Music by VICE

The Enduring Brilliance of Beach House

Thirteen years, seven albums in: we speak with the Baltimore duo about the immortality of art, the state of the world and, tbh, some spooky shit.

by Ryan Bassil
May 1 2018, 2:22pm

Photo credit: Shawn Brackbill

So many bands come and go. Or to be specific, a lot of groups who formed in the late 00s/early 2010s have dissolved into dust. Some solo acts continue to excel: Toro Y Moi, Grimes, Blood Orange. But bands? Many fall off after their first albums, barely able to sustain a single beyond Urban Outfitters’ spring/summer season. Others make vaguely palatable third albums to follow up far-out second ones. A few anomalies have endured and evolved—see Tame Impala or The Horrors. But still—props aside—they’re not Beach House. The Baltimore duo are special, maybe even one of a kind—undeniably, consistently brilliant. And seven albums in (seven!) they're not slowing down.

“This isn’t our first time on the rodeo,” jokes Victoria Legrand with a smile, settling into their first interview since they released Thank Your Lucky Stars three years ago. We’re at Bethnal Green Town Hall, a hotel in east London, where they’re stopping over for a brief trip—one night, one day, then back again to Baltimore. It’s a strange place: an opulent yet chintzy interview location, where a taxidermy bear covered in paisley print looms over the dining room we’re in—something Alex Scally, who completes the group, laughs about as we wait for our drinks. At first they seem nervous; I’m nervous too—Beach House are renowned for disliking press. Flood some coffee through their systems, though, and it’s go time. Belying the connotations of being dressed head-to-toe in black, they’re warm, open, happy to speak about their catalogue of work.

This May they release their seventh album, 7. Given that Beach House formed in 2005, it’s a remarkable achievement. Then again, the band’s track record is impeccable. Where other groups of their era critically floundered, Beach House steadily progressed, evolving with each record. Their self-titled 2006 debut could be called dream-pop—“Master of None” sounds like the red-eyed summation of a party—but since then they’ve intricately padded out their sound. Their fifth album, 2015’s Depression Cherry, presented a heavier yet regal, dignified tone, while its follow-up, Thank Your Lucky Stars, released a few months later, exists as its weird cigarette-smoking little sister who ballroom dances at moonlight. This record, they say, was created naturally—a reaction of sorts to the societal upheaval of 2016/17, but also a process of rebirth and rejuvenation; a way to start anew after clearing the closet with 2017’s B-Sides and Rarities album.

This time around, Beach House eschewed old methods. First, they turned their practice space – a “grotty” 900 square foot warehouse with wooden floors and 14-foot rafter ceilings—into a home studio. The literal pieces of their career rest there: the organs that sit at the foundation of their sound, keyboards, pedals, old stage sets—the latter of which Victoria says they’ll probably burn at some point. Every Beach House record has featured songs they don’t play live (eg: Devotion’s “Home Again”), but they specifically decided not to limit themselves on 7 to writing for a live audience. The result: some songs don’t have a keyboard, others don’t have a guitar or are so layered they can’t be recreated outside a studio—where, this time, they were joined by former Spacemen 3 member Pete Kember, as well as touring drummer James Barone. And everything was written instinctively. Creative tools were picked up or immediately put down based on an almost unspeakable musical bond that’s lasted for over a decade.

Though Victoria says there are differences—something that’s refreshing—there’s a level of near-telepathic creative understanding that keeps developing between her and Alex. “Closeness in general, that’s what continues to evolve,” she says. “I think in any partnership in life—friendship, romance, working, whatever—there’s no end to closeness. I think that intimacy is not just a romantic thing, it’s a knowing of someone. That continues to deepen.” Pause. “And it’s mind-blowing. You know someone for more than ten years and you continue to find small new things about them that you never really realized, or things maybe they tried to hide come out.”

Part of getting older, they say, and writing a seventh record, is also knowing not to fall down the same old rabbit holes. “When you’re younger and still figuring stuff out there’s so many hours spent analyzing and wasted words and fights and things like that. And as you get older you see that and you’re like ‘not doing it,’” explains Victoria, with a flourish on the closing part of her statement. So, essentially, you’re saying fuck that? “Fuck that, exactly. And that’s the best part about getting older: that ‘fuck that’. There’s a lot more of that ‘fuck that’ feeling to this record, and the way we work together overall.”

And so, to 7—to the ‘fuck that’. More so than anything they’ve done, this album has a political slant. In the press materials for the record, Beach House say “The discussions surrounding women’s issues were a constant source of inspiration and questioning. The energy, lyrics and moods of this record grew from ruminations on the roles, pressures and conditions that our society places on women, past and present.” Look and you’ll see the band at one of the women’s marches in January, as they started recording 7. Or consider the album’s artwork (above), a black-and-white 60s style collage which, on the album’s vinyl release, includes a color foil in its centerpiece of a woman’s face—a shimmering spectrum of refracting light in the otherwise black-and-white composition.

