By Andrew Hall | 4 March 2010
The Baltimore duo Beach House recently released their third (and quite possibly best) album, Teen Dream, their first for Sub Pop. We spoke to guitarist Alex Scally from the band’s hometown as they prepared for months on the road about a number of things: their then-forthcoming record, their development over the last four years as a band, Weezer, David Lynch, and how they survive season-length tours.
Cokemachineglow’s Andrew Hall (CMG): From what I can tell, this new record marks a pretty big transition for you guys. Most immediately, I see that in that this is your first record for Sub Pop. Could you tell me a bit about how the jump from Carpark happened and how it changed things?
Alex Scally (AS): For us, the only thing that changed between this record and previous records was the level of effort we put into it. Our previous records were kind of accomplished with no budget and a very small amount of time. We sort of had a lot of songs, we had them all written and arranged, and we rented the studio, and when you have that kind of time constraint I think the natural thing is to go for a lo-fi sound, since that’s the most interesting style of production when you don’t have money. It’s the kind that gives you the most bang for the buck or whatever. I think that we, after doing those two records and touring forever—we love touring, but we toured, like, forever—we got back and we’re like, “We have so many ideas, let’s start working.” We don’t intellectualize what we do, we just sort of start working and it happens.
Victoria and I have a really great chemistry together and when we write we don’t think about it, so we just started working on the record and halfway through the year there was interest from other labels. We weren’t dissatisfied with Carpark at all. When we were putting out our first two records we were younger, but we also had tons of ideas that just never came to fruition because of time, money, all those other things. So when we stepped into this record, we were like, “Let’s go to a studio and let’s record everything just the way we want it to sound. Let’s not go for the quick, fast sound. Let’s try to get the really meticulous sound.” I think that’s a lot of what you hear. We’re using the same instruments; we essentially write in the same method we’ve always written, it’s just like we’re farther along. We’re getting older, we’re getting more mature, we don’t want to do that same thing. It feels like a big jump but I think it’s us maturing. We’ve been doing this for five years and this is what comes from that.
CMG: Chris Coady gets a producer’s credit on this album. Was this the first time that you worked with an outside producer?
AS: Well, he did essentially what Rob Girardi did on the first two records. He just helped us; he’s an engineer and he helped us record and kind of helped us focus the takes and chose which mikes to use. In Chris’s case, he has a ton of experience, and I can see some of the decisions he made that really helped things come across. There were a lot of times when we would do a take, and we had been playing the songs for months and months and months constantly, rehearsing, getting ready to record, and we’d do a take, and we’d be like, “Oh, great! Perfect, no mistakes, great sound,” and he’d be like “I don’t know if the vibe is totally right yet.” He was really good at monitoring that, since we were never used to having the ability to work into the energy of a song, to have the time to do fifteen takes of the guitar. In some cases that first take has all the energy, but in some cases there’s this thing where you work into the song and some other things start happening and you get to another place and the fourteenth take is magical. We’re really lucky to have had the luxury to do that on this album.
CMG: The basic Beach House sound is intact in all these songs, but the end results seem bigger, more fleshed out than ever before. Can you tell me about the songwriting process for this album?
AS: I think that when we were working on this album, I mean, it’s really easy to do things you’ve done before, when we sit down and start writing together, it’s really easy to write a Devotion song. It’s really funny that that was an album because I feel like we could make that album in two days right now. I think that’s how it is; you can do really easily what you’ve done before, and as we were writing, we’d just come off of a year of touring that album, and we were so sick of those songs, not sick of those songs, just that the energy that those yield wasn’t doing anything for us anymore. So when we were writing, I think we would start to write a song that would kind of sound like Devotion and we’d vote not consciously, but say “This is boring. This is frustrating. There isn’t enough energy coming across.” We had been playing so many shows and feeling we couldn’t reach the audience enough, and I think that some of the sound of this record comes from so much wanting to explode and fill the room and have the music be churning and a little less monochromatic and more full of life; less like one feeling, more of a rich, complex feeling.
CMG: On that note, why did you decide to rework “Used To Be” for this album?
AS: We liked it, and we thought it made sense with the album, but the arrangement that we had, we both felt was cheesy. It was written and recorded very quickly—we were home for three weeks between tours and we had this little song and said “Let’s go record it because it’s fun”—and it just felt to us like an incomplete song, and it didn’t feel like it was part of what we are doing now. So we kind of went back to the basic piano part that the whole song started from and built it up again in the mindset of this record. And I think it became less dry and dusty and became more colorful and blossoming and more emotional and less repetitive. It became more of a flowery song, and I think the ending is way better. It says a lot more. We didn’t want to forget about the song, but we wanted to update it.
CMG: You’ve been touring for some time with live drummers now. How much of the new album was built on live percussion?
