Following the success of last year's Bloom, an album that landed on many year-end best lists, you could say that Baltimore's Beach House has outdone itself. Unlike many contemporary artists, however, vocalist Victoria Legrand and guitarist Alex Scally have avoided many genre tropes and firmly remained true to their dreamy, poppy sound. In essence, they've aimed to continually reinvent their ethereal disquietude, each attempt more haunting than the one before. But even if Beach House are going downhill, they don't care, they say.
We spoke to Alex Scally about crediting songs or just plain stealing them, Katy Perry, and the beautiful things you can discover when you don't make decisions. Part of the conversation made our print issue this week, but here is the full interview.
Up on the Sun: I have the poster from the Teen Dream vinyl hanging in my room. I think Bloom is your best release yet, although Teen Dream is particularly nostalgic for me.
Alex Scally: We tend to not see things in terms of best and worst, just because it makes no sense to us. We're always glad when anyone likes anything we do. I think there's this weird thing in the mind of all listeners -- not to pontificate too much; I have had coffee, though -- they always want to [rank an artist's work], and I do it, too. [I'll] listen to a Neil Young record and [say], "I think this record is his best one." But it's so funny because I like all of them and I like them all for different reasons. But we have this weird thing where we always want to say which is the best. "Oh, they went downhill after this, or this great album happened out of nowhere." We act as if it all has to make so much sense, you know. I don't think that's necessarily true.
Beach House is not going downhill.
Even if we are, who cares? A lot of my favorite artists have these amazing, strange meandering paths. I think sometimes bands are too cautious because they're afraid to walk off the path. So I hope that doesn't happen to us, that we can stay true to our own inspirations and not just become one of those bands that's afraid to make something bad, so they [become] boring. Coffee -- that's the coffee for you.
Unlike a lot of bands these days who dabble in other genres, you are firmly dream pop. How did you decide that was the direction you wanted to head? It was very non-decision-based. We don't really make decisions as much as we just do what we do naturally. When Beach House started in 2005, Victoria [Legrand] and I literally were playing music together, goofing around, and we had those instruments we liked. I liked reverb on the guitar, and we had these organs and little keyboards. We just gravitated very naturally to a certain sound. And we don't know why. It's just who we were and are.
We continue to gravitate to sounds that we find pleasing or exciting, and this is just how it ends up sounding. Does that makes sense? We're not the kind of band that hears a record and goes, "Oh, let's go after that sound." I think sometimes bands that do that are good. David Bowie did that. It's not how we work artistically. We're more inside out.
What kind of bands were you in before Beach House?
I started doing this band when I was 22. Before then, I was in school and a teenager, so it was kinda worthless things, fun things playing music with people, jamming. I was in a reggae band. I still totally love reggae. "Irene," the last track on Bloom is nearly 17 minutes long because of a hidden track "Wherever You Go." What made you decide to do a track like that?
I think that was just a little song we had, and we thought it was a beautiful song but didn't think it was the kind that asked to be well-produced or anything. We thought it was just fine the way it was. It didn't need to become bigger. We also didn't want it really to be part of the album. We wanted it to be like a wink at the end of the record. That's how it ended up. It's just sorta like, this is who we are, even though we are making a big record, this is still who we are.
The DVD for Teen Dream featured a video for each song, some that worked well and some that were just really strange. How did you approach this project?
We mostly just found people that we liked, mostly just friends of ours who make video, and we just approached them and didn't try to control them too much. Here, make a video for this. We more curated the group of people because we knew we liked them already.
It's really good for putting on in the background of a party.
I'm glad we did it, but that was then.
Would you do it again?
Perhaps. I think more than anything, we're just excited in the future to release records in creative ways. That's really what it comes down to for us, making things feel exciting. And that was a way for us to make that record feel exciting. Also, we think of ourselves as a very visual band, so I think the reason we were really excited to do that DVD is because we wanted people to engage us in a visual way. Not just a listening way. I think it was good, it helped people see us visually, not just as music. All music is visual, but we work visually.
