Interview: Beach House

MP3: Beach House – “Zebra” (UK Edit)
MP3: Beach House – “Norway”

Baltimore dream pop duo Beach House has made quite a name for itself since releasing Devotion in 2008. Not only has the band received consistently rave reviews from nearly all established media outlets, but most importantly, Beach House has earned spots on two (count ’em) Owl and Bear year-end lists (2008 and 2010). If the pattern holds true, you’ll see the band on numerous lists again this year for its excellent fourth album, Bloom.

Beach House will play House of Blues San Diego this Sunday, July 1 with Wild Nothing. In anticipation of the show, we decided to repost this interview we did with guitarist/co-founder Alex Scally in 2008 — back when Devotion was brand new and the band was just working out its sound.

We are also giving away two tickets to see Beach House at House of Blues. To enter, visit our Facebook page.

Interview: Alex Scally of Beach House

Owl and Bear: You’ve said that the recording process for Devotion was more complicated than for your first, self-titled release. Are you going to continue that trend and make your next one even more complicated?

Alex Scally: The actual approach was almost identical. I don’t think it was more complicated, we just had more time. So the “complication” was just having the freedom to continue to follow our vision. We’ll probably spend the same amount of time, maybe a little more with the next album, but I’m thinking that since we both believe simplicity is the best thing for us, we’re going less complicated in every way.

Owl and Bear: Are you working on anything right now?

Alex Scally: We’re always working on new songs. Hopefully we’ll have a couple of new ones ready for San Diego.

Owl and Bear: I think that when a lot of bands get some exposure, they try to ride the tide by releasing an EP or a quickly thrown together album.

Alex Scally: We’re not going to do that. I don’t think we rushed Devotion, but we recorded it between tours, so we’re both excited to have the next six months to write songs and let things go at their own natural pace.

Owl and Bear: Do you write on the road?

Alex Scally: No, it’s hard to write when you’re on tour. Victoria [Legrand] and I both feel that way. Sometimes I’ll just get a piece of a song—a tiny nugget of something good—and then I’ll try to save it as much as I can to discover later.

Owl and Bear: Do you think you’ll follow the same vein as Devotion for your next album? A lot of bands try to continually reinvent themselves.

Alex Scally: We’ve never been conscious of it. We have things that we like, such as just being the two of us. We didn’t consciously change anything for Devotion, but when you tour with the same songs all the time, you get itches. We’ll get sick of certain things, and get really into other things, so parts change as people grow. Some people try to make a deliberate shift—This is going to be a more upbeat record—but more often, especially with people who aren’t making commercial music, the music just grows, and you watch it grow.

Owl and Bear: Sometimes when it’s deliberate, it sounds contrived.

Alex Scally: Sometimes when people grow, they don’t want to hear it anymore, but that’s just something to be prepared for. If you’re just making music as an artist, you can only hope that it means something to others. If it does, you’re really lucky.

Owl and Bear: Do you consider Beach House dream pop?

Alex Scally: Some people might call it that, but genre is just one of those funny things. It’s a natural tendency thing to want to put things into a genre. We both like pop music, and I guess the ‘dream’ part refers to the organs, or the reverb, or Victoria’s voice. I don’t know. We both listen to tons of music and so many types of things. I think this is the era of genres not existing anymore.

Owl and Bear: Was your sound something that you’d envisioned beforehand, or was it something that came together on its own?

Alex Scally: I think it’s just a real accumulation of Victoria’s and my musical interests over time. Victoria has studied classical music, and so much of the way she sings, her history is reflected there. This, combined with my influence—having to do with recording in a way that I like, and playing instruments that I’ve accumulated since a young age—allows us to get along. We tend to really like each other’s ideas. There was nothing intentional about it; it just began when we started playing music. What I did, she’d like, and what she did, I’d like. It was a natural synthesis.

Owl and Bear: You and Victoria haven’t known each other that long. I wonder if that synthesis comes easier when you don’t necessarily know the other person very well.

Alex Scally: That’s an interesting question that not many people ask. I think that sometimes an important part of playing music is having no history. It can be the music alone, and there’s no weird subtext.