AS: While we were writing all the songs—Victoria and I write alone—one of our two great live drummers, Dan, lives in Baltimore, so every now and again—we would write these drum parts, and he’d come in and play them live with us to practice them and hear them. Every time we did that, the part would change a little bit, and maybe that would go back and change some small part about the song once we’d heard it with the live drum energy. I think it was very influential, beginning with Devotion we started having a live drummer because we just wanted to have that feeling and it’s getting more and more powerful; we could never play without a live drummer now.
CMG: The drums on some of these new songs seem more insistent and powerful than anything on the last two records, especially on “10 Mile Stereo.”
AS: That’s funny, since “10 Mile Stereo” is a drum machine the entire time until just the last chorus.
CMG: “Lover of Mine” even sort of has a dance beat.
AS: Victoria loves dance music. She listens to it, makes it, she’s really into dance music, so it was just a matter of time before some of this started coming out.
CMG: Can you tell me anything about the title?
AS: It sucks that we’re both not interviewing right now, because Victoria is the lyricist. She and I, whenever there are things like titles and certain lyrics, they always come about the same way; it’s blurted out at some moment, it’s never thought over. We were working on the song “Silver Soul” and it was really late one night and she said “You know what? This group of songs is Teen Dream.” And we’d been talking about different weird titles, but it immediately resonated with us, because that song is kind of a sex anthem or something. It’s a super intense passionate song, and we were working on it in the heat of the summer, and it started to be revealed to us that all these songs are kind of imbued with this hysterical passion that you kind of have when you’re a teenager, kind of a bizarre super obsession. Also something about those words together seemed instantly classic to us, like they were just sitting there, waiting for us to take it. It felt like serious, but also sugary, but it just felt completely right for these songs.
CMG: It sounds kind of Lynchian to me.
AS: We also realized something crazy that we’d never thought about. You know the scene [in season two of Twin Peaks] where the giant is on stage, and he’s just saying, very slowly, “It is happening again?” That’s the lyric that just came to her for “Silver Soul.” She’s always been obsessed with David Lynch; I like David Lynch, but not as much as she does.
CMG: Her voice seems to be a lot—I don’t know if bigger is the right word, but it seems more present than before.
AS: I think that it just has to do with constantly playing live. Whenever I hear records with really great singers when they’re younger, they’re always more timid and they haven’t really developed their own style much. I feel really lucky to be in a band with Victoria and to get to listen to her sing all the time because I think she’s such an amazing singer. On this record, one of the things we thought was “Let’s not be the sleepy girly thing.” She’s never been like that, but when you get in front of a microphone in a studio, that can come out more because you’re examining yourself so much, and I think the tendency can be to not put a ton of personality in and just sort of let it be really gentle and non-committal. Kind of like when you walk into a room; you don’t tell a joke, you just wait. She just has incredible skill, and the melodies are so good, and I’m really happy with the way she sang on this record. Just very powerfully, and soulfully, and not sleepy, and really just commanding the songs. I’m so proud of the way she’s developed.
CMG: Also, just curious, but does “Zebra” have the same chord progression as “No Other One” by Weezer, off of Pinkerton?
AS: That’s funny, I never put that together, but the first half of that phrase are the same exact chord, which is in 3/4. It’s a waltz; we do it like a 4/4 waltz and we do it like a swing, a ballad, or whatever. I don’t think we ever thought of it, but whenever you hear a chord progression in a song it’s probably been used 45 times and often at the same exact tempo and even with a similar arrangement. It’s just amazing that there are now something like 40 billion songs and they’re not all constantly sounding like each other.
CMG: You’re back on the road in a few weeks. How do you maintain the kind of energy that it takes to be on the road for what looks like upwards of four months?
AS: I think that we are really excited and we feel very lucky and I think that energy does a lot to maintain us. I think we feel like we have a lot to prove; we’ve never really been happy with the way we are live and we’re finally getting really happy with what we’re doing. We’re really excited to go out to all of these places we’ve been—and a lot of places we haven’t been—and play really hard. We’re gonna try to take care of ourselves; we’re going to pick our battles. This is what we’re doing with our lives, completely, this last year has marked the transition from working jobs to trying to do this full-time and I think that’s the whole thing. Why would we not tour like this? What else are we going to do with ourselves? We have to get out there and show it to people.
CMG: What else are you looking forward to?
AS: I’m looking forward to expanding what we do. I’m looking forward to writing the next record, to making our live show awesome [laughs]. I’m looking forward to touring. That’s it. It’s like a donkey with a carrot over its head, just walking forward; that’s what’s going on.
CMG: Are you guys glad to have finally gotten people to stop mentioning Galaxie 500 when they talk about your band?
AS: We never really care what people say. I think it’s very natural for journalists and music critics and fans to make comparisons, it’s totally normal. I think the main thing that Victoria is super-psyched about shaking is the Mazzy Star thing. We love Mazzy Star, but I don’t think we’ve ever felt like we were that kind of music. So I think that those will disappear. Honestly, if someone’s writing about us, we’re just happy that it’s happening.