Alone, this artwork is an accurate depiction of the themes on 7. From the chaotic, thunderous opening of “Dark Spring” to the relieving calmness of the album’s closing tracks (perhaps their most immaculate triumvirate of back-to-back-to-back songs so far), it’s a dualistic record—one twisted up in peril and perfection. Press them on these themes and the pair are keen not to bring their personal lives into the music, or speak to the inspiration behind every song—they’d rather have the album take on its own life, “channelling some kind of heavy truth” that the listeners can perceive in their own way. That’s not to say they’re not switched on. Discussing politics they quickly and eagerly became engaged, speaking over one another or adding to each other’s points. For example:

Alex: “I think everyone has been addicted to news media all year, I’ve been reading it more than ever. It’s been this insane thing; I think we’re all becoming aware of the confusion and disinformation social media has unleashed on the world in so many different forms. For me in my lifetime there’s been the most palpable sense of upheaval and unrest and strange–”

Victoria: “–darkness.”

Alex: “Like waking up into a strange dream reality. It’s horrifying, exhilarating, strange–”

Victoria: “–psychedelic.”

Alex: “And it’s definitely infected everybody. It’s impossible to deny. It’s risen up. I know people who aren’t paying attention to it and I’m like ‘You gotta pay attention to this, we’re experiencing something–’”

Victoria: “–there’s a major shift.”

To interject here myself, it’s true. In terms of culture, politics, even boiling down to the bones of being, there’s an erasure: a feeling that we came so far to leave with nothing; and yet, at the same time, a dramatic shift is happening. Pop culture's biggest star—the once pink polo-wearing Kanye West, the southside Chi-town speaker of the gospel—has seeped so far into a wormhole that even his devoted disciples have doubts about him. Pub conversations about relationships and rumors and jealousy can quickly turn esoteric; the thoughts we hide deep inside unanimously, quietly screaming what the fuck is happening? as we collectively search for answers.

Beach House’s 7 breathes into this world. “I’m excited for young people. It’s good to fight,” says Victoria. And it’s not all bad. After speaking earlier in our conversation about 2017 being the year many powerful men fell from their seemingly impenetrable pedestals, Alex touches on a generational divide—us, versus the so-called free-thinkers of the past. “So many people in the 60s have this ridiculous attitude, like”—and he puts on a stoned, Woodstock voice—“‘we were really happening back then.’ No you weren’t, you were worse. The same stuff is happening now but we’re actually [fixing things]. They had their sexual revolution but it didn’t mean women got paid the same as men.”

As we dart in and around these state-of-the-world topics, Victoria says she feels an energetic violence where something is being thrown up, thrown around—and that’s a huge part of this record. When I mention the elements of dark and light pushing and pulling through singles like “Lemon Glow", she says: “[On] 7, for me, there’s a force. And it’s not weak. And it’s not small. It’s not feminine or masculine. It’s an embodiment of energy and I think that’s what we were feeling as humans on a basic level, in our own lives; me as a woman just going through the changes that are constantly occurring, and examining… it’s just so many little things that got tied up and then became a record.” The writing and recording process for this new album wasn’t even planned, with Victoria laughing and likening it to an “unexpected pregnancy” and ‘happy miracle”. At one point, she considers how “every record has been like, ‘Well, do you think we’ll make another record?’ and it keeps happening. Is that fate, is it destiny, is it magic? I don’t know.”

In person, Victoria and Alex come across as intuitive, almost spirit-like beings. Beyond those ideas around energy, fate and destiny, they speak about the weird things that have happened throughout their career. Of distant relatives knowing each other back in the 60s and 70s long before the duo met in Baltimore, despite Victoria having grown up in France. Of the first letter of their first sixth records leading to a sequence ( Beach House, Devotion, Teen Dream, Bloom, Depression Cherry, Thank Your Lucky Stars; BDTBDT—something they say is coincidence but remains a huge fan theory). And of 7 itself, the album title being a number that, if you believe in numerology, represents the “the thinker, the searcher of truth”—the idea that nothing is exactly as it seems linking with the record’s chaotic and opposing themes, the Op art illusions that preceded its release and the number that recurred throughout the writing process.