Owl and Bear: You have a fresh set of expectations.

Alex Scally: We didn’t really know each other that well.

Owl and Bear: How does Victoria feel about the Nico comparisons? Nico’s a bit of a polarizing figure in rock music.

Alex Scally: I’m definitely a fan of Nico. I think Victoria is too, and she gets that a lot. I don’t think she minds because she’s a cool singer, but I don’t think she agrees. Maybe because she has a low register, people say that. But I don’t think she sings out of tune and she doesn’t emulate Nico in any way.

Owl and Bear: I don’t think it’s really that obvious until someone else says it.

Alex Scally: It’s definitely not a dead ringer for me.

Owl and Bear: How much does film play a part in your composition? Victoria has a film background and Beach House has a kind of cinematic quality. When we at Owl and Bear did our Top 20 of 2008, we described your music as [David] Lynchian.

Alex Scally: That’s crazy. One of Victoria’s dreams is to score a David Lynch film.

Owl and Bear: Sometimes it just seems to fit perfectly.

Alex Scally: That would be awesome.

Owl and Bear: Are there any other filmmakers that you’d like to hear from?

Alex Scally: I don’t know if I can think of any active filmmakers [laughs]. Maybe Emir Kusturica. He’s done a lot of good stuff, like Black Cat White Cat. It’s really hard to say because so many good filmmakers—I wouldn’t want to muck up their work. I’ll think about it more and let you know when we get to San Diego.

Owl and Bear: You mentioned a few minutes ago that simplicity is very important to you. Does having the old Casio, and the guitar, and the old-style organ percussion help to keep everything grounded?

Alex Scally: I mainly mean not adding things that don’t need to be there. There’s a tendency in songs to add things when there’s a problem—instead of subtracting things.

Owl and Bear: To cover it up.

Alex Scally: Yeah, exactly. We’re both getting into the idea of subtraction. It’s like tiny puzzle pieces. On Devotion, the addition happened a little more. In another sense, though, the songs are complicated because every part has been intentionally thought out. But usually to get to that point, it’s a matter of taking things out.

Owl and Bear: I think that’s a huge benefit of having a classical music background. You really know a lot more about what you’re doing and there isn’t as much guesswork.

Alex Scally: A lot of thought gets put into the arrangements. I’ve gotten really into songs that only have three or four sounds at once, like one drum, one bass, one singer. There are a lot of songs like that. They’re just so simple, so perfect, and so complete. A really good example is “Young Folks,” by Peter Bjorn and John. It has three or four parts, and it’s so well done. It’s just a perfect pop composition.

Owl and Bear: I think Beach House’s organ percussion—instead of a drum machine—is a nice touch, too. It doesn’t sound artificial like a drum machine, and perfectly serves its purpose in your songs.

Alex Scally: One really charming thing about the 70s organs is that they weren’t trying to sound electronic.  They were trying to emulate real drums, and it’s worked really well for us because we both don’t like busy drums—or noodling. I always kind of find it imperfect when a drummer does a drum fill. Sometimes it almost ruins something. It breaks a very necessary thing.

Owl and Bear: You don’t want to try to fit too many notes into something.

Alex Scally: I feel like a lot drummers do fills because they think they have to do something.

Owl and Bear: They get bored.

Alex Scally: Yeah, they get bored [laughs] and it’s time to go [imitates a drum fill] and it winds up sounding really generic.

Owl and Bear: I think you’re really onto something. You have someone like Ringo Starr who’s really effective but doesn’t do a whole lot, versus someone who tries to cram it all into a small space.

Alex Scally: I love his drumming so much.

Owl and Bear: Have you talked to Daniel Johnston about your cover of “Some Things Last a Long Time?” Do you know if he’s heard your version?

Alex Scally: I don’t know if he’s heard it. Victoria and I are huge fans of his. Last time I saw him was a year and a half ago. I didn’t say anything to him, but I think Victoria went up and said “Great job, just so you know we covered your song,” and maybe gave him a CD, but I don’t know if he’s heard it.

