’ve always believed in growing very naturally, evolving naturally and every decision we make is based on an intuitive feeling, that being that it feels right. With this record, the main difference in the creative process was that, compared to the other two records, we had way more time. We had an uninterrupted nine-month period where we stopped touring and we were working on the music and we were able to just make the record for nine months uninterrupted.
We had everything written and everything set in place; we had made demos for months in the studio. Whereas with Devotion, we recorded it in three weeks and the first record, we recorded in two days. So for us, it was really a change and I think that time period made us feel like that when we had an idea, we were really able to follow it to an end that we felt was right. So in the writing of the record, that’s very much what happened. We spent a lot of time in our practice space – like eighty hours a week in our practice space – and it was just a total obsession, and we really worked these songs and brought them to a level that we believe is more of an epic level.
You can hear that.
It’s the same instrumentation; we didn’t change any of the instrumentation. It’s still Alex on guitar and my keyboards and we use the same kind of blend of real drums with the drum machine from our organ. So a lot of things were the same, but just our hunger and our appetite was bigger and a lot of that had to do with the amount of touring we had done.
On the first two records, it felt as though the instrumentation informed the songs a little more than on this record. On this record it feels as though the songs have much more of a life of their own outside of the instrumentation. The instrumental palette acts more as a colour.
I see what you’re saying but, no, I feel that we’ve always cared about the songs. We’ve never been a band that gets too hung up on pure aesthetics. We definitely, above and beyond, prize melody and the structure of our songs. So if the structure doesn’t feel right, we don’t feel that the songs are complete. If it doesn’t reach the necessary highs and lows then we don’t feel that it’s ready and that’s something that has never changed.
The songs we wrote on Beach House, the self-titled album, are songs that we’ll probably never write again because, I mean, we wrote them, we believed in them at the time, they were very simple, but we couldn’t ever write those songs again because of the experiences we’ve had. We’ve learned so much in terms of what we want to get out of our instruments and it’s happened in ways we never predicted.
So I’ve used the same keyboard now on three records, and on Teen Dream I’m just using different sounds on the same keyboard. We’re just really trying to simplify and at the same time expand on what we have. You can work constantly with something that’s in front of you. I think there’s an endless amount of depth and directions in which you can go using just the one thing, and I just kind of feel that that’s where we’re at with Teen Dream. We’ve just expanded a lot more on what we were already using and I think we’ve demanded a lot more of ourselves as well.
Was touring really important to that? The idea that you had to use your voice and you had to make the songs work and make them fresh for yourselves, time and time again?
It definitely had a huge effect. There was absolutely a huge learning process, and you know, we’ve always liked touring but now we both love touring. We’re about to do a shit-tonne of touring starting this February. There’s going to be like seventy shows and it’s just a really insane run.
Yeah, wow is right. So we make the record and go on tour and learn a lot about the songs again, and then those songs inform us of new songs that haven’t been written and it’s almost becoming a system for us now. It happened as kind of a surprise, but now I think it’s a real tool that we can use for ourselves because we just learn so much. Playing those songs from Devotion every night, it really helped us learn what we didn’t want to do again and we started to crave this kind of energy that we hadn’t done before. You can feel that in songs like ’10 Mile Stereo’.
For sure. I was going to mention that song…
You can feel it both as a player and a listener. Playing live definitely informs you of what you want, because you’re living and breathing the music every single night.
That’s what really stood out on this record, that energy and real rhythmic drive, which perhaps wasn’t there before. There was a kind of meandering quality to the rhythmic component of the earlier material.
The earlier material, by comparison, feels more frail to me. It’s innocent. When I look back at those records I kind of see myself years ago, and it’s not bad – it’s the place where we were at. Every record is the place where you are at. So I really hope that by next year, we really learn about a new place in which we want to go and that we keep making records and never feel that a particular record was our peak. I feel very far from our peak and I don’t believe in the peak (laughs). You’re turning your own light off if you believe in that kind of thing. For me, this is just the beginning really. We’re really in our stride and we’re kind of like horses now (laughs). We’re like creative animals – we get out and run our asses off…
And then you sleep it off in the stable…
And then we run again (laughs).
