The sound of Beach House’s newest album, Bloom, can be described with all sorts of treacly adjectives often favored by music critics—including, but not limited, to whimsical, enchanting, gossamer, oneiric, etc. But to completely articulate the kind of feeling one experiences while listening to Bloom you would be better suited to reach for a color wheel, because while Beach House is all of these descriptors and more, it is also the color of blue. Cobalt, royal, robin’s egg, sapphire, powder, Prussian, and shades of aquamarine. The color blue is a feeling, but it can also be, rather inexplicably, a sound, like those mysterious and emotive flats often called blue notes. Alex Scally’s treated guitars and organ drones have the distinct sadness of slide bluesmen like Robert Johnson or Elmore James, while Victoria Legrand’s plangent, cooing lamentations divine the kind of blue-saturated romances of Roy Orbison (“Blue Angel”, “Blue Bayou”), Julee Cruise (“Questions in a World of Blue”) or Liz Fraser (“Blue Bell Knoll”).
The songs on Bloom often materialize and disappear like miniature worlds, not so differently from the boxed fantasias of Joseph Cornell, whose obsessions with blue stained the dioramas and films he created from the shelter of his bedroom. If you listen closely, many Beach House tracks feature the word “blue”, albeit buried deeply in the whirlpool of instruments and layered vocals – so that the lyrics often appear more like shapes or colors of sound, in the style of My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless (which, by comparison, is the color of red).
Even the band’s name conjures mental images of a tiny bungalow buffeted by the breezes of an immense, azure sea, perhaps in the dead calm before the midnight blue advance of a hurricane.
To enter into the world of Beach House is ultimately to embrace the feelings of longing and the occasionally exhilarating, but often maudlin, colors of love. As Maggie Nelson asks in her poetic meditation on color, Bluets, “Is to be in love with blue, then, to be in love with a disturbance? Or is the love itself the disturbance? And what kind of madness is it anyway, to be in love with something constitutionally incapable of loving you back?” One might ask the same question of falling in love with a record. To which Legrand seems to sing in response: “All I wanted comes in colors…”
VICE recently called up Beach House’s Alex Scally on the eve of the band’s fall tour to query him on the question of blue, the recording world of Bloom and the magic of voices.
VICE: I always associate Beach House albums with the color blue in much the same way I associate something like the work of Joseph Cornell or the films of David Lynch with blueness. Listening to the lyrics I counted at least two or three songs that included the word ‘blue." And there’s so much ocean imagery, which is another kind of blueness. Beach House is not a traditional blues band, but do you think of Beach House as a kind of blues music?
Alex Scally: That’s a good question. It’s hard to give you an exact answer. When we get together to make music, we only have an interest in making music in an explicitly emotional way. It’s hard to say what that is. But when we’re reaching toward a song, and it doesn’t have a certain quality, we ditch it. We want this very emotional feeling that is kind of intangible. I think this album felt very dark at times for us and that’s where all the “blue” stuff came from. But there’s also this very beautiful thing about it. Like "Lazuli" is a stone, and a word that Victoria fell in love with, the name of a very dark blue gemstone that comes from Afghanistan. But that song is about hope, about a feeling that goes away, but comes back. So there’s a melancholia that is also very hopeful. We got really into William Bell. This song "Everyday Will Be Like a Holiday," it’s a very happy song, but there’s also a sadness to it.
Do you ever listen to James Carr?
Is he on Stax?
Goldwax, I think. He does one of my favorite soul songs ever, "Dark End of the Street."
Yeah, I remember that song. That’s the thing about all those guys. You start to dig into their discography and it’s amazing what you can find. Did you see that film, Betty Blue?
No. Another blue reference.
I just watched it the other night. It was amazing. It’s a French film from the 80s.
Beach House’s songs feel like little worlds rather than simply pieces of music. Or maybe little musical worlds. Do you ever think in those terms when you compose?
Yeah, I don’t think we ever think, per se, about anything, intellectually. We don’t intellectualize the music too much. But I think that feeling, like you’re in a self-contained little world, is very much how we feel… I mean, when we’re writing a song we get into a feeling and it’s very exciting for us, we go into a kind of trance state. Sometimes we’ll work all night, nine or ten hours and it feels like we’re in another place. And that’s when we really get excited about music. It’s when you feel like you’re somewhere else.
I remember that Kevin Shields and My Bloody Valentine used to work best at night when they hadn’t slept for a week. And with Beach House, the music has such a somnambulistic quality about it that I wonder if you write more during the night than during the day?