Owl and Bear: I recently watched the documentary “The Devil and Daniel Johnston.” It’s charming, but also disturbing.

Alex Scally: Yeah, but I think that’s who he is, and he’s a great songwriter and artist in general.

Owl and Bear: You said earlier that you want to keep Beach House as a duo even though you have a touring band, and that you plan to pretty much write your new songs as a duo.

Alex Scally: We have a touring drummer, but we both like the control and the order. There just isn’t a necessity for anyone else. Until there is, we’ll just keep it the way it is.

Owl and Bear: Have you noticed any changes in the crowds, since you were prominently listed on Pitchfork’s 50 Best Albums of 2008?

Alex Scally: No, it’s all pretty small crowds. 100 to 250 people. I really like our fans. I like that we’re mostly an Internet band, we’re on a really small label, and we’re growing at a pace that we can handle. I think most of the time, people who come out to our shows really do like our music. I want to keep it that way, and I want people to like us. I don’t want to be overexposed and thrown at people, because I don’t think we’re necessarily that accessible.

I’m just thrilled that people like the music that we’re making. I want to keep making it, keep the momentum going, and see what happens. But it’s bad to think too much about it.

Owl and Bear: Over thinking it has the same drawbacks as consciously trying to change your sound.

Alex Scally: When we tour for the next album, we’re planning to put a lot of time and energy into making it exciting. We’ve gotten better with this over time, but going on tour can get old and you can lose touch with the songs. If you can stay excited, you can translate the experience to the show.

Owl and Bear: A lot of artists dread touring.

Alex Scally: I enjoy it, but in the future we want it to be amazing; an incredible experience. People too often just give up on touring. Yeah I’m going on tour, and I’m not going to try that hard.

Owl and Bear: Tell me a little about the guitar playing. Are you new to guitar playing in general, or just playing it in a band?

Alex Scally: I played some guitar, but I mostly started just for Beach House. It’s been great because I was never taught on that instrument, so I’ve been able to play exactly how I want and not have preconceived notions about what the guitar’s role is.

Owl and Bear: So you’re expanding your knowledge of it.

Alex Scally: Expanding knowledge means playing all the time. I’m definitely getting much better at it. I think it’s a cool instrument because it can sound like voice, it can be rhythmic, it can be melodic.

Owl and Bear: I think the best practice is actually getting out there and playing shows, where there’s actually a requirement of you. That’s how a lot of people really get good.

Alex Scally: It’s good in a sense. I’m good at playing our songs over and over again.

Owl and Bear: Who knows where you’ll be on the guitar after a few more tours?

Alex Scally: Yeah, I’ll be able to shred by next year [laughs].

Owl and Bear: Before I let you go, can you describe your musical influences?

Alex Scally: The thing that drives me the most—and I think Victoria pretty much feels the same way—is melody. Music that’s really melody dominated. I’m not necessarily into 60s music, but a lot of music from that era reflects what I like. But I like anything throughout time that’s been like that. Fleetwood Mac, Beatles, Beach Boys…

Owl and Bear: I can sense that 60s’ vibe. There’s definitely a psychedelic element, but with your music, there’s more to it. There’s a natural progression.

Alex Scally: It’s 80s too, and Tom Petty, Neil Young, MoTown. Anything where the melody guides the song. I guess not punk, but even some punk is melodic. There are no barriers anywhere you look.

Owl and Bear: One last question. Both of you have kept your day jobs. How do you balance being in a relatively popular touring band and being employed?

Alex Scally: This year we’ve toured a lot, so that’s helped to reduce the need for a day job, but we only stopped touring about a month ago. I usually work with my father doing carpentry, so I can come and go whenever I want.

Owl and Bear: There’s an unconditional element there.

Alex Scally: Yeah, it’s amazing. And Victoria works at a restaurant as a bartender. The funny thing about touring is that you can store up some money, but you don’t want it to run out, either.

Owl and Bear: Right.

Alex Scally: I don’t think we’d want to quit our day jobs. I think that when you have tons of time—speaking personally—having a lot of time makes you lazier. You stop valuing when you have the time to do what you want.

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