Beach House – Holy Dances
It’s only natural to imagine Victoria Legrand as an ageing chanteuse and intimidating seductress. With that sultry timbre, it’s a pre-conception that’s fully deserved. As she reclines on a sofa dressed all in black, one hand resting on her leather waist belt while the other holds a bottle of beer, the only thing to suggest that she may not be a modern-day Nico is her baby-faced complexion. But then she speaks…and the pre-conception remains just that.
“It’s a swinger record!” she says with a squeak. “Our new album’s a real bitch.” She giggles uncontrollably, raising her hand to her mouth in embarrassment. “Sorry, I can’t believe I just said that. I had a real personality change right there. I had one earlier.”
Shouldering her laughter is the other half of Beach House, guitarist Alex Scally, who barely registers the eruption. Though the candlelight makes it difficult to see where his strewn long hair ends and his unkempt beard begins, you can tell from his wry smile that he is the more pensive and reserved of the two. Near delirious from travelling, they have been babbling their way through a stream of tangents, never failing to meet punch lines the other has set up. They read each other so well, in fact, that both fans and critics often speculate over the nature of their relationship. Having seen each other in every light possible, it’s a dynamic they compare to being both cellmates and parents. It has always been purely platonic.
They met when Legrand, now 27, moved to Baltimore on a “whim” after becoming disillusioned with acting. Born in Paris to the brother of French composer Michel Legrand, she grew up between Maryland and Philadelphia before returning to Paris to study theatre at the International School of Jacques Lecoq. After meeting Scally through a mutual friend, the two decided to combine her classically-trained piano and operatic singing with his bluesy guitar. They then spent the summer of 2005 in a basement, beginning work on what would be their self-titled debut album. Its dreamy lo-fi minimalism was the result of intense bouts of writing sessions, using only their two instruments to compose songs as expressive and as “incredibly simple” as possible.
While their latest album, Devotion, builds on that distinctive sound, it was important for Legrand and Scally to stick to a similar formula. “We avoid a lot of the unnecessary, I think, by having it as just the two of us,” says Legrand. “We get a very clear idea and it forces us to figure out how to make it work. We need both of our instruments constantly to make the song do what it needs to do so in the end we have more control over the sound.”
Just as integral to that sound is the antiquated feel of their instruments: the rich tones they get from near-broken amps, old organs, a “strange archaic beat machine” and the sleepy drone of Scally’s slide guitar. But taking it all on tour means risking the death of their set-up at any moment. “I think we have a little bit of a curse on us,” says Legrand. “All of our equipment has blown up on stage. I mean when you use things all the time, they don’t last forever, but touring breaks everything. I’ve been using this Behringer amp, which is basically a Chinese copy, and apparently they always explode in a blaze of fire. So we’re just waiting for that to happen on stage.”
“I think there’s a certain charm to having decomposing equipment,” says Scally. “We seem to have a constant supply of loud and unexplained pops. And we haven’t done what other bands do by getting really professional with our equipment. We tend to throw it around!”
Updating their gear to something more modern and reliable, however, just wouldn’t work (“that would not fit our sound, ever”). For just as Beach House have a fixed idea of what they want from the music, so too do the audience. When their first album was gushed over by music bloggers, the duo was surprised at how reviews unanimously focused on its ‘autumnal’ feel.
“It’s a visual album and for some reason it immediately gives people a feeling of nostalgia,” says Legrand. “When it came out in America it was October so that helped a lot. I think people definitely get a feeling of the past from it; a melancholic feel. That wasn’t intentional. It’s the way people interpret it and you can never pre-meditate that.”
Their latest album, Devotion, has been praised by critics as one of the best of the year. Inspired by the tension of infatuation and the dangers of falling in love, the song-writing is more complex and the sounds more layered. But much to their chagrin, the feedback has remained consistent: everyone seems to return to the same touchstone adjectives.
When reminded of this, Scally merely feigns a shrug and, tongue in cheek, puts on an uncanny Dylan impersonation: “Everyone has different stuff in their heads. I just write it, you know? And people feel how they feel. I don’t think I’ve learned anything from people’s perception but I’m always happy when people care enough to talk about it.”
As a rule, they have both stopped reading their own press in a bid to keep that measured balance intact. At first they couldn’t help themselves. But whether the criticism was good or bad, they would over-analyse what was said until they feared losing touch with the reason they started doing it in the first place. “Personally I don’t think it’s very healthy when you read about yourself,” says Legrand. “Sometimes having the most preliminary, innocent reaction is what you feel when you’re making it – I think it gets harder and harder for artist to get back to that simplicity. I don’t want to get to the point where I’m sitting down and writing something I’m happy with only to catch myself thinking: ‘people are going to think this and this’. Because then it’s no longer yours. It’s lost, and that’s really sad. You have to fight to preserve that innocence.”