It’s a mix. I think during the day you can do interesting things and at night you can do other things. All hours of the day happen for us when writing.
I know few things about Baltimore, but I always associate it with Edgar Allen Poe, and John Waters, and now Beach House. Does the city itself exert any major influence on the music? Is there something about Baltimore people should know?
No and yes. I feel like it’s not like things used to be—like in Paris in the 1920s, where the place affected somebody’s writing. Or being somewhere in the Southwest like Georgia O’Keefe. That era of direct parallels between setting and art is absent in some ways because of the modern universe we live in. But one of the main reasons it has affected us is that Baltimore is a very small town and big city. Everyone who makes music here knows one another. When we were coming up in the first couple of years, before we ever played out of town, we had this support group around us, amazing musicians and artists, who loved us and nurtured us. I don’t think that exists in New York. It’s very competitive and harsh. I don’t think we would have grown there the same way we grew here. We never thought about what was cool or right. We just did what we felt like doing. And at the same time Baltimore is super cheap, so we were never worried about money. People living in New York have rents around a thousand dollars and they have to work all the time. My rent was two hundred dollars for years. So I think Baltimore affected us that way. And it’s also a very edgy place, not super comfortable like other cities can be. Particularly New York. You sort of hide out in the corners in Baltimore. But the actual music was always in our heads.
I read that most of the songs on Bloom were worked out during the last tour. I tend to think of the experience of touring as a world in miniature – vans, venues, motels, studios, repeated ad nauseum. On the other hand, you recorded the album in the deserts of West Texas, which is a massive, never-ending landscape, a gaping hole between the West and the East. I’m fascinated by the vast difference in scale of these two environments. Do you think the smallness and largeness of these places influence the way you envisioned the album?
But I really have to stress that most of the world of the songs are in our minds. We were writing these songs for a couple of years and working out these songs in Baltimore, but once we got to Texas something happened. I’m not exactly sure what. But the songs took on a more expansive energy being out there where there was absolutely nothing under the huge skies where there was endless desert. It worked its way in subconsciously. We had time to go out and explore. I really believe that there’s no place in the world that isn’t interesting. Even places that people say are boring, there’s always something amazing that happens there. El Paso was like that as well. If someone just dropped you there in the middle of the desert, you might not make it. There’s no water; there’s little life. But there are tarantulas and scorpions and black widows everywhere. And you’re right on this side of the border. It’s just an interesting part of the world.
Another element that attracts me to Beach House is how it blurs the line between instruments, lyrics and vocals. As an instrumentalist, how do you work in and around Victoria’s voice and vice versa? How do you know where to fill the space and where to leave the space open for the other?
I think what you’re describing sounds very intellectual. We’re never intellectual about it. It’s almost a rule. It’s a very wonderful, unique thing we have. From the moment we started working together and until now we’ve been lucky enough to keep it. We have this chemistry together. We work together, we fill in the blanks. It even happens with things non-musical. When we work together, we make the other person sound better. And there’s no way to intellectualize it. We can’t explain it. It’s very intuitive. Personally, I’m very lucky. Because I’ve played music most of my life, but I never felt like I made anything that special until I started working with Victoria. And I think she felt a similar way.
Victoria’s voice has such a magical, seductive quality about it. I once asked Hope Sandoval if she thought it was odd to hear so many fans say that they had fallen in love with her voice or carried her voice as a soundtrack throughout their lives. Do you think someone can fall in love with a voice? Have you had a similar experience?
I think any emotional experience is authentic, whatever it is. Since the beginning of my life, I’ve always loved voices. That’s why even though I get so tired of pop music I will always come back to it, because it showcases the voices. And that’s such an important thing emotionally. It’s what connects everything. I feel that way about Victoria’s voice. I love her voice so much. I’m so lucky to be in a band where I can listen to it all the time. Her voice is so meaningful and special. And the way she sings and the words she creates are utterly captivating. I loved so many singers growing up.
I always loved John Lennon and George Harrison’s vocals, never really liked Paul McCartney’s. I loved Sam Cooke’s voice, Hope Sandoval’s voice, Stevie Nick’s voice, I love Robert Smith’s voice.
I noticed that you haven’t included Morrissey’s voice?
I love Morrissey’s voice. But he’s more stylized and less emotional. I always loved the emotional singers. Even Jim Morrison was a good singer or Frank Sinatra was a good singer, but it didn’t feel like explicitly emotional singing.