"What's these guys' deal?" That's the question I asked myself 12 years ago after first hearing Beach House's beautifully narcoleptic debut LP, on which Baltimore duo Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally cast a heavy, mystic fog of keyboard and guitar atop timeless-sounding melodies. For all its beauty, Beach House was also an enticingly eerie album, eliciting a level of natural curiosity from the listener as to where this music even came from, as if it were possible for such sounds to be naturally occuring. That inquisitive spirit wafted in again while spending time with 7, Beach House's alluringly strange seventh album. Amidst the record's dense tangle of electronics and psychedelic motifs, I found myself asking again of one of North America's most visibly successful indie bands: What's these guys' deal?
"I think that about myself all the time," Scally says when I pose the question during an hour-long conversation in the naturally lit indoor patio area of a Manhattan hotel. "It's a good question to ask yourself," Legrand adds, sincere-sounding, referencing the inclination towards self-examination that led to 7's genesis. During the writing and recording process, Scally and Legrand totally upended their very nature of creation by expanding their Baltimore practice space to include a recording setup, making for a streamlined creative process. Gone was frequent past producer Chris Coady; in his place, the album's far-out co-producer Pete Kember, a.k.a. former Spacemen 3 member Sonic Boom, as well as touring drummer James Barone.
"We didn't need to rely on a middleman to record, so ideas happened quickly," Legrand explains, sipping a seltzer. Hunkered down at a small table, she and Scally are dressed mostly in dark tones, though their attitude towards discussing their new record more resembles rebirth — or, at least, an achievement of clarity — than a sense of mourning. "I was relaxed in a way that maybe I wasn't in the past. It almost felt like we were finally alone, or older. I didn't have to be paranoid or stressed about certain things." Scally adds: "It felt like we were animals hacking away at sticks for years, and we finally made fire."
Indeed, a sense of re-discovery runs through 7, a record that diverges so sharply from what listeners have come to expect from Beach House that it practically sounds like the work of a different band. There's trippy samples, broken synth textures, and thickets of French-language vocals. Lead single "Lemon Glow" throbs like neon ooze leaking out of a cracked jar, while "Pay No Mind" — the closest 7 comes to serving up a "traditional Beach House song," as well as one of the finest ballads the pair have written to date — practically sounds like stoner metal, with thousand-pound drum hits and plenty of zero-gravity atmospheric weight. "It took us six records to buy a distortion pedal," Scally says, chuckling. "We had some weird gear — there was this really old, broken Barclay organ that never made the same sound twice."
Both fans and detractors of the band would agree that Beach House have retained a certain reliability over time; if you're into them, you know what you're getting, and you're into it. Until now, Teen Dream from 2010 stood as their breakthrough work, an expansive and airy record that found Scally and Legrand effectively blowing up the workshop and achieving new levels of accessibility in the process. Eight years later, they've reinvented themselves again, this time at a point in their career in which simply replicating past successes would've done just fine. The result is a weird and thrilling record that not only stands as one of the year's best, but suggests that when it comes to pushing the limits of what the "Beach House sound" can be, Scally and Legrand are just getting started.
Were there any habits you had to learn or unlearn while reconfiguring your rehearsal space?
VICTORIA LEGRAND: When we recorded the first batch of songs, I noticed a feeling of, "Oh shit, this feels really different from the last time we were in a studio." I felt things inside of my body that no longer needed to be there.
ALEX SCALLY: You can't underestimate the power of being older. One of the great joys of being older is becoming a boss. When you're young, the naivete can be beautiful, but it also leads to so much confusion and inability to do things properly. You don't have full agency over your own existence. Getting older, you can be like, 'You know what? I didn't like any of that crap, so we're not doing it.' That was revelatory.
A trend in 2010s indie has been artists constantly reinventing their sound, regardless of whether or not it works. Even though you've changed a lot from the first album, you've still largely sounded like Beach House over the years.
LEGRAND: Yeah, and I don't know why that is. There's something about our combined personalities. People can say we're difficult, not true. We know what we like, and we know what we don't like. Maybe that's the key? I don’t know.
SCALLY: The types of songs that we like to make are just what people hear when they say it sounds like Beach House. I understand what people mean when they say that, though.
Victoria, you mentioned people saying you can be difficult. What do you mean by that?
LEGRAND: Mostly it's a press thing. We've never wanted to appear ungrateful for any kind of press. It's extremely wonderful to have fans and interest, and we've never been jaded about that. But people who aren't in your shoes don't understand that if they were, they would also want to control the quality of how your faces are shown.
Everyone has different levels. "You guys don't do syncs." We've done commercials. We've done TV shows. We'd love to do a soundtrack. Where is this myth coming from, that we don't want to do this stuff? Bring us the projects that would be awesome to do, and we'll fucking do them.
You've seen the industry change a lot, too. Over the last 12 years, the things that are asked of artists on all levels — beyond just making music — are much different.
LEGRAND: It's changed so much. Every time we put out a record, there are multiple things involved — internet acceleration, websites disappearing, everything's streaming. When we first started, it was like, "What's a Take Away Show?" Now, Take Away Shows don't exist anymore. I don't even know what's required of young bands anymore. We have no idea what it must be like to be starting out now.
SCALLY: It's harder to make that jump. It's largely happening through Instagram, or through a cult of personality. It's all about your presence, your humor, your story. It's a different energy.
LEGRAND: The machines are definitely back. You can't download anything from the internet anymore. The corporations have more power again.
A lot of your contemporaries have signed to major labels since first coming up. Have you ever considered doing the same?