Katy Perry had her album Teenage Dream released the same year as Teen Dream. How did you feel about her title and her approach to youth? I think at the time we thought their marketing people stole it, but it's probably just a coincidence and we don't really care. Katy Perry makes very, very simple music for teenagers, and that's a different world from us. We'll never be like her; she'll never be like us. It's almost like we're in different worlds entirely.
How did you feel that Volkswagen hired Sniffy Dog to record your song "Take Care?"
I felt really, really annoyed. They did it in such a way that we couldn't take legal action because it's just a few percentage points unique enough to not be able to do anything. But clearly, that's what they did. They do it all the time in the advertising world. They aren't artists, those people; they're thieves. They're people [who don't] know how to do music, so they just steal stuff from people. I have no respect for Volkswagen or Sniffy Dog. I think they're low people in our society, but there's an endless supply of people doing low things all around us, so I shouldn't be harsh to judge. But that's what they are, they're just thieves.
Have you heard about the Black Keys suing all these companies for sampling their music?
That's what I'm saying. This happens all the time, but for us, we're doing fine, so I don't really care. They did that and it sucks, but we're doing fine as a band. This is our living; we're paying our bills, so there's no concern. The same with Black Keys -- they're paying their bills. The worst things would be if they stole the sound of a band that nobody knew and they weren't making any money. That would be a true shame, and that does happen sometimes. That's the real thing -- we gotta make sure they don't do that to artists that aren't doing fine. Us and the Black Keys, we're doing fine.
I don't want to complain too much, I just wanna make sure people are aware that's what advertising companies are doing all the time.
What happened when you covered "Snowdon Song" and renamed it "Lovelier Girl" without giving credit to Tony, Caro, and John?
That was actually our label at the time, Carpark. We were like, "Hey, Carpark, this is a song that we adapted." It is a real adaption. We changed the keys, the time signature, and the lyrics. At the time, we were about to release our record; nobody knew who we were, [and] we were expecting to sell about 500 copies. This is when we were in Baltimore. This is a record we recorded in our basement in a day. So it came out and, of course, nobody from Tony, Caro and John [knew] -- we didn't even know who they were. This was just a record we found in our friend's store. We didn't even know if they were still alive. It was actually only with Teen Dream that they finally got in touch with us and were like, "Hey . . ."
We were like, yeah, sorry, the CDs were printed, we had no idea anyone was even going to buy this record. So we settled everything with them and they're fine and we're fine. We made sure all the necessary royalties go to them and all that stuff and they're in the index as the co-writers. Obviously not the recording side, the musical side. So we settled everything with them and made sure they were paid properly. Basically, we were 23-year-old kids and had no idea how any of that stuff worked when we did that. But now we do. it's tricky with all the royalties and everything.
It's not that tricky.
I mean when you're starting out.
Like I said, when we were starting out, we sent it to our label guy and he's thinking, we're not gonna sell any records; it's not a concern. There is a proper way to do a cover song. We did it on our second record. We did a Daniel Johnston cover song. You have to register them with the necessary royalty agencies and that's it. We had no idea on our first record that's how that thing worked. You don't know anything when you're just kids in a basement making a record.
In case you were trying to link the Sniffy Dog thing with the "Lovelier Girl" thing, they're completely different. Covering songs on records is completely legal because you do all your royalties and everything. Just stealing a song and using it for a commercial is a much different story.
You know they're not related at all.
Yes, I do.
People do cover songs every day of the week. It's a totally legit and legal artistic operation.As far as your slide guitar sound, what kind of guitar do you have and what kind of pedals do you have?
I just use a Stratocaster. That's what I've always used. I use regular old reverb pedals that you just buy at Guitar Center. I don't use anything fancy. I'm not really into fancy guitar stuff. Just [Boss] RV-5 reverb. It's just more like playing it the way I like it to sound.
I think that what Beach House aims for -- and you've said this in other interviews as well -- is this kind of ethereal, intangible kind of emotion.
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Yeah, for us we just try to make something that we feel really happy about and gives us a good feeling and takes us somewhere. Usually, we think if the music is taking us somewhere, hopefully it'll take someone else somewhere . . .
Beach House is scheduled to perform Tuesday, April 9, at Crescent Ballroom. The show is sold out.