Take the song “L’Inconnue”. It’s the first time Victoria has sung in French and in it there’s a count from one to seven, un to sept. “Can we mention the death mask?” Alex asks Victoria, referring to L'Inconnue de la Seine, a piece of art that became a fixture in artist’s homes in the 40s, 50s, 60s, and is supposed to be the recreation of a woman’s face who drowned in the Parisian river in the early 1900s. “It’s not about that specifically,” says Victoria, and yet the song’s lyrics reference the Seine, a little girl who should have been loved and includes the phrase ‘l’inconnue’ (translated as ‘the unknown’). These verses were written before Victoria heard about L’Inconnue de la Seine and she describes the connection as “another weird, eerie spooky thing.”

Then there’s the fatalistic Edie Sedgwick, one inspiration behind the record, who happens to be the seventh child in her family. Throughout the process there were tiny things that, if Beach House weren’t trying to call the album 7, the universe seemed to be saying otherwise. “And we’re very open to that. Especially I believe in certain signs and things like that,” says Victoria, at this point finished with her coffee. Even the last song on 7, their seventh album, is exactly seven minutes long—something they’ve only realized now when I bring it up in conversation. And so, considering the almost metaphysical turn our conversation has taken, I can’t help asking them... Do you feel like writing music is a spiritual process, or is that me projecting it onto you?

Victoria: “Yeah.”

It’s me projecting?

“No no no,” she laughs, “I feel like the spiritual and the physical are tied, they’re one.” There’s even a weird synchronicity to our chat. That morning—before speaking to Beach House or knowing she’d been an inspiration—I’d been thinking about Edie Sedgwick and her supposed former lover, Bob Dylan. “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” changed Alex’s life; he was “infatuated” with the lyrics, the mood, “for so long.” Meanwhile one of Victoria’s Dylan favourites is “Wigwam”—she likes the artwork of the album it’s on, Self Portrait, and how off-the-wall it is. “I like when an artist is like ‘Fuck you,’” she says. “I’ve always resonated toward that energy with people. I definitely like that. And that’s the Gemini spirit I suppose. I’m a Gemini. Once someone puts you in a box you’re like, ‘Fuck you, you don’t fucking know me.’”

Photo credit: Shawn Brackbill

That said, people will and do put Beach House in a box. Despite each album’s distinct tonal shifts—the turning up of the volume, the thickness – casual listeners hold onto the idea that every Beach House album sounds the same. To this point both Alex and Victoria are passionate. “Shooting a shot in the dark,” Alex says, “I think we might be a band that people are meant to get really into. I’m not saying people should get really into us, I just mean of various musical obsessions I’ve had in my life, I think you don’t really get the songs and the differences between them until you really get into [the band].” He speaks of My Bloody Valentine and how, though he doesn’t believe Beach House are making anything similar to the iconic Loveless album, the nuances of Beach House’s catalogue might benefit repeated listens. “[Loveless] is a record where the first time you listen you go, ‘Oh, that was kind of one hour of the same sound’ but as you go further and further and further, each composition becomes so bold on its own.”

Victoria has another theory. “Because we’re living through it, for us it’s not possible that every record could be the same. It would just be too crushing if it was. Like”—*puts on a bewildered voice*—“‘So I just didn’t change at all?’’ *barely a beat passes before she gasps* “‘Impossible.’ And it is impossible because everybody changes.” Yet, while they’re passionate, it’s worth mentioning that Beach House are also kind of nonchalant about the whole this-record-sounds-the-same-as-another-one thing. Both the quotes above are said with a grin—a knowingness that comes from being in the industry for over a decade, and what Victoria describes later as having less of a desire to analyze now they’re older. Of letting go. Again: "Fuck it."

Besides, that’s not why they make music. They do it because—in my view—they fall into the pantheon of the great guitar-based acts whose music will exist on record store shelves forever. They slide in next to some of the musicians they mention in our interview (The Doors, T-Rex and Built to Spill join the previously referenced Bob Dylan and My Bloody Valentine) and others they don’t (Cocteau Twins, Slowdive, early Smashing Pumpkins)—but all of whom have written music that seems to extend beyond the boundaries of time.

“And that’s the nice part about it,” says Victoria, initially speaking about why they keep recording as Beach House. She moves, unprompted, into the grander aspects of what it means to create art that can have a lasting effect on someone’s life; on the people who, Alex says, write Beach House and say their music has healed them, acted as therapy, or even just helped them sleep.

This interview and moment, she says, “is the beginning of us being open to other people. Unlike a painting on the wall—which is physically no longer yours because someone else has bought it and can do whatever they want; they can punch it (Alex laughs)—music is invisible. It goes off and mutates in other people’s bodies and minds and stuff, and so it’s this incredible new process of this thing you’ve just made.” It’s this living, breathing entity that exists and grows through time, right? “Yeah, so for us—it should alleviate a lot of pressure at this point. And I think that’s the exciting moment: when the music starts to do things to people and no longer belongs to us.”

You can find Ryan on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.