LEGRAND: From early on, we inherently had a sense that when we make decisions, it's never about jumping at the big things. If someone offered us $100,000 to play a party in Austin, that seemed like a really bad idea. We were never going to be impressed by money being thrown at our faces.
SCALLY: We always knew we wouldn't be able to be ourselves at those places. We have no interest in someone telling us what the single or the artwork is. We could never exist in that environment. We might do it if those people would actually work with us, but they have a way of doing things that we have no interest in.
LEGRAND: And we haven't been offered anything.
SCALLY: Well, we haven't looked.
"Age doesn't matter to me. Your body's gonna shut down, but your mind is gonna go as far as possible. That’s so far out.” — Victoria Legrand
7 is a very strange record for the two of you — your biggest jump sonically since Teen Dream.
SCALLY: We had a feeling while making this album that we also had while making Teen Dream. All of us are stuck in our own brains. When you find a new energy field, it can be really exciting, and both of us were feeling that. This feels like the most joyful record we've made since then.
LEGRAND: [We’re] late bloomers. The Flaming Lips — how many records do they have? Wasn't R.E.M.'s eighth or ninth record the one? Not that I'm comparing ourselves to those bands, but sometimes it takes a long time to get into yourself and find deep layers of creativity.
[Note: Arguably, “the one” was Automatic for the People, R.E.M.'s eighth full-length, released in 1992.]
What did you discover about yourself while making this record that you didn't know previously?
LEGRAND: You only learn by doing, and I learned that I can do whatever I want, however I want. I could always do that, but sometimes you work with people who make you think you have to do something a certain way. You fall into patterns and relationships with people. There are ways in which we're all trapped sometimes. This is the first record in a while where we had time to experiment. We liberated ourselves.
The core of our friendship is that we're two very playful people. The common misconception is that we're very serious, but we're serious about what we do because we care about it. Are we glum people by nature? Absolutely not. We're more like puppies — playful, and curious. Age doesn't matter to me. You feel it when your body's changing, but your spirit expands. It doesn't really matter what your hair looks like — it's about your ideas, your thoughts, and the sound of your voice. Are you a kind person? Are you open? Your body's gonna shut down, but your mind is gonna go as far as possible. That's so far out, and I love it. Bring it on, deterioration!
When it comes to your creative dynamic between the two of you, what works and what doesn't?
LEGRAND: I learned something when I was 21 that I'll never forget: Tension creates something. Tension isn't negative — it's a physical thing that occurs. It's in nature, and it's all around us. We're lucky that we found each other in this lifetime, because we're complimentary. When we've butted heads in the past, something's always happened as a result.
SCALLY: Cosmically and artistically, we've always been fascinated by this dual energy field that exists between joy and sorrow. The profound joy that comes with a terrible experience. I know that sounds really weird, but it's always been at the center of our work. We feel it more vitally than ever now. The idea of a simple, happy song is such bullshit to me. [Laughs]
LEGRAND: Someone can write one, but it's not real life. Real life's got a lot more cracks in it.
The notion of finding joy in trauma seems relevant to our current social climate. Did any current events seep their way into the songwriting?
LEGRAND: Well, of course the darkness creeps in.
SCALLY: It's in the fiber of everything these days.
Legrand: There's echoes of the past, though, too — the ’60s, the ’70s. There's always been an insanity. If you were to time travel and ask a teenager in 1968 or 1973, "How does it feel?" They'd be like, "This shit is dark. I don't even know if the world's gonna be here tomorrow — the President's insane, there's wars and murders."
You guys have grown in popularity pretty steadily over the past twelve years. Have there been any drawbacks to that?
LEGRAND: Every time we've made a record, we've noticed changes — and we roll with it. It's never awkward, it's extremely humbling and very beautiful. We don't know how music grows when we're not doing anything. How are people discovering us? It's kind of a miracle.
SCALLY: We're grateful, and we've never felt too big where it's not in our control. There were times where we were getting more popular and our image felt beyond our control, and we resisted that.
LEGRAND: There were a brief few moments — almost ten years ago — where there was more success than we were used to, and we didn't feel like we deserved it. We were like, "People shouldn't be taking this many pictures of us — it feels unnatural." We're past that point now. We're comfortable playing big venues because it's fun as hell.
SCALLY: There was a very famous rapper that wanted our stems, and we didn't give them to him because we didn't want to be Dido'd.
LEGRAND: We probably should've done that.
LEGRAND: I'm glad we did the Kendrick thing, because that was a great song.
The Weeknd sampled you, too.
LEGRAND: That happened a little differently. We had an agreement that the day he started selling those mixtapes was the day he'd start to pay, so it all worked out in the end.
"We've always been fascinated by this dual energy field that exists between joy and sorrow. The idea of a simple, happy song is such bullshit to me.” — Alex Scally
Some of the bands who came up around your time in the 2000s are seen as weirdly unfashionable now, even though they still have retained a solid fanbase. It seems like you guys have avoided being tagged similarly, though. How aware do you consider yourselves about the changing state of indie?
LEGRAND: The passage of time changes things. If a band disappears for two years now, it might feel like five years to a fan. They might forget more easily now — maybe there's a merciless tinge to it. If you disappear for too long, people will just be like, "Who are you?" But our work ethic and energy level...we don't go on vacation much. We don't take breaks.
Do you ever feel burned out?
LEGRAND: No, we just made a record. We're not burned out. If anything, our muscles are sick now.
SCALLY: We're burned in.