When I was talking to Alex about Devotion a couple of years ago, he kind of pointed to your creative process having this very natural, kind of osmotic quality.
In that context, how did Teen Dream begin to take shape? Was it just a matter of you guys kind of getting together and playing quite unthinkingly?
I think it was very much like that, kind of one song at a time. For us what will happen generally is that we’ll start on a song – and this is happening again because we’re already writing new material – and a person will have an idea and we just grow the idea together. And then, as we get more and more songs, we’ll generally be working on two songs at a time. So we’ll work on one until we reach a dead end and then we’ll go to the other one. So the energy that you give to a song goes onto to inform other things, so each song kind of gives you something of a realisation and things kind of build on top of each other.
For us it’s very much melody, chord progression, one song at a time, and the next thing you know you’ve got like five songs and it’s like ‘Wow, we’re going to have a record!’. Because when you have a few songs and you can feel that they all give a certain kind of energy or light or darkness, then you know that you’re on a path to making a record. I don’t know what to compare it to (laughs). Maybe like, when you’re bowling and you start to string together a few strikes, you know you’re having a good game (much laughter). Oh man, that’s really bad…
No, no, please continue the metaphor…
(Laughs) You know, I just think that there’s a momentum that happens and it really took hold in Teen Dream, and you know, it happened in Devotion too. Devotion’s writing process was very fragmented, because we would write between touring. We would come home and we would have three weeks and we would write, and then we would go on tour and come home and then we would have a month to write. That didn’t happen with Teen Dream; we had a lot of space and I think we know now that it’s always going to be a blend of the two.
We get very inspired by words too – we just start throwing words at each other and then things go from there. That’s how we got the title Teen Dream. We were working late on ‘Silver Soul’ and then it just suddenly struck us: like ‘Teen Dream! That’s the record’.
So we’re into fully collaborating and talking about things that are exciting to us and we both have very highly active minds, and I just think that that’s very conducive to making records, because that’s what a record needs. It needs inspiration and it needs inspired moments and we’re doing that pretty much constantly.
Is isolation really important to that? I was taking to Frida Hyvonen the other day – the Swedish songwriter – and she had a really elegant way of putting it, in that she described being alone in the countryside as allowing her to be ‘thin-skinned’ in the way she writes. It was such a lovely way of describing that kind of permeability to inspiration, as opposed to when you’re in the city, where you have to build higher walls around yourself.
I totally agree with what she says, because when you tour you kind of get thick-skinned; you’re in survival mode. I love touring, don’t get me wrong, but you get into this almost automatic process where you preserve your energy. But when you’re being creative and you’re writing, you’re in a much softer place. You’re in your space, it’s just the two of you and things feel very gentle – and of course, things get very intense – but you do have to kind of get into, not a protective environment, but a place where thoughts can just happen. I think that’s what she means by ‘thin-skinned’. In being thin-skinned you are allowing things to pass through you.
When I’m on tour I tend to store a lot and keep it inside, and I just kind of wait and fill my tank up, and when I get home there’s a period of time where nothing can really happen to me because I’m still getting over the way I felt on tour. But with time you kind of melt a little bit and you let things in and let things out and it starts to happen.
In that sense, was the trip to upstate New York to record with Chris Coady really important to the way these songs formed?
It was very important because we just took what we were doing in Baltimore and just moved all of our life up there. We just wanted to just kind of get out and take the record to a place where it could get even more intense. We were a little more isolated and none of our friends were around and there were no distractions. All you can really focus on is the music. That’s just something that we really wanted to do. We didn’t want to be in Baltimore and then be like ‘When are we going to go to the bar?’.
When you’re making a record, it’s so intense that you don’t really want to go out because your mind just becomes recording (laughs). You are recording, you know. It’s really hard to interact normally because you’re so invested and obsessed.
Teen Dream is out now via Mistletone